October´s Book Club
Updated: Oct 22, 2018
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” ― Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society
I fell in love with the movie Dead Poets Society a few years ago, when I first watched it. Long before that, my attempts at creating book clubs almost outnumber my attempts at writing books. It´s an idea that has always fascinated me and as someone who always aimed to surround herself with people who love books as much as I do, it always seemed rather natural. But somehow, it never came together. Except for this time, this time is different. This book club was born out of my friend Fátima´s and my at times almost identical book orders and out of two very different but equally opinionated personalities discussing anything from J.K.Rowling to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fitzgerald. And oh how wonderful it is to talk about past, future or even imaginary lives you live through the eyes of the great classics or the current geniuses? Fátima and I both love fiction, but we chose to kick-off our two people book club with Yuval Noah Harari´s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
Harari is perhaps my favourite contemporary non-fiction writer. First of all, he is Israeli and I have yet to meet a not brilliantly fascinating person from Israel. Secondly, he is a most ingenious historian that has one of the most compelling story telling abilities ever. Harari also practices mindfulness and meditation and combines what I believe to be a beautiful soul with a most fascinating mind. André bought me his first book, Sapiens and it almost literally blew my mind. I started reading it while on a trip to Madrid and vividly remember interrupting André´s game every 3 minutes to read him a passage. Then came Homo Deus, a History of Tomorrow. I was less blown away, as one is, once one got used to something phenomenal and doesn´t appreciate its sequel quite as much. And now comes 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
The book debates a myriad of topics from data science to religion, nationalism and terrorism all the way to education and meditation, in a rather frivolous yet meaningful way, if that makes any sense. The problem is that Harari´s previous books have accustomed the reader to dive deep into their topics, while this one merely plants seeds in the readers´ minds and encourages them to think for themselves about the vast topics it tries to cover. While Sapiens blew my mind, I found myself way more pensive with 21 Lessons as it provoked me far more to do my own research and figure out my own thoughts about the content as opposed to being in a constant "aha" stage.
Structured in five parts and twenty one chapters, this is one of the best non-fiction books I have read this year. It might be more personal and subjective than Sapiens and Homo Deus, some might even say he just did it so he could write another book, but the way that Yuval Noah Harari continuously manages to challenge one´s world views, is as unique and curious as it gets. The book starts with Harari´s favourite topics, biotech and infotech. Part I, The Technological Challenge deep dives into big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning whilst trying to maintain an impartial stance. Part II and III discuss politics and religion and whilst every chapter could be elaborated on to the extent of making them books, the writer manages to maintain them engaging and not repeat himself too much (given that much of this is also in Sapiens and Homo Deus, even if at a more macro-historical level there). Towards the end of the book, particularly in Part IV - Truth , Harari´s views might seem rather aggressive and obsessive. If you´re not used to his style of writing or the thought and research process behind it, you might get confused or even angry reading it. Fast forward and reaching the final part on Resilience, one gets a peek into Harari´s view on education. Whilst he only covers this very superficially, this might have been my favourite and most soul shaking part of the book. The idea that we need to restructure our education system is surely not new and the realisation that we need to focus on teaching children how to make sense of information as opposed to giving them more information is also something that has become more and more obvious in the past year. But Harari goes further and actually points out how much more helpless we are/will be as parents in the education of our children given the current context of the world moving at light-speed. It might seem silly and overly obvious but having this put into eloquent words, on paper, shook me.
Reading Harari´s book takes one on an emotional rollercoaster seasoned with dystopian views on future second-class citizens or "a useless class", optimistic views on improved life quality thanks to technology and, depending how you look at it, a more or less realistic stance on what life can be in eighty years from now. As for the conclusions we drew from our conversation in the book club, but truth is, that I cannot tell you much for now. I was so excited to put my excitement about this book on paper, that I haven´t had the chance to sit with Fátima, sipping our tea and sharing our ideas yet. All I can say is that while we do, you better get to reading it.
In the meantime, I´ll leave you with some quotes from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that gave me some food for thought in the aftermath of reading this:
"Democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. [...] This is part of the reason why [...] the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy."
"Nevertheless, ancient hunter-gatherer bands were still more egalitarian than any subsequent human society, because they had very little property. Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality."
"Global politics thus follow the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package. [...] No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory."