An adventure fitting for a bizarre character

“Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage” by Jamie James

In the year 1876, a 21 year old French poet Arthur Rimbaud completely abandoned writing and joined the Royal Army of the Dutch Indies as an infantryman and sailed for Java. After he landed there, however, he deserted the army, fled into the jungle, and then just disappeared.

Part biography, part historical investigation, “Rimbaud in Java” by Jamie James is the reconstruction of everything that is known about Rimbaud’s rogue voyage, the informed speculation about what he might have seen and done, which in turn paints a vivid picture of what life was like in 19th century Java, that include colonial rule, pre-Islamic culture, and magic.

It is also quite possibly the first history of Indonesia from the vantage point of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC).

According to James, Rimbaud’s life “changed in so many fundamental ways around the time of the Java voyage that it almost seems at times as though a doomed doppelgänger was magically substituted for the shining youth that captivated Paris in 1872, as in a weird tale by Edgar Allan Poe.”

Because, after few months missing Rimbaud did eventually resurfaces back in France, in his mother’s house tanned and bearded. He then went on to work in Scandinavia where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus, lived in a monastery for a while, became a stone quarry foreman in Cyprus, worked in the coffee trade business in Yemen, and briefly sold firearms in Ethiopia, before he died relatively young at the age of 37 not long after he got one of his legs amputated.

But if you think all of these are crazy, wait until you read chapter 1 on what he’s done before the age of 21, which includes being shot at, wrecking a marriage, experimenting with homosexuality, learning multiple languages, crossing the Alps on foot, being arrested and jailed, and at one time got so drunk and passed out in Austria he ended up being robbed and stripped of everything but his street map of Vienna.

Indeed, Arthur Rimbaud was a bizarre character, whose poetries went on to exert enormous influence on French literature, but whose incredibly random and daredevil life raises more questions than we can ever find answers.

And his few months adventure in Java could be key to figure out this man.

After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion

“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I read this book because I wanted to learn the basics about astrophysics. But as I quickly discovered, this is not astrophysics for dummies. Yes it’s a relatively quick read but Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to wrote it with the assumption of basic knowledge from the readers.

Nevertheless, the general feel about the subject can still be understood.

Firstly, we can assert without further hesitation that the universe had a beginning. The universe also continues to evolve, with every atom in our body is traceable to the Big Bang and to “the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago.”

Moreover, while the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, it took another 380,000 years before we can see any matter forming, and few more billion years to form a planet that we call home. Yes, time moves slowly in the universe, and in the grand scale of things our 70-100 years of life, by contrast, is ridiculously short.

Furthermore, there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, there are about 100 billion galaxies that we have discovered so far in the universe, one of which is our Milky Way galaxy that in turn contains approximately 100 billion more stars, with one of them is our Sun. We truly are nothing but a speck of dust in the face of the massive universe.

Meanwhile, as one star (our Sun) can have several planets orbiting it, other stars also have planets orbiting them and quite a lot of these planets are at a similar distance like the Earth to the Sun, not too close that it evaporates the water but not too far that it freezes the water. In other words, there are thousands of planets that have been found so far that are habitable and have the potential to support life just like on Earth.

I also find it particularly intriguing that Newton’s Law of Gravity also guides planets, asteroids, and comets in their orbit around the Sun and organised the orbit of the billion stars within our Milky Way Galaxy. This, as it turns out, is a common thing in the world of science: that everything from nature to space all follow certain laws of physics, while everything else, as Tyson remarks, is opinion.

The book also mentions so many fascinating facts such as different colour have different temperature, it also features the explanations of most of the elements in the periodic table, amusing speculations like the possibility that Earthlings might just be a descendant of Martians, and many, many space-science stuff that I find it challenging to digest.

Needless to say, I came here to find answers but come out with more questions. Questions like what’s in the space between galaxies? Who or what neatly organised the gravitational orbits of the planets and the stars? What is a supermassive black hole? What’s on the dark side of the moon? What’s that bright thing in the center of the Milky Way galaxy?

But I guess that’s what a stimulating book is supposed to do, and the amount of mysteries about the space that we still haven’t uncovered yet are intriguing to closely follow.

Be scared, but don’t be afraid

“Courage is Calling” by Ryan Holiday

This is book no. 1 out of 4 on the four Stoic virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. And courage is the important first piece of the four, because without courage none of the latter three are possible.

So, what is courage? first and foremost, it is not the absence of fear, but the management of fear. It is using fear as a risk alert and then follows it up with due diligence to define what we’re actually facing.

As Ryan Holiday remarks, “[f]oresee the worst to perform the best. When fear is defined, it can be defeated. When downside is articulated, it can be weighed against upside. When the wolves are counted, there are fewer of them. Mountains turn out to be molehills, monsters turn out just to be men. When our enemies are humanized, they can be better understood.”

“What we thought were incredible costs,” he then continues, “turn out to be clear calculations—calculations well worth making. The risks, it is revealed, were far outpaced by the rewards. Black swans come into view and can be prepared for. Attacks that we’ve anticipated can be repulsed. The spectrum of possibilities is reduced, the scope of Murphy’s Law is diminished. Vague fear is sufficient to deter us; the more it is explored, the less power it has over us. Which is why we must attack these faulty premises and root them out like the cancers they are.”

Indeed, courage is measuring the danger and carefully calculating our moves to tackle them. Because it’s not whether or not things will be hard (they will) or scary (they are), but it’s about our response of sizing up our obstacles, making plans to defeat them, train for them, and attack them one step at a time.

Courage is also the decision to still go ahead despite the unfavourable odds from our due diligence, when it’s the right thing to do. It is the firefighter rushing into a burning building, the whistleblower taking on corrupt powerful people, the entrepreneur going into business alone, the activist protesting against tyranny, or John F. Kennedy’s decision to help Martin Luther King Jr. to get out of jail for protesting the segregation even though the move was considered a political suicide.

Courage could also means restraint, as Sun Tzu said “it is best to win without fighting—to have maneuvered in such a way that the enemy has lost before it has even begun.” This is what Abraham Lincoln did by managing to maneuver the South into its unwinnable role as the aggressor in the Civil War. It is what Malala Yousafzai shows when asked about the Taliban that shot her in the face and left her for death, she replied “[e]ven if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him.”

One lesson that is sobering from this book is that great legendary heroes were all humans after all with the same doubts and fears like the rest of us. For example, in her version of Hero’s Journey, Florence Nightingale at first refused her “call to adventure” because “it’s too hard, too scary, because they must obviously have picked the wrong person.” But sometimes our calling is much bigger than our fear or the risk, and courage means eventually pursuing the calling even when it feel like the whole world is against us. And that is the thin margin that separates the heroes from the rest.

Churchill was 54 years old and could’ve just retired and lived a simple old days when the danger of Hitler started to appear. Steve Jobs could’ve just stayed content with his second act with Pixar and never to attempt the uphill battle to recoup his first invention Apple. And nobody would blame Charles de Gaulle if after fleeing from Nazi prosecution with his wife and kids, he chose to live anonymously in Britain far away from danger and didn’t organise a French uprising.

Courage is also contagious. I love the story from the ancient Greece where when a city-state needed a military help from Sparta, the Spartans wouldn’t send their army, but instead they only send one Spartan commander. As Holiday explains, “[b]ecause courage, like fear, is contagious. One person who knows what they are doing, who isn’t afraid, who has a plan is enough to reinforce an outnumbered army, to buck up a broken system, to calm chaos where it has taken root. And so a single Spartan was all their allies needed.”

Moreover, sometimes courage appears in a split second decision making. As Holiday remarks, “[c]ourage is defined in the moment. In less than a moment. When we decide to step out or step up. To leap or to step back. A person isn’t brave, generally. We are brave, specifically. For a few seconds. For a few seconds of embarrassing bravery we can be great. And that is enough.” And I can’t think of a better example for this than the recent tragedy where an Uvalde teacher shielded her students from a school shooter, thus saving the kids’ lives but lost her own life.

Yes, courage can also mean sacrifice. Like the act by Irma Garcia in that Texas school shooting that saved a lot of her students’ lives. It can also appear in the form of a mother who puts her career ambition aside to take care for her sick child. It is the immigrant who works in a menial job overseas despite having a medical degree from back home. It is the employee who resigned from a high-paying job in a company or industry that is making the world a worse place. It is that person who has a unfairly damaged reputation because they’re silently protecting someone else.

As we have seen, being brave doesn’t mean we are fearless. Far from it. But we can be scared and do it anyway, as the calling or the reason or the purpose are much bigger than our fear. This is what the heroes in history have figured out, that being scared is only a state of mind while being afraid is feeling the fear deeply, with novelist William Faulkner sums it up nicely when he said “be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” And that, in a nutshell, is courage.

A billionaire’s lecture notes

“Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

In 2012 venture capitalist Peter Thiel taught a course in his alma matter Stanford about startup, entrepreneurship, and business in general. And among his many students, one in particular, Blake Masters, took very detailed and diligent notes where it then being copied, shared, and became wildly popular among the students.

This book is the polished edition of that concise notes. And it is one of the best business books I’ve ever read.

Thiel’s lessons begin with a simple message: Dominate a small niche and scale up from there. As he explains, “[t]he perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.”

Because, it is easier to dominate a small market than a large market already filled with competing companies. Thiel gave the exaggerated example of the cure for baldness or a drug to safely eliminate the need for sleep, to make the point across. But the message is clear: if we build something valuable that never existed before, the increase in value is theoretically limitless.

However, he also throw some cold water over the common believe that great products sell themselves, as plenty of potentially great inventions were born and died without much fanfare. Thiel commented, “[i]f you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business—no matter how good the product.”

And thus he emphasizes the importance of branding, network effects, utilization of technology, etc, including choosing our market carefully and expanding deliberately within it. Chapter 11 on sales, marketing, and advertising covers this in great detail.

Alternatively, if we cannot come up with something revolutionary, as a start up we can instead radically improve an existing solution. As Thiel remarked, “PayPal, for instance, made buying and selling on eBay at least 10 times better. Instead of mailing a check that would take 7 to 10 days to arrive, PayPal let buyers pay as soon as an auction ended. Sellers received their proceeds right away, and unlike with a check, they knew the funds were good.”

And this book is filled with tactics and examples for these kinds of improvement insights. For example, Thiel mentions about the metrics that he use to set the limits for effective distribution: “The total net profit that you earn on average over the course of your relationship with a customer (Customer Lifetime Value, or CLV) must exceed the amount you spend on average to acquire a new customer (Customer Acquisition Cost, or CAC). In general, the higher the price of your product, the more you have to spend to make a sale—and the more it makes sense to spend it.”

The book then step forward to the next progress in a start up: the importance of careful scaling and expansion. Thiel says that there are 2 forms of progress, vertical and horizontal. Vertical progress means doing completely new things (like what Richard Branson have done multiple times from records to airlines to beverages etc), while horizontal progress involves copying things that work, which is a more natural progression. As Thiel commented “[t]he most successful ecompanies make the core progression—to first dominate a specific niche and then scale to adjacent markets—a part of their founding narrative.”

The best example for this horizontal progression is Amazon, where they showed how it can be masterfully done, from books to CDs to pretty much everything today. Here’s Thiel again: “Jeff Bezos’s founding vision was to dominate all of online retail, but he very deliberately started with books. There were millions of books to catalog, but they all had roughly the same shape, they were easy to ship, and some of the most rarely sold books—those least profitable for any retail store to keep in stock—also drew the most enthusiastic customers.”

Moreover, in the book Thiel also writes about his experience as an investor looking at businesses from the outside perspective, with special mention of the pareto principle, where roughly 20% of successful investments (or start-up attempts) will outperform the 80% of flops and still leave us with a net gain, sometimes even a big one. He provides a compelling argument using many examples to show the principle at work, which is nothing short of an epiphany for me. The message from him is again simple: in the end it’s about the batting average, not the once (or few) in a lifetime home runs. And this also applies in many other walks of life.

I could really go on and on about the wide range of topics in this dense book, which also teaches us about disruptions, luck, definite and indefinite views of the future. It tells us about when to fight with all we got, when to step back, or when to merge (if you can’t beat them, join them). And ultimately, it provides us with the day-to-day framework to efficiently run a business, which was the main reason why my entrepreneur friend highly recommended this book to me in the first place.

A masterpiece on football tactics

“Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Football” by Michael Cox

This is a story of art vs. science in football. It is the difference in management style between individualistic approach of Johan Cruyff vs. the meticulous organisation of Van Gaal, the clash between the magic of superstar player Roberto Baggio vs. the conservatism in manager Arrigo Sacchi, the contrast between European flair vs. the tough tackling English tradition.

This is also the debate over how to utilise space, over playing from the back, catenaccio vs. zonal marking, the role of the “water carrier”, what to do during the transition, where to put the third attacker and the third defender, the choice between inverted wingers or wide forwards, how to use the full backs, where to place the playmaker, what kind of sprints players have to make, how to win a “second ball”, how to counter-press, and eventually, how to score goals and win a match.

In short, this is a story of football tactics.

Zonal Marking brings us on a historical tour of tactics in European football that began in The Netherlands, then progressed to Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, detoured to Argentina (for a particular false 9 role), back to Europe in Germany, before finishing in England where all of the European styles eventually mixed up together in the 2010s Premier League.

And what a fascinating journey. The evolution of football tactics was narrated using some of the most memorable matches in both club and country across these 7 main European footballing countries, with the long analysis of 1990s Italian Seri A in particular brings back many fond memories for me, with nostalgic mentions of great (but probably a bit forgotten) players such as Moreno Toricelli, Gianluca Pessotto, Angelo Di Livio, Paulo Sousa, Zvonimir Boban, Marcio Amaroso, Ariel Ortega, Taribo West, Marco Delvecchio, Christian Panucci, etc, among the usual superstars such as Pirlo, Ronaldo, Maldini, Nedved, Vieri, Nesta, Batistuta, and Totti.

The book also spills the drama, tensions, and the behind-the-scene infightings. I was particularly surprised when learning about how tactically inefficient Zidane was for France, how Del Piero and Inzaghi did not actually get along but Marcello Lippi can still make it work for them at Juventus, how difficult it was at first to adapt the whole Barcelona team to Lionel Messi, and what really happened when Mourinho opted to use Diego Lopez instead of Iker Casillas in Real Madrid’s goal.

But ultimately, the sheer majority of this book are filled with deep tactical analysis of the matches, and the specific role of the players in them, that would make us see them in a completely different light.

It is an explanation of why Rivaldo and Giafranco Zola initially played at left midfield of a 4-4-2 instead as a number 10, why Roberto Carlos played a wingback role at Inter, why Dennis Bergkamp scored more goals than target man Marco Van Basten, why attack-minded Sinisa Mihajlovic can become a defender wearing no 11 shirt, what is Guardiola’s “15-pass rule” and why did his Barcelona team fielded a 3-7-0 formation in FIFA club World Cup final.

It is also an explanation why Portugal specifically produce great wingers, why Claude Makelele was Real Madrid’s best player during the galactico era, how did Germany beat Brazil 7-1, why Ozil was ineffective in Arsenal, why Ribery and Robben were integral in Bayern Munich, why defending champion France lost to a debutan Senegal at the opening of World Cup 2002, and how on earth can Greece won the Euro 2004.

In a way, this book is like the prequel of Michael Cox’s first book, The Mixer, that tells about the evolution of tactics in the Premier League, as Zonal Marking ended in the same spot as The Mixer in English football, which fitted nicely. It is another masterpiece by Michael Cox, intriguing from start to finish, I enjoyed every reading minute of it.

A tresure trove of random knowledge

“The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know is Wrong” by John Mitchinson and John Lloyd

This is a fun book to read, written in a relaxed, funny, but smart manner. It is a book that provides a treasure trove of random knowledge that breaks myths, exposes misconceptions, and could enhance your odds for winning a pub quiz.

Who knew that there are 2500 different species of mosquitos, Ayers Rock is not the biggest rock in the world, sticking pins in dolls is not a voodoo practice, Roald Dahl wrote all his books using a pencil, there are 2 words that rhyme with orange, and the Catholic Church didn’t fully admitted that Galileo’s view on the Solar System was correct until 1992.

The only drawback for me is the absence of reference or bibliography or any form of evidence to support their claims, which, at best, in some cases that I’m familiar with actually contain one or two minor factual errors. Or at worst, in topics with never ending science-based arguments they present their view as the undisputed fact, such as their claim that sleeping 8 hours a day is apparently more harmful than sleeping 6-7 hours, with no further elaboration.

Thus, this is a book for entertainment purposes only, and perhaps a “gateway drug” to further rabbit-hole research for any of the 230 topics. But independently verify them, we still must.

The science of timing

“When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Every person in the world has a chronotype, a personal pattern of circadian rhythm that influences our psychology and physiology, where we experience the day in 3 stages: a peak, a trough, and a rebound.

However, only about three quarter of us experience it in that precise order (a chronotype that Daniel Pink refers as larks), while the other one in four people (who Pink refers as night owls) experience their day in the reverse order: recovery, trough, and then peak.

Now it might seem trivial at first, but figuring out our chronotype can be crucial for any individual, as we can then maximize our peak time, manage our down time, and insert some strategic “vigilance breaks” before any important task.

As Pink remarks, “[f]igure out your type, understand your task, and then select the appropriate time. Is your own hidden daily pattern peak-trough-rebound? Or is it rebound-trough-peak? Then look for synchrony. If you have even modest control over your schedule, try to nudge your most important work, which usually requires vigilance and clear thinking, into the peak and push your second-most important work, or tasks that benefit from disinhibition, into the rebound period. Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period.”

This is a book about our relationship with timing. Daniel Pink spent 2 years to read and analyse more than 700 studies in anaesthesiology, anthropology, endocrinology, chronobiology, economics and social psychology, to codify what becomes this 268 pages book filled with scientific findings as well as tools, exercises, and hacks to put the knowledge of “when” into action.

The book covers a broad range of analysis of timing, including the James Dean Effect (how the perceived end changes the whole outlook), the duration neglect (how we tend to remember the peak of the experience and how it ended while the entire duration isn’t put into account if the ending is pleasant. And vice versa), why do teenagers sleep later and wake up later, how the introduction of a deadline changes the intensity of any task, why do people prefer to hear the bad news first then the good news, and the most incredible example of a time synchronization by the dabbawalas in Mumbai.

It also provides numerous case studies that demonstrate the direct effects of some of the hacks. For example, on the introduction of more breaks in a Danish school, Pink learned that “[w]hen the Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break “to eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores did not decline. In fact, they increased. As the researchers note, “A break causes an improvement that is larger than the hourly deterioration.”That is, scores go down after noon. But scores go up by a higher amount after breaks.”

This could also applied in a higher stake decision makings, such as in a courtroom after the judges take a break: “Immediately after that first break, for lunch, they become more forgiving—more willing to deviate from the default—only to sink into a more hard-line attitude after a few hours. But, as happened with the Danish schoolchildren, look what occurs when those judges then get a second break—a midafternoon restorative pause to drink some juice or play on the judicial jungle gym. They return to the same rate of favorable decisions they displayed first thing in the morning.”

Moreover, while the 7 chapters all consist of the hypothesis, the scientific testing, and the results, the follow up “Time Hacker’s Guide” for every chapter provides us with the actionable tools to implement the theories. This is where the gems are. This covers everything from the best time to exercise, the goldilocks duration for napping, when to go first, when to go last, to explaining why lunch is the most important meal of the day.

In the end, it’s a fairly quick read for a book with plenty of scientific explanations, as most of the stuffs discussed here are already familiar to us. But nevertheless, it’s like visiting our favourite museum but this time we have a tour guide with us who provides us with more background contexts and explanations that could teach us one or two new important things.

Whatever happens today the sun will rise again tomorrow

“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway

For someone who is a massive non-fiction reader, that is still learning to read fiction, this book is an acquired taste for me. Brilliant at the beginning, can be somewhat dull in the middle, and at a first glance it just abruptly ended without any real conclusion.

But still, this is Hemingway’s famed first novel. The best he ever wrote, according to his biographer Jeffrey Myers.

It is a story inspired by an actual event, during the post World War 1 era that produced the so-called “lost generation” of American expatriates that stayed on in Europe and lived in a hedonic manner. In particular, the book is inspired by the events and people from the summer of 1925 when Hemingway and several expats lived in Paris and went to Pamplona for the Festival of San Fermín.

It is also a soap opera of love entanglement between several people in the group, with Lady Brett Ashley at the center of it. The drama is neatly summarised by Hemingway’s grandson, Seán, in the book’s introduction: “Sometimes love just happens, and it does not always end happily. Brett’s affairs with Jake, Cohn, Mike Campbell, and even Pedro Romero are hopelessly entwined and tragically sad. Love triumphs over all but leaves carnage in its wake. For Jake Barnes, wisdom is gained at the expense of heartbreak.”

Indeed, Brett is a character that you either love or hate. And the fact that people’s opinion of her have been polarized for decades is a testament to Hemingway who created her complex character.

Moreover, in the same introduction Seán also writes about his grandfather’s process of writing, editing, and rewriting of this book, which gives the needed context of what’s going on inside Hemingway’s mind as he wrote it. This comes in handy later on, as my focus on the novel shifted to the style of writing and not the story itself (which can be quite over the top and exaggerated at times).

This is where the book becomes a masterpiece, where Hemingway shows his talent on describing a complex set of personalities, which then mashed them up together in a single narrative. It has a smooth buildup of the introduction of each of the characters from zero to complicated human beings, with the flawed relationships between the individuals become more apparent as the story develops. It is also very impressive how Hemingway can vividly describe the atmosphere of the places as the background context in which the character interactions take place.

All in all, the novel feels like quite a long story filled with so many events, adventures, and tragedies, considering the book is only 98 pages long. And as always, the thing is with Hemingway’s books is that they make you think of all other analogies in a similar situation as his stories. And this is what eventually blew my mind at the after thought.

A case in point, the title “The Sun Also Rises” refers to a biblical verse Ecclesiastes 1:5 where King Solomon (the wisest man ever lived) said “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” Which loosely translated to human condition is a never ending cycle of ups and downs, happy and sad, triumphs and defeats. And by acknowledging this cycle it can lessen some of the pains during all the chaos, such as the despairs occurring in the story, as whatever happens today the sun will rise again tomorrow.

This, makes the otherwise dull and uneventful ending (that conversation inside the taxi) becomes a deep philosophical essence of the entire book. And this, is what makes Hemingway one of the best there is.

One of those in-between books

“The Power of Your Subconscious Mind” by Joseph Murphy

This is a 1967 book, written in the same spirit as James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh”, Earl Nightingdale’s “The Strangest Secret”, Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, or their modern equivalent of, gasp, “The Secret.”

It is a book about subconscious mind but written without using any neuro scientific findings whatsoever. But instead it relies heavily on 1960s psychology, and most significantly on the same “Law of Attraction” way of thinking as these books above, but with a little twist: Joseph Murphy aligns his subconscious theory with his very apparent pious world view. So that the law of attraction is not necessarily a magical pull, but instead it comes in a form of answered prayers.

But I didn’t mind reading it one bit. Because it’s almost the holiday season, and I needed to decompress and lower my reading intensity before I can truly enjoy taking a break (that includes a break from reading. Maybe. I dunno. We’ll see).

And there’s arguably no better way to do this than reading a classic bestseller with old lessons obvious enough to be a cliche (which makes it easy to casually read), but good enough to be a subtle reminder. You know, one of those palate cleansers between two heavy topics, or fluffers (truly sorry, can’t think of a better example), or “in-between” books.

And by doing so, in the journey of “curing” my Tsundoku, I can also “tick off” another book that I bought impulsively long time ago, as well as maintaining my monthly reading target a week in advance, so that I can skip reading altogether during the one week holiday, if I want to.

And while the book is filled with phrases like “I prayed aloud for about five minutes two or three times a day repeating the above simple prayer. In about three months my skin was whole and perfect” or “Repeat the word, “Wealth,” to yourself slowly and quietly for about five minutes prior to sleep and your subconscious will bring wealth to pass in your experience”, to be fair, it is not all mumbo jumbo.

Because there are still several great insights from the book, such as one my favourites: “The suggestions of others in themselves have absolutely no power whatever over you except the power that you give them through your own thoughts. You have to give your mental consent; you have to entertain the thought. Then, it becomes your thought, and you do the thinking. Remember, you have the capacity to choose.”

In short, it’s a win-win all around while learning one or two new things along the way. What’s not to like?

The first book I’ll recommend to someone who wants to learn about Islam

“The Islam Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained” by DK

This book is one of the clearest big-picture explanations about Islam. It is a perfect introduction for novices, but the sheer wealth of information can also teach so many new insights to the practitioners of the faith.

The book began with the history of the Prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam. Then followed by the step by step guide about the 5 pillars of Islam, from the syahada, to explaining about the prayers rituals (even how to do wudhu or cleansing before starting the prayer), to everything there is about zakat (or alms), fasting and the Hajj. The book then moves to the holy Qur’an, where it slowly breaks down the explanation of chapters and verses, including the context, meaning, and usage, before continuing the journey of the history of Islam.

It covers everything imaginable about the religion, from Islam’s stance on other religion, the concept of heaven and hell, prohibition of alcohol and eating pork, the background explanation of sharia banking, the switch from community guided by the caliph into an empire expanding through war, the misconception of women’s role status and opportunities (including all the many benefits and disadvantages), to the wonderful hakawati (ancient story tellers), the amazing stories on the Silk Road, and of course the elephant in the room: on terrorism.

It also provides the clearest and most concise explanation about the schism between Sunni and Shia, how the order of Sufi was born, even the controversial sect of Ahmadiyah. And it dive deep into my favourite subjects on Islam: the Golden Age of Islam, and one special chapter on Islam in Indonesia.

Along the way, it touches upon the stories of some of the most notable Muslims in history, from the rightly guided caliphs, to the many emperors and sultans, Salah al-Din, Avicenna, Averroes, Al Bukhari, Sultan Mehmed II, Harun al-Rashid, scientists such as Al-Khwarizmi Al-Haytham and Al-Kindi, Ibn Khaldul, Kemal Ataturk, Ibn Battuta, Rumi, Jamal al-Din al-Afgani, Mansa Musa, Malala Yousafzai, , Malcolm X, to even controversial figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Muhammad bin Saud, Mahdi of Sudan, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, and terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden, Bagdhadi, Boko Haram, Taliban and Al Shabab, and so much more.

All in all, the knowledge in the book is so complete that it could be the only book anyone reads about Islam and still come out very knowledgable. It can also becomes the gateway to further specific studies on the many, many topics presented in the book. Very well written, and very well edited. Well done.