(Preface: This post is essentially a tribute/continuation of Selam’s posts from past summers - as she wrote, “sometimes MIT students like to do things other than science, technology, or engineering”, and I would like this year’s cohort of students applying to MIT to know that as well! If you would much rather write a paper than do a problem set, you’re not alone here :) )
Before I had friends, I had books. For those of you who weren’t shy and introverted as kids, this may sound really sad, but those of you who were will know what I’m talking about.
The universes within books were my worlds, and the characters within those universes were my partners in crime, my enemies, my friends. I had a wild imagination as a kid and spent hours daily daydreaming up new stories for the characters in my favorite books, which translated into a very extensive fanfiction writing phase in middle and high school. I eventually moved on to RPG video games as my preferred form of media, but I still enjoy the thrill of being absorbed into a world on paper.
College has effectively eaten up the majority of my free time (as it does), and during the year, the time that I didn’t spend slaving over psets was dedicated to getting up to all sorts of shenanigans with my friends. Fortunately, summer and my 9-5 work schedule have yielded a reasonable amount of free time for me to explore some of my interests - and read books!
Books I read this year:
I read these for a class I took spring semester, CMS.840 (Literature and Film). I actually had signed up for another class, CMS.339 (Virtual Reality and Immersive Media Production), but it was lotteried and it’s difficult to get into some CMS classes without being a declared concentrator/minor/major, so I wound up not getting in. I spent a few days scrambling around for another HASS class to take and landed on CMS.840, which I initially didn’t really have high expectations for but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - I’ve seen the movie before, and it turns out that the book was written as a screenplay for the movie, so they wound up being quite similar. The class itself was all about juxtaposing literature and their corresponding film adaptations, and I have to say, I enjoyed the film marginally better. The book is a bit dry, and IMO, the action is better represented through film.
- Double Indemnity by James M. Cain - This is a novella, and was originally published in an 8-part serial. I might have remembered it better if I had read it as a serial, because I finished this story in about an hour, and honestly don’t remember anything about it :P
- A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams - I really enjoyed the written version of this play, even more so than the film adaptation (even young Marlon Brando couldn’t convince me). Blanche’s struggle to separate her fantasies from her reality was tragic to read, and personally fascinating to me; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my own relationship with fantasy, and how that affects my actions in reality. Seriously, I wrote like three college essays on this.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - This is one of those books that I sat down to read, couldn’t stop reading until I finished, and then read it again for good measure because it was just that amazing. Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel that tells a story of the author's childhood spent in Islamic Revolution Iran. Even though I wouldn't normally think that a graphic novel could tell such a serious story, I thought that this was the perfect medium for telling this story.
Books I re-read this year:
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand - I actually really like this book; it’s good fiction, even if I definitely wouldn’t want to be friends with Ayn Rand. I don’t subscribe to Objectivism (the philosophy that Rand steeps all of her books in), but there are some character attributes that I really appreciate. Although Howard Roark (the protagonist) is realistically kind of an asshole, I try to live by his philosophy of adhering strictly to his personal standards of integrity. Don’t do something just because it might look good to other people - do it for yourself!
Books I intended to read this year:
- On the Way to a Smile and The Kids are Alright - Those of you who know me personally probably know of my Final Fantasy VII obsession. These two books are semi-canon in-universe novellas that expand on some of the side characters, and I would have read both books in three seconds flat if they weren’t in Japanese, which makes things considerably more difficult! I read very quickly in English and very slowly in Japanese, and I wound up finishing about half of The Kids are Alright before I ran out of time to read at all, let alone in Japanese. I’m determined to work up the motivation to get back into it, though!
- Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami - I went through a Haruki Murakami phase over my gap semester in senior year, and that gap semester happened to be in Japan, so I bought a copy of his new book when it came out. Unfortunately, Murakami’s books don’t make much more sense in Japanese than they do in English. Also, I think an English version has been released by now, so maybe I should just read that instead...
Books I've read this summer so far!
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
"That's why we needed our full life, Pan. We would have gone with Will and Kirjava, wouldn't we?"
"Yes. Of course! And they would have come with us. But--"
"But then we wouldn't have been able to build it. No one could if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we'll build..."
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others farther off, one cracked and peevish, another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed good-bye, the bells would be chiming, too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
"And then what?" said her daemon sleepily. "Build what?"
"The Republic of Heaven," said Lyra.
For whatever reason, I never got around to reading this series as a kid. I’m actually really glad about that, because if I had, I might never have revisited it as an adult. There’s a lot of philosophy and commentary regarding organized religion that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on as a child.
Those of you who read the blogs semi-regularly will probably know that Petey loves His Dark Materials and has a sweet-ass tattoo of Lyra, and I think that quoting him here is appropriate: “These books are about many things — Christianity, and magic, and science, and love, and loss — but ultimately they are about choice: the choices we make, and the choices we are kept from making. They are about the many worlds which at once overlap with and stand apart from each other.” (from this post)
After reading His Dark Materials - which I did in very quick succession, because once I started I couldn’t stop - I spent a long time lying awake at night thinking about many of the core ideas and themes from the books; in particular, the conscious mind. Humans haven’t managed to figure out much about consciousness and what it is. There are two theories regarding consciousness that I know of - materialism and and mind-body dualism. The former postulates that consciousness emanates from the firing of neurons in our brains, and the latter is an idea of the religious variety - that our physical bodies and our “souls” are separate. As far as I know, humanity knows close to nothing about either of these theories. They might both be right, or they both could be totally wrong. Nobody knows. His Dark Materials presents its own theory: that consciousness is composed of elementary particles - both the characters in His Dark Materials and the residents of our universe know these particles as dark matter. The particles, called Dust in the books, bestow consciousness upon certain species, and are especially attracted to adults. The organization representing the Christian church in His Dark Materials believes that since Dust is less attracted to children than it is to adults, it must be a manifestation of Eve’s Original Sin. I think that Pullman is implying here that the Church is an enemy to human progress and tries to hinder the gain of worldly knowledge; I think this is a bit harsh, but only a bit. Organized religion as a whole has definitely netted negative over the last few millennia.
That wasn’t really the point of that line of thought, but I’m not sure I wrote it with a point in mind. Anyways, you should read this series if you haven’t already.
- The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
“It's never the changes we want that change everything.”
I read this book because it's Junot Díaz's most famous work. Some of you might know that Díaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and creative writing professor here at MIT, got accused of sexual misconduct a few months ago. After a lot of controversy, MIT said he hadn't violated any of their policies and allowed him to continue teaching. I was really disappointed about this whole scandal; last semester, when I was beginning to consider double majoring in CMS, I was really excited to take one of his classes, and now I probably won't end up doing so out of moral obligation. I enjoyed the book; Díaz's writing style is really unique. But sadly, that doesn't change the fact that I'm not overly inclined to take any of his classes anymore.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
This book is WILD. Aldous Huxley was truly ahead of his time, and I think he acknowledged this himself; in Brave New World Revisited, he discusses how he believes that elements of the future he envisioned in Brave New World are manifesting themselves faster than he could have imagined. While I don’t think our society will completely devolve into one with various classes of genetically engineered humans, I do think that this will happen to some extent. When genetic editing for fetuses becomes available - and it will, almost certainly within my lifetime, only the rich will be able to afford it, at least at first. Getting into the upper echelons of socioeconomic success would become even more impossible than it already is, because the top 1% would be dominated by perfectly genetically engineered humans with ridiculously high IQs. I’m not sure that it would be good if genetic engineering technology is democratized either, because then everybody would want their child to have an astronomical IQ and be ridiculously attractive, and society would lose a lot of its variety. Personally, I would draw the line for genetic engineering for fetuses at getting rid of crippling genetic diseases or defects. We’ll see where society will decide to draw the line, though. (Bonus thought: would you have to report genetic editing on your college applications? Affirmative action could have a field day with that.)
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
“Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, "Life is so beautiful," then nothing else is important. If i can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters.”
I actually didn’t know that The Godfather wasn’t just a movie until recently, but it’s one of my favorite movies, and I couldn’t not read the book. Reading the book made me realize how well the movie is done - it’s very faithful to the book, which is my personal standard of how good an adaptation is. I’m also really glad that the movie has sequels, because the book doesn’t end on the brightest note.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Cloud Atlas is one of those movie names that sort of float in and out of your list of movies to watch, but you never quite get around to it. Last weekend, I was alone at my house catsitting while my parents were away, and I stole this book from my sister’s room because it seemed like a long read, but not too long.
I got way more than I bargained for from this book. What an adventure. For those of you who haven’t read it, Cloud Atlas is made up of six different stories told over five centuries, by characters who will never meet each other but are connected through time in various ways. It got me thinking about souls again. I might not believe in heaven or hell or any sort of afterlife, but I’d like to think that like everything else in the universe, souls also obey the law of conservation and pass from one generation to the next as they do in Cloud Atlas.
And that's it so far for me - I'm currently reading a post-apocalyptic novel called Station Eleven and I have an entire list of books that I'm excited to read coming up. For the students reading this post: take some time out of your summer to read books!