Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History (1968)
Will and Ariel Durant (1885-1981, 1898-1981)










117 pages

Historians Will and Ariel Durant spent some four decades researching and writing the eleven volumes of their famous collection The Story of Civilization. Three decades into that effort, on the heels of the tenth book in the series, they paused to consider what broad understandings they could glean about the history of mankind from their many years of intense study. That examination resulted in the slim but highly engaging and deeply instructive book The Lessons of History.

Summarizing humankind’s history in just shy of a hundred pages is not for the faint of heart, and in the opening chapter the Durants outline their approach, and the challenges they faced in preparing for and then writing the book. First and perhaps foremost among the challenges they identified is the discouraging combination of the large amount of history that remains unknown, and the significant uncertainty that remains about what is considered known. They noted that both of these shortcomings make generalizing about human history risky; but with a nod to their doubts --- “only a fool would try” (13) --- they push ahead.

Over the next twelve chapters the Durants highlight the impact on human history of such themes as geography, biology, race, religion, and economics. In the final two chapters they then address broader considerations: the never-ending --- and they argue natural and necessary --- Growth and Decay of civilizations; and, in conclusion, the definition of progress, and whether humankind can be considered to have achieved real progress over our history.

Clearly each of these topics could be the theme of an entire book; in Lessons, the Durants have distilled them down to just a half dozen or so pages each. Given their decades of study, and eloquent and elegant prose, the result is a series of captivating essays in which each paragraph, often seemingly each sentence, articulates a deep recognition of the human condition. As the Durants write in the Preface, the book
repeats many ideas that we, or others before us, have already expressed; our aim is not originality but inclusiveness; we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation. (7)
Therein, however, lies the benefit of their work: though many of the conclusions they draw have appeared in isolation in other works, here they benefit from the context of being part of a more comprehensive, if densely packed, historiography.

A few specific cases serve to illustrate the breadth and variety of their insights. The chapter Morals and History, for example, describes how moral codes have played a critical role in establishing norms that allow for the development of societies; as humankind has made the passage from hunting-and-gathering to farming and on to the industrial revolution, these moral codes have necessarily been adapted to the conditions of each such stage. The Durants point out that human behaviors that now are proscribed may have provided a strong benefit in societies of the distant past:
Probably every vice was once a virtue --- i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall. (38)

In Socialism and History the Durants examine the centuries-long tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism. As part of the discussion, they note how the dominance of one or the other of these systems has been intimately related to the tension between freedom and security --- a challenge they highlight elsewhere in the book also, and one that clearly remains contentious today in the face of rapidly expanding state-run security organizations. Though the powerful reach of such institutions is in part due to advances in technology, the defense already seventeen centuries ago of the need for extreme security measures by the Roman emperor Diocletian has familiar echoes in the debates of the past couple of decades: “the barbarians [are] at the gate, and that individual liberty [has] to be shelved until collective liberty [can] be made secure” (61)

Their discussion on Government and History begins by summarizing the role of government, and outlining how different forms of governance have developed and fared since Roman times. The chapter concludes with an extended look at Democracy, which the Durants describe in unsparingly elitist, and yet remarkably prescient language, as:
the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that “you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country. (77)

I first discovered and read this book some ten years ago, and found it engaging and profoundly affecting in the way it distilled out critical aspects of humankind’s history while also providing insights and implications for present day concerns and debates. Recently having completed two other sweeping visions of history, one by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man, my review here), and the second by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, my review here), I returned to The Lessons of History for a second reading, with even more profitable results.

These authors have wildly different backgrounds: Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology; the Durants studied and wrote as what could be considered classical historians; and Harari is a modern historian looking at what lies behind traditional, event based histories. Nonetheless we discover through their work significant areas of overlap in their understanding and interpretation of human development. In lines, for example, that echo Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the noosphere --- a thinking layer that spanned the earth as humans capable of thought and reflection spread across the globe --- and Harari’s related concept of the imagined orders --- fictions or constructs that form the basis of all of our non-biologically driven thought and action --- the Durants note that
Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education.” (34)

The concept of evolution working in the social and cultural domain thus forms a critical part of all three authors’ understanding of humankind’s development. It must be said, however, that where Teilhard de Chardin believed in the optimistic concept of orthogenesis --- that evolution proceeds in a pre-destined, progressively improving direction --- Harari and the Durants present a much less copasetic view of humankind’s future, one in which progress is not necessarily guaranteed.

The Durants express their concerns in the concluding chapter Is Progress Real, including a statement that seems directed to our current situation:
whether a challenge [to a group or a civilization] will or will not be met … depends upon the presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence) …. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through … the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change. (91-92) 


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Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Other Side of Silence" by Philip Kerr

The Other Side of Silence (2016)
Philip Kerr (1956)










400 pages

The cold war may have ended decades ago, but the complex machinations of government security services during that period --- between enemies and even supposed allies --- have remained irresistible source material for storytellers. This includes writers of noir, and with The Other Side of Silence Philip Kerr brings his series featuring detective Bernie Gunther out of Germany and central Europe of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and squarely into the middle of cold war conspiracies.

Set in 1956, the story opens with Gunther working under an assumed name as a concierge at a fancy hotel on the French Riviera. His history of having been repeatedly coerced into working as a detective for high-ranking officers in the Nazi regime now has him hiding from potential threats on all sides: Western officials who see him as a former Nazi, and some of his former Nazi blackmailers --- now high ranking officials in the East German government --- who still keep an eye out for how he could be useful to them. His wife having left him and returned to Germany, Gunther’s mostly laying low and biding time, with no clear view of a future. With little to distract him from morosely considering his uncertain lot in life, he has sunk into a melancholy that has drifted dangerously close to depression.

The sudden appearance at the hotel reception of a former nemesis from Nazi Germany shakes Gunther out of his self-absorbed reverie. He barely has time to wonder if he’s been recognized before finding himself caught up in an escalating scheme of blackmail, one that threatens not only delicately maintained cold war relationships between various governments, but also, not surprisingly, his personal safety. When the trap is finally sprung, Gunther must bring to bear all of his decades of experience as a detective to try and escape the pernicious schemes of enemies old and new.

The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh of Kerr’s novels to feature detective Bernie Gunther, a series that began with the books of the trilogy Berlin Noir (my review of those first three novels here). The shift in the setting for this story compared to its predecessors from WWII (and the immediate pre- and post-war years) to a point well into the Cold War changes the atmosphere significantly. Though the tension ratchets up dramatically in the concluding few dozen pages of the story, for the most part the Cold War setting lacks the punch of the earlier novels set in Nazi Germany. Absent the deadly serious implications of the unremitting high-wire act that accompanied Gunther’s compulsory dealings with the Nazi regime, the plot becomes more of an intellectual game of cat and mouse, as spies for foreign powers collide on French soil in pursuit of national advantage.

That quibble aside, there remains much to enjoy in Kerr’s new novel. A portion of the novel includes extended recollections by Gunther of events during the war years, which help establish the backstory of his relationship with a key protagonist; these sections do crackle with the sharp tension induced by the constant risk of sudden death --- from both enemy forces as well as powerful elements of the Nazi regime pursuing their own agendas. And, as in his earlier stories in this series, Kerr brings a thoroughly researched historical reality to the The Other Side of Silence; by incorporating Gunther as a key bit player in among famous historical persons and events, he creates an engaging combination of satisfying noir and fascinating historical fiction.

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: "American War" by Omar El Akkad

American War (2017)
Omar El Akkad (1982)










333 pages

What had already been a dramatically increasing polarization in the political and social discourse in the US in the years leading up to the most recent presidential election has only turned more divisive in the wake of the result. With strident voices on both sides of the spectrum more often turning aggressive, and confrontations between individuals or groups more often violent, the first whispers of an old horror have appeared, whispers that have, in the wake of the rioting and death in Charlottesville (LINK), become more audible: is the US on the verge of a second civil war?  (See for example, here, here or here, or for a rebuttal, here.)

Into this contentious and combustible moment arrives Omar El Akkad’s novel American War, in which he imagines the US mired in just such an internal conflict, some half-century into our future.

The story opens in 2075, with the civil war a half year old and going badly for the south, though the north hardly finds itself prospering in the destructive morass. Already early in the book we are given the outlines of a conflict, learning that it will drag on for twenty more years, and will be followed by an even more debilitating post-war period. El Akkad provides this background in the form of a short “module summary” from a future history book; he uses a similar technique throughout the novel to help fill in the broader context of his story, interspersing exerts from war time and post-war sources such as news reports and government documents.

Through these sources we learn that the war has resulted from a series of rapidly worsening and thoroughly debilitating natural phenomena caused by climate change. A dramatic rise in sea level has left much of the coastal US underwater, particularly along the low-lying lands of the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. In addition to the lost cities and land, and the subsequent migration of the coastal population into the US heartland, desertification has become widespread, particularly across the south. These changes have left many struggling to make a living in the devastated landscape.

The dramatic changes in the climate and their impact on the US have led to far-reaching new regulations --- most importantly one outlawing the use of fossil fuels. Protests in the south against these new rules bring a forceful response from the government, which in turn re-ignites southern feelings of the north as condescending toward its values and culture; anger eventually turns to violence, and finally to a rupture that precipitates the second civil war.

Within the larger story of the conflict, the plot centers on Sarat, a young girl who lives with her family in southern Louisiana. Despite living in a landscape destroyed both by climate change and by its location just beyond the borders of the “Free Southern State” and so all too close to the fighting, Sarat opens the story as a happy, carefree and inquisitive six year old. As she grows into her teen years, however, and she and her family slip ever more deeply into the destructive clutches of the misery and violence of a south on the losing side of a long, drawn out conflict.

An escalating string of devastating events irredeemably shatter Sarat’s innocence and spirit, leaving her with a hatred of the North, an obsession for revenge that builds to a fever pitch. Despite the fact that she does not follow any particular religious doctrine, and that the southern cause she nominally considers herself to be fighting for is based on a history she little firsthand awareness of and only the lightest connection to, her traumatic experiences leave her bitter and angry, desperate to strike out. Through Sarat, El Akkad examines what lies beyond hope, how the disintegration of a person’s spirit can re-direct them onto a darker path, from which escape becomes impossible to imagine. He imagines how far someone might go to assuage their overpowering anger.

Beyond the personal story of Sarat, El Akkad’s novel presents a scary vision of how climate change could lead to the disintegration of a nation, and, how such an economic and social disintegration can destroy lives and create bitter hatreds. Despite the powerful impact of his dystopian view of the future, however, there are several elements that distract from the effectiveness of his story.

Must strikingly, the series of events that lead to the civil war seems outlandish. As someone who has long enjoyed science fiction, it is perhaps a bit hypocritical of me to point out such a shortcoming, but the explanations given for the country slipping into the war seem so alternately implausible and flimsy as to threaten to undermine the story.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of these issues is the amount of the US mainland that El Akkad describes as lying underwater as a result of rising sea levels by 2074. According to the information given in the prologue, over just two decades starting at mid-century the sea level rises sufficiently to not only cover much of the American Caribbean and Atlantic coastal regions --- for example causing the US capital to be moved to Columbus --- but in fact leaves all of Florida except for tiny peninsulas along the panhandle underwater. However, according to on-line apps (e.g., here), such an inundation would require nearly fifty meters (164 feet) of sea level rise; how to square this with current worst-case estimates for sea level rise by the end of the century of only about two meters (6.6 feet)?

Then there is the precipitating cause of the civil war: in reaction to the extreme effects of the changing climate, a law is passed that outlaws the use of fossil fuels in the US. Protests in southern states over the new law turn violent, and ultimately drag the country into civil war. Though southern rebels use historical grievances with the north to rally support, the main cause of the war is described in the story as southerner’s refusal to give up the use of fossil fuel vehicles.

As outlandish as the amount of sea level rise seems, the idea that an entire population in the South would support 25 years of misery and a losing war because of a desire of a few to keep using gasoline powered cars seems ridiculous. And that is aside from the current expectations that we will already largely be driving electric vehicles before mid-century. Hard to believe that even a few tens of thousands of hold outs could motivate an entire portion of the country to fight an unwinnable war.

Finally, El Akkad describes the US as suddenly collapsing inward over just two decades due to the impacts of climate change, withdrawing from the world stage except as a supplier of cheap manufacturing; he imagines other countries, in Asia and the Middle East, quickly fill the void over that same period. This seems at best unlikely. Clearly it is not impossible to imagine the US declining at some point; but a more likely scenario, especially if it happens that quickly, would seem to be an extended and massive disruption of the world economy, as the gigantic US market --- “the buyer of last resort” to borrow a phrase from economist William Greider’s book One World, Ready or Not --- disappears in nearly the blink of an eye.

Clearly, empires do collapse, and sometimes into civil war, losing their standing in the world. And it can occur quickly and with seemingly no apparent warning signs (or perhaps ignored warning signs) to many in the midst of it. As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind (my review here): we construct our social, economic and political around a communal belief in a set of imagined orders; once that communal belief is shattered into competing viewpoints, a society can turn on itself. Thus one can imagine a decline and fall of US power, perhaps even more quickly than Americans could believe possible. But El Akkad’s path to that decline, and the impact of it on the world at large, seems too outlandish to be credible.

All of these questionable elements are introduced early in the novel, to set the stage for the story of Sarat’s coming of age in a time of immense misery and pain, and I initially found them a significant distraction to engaging with the plot. Once the action picked up, however, it became easier to simply accept the premise and ignore the implausibilities, and focus on the dramatic transformation Sarat undergoes as she repeatedly and all too personally experiences the devastation and dehumanization of the war.  As another character observes after witnessing what Sarat has become:
She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early. (180)


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Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West (2017)
Mohsin Hamid (1971)










231 pages

Whether escaping the threats of deadly wars or the miseries of brutal economic conditions, migrants have long made the desperate decision to leave their homes, communities and countries in search of a better life. For citizens of the countries in which these migrants arrive, a desire to provide humanitarian relief for people in trouble often conflicts with fear of the economic and cultural implications of absorbing large numbers of outsiders. These fears include not only the perceived loss of jobs and squandering of public services, but that the very cultural fabric of one’s country is being irrecoverably undermined.

Such concerns over the arrival of migrants have become a prominent feature in the recent rise of nationalism in many Western countries, compounded by the specters of terrorism and economic stagnation. The resulting public discourse on immigration has become --- as on so many topics --- increasingly polarized, with the left caricatured as being simply for ‘open borders’, and similarly the right as being narrowly for ‘no immigration’. Centrists discussing how to maintain immigration but with reasonable constraints often seem to find themselves shouted down by extremists on both sides.

Into the swirl of all of these hopes and fears steps author Mohsin Hamid, with his thoughtful novel Exit West, a story at once delicately tender and unflinchingly direct.

Set in an unnamed country shuddering on the brink of a seemingly inevitable descent into civil war, the story follows the lives of a young couple as they struggle to deal with events beyond their experience or control. In their mid-twenties, the two work at jobs that have not yet been shut down by the fighting that is closing in on their city.

They first meet, as the story opens, at an evening business class. Saeed, caring and low-key, finds himself immediately smitten with the fiercely independent Nadia. Even as their cautious relationship deepens, however, the chaos of civil war descends on the city; within the shifting battle lines between fundamentalist militiamen and government forces, Saeed and Nadia must find inventive ways to meet, and to help one another survive.

Eventually the situation becomes too dangerous, and they make their escape, leaving friends and family behind. Arriving in the West, however, they discover that though they may have left the civil war behind, their survival instincts and skills remain necessary as they face fear, suspicion and even violence from natives as well as from their fellow refugees. The two also come to realize that their many challenging and unexpected experiences in distant lands with foreign cultures changes them, and so their relationship, in ways they could never have imagined.

Hamid centers his novel on the story of Saeed and Nadia --- the only two named characters in the book, but through their experiences tells a larger story of the hopes and fears of migrants in general, as well as the terrible dangers and cherished communities left behind as they venture abroad in search of safety and opportunity. And, through an inspired plot device, Hamid forces immigration on the entire world in his story, making it an ineluctable presence in all countries. His story thus becomes one about a world in which many, particularly in the West, feel that a kind of migration apocalypse is at-hand. Rather than descending into a dark dystopia, however, Hamid ultimately presents a hopeful vision of a world that adapts to the new reality, if only grudgingly.

In occasional vignettes sprinkled throughout the novel, Hamid presents other, anonymous characters caught in the same challenging implications of the new world-wide reality of immigration as Saeed and Nadia. One such passage tells the story of an old woman who has lived her entire life in the same house: “it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (209)

I’ve come across a similar sentiment in other texts recently --- views that provide a broader understanding of the implications of immigration. From a book of selected writings of the Spanish economist and philosopher José Luis Sampedro, for example:
In a certain sense, as you see me here, I am an immigrant. Naturally, we understand well the migratory phenomenon in a spatial sense: if someone comes from Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, they are an immigrant. However, we don’t realize that there are also immigrants in time, because eras are different. The world of my youth is not that of today. It doesn’t belong to the world of today. I am here as a stowaway. Certainly, I haven’t arrived by boat and I have my papers in order, but I am not from here.
(185, Dictionary Sampedro, my review here.)

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig also captured the often dispiriting challenges of becoming a migrant --- both in time and geographically --- in his autobiographical work The World of Yesterday (my review here), in which he describes his traumatic transformation from being born into an upper class family in a seemingly stable Austrian empire into a stateless refuge finally driven to flee Europe, as the Nazi’s rose to power.

Hamid’s captivating writing in Exit West evokes the complexity of the immigrant experience, from the heartbreaking choice to leave family and community behind for a better life abroad to the challenges of making a new home in a foreign land. Through his characters we witness the startling violence and constant wariness that can follow migrants in their search for security, but also the unexpected moments of kindness and grace that can give them hope for the future.


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Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2017)
Yuval Noah Harari (1976)










443 pages

The social and cultural traditions within which we grow up tend to become so deeply ingrained in our worldview as to seem to be a part of the natural order of things. According to author and historian Yuval Noah Harari however, all of these social and cultural traditions --- everything we think and do beyond our biological drives --- actually arise out of humankind’s unique ability to create shared myths and fictions. Early in his fascinating and thought-provoking book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari declares that:
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. (28)

For Harari, the ability to create shared myths and fictions not only gave Homo sapiens a decisive advantage over other human species, but also explains “why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” (25) The wide-ranging and dramatic implications of this seemingly simple but in reality remarkably powerful ability form the foundation of Harari’s examination of Homo sapiens’ long history. In Sapiens, he charts and examines humankind’s development from bands of foragers to the settled farming villages that grew out of the Agricultural Revolution, through the subsequent consolidation of individual communities into states and empires, and finally the dramatic transition to a globalized society that came with the Scientific Revolution.

Although Homo sapiens first appeared in East Africa some 200 thousand years ago, it was only 70 thousand years ago, according to Harari, that they developed the capability for fictive language. He refers to that transition as the Cognitive Revolution, and describes it as having given Homo sapiens the ability to transmit large amounts of information about the physical world and social relationships, and to create social constructs he refers to as imagined orders. While noting that Homo sapiens are not “exempt from biological laws [and] are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA” (38), Harari makes clear that this ability to create imagined orders underlies nearly everything about our history and our modern lives.

In particular, imagined orders enabled the successful cooperation between strangers that allowed the formation of large, cohesive groups with rapidly evolving social structures. This gave Homo sapiens a critical advantage over the other, remaining species of humankind. As becomes clear in Harari’s telling, however, the true impact of the Cognitive Revolution only became fully realized once the development of farming allowed the size of human communities to grow nearly without bound.

Though he presents several theories on the origins of the Agricultural Revolution, Harari seems to find settling that history of less interest than the disconcerting question of whether it was actually such a good thing for humankind. Though the pervasive view has been that “the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity” (78), he argues that it was perhaps instead “history’s biggest fraud” (79), a “luxury trap” (84) that humans unwittingly fell into.

He notes for example that, at an individual level, foragers lived lives that involved doing less work than farmers, and work more attuned to the evolutionary development of the human mind and body. Being mobile and living from a wide variety of food sources also meant that foragers were at much less risk of starvation from bad weather or diseases than farmers, who were tied to their land and reliant on a few crops and livestock.

In an intriguing twist, Harari turns the tables on the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution, looking at it from the purely biological sense of evolutionary processes focused on the spread of DNA. For humankind, in that sense, it has been a mixed blessing, providing “the ability to keep more people alive [albeit] under worse conditions.” (83) For cultivated crops such as wheat, on the other hand, it has been an unqualified success, allowing them to spread far beyond their range as a wild plant. For livestock animals, however, he finds the implications perhaps the most ambivalent: their DNA has been remarkably successful in proliferating itself, but only in exchange for the brutal living conditions inherent in factory farming.

For better or worse, however, the rapid increase in population enabled by the Agricultural Revolution led to ever larger settlements, and in time cities, kingdoms and empires, and eventually our modern world. Harari's review and analysis of this expansion makes evident the decisive role played in it by Homo sapiens’ ability to create imagined orders.  His detailed look at several of them --- social hierarchies, money, empires and universal religions --- also helps crystallize for readers the all-encompassing nature of this ability on our thinking and our lives.

The codification of social hierarchies enabled the growth of increasingly large communities of people; each such hierarchy represented an imagined order --- a purely invented, biologically arbitrary construct, generally arising in each society due to an accidental circumstance of history in that part of the world.

The construct of money eliminated the inherent limitations of bartering, by defining a relative worth for products based on an arbitrary unit of measure, which dramatically expanded economic possibilities. Harari points out that the imagined order of money has been by far the most successful conqueror of variation between cultures: even people who have no connection of language, religion or state will trust in money as having value.

The appearance of the first empires followed within a few centuries the use of money, and became the most common form of political organization. Empires have generally been founded and grown up around invented narratives that underscore the benefits they bring to the variety of cultures they contain.

When discussing religions, Harari has a much broader definition than simply supernatural, theist faiths, such as Christianity or Islam.  For him, any belief system based on a superhuman order --- that is, one which "establishes norms and values that it considers binding ... [and with the] qualities [of being] universal and missionary" (210) --- is a religion.  Thus, along with theist faiths, he also considers non-theist, natural-law ideologies as religions, including capitalism, communism, nationalism and Nazism.

Through his detailed examination of economic and cultural phenomena such as social hierarchies, money, empires and religions, the development and critical impact of being capable of creating imagined orders become clear, as does their origin in the evolutionary appearance of the ability to use fictive language. A purely biologically driven species is unable to comprehend the idea of tying the relative worth of all things to a piece of paper or metal with particular marks on it.  As Harari commented in an interview with Sam Harris, (Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast, Reality and the Imagination, at 27’ 55’’):
My understanding is that a source of human power, but also the source of much human misery is … the human imagination, and the ability of humans to create fictional stories, and then to believe them, to such an extent that they can start entire wars just because they believe some religious or national or economic fiction. ... We control this planet not because as individuals we are much more intelligent than chimpanzees or pigs or dogs, but rather because we are the only mammal that can cooperate in very large numbers;  and we can do that because we believe in fictions. If we examine any large-scale human cooperation, you always find a fictional story at the basis, whether it’s about god, or the nation, or money, or even human rights. Human rights, like god in heaven, they are just a story invented by humans, they are not a biological reality.

A key point for Harari is that imagined orders are in some sense ephemeral, having force only so long as we agree to them: “an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force on the world.” (32) Given the growing divide in our political and social structures, Americans need only look inward to see how fragile the common imagined orders of a nation can be, and how easily they could be allowed to splinter into competing social constructs and beliefs.

In a though-provoking sidestep into the study and understanding of history, Harari examines the idea that there is a “secret of success” of particular imagined orders over others --- for example, Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and so eventually a universal religion. He notes that having only a superficial knowledge of a historical period can easily lead one into “hindsight fallacy,” the belief when looking back that certain decisions and outcomes were inevitable, when in reality they were not. Another common trap, he argues, is to believe that history’s choices are necessarily to the benefit of humans.

On the contrary, he argues that the more deeply one studies a historical period the harder it often becomes to explain why things happened one way and not the other, and also that no objective scale of the preferential “goodness” of a particular result exists. In a statement with implications for how we should view our own future, he points out that in fact possibilities in the past which seemed very unlikely to contemporaries (such as the eventual dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire) have often been realized.

While the first part of the book introduces the idea of imagined orders as growing out of the Cognitive Revolution, and the second part describes key imagined orders that enabled the increasing population density made possible by the Agricultural Revolution, it is in the final part of the book --- on the Scientific Revolution --- that Harari demonstrates how some imagined orders can be more successful than others.

Harari links the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution to the point, some 500 years ago, when humankind began to acknowledge its own ignorance, and so ceased to divide knowledge between that which was ordained by religious belief and that which was simply unimportant to know. He notes that along with this change came a shift to making observation and mathematics central to improving our understanding, and a focus on turning scientific discoveries into technical advances.

This revolution occurred first in Western Europe, and, critically according to Harari, was matched there by a burning desire to fill in the gaps, a “mentality of conquest” (283) that set off a frenzied search for new discoveries both in a scientific sense, and also in the searching out of news lands in parts of the globe unknown to Europeans: “As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined.” (284)

This combination of interest in science and desire for conquest resulted in a decisive edge for nations in Western Europe, Harari argues, as they reached outward. Although empires in Asia and the Western Hemisphere produced scientific discoveries on par with Western Europe, and were more powerful than countries in Western Europe as the Scientific Revolution began, “they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.” (282)

Thus, as Western Europeans began exploring the globe, these more powerful empires stayed close to home, and found themselves unprepared to counter Europe’s expansion onto the world scene. Harari’s analysis highlights how a society’s set of imagined orders can have dramatic, if unpredictable, impacts on its future: the same imagined orders that lead to a powerful social order locally --- for example for the Chinese or Inca empires --- can potentially become a point of weakness when a society butts up against another that grew up with a different set of imagined orders.

In Western Europe, a deep belief and faith in progress and the future accompanied the Scientific Revolution, setting the stage for the development of capitalism. Harari points out that capitalism and the Scientific Revolution worked hand in hand in the West, becoming a combination of imagined orders that strengthened one another in a powerful feedback loop as investments in science led to new discoveries that led to new technologies that gave governments the power to gain control of more resources, and so provide yet more funding for further scientific advancement.

Harari goes on to examine a number of implications that the rise and dominance of the capitalist imagined order --- with its deeply embedded requirements for continued growth and expansion --- have had on modern society.

The first has been an ever increasing use of energy and raw materials; he notes that despite constantly re-emerging fears over limits on the availability of sufficient resources, new exploitable sources have so far always been found, motivated through the feedback loop of capitalism and science. That same synergy of imagined orders has also rapidly increased productivity through the industrial revolution, of which one consequence has been what he calls a second Agricultural Revolution, as industrialization dramatically increased output of farms.

His discussion of capitalism and industrialization recalls Colin Tudge’s comment in The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people” (325). The popular fiction (imagined order of a kind) of farming as meant first and foremost to feed people may perhaps apply to particular farmers pursuing their passion to produce food, and looking simply to make enough to live on, but as an industry agriculture in fact constitutes a capitalist enterprise --- intent on making profit for their owners, just as any other business.

Harari also discusses the rise of consumerism: to sustain the capitalist model of investments returning profits it has been necessary to add to the imagined order of capitalism a belief that consumerism is good and right and natural. President Bush, for example, made direct reference to this critical feature of the capitalist order during a 2006 news conference when he concluded a summary of the economic situation with the exhortation to Americans: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Finally, a consequence of capitalism and consumerism, according to Harari, has been to weaken our connections to family and local community, replacing them with new imagined communities, such as the nation and, increasingly, consumer tribes, which he describes as large groups of people “who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe --- and define themselves as such.” (364) He finds a silver lining in the spread of consumerism however: in the unprecedented peace since 1945, globalization has made international wars seemingly unthinkable, with each additional peaceful year allowing the development of further global connections, and so further reasons to avoid war, in a positive feedback loop.

Looking back over the arc of the history he has described, Harari introduces the question of whether humankind could be concluded to have found happiness at any particular period of its history. He qualifies this discussion by outlining the difficulties in defining happiness, concluding that there is still much to be understood about how to answer the question.  At an individual level, Harari considers whether Buddhism and other similar philosophies that claim that "the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself --- to understand who, or what, you really are" (396), may perhaps come closest to the mark in identifying what could be considered happiness.

Throughout the text, Harari brings a balanced approach to his analysis of humankind’s history, and in particular the impacts of the constructed imagined orders that underlay it. Regarding social hierarchies, for example, he notes that they were approximate descriptions of the world, and contained inherent inconsistencies and inequalities, leaving them open in retrospect to condemnation and opprobrium. He points out, however, that they were critical structures for allowing humankind to gather in large communities, and that precisely because of their shortcomings they were in constant flux and adaptation, both due to internal tensions, and as societies with differing hierarchical orders bumped up against one another.

Similarly, in his analysis of empires, he notes that although they are currently often considered as evil, throughout history their cultural impacts have tended to remain embedded in societies that have overthrown or replaced them. He argues, in fact, that in order to deal with problems that are increasingly global in nature, the current direction is toward a single, global empire.

Harari’s imagined orders share interesting similarities with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, a word Teilhard coined, and that appeared for example in his treatise The Phenomenon of Man (my review here). Teilhard argued that the evolutionary development in humans of thought and reflection provided the necessary advantage for humankind to spread throughout the world, creating a “thinking layer” --- the noosphere --- that spanned the earth. (Teilhard created this term as a compliment to the existing, commonly known spheres, such as the biosphere.) Eventually, only Homo sapiens remained, branching out into a variety of groups worldwide. These initially independent groups then took the next step in the evolution of the nooshpere, by organizing into increasingly complex social groups, and eventually political and cultural societies.

Teilhard’s noosphere parallels Harari’s description of the development of thought in humankind, followed by its enhancement in Homo sapiens into the ability to create myths and fictions, giving them a decisive advantage, and, in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, enabling the creation of increasingly complex social groups, and eventually world-wide political and cultural societies. Harari points out that these created societies are fundamentally different from the natural biological aspects of human existence, representing a constructed mental reality on top of our biological drives -- a formulation thus not unlike the idea of Teilhard’s “thinking layer” superimposed on the biosphere.

In another parallel, Harari’s explanation for the domination of the West’s imagined orders over the past 500 years also has echoes in Teilhard’s analysis. Teilhard pointed out five particular “foci of [social] attraction and organization, [that served as the] prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere”: the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian-Sumerian civilizations. (209) Of these, he argued, it was the Egyptian and Sumerian that eventually coalesced into Western Civilization, “to produce that happy blend, thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts and religion to action.” (211) For Teilhard, social societies were the next stage in mankind’s biological progress up the Tree of Life, and Western civilization has represented the flowering of that socialization:
The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them. (212)
This closely parallels Harari’s analysis of the advantages that the imagined orders of Western Europe proved decisive in its expansion onto the world stage in the wake of the Scientific Revolution.

It must be clearly pointed out, however, that these striking similarities arise out of wildly divergent premises for the two historians. Teilhard, a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology and other sciences, believed deeply in orthogenesis, the idea that evolution proceeds in a predestined direction toward an ever more advanced state. Thus, for him, the evolution in humankind of the ability to think or reflect, and the eventual development of the noosphere, represented predetermined steps in the development toward ever higher levels of consciousness, as did the eventual dominance of the West. Toward the end of his book The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard makes clear that he views this development as a Christian phenomenon, with a “spiritual and transcendent pole” (298) as its end point.

On the other hand, although Harari does not state it in so many words, it seems evident that he views the evolutionary changes that led to the ability of Homo sapiens to create fictions and myths as having been utterly natural, if not yet understood, developments. Certainly he makes clear his belief that a belief in God is simply one of humankind’s vast variety of imagined orders.

In the final chapter of the book, Harari looks to our future. He foresees humankind transforming beyond Homo sapiens, and describes a variety of technological scenarios that may allow us to change ourselves in fundamental ways. Ultimately, however, he seems to blanch at the power that is coming into the hands of humankind, even as we show ourselves to be ever more irresponsible and destructive.

Sapiens provides a remarkable perspective of human history, looking at it not through the rise and fall of particular empires or cultures, but rather how Homo sapiens’ unique ability to create complex and quickly evolving social and cultural structures enabled our rapid spread throughout the world. Recognizing the implications and impacts of these imagined orders on our modern world not only forces us to acknowledge an inherent arbitrariness of all of our beliefs, but to then use that recognition to enable us to break free from the tyranny of blind belief in them when a better way may be possible.


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Regarding Harari's thoughts on whether there has been a time when mankind could be considered to have been happy: the performance artist Lauri Anderson has a rather pessimistic take on it in her song The Dream Before.

Read quotes from this book here.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: "The Wanderers" by Meg Howrey

The Wanderers (2017)
Meg Howrey










370 pages

A few years ago, Andy Weir’s novel The Martian became a big success, first as a book (my review here), and then as a hit movie. Weir’s story reveled in the technical aspects of a Martian expedition: the main character has been left behind for dead on Mars after a catastrophic accident, and while his isolation inevitably plays a role, the story consists primarily of a series of challenges and accidents he must overcome to survive. Well-written and engaging for the general reader, the novel was a kind of geek nirvana for sci-fi loving engineers and scientists.

Meg Howrey’s new novel, The Wanderers, also centers on mankind reaching out toward the red planet. It takes a completely different tack than Weir’s story, however, with the science of the mission playing a subservient role to Howrey’s main theme, the psychological challenges of a Mars expedition for the astronauts as wells as the family members they leave behind.

There are the obvious difficulties, of course, including the long period in close quarters and an ever present fear of disaster. But Howrey explores too the complex mixture of feelings the astronauts can face, as guilt at leaving their families behind competes with an overwhelming desire to return again to the beauty and thrill of spaceflight. And family members, for their part, can come to measure themselves and their lives against the heroic view the public has of their space-traveling parent or spouse.

Set perhaps a few decades into our future, the story opens as the private company Prime Space Systems --- known simply as Prime --- prepares for an expedition to Mars. Prime selects three experienced astronauts for the mission, with the plan to have them first run through a hyper-realistic simulated mission, to be staged in the Utah desert and to last nearly as long as the subsequent actual trip itself. Through this simulated mission, Prime claims to want to learn about the psychological stresses the crew will face, and so be able to compensate for these issues on the real expedition.

The story consists of the run up to and execution of this simulated mission, and examines the impact on the astronauts, their immediate families, and even the support team at Mission Control, which is also expected to perform during the simulation as if it’s the real thing. Prime achieves a staggering level of verisimilitude for the simulation, covering both the mental and physical aspects of the astronauts’ environment and activities. On the one hand, this helps the astronauts maintain their focus on making the simulated mission as real as possible over the many months it lasts; ultimately, however, they find that the apparent reality of the experience begins to prey on their sub-conscious understanding of what is artificial and what real.

Howrey writes each chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters, including each of the three astronauts, of course, as well as one key family member for each of them, and one of the astronauts’ monitors at Mission Control. As she switches back and forth between characters in successive chapters, we end up seeing the same situations from multiple perspectives. These varying interpretations of events, without a single fixed reference point, leave us as readers in a situation not unlike that of the characters themselves --- uncertain of what to believe, and guessing at what the full truth may be.

The structure Howrey has chosen, coupled with the focus on the psychological aspects of the mission, result in a slow start for the story, as the characters’ backstories and idiosyncrasies are introduced and developed. A bit like a rocket lifting off, however, after the initial period when it seems like not much forward progress is being made, the plot gains momentum. Even then, the charm of The Wanderers lies not in action and adventure of space flight, but rather in the simmering tension of people thrown together into the unknown. Through this experience,Howrey explores the drama of inner space, of our hopes and fears, and how even our closest relationships present moments of both struggle and grace.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: "Diccionario Sampedro" editted by Olga Lucas

Dictionary Sampedro  (Diccionario Sampedro) (2016)
Editted by Olga Lucas (Editado por Olga Lucas)










278 pages
“Grammar dictionaries make evident the difficulty involved in defining words. If we pay close attention, words are practically undefinable; we can approximate the meanings, but a word is never defined with the precision of a mathematical quantity. Words have resonances --- connotations that accumulate with use; what has significance at one moment in time could later have a different significance... (158)

… Los diccionarios de uso ponen de relieve la dificultad que encierra la definición de las palabras. Si nos fijamos bien, las palabras son prácticamente indefinibles, nos podemos aproximar a los significados, pero la palabra nunca está definida con la precisión de una cantidad matemática. Las palabras tienen resonancias, connotaciones acumuladas con el uso; lo que en un momento tiene un significado, puede luego significar otra cosa …
At first glance, the meaning of a word can seem simple to pin down: turn to a dictionary --- whether on-line or on the shelf --- and look-up the exact definition. Often, however, a word has multiple meanings, or shades of meanings that depend on the context in which the word appear.

A further complexity comes with the recognition that the meanings of words evolve over time, and, beyond even that, authors or speakers develop their own nuanced understandings of words; we, each of us, arrive at meanings for words based on our experiences and expectations. How best to capture such personal definitions, and their evolution over time? And, what can we learn of a person’s philosophy and outlook from how they use particular words?

The extraordinary book Dictionary Sampedro (Diccionario Sampedro in the original Spanish) provides an engaging approach to answering these questions. Economist and author José Luis Sampedro (1917-2013) wrote extensively on topics ranging from economic and social policies to a philosophy of humanism developed over a lifetime of traveling, reading and learning. In Dictionary Sampedro his widow, Olga Lucas, pulls together selections from his writings and speeches that reveal the breadth of Sampedro’s thinking through the ways in which he used certain words.

Beyond being Sampedro’s wife for the last fifteen or so years of his life, Lucas collaborated closely with him, including co-authoring several books. Based on those experiences she could perhaps have chosen to write directly about his life and work; the result, however, would have been merely interpretive descriptions of his thinking. Instead, Lucas allows Sampedro to speak for himself through this book, and for readers to draw their own conclusions about his views on critical concepts he explored. One could argue that there will inevitably still be bias present in the choices of which words and which writings to include; short of going back ourselves, however, and reading a significant portion of Sampedro’s work, the approach taken by Lucas seems credible and proves extraordinarily effective.

As indicated by the title, Lucas has assembled the book in the form of a dictionary, including fifty of the more significant words covering themes to which Sampedro dedicated his life’s work. Not surprisingly, the words included are not simple descriptors of everyday objects; instead, they cover complex concepts, from Love to Globalization. For each word, Lucas has first included selections from Sampedro’s non-fiction, with the text colored black; she has then followed with selections from his novels, colored in red to clearly differentiate their source.

As an economist, Sampedro wrote extensively on economic issues, and so, not surprisingly, almost twice the average number of pages for words included in the book are dedicated to the definition of Economics. In fact, economic and social policy – which Sampedro clearly saw as tied tightly together --- appear explicitly in a variety of words in the book, including Crisis, Globalization and Money, as well as more indirectly in selections on terms such as Ignorance (Barbarie in Spanish, connoting also the idea of barbarism), Democracy and Decadance. In his writings on Totalitarianism, for example, he describes his reactions to the social impact of modern economic policies:
(…) but I came to realize that in the world there are people who don’t simply accept the word; they don’t seem to find it right to say, for example, that globalization is totalitarian. The economic power of these large companies doesn’t accept being called totalitarian because totalitarian is associated with fascism; but this power is equally totalitarian. What is implied by totalitarian? We refer here to the reductionist aspect. It is an act of percentage reduction that reduces everything to only one aspect of life, in this case the economic, and this is precisely the problem of globalization. (241)

(…) pero me doy cuenta de que en el mundo hay gente que no acepta fácilmente el término; no les parece acertado decir, por ejemplo, que las globalización es totalitaria. El poder económico de esas grandes empresas no acepta que se le llame totalitario porque lo totalitario se asimila al fascismo, pero ese poder es igualmente totalitario. ¿Qué quiere decir <>? Nos referimos aquí al aspecto reduccionista. Es un acto de reducción porcentual que reduce todo a un solo aspecto de la vida, en este caso el económico y ése es precisamente el problema de la globalización.

Though an economist by profession, Sampedro’s thinking was heavily influenced by his pursuit of a deeper understanding of humanism. In his posthumously published work The Perennial Life (my review here), Sampedro integrated together and commented on writings from the many sources he explored as he traveled the world --- both literally and through his reading --- to deepen his understanding of life. Through the range of his writing captured in Dictionary Sampedro, we witness the development of his thinking on humanism over several decades.

As an example of the overlap he found between his understanding of economics and his study of humanism, the selections of his writings demonstrate his concerns regarding the materialistic emphasis of the modern world. He found that political and social policies have tended to narrow many people’s focus in life to quotidian details of economic activities ultimately beneficial to only a select few. This has diverted us, according to Sampedro, from our most important work: becoming who we are meant to be. Thus, as part of the definition of Life (Vida), appears the following selection:
Life is not just reason, nor reducible to science or computers, however valuable these may be. Life is also art, passion, feelings. In a capitalism that is suffering, traditional values surrender to economic interests. Let us hope that the god of the world who is born, has life as supreme reference. (262)

La Vida no es sólo razón, ni se reduce a ciencia y computadoras, por valiosas que estas sean. La Vida es también arte, pasión, sentimientos. En el capitalismo que agoniza los valores tradicionales se rinden ante el interés económico. Esperemos que el dios del mundo que nace sea la Vida como referente supremo.

For Sampedro, even how we think about Death shapes how we experience our lives:
Death is not the rival of life: death is the companion of life. The day that we are born, we begin to die, and we need to know to enjoy it, to live it, because there is much to do.

La muerte no es lo contrario de la vida: la muerte es la compañera de la vida. El día que nacemos empezamos a morir y hay que saber disfrutarlo, saber vivirlo, porque hay mucho que hacer.
He notes that “society hides from us the idea of death, instead of recognizing that death is the crowning of life” (“la sociedad nos escamotea la idea de la muerte en lugar de reconocer que la muerte es el coronamiento de la vida”), and refers to this avoidance of thinking about death as a “defect of society” (“defecto de la sociedad”). (191)

A revealing view into the depth of Sampedro’s thinking appears in a selection included under the word Migrations. Along with writings discussing the broadly understood link between migration and economic issues, he expresses an intriguing alternate view of migration, drawn from the dramatic changes that can occur in the world over a single lifetime:
In a certain sense, as you see me here, I am an immigrant. Naturally, we understand well the migratory phenomenon in a spatial sense: if someone comes from Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, they are an immigrant. However, we don’t realize that there are also immigrants in time, because eras are different. The world of my youth is not that of today. It doesn’t belong to the world of today. I am here as a stowaway. Certainly, I haven’t arrived by boat and I have my papers in order, but I am not from here. (185)

En cierto modo, aquí donde me ven ustedes, yo soy un emigrante. Naturalmente, comprendemos bien los fenómenos migratorios en el espacio: si alguien viene del Sudan, del África subsahariana, es un emigrante. Sin embargo, no nos damos cuenta de que también hay emigrantes en el tiempo porque los tiempos son diferentes. El mundo de mi infancia no es el de hoy. No pertenezco al mundo de hoy. Estoy aquí de polizón. Eso sí, no he venido en patera y tengo mis papeles en regla, pero no soy de aquí.
Sampedro’s comments have parallels to observations Stefan Zweig makes in The World of Yesterday (my review of that work here) regarding the sweeping changes that he experienced from his days as a youth in late 19th century Austria to the physical and psychological displacement that resulted from two world wars.

More broadly, Sampedro’s expansive willingness to understand and acknowledge the seemingly unbounded variety of human actions, emotions and relationships is reflected in selections included for topics such as Love, Friendship, Androgyny, Masochism and Submission (Sumisión in Spanish, also connoting submissiveness). A flavor of his views, and his goals for himself, comes in the following selection:
… I’ve opened myself more to the world, which is not just ours, but rather one of other cultures and expressions equally human. As has been said: “Nothing human is alien to me.” Or, at least, I try more and more. (178)

… me he abierto más al mundo, que no sólo es el nuestro, sino el de otras culturas y expresiones igualmente humanas. Como dijo el clásico: << Nada humano me es ajeno>>. O, al menos, lo intento cada vez más.

The definitions gathered together in Dictionary Sampedro make apparent that the many years Sampedro dedicated to the study of humanism had a profound impact not only on how he lived his own life, but also on his views as an economist. Perhaps his most fundamental belief, one that seems to have guided his life and his understanding of how we each us should live our lives, is best captured in a selection appearing under Freedom (Libertad in Spanish, also connoting the idea of Liberty):
… I believe that a person has a profound freedom. A freedom that consists not just to be able to get what they want at each moment, but rather to pursue at each moment what they believe to be their path, whether they achieves it or not, and give meaning to all that which follows. (163)
… creo que el hombre tiene una libertad profunda. Una libertad que consiste, no tanto como poder conseguir en cada momento lo que quiere, sino en perseguir en cada momento lo que él cree que es su camino, lo consiga o no, y en dar sentido a todo aquello que le sucede.


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It appears that none of Sampedro’s books have been translated into English, which is unfortunate, given the depth and breadth of his thinking on topics so clearly relevant to our modern way of life.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf