[Book Review] The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Rating: ★★★★★


“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.” —–Siddhartha Mukherjee

(I think this quote describes the cancer in the most literate and brilliant way. ——A great homage to the first sentence of Anna Karerina)

In this book, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer physician at Columbia University, tells the history of cancer from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Before reading the book, I had thought cancer was relatively recent disease but it turned out that the history of cancer goes back to 4000 years ago in Egypt when Imhotep discovered cancer.

The ability cancer cells have to reproduce themselves is the same biochemical magic that normal cells use to self-replicate; it’s the whole reason we’re alive. Cancer has weaponised our own life force; its ‘life is a recapitulation of the body’s life, its existence a pathological mirror of our own.’

Similarly cancer rates have gone up, in historical terms, not because there are more carcinogens but because (more irony) we are living longer.

Civilization did not cause cancer, but by extending human life spans – civilization unveiled it.

Now that so many people are surviving into their seventies and eighties, cancer has a better chance to pull off its mask – like a Scooby-Doo villain – to reveal that it was lurking there inside us all along. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you pesky oncologists.

So this book is frightening, and you do have to brace yourself to read endless variants on the phrase ‘unfortunately it had metastasized inoperably into her liver and brain’ over and over again; however, balancing this terror is the very real intellectual thrill of following the generations of doctors and scientists who have tried to understand and fight the disease.

The fight has got a bit more sophisticated than it used to be. Not a lot, but a bit. The prevailing approach for a long time was that pioneered by William Halsted, who insisted on (literally) ‘radical’ surgery to cut out as much tissue as physically possible, in order to maximize the chances of removing all the cancerous cells. One disciple, for instance, ‘evacuated three ribs and other parts of the rib cage and amputated a shoulder and a collarbone from a woman with breast cancer’. Gradually, advances in biochemistry and, latterly, genetics, have allowed for more targeted non-surgical solutions, although so far only really for certain specific cancers.

In fact the most progress has been made not in dealing with cancer, but in avoiding it in the first place. Anti-smoking campaigns, lifestyle advice, along with Pap smears and other screening programmes, have been very successful at least in the West (elsewhere, things are going backwards in many cases). Once it actually develops, your options remain fairly limited, and the metric of success is still often how many years of remission one can hope for, rather than the chances of an outright ‘cure’.

Mukherjee is thorough with his story and writes pretty well, although the focus is very much on the American scene, with researchers from Europe and elsewhere sometimes dealt with in a cursory fashion; at one point he even describes France and England as lying on the ‘far peripheries’ of medicine! He also goes a bit overboard with his literary credentials, bookending every chapter and section with multiple epigraphs from poets and other thinkers. It’s not clear how well he understands his sources here, though, especially when you see that he’s dated Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to 1893, when Burton had been dead for two hundred and fifty years.

Still, this is overall a very rich and rewarding book, full of scientific discovery and packed with historical detail. It’s a thriller, it’s a sci-fi, it’s a horror story. Let’s just hope that future editions have even more to report in the way of progress.






[Book Review] Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges(3): “Aleph”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the last summer, I have been procrastinating on writing book review series for Borges’s Collected Fictions. There have been a lot of things going on since summer. Plus, I always feel that reading his books requires some extra concentration and I certainly felt distracted by events going around me(moving to different continent might be a good excuse). Now, since I have lived in the new place for over 5 months, I can be relatively more relaxed and re-initiate to read the rest part of the book.

(For previous posts: Borges(1): A Universal History of IniquityBorges(2): Ficciones)

The third post on Borges’s Collected Fiction is “Aleph“. According to wikipedia, Aleph is the first letter of Semitic Abjads(e.g. Arabics, Hebrew) like alphabet “A”. Also, it can be used “number 1” as well. In Borges’ story, the Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping, or confusion.

The Immortal

We have all experienced different dimensions in our life, to name just three: waking, deep sleep and dreaming. Yet when it comes to describing or imagining the afterlife, I’ve read very few accounts postulating how awareness could shift between various levels; rather, life (or lack of life) after death tends to be portrayed as an uninterrupted hum all at one frequency, the three major frequencies: 1) awareness within a specific form, like a light body 2) formless awareness, that is, our consciousness merging with undifferentiated oneness, an ocean of universal conscious 3) complete obliteration without a trace of conscious awareness.

Why is this? Why can’t we think in terms of an alternating between various frequencies or modes of awareness, perhaps even with an occasional shift into oblivion? And these questions are compounded if we also think of our bodily existence on planet earth continuing forever, if we became part of the race of the immortals. Questions such as these pop up, at least for me, after reading this Jorge Luis Borges tale.

Vintage Borges: The Borges-like narrator discloses a verbatim transcription of a document a French princess purchased in an old London bookshop after a conversation she had with the grubby old bookdealer in various languages: French, English, Spanish, Portuguese; she subsequently walked out of the shop with Alexander Pope’s rendering of Homer’s Iliad in six volumes and later found this document in the last volume. You have to love how our Borges-like narrator isn’t claiming to invent the story; quite the contrary, he is simply reporting on someone else’s factual account of their extraordinary experience.

The Manuscript: The document’s narrator provides us with his back-story in brief: he is an officer in the Roman army in Egypt, the Roman legions that have recently defeated Egyptian forces; however, since he himself didn’t participate in any of the bloody combat, he was propelled to embark on an adventure through the deserts in quest of the secret City of the Immortals. You also have to love how the narrator, an adventurous soldier, hale, hearty, bold leader of men and lover of the god Mars, functions as an alter-ego to the frail, bookish, solitary Borges.

The Spark: One day a stranger, exhausted, covered in blood, rides into camp and, prior to dropping dead that very evening, informs the tribune how he is searching for the river that purifies men of death; and, he goes on to say, on the other side of that river lies the City of the Immortals, a city filled with bulwarks, amphitheaters and temples. With the inclusion of amphitheaters as part of his description of the immortal city, we are given a direct signal that what is contained within its walls shares a common culture with the Greco-Roman world. Anyway, the stranger’s words fire his spirit and imagination, thus primed for an astonishing discovery, off they go, the tribune and two hundred soldiers under his command provided complements of a high-ranking military commander.

Going Solo: As the tribune informs us, the first part of the journey proved harrowing, grueling and strenuous beyond endurance – most of his men were either driven mad or died, while others, attempting desertion, faced torture or crucifixion. Also in this initial phase, the seekers crossed lands and deserts of fantastic tribes, including the Troglodytes who “devour serpents and lack all verbal commerce.” Events reach such a pitch he is told by a soldier loyal to his cause that the remaining men desire to avenge a crucifixion of one of their comrades and plan to kill him. He subsequently flees camp with several soldiers but disaster hits: in the fury of blinding desert whirlwinds he quickly gets separated – from now on, he is on his own.

Turning Point: Our tribune wanders for days in the desert, forever scorched by the sun and parched by thirst until his living nightmare shifts and somehow he finds himself bound hands behind his back and lying in a stone niche the size of a grave on the slope of a mountain. There’s a stream running at the foot of this mountain and beyond the stream he beholds the dazzling structures of the City of the Immortals. Marcus Flaminius Rufus (at this point the tribune lets us know his name) can also see numerous holes riddling the mountain and valley and from those holes emerge grey skinned naked men with scraggly beards, men he recognizes as belonging to the race of Troglodytes. My sense is these Troglodytes represent a mode of being at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum from that of a refined aesthete and man of letters like Borges. I suspect Borges perceived (and perhaps dreamed) many of his fellow humans inhabiting a Troglodyte-like existence.

Exploration, One: After many days and having finally freed himself from his bonds, Marcus enters the City of the Immortals. Soon after he explores the periphery, we read, “The force of the day drove me to seek refuge in a cavern; toward the rear there was a pit, and out of the pit, out of the gloom below, rose a ladder. I descended the ladder and made my way through a chaos of squalid galleries to a vast, indistinct circular chamber. Nine doors opened into that cellar-like place; eight led to a maze that returned deceitfully, to the same chamber; the ninth led through another maze to a second circular chamber identical to the first.” Anybody familiar with Jorge Luis Borges will recognized a number of recurrent themes: mazes, caverns, ladders, doors, chaos, circular chambers.

Exploration, Two: Having spent what appears an eternity underground, Marcus spots a series of metal rungs on a wall leading to a circle of sky. He climbs the ladder, sobbing with tears of joy, until he emerges into a type of small plaza within the brilliant City. Marcus senses the city’s antiquity and wanders along staircases and inlaid floors of a labyrinthine palace thinking how all what he sees is the work of the gods or, more accurately, gods who have died or, even, perhaps, since much of the architecture appears to lack any trace of practical purpose, gods who were mad. Then, we read, “I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me.” And this is only the beginning: as Marcus further discovers, there are revelations even more astonishing, including the shocking true identity of one of those Troglodytes.

Universal Questions: The second half of the tale takes a decidedly philosophical turn and, in the spirit of this Borges classic, I will conclude with a series of question posed either directly or indirectly by the narrator:

• How does memory relate to immortality? Is the erasure of our memory the first step in achieving immortality?

• Likewise, how does time relate to immortality and is the erasure of time a critical step in experiencing immortality?

• If we were to experience a state free of memory and time in this life, through powerful hallucinogens, deep meditation or otherwise, have we achieved a kind of immortality, at least for a time?

• What part does ecstasy and bliss play in the state or experience of immortality?

• How far does the consequences of our action extend? To a subsequent rebirth or afterlife in another state?

• How much weight should we give to history or a specific epoch of history? To our own personal history? How much of history is so much smoke and mirrors?

• What role does transformation on any level, physical, mental, artistic, spiritual, play in our life?

When I read the work of Jorge Luis Borges I feel like my universe is expanding a thousand-fold. And for good reason – my universe is, in fact, expanding a thousand-fold! This is especially true as I read The Aleph and Other Stories. Such sheer imaginative power. Fantastic! There are nearly fifty stories and brief tales collected here and every tale worth reading multiple times.

The Two Kings and The Two Labyrinths
The king of Babylonia builds a labyrinth “. . . so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way.” Although the king of Babylonia tricked the king of the Arabs into entering his diabolical labyrinth, the king, with the help of God, manages to find the secret exit. After claiming victory in a bloody war, the king of the Arabs leads the king of Babylonia, in turn, into a different kind of labyrinth, and says, ” . . . the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor doors to force, not wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.” Then, the king of the Arabs abandoned the king of Babylonia in the middle of the desert. These two images of a labyrinth, one intricate, convoluted, infinitely confusing and the other an endless desert, have remained with me since I first read this tale some thirty years ago and will remain with me as long as there is a `me’ with a memory.

The Captive

A tale of identity where a young boy with sky-blue eyes is kidnapped in an Indian raid. The parents recover their son who is now a man and bring him back to their home. The man remembers exactly where he hid a knife. Not long thereafter, the man, now an Indian in spirit, returns to the wilderness. The story ends with a question, “I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled; I would like to know whether the lost son was reborn and died in that ecstatic moment, and he ever managed to recognize, even as a baby or a dog might, his parents and the house.” For Borges, memory and identity are ongoing themes. After reading Borges, I can assure you, memory and identity have become ongoing themes for me also.

The Aleph
Around the universe in fifteen pages. There is a little something here for anybody who cherishes literature – a dearly departed lover named Beatriz, a madman and poet named Carlos Argentino Daneri, who tells the first person narrator, a man by the name of Borges, about seeing the Aleph, and, of course, the Aleph. What will this Borges undergo to see the Aleph himself? We read, “I followed his ridiculous instructions; he finally left. He carefully let down the trap door; in spite of a chink of light that I began to make out later, the darkness seemed total. Suddenly I realized the danger I was in; I had allowed myself to be locked underground by a madman, after first drinking down a snifter of poison.” Rather than saying anything further about the Aleph, let me simply note that through the magic of literature we as readers are also given a chance to see what Borges sees. I dare anybody who has an aesthetic or metaphysical bone in their body to read this story and not make the Aleph a permanent part of their imagination.

This is a masterful collection by a writer of genius. I believe The Aleph is just as good as Fictions,” and Fictions is as good as any book of short pieces produced in the 20th Century. If you like paradoxes, puzzles, doppelgangers and labyrinths used as metaphors for the relation of microcosm to macrocosm and the fluid nature of personal identity, then this is the book for you.  These stories are profound, but they are written in such an entertaining traditional narrative style that they might often be mistaken for pulp fiction if they weren’t so astonishingly elegant.

[Book Review] Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell

Rating:  ★★★★★(4,5,maybe?)

As a reader, you will usually have at least one author whom you absolutely love his/her writing so you just try to read all of his/her works. George Orwell is one of that kind of authors for me because he has such a shrewd insight and his writing successfully conveys it.  But I just realized I have never written single book review on his works.

Reading this book was another confirmation on how much I always mesmerized by his insightful writing that resonates this era as well. Like so much of Orwell’s oeuvre, this collection of essays written in 1945 is still urgently relevant today. More than his novels, it is in George Orwell’s lucid and far-from-didactic essays on an incredible range of topics of English concern that we find his real strength as one of the foremost chroniclers of the 20th Century. The themes and ideas that feel somewhat ambiguous and hazy in his fiction are fleshed out brilliantly in his writings on themes both major and minor. Even the smallest of his pieces, like ones on both insular and eclectic subjects like English cooking and even Mahatma Gandhi, are full of such discerning detail and insight that you cannot help but find them wise.

‘Notes On Nationalism’ is a little ensemble of three of his piercing and probing essays in which he dissected his favorite subjects and conundrums: patriotism versus jingoistic nationalism, political fads and the prevalence of prejudice as a part of the national attitude to war and even the sporting spirit of the 1940s. In the titular essay, Orwell divided succinctly patriotism and nationalism; according to him, the former is a sincere and impassioned love for a country, culture or a cause while the latter is a form of chest-thumping jingoism that turns malicious when stretched beyond breaking point in defending blithely a country, culture and cause irrespective of truth.

This is a particularly prescient insight that this sparkling essay delivers, especially in a time when to be ‘nationalist’ is considered as more fashionable than just old-school and harmless patriotism. Orwell deconstructs two myths about the fad of nationalism; one is that it is transferable, to the extent that a nationalist can transfer his or her obsession with a cause to another quite easily. The other is that a nationalist, in his or her defense of the same belief or entity, can even deny hard evidence of facts and truths.

In the second essay, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, Orwell attacks fiercely the carefully concealed presence of a heightened sense of antisemitic paranoia in Britain at the time of the World War II. While this essay might make some skeptical about the validity of his insistence of the Jew stereotype still being used widely in 20th century literature, by the likes of his own peers like Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and G.K Chesterton, what impresses most are his objective examination of the commonly believed stereotypes that foster the stronger streak of antisemitic feeling and his acknowledgement that it is these stereotypes and their rationale that need to be investigated first before one comes up with a definitive solution to this problem.

The third essay, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, is shorter than the rest and it gives further room for Orwell to frown upon how the sensationalism of sporting events between countries and cultures can be ripe for the same virulent and malicious form of jingoism. Sport, according to him, especially of the brutal and energetic nature, has become a breeding ground for petty nationalism and hostility and this is a lesson that we have certainly not learned.

There are occasions when Orwell’s tirades feel a bit self-indulgent; Chesterton, unfortunately, faces the full brunt of his scathing anger. Wisdom would dictate otherwise, that one should judge a writer less from his political and spiritual inclinations and more from his craft and Orwell disagrees to this. But overall, this concise trilogy comprises much wonderful intelligence and insight about understanding not only the political ignorance that marked a particular era of the previous century but also just how the same ignorance has prevailed in today’s different situations. This itself makes this, as with most of the extensive non-fiction of Orwell, wonderfully prescient and prophetic even today.

This excellent piece of essay is only 52 pages so maybe short enough to finish it for someone who has a long commute.






[Book Review] Becoming by Michelle Obama

Rating:  ★★★★★

Michelle Obama has appeared to me inspirational First Lady. Before she became the First Lady of the US, she went to Princeton and Harvard Law school and had a great career as a lawyer. She has been very vocal and active about tackling childhood obesity(Let’s Move!), LGBT Rights and other social issues. Unlike some political figures(although First Lady does not directly involve in politics), I felt that she is approachable as well who is a great wife and mother of two daughters. But I only had known the facade of her until I read this book.

Reading ‘Becoming’ was kind of an intimate experience: it feels like Michelle Obama is casually talking over a cup of coffee about her life from the beginning to the end of First Lady life. She recounts her time growing up on the South Side of Chicago as she shares the joys of her childhood as well as some of the tough things. She was a feisty child, driven to do well in school. Her story begins : “I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.” She speaks lovingly of her roots in this working class family – her parents and her brother and grandparents and how their values shaped the adult she would become. We witness the grief she experienced over the loss of her father and her continuing admiration and love for her mother who was tenacious in seeking a good education for her children. In this memoir, she is so open and honest and it feels so intimate. Michelle shares her love for her husband and daughters. She speaks about the discrimination against the men in her family, about being black at Princeton, about the attacks on her husband’s citizenship, a conspiracy theory primary pushed by the person who unfortunately followed him after his second term. We discover who she is in the times she is undergoing a self discovery, as she questions her aspirations, as she juggles work and motherhood as Barack’s involvement and aspirations in politics grow. It felt so intimate as she shares some personal struggles that they faced, ones that I don’t think she ever divulged publicly previous to this. I thought she was always confident about her role as First Lady and was surprised to learn how nervous she was. Her manner of narrating her life is so down-to-earth.

As she said, “Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.”  I think that is the best way to define “Becoming”and it applies to not only her but also everyone. I’m excited to see how Michelle Obama will be evolve in a forward motion toward better self.


[Book Review] Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Rating:  ★★★★★

Kurt Vonnegut said that Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf  was “the most profound book about homesickness ever written”. Vonnegut also went on to describe how Hesse speaks to young readers, how he speaks to the essence of youth and offers hope.

Kurt Vonnegut exactly described why I have immersed into many of Hesse’s works such as Demian, Narziss and Goldmund, Under the Rad and Siddhartha since I was a teenager. Many of his books are talking about journey of finding true identity of oneself and this kind of self- examiniation and self-discovery usually starts from teenage years.

Hesse said, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”. Of course, the book was written about a man as he turns 50, not a youth.

But I think I can understand why this also speaks to young readers. What Hesse describes, and his use of the lone wolf of the steppe as a symbol is brilliant, is about a time when an individual finds himself alone and in transition – as in a mature man who approaches old age, or as a young person leaving behind the securities of childhood for the uncertainties of adult life.

Through these pages Hesse evokes a character I have seen many times before across literature, but never before with such clarity. Harry Haller is one such man. His intellect is, undoubtedly, worthy of genius, though such a thing is wasted because he has no proper channel for such intellect. He has lost his faith in humanity and has completely withdrawn from the world, so he makes his own world: he has created his own ideal environment within his thoughts. His loneliness is that extreme, he has written an idealized account of his life that never happened. He wants hope, so he creates it himself in the form of a counterpart, a soul mate: Hermione.

She gives him back everything he has lost, his confidence, his hope and his sexual energy. He has passion or life once more. And this is why the novel is so terribly sad. None of this is actually happening; it is the desperate ramblings of a mind trying to heal itself in a world where it can find no sense of belonging or purpose. This imagined woman becomes a lifeline, a beacon in the middle of the dark shores of modernization.  As per the surrealist mode, reality is warped in an attempt to find some higher truth. Her presence is the only thing preventing Harry from killing himself and surrendering to the endless sleep.

For Harry is a man split in two: he is the Steppenwolf. 

“There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.” 

He believes himself to be half man and half wolf. He has all the sensibilities of a normal man, but overshadowing his character is the romantic longings of a wild creature. In such a modern world his desires and natural drives are unfulfilled; they are repressed and controlled resulting in severe depression and low mood. He cannot be who he was meant to be because the space he exists in does not allow it. The time, the age, does not allow it. So he is trapped, and he so desperately needs a root out. That much so he makes one up for himself out of words.

The switch between reality and imagination is extremely hard to notice within the narrative. It happens very early on, and there are many different layers of storytelling. The story we are hearing is actually a journal penned by Steppenwolf and read by the hotel manager. Although the narrative does raise questions, many really, it is not until the end of the novel that the ripples of doubt are confirmed as delusional confirmations. Perception is everything here, perception of the self and of the world. Although such complex imagining may sound detrimental to mental health, they take on the form of a coping strategy for such a lost individual.

It is easy to become lost in life, and it is easy to feel alone in a world that you don’t relate to. But unlike Hesse’s Siddhartha, this novel does not attempt to evoke an inner sense of peace and tranquillity as an effort to solve such problems that life throws at us. A resolution would have been unnecessary here because that is not what Hesse is trying to show us.

Instead with Steppenwolf we receive a vision of a man who has wasted his life in self-pity and self-induced isolation. Is this a projection of the author’s feelings? I don’t think we can actually say for sure, but one thing remains absolutely certain: Steppenwolf is a life lesson for those who do not want to receive the same fate.

[R][Visualization] Radar Plot with Scotch whisky data

When  I had an Islay single malt for the first time, it was mind blowing. In my first foray into the world of whiskies, I took the plunge into the smokiest, peatiest beast of them all — Laphroig . The smell wasn’t pleasant initially but it got totally different when I took a sip from the glass. That same night, dreams of owning a smoker were replaced by the desire to roam the landscape of smoky single malts. What even dragging me more is how the same whisky can taste different as it ages.

As a relatively new scotch whisky fan, I wanted to investigate whether distilleries within a given region do in fact share taste characteristics. For this, I used a dataset profiling 86 distilleries based on 12 flavor categories.

From math&Statistics department at University of Strathclyde, a professor who seems passionate about whisky created a dataset with 86 scotch whisky distillery. This data includes 12 different taste categories, postcode and latitude and longitude. In this post, I will focus on creating radar plot for each whisky to show the range of tastes.

Data Description

Instead of downloading the file, I just access the data through website.

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Previewing the data,

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86 malt whiskies are scored between 0-4 for 12 different taste categories including sweetness, smoky, nutty etc.

Then, I subsetted the data excluding unnecessary information for this post.

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Required Library

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Here are libraries that we need. For this post, ggRadar function is the main one and it’s from ggiraphExtra library.

Main Code

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For this case, I just selected the whiskys I know. You can use sample function in R if you want to see random whisky taste plots.  As you can see, ggRadar function is pretty straight-forward. Since we want to see taste profile for each distillery, let’s set ‘group =distillery’. 



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Now with this code, we, the passionate whisky explorers, will easily identify the flavors of whisky and explore different kinds!

[Book Review]The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings by Octavio Paz

Rating:  ★★★★★

In 2014, I participated in a summer research program in Nevada and the lead professor of the program was a Mexican American. When the professor informed me that I got into the program(I got 10 rejection letters from other programs before receiving the acceptance from the program), he quoted this at the end of his email:

“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.  By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death. The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life””

Octavio Paz  (Mexican poet, writer, and diplomat, 1914-1998; Nobel prize in literature 1990)

This quote was so deep that I took some time to ponder about the meaning of quote. The quote contains such an abstract idea of life and death and also it amazed me how he connected the concept of life and death to civilization and culture. That was the first experience of Octavio Paz to me, thanks to the professor from the program. It was such an inspiring quote but I wasn’t seriously eager to search Octavio Paz’s works and read them. After 4 years from the summer research program, I went to the favourite second-hand bookstore in Minnesota and there was a section which has “recommended by our staff”. One of those books was “The Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz and it immediately brought back to the memory back of the professor and the summer time with great research peers.

While reading this book, I was impressed by Octavio Paz’s insight and deep understanding of his Mexican culture. It is about Mexican history in the context of American Continents and the world. It is a book of analysis of how Mexico emerged as the country it is today (or 1970 as that was the time the book was completed, by adding new chapters to previous ones written even before that) and its place in the world and its relationship with US. It is not a book for the masses, but once started it flows.

Reading Paz was studying Mexican culture.  Paz brilliantly links Mexico’s history with the question of “What makes a Mexican a Mexican?” It pervades every chapter in this book. Rather than focus on a primarily Marxist text, or endless talk about the Revolution, Paz delves deep into the Aztec mythos and Cortesian aftermath of a colonized people with no real identity. A culture trapped between two worlds that cannot be understood by any other culture. Not only is the document historical, it is also a brilliant exposition on the nature of Mexicans with particular emphasis on some of Mexico’s most striking features: The pagan-Catholic cult of Death; the idea of the macho, or what is known as “the Chingada”; the role of women in Mexican society; the importance of the fiesta; and the idea of masks.

Although Paz doesn’t cite as many sources as he should in some instances, his work is written in a poetic nature and does not come across as angry. It is not a book with an agenda (per se), but rather an educational discussion on culture. Even though the initial text was written 63 years ago, it still holds up today.

A major positive trait of this book is the additional writings that accompany the initial text. Paz kept revisiting his text decade after decade, and he had good reason to do so. Mexico saw a lot of change in the 20 years after writing The Labyrinth of Solitude, namely the Mexican Olympics and the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. Paz brings this up and even goes so far as to criticize his own previous work and Mexico itself.

Do you want a deep study and self analysis (for Paz) of Mexico?  Do you want to understand more Mexican American Relations? Do you want to know Mexico? If yes, then pick the book and read it, read it like you travel, like you have a Mexican friend that you cannot completely understand—then again what kind of a person can be completely understood?