“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” – Yuval Noah Harari (3/5 ★)


This was my third Harari book that I immersed myself in, after having read “Sapiens” in 2016 and “Homo Deus” in 2018. I find myself recommending these books to people because I did find them incredibly valuable and informative (especially Sapiens!) but I still end up only giving ratings of 3/5 ★ to them. It took me 3 months to finish the other 2 and it’s only thanks to the deadline of a book club discussion that I was able to push through “21 Lessons” in 9 days.

I know for sure that it’s not a 5/5 ★ book because it doesn’t fulfil all my personal criteria for that rating (starting with the fact that I wasn’t really compelled to pick it up and continue reading but had to really force myself). With a 4/5 ★ rating I usually at least feel like I’m happy or excited about what I’ve read but with “21 Lessons”, it was more of a feeling, “Well ok, I’m done with this one”. So I guess that means I’m settling with a 3/5 ★ for a Harari book for the third time. It definitely didn’t leave me with as many insights as “Sapiens” and “Home Deus” did… But I still did end up highlighting a huge amount of paragraphs, so it still is worth a read in my opinion 🙂

We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximize the human potential. Indeed, we have no idea what our full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind. And yet we don’t invest much in exploring the human mind, instead focusing on increasing the speed of the internet connections and the efficiency of our Big Data algorithms. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.

p. 73

This book can be identified as a collection of 21 essays on different topics which are all loosely held together by the main thread of them containing lessons that humanity has learned within the 21 centuries of our existence. It sometimes felt a bit like a short story collection, so that I ended up loving some chapters, while despising others or even being bored to death by some. The biggest downside for me personally was the first chapter. It took me such a long time to get into it, that I couldn’t bring up any enthusiasm for the book. It’s only when I forcefully sat myself down & made myself read it, that I finally got into the flow thinking, “Huh, it’s not that bad of a book after all!”

The chapters that spoke to me the most were on Iiberty, growth, equality, nationalism and immigration. There was also a numerous amount of individual topics that I was glad to have found out more about, such as: the significance of free will (p. 306), why we might get along better with AI than with human beings (p. 530), why we have such a distorted image of the proportion of damage caused by terrorism (p. 170) or how we’re replacing racism by culturalism (p. 157). The totality of the book definitely feels more digestible and easier to read than both “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”. Some other good news are also that the author’s little sprinkles of humour are back, which I first got to know in “Sapiens” and really missed in “Homo Deus”. You can look forward to little comments putting the Harry Potter books and religious texts like the Bible on the same level or the dilemma of practising Jews trying conform to the rules of not doing any work on the holy Sabbath 😀

Much of the Bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions and can still encourage humans to be compassionate, courageous and creative – just like the other great works of fiction, such as Don Quixote, War and Peace, and the Harry Potter books.

p. 241

The Sabbath starts at sunset on Friday and lasts until sunset on Saturday, and in between Orthodox Jews refrain from almost any kind of work, including even tearing toilet paper from a roll in the lavatory. (There has been some discussion of this among the most learned rabbis, who concluded that tearing toilet paper would break the Sabbath taboo; consequently, devout Jews who want to wipe their bottoms on Sabbath have to prepare a stash of pre-torn toilet paper in advance).

p. 296

I feel like someone who reads this book as his/her first one by Harari might be more impressed by it than those, who have already read “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”. I think it’s also really convenient to read the “21 Lessons” about the current state of our lives first and to then dig deeper into the past with “Sapiens” and into the future with “Homo Deus”. If you have enjoyed the parts on the future of AI, I would suggest you the book “Future Crimes” for further reading and if you would like to look deeper into the topic of longevity, “Lifespan” might be something interesting for you!

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” – Yuval Noah Harari (2019)

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Edition: ISBN 978-0-525-51219-6
Spiegel & Grau, 2019

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