What I’ve Been Reading (2021 Edition)

Of the books I read in 2021, which was not very many, here are some of my favorites:

1. Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard: This is a philosophical examination of what Kierkegaard calls the “aesthetic” life. It is written in layers of pseudonymous authors. The book is split into two main parts, the first by an “aesthete” and the second by an “ethical” person who tries to convince us that it is still possible to enjoy aesthetic things while living an ethical life. The first part is the one with the amazing/fascinating quotes that everyone loves. One of Kierkegaard’s points is that a life lived in pursuit of beauty and pleasure (i.e., an aesthetic life) is a life of perpetual despair because it is not possible for humans to reach a level of perfection where they no longer desire or strive for more.

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” – Kierkegaard

2. When Nietzsche Wept by Irving Yalom: Yalom has become my favorite author and I’ve read most of his books by now. This is historical fiction, set during the earliest days of psychotherapy when Josef Breuer (who was arguably the first psychotherapist) was mentoring Freud. Yalom’s works are didactic as well as entertaining, which is probably why I love them so much.

This book also gave me a newfound appreciation of Nietzsche. One thing I learned about Nietzsche is that his work can be divided into periods, and it is really his “Middle Period” that is the focus of this book and the one that I find most interesting. As Jilk and Feld point out in their book on Nietzsche, he sort of takes aspects of stoicism as a given and asks what people should do beyond this. To Yalom (and me), he ends up being a profoundly life-affirming philosopher during this period. However, I agree with Bostrom that it is stretching things a bit too far to say that he was an early transhumanist thinker.

3. The Schopenhauer Cure by Irving Yalom: Another delightful book by Yalom. This one has didactic components about group therapy, including how people can benefit and tips on how to run a group. It also touches on Schopenhauer, who I didn’t know much about, but I found his biography to be absorbing. It seems that Schopenhauer is someone that took his own psychologic style of thinking and projected it upon the world in his philosophy. In a way, he seems kind of like Larry David: someone who tries to tell it like it is in a wry way. For example, as Yalom describes, Schopenhauer “had sharp words to say about physicians, once remarking that doctors have two different handwritings: a barely legible one for prescriptions and a clear and proper one for their bills”.

4. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell: Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson is on Tyler Cowen’s short-list canon of classics. Johnson was well known for writing the first dictionary, but what emerges in this book is that he was also a raconteur and proto-rationalist. Because Boswell writes down individual conversations seemingly word for word, it really takes you back to a former era. In some ways, the past is a foreign country; in others, it feels the same as today. For the latter, consider this quote, actually not from this book, but from Mrs. Thrale’s memoir:

AN ACQUAINTANCE OF DR JOHNSON: “What signifies giving halfpence to common beggars? They only lay it out in gin or tobacco.”

DR JOHNSON: “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of existence? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own existence. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer.”

Another thing that struck me was the idea that “depression is rage turned inwards”, told by Dr. Melfi to Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, seems to apply to Johnson. He was an irritable person, often becoming frustrated with others, and he seemed to sometimes turn that inwards in ways that would leave him incapacitated.

5. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker: This book is about a large family, many of whom develop psychosis. It describes the history of how psychiatry has conceptualized risk factors for schizophrenia, including genetics and environmental factors. But mostly it is a heart-wrenching story that should motivate us to do more about severe mental illness.