Just a few decades ago the internet was expected to save humanity from its limits and open the world to free exchange of knowledge and ideas. Nowadays we do not share this optimism anymore. The internet shows us what we want to see: the confirmation of our own ideas. For believers in freethinking this is a disaster as autonomous and free individuals can only make rational decisions when they are able to reflect upon the information and insights truly available to us. This make us feel uncomfortable, since we are less free when we only know only one side of the story.
The question remains “how do we burst this bubble?” In this exposition five young thinkers write about the one book that has expanded their horizons.
1. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We are Wrong About the World-and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
Author of this recommendation: Judith Rybol who gave up some of her cynicism about the state of the world after reading this book
(You can purchase this book in North America and Europe here)
When you look at the world from a reason-based, academic point of view, you will most probably come to the conclusion that it is in a wretched state. Poverty, destruction of the environment, populism, economic recesses, war – you have heard and read about it everywhere and perhaps tried to block it out in order not to get too frustrated.
This was also more or less my attitude before Hans Rosling came in and stirred it up thoroughly.
How many people live on which continent? What is the world’s average life expectancy? How have death rates from natural disasters developed over the last hundred years? Rosling, a popular global health professor and public speaker from Sweden, posed these questions and advocates a simple message: when it comes to general, utterly important factual knowledge about the world, people tend to systematically give worse-than-random answers, regardless of their level of education or origin.
Hans Rosling, with the help of his son and daughter-in-law, dedicated a good part of his life to meticulously collect data and find out why we are so shockingly wrong about the world. “Factfulness” is the result of this process. Illustrated with snappy data sets, countless personal anecdotes and sharp observations from years of research, traveling and interacting; the book sets out to define 10 instincts which guide us away from facts.
To me, Factfulness felt like a bit of a revelation. I had not known that it makes absolutely no sense to speak of “the West and the Rest” because when it comes to income levels, health, education or human progress in general, the whole picture is more differentiated and actually better than we think. I was not actively aware of the obvious fact that the media only pick up bad stories and that positive change is often slow and in small steps and therefore seldom reported. That things can be “both bad and better”, as he says, or that big numbers need to be put in relation to others.
Rosling takes you on a journey to question your own mental framework and provides you with easy tips and tools to get past your distorting instincts. He strives to allow you to see the world through a fact-based perspective and genuinely believes that this will help us to concentrate on how to improve things in a more effective and useful way.
In a nutshell, this book gives me hope and faith in the world. I perceived it as an eye-opening experience which challenged many of my previous beliefs and assumptions and its fact-based positivity is soothing for my soul. Therefore, I highly recommend this read – which is as educating as it is entertaining – to anyone who is ready to embrace some confidence in their personal day-to-day struggle to change the world for the better.
2. The Republic by Plato
Author of this recommendation: Fatih Kılıç who took the unchanging part of reality, the nature of things, more seriously after reading this book
(You can purchase the English translation of this book
in North America and Europe here)
The Republic has had a profound impact on my intellectual outlook and I am just coming to terms with why this book was so transformative. Prior to reading this book my analyses of life and the world were based on an overemphasis on convention rather than on nature. With the term convention I am alluding to our modern predisposition to blame the social structures and human ignorance for all of the inconveniences of our time. “If we just had more awareness!” Sound familiar?
One example could be the discussion on class and social mobility: is the movement upwards blocked for those with a lower socioeconomic status because tyrannical superstructures do not allow for more equality? Perhaps partially. But at least some of our hierarchical position in society is influenced by competence and especially intelligence. If this is the case then social hierarchies are not only conventionally established but are also biologically preconfigured since much of our talents and intelligence is biologic and inheritable.
This is relevant to the discussion since allowing for the assumption of a normal distribution of competence means that “the problem of inequality” is not only and incident of capitalism or any other system, it is inherent to our human nature. Importantly this does not mean that social hierarchies are good – that would be the appeal to nature fallacy.
In other words, some things just are and changing ourselves and the system can only alleviate or mitigate matters towards a preferred direction. Our lives are not fully malleable and cannot extend beyond the contours of what nature has provided us, despite how claustrophobic that might initially sound (it still gives an optimist like me the shivers).
In The Republic Plato aims to harmonize the predestined nature of human kind and society by allowing existing parts of our nature to create an ideal symbiosis. He does this by first by identifying three parts of the soul — the rational, the spirited, and the desirous— which are organized in a hierarchical way. He then decides that the wise part should be cultivated and made to rule over the rest of the soul.
As a corollary, he proposes the same for his ideal hypothetical state and society. From this idea comes the well-known quote that “philosophers should be kings or kings should be philosophers.” One fun-fact about Plato is that he is sometimes described as a protofeminist since women are deemed as suitable for political office as men in his ideal state. The relevant point is that he does not aim to change nature, he wants to make best of what is inherent to us.
If you decide to give Plato’s world a chance you will be able explore the nature of social and political life while simultaneously delving into the underlying questions on truth and our human ability to attain knowledge. This book can be considered as one of the foundational books of Western philosophy and perhaps of Western civilization. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the social sciences, art, music, history, theology, and (last but not least) philosophy. During a university course where this book was assigned, the professor recommended the Routledge Guidebook to Plato’s Republic by Nickolas Pappas.
3. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Acemoglu and Robinson
Author of this recommendation: Nikolay Schamberg who started to appreciate free market mechanisms after being brought up in a socialist milieu
(You can purchase this book in North America and Europe here)
Before talking about my favourite book, I believe it would be best to talk about who I was before reading it. Back in my high school days, I was critical of my government, dreamed of revolution and was very leftist in my political reasoning. Perhaps it was no wonder, since I was born into a family which included high-ranking Russian Communist Party officials. Currently I identify as someone who is very conservative in economic terms.
Initially I was in favour of very leftist solutions to people’s suffering: nationalizations and expropriations, taxing the rich, return the Soviet Union: the usual stuff of a Russian wannabe socialist. Problem is, it wasn’t really me. I wasn’t really conscious of my political opinions.
Things changed a lot after I got admitted to a university in the Netherlands. At the advice of a professor, I read a book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. This book analyzes different societies in space and time to explain why shit happens, basically. The most important lesson I got from the book is that societies across the globe need inclusive economic and political institutions that accept societal input and are ready for change.
Societies need to accept and embrace innovation and Schumpeter’s creative destruction, which means that societies should be welcoming to endless industrial mutations that revolutionize the economic structure from within, destroying the old one. In other words, competition, creativity and business initiatives should be incentivized.
However, pure socialist policies are not exactly conductive to innovation and they stifle progress. It is this book that triggered me to question my views and research more. And, I guess out of my sentiments for the well-being of my country, I had to reinvent myself, being now far from the center, on the right side of the question.
4. Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin
Author of this recommendation: Ailish Lalor who shifted from a monocultural feminism to a social justice based intersectional view on feminism
(You can purchase this book in North America and Europehere)
I read this book in the summer of my first year at university, and it altered how I thought about feminism, and other movements with social justice as their aim, profoundly. I can’t say I was ever a conservative, but I thought about politics on the scale of the individual. This is the book that taught me to think on a collective level. It is essentially a criticism of the idea that any person who believes women deserve the same rights as men is a feminist.
Crispin argues that for feminism to be effective in the twenty-first century, it cannot simply find ways for white women to better their standing within the current system, as it has in the past. It has to find ways to create a new organisational structure for society that refuses to exclude or oppress anyone. For example, a system that encourages white, middle class women to work and raise a family, does not benefit the working class, usually immigrant woman who looks after the children of the former (especially because the latter usually has children of her own, as well).
The most visible women in feminism are white, middle class and straight: these are the women who also have the least to worry about. If I, who fit this description almost entirely, focus only on empowering myself through the system, I will not only be upholding it, but I will also force other women and some men to take the oppressive place I left. No social justice work will be effective and justifiable unless it destroys the old system and brings in something new: trying to remove some people from positions of exploitation is a stop gap measure at best, and a tool of oppression at worst.
For me, this book was an introduction to intersectionality, but it more importantly underlined for me that I have a personal responsibility to look after more than myself, if I want to call myself a feminist.
5. Crabwalk by Günther Grass
Author of this recommendation: Anne Geschke who realized the importance of dealing with the artefacts of our history on a personal level
(You can purchase this in North America and Europe book here)
This book brings German history into a broader perspective and connects it with our personal present. My original position was that of a person who was aware of the extreme importance of learning from the past, of studying it so that parts of it may never be repeated again from a societal point of view. At the same time, I did not feel the necessity to personally act upon this history that some of my ancestors had not even participated in. However, I can say that “Crabwalk” fully changed my perspective on my relation to the past. By “the past” I mean the history of Germany overall and of my family. History became more of a personal matter to me after reading this book.
Crabwalk gives an insight into how several generations in one family try to cope with their “shared” experience of the Third Reich. It narrates the story of a woman who after fleeing Prussia keeps believing in old ideals while struggling with unprocessed experiences from the Reich. This struggle dominates her relationship to both her son and grandson. Skipping one generation, her experience strongly influences her grandson, who turns into a violent and an eventually imprisoned extreme-right activist.
This book conceptualizes a circular experience of time where lives of previous generations influence the lives of current and future generations. I sometimes feel that my generation does not believe that they have a need to deal with the past, as “they were not involved.” However, having read this book, I now think that that belief is selfish – to study and speak about the past is to move forward.
The conversation about the effects of ideas cannot become “old” and we should continue this conversation not necessarily out of guilt but out of a need to make sure we will be able to make way for a better future. This is why I recommend this book.
- Factfulness: Ten Reasons We are Wrong About the World-and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
- The Republic by Plato (translated by Allan Bloom)
- Routledge Guidebook to Plato’s Republic by Nickolas Pappas
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Acemoglu and Robinson
- Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin
- Crabwalk by Günther Grass
About the authors of the recommendations
- Judith Rybol is a German Liberal Arts and Sciences student in The Hague, The Netherlands.
- Fatih Kılıç is a Dutch-born Turkish student of philosophy and ethics and has written for several Dutch media.
- Nikolay Schamberg is a Russian entrepreneur interested in international law.
- Ailish Lalor is an Irish Human Diversity major in The Hague, The Netherlands. She loves writing and reading books.
- Anne Geschke is a German student of Governance, Economics and Development in the Hague, The Netherlands.
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