Earth AbidesEarth Abides by George R. Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here’s a quote from close to the start of the book – I find it so powerful, so detached yet timeless and all-encompassing, it could be the beginning of the introduction to the post-apocalypse manifesto. I’ll split it in three parts, scattered throughout this review.

*Stretched out between its rivers, the city will remain for a long time. Stone and brick, concrete and asphalt, glass–time deals gently with them. Water leaves black stains, moss shows green, a little grass springs up in the cracks. (That is only the surface.) …*

I discovered Earth Abides on what I think was this Reddit thread on great post-apocalyptic “rebuild the world” books – yes, I pick up book recommendations on Reddit. Only sometimes, okay?

Written in 1949, it was conceived during a time when people weren’t exactly discovering the threat of human extinction for the first time, but when the distinct possibility that it could come to pass was more prominent in the popular imagination than it ever had been before (that we know of). As such, I consider it one of the granddaddies of today’s post-apocalyptic fiction – a genre whose popularity has become reflective of our times in the same way puritan, sexless Victorian ethics once paved the way to timeless romantic novels.

* …A window-pane grows loose, vibrates, breaks in a gusty wind. Lightning strikes, loosening the tiles of a cornice. A wall leans, as footings yield in the long rains; after years have passed, it falls, scattering bricks across the street. Frost works, and in the March thaw some flakes of stone scale off. (It is all very slow.)…*

In Earth Abides, a rapidly-spreading deadly disease wipes out almost everyone on Earth (everyone in the continental US, at least). Our protagonist Ish survives only by what could be understood as coincidence. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, he discovers in fine practical as well as poetic detail all that was left behind, living off the utilities and commodities that would still keep running and existing for a short time without any input from man. Let’s say it involves a different sort of road trip across America.

He quickly discovers he is not alone, and what happens next is telling of where humankind came from and where it might soon be heading towards.

I found Earth Abides entertaining, thought-provoking and very poetic, in the sense that many parts of the book dealing with everyday things were looked at from a completely different perspective – all just by using unusual or, at least for us, outmoded manners of speech. I found that unexpectedly fulfilling. It seemed to capture perfectly the outlandishness as well as the perfect ordinariness of the situations and scenarios at hand.

On top of that, what surprised me was how fresh it all felt, how much of it could still have been written today, barring some very sexist, racist or discriminatory stripes that could be attributed to the writer just being a man of his era. If I were to be perfectly honest with you, even they were more fascinating to look at than offensive, like an old photograph depicting socially unacceptable things that were commonplace not so long ago. It’s interesting how many things seem to have changed, but maybe haven’t – including, of course, our interest in stories telling of our inevitable demise and virtual extinction. Virtual is the key word here, for: Men go and come, but Earth abides.

It’s a solemn and soothing feeling.

I’m giving it 4 stars because I thought it was a bit too long. It felt epic, sure, just a bit drawn out. I recommend it to all who like thinking about what the world would look like without us and the thought fills them with calm instead of terror.

* … The rain washes quietly through the gutters into the storm-drains, and if the storm-drains clog, the rain runs still through the gutters into the rivers. The snow piles deep in the long canyons, drifting at the street corners; no one disturbs it. In the spring, it too runs off through the gutters. As in the desert, a year is like an hour in the night; a century, like a day.*

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The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?

Written in 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale was very clearly influenced by George Orwell and his let’s say less than optimistic view of things to come: the cracks of the system being more treacherous than the wall itself; the pervading ritualistic masochism which looks normal, even necessary, within its own context; the simplest, most basic joys of life succumbing to humanity and civilization, turning into acts of rebellion – and treated as such.

The question that keeps popping in my head is: why? How can the forces of evil (because I lack any other words that aren’t as strong), forces that go against everything that’s right and good, prevail? Because the forces of good are really crap at winning. Maybe it’s because winning doesn’t concern them per se. Or maybe it’s because they never really get to fight; the moment they use force, which of the two sides actually wins the fight becomes irrelevant – the victor gets to write the story of what happened, the good and bad roles are reversed, and that’s the end of that story – the good guys have won. It might not even be this way, but it certainly feels this way.

Yet Atwood’s dystopia is a notch less extreme than 1984, which only made it even more chilling. Few in Gillead are brainwashed to the extreme they enjoy the new ultra-religious status quo, but that only makes it that even just a few (literal or figurative) breadcrumbs casually thrown to them is enough to keep the parts of the system.

Sex, which is the whole point of the book, still exists of course, it’s the whole point of the book and Atwood’s feminist (I’d say “pro-life” but that term has been hijacked) look on it was quite refreshing to read. However, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the purpose and function of sex has been twisted to such an extent, the new concept has become a pillar of that society’s culture, making it much more difficult to replace than if sex was simply forbidden.

Finally, in the book, the system itself has not been in place for time immemorial, or rather, it’s not placed outside of time like 1984’s Big Brother is: the protagonist had a life she can remember before “the revolution”. Yet, the mere fact on its own is neither consolation, nor a springboard for action. It scarcely even acts as a safe haven for her or a source of encouragement. It’s just backstory, as seemingly unreal as anything else in her world. It makes us ask ourselves: were we in her place, wouldn’t our story, our ideals, our upbringing, our relationships, our memories of what came before, be enough to kick us into action? Perhaps not, and that, frankly, is the scariest part.

I’ll finish off by sharing something I recall Atwood saying about this book connected to current events – I think it was in In Other Worlds, which I curiously read before really getting to know and adore Atwood’s real style. When she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t really believe any of this was possible or maybe remotely close to happening, that humanity could mutilate itself on its own accord so terribly and in such haste. But now (surprise!) she thinks we’re closer to that happening than ever. Reading the passage in the book about the intrusion in Washington and abolition of the US Constitution reminded me of that.

But hey! You know what’s fun and exciting about the 21st century and a sign we’ve progressed as societies? All this could happen without any use of force or violence at all! The good guys will have won. Thank God.

Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspapers stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Manson hit the life advice sweet spot with the deceptively-titled Models and came back for more with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. What can I say? I loved it.

It’s not that this book is revolutionary or never-before-seen material. Far from it: a lot of it has he seemingly copied from his blog (not that that’s a bad thing – I enjoy his writing a lot). Listening to it as a whole though (yeah another audiobook) I got the feeling the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

I’ve been stressing over this review and avoiding it cause I don’t remember many details from the book itself – I didn’t take any notes while listening to it (I never do) and it’s already been 3 weeks since I finished it. What should I write here for you to read my review and make it worthwhile?

But hang on a second. Why am I stressing over this?

Fuck off, you part of me that makes me think that writing something here needs to be amazing and super-expressive and indicative of my true thoughts, so much so that it can often induce low-level anxiety on me. What a load of crap.

Fuck off, you part of that makes me need to play passive-aggressive smart and makes me avoid saying things as I really see them (especially if my viewpoint is banal) because I’m scared of looking inadequate/uninteresting.

You know something? This could be nothing more than an average review. Perhaps it’s even worse than average. Maybe I could write a better one if I really tried, but it doesn’t matter now because I don’t really want to try harder. Can’t be fucked. That’s fine, it’s okay. I embrace it.

In all honesty, what’s this “average” business? What does it even mean? Since when is this a competition? What am I after? Who cares if my little review is good or not?

I’m done with this. There are more important things to give fucks about than this review, and I’m off to find them – life is short, don’t forget!

There. That felt good!

Get inspired, check Mr. Manson out. Thanks for reading!

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every second person you know is an introvert in some way, shape or form. The reason you might not have noticed is that there’s a certain social stigma and many misconceptions attached to introversion which are forcing many introverts to feign extraversion, maybe even getting half-good at it in the process.

Introversion has an unjustifiably bad rep – argues Quiet author Susan Cain – considering introverts are in general terms more knowledgeable and academically accomplished, thorough, sensitive and other positive personality traits often overlooked in favor of the more reserved, closed and self-conscious aspects of introversion.

At the end of the day, introverts need to believe in ourselves and own our special powers, not feel ashamed for being different – not isolate ourselves either, but recognise that the way we operate is fundamentally, in part biologically, different, and that social pressures and expectations might not always be coming from a right place. Introverts rarely agree with the dominant value system anyway, so we shouldn’t be stressing too much over it.

I get all that, and I agree. Susan Cain made a brilliant point with this book which, apart from a feel-good guide for struggling introverts everywhere, could act as a great introduction to one of the cornerstone dichotomies of personality typology. If you’re interested in the topic, I would recommend having a look at this summary of the book’s concepts — check out “Pitfalls of the Extrovert Ideal” in particular.

My main qualm with the book, although not directly linked to its content and argument, is that I feel it encourages a kind of tribalism and entitlement within the ranks of introverts, especially the kind which is visible on the web. I see many people identifying quite strongly with being introverts: acting proud of how nobody gets them, showing in little -or big- ways how special they and their own little world are, not making any efforts to communicate whatsoever, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I myself am guilty of indulging in introvert exceptionalism from time to time. The difference is that many introverts out there identify so strongly with their introversion and make it such a big part of their persona they will outright reject invitations to social gatherings, shun new experiences that could help them grow in some way and feel justified in being avoidant. Some may even end up with what would be superiority complexes, if the notion of extrovert superiority wasn’t ingrained in us so deeply it will never truly be overwritten by a genuine “introvert supremacy” ideal- probably the point of the book in the first place, to be honest.

Susan Cain says that “introverts today are where women were in the 1950s and early 1960s—a population discounted for something that went to the core of who they were” and thinks society is getting more and more ready for a change of perception about them, just as it did with women. Looked at this way, I suppose the outspoken introverts (no pun intended) are the natural consequence of a “a population on the verge of coming into its own” – as have been the feminists identifying with being a woman more strongly than any other part of themselves. From that perspective, it’s something healthy and empowering.

What I’m concerned about is how social exclusion and isolation is becoming the new normal – just look at Japan and how its young people rejecting society and the real world around them are making a dent in the country’s demographics. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of decades from now it will be the extraverts who will be forced to pseudo-introversion if they want to have any hopes of making it… “socially”.

Is the whole world going to become so self-absorbed and proud of it, we’ll forget how introversion is actually only a part of a dichotomy? Only time will tell.

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