According to the Odyssey, the epic written by the ancient Greek poet Homer, it was for ten years that Odysseus wandered around on the high seas after the Trojan War to reach his beloved country of Ithaca. The journey took Odysseus to several lands inhabited by different beings, and instead of permanently settling in any of these places, despite temptations, he managed to reach his destination. Narendra Murty has collected 20 of his essays written over ten years in this collection, aptly titled An Odyssey Of The Mind. It is evident that he has, in preparation for writing these essays, studied a wide range of disciplines and subjects and read a vast array of books. I believe it is to his credit that he expanded his knowledge base as wide as the sea between Troy and Ithaca and didn't confine himself to a single island of thought.
The essays in the book An Odyssey Of The Mind cover a wide range of topics: psychology, philosophy, ecology, economy, sociology, politics, and history, and all of them invariably centre on the challenges of living in the present age of AI, automation, cultural turmoil, and rampant consumerism. Murty has stated his aim as being to provide perspective to the confused person who is stuck in the rut of existence. He certainly makes the reader think and re-evaluate his life and that of the world around him, and that itself I feel is a success. Unlike the books that provide some ready-made and quick-fix solutions to living one's life, Murty makes the reader walk the tough path and come to their own solutions and conclusions about the topics that he raises.
The tone of the book is very conversational and makes the reader feel that a concerned friend is having a discussion about life. It changes from advisory to lamenting, from concerned to complaining, from grave and weighty to witty and jovial. We can find some satirical pieces and even a poem in there. This quality—the wide variety of topics and shifting tone—creates an intriguing experience.
Personally, I liked the essays on philosophy and psychology the most among the lot. It is in these essays that Murty comes into his element and puts forth humane arguments for living enriching lives. The one that differentiates knowledge and wisdom, another that ridicules the folly of blindly following quick fix books like The Secret, and yet another that dissects the increasing feeling of emptiness in spite of accumulating material wealth are some examples of the best empathetic writing that I have read.
At the other end of the spectrum are the essays on globalisation, the onset of a technological utopia, and concerns about the unchecked growth posed by humanity. There are many valid issues raised in these essays, and most of them have to be of immediate concern to our policymakers. But I don't believe that situation is as dire as it seems. I would take a far more lenient position as far as science is concerned. It is true that the progress of science is lopsided and lagging, thanks to the interference of our politicians and their misguided priorities. But it still seems to be on the right track, and it is only a matter of time before we reach our destination.
Technology, especially AI, will replace jobs and definitely pose a threat to our workforce. But so has every technological advancement that has happened in the past (though the scale may be higher this time). From agriculture to wheels to steam engines to computers, the function of technology is to disturb the status quo between production and inefficiency. Every upgrade has invariably resulted in the loss of livelihoods. I sincerely believe that collectively we will survive this onslaught too.
I believe right now is the time when human lives are most valued in all of history. Common people were treated worse than cattle throughout human history. But today they are treated at least as cattle. It is not ideal, but nevertheless, it is an improvement over forced slavery and mass killings. I believe humanity is at a crossroads, but we have faced such situations before. We may not choose the best path forward, but I am positive that the path that we choose will be the one that ensures survival.
An Odyssey Of The Mind is a thought-provoking collection of essays that examine some existential crises that modernity is facing. It is a very relevant book that asks all the right questions. The readers need not always agree with the views of the author, but the book's significance is that it forces the readers to think along its lines and draw their own conclusions on certain significant threats that are encircling us.