Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books that are representative of me

When I would visit other people’s houses, I would often take a look at their bookshelves.  This was partly because I like books, and also partly because I thought I could get a better idea of who the household residents were by looking at the books they owned.  The rationale behind this was simple.  Reading requires effort.  Taking the time to read a book meant that a person thought that the book’s message was worth the effort.  It is also likely that by reading a book, the book would have some sort of influential effect on the reader.  So, by examining an individual’s bookshelf, one could somehow derive a person’s worldview from the sorts of ideas and narratives contained in said bookshelf.

This method is obviously flawed.  Just because they own books does not necessarily mean that they read them. Moreover, it is certainly possible that individuals have read books that are not displayed on their bookshelf.  This is more so the case since many people, myself included, read many books in electronic format.

Nevertheless, I do think that the books we read can tell us a lot about who we are.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to list the sort of books that would be representative of who I thought I was and what my worldview amounted to.

Like just about everyone else, I identify myself by including myself in various categories.  One such category is of course my occupation.  I am currently a graduate student in philosophy. Working in academia amounts to two kinds of activities.

The first activity is research. As far as my research is concerned, my dissertation is on metaphysics and epistemology (more specifically, the epistemology of metaphysics).  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time, although probably not enough time, thinking about these subjects.  People sometimes ask me what my research and my dissertation is about.  If I could give them a book that would describe my research in an accessible way, then I’d give them one of these:

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Riddles of Existence, by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider.

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Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt

The first is basically an introductory textbook to metaphysics.  It’s written for readers with no prior background in philosophy.  The second book is also written for a lay audience.  The book attempts to answer a simple question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This question is probably one of the deepest and fundamental questions out there, and is certainly a metaphysical question.

The second activity in academia is teaching. I enjoy teaching more than I enjoy research, probably because I think that I am a better teacher than I am a researcher. I've been teaching at the college level for about nine years now, which is longer than any other job that I've held.

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What The Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

This book largely identifies the methods and practices of college instructors that are recognized as exceptional teachers.  It helped me immensely in recognizing that what is important as a teacher is to get students to really master the content and intellectual tools that the course purports to offer, rather than just trying to get them to jump through procedural hoops.  As such, I've done much to change the way I design courses, like getting rid of traditional exams and quizzes and offering a variety of ways that students can use to show me that they have mastered the content.

I identify very strongly with my interests and pursuits, my occupation of course being included as one of my pursuits.  

One pursuit that I strongly identify with is eating. I don't really identify as a "foodie." I don't have a well developed palette, and I'm not super knowledgeable about all things gastronomic, but I really do enjoy eating, just as many others do, and I often mark periods of my life with memorable meals. Also food, in addition to sports, is the one thing that I can use for small talk without feeling incredibly awkward.

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Eat More Better by Dan Pashman

This book is great in that it takes an approach to food that I can relate to. Pashman is very methodical about trying to maximize the pleasure extracted from each bite of food. It's a very enjoyable read and very instructive. It is definitely a marked departure from other food books which are more or less just travel or lifestyle books, detailing dishes that I'll never get to eat in places that I'll probably never go.

Another major pursuit of mine is video games. I've played video games all my life, starting with the Atari 2600 when I was five years old in 1983. These days I play mostly MMO (massive multiplayer online) games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Final Fantasy XIV. I also play a lot of Hearthstone, which is an online CCG (collectible card game) that happens to be massively popular. Finally, I play a lot of platform games like the Super Mario franchise in the Wii U with the girlfriend.

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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives is cited by various video game luminaries as highly influential. It's written by a journalist who is also an avid console gamer. The book is a collection of essays, each of which is centered around a particular game, like Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, or Gears of War. One of the themes that ties the essays together is the question involving the relationship between video games and narrative. Can video games make good stories? Why or why not? Can video games be art? Should they be taken seriously?

For a long time, I was very much interested in music, particularly playing guitar. Most of the books that I read with respect to music were instructional books, which covered technique, music theory, and repertoire.  However, there was one book that had an impact on me that wasn’t necessarily just on the nuts and bolts of guitar playing.

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Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo

This book related spiritual themes from Zen Buddhism to various aspects of making music. It helped to give me a sense of perspective on what exactly making music was about, and made the whole process fulfilling at a deeper level.

Speaking of spiritual themes, religion, particularly Protestant Christianity, has played a huge role in my life.  For about sixteen years or so (from around 1998 to around 2014), I would say that I was devoutly religious, and that I identified very strongly as a Christian.  I was very much into what is known as "spiritual formation." This is a label designating various thoughts on the idea of moral and spiritual growth as a Christian. Books like the following were very influential.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster

In both books, the term "discipline" refers to activities believed to nurture spiritual growth. Such activities include prayer, Bible reading, fasting, church service, etc. The first book, by Dallas Willard, deals primarily with the "why" of spiritual disciplines, whereas the second book, by Richard Foster, deals mainly with the "how."

These days, my relationship with Christianity has gotten more complex.  This is partly due to disillusionment sparked by my own observed failures at spiritual growth and fueled by a Christian community that largely seems uninterested in spiritual growth and the pursuit of answers to difficult theological questions.  

My views have gotten more liberal, given that the sorts of views taken to be representative of conservative Christianity are in my mind rationally untenable.  Even though I have moved further and further away from what some might consider to be orthodox Christian belief, I am not yet ready to identify as either an atheist or agnostic.  Part of the reason is due to a principle that I am convinced is true.  The truth of some religion is required in order for there to be objective meaningfulness of life.  If all religious claims were false, then life would at best be subjectively meaningful only.  However, I believe that subjective meaningfulness is no meaningfulness at all.  So, since I think meaningfulness is important, I would like for some religious claims to turn out to be true.

However, I am often afraid that no religious claim is true, and that life is inherently meaningless.  I am afraid that this is case because it often seems to me that the world is an absurd place.  No system of religious belief seems adequate in explaining the sorts of crazy things that we experience.  This puts me in a rather uncomfortable limbo, vacillating between hope and despair.

I find that existentialist fiction captures this frame of mind almost perfectly.  Here is a sample of books and short stories that I found to be extremely influential:

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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

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The Plague by Albert Camus

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The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

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The Wall by Jean Paul Sartre

These narratives do much to capture the sort of inner tension that I experience.  The following is an anthology of essays in existentialism that I found particularly instructive.

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Existentialism, from Dostoevsky to Sartre edited by Walter Kaufman

At its core, existentialism is about the search for life’s meaning in a world that seems completely meaningless or incomprehensible. This is something that I profoundly identify with, and influences much of my own outlook and behavior.

Interestingly, although I can’t get away from the fact that my ethnicity is an inescapable part of my identity, I often found myself trying to downplay it.  Part of this is probably explained by my relationship with my family.  This is relationship was often a source of frustration because it was hampered barriers in language and cultural perspective (I was born in metro Washington D.C., and my knowledge of Korean is minimal at best).  The ensuing resentment was partly directed towards my cultural heritage, and so I didn’t really make much of an effort to pursue a deeper understanding of my roots.

This attitude softened over time, and fairly recently I found myself interested in gaining a better understanding of my cultural identity.  The following books were particularly helpful.

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The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett

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The Analacts of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation translated by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr.

These books helped me to see how deep the cognitive differences were between East and West.  It raised interesting questions about the significance of these differences, and how I, someone of Asian descent growing up in the United States, fit in which respect to these cognitive archetypes.

When I lived in Atlanta, I started a book club at a church that I had attended.  The first book that I chose was the following.

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Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The book was basically about how changes in mass media technology, from oral to print to television, also changed the way in which people exercised rationality.  I thought this book represented my interests well because I am fascinated by various aspects of culture, including technology, media, institutions, arts, etc.

My fascination with culture, society, technology, etc. started with the following books.

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1984 by George Orwell

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I remember reading these books in high school and being profoundly struck by them.  I took this sort of dystopian literature to be prophetic in some way, and have been drawn to various forms of social critique ever since.

Interestingly enough, although I had initially thought the world envisioned by Huxley in Brave New World to be repulsive, now I am not entirely sure.  The reason why I struggle now is because I often struggle with the question of free will.  Do human beings really have free will?  I see more and more evidence of individuals acting in irrational ways, and this leads me to believe that humans are in less control over their actions than I had initially been lead to believe.  Even praiseworthy actions, like acts of heroism, are seemingly done not by deliberate free choice, but out of some kind of compulsion.  (Here's a link to the Radiolab episode discussing this.)  If humans don't have free will, then they are biological machines.  If they are biological machines, then it seems that an assembly line style society with various divisions of labor seems to make sense.  I want to believe, however, that humans are free, but I struggle with this a lot.

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