The Practicing Stoic, by Ward Farnsworth

Over the years I’ve read a number of different books on stoic philosophy, including some of the “modern Stoic influencers” like Ryan Holiday as well as a few translations of older philosophers like Marcus Aurelius. While I’d hardly call myself a follower of the philosophy, I do think it includes some helpful ideas, and it’s occasionally been a useful lens for dealing with some problem I’ve been dealing with.

I struggled with both sets of writing, however, for different reasons. The modern writers often made me roll my eyes, often clearly pitching at entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billing an ancient philosophy as a life hack. The work of the ancients, I found more interesting, but difficult to contextualize and navigate.

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Quick review: “Built”, by Roma Agrawal

Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures was a pleasure to read. Authored by Roma Agrawal, a structural engineer who worked on the the “Shard” skyscraper in London, it’s truly a love letter to her profession, and to the structures it involves.

Throughout the book, Agrawal describes a wide variety of engineered structures around the world. From skyscrapers to bridges; from clay bricks to steel; Agrawal’s writing goes into detail on the materials and techniques used to build the constructed world we all walk through.

In each case, Agrawal finds fascinating stories to tell about the cultures and individuals who pioneered various techniques. And throughout the book, it’s clear how much enthusiasm and love she brings to her work.

As someone trained in physics and materials science, I was especially happy to find such an engaging read that talks about such properties as ductility, elasticity, toughness, compression and tension. It’s a rare thing to find someone who can describe how fun these topics can be.

While Agrawal occasionally touches on her difficulties working in structural engineering, as someone who isn’t “traditionally” white and male, she doesn’t dwell on these concerns. To the extent I have a criticism of this work, it’s that she doesn’t spend more time on how she experiences being a professional engineer — including both the positive and negative aspects of the profession.

However, that’s a mild criticism, as that’s clearly not what the book is about. As I said above — this isn’t a memoir, it’s a love letter to her work. And to the extent it is that, it succeeds very well.