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I read only one book in 2020, and here is what I learnt

2020 is gone, and 2021 is already on board! 

2020 was unprecedented, unforeseen, and terribly tragic at best. A lot of us saw our near and dear ones suffer and pass away, and the remaining of us witnessed the whole world come to a pause. Apart from the 'pandemic', the most defining feature of 2020 was probably the 'lockdown' that lasted almost a year.

The lockdown was something most of us never expected to experience ever. On the grimmer side, it brought with it a bunch of socio-personal issues ranging from depression and domestic abuse to misinformation and governmental overreach. However, it also had a brighter side, thankfully! On the brighter side, it brought us opportunities and inclusions that come with a digital society. 

The most significant gift of the lockdown was probably the months of free time we got. Being the solitude-loving reader that I am, the lockdown period was the best gift I could have asked for. And the same goes for other book lovers as well, I guess, given the number of books everyone has read in 2020!

But here is where I differ from most other book lovers - I am a slow reader. Not a habitual slow reader, though - law school has taught me the art of reading hundreds of pages in a single day. I am a slow reader by choice. I prefer taking my time with the book. A book isn't complete with the completion of the reading, for me - I reread it, think on it, sleep on it, talk about it to my friends and family, and try drawing parallels from the book to other areas of my life. With such a routine, I manage to read only one or two books a year. I don't read a book, I experience a book

My book for 2020

For me, my 2020 book was 'The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature'. It was on my list since 2017 when one of my cousins recommended this. This lockdown, I finally found the time to experience this masterpiece by Matt Ridley. 

Any attempt at summarising the book would do grave injustice to the awe-inspiring narration built by the author. It can be crudely summarized as an argument for how most of our lives are designed and dictated by sex. We, as living organisms, have a yearning for survival. The indomitable instinct to survival in living beings stretches not only to our physical bodies but also at a genetic level. We have strong instincts driving us to want to pass on our genes to the next generation, and that's where sex comes into play. The deep desire for sex comes not from mere pleasure drives but from our need to pass on our genes. And given the significance of sex, animals (including us, humans) go to unimaginable lengths just to ensure an opportunity to have sex. Examples of such behaviour include peacocks' tails, the author explains. This is where the author injects his groundbreaking argument - that human intelligence is also a development directed at securing sexual attention from the opposite gender. On an evolutionary scale, it is not much different from a peacock's tail - a trait that's seemingly unnecessary for survival but has a significant role in securing a mate. 

It's a book like the Sapiens - every paragraph teaches you something extraordinary about the ordinary things you never gave any thoughts to. It's a book that inspires you to think and introspect about your own place on the planet. It's a book that brutally smashes any feeling of superiority that you may have by virtue of being human - a human is nothing but a domesticated ape. 

Although it doesn't adopt a normative stand and stays true to its positivist scientific explanations, it provides clues to think about big questions like life and humanity. On a personal level, it helped me realise the grand design behind human behaviour and psychology. It made me look at my fellow human beings with sympathy - as I realised they're not really the masters of their own choices, as they imagine themselves to be. It made me realise the nature-ordained purpose of life - to evolve beyond what's natural!

But, most significantly, it made me look at human ambition critically. Earlier, I had a somewhat romantic view of human ambition. I imagined human ambition to be a product of noble humanity and a continuous drive to work for the good of the species. Red Queen made me realise that ambitions are nothing but the desire of humans to climb up the social hierarchy so that they can secure better mates. In the bigger picture, ambition for success is nothing more than an evolved form of a peacock's tail. 

The bottomline

That's the problem with truth - it shatters our misconceptions. It makes us realise our ignorance and leaves us clueless in an ocean of ignorances and uncertainty. It is harsh, and it reminds us that reality is not as romantic as we imagined it to be. But that's also the beauty of truth!

Red Queen opens up a plethora of personal confusions - the most prominent being the question that what should be the purpose of our lives, then? Biologists say, "a chicken is just an egg's way of making another chicken" - is humanity also the same? Is a human life nothing more than a gene's way of making another set of genes? In the grand cosmic design, is life futile? I found the answers to these existential questions in the ancient Indian Upanishads, but that's a discussion for another day. 

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