Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite writers. Here’s my somewhat detailed review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here’s my review of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Exit West is his excellent latest novel. It’s about refugees fleeing an unnamed homeland (Syria?) and transporting through different spaces in the quest for safety, eventually ending up in Northern California. The couple, Saeed and Nadia, share an unexpected romantic connection that ultimately weakens over time, with Saeed indulging in nostalgia for the past and his religious roots, and Nadia seeking to break through and embrace a more secular stance toward the world. But before they grow apart, they endure together war and grief and other hardship.

The writing style is calm, sometimes bare. The novel’s opening line gives you a sense of the rhythm of the book: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

The theme of refugees struck a chord personally. And even for those of us who stay in the same house our whole life: “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes.

Highly recommended. Some highlights from Kindle are pasted below.


…they had gone to his place that night, and she had shuffled off the weight of her virginity with some perplexity but not excessive fuss.

the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.

All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.

…but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

…in any case Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.

Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness.

Nadia had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.

He did not press the point, but when Nadia brought her face close to his in bed that night, close enough to tickle his lips with her breathing, he was unable to muster the enthusiasm to bridge the tiny distance it would have taken to kiss.

They made their way outside. The sky had begun to change, and was less dark now than indigo, and there were others scattered around, other couples and groups, but mostly solitary figures, unable to sleep, or at least unable to sleep any longer.

Maybe, Saeed thought initially, they feared he might be able to understand them. Later he suspected something else. That they were ashamed, and that they did not yet know that shame, for the displaced, was a common feeling, and that there was, therefore, no particular shame in being ashamed.

They put their lack of conversation down to exhaustion, for by the end of the day they were usually so tired they could barely speak, and phones themselves have the innate power of distancing one from one’s physical surroundings, which accounted for part of it, but Saeed and Nadia no longer touched each other when they lay in bed, not in that way, and not because their curtained-off space in the pavilion

She noticed other women looking at him from time to time, and yet she herself felt strangely unmoved by his handsomeness, as though he were a rock or a house, something she might admire but without any real desire.

It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.

Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing.

In Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it…

There was also closeness, for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.

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.

In the morning when she woke he was looking at her, and he stroked the hair from her face, as he had not done for months, and he said if anyone should leave the home they had built it was him. But as he said this he felt he was acting, or if not acting then so confused as to be incapable of gauging his own sincerity. He did think that he ought to be the one to go, that he had reparations to make for becoming close to the preacher’s daughter. So it was not his words that felt to him like an act, but rather his stroking of Nadia’s hair, which, it seemed to him in that moment, he might never have permission to stroke again.

…and so they distanced themselves from each other on social networks, and while they wished to look out for each other, and to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried each for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.

[Meeting as older adults years after breaking up] Their conversation navigated two lives, with vital details highlighted and excluded, and it was also a dance, for they were former lovers, and they had not wounded each other so deeply as to have lost their ability to find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished, and Nadia said imagine how different life would be if I had agreed to marry you, and Saeed said imagine how different it would be if I had agreed to have sex with you, and Nadia said we were having sex, and Saeed considered and smiled and said yes I suppose we were.

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is not a “beach read” in the metaphorical sense, but it was a terrific beach read in the literal sense for me a couple weeks ago, when I was in between scuba dives in Cozumel, Mexico. 500 pages of tightly spun goodness; a classic love triangle story told by one of the living masters in Jeffrey Eugenides; a reading experience where you enjoy both the plot and the random life philosophy thought-bombs; and, for the writerly inclined, plenty of “what a sentence!” moments.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself, as far as reading fiction is concerned, is that I tend to like fewer protagonists and a relatively straightforward plot line. When dozens of characters surface and when the timeline keeps jumping around, I can easily lose my place and my momentum. Partly this is a function of not always being able to read large chunks of the book in consecutive days; if a few days pass in between reading, I’m prone to forget what’s going on. It might also have to do with brain works, apparently: I can’t keep track of dozens of fictional side characters in novels.

The Marriage Plot works to my style, then. There are three main characters, they graduate from university, and they go on to experience love and work and complications in the big bad real world. The chapters alternate between characters. Among the more captivating threads for me involved the manic depressive highs and lows of Leonard’s character.

I’m not informed enough to grok the literary inside baseball that pops up throughout this novel. I’m a mere surface reader of Eugenides and this novel — i.e. there are emotions in here about “real life” and I believe the stories and emotions to be realistic enough that I can enjoy the absorption. I’m not looking for or reflecting on some deeper meaning that’s being portrayed — commentary about other novels, literary trends, or sly references to Eugenides’ contemporaries. The relationship dynamics between the characters are provocative enough!

Some of my Kindle highlights are pasted below. Paragraphs appear as I pasted them in, they are not actually in sequential order in the book.


Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars. “Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly. [“Tolerantly” as a way of describing the tone of a statement.]

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence.

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine’s wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn’t care about looking her best for him.

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

Mitchell felt guilty for fantasizing about his friend’s girlfriend but not guilty enough to stop.

He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him. That, at least, was one possible interpretation, and, on Bedford Street, at three a.m., Madeleine decided not to clear up the matter further.

He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute.
Suddenly the dog sped past again, ripping up sand. “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run,” MacGregor said. “It’s like a piece of me gets to hitch a ride.” She shook her head. “This is what it’s come to. Living vicariously through my poodle.” “There are worse things.”

Larry was in a good mood. The speed with which he’d gotten over Claire was stunning. Maybe he hadn’t really liked Claire all that much. Maybe he disliked Claire as much as Mitchell did. The fact that Larry could get over Claire in a matter of weeks, whereas Mitchell remained heartbroken over Madeleine—even though he hadn’t gone out with Madeleine—meant one of two things: either Mitchell’s love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the “emotion” he felt for Madeleine—somewhat increased by the flowing chianti—was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words.

At one point, in his sleep, Larry rolled on top of Mitchell, or Mitchell dreamed this. He had an erection. He thought he might throw up. Somebody in his dream was sucking his cock, or Larry was, and then he woke up to hear Larry say, “Ugh, you stink,” without pushing him away, however. And then Mitchell passed out again, and in the morning they both acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had.

“Wow. Most people don’t know that. I’m impressed.” She leaned toward him and said in a quiet voice, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitated to answer. The worst thing about religion was religious people. “I’m Greek Orthodox,” he said finally. “Well, that’s Christian.”

Our relationship has always defied categorization, so I guess it makes sense if this letter does too. Dear Mitchell, I don’t want to see you anymore (even though we haven’t been seeing each other). I want to start seeing other people (even though I’m already seeing someone). I need some time for myself (even though you haven’t been taking up my time). Okay? Do you get it now? I’m desperate. I’m taking desperate measures.

All of this, as Leonard later learned from his therapists, amounted to emotional abuse. Not to be made to live in a house where a murder had taken place but to be the go-between in his parents’ affairs, to be constantly asked his opinion before he was mature enough to give one, to be made to feel that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ happiness and, later, their unhappiness.

It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!” When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going.

There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.

That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up. As he was speaking, for instance, Leonard noticed Wendy Neuman cross her arms over her chest, as if to defend herself against the blatant insincerity of what he was saying. To win her back, Leonard admitted to this insincerity, saying, “No, I take that back. I’m lying. Lying is what I do. It’s part of my disease.” He eyed Wendy to see if she was buying this, or if she regarded it as further insincerity. The closer Leonard monitored her reactions, the further he got from telling the truth about himself, until he trailed off, feeling embarrassed and hot-faced, an eyesore of denial.

The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific.

Madeleine’s excitement about the future seemed all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it. He was more or less sane now, more or less healthy, but he felt none of his usual energy or curiosity, none of his old animal spirits.

The logic of his brilliant move rested on one premise: that manic depression, far from being a liability, was an advantage. It was a selected trait. If it wasn’t selected for, then the “disorder” would have disappeared long ago, bred out of the population like anything else that didn’t increase the odds of survival. The advantage was obvious. The advantage was the energy, the creativity, the feeling of genius, almost, that Leonard felt right now.

It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Principles by Ray Dalio. In the category of “books worth reading since a lot of smart people are currently reading it.” I enjoyed it. I didn’t know a lot about Dalio / Bridgewater beforehand so it was a handy way to get up to speed.

The advice in this book that I hear referenced most often is about sharing blunt feedback with colleagues — i.e. if you think someone on your team screwed up, share that feedback with them without a sugar coat. Ray shares several vivid examples of colleagues more junior than him saying to his face (remember, he was the CEO) that his performance in a meeting was disastrous or that the quality of one of his presentations was C+ in quality. It’s the best way to improve, Dalio argues.

I’m a bit more cautious on this advice. No doubt that candid feedback is necessary to improve as an individual and as an organization. But I question how many people are truly interested in constructive criticism even if they ask for it. They know they should be asking for constructive criticism but deep down they don’t want to hear it and will resent you afterwards (without ever admitting the source of the resentment, of course). A resentful colleague may be less effective than a colleague who’s not addressing their weaknesses as quickly as they could because they’re only getting the “nice” feedback.

The other question I’m left asking myself after reading Principles is whether we should audio/video record more of our meetings at work, like Bridgewater does, have them transcribed, and then keep a searchable text archive of all meetings so that colleagues who weren’t in the room can quickly sync up at their convenience.

2. Emerald City by Jennifer Egan. After devouring Manhattan Beach, I’m now working my way through the rest of the Egan canon. This collection of short stories is terrific. Out of the 11 stories, at least 7-8 of them held my attention all the way through; indeed, I was disappointed when they came to an end.

My favorite story is “Letters to Josephine,” which is about a woman named Lucy’s complicated feelings about becoming wealthy (via marriage) relative to her childhood and to her childhood friends. Lucy’s reflections on the blur of luxury travel that she indulges in with her aloof husband are spot-on. An example exchange between her friend Josephine and her:

“What does it look like from an airplane, when you land at night?” Josephine asked. “I always try to imagine it, how cities must look from above with all their lights blinking. Is it pretty?” Lucy pictured herself and Parker in an airplane, both of them tired and eager to land. “Well, it’s…” she paused, wondering what Josephine wanted her to say. She longed to say the right thing, to acknowledge the beauty without dwelling on it in a way that would seem self-satisfied. “It is pretty,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

From other stories, on feeling preemptively nostalgic in the *present* moment:

Bernadette notices the breeze, the limp water washing her toes. She feels an ache of nostalgia. Jann’s hand presses against her back. Between them all is a fragile weave of threads, a spider’s web. Bernadette longs for this moment as if it had already passed, as if it could have been.

On developing pleasure in observing others:

Lucy sits with a magazine in her lap and watches people. She has only recently begun to know the pleasure of watching others. For many years she could only worry that she herself was being watched, and would hide beneath wide hats and sunglasses and lipstick to avoid people’s stares. But lately she has grown more curious, less self-conscious.

3. Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Terrific. A collection of meandering essays written in the second person as direct advice to his daughter. Here are my other posts on Knausgaard. Note this is not part of the My Struggle series.

One of my favorite paragraphs near the end:

And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives.

On how quickly we forget the generations before us:

Grandmother and Grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years, but were still vivid in my memory. To you they would be vague figures in the murk of history; you were born a hundred years after them, and when you entered your twenties, they would represent for you what people born in the 1860s did for me. Which is to say, practically nothing. The only ones who count are the living. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it will always be.

The paragraph continues with an original way of capturing the idea that the trivia and tedium of life is life:

Life clatters within the living, with all their mentalities and psychologies, and when they die and the clatter within them subsides, it continues in their children, and one comes to understand that the clatter was the main thing, the clatter was the point, the clatter was life.

And the final two sentences, from father to daughter:

Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

4. The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page. Some solid research arguing that the quality of decision making goes up for complicated decisions when there’s more cognitive diversity around the table. Very similar to Scott’s previous book, The Difference.

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In movie/TV land, the film “Sorry to Bother You” is terrific and truly original art, and set in my current city of residence, Oakland. The Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country” is pretty wild indeed and fairly binge worthy.

Book Notes: Motherhood: A Novel

The question of whether to have kids or not is a difficult one for some people, including me. I find the opinions of those who were utterly certain when making their decision (be they parents or settled non-parents) to be relatively uninteresting. I like people who wrestled with the pros and cons. That said, while the new novel Motherhood by Sheila Heti portrays a protagonist who’s relatively set on not having kids, it still intrigued and stimulated me and kept me reading to the end. For those thinking about the kids decision, it’s a solid supplement to non-fiction like Meghan Daum’s collection.

The plot of this book is non-existent other than one character ruminating over and over again: Do I want to have kids? I don’t, right? Here’s why I don’t. Well, maybe I do. No, surely I don’t, and here’s why. Good nuggets throughout on this singular question. But if the question isn’t of interest to you, this book isn’t for you…

Highlights below.


Parents have something greater than I’ll ever have, but I don’t want it, even if it’s so great, even if in a sense they’ve won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief—relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too.

There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story—the supposed life cycle—how out of one life cycle another cycle is supposed to come.

I brought up my worries over paths not taken, and she said everyone had those, but often when you looked back on your life, you saw that the choices you made and the paths you went down were the right ones. She said it wasn’t a matter of choosing one life over another, but being sensitive to the life that wants to be lived through you. You need tension in order to create something—the sand in the pearl.

A lot of time is wasted in thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which are what? Nobody completely expected it to go the way it went—their life. Nobody is completely happy with the way things turned out for them. But most people manage to find some pleasure in it anyway.

What I need is so small: to eradicate any sentimentality from my feelings and to look at what is. Today, I defined sentimental to myself as a feeling about the idea of a feeling. And it seemed to me that my inclinations towards motherhood had a lot to with the idea of a feeling about motherhoodIt’s like the story my religious cousin told me when we were at her home for Shabbat dinner—of the girl who made chicken the way her mother did, which was the way her mother did: always tying the chicken legs together before putting it in the pot. When the girl asked her mother why she tied the legs together, her mother said, That’s the way my mother did it. When the girl asked her grandmother why she did it that way, her grandmother said, That’s how my mother did it. When she asked her great-grandmother why it was important to tie the chicken legs together, the woman replied, That’s the only way it would fit in my pot. I think that is how childbearing feels to me: a once-necessary, now sentimental gesture.

Will you one day feel about the mothering instinct the same way you now feel about the sex instinct, which also suddenly turned on? Like that other passage, you’ll resist it, but in retrospect, it took you.

Are the fantasies that visit us, of living other lives—like living with children if we don’t have them, or living without if we do—taboos? yes Are we supposed to build a conscious relationship with these taboos, so we might feel more at home in the world, on a macrocosmic level? yes How are we to do that? By challenging these taboos with our behavior? no By challenging them conceptually, in thought alone? no Instead of challenging them, should we be trying to bind the taboos with our lives, and so create a synthesis in our living? yes

Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living. Is that the threat of the woman without kids? Yet the woman without kids is not saying that no woman should have kids, or that you—woman with a stroller—have made the wrong choice. Her decision about her life is no statement about yours. One person’s life is not a political or general statement about how all lives should be. Other lives should be able to exist alongside our own without any threat or judgment at all.

Some people try to imagine what it’s like not to have children—and they imagine themselves without children, instead of picturing a person they might never be. They project their own potential sadness over not having this experience on those who don’t want it at all. A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else—to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.

Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest. It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.

All the times I’ve listened to myself, has it ever been a mistake? Often, yes. But wasn’t the freedom to make those mistakes greater than all the advice in the world?

I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.

Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids. No one looks at a couple of guys who have been together forever, love each other, are happy in their work, have chosen not to have kids, are probably still fucking, and pities them; or thinks that down deep inside they must know they’re living a trivial and callow life because they’re not fathers. Nobody thinks that! The idea of it is ridiculous!..  It’s only straight couples people have these feelings about—how empty their lives must be. No, actually, it’s not even the man—people look at him like he got away with something. It’s just the woman—the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for. Like she’s not entitled to pride.

I had always thought my friends and I were moving into the same land together, a childless land where we would just do a million things together forever. I thought our minds and souls were all cast the same way, not that they were waiting for the right moment to jump ship, which is how it feels as they abandon me here. I should not think of it as an abandoning, but it would be wrong to say it’s not a loss, or that I’m not startled at being so alone. How had I taken all of us as the same? Is that why I started wondering about having kids—because, one by one, the ice floe on which we were all standing was broken and made smaller, leaving me alone on just the tiniest piece of ice, which I had thought would remain vast, like a very large continent on which we’d all stay? It never occurred to me that I’d be the only one left here. I know I’m not the only one left, yet how can I trust the few who remain, when I’d been so mistaken about the rest?

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Feel Free by Zadie Smith. Collection of her non-fiction writing over the past many years. Lovely as always, with Smith. Skip around and pick the topics that tickle your interest. It’s quite a diverse compendium. I enjoyed it. To be sure, Tyler Cowen said he “spotted several intellectual and emotional fallacies” in the collection. I read it for the quality of the writing.

2. Heartburn by Nora Ephron. A famous novel from the 80’s, I finally got around to reading Ephron for the first time. I found Heartburn consistently laugh out loud funny, and insightful too. Some highlights.

On being single versus married:

One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married, things keep happening to you. Things happen to you when you’re single. You meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs. Then you get married, and the hair grows in. I love the everydayness of marriage, I love figuring out what’s for dinner and where to hang the pictures and do we owe the Richardsons, but life does tend to slow to a crawl.

On systems of thought that can simplify if you’re not careful:

When I talk about it I sound a little like one of those starlets on The Tonight Show who’s just stumbled onto Eastern philosophy or feminism or encounter therapy or any other system of thought that explains everything in the universe in eight minutes.

On loving versus hating someone you marry:

You fall in love with someone, and part of what you love about him are the differences between you; and then you get married and the differences start to drive you crazy.

On crying:

The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity: women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this: beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

3. Bandwidth by Eliot Peper. Eliot’s new, widely heralded sci-fi novel got published today! Very timely. Eliot has his pulse on the Valley.

4. Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Milan. Great advice on how to think about how to relate to dogs. Recommended for first time dog owners. Cesar’s Netflix show Cesar 911 is also amusing and educational.

5. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. A bit repetitive. Sleep is vital, and the author manages to say this in 50 different ways. I’m convinced! I already was convinced. I did glean some practical tips though:

  • I’ve been turning off my bedroom light as soon as I get in bed and reading only by the light of my Kindle before sleep. He discusses the impact of light in the bedroom and the importance of getting into a dark room as quickly as possible as you try to fall asleep.
  • I now splash water on my face each night before getting into bed. “It is no evolutionary coincidence that we humans have developed the pre-bed ritual of splashing water on one of the most vascular parts of our bodies—our face, using one of the other highly vascular surfaces—our hands. You may think the feeling of being facially clean helps you sleep better, but facial cleanliness makes no difference to your slumber. The act itself does have sleep-inviting powers, however, as that water, warm or cold, helps dissipate heat from the surface of the skin as it evaporates, thereby cooling the inner body core…Consequently, you fall asleep more quickly because your core is colder. Hot baths prior to bed can also induce 10 to 15 percent more deep NREM sleep in healthy adults.”
  • I more aggressively use A/C or a fan. “A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C) is ideal for the sleep of most people.”
  • I will ask doctors who need to perform work on my body how many hours of sleep they got the night prior. “If you are a patient under the knife of an attending physician who has not been allowed at least a six-hour sleep opportunity the night prior, there is a 170 percent increased risk of that surgeon inflicting a serious surgical error on you, such as organ damage or major hemorrhaging, relative to the superior procedure they would conduct when they have slept adequately.”

6. Reset by Ellen Pao. Powerful personal testimony and a call to arms about diversity in the tech industry. Required reading for all VCs, at a minimum, if not everyone who works in tech.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Great historical fiction authored by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who has command of every page. Set in Brooklyn during World War II, I learned a bunch about New York at that time, the mob scene, and scuba diving. The main character becomes the first female diver working on the Brooklyn docks.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. My fifth or sixth book by Murakami. Kafka is totally engrossing. I read 200 pages of it straight through, in the middle of the night on a 12 hour flight. Kafka On the Shore, while set in modern day Japan, is as strange as any of his novels: cats who talk, fish fall from the sky, alter egos take on their own named characters, and characters enter others’ dreams. Murakami is peerless in his ability to create rich worlds that leave you in a trance. Critics often refer to Murakami’s novels as “dream like.” That phrase captures my reading experience 100%.

This is not a book with dozens of highlightable one-liners. But here are a few of my highlights:

“Actually, I don’t have any memories either. I’m dumb, you see, so could you tell me what memories are like?” Miss Saeki stared at her hands on the desk, then looked up at Nakata again. “Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

I’m free, I think. I shut my eyes and think hard and deep about how free I am, but I can’t really understand what it means. All I know is I’m totally alone. All alone in an unfamiliar place, like some solitary explorer who’s lost his compass and his map. Is this what it means to be free? I don’t know, and I give up thinking about it.

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.”

3. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari.

The first 60% is a rehash of Sapiens. The next 40% is good (I highlighted 110 sentences!) but not great. Still worth reading if you’re a fan of Sapiens (as I am) if for no other reason than to get the refresh. A few random highlights:

If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?

The technological solution to such dramas is to ensure we never have uncomfortable desires. How much pain and sorrow would have been avoided if, instead of drinking poison, Romeo and Juliet could just take a pill or wear a helmet that would have redirected their star-crossed love towards other people.

We just don’t know what to pay attention to, and often spend our time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything that is happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?

4. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder. Surprisingly gripping true life account of a hedge fund manager who makes a fortune in Russia by being contrarian, and then ends up making enemies with Putin. Timely, given the state of U.S.-Russia relations.

5. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. An engaging memoir from the legendary feminist and social activist. Stories from her travels, especially her visits to college campuses across the U.S.

Book Notes: Shantaram

I finally read Shantaram. A lot of people list Shantaram as one of their all-time favorite novels. Tyler Cowen put it well when he called it one of the best bad books he’s read. It’s engrossing, often insightful, often beautiful in its description of India, and keeps you hooked for nearly 1,000 pages. There are also cheesy foreshadows, clunky one-liners, and a bunch of other elements that would prompt eye rolls from high brow book reviewers. But no matter. I enjoyed it! Recommended for all those with an affinity (or aspirational affinity) for India. Or those who just get a kick out of a fugitive on the run in an exotic land with exotic mafia friends.

The author, Gregory Roberts, himself escaped from an Australian prison and ended up joining the mafia in India before being re-captured. It was in prison that he wrote this book. Much of the novel is presumably autobiographical, though how much exactly is “true” seems to be up for debate. But knowing at least some of it is first-hand lent a certain immediacy to the experience of reading.

It’s mostly a plot book, but occasionally there were highlight-able sentences on my Kindle, which appear below.


The real India is up near the Himalayas, at Manali, or at the holy city of Varanasi, or down the coast, at Kerala. You gotta get outta the city to find the real India.

Let me put it this way: Karla is reasonably good at being a friend, but she is stupendously good at being an enemy. When you judge the power that is in a person, you must judge their capacities as both friend and as enemy. And there is no-one in this city that makes a worse or more dangerous enemy than Karla.

Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he’d compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less.

One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.

Like outcasts everywhere, I courted danger because danger was one of the few things strong enough to help me forget what I’d lost.

What I didn’t tell Karla was that the girlfriend had described me as interested in everything, and committed to nothing. It still rankled. It still hurt. It was still true.

I also agree with Winston Churchill, who once defined a fanatic as someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.

If you do not speak English as your first language, the word “characteristic” has an amazing sound—like rapping on a drum, or breaking kindling wood for a fire.

The only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world. And only men like Qasim Ali Hussein and Johnny Cigar were such kings and had such power.

My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Knausgaard

I completed the next 800 pages of the Karl Knausgaard My Struggle odyssey. Book 2 — “A Man in Love” — is said to be the best of the six volumes. I ate it up. So intimate. So raw. So many insights. This book focused on falling in love, having kids, and the balancing of work and family. Also, death: frequently death.

Not everyone should commit to reading a 3,600 page six-volume novel about a Norwegian writer who’s writing a 3,600 page novel. (To borrow a phrase from Leland de la Durantaye.) There’s a ridiculous amount of detail stuffed into the stories, but it’s all centered on one man, so it’s easier to keep track of than your typical 1000+ page beastly novel. And fortunately, the man has a pretty interesting inner life.

My Kindle highlights below. All bolding mine. Here were my highlights from book one.


People who don’t have children seldom understand what it involves, no matter how mature and intelligent they might otherwise be, at least that was how it was with me before I had children myself.

She was blond, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, a long, slim body, and she knew how to dress, but she was much too pleased with herself, too self-centered for me to find her attractive. I have no problem with uninteresting or unoriginal people – they may have other, more important attributes, such as warmth, consideration, friendliness, a sense of humor, or talents such as being able to make a conversation flow to generate an atmosphere of ease around them, or the ability to make a family function – but I feel almost physically ill in the presence of boring people who consider themselves especially interesting and who blow their own trumpets.

I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them.

This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.

What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result? Who knows?

Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake is irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and character of the times are responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts.

This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.

Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more.

What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else.

The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.

I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies.

Now I had an hour to myself. It was the sole condition I had made before taking over responsibility for Vanja during the daytime, that I would have an hour on my own in the afternoon, and even though Linda considered it unfair since she’d never had an hour to herself like that, she agreed. The reason she’d never had an hour, I assumed, was that she hadn’t thought of it. And the reason she hadn’t thought of it was, I also assumed, that she would rather be with us than alone.

But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in it while still surrounded by people on all sides. All with faces I had never seen before! The unceasing stream of new faces.

One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives.

As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me. The way I was seen changed, as if at the stroke of a magic wand, the instant I laid my hands on the stroller. I had always eyed the women I walked past the way men always have, actually a mysterious act because it couldn’t lead to anything except a returned gaze, and if I did see a really beautiful woman I might even turn around to watch her, discreetly of course, but…

Before Dostoyevsky, the ideal, even the Christian ideal, was always pure and strong, it was part of heaven, unattainable for almost everyone. The flesh was weak, the mind frail, but the ideal was unbending. The ideal was about aspiring, enduring, fighting the fight. In Dostoyevsky’s books everything is human, or rather, the human world is everything, including the ideals, which are turned on their heads: now they can be achieved if you give up, lose your grip, fill yourself with non-will rather than will. Humility and self-effacement, those are the ideals in Dostoyevsky’s foremost novels, and inasmuch as they are never realized within the framework of the story line, therein lies his greatness, because this is precisely a result of his own humility and self-effacement as a writer.

Why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live, and then die?

Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.

Or as Jünger writes: “Little by little all areas are brought under this single common denominator, even one with its residence as far from causality as the dream.” In our century even our dreams are alike, even dreams are things we sell. Undifferentiated, which is just another way of saying indifferent. That is where our night is.

However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.

…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.

Feeling cold to the depths of my soul, I walked down the corridor.

What did I want? I didn’t know. I was lying on a sofa just outside Stockholm, knowing not a soul, and everything in me was chaos and unrest. The uncertainty penetrated to my core, through to that which defined who I was.

“Attending a poetry reading is like being in a hospital,” he said as we left the next station. “Full of neuroses.”

Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.

But Arve, it seemed to me on that day, was a truly open person, as well as being curious and constantly striving to understand what he saw. But there was no ulterior motive about his openness, it was not a damned psychologist’s openness, nor was there any ulterior motive about the curiosity.

I was married, we were fine, soon we would be buying a flat together. Then I came here and wanted to wreck everything? I did. I wandered beneath the sun-dappled shade from the trees, surrounded by the warm fragrances of the forest, thinking that I was in the middle of my life. Not life as an age, not halfway along life’s path, but in the middle of my existence. My heart trembled.

She eyed me with obvious scorn. Pancakes are for children, she said. We’re not having a children’s party. Okay, I said, let’s call them crêpes then. Is that good enough for you? She turned her back on me.

If she was angry her presence was all that existed in me. It was like having an enormous dog in the room growling and I had to take care of it.

“I’m very sorry. Terribly sorry. But it was what you said that hit me so hard. Before I met you I hadn’t even dared imagine that I might have children one day. I didn’t dare. Even when I fell in love with you I didn’t. And then you said what you said. It was you who brought up the subject, do you remember? The very first morning. I want to have children with you. And I was so happy. I was so utterly, insanely happy. Just the fact that there was a possibility. It was you who gave me that possibility. And then … yesterday … Well, it was like you were withdrawing the possibility. You said perhaps we should put off having children.

The next day we moved my things, that is to say all my books, which had now grown to number twenty-five hundred titles, a fact which Anders and Geir, who were helping me with the move, cursed from the bottom of their hearts as we shifted…

And it is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it.

One evening I got so angry at her that I threw a glass at the stove with all my might. Strangely enough, it didn’t break. Typical, I thought afterward, I couldn’t even perform the classic act of smashing a glass during a fight.

When she became pregnant everything changed, now there was a horizon beyond the one the two of us formed, something greater than us, and it was there the whole time, in my thoughts and hers. Her unease may have been great, but even in its midst there was always a wholeness and security in her. Everything would fall into place, it would be fine, I knew it would.

The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it was impossible to dislike him. He could talk to anyone, which is a rare gift, and he was generous, which you noticed as soon as you met him. And he was always happy. He was the person who stood up at parties and thanked the hosts for the spread or congratulated them on whatever occasion it was or did whatever was required, and he had a kind word for everyone, however much or little they had in common with him.

She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a

Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.

It was easy to protect yourself against music when you were prepared or just had it on as background, because it was simple, undemanding, and sentimental, but when I was not prepared, like now, or was really listening, it hit home with me. My feelings soared and before I knew what was happening my eyes were moist. It was only then that I realized how little I normally felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something that music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed upon us. How could I forget that?

And if there had been any limits before they had certainly been removed now that a grandchild had come into the world. She worshipped Vanja and would do anything, absolutely anything for her.

One of the consequences of living here, I mused, as I banged the container lids shut and unlocked the door to have a cigarette outside, was that I simply said less. I had just stopped almost all the small talk, chatting with assistants in shops, waiters in cafés, conductors on trains, and strangers in chance encounters. This was one of the best parts about returning to Norway: the ease of dealing with people I didn’t know returned and my shoulders dropped.

Since I also wrote I ought to have been able to relate to her work, but the craft side was so prominent in writing a screenplay, where it was about all manner of ebbs and flows of tension, character development, plots and subplots, intros and turning points, I assumed I would have little to contribute in that respect and never mobilized more than polite interest.

She radiated a business-like manner that went well with Fredrik’s more flippant and child-like character. They had one child and were expecting another. Unlike us, they had everything under control, there was order in the home, they went out with their child and organized interesting activities. After we had been to theirs, or they had been to ours, that was often what Linda and I discussed: how on earth what appeared to be so simple for them could be so utterly beyond our capability.

But there was always a piece missing, it was always as though we were standing on opposite sides of a small chasm, the conversation was always tentative, we never really found the right tone. But the few times we did it was to everyone’s relief and pleasure. Much of the reason it did not really work was me: my great expanses of silence and the slight discomfort that came over me when I did say something.

From there it was a swift jump to pregnancies in general and then to births. I chimed in with something or other, added a snippet here and there, and otherwise listened in silence for the main part. Births are an intimate and sensitive topic of conversation for women, there is a lot of covert prestige and as a man the only possible option is to keep well away. To refrain from expressing an opinion.

The clouds in the sky to the east had a gentle golden hue, as though lit from the inside by the sun that was behind them.

Vidar drove as many older men did, hunched over the wheel, as though the few extra centimeters closer to the windshield were decisive for good vision.

The light beneath the sky was losing its luster. The approaching darkness was unevenly distributed across the landscape, the already dark areas were sucking it in more and more greedily, such as the trees at the edge of the forest, the trunks and branches were completely black now. The weak February light faded without a fight, without resistance, not even a last flicker could it rouse, just a slow, imperceptible decline until everything was darkness and night.

What was going through her head? Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered around her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.

We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None. But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows, and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.

He radiated naïveté, but not as though from inexperience, quite the contrary, he gave every impression of having experienced a great deal, it was more as if all the experiences were there but he hadn’t drawn the consequences, as though they had left him unaffected, so to speak.

I had only met her a couple of times, but to me she seemed to have many sides, there was a wealth of nuance in her personality, and you intuited a psychological depth, with no apparent signs of neuroticism, the constant companion of sensitivity of course, at least not obtrusively.

Not that I think she is innocent, necessarily, but she gives that impression. Innocence of this kind is typical of you. Purity and innocence don’t interest me. However, it’s very clear in you. You’re a deeply moral and a deeply innocent person. What is innocence? It is that which has not been touched by the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown. It’s not that you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do, it’s just that you conserve innocence. Your insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well. It wasn’t by chance that you chose to write about angels. That’s the purest of the pure. You can’t get purer than that.” … Others search and search, and when they find a nugget, they sell it to acquire life, splendor, music, dance, enjoyment, luxury, or at least a bit of pussy, right, throw themselves at a woman just to forget they exist for an hour or two. What you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation.

What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have any outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is as an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.

I shook my head. “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you,” he said. “You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.

Then Cecilia came into the office wanting to chat. We went for lunch together. She had been out last night with her partner and his friend. She had flirted with the friend all evening, she said, and her partner had been livid when they got home, of course.” “How long have they been together?” “Six years.” “Was she thinking of leaving him?” “No, not at all. On the contrary, she wants children with him.” “So why the flirting?” I asked. Geir looked at me. “She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, obviously.” “What did you say to her? I assume she went to you for advice?” “I said she should deny it. Deny everything. She hadn’t been flirting, she’d just been friendly. Say no, no, no. And then don’t be so stupid next time, wait for an opportunity to offer itself and go about it calmly and collectedly. I don’t blame her for doing what she did. I blame her for being inconsiderate. She hurt him. That was uncalled for.”

However, there are many ways to be trapped; there are many ways of not being free. You have to remember that you’ve had everything you wanted. You’ve had your revenge on those you targeted. You have status. People sit waiting for what you do and wave palm leaves as soon as you show your face. You can write an article about something that interests you and it will be in print in the newspaper of your choice a few days later. People phone and want you to go here, there, and everywhere. Newspapers ask you for a comment on all sorts of matters. Your books will be published in Germany and England. Do you understand the freedom there is in that? Do you understand what has opened in your life? You talk about a longing to let go and fall. If I let go I would be standing in the same place. I’m standing right at the bottom. No one’s interested in what I write. No one’s interested in what I think. … Whenever I enter a room full of people I have to make myself interesting. I don’t preexist, like you, I don’t have a name, I have to create everything from scratch every time. I’m sitting at the bottom of a hole in the ground and shouting through a megaphone. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one is listening.

The last thing you want to hear when you’re in the darkness of depression is the babbling of some happy jerk.

As always after long interviews I felt empty, drained like a ditch. As always, it felt as though I had betrayed myself. Merely by sitting there I had gone along with the premise, which was that the two books I had written were good and important, and that I, the writer, was an unusual and interesting person. That was the starting point for the conversation: everything I said was important. If I didn’t say anything important, well, then I was just hiding it. Because it obviously had to be somewhere! So when I told stories about my childhood, for example, some perfectly normal, ordinary story everyone had experienced, it was important because it was me who said it. It said something about me, the writer of two good and important books. And I not only went along with this view, which formed the basis for the conversation, but did it with great enthusiasm. I sat there jabbering away like a parrot in the zoo. All while knowing the reality of the situation.

If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience.

Relationships were there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom and suppress that which was pushing through.

How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough? I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work. She didn’t want to. Or perhaps she did, but she couldn’t cope. All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or other about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that. And somewhere she knew.

The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked, and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge. … Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands! After the eruption, which was inevitable, after we had gone to bed, she would often cry and want to be comforted. That gave me an opportunity to extract further revenge, because I wouldn’t comply.

I knew John was asleep. But the ones in the back, had they also nodded off? I turned to look over my shoulder. Yes, indeed. Three girls lay there with mouths agape and eyes closed. Happiness exploded inside me. It lasted for one second, two seconds, maybe three. Then came the shadow that always followed, this happiness’s dark train.

… reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty-five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. Then life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only were the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway. When John was as old as I was now I would be eighty. And with one foot in the grave, if not both feet. In ten years I would be fifty. In twenty, sixty.

Why, when I’m on board a plane or in a car imagining it’s going to crash, why do I think that’s not so bad? That it doesn’t matter? That I might just as well die as live? For this is what I think more often than not. Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.

Bob Wright’s Why Buddhism is True

One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot.

Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism .

Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life.

Here’s a photo of a discussion I co-hosted over the weekend for Bob about his book. More to come on all these topics…

Book Notes: The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology.

So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two!

The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs.

My highlights below — bold font is my own.


Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they…

He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.

“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.”

Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see.

In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?

“His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.”

And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged.

Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?

The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.

Shore asked him how he had become a psychologist. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” Amos said. “The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance.

People thought Tel Aviv was like New York but that New York was not like Tel Aviv.

People thought that the number 103 was sort of like the number 100, but that 100 wasn’t like 103. People thought a toy train was a lot like a real train but that a real train was not like a toy train.

“The directionality and asymmetry of similarity relations are particularly noticeable in similes and metaphors,” Amos wrote. “We say ‘Turks fight like tigers’ and not ‘tigers fight like Turks.’

“It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.

A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.

What Europeans often said about Americans—how wildly informal and improvisational they were—was, to her, even more true of Israelis.

Danny was then helping the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots. He’d noticed that the instructors believed that, in teaching men to fly jets, criticism was more useful than praise. They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised a pilot for having performed especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better. Danny watched for a bit and then explained to them what was actually going on: The pilot who was praised because he had flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain. Statistics wasn’t just boring numbers; it contained ideas that allowed you to glimpse deep truths about human life. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” Danny later wrote,

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, he thought, was by studying the mistakes that it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Anne Treisman was on a flying visit to Harvard, where the demand to hear what she had to say was so great that her talk had to be moved to a big public lecture hall off campus. Danny left the talk filled with new enthusiasm. He asked to be deputized to look after Treisman and her traveling party—which included her mother, her husband, and their two small children. He gave them a tour of Harvard. “He was very eager to impress,” said Treisman, “and so I let myself be impressed.” It would be years before Danny and Anne left their marriages and married each other, but it took no time at all for Danny to engage Treisman’s ideas.

In very large populations, the law of large numbers did indeed guarantee this result. If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times. For some reason human beings did not see it that way. “People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well,” Danny and Amos wrote.

An old friend of Amos’s would later recall, “Amos would say, ‘People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated.’ And then he would pause, and say: ‘Except for Danny.’”

For instance, in families with six children, the birth order B G B B B B was about as likely as G B G B B G. But Israeli kids—like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would emerge—naturally seemed to believe that G B G B B G was a more likely birth sequence. Why? “The sequence with five boys and one girl fails to reflect the proportion of boys and girls in the population,” they explained. It was less representative. What is more, if you asked the same Israeli kids to choose the more likely birth order in families with six children—B B B G G G or G B B G B G—they overwhelmingly opted for the latter. But the two birth orders are equally likely.

Amos liked to say that if you are asked to do anything—go to a party, give a speech, lift a finger—you should never answer right away, even if you are sure that you want to do it. Wait a day, Amos said, and you’ll be amazed how many of those invitations you would have accepted yesterday you’ll refuse after you have had a day to think it over. A corollary to his rule for dealing with demands upon his time was his approach to situations from which he wished to extract himself…who finds himself stuck at some boring meeting or cocktail party often finds it difficult to invent an excuse to flee. Amos’s rule, whenever he wanted to leave any gathering, was to just get up and leave. Just start walking and you’ll be surprised how creative you will become and how fast you’ll find the words for your excuse, he said.

It confirmed Biederman’s sense that “most advances in science come not from eureka moments but from ‘hmmm, that’s funny.’”

Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes—which was saying something.

Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.

Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without any solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. “So many diseases are self-limiting,” he said. “They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek care, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of overprescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go to see a psychiatrist and your depression improves—you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry.”

By the end of Redelmeier’s medical training, seven years later, researchers had shown that heart attack patients whose arrhythmia was suppressed died more often than the ones whose condition went untreated. No one explained why doctors, for years, had opted for a treatment that systematically killed patients—though proponents of evidence-based medicine were beginning to look to the work of Kahneman and Tversky for possible explanations.

Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.

A man whom no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness.

An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had been given the less unhappy ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. More interestingly, they proved more likely to return for another colonoscopy when the time came. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”

People did not seek to avoid other emotions with the same energy they sought to avoid regret. When they made decisions, people did not seek to maximize utility. They sought to minimize regret.

Why didn’t people regret Israel’s inaction? Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have.

They spent more than a year working and reworking the same basic idea: In order to explain the paradoxes that expected utility could not explain, and create a better theory to predict behavior, you had to inject psychology into the theory.

“Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle,” they wrote.

The two problems were identical, but, in the first case, when the choice was framed as a gain, the subjects elected to save 200 people for sure (which meant that 400 people would die for sure, though the subjects weren’t thinking of it that way). In the second case, with the choice framed as a loss, they did the reverse, and ran the risk that they’d kill everyone. People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things.

By 1976, purely for marketing purposes, they changed their title to “Prospect Theory.” “The idea was to give the theory a completely distinct name that would have no associations whatsoever,” said Danny. “When you say ‘prospect theory,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. We thought: Who knows? It may turn out to be influential. And if it is we don’t want it to be confused with anything else.”

Then he came straight out with his own feelings about Amos getting the lion’s share of the glory for work they had done together. “I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” he said. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy. . . . I am maybe saying too much now.”

It was those constraints that Danny set out to investigate. He wanted to understand better what he was now calling “counterfactual emotions,” or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait. “The emotions of unrealized possibility,” Danny called them, in a letter to Amos.

Toward the end of his thinking on the subject, he summed up a lot in a single sentence: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”

What Danny needed was for Amos to continue to see him and his ideas uncritically, as he had when they were alone together in a room. If that involved some misperception on Amos’s part—some exaggeration of the earthly status of Danny’s ideas—well, then, Amos should continue to misperceive. After all, what is a marriage if not an agreement to distort one’s perception of another, in relation to everyone else? “I wanted something from him, not from the world,” said Danny.

But because he was Danny, he made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen. His fantasies were so vivid that “it was as if you actually had it,” and if you actually had it, why would you bother to work hard to get…