Book Review: Love And Other Thought Experiments

…she took her ID and prepared herself for the retinal scanner. She wondered what the computer saw as the reader slid across her face. Pattern recognition or something more? Humans stared into each other’s eyes for lifetimes, trying to gauge what the other was thinking, feeling. Will you be faithful to me? Will you be kind? The machine verified your identity in seconds and determined if you were trustworthy in a few more. The questions weren’t so different…

Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments started like an innocent novel. Rachel, and Eliza are thinking of having a baby, and that’s when an ant enters Rachel’s eyes. Despite the blurbs on the back which scream that Love and Other Thought Experiments is a philosophical fiction, and the ideas explored in the book are wild, I still presumed that the book was going to follow their relationship, but I couldn’t have been more wrong than that. The book is so compelling that it’s been a day since I finished reading but it continues to linger in my mind, and offers meaning for the parts I couldn’t fathom when I read the book. Imagine this: you go to bed, have bizarre dreams, and wake up with a faint memory about the dream. You do that the next day. The next day. You repeat for 10 days, and you are left with a bouquet of dreams but you don’t know what they would mean if they were stitched together. On the 11the day, the dreams come together, divulging the great design that they produced. Reading Love and Other Thought Experiments is akin to the process of dreaming and collecting dreams, and finally being told what the dreams signify. But the book is even beyond that. It’s just not about a bunch of vignettes being braided together in the last chapter. The book is about how each chapter stands on its own even when the significance of its existence is open to interpretation, and how all the chapters form something beautiful when they finally meet. Quite like the human life itself, perhaps?

Each chapter begins with an epigraph. In her own words, Sophie Ward tells me about thought experiments which deepen the understanding of the human nature. I had heard of some of the experiments, and I was new to many of the ideas, but that didn’t ruin the experience for me. Sophie Ward removes the layers on the ideas, irons them out, places her people on that philosophical landscape, and then tells me their story without ridiculing me for not knowing being philosophical and sciency. Her stories come from many places — love, loss, grief, marriage, relationships, consciousness, artificial intelligence — and they travel from one country to another, one part of the world to another, and one part of the universe to another. As the stories move from one terrain to the next one, the genre bends. At one point in time, the book is a literary fiction. It later morphs into a philosophical fiction. And then it quietly becomes a science fiction. For me, that’s not a complaint. I had invested in her people so much that I was ready to follow them, even to a moon. My tour around the Internet made me realise that the book is detested for how it changes its avatar in the last chapter, and how what was believed to be the ‘big reveal’ was a disappointment. I only wish that the book took some more pages to justify the end. But I can’t imagine an another end.

Love and Other Thought Experiments asks many an important question. What is reality? What does it mean to be alive? What is death? What does it mean to romanticize the past? What is our future? What is technology doing to us? Who is the Creator? What is consciousness? Even when all the questions are answered, would you be happy with the answers? And what helps you on your quest? What is the role of love? Do you get to choose the answers?

I saved the best part of the book for the last paragraph — Sophie Ward’s writing. It’s breathtaking. What could have easily become conceited is rescued by Ward’s confident words, detailed imageries, and earnest effort to make complex concepts accessible in her stories. I vividly remember the chapter on Ali, and the one narrated by the Ant herself. The book’s golden wisdom is unearthed in that chapter. Through the surest words of the ant, I understand the beauty and contradictions and struggles of being human. And I shouldn’t be judged for hoping for a moment that I had an ant in my head, and that she understood me more than I can possibly imagine. The Internet tells me that the ant who lived in Sophie Ward’s keyboard ended up starring in her book. From now on, when I look at ants, I have another reason to smile. And let me borrow a word which the book borrowed from James Joyce, and change its meaning to its actual sound to record my feeling about the book. Ameising.

She wondered if she could even be considered the same person now that every cell in her body had been replaced, more than once. It didn’t seem to matter so much when the effect was growth and health but now that shrinkage and damage were the order of events, it mattered a lot. Was it possible that her mind could escape the same process? Those connections had also been replaced, many times over. Her memories, too, were different, shaded by the events that had taken place since. If you were made of remembrance and your memories changed, did you, who remembered, change too?

Of Reading and Other Demons

“I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.”

— The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The reader in me surfaced in 2015. I was 28. It was the hardest year of my life, but with the strength that the books, the community of kind book bloggers, and my own writing gave me, I survived that year. In words, I found solace. In the make-believe worlds, I found truth. In the literary characters, I found friendship. The humble books were the antidote to my loneliness, and anxiety. Under the flattering yellow light of a floor lamp, I curled up on my bed, with a warm puppy at my feet, I read and read and read, as though I was given one last chance to make up for all the 28 years I had lost by not allowing books into my universe, as though I was incarcerated by the urge to atone, and that I could tunnel my way to liberty only by reading more.

Five years later, from this vantage point, when I look at that person, she looks like a postwoman to me. Instead of envelopes, and packages, there are books on her table. Her neck, bent down toward the table, looks like a question mark. She picks up a book from a tall pile, inhales the words, stamps the book as ‘Read’, places it on top of another unruly pile, and she repeats the process. If I expand my imagination even further, I find her standing at an assembly line, picking up books, inhaling the words, and placing them again on the conveyor belt. The process of stamping a book in the first scene translated into marking the book ‘Read’ on Goodreads in real life. I am not judging her. I am not attempting to reduce her love for reading. Her single-minded focus to devour books still makes me proud. But an array of questions swim in my head when I think of that reader, and the question that I want to explore in this piece is: what role did Goodreads play in molding that reader?

As I sit with the question on how Goodreads colour the way I approach reading, more questions squirrel out of that question. Since 2015, if I hadn’t discovered Goodreads, how many books would I have read every year? How did the Goodreads Reading Challenge influence my choice of books? Did I choose short books, and children’s literature more because I wanted to meet the challenge? Why did the numbers matter to me so much? If I hadn’t been obsessive about reading 70 books every year, would I have read at all? Or would I have become a better reader who paused and thought more about what I read instead of rushing to dive into the next book? Would I have made more time to wrestle with complex ideas? Would I have had the headspace to write more about what I read? If the objective need to read more were removed from my life, would I be a reader at all?

An acquaintance shamed me for doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge. “Do you still do those challenges?” he asked, without trying to soften the edges of his condescension. I am not good at shooting a comeback instantly; I marinate the insult and question in my thoughts before choosing a suitable response. I was taken aback by how appalled the acquaintance seemed that someone reads because they are inspired to meet a certain goal. It seemed blasphemous to him. He came from the school of thought that if you are reading because you want to read more books, then you are not reading at all. You are merely reading the items on a bill handed to you at a restaurant. He argued that you read because you want to become a better thinker. And you don’t have to read too many books to hone your thinking. You just need to choose timeless books, and understand, and challenge the great minds which wrote those books.

During that unpleasant meeting, I didn’t have the language to tell the acquaintance that each reader has a unique purpose for reading. In 2015, I read because I was lonely, depressed, and books were my undemanding friends. Reading was my exit route from a reality that seemed like a labyrinth. It gave me words for the feelings which I thought were inexpressible. As the stories unspooled, it occurred to me that what I was going through was personal and universal. So, I wanted to read more. I wanted to meet literary people who were keen to relate their stories to me, and we passively exchanged notes. Even if I weren’t pleased to see the numbers soaring on my Goodreads Reading Challenge that year, I would have read. Because I was grateful to be alive. In the face of survival, engaging with ‘great thinkers’ becomes futile. The process of reading is stripped down to its core — I read because I am human.

I still do the Reading Challenge on Goodreads. It lets me stay disciplined when I am compelled by the need to sit in front of my tablet, to be numbed by what Netflix shows. This year, while my goal was to read 70 books, I have read 93 books. At book club meets, the numbers give me bragging rights. I see the jaws dropping, and I hear the collective sigh of the readers. It feels good. But I now want to play devil’s advocate, and agree with the said snobbish acquaintance. I ask these questions to myself: do I internalise what I learn from the books? How do I stop my books from becoming a scenery that I mindlessly watch while seated on a bus as it careens to an undisclosed destination? Do I set realistic goals for myself? I pronounce myself guilty of all the aforementioned offences.

As 2020 packs, and leaves, I am going to commit the ancient mistake of making resolutions. From 2021, I am going to slow down. I am going to do more research about the author after reading a book, make conscious efforts to read books mentioned in footnotes and epigraphs and ‘Further Reading’, develop the patience to stay with an idea until I grasp it fully, read more physical books, run the highlighter on favourite passages, try to write about a book even if I am pushed back by writer’s block, and stop choosing short books just to meet the goal. In 2021 too, I will set a realistic reading goal, and make meaningful, disciplined efforts to achieve it. In that process, I am certain that I will brush shoulders with ‘great thinkers’, and that organically discovering influential minds is better than being besotted with them like a star-struck fan chasing her idol to take a selfie.

In 2021, may wonderful books happen to me, and to everybody who breathes freely in between pages.

Book Review: Father of Lions

By the time he was eighteen, Imad had discovered an immutable fact: animals were better than people.

The war was at his door, the ISIS waited to behead him, and he was cooped up in his house along with his wife, and a lot of children. And none of those predicaments perturbed Abu Laith (Imad). What made him despondent was the inhuman condition of his Zombie (a lion cub), Mother (a lioness), Father (a lion), Lula (a bear), a bear cub, and many other animals who were stranded in Mosul Zoo during the war. How would he keep the animals alive? How would he even take a quick trip to the zoo to ensure that it wasn’t bombed? At the heart of Louise Callaghan’s Father of Lions: How One Man Defied Isis and Saved Mosul Zoo lies the truth that…

…good things come from being kind to animals.

The help arrived in the form of Dr Amir Khalil, a conflict rescue vet, who was as determined as Abu Laith to free the animals. But humans struggle to understand why anybody would risk their life to liberate a pack of wild animals when millions of humans were engulfed by the war. Humans ridiculed Dr Amir, threw funny glances at him, made the rescue process unnecessarily difficult for him, but people like Dr Amir, and Abu Laith always knew that one should not be coerced to choose between humans, and animals, and if hurdles were intentionally planted on their way, they would jump over them, come what may. There should be enough room on this planet for every sentient being.

If people cared for animals, they should care for humans, and if they cared for humans, they should care for animals. Kindness should not be divided.

A year ago, I was mixing food for Ramu, a stray dog whom I befriended on my cycling route, and for reasons which I still don’t fathom, Ramu growled, and held my hand roughly for a brief moment. Dogs understand, and wait patiently when their food is being prepared, but Ramu was going down the hill already. He couldn’t see that I was trying to help him. The way he held my hand felt like a bite, and I went to the nearest hospital to start the rabies vaccine course. The receptionist at the hospital quizzed me to gather information for a report, and he loudly wondered, “You tried to feed a stray, and the dog bit you. Why do people still do it? Life is busy, and hard as it is. Why do people create time for animals, and even let animals hurt them?” Next time when I come across that question, I am going to recommend Callaghan’s book as the answer.

Wherever humans suffered, animals suffered too. Their food, their care and their lives were almost always the first casualties of war: pet dogs left to starve because the owners had to feed their children, zoo animals abandoned when keepers fled from fighting.

Anu Boo – my dog – is my best friend. Every once in a while, when I stay awake until the darkest hour – 3 AM – of the night, I would be visited by a sort of anxiety that I know too well. “Am I equipped enough to protect Anu Boo if a catastrophe falls upon us?” I ask myself. I play several scenarios in my head, add layers after layers of what-ifs, and I reach for the answers impatiently as though walking through a maze. Sometimes, the answers are comforting. Sometimes, the answers are so inadequate that I punch the walls of the maze. And that’s why books like this one become important. They are written to tell us that it’s okay to love animals despite knowing that we will live longer than them, and to tell us that there are people like us, and they will see us for the way we hold animals in our hearts.