Stolen Focus: A Short Book Review

As I read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel from his work to what I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. I’ve lost sight of the things that matter, and I’m starting to operate in a state of extreme and perpetual chaos. I’m distracted from the things I should be doing – like reading, working out – and instead, I’m filling my day with mundane and pointless activities. I’m unable to read for long stretches without picking up my phone, without switching over to tasks that don’t need doing; the fact that I spend close to four hours a day on average on my phone – without any social media apps on it – is an indication of how frenzied my existence has become. I’m unable to find joy in the things that made me happy, and the only moment of clarity I experience is when I’m watering the plants on the terrace. Through all of this, I kept blaming myself. That something in my head had shifted and I was probably going through a phase, not too dissimilar to ones I’ve experienced in the past. Johann’s book gave me something else to ruminate on… Something that has changed drastically over the last two years of the pandemic. My environment.

Relying on scientific studies, interviews with experts, and personal experience, Johann Hari attempts to make a case for a crisis not recognized – that of our shrinking attention spans and our inability to focus. Johann presents his case in a lucid and accessible manner, never laboring the reader with esoteric and technical details of the studies he references, and always using his personal experiences and ruminations as a navigational tool. Regardless of the anecdotal halo to his book, his work is backed by solid research (as is evident from the 46 pages of end-notes) and anchored in today’s dominant scientific view. He lists 12 causes of this crisis, calling out some obvious ones such as technology and social media, to some less intuitive ones such as the rise of what he calls cruel optimism – the belief that individual changes will be enough to respond to a crisis triggered by a changed and overloaded environment. Meticulous and well-structured, Johann’s work is honest and a joy to read, and it showcases his ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Data points from Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus. Taken out of context, they may not mean much. But if any of these shock you, it might be worthwhile to pick up the book! A key callout is that these are mostly relevant in an American/ British context and not really a global one.

We’re overloaded with information and we’re fighting a losing battle to absorb it. We’re constantly trying to multi-task, thinking of it as a virtue when it’s not. We’re no longer experiencing flow states, periods of unwavering focus on a pleasurable activity. We’re tired and exhausted, anxious and insecure. We’re sleeping less and replacing that with screen time on Instagram or on Netflix. We’ve stopped reading, playing and letting our minds wander. We’re eating food that causes energy spikes and crashes, and breathing air that is literally dulling our senses. And lastly, we’re all trying to find an individual solution to this, harboring a delusion that somehow, holding ourselves accountable is the key to all this. When was the last time we succeeded in limiting our social media use? Or the last time we could read a book without picking up our phones?

Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting.

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Short Book Review

I still can’t believe that I finished a biographical account of someone who decided to raise bees for a year, and actually enjoyed it. Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is an eccentric record of her first steps as a beekeeper. Weird, warm and wonderfully but predictably woven, her writing floats and flits between the hive and her personal life, which keep feeding off each other. Never lingering and never still. Almost like a bee.

I’ve often marveled at our ability to find meaning in the most mundane of things. Or perhaps – and I’m certain that Jukes would agree – it is the other way around… Only when we begin to find meaning and joy in the most mundane of things, do we find ourselves. Like when we stop to notice how blue the sky is or how green the leaves of the trees are… She finds a totem in the beehive, and the act of keeping and caring changes her. Reeking of passion that borders on obsession, and always simmering with self-awareness, her story resonates.

As I feel new spaces forming, new possibilities opening beyond the hive, I too have been preparing to lift up, break out. I feel ready for it. The bees have chewed through some of my congested bits just like the wax moths do; I’m feeling better resourced, more in touch with things around me, more able to begin something new. Perhaps in a way – unbeknownst to them – it is the bees who are the open-handed ones; they are setting me free.
How much of looking, how much of wanting to look, is about its opposite – about wanting to be seen?
Last year, I was also feeling blocked, caught in a culture and a state of being that seemed to be short on care and to have little patience with sensitivity. The hive, for me, was about escaping that site of difficultly; or the hive was not about escape at all, but about the upwards thrust of my own hard-fought belief that something else was possible – a different kind of perception, of relation – within this less than perfect range.

Working from home for the better part of two years through the pandemic has shrunk my world down to the two rooms of my matchbox-sized apartment. It has changed me and warped my reality in ways I can’t fathom… But I’ve starting filling this reality with moments of extreme clarity born from simple acts: watching parrots peck at the bird feeder outside our bedroom, watering the plants every morning, feeling the soil for moisture and touching the flowers in the garden on our terrace. Not too dissimilar, I think, to the act of keeping bees. It has a rating of 3.76 on goodreads and is a satisfying read to kickstart 2022!

PS: A glimpse of the flowers in the garden on the terrace 🙂

Red Notice: A Short Book Review

Over the last 24 months, I’ve read books across an eclectic set of areas, restricted only by my preference for non-fiction and a general disdain for self-help and autobiographies. The endeavor has been to acquire knowledge across areas and peep into worlds far removed from mine, in the hope that there are lessons I can learn and apply in my context. The point I’m trying to make is that this process has resulted in reading choices that are sometimes hard to justify, and subsequently review. Bill Browder’s Red Notice (not connected to the recently released and extremely disappointing Red Notice on Netflix) is one such book. It’s a little difficult to review and recommend, not account of its pace, language or real-life story but because of the world in which it exists: Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Bill Browder began an investment fund in Russia, crossed paths with the oligarchs that controlled the companies the fund invested in, and forced uncomfortable conversations around corporate governance and corruption in a market that was just emerging from the shadow of its breakup. He eventually fell out of favor with the Russian government on account of his aggressive activism and was denied entry into the country. His companies were ‘stolen’ and re-registered to convicted criminals. Using forged contracts, the conspirators then secured sham judgements from Russian courts for unpaid dues, equal to the profit that these companies made in 2006. Since these judgements wiped off the companies’ profits for that year, the new “owners” then went on to claim a refund of the $230M that were legally paid in taxes. The story focuses on two aspects: the vindictiveness of Putin’s cronies and Browder’s determination to seek justice for the torture and murder of his lawyer and friend, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder’s fight gave birth to the Magnitsky Act in the US that imposed sanctions on those responsible, a dismissal of frivolous lawsuits filed in the UK, and a rejection of ridiculous red notice requests by the Russian government, among other things. Details of Magnitsky’s torture are brutal, and to call his murder a human rights violation is an understatement.

We live in a world where it’s easy to fall prey to the seductive power of authoritarianism, leaving little space for stories of dissent to emerge. History is strewn with examples of such seductions that cut across boundaries and are not just restricted to former socialist states. I also can’t help but wonder… If such stories can emerge from a country that currently ranks 28 on the ease of doing business and 21 on enforcing contracts, then it begs the question: what happens in other countries that don’t rank up there? It has a rating of 4.41 on goodreads and is a New York Times bestseller. This also happens to be the second highest rated book I’ve read this year, after The Empire of Pain (4.60).

Update: The UK and several EU countries have also imposed sanctions and restrictions on those responsible, preventing them from traveling outside Russia.

 

Nine Lives: A Short Book Review

For a lot of us who grew up in the 90s, religion was a big part of our lives. This was the time of Amar Chitra Katha’s graphic novels, and televised versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Over the years however, I’ve stayed away from writing about religion, and the quagmire of politics that goes with it, for obvious reasons. But William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives is a case study on how to write without the fear of criticism and controversy. Continue reading