Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

2021 in books & other things

I’ve spent most part of this year lying on a sofa and reading books. No jokes – I even got a few wrinkles on my neck from lying in the same pose every day. Alright, I also took daily strolls through the same route along the park, river bank and a water treatment plant – a lifestyle more suitable for someone who’s 78 years old, not 28, huh?

In 2021, I’ve read around 24 books (21 logged on Goodreads, and a few more books about art which are always too hectic to quantify). Not too many, but I would say 2 books per month is a reasonable pace, when you mostly read hard-to-digest non-fiction. Fiction books are clearly overrated (unless it’s science fiction, which is always great). Reading fiction is not substantially better than watching Netflix series – at least in terms of the amount of knowledge retained afterwards (the value of daily consumption of made-up stories seems dubious to me). When someone brags about reading 100 books per year, be sure that it’s mostly fiction, so any marathons are pointless here.

In my experience, the most reasonable pace is reading around 20 pages per day. Doesn’t sound too impressive (unless it’s a textbook on Kant!), but that’s already almost 300 pages in two weeks – the length of an average book. And the most crucial thing in reading is to always write notes – footnotes on the page margins, main points summarized in iPhone Notes, or even full-featured reviews of Goodreads. Human brain can only transfer information from short-term operational memory into a long-term one, when the information is repeated a few times, so revising the book content by compiling a review is the best way to retain knowledge.

In the end of 2020 I also started to collect a library. Seems to be a luxury hobby, especially when most books are easily available on a digital reader, and I could definitely not imagine myself doing this just a couple of years ago. But what else to spend money on, apart from books and trips? And alright, not all books are easily available online, some are actually difficult to find. Used books have a particular charm in them, and whenever some book is only available from an antique bookstore in some German village, be sure that’s the best kind of deal you can find on Amazon.

Most discussions on various social and cultural topics always revolve around the same old ideas, thoughts and theories. And what a pleasure it is, when in a situation where you need to find some particular reference, you can just take a book from the shelf and go through it! What’s the stance of Plato on love? How did Daniel Dennett disprove qualia? What are the biggest flaws of Christianity, according to Alain de Benoist? As Nassim Taleb wrote: valuable information rarely comes in a format of ‘breaking news’ and is more likely to be found in books written 100 years ago, than in something released today.

If you think about it, what’s even the point of talking to peers (and be frustrated by their lack of interest on the topic), when you can have a more intellectual mental conversation with someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years? People around are random (they just happened to live in the same time and same location as you), but literary legacy of dead authors is outside of limitations imposed by time and space! And that’s what we should all strive for, when it comes to our own immortality plans.

So here are the books I got these year (not including the art books!). Cat for scale. On the third pic there’re books that I actually had time to read, in full length or partially:

Let’s now go through the best books of this year, according to my personal ranking.

— ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ by Ruth Benedict is a remarkable anthropological study of Japan. Ancient Greece and modern Japan are perhaps the only two nations in the world that are as developed as the modern West, and yet absolutely different form it. From this book you can learn why Japanese people prioritize shame over guilt, obligation over personal freedom, and responsibility over hedonistic pursuits, as well as other conditions that made Japan so successful and cannot be recreated elsewhere. You can also learn why Japan got over the loss in WWII in a matter of days.

— ‘The Coast of Utopia’ by Tom Stoppard  – a fascinating story about Russian revolutionary emigres in the 19th century. The events take place almost 150 years ago, yet most problems and debates are as relevant as never before: what’s the destiny of Russia, and where does it belong in the world? Is liberalism suitable for Russia, or is it destined to have its own way? Does the Russian state rely on voluntary submission or authoritarian oppression? But even with these crucial topics aside, this is also a remarkably well-written book, the one you think of when judging the merits of literature as a form of art.

— The most influential books of this year definitely include ‘A Guide to Heidegger’s Being and Time’ by Magda King and ‘Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason’ by Sebastian Gardner – textbooks written by experts in their fields (reviews are here and here). When it comes to philosophy, reading original texts is pointless – at least when your aim is to retain knowledge, and not merely show off. These textbooks are not easy to read, and are mostly aimed at full-time philosophy students. The level of detail is a bit excessive for a person outside of the field, however these are comprehensive guides to the most influential works in philosophy, and everything that you ever need to know about them.

— Much more accessible book on yet another German philosopher is ‘Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist’ by Walter Kaufmann. That’s a comprehensive overview of Nietzsche’s ideas, put in a proper context and explained in great detail. Kaufmann is a very talented educator and a wonderful writer, and it’s hard not to be fascinated by his texts, their elegance, level of detail and accessibility. After reading this book, I also got Kaufmann’s translation of Goethe’s ‘Faust’.

— Out of science-fiction, I would of course nominate Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ to be the book of the year. It’s somewhat shameful that it slipped by me in the past, and only got my attention after the release of Denis Villeneuve’s movie. Maybe it’s just the current stage of my life, but the ideas from Dune resonated a lot, and kept a grip on me for almost 2 months (well, you can see it from the 5,000-word post!)

— ‘On Being a Pagan’ by Alain de Benoist is perhaps the best collection of arguments against Christianity from the philosophical perspective (no worries, no Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins kind of arguments here!). It’s hard to remain indifferent to Christian doctrines after reading about what Christianity has done to Europe and its cultural roots, and not to become a hater of it.

— The disappointment of the year was perhaps William Gibson’s ‘The Peripheral’. It‘s iconoclastic to criticize the founding father of cyber-punk, but the Peripheral was perhaps my first book in English where I barely understood 50% of text (yes, it’s easier to read a textbook on Heidegger than the Peripheral!). Gibson uses a combination of slang words and obscure terminology that need to be googled in order to grasp the meaning of the sentence. Usually it’s not a problem when the text includes a few unfamiliar words, but here the understanding of the narrative crucially depends on them. However, even after a diligent translation of each word, the story development turned out to be surprisingly unamusing.

— To recover from this disappointment, I would rather recommend Greg Egan and his short stories for an example of top quality science fiction. Egan combines all elements that the genre is intended for: unconventional ideas in philosophy, speculations about the future and ethical implications of various decisions that lead to it, not mainly from scientific perspective but mostly from psychological and philosophical one. The ideas of Egan can often be complemented by the Churchlands’ theory of eliminative materialism, in a sense that the future would ultimately uncover and deem meaningless many myths that hold us in the present.

— A special nomination of the most valuable books of the year goes to the following two. The Bauhaus book weights around 5 kg – it was very hard to carry it home form the gallery store. The book on Vienna Actionism is an exceptionally well-made and quite rare edition published by Mumok art museum in Vienna (who else would have more expertise on the subject?). It was a great luck to find it.

Other thoughts

So that’s how conclusions of the year look for a person who spent 12 months lying on a sofa and reading.

What else was memorable in 2021?

— Surprisingly, this year I actually managed to visit 9 countries: Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Northern Spain (Basque country & Cantabria), and Northern Italy (Lombardy, Piemonte and Liguria), a bit of France, the entire Switzerland, and even Liechtenstein. So far it seems like revisiting familiar places is less memorable than visiting new ones. Alas, almost the entire Europe is already thoroughly explored (and countries like Estonia can be legitimately left for retirement), so the plan for 2022 would be to visit more far-away destinations.

— As for particular experiences, the most memorable ones included visiting CERN, and surprisingly – seeing the Swiss Alps for the first time (riding cable cars, or sitting on a mossy rock on a very steep slope at 7am and watching the mountains). Stumbling upon Borges grave in Geneva, half-accidentally. Going to Tinguely museum in Basel and seeing ‘Mengele Dance of Death’ with own eyes. Lying on a picnic blanket under an oak and reading Walter Kaufmann. Seeing a neon church by Dan Flavin in Milan. Sitting on a pebble beach in Liguria and building exciting plans for the future.

— This year I visited 23 galleries. The most impressive ones were Guggenheim in Bilbao, Bauhaus museum in Weimar, Mumok in Vienna, and Castello Rivoli in Turin. Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen and Foundation Beyeler in Basel were comparably great. And of course – the old favorite Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, which was visited this year even twice. Even though I lost a substantial part of my past excitement for blogging about art (it went pretty successful, but I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that IG is too shallow of a platform for such content), I still have some plans for this sphere kept for the future.

— In 2021, I have written and published more than 40 posts on this blog (and have many more in drafts!). Cats have been posted consistently too. Writing is a joy, and I recommend it to everyone.

— On a more trivial note, finally started to invest into ETFs. This came with a full wagon of unforeseen concerns I’ve never expected to find relevant before: exchange rates (when is USD finally going down?), capital gain taxes, stock market bubbles. God, why no one warned me that you’ll be forever destined for serious discussions of Elliott waves and Kuznets cycles? It’s hard to be a truly risk-averse investor in a world that considers S&P 500 almost riskless.

— For the first time, I gave a presentation on front of a large audience (over Zoom, of course) sharing my experiences of studying and working abroad to hundreds of students from my university in Russia. It went surprisingly smooth, and made me somewhat reevaluate my past experiences, giving me a better picture of where they can be applied best. So after a year of contemplation, I‘ll try to spend the next year doing a bit more action. Stay tuned.

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