Book Review: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman.

This is one of the best fiction books I've read this year so far. Loved it. Through a conversation between two estranged friends that takes place during the 2008 financial crisis, Haider Rahman explores our globalized, often roots-less world. The narrator comes from relative privilege, his interlocutor, Zafar, is from a poor, rural area in Bangladesh. Both educated at Oxford, they reunite after many years and discuss all that has occurred in the in-between.

Here are a few of my favorite passages and some thoughts about how they are relevant and meaningful:

"All we know is that we don't want it to stand for nothing. So we dive headlong into becoming heroes, becoming the big swinging dick on Wall Street or the rock star or hot-shot human rights lawyer. Which is about making our lives stand for something that our intelligence can grasp, saving us from confronting what we fear might be true—or what we would fear if we gave ourselves the chance—namely, that we're accidental pieces of flesh, mutton without meaning."

Fashionably existentialist, right? But the analysis, though clearly coming from Zafar's frustrated, oft-angry self, also shows what I believe to be a very real phenomenon—the unexamined pursuit of status and worldly success. Not that success or status are bad things at all, no way. But when we substitute them for meaning we run the risk of being slightly empty. Perhaps all meaning is constructed, and if so, I'd like to be as considered and careful as possible in constructing that meaning.

"Therein lies the heart of the matter: England and an English education, in which to carry knowledge was a social act, a statement of class and position...They [they students and faculty] inflated what little they knew to fill the voids. Because everyone knew and accepted this—a prerequisite of being in denial—no one upset the precarious suspension of disbelief, everyone was complicit in stage managed pretense. This then, right here, against the stone and ivy, beneath leaded windows and time-beaten timbers, is where my hate began. In England, the root of true, rightly guided power, the essence of authority, was not learning but the veneer of knowledge."

This passage reminds me of a portion of Peter Thiel's recent(ish) talk with Tyler Cowen on the future of innovation. Around minute 47-48 he talks about how many institutions of higher learning are long on status and short on substance and that he would be the opposite, understandably.

I'm also very interested in the hidden costs of knowledge pretense. "Filling the voids" with unfounded opinions, though they may sounds nice, has the potential consequence of making us think we really do know a lot. As Mark Twain memorably put it: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Therefore, assuming a certain level of knowledge, the more we think we know, the more trouble we invite. Maybe in the form of a fist to the face.

"In our conversation in those wintry days, there was always a quality of longing about them...Longing for what? When Zafar spoke about the past, I felt the presence of many pasts, the one that was spoken, but also other unlived lives, the lives uncaused, yet imagine. There is not one past but many, and every memory carries the spirit of them all."

This passage struck me simply because I have personally found it to be true. When reliving, recounting, or generally just thinking about my past I often can't help but fall into the pattern of "What if?" questions. Ultimately the narrator is suggesting that our memories are not just records of what happened but what could have happened. This makes them liable to inspire regret or "longing" as the narrator puts it. But maybe in examining those uncaused memories, the ones that could have been we can find hints about what we want, who we are, how we think.

Ultimately, In the Light of What We Know is one of those "big novels." It doesn't shy away. It persistently addresses the themes of meaning, memory, friendship, knowledge and many others. Perhaps I am a sucker for this type of book but I still think it's a worthwhile read!