Why Do I Write Book Reviews?

Date: Mar 8, 2018

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.
- Sir Isaac Newton

I remember watching a biographical drama called Pirates of the Silicon Valley about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Funnily enough, both say "Good artists copy, great artists steal" in the movie. That's exactly what most of us do when we start reading good books. It exposes us to different realities, different worlds and sometimes a unique perspective. Subconsciously we internalize these ideas and view points. I do not know enough or maybe haven't experienced enough to have original thoughts. I mostly regurgitate ideas pioneered by legends. However, the more I read, the more analytical I become. It helps me piece together information in ways that are unique to me. Every book I read takes me one step closer towards original ideas. I may not see as far as Newton, but I too am standing on the shoulders of giants (so are you!). So what happens when I start having original thoughts? Do I stop reading? I hope not. After all, quoting George Martin, “... a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”

What does all this have to do with book reviews? I'm afraid I have to digress a little to make my point. In the summer of 2015, I was completely jobless. I had just graduated from NITT and was all set to join University of Alberta starting fall semester. Since I had a lot of time in my hands, I started reading an English translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and I was completely obsessed with the book. I would spend 6-8hrs a day reading the book (often re-reading a few sections). This lasted for 20+ days and I was just mesmerized. After a couple of months, I was talking about this to my good friend Naresh and he mentioned something quite fascinating. He had read somewhere that if you read War and Peace more than once (as almost everyone who reads it at all does), you look at the characters and events differently; you might even draw different lessons from it. I started thinking if that really is the case for most books.

We read each book with a different frame of mind. We maybe happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, existentialistic or nihilistic at various points in our life. And that would definitely affect the way we perceive things. Writing reviews is my way of chronicling my thoughts about a book I just finished reading. For example, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is extremely appealing to my teenage self. But it feels naively idealistic and impractical right now. Who knows, this might change later. In my reviews, I intend to jot down my honest opinion of a book before it's influenced by my peers or the passage of time.

Why is it important that I maintain a journal of sorts containing my views at different points of time? Firstly, it serves as a nice reminder of who I was and what I've become. It's also important to remember and acknowledge our past. My collective experience has given me the strength and wisdom I possess today. Back in 2005, Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford. He tells 3 stories from his life and the one about dots resonated well with me:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

And so it goes. Every once in a while, I intend to stop, look back and try connecting the dots in my life. Hopefully, it'd form an intricate design like the beautiful kolam drawn every morning in southern India :)

Signing off,
Gautham Vasan