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What I’ve been reading this month

I’m not someone who would naturally pick up a book written 2000 years ago. I’m no classicist. But there has been so much written online and in magazines in recent years about Seneca’s Moral Essays that I thought I’d pick up a translation to see what all the fuss was about. The volume I selected contained Seneca’s essays On Providence, On Firmness, On Anger and the sliver that survives of On Mercy. These essays were many times better than anything modern I’ve read on character or morality. The John W Basore translations were highly readable and engaging. There were parts that made reference to Seneca’s contemporaries or cultural/religious figures that slightly went over my head, but the down-to-Earth “life advice” was astounding. It also made me reflect that there’s more in this single volume on effective management of people than anything I’ve ever previously read. I was completely blown away.
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A Death in The Family was the first of five parts of Karl Ove Knausgård’s radically honest autobiography. This volume covered Knausgård’s relationship with and the death of his father. The book was extreme in its honesty. Knausgård left nothing to the imagination. He didn’t spare family or friends in his descriptions of them and nor did he spare himself in documenting his darkest inner thoughts. His descriptions were detailed, meticulous and evocative. “Transcendent” seems to be a word commonly associated with this book and that captures my impression. It is a very impressive first volume.
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Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s Algorithms to Live By stood at the intersection of computer science and philosophy. The authors explained a number of fundamental algorithms used in computer science (many of which were new to me) and then used tenets of philosophy to explain how these algorithms were also applicable in everyday life.
The premise sounded like a terrible marketing-driven airport paperback ‘What X tells us about Y’ concept. In fact, it was carried off very well. The computer science was quite complex (certainly well beyond my rusty A-Level Computing knowledge), but explained with a clarity that outstripped most ‘popular science’ books. The ‘relevance to everyday life’ was also carried through expertly, delving fairly deep into evidence-based psychology. There was a lucid connection between the two which the authors brought to life with thoughtful examples. This was interdisciplinary thinking done right.
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I picked up Unmasked, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, because the reviews I read suggested that it was better than one might expect it to be—and that’s exactly how I found it. It would be interesting in any case to have some insight into the creative process of a man who has had musical successes writing everything from Elvis Presley songs to stage musicals to a requiem mass. But—perhaps surprisingly—this book was also very funny. There were bits that were a little cringe-worthy, including a bit where he makes a joke about the size of his penis, but he strikes the right note far more often than the wrong one.
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I struggled a bit to get through Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is saying something considering that it was quite a short novel. In a nutshell, the novel found Quatro’s protagonist attempting to reconcile her Christian faith with a lifetime of sexual encounters. There were interesting ideas to unlock in that premise, but I didn’t really gain any real insight into them. This was partly because Quatro often took approaches which extended beyond my sphere of knowledge without anything like an adequate explanation (a treatise on apophatic theology, anyone?). It was also partly because the writing didn’t lead me to particularly care about any of the characters. Fire Sermon just didn’t quite do it for me.
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