Reading List / Notes

Titles are colored by category:
Fiction
Nonfiction

2019

Man's Search for Meaning | Victor Frankl
This is an autobiographical account of Fankl's experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. It is a brief, powerful account of the unimaginable suffering of life in WWII concentration camps and what it revealed to the author about human nature. Frankl seeks to understand human experience through the lens of his concept of "Logotherapy," which is based on the premise that the ultimate motivation of any individual is to find a meaning in life. He asserts that life has meaning even in the most unimaginable states of suffering, and that man has the freedom to find it in his actions, life experiences, and his own dispositions, even when the state of the world is not within his control. This book caused me to reflect on writings of the Stoic tradition - particularly Epictetus (the Enchridion).

2018


Simply Wittgenstein | James C. Klagge
This was a fantastic introduction to the famous 20th century philosopher. I became interested in Wittgenstein after spending some time reading about Logical Positivism in 2014. I'd since picked up a copy of this book, as well as the biographies "Wittgenstein" by A.C. Grayling and "Wittgenstein - The Duty of Genius" by Ray Monk. I continue to be intrigued by the picture theory of language as well as the concept of language-game (Sprachspiel), the rule-following paradox, and private language arguments. The philosophies of language and logic continue to be a source of great interest, and I am interested in how they contribute to problem-solving and reasoning about concepts natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

Soul of the White Ant | Eugène N. Marais
I heard about this book in late 2016 while watching a YouTube video of Daniel Dennett talking about consciousness. I remembered the title while laying in bed one evening and found the book on Kindle. I purchased a copy and spent the next few hours reading it. The author and the text are wildly interesting. Marais was a South African who lived from 1871 to 1936, working as a lawyer, journalist, poet, naturalist, and newspaper owner. According to his Wikipedia biography, he became addicted to opiates while young, and his wife died as a result of giving birth to their only son. He also had to deal with the plagiarism of his work conducted for this book (by a Nobel Prize winner, no less!). Tragically, he took his own life in 1936. He is recognized as the first person to conduct scientific research of animal behavior in the wild. In this book, Marais examines the behavior of termites and the termite colony in detail. I was struck by the extent of his research. He describes at great length the structure and behavior of the colony - the roles of each type of termite, the sort of hierarchical class structure. Most notably, he may be the first to posit the idea that the termite colony behaves essentially as a complex organism itself - a sort of emergent phenomenon comprised of many smaller, less complex parts, none of which are likely to be aware of the whole. This was a fascinating book and worth picking up.

Make Your Own Neural Network | Tariq Rashid
This is a great practical introduction to neural nets. Rashid offers a concise explanation of how they are constructed, and summarizes key points at the end of each section. The second half of the book focuses on implementing the techniques described in the first half for building a neural network from scratch in Python, making use of numpy. I read this through twice, and returned to sections on back propagation several more times. For readers who might be turned off by a lot of math, this seems like a good introduction to the topic. For those who need a quick refresher, the author provides an appendix section dedicated to a few basic concepts from Calculus.

My Antonia | Willa Cather
I decided to pick this up while thinking about works of literature about the prairie and life in the American midwest during the late 19th century. Willa Cather's descriptions of the landscape - in all its vastness, mystery, and raw beauty - and its profound affect on Jim, an orphan from Virginia, and Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant, are immersive and captivating. The real strength of this novel lies in its subtle portrayal of meaningful human relationships. We witness, from Jim's perspective, the formation of a deep bond with his childhood friend Antonia, and its lasting effect on the memory of both of the characters. Early parts of the book (and in particular, the unforgettable scene recounting the deadly sleigh ride retold by the Russian immigrant Pavel on his deathbead, wherein he and Peter throw a newlywed couple off of the sleigh he is driving to a pack of wolves stalking the party in order to save themselves) have a fairy-tale like style of prose. The last third of the novel has left a strong impression on me; I would recommend this novel. Though there is no way to convey the emotional power of language without greater context, Here are a few excerpts that stuck with me:
This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.
She asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. 'I'd always be miserable in a city. I'd die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody's put into this world for something, and I know what I've got to do. I'm going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had. I'm going to take care of that girl, Jim.' I told her I knew she would. 'Do you know, Antonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.' She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, 'How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've disappointed you so? Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I'm so glad we had each other when we were little. I can't wait till my little girl's old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You'll always remember me when you think about old times, won't you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.' As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world. In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there. We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory. 'I'll come back,' I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness. 'Perhaps you will'—I felt rather than saw her smile. 'But even if you don't, you're here, like my father. So I won't be lonesome.' As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.