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Twelve Important Books
Ideas for our Time
“I teach college English in prison. A student asked for a list of twelve books he ought to read over winter break that I thought were important. What would your respective answers be?”
This question was posed to Bret and me on the DarkHorse Q&A livestream on December 4. I came back to our audience the following week (livestream #108) with a list I had compiled, which is repeated below. There are many caveats, of course.
The first is that I recommend our book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, because I do think it is both important and timely, but it’s not on the list.
The second is that I recommend many many many books that aren’t on the list. You can find some other book lists at my Patreon. History and Politics, Memory and Resistance, which I posted in November 2020, is perhaps the most apropos, and is available to everyone without subscribing. This is some overlap between that one and the present one.
The third is that this list contains no fiction, although I am nearly always reading fiction, and indeed, read more fiction than non-fiction. Now that I think of it, I’ll add one novel to the bottom of this list, something I did not share on DarkHorse.
The final caveat is: What is meant by “important?” All of the books I have chosen seem important right now in some regard, relative to the situation we are all collectively in. I believe that they all provide some understanding or tools by which we might emerge whole.
I made this list by scanning first the bookshelves in my office, and then in the hallway in our home that we have lined with books. One of the first to jump out at me—Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem—was important to me when I first read it in the late 1980s. It helped me understand the strange power and draw of Hollywood, and of LA more broadly, the city and culture in which I had come of age. But I haven’t reread Didion’s book in a while, nor do I think that it is specifically important right now. So it, like so many others, does not show up on this list.
The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford (2015).
“Extending themes of his acclaimed Shop Class as Soulcraft, Crawford shows how the short-order cook, the welder, the carpenter, the pipe-organ builder all achieve a free individuality by submitting to the authority of mentors who discipline their minds for full engagement with the complexities of the external environment. Those who never mature into this valid individuality, Crawford warns, disappear into a distracted crowd of mindless consumers unable to recognize the distinctions that sustain a vibrant democracy. Worse, such stunted psyches are easy prey for the corporate strategists who hide their predations behind the faux freedoms of the shopping center—and the casino. A cultural inquiry of rare substance and insight.” –Booklist (starred review)
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, by Oliver Sacks (1995)
“Neurological patients, Oliver Sacks has written, are travelers to unimaginable lands. An Anthropologist on Mars offers portraits of seven such travelers– including a surgeon consumed by the compulsive tics of Tourette’s Syndrome except when he is operating; an artist who loses all sense of color in a car accident, but finds a new sensibility and creative power in black and white; and an autistic professor who has great difficulty deciphering the simplest social exchange between humans, but has built a career out of her intuitive understanding of animal behavior.” – from the book website.
Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto (2010)
“Gatto demonstrates that the harm school inflicts is rational and deliberate. The real function of pedagogy, he argues, is to render the common population manageable. To that end, young people must be conditioned to rely upon experts, to remain divided from natural alliances and to accept disconnections from their own lived experiences. They must at all costs be discouraged from developing self-reliance and independence.” -from the publisher’s website
Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1999)
“In her nuanced, stunningly original interpretation of the relationships between mothers and fathers, mothers and babies, and mothers and their social groups, Hrdy offers not only a revolutionary new meaning to motherhood but an important new understanding of human evolution.” - from goodreads
The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession, by Chandler Burr (2004)
Excerpt from this incredible book about science, smell, and scent, featuring scientific maverick Luca Turin:
“Quraysh has a synthetic oudh at eleven grams for eight hundred rupees, or seventeen dollars, so it’s one-eighteenth the price of Abdul Aklur’s, but it’s also one-eighteenth the smell. No comparison. Quraysh says he can’t figure out what they’re putting in this thing. He studied three years of chemistry in Bombay, ‘but it’s not enough for this,’ he says, regretful.
“’A lot of perfumers know no chemistry at all,’ says Turin, supportively.
“’ I make my perfumes by trial and error,’ admits Quraysh somewhat forlornly.
“’That’s how they all do it,’ Turin yells. The Indian looks at him sharply, wonderingly. Turin raises both eyebrows, grins, nods. ‘Those guys in their big gleaming expensive labs in Switzerland and France, they gas-chromatograph everything, and then in the end they just try sticking everything with everything else and smell it all. And that’s it.’”
The Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller (2018)
“This book is the best available general introduction to the effects of numerical indicators on the central institutions of modern societies….[Muller] has synthesized an unusually varied range of existing scholarship into a genuinely interesting and thoughtful narrative that moves easily through compact examples of the difference metrics have made for universities, schools, corporations, the military, philanthropy, policing and medicine. In each case, he gives the topic more drama and suspense than one would normally expect.
“The title suggests that metrics oppress judgement more than they illuminate it….” – from review published in The British Journal of Sociology (Newfield 2019)
Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken, and How We Can Fix it, by Ben Goldacre (2012)
The author’s words from a blog post after publication: “I wrote this book because we need to fix a set of problems that have been allowed to persist in my own profession (medicine) for far too long. Trial results can be withheld from doctors and patients, quite legally; trials are often poorly designed, or biased towards the sponsor’s product; doctors are misled about which treatments work best; and so on. These problems have a real impact on patient care, because we don’t have the information we need to choose the most effective treatments for patients. Often, we tolerate actively misleading information.
“I’ve spent a long time, as a doctor, wondering why these problems have been able to persist for so long, especially since they’re all routinely documented in the academic literature, and they’re all perfectly fixable. Drug companies could easily turn a profit, without misleading doctors, or hiding unflattering data….
“Once you get into the detail, it’s easy to see how the problems described in Bad Pharma have persisted, because they exploit the small incentives in peoples’ everyday lives….
“But more than that, these problems have persisted because there haven’t been enough people from outside medicine, peering in and asking us the embarrassing questions. Time and again, at public events and over email, people have asked me: why are people allowed to withhold trial results, and why didn’t I know about this before?”
“Anatomy of an Epidemic investigates a medical mystery: Why has the number of adults and children disabled by mental illness skyrocketed over the past fifty years? There are now more than four million people in the United States who receive a government disability check because of a mental illness, and the number continues to soar. Every day, 850 adults and 250 children with a mental illness are added to the government disability rolls. What is going on?
“The astonishing increase in the disability numbers during the past fifty years raises an obvious question: Could the widespread use of psychiatric medications–for one reason or another–be fueling this epidemic? Anatomy of an Epidemic investigates that question, and it does so by focusing on the long-term outcome studies in the research literature. Do the studies tell of a paradigm of care that helps people get well and stay well over the long term? Or do they tell of a paradigm of care that increases the likelihood that people diagnosed with mental disorders will become chronically ill?” - from the book website
Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, by Rod Dreher (2020)
The title of Dreher’s book is taken from Solzhenitsyn’s essay of the same name. Per this review in The Federalist, Dreher’s book argues that “those who don’t fall in line with the cultural and political elite’s prescription for acceptable thought are deemed backward-thinking, unenlightened barbarians, opposed to the politically correct god of science. Live Not By Lies is Dreher’s prescription for how Christian, and even non-Christian, dissenters should respond in a world that is increasingly antagonistic and oppressive toward them.
“It’s important to note that such antagonism and oppression come not merely, or even primarily, from the state but from what Dreher calls ‘intellectual, cultural, academic, and corporate elites … under the sway of a left-wing political cult built around social justice.’ Add to that what former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has termed ‘surveillance capitalism,’ and Dreher says that many Western liberal democracies are swiftly sliding down a slippery slope into a ‘soft totalitarianism’ by which ‘data harvesting and manipulation can and will be used by woke capitalists and social justice ideologues in institutional authority to impose control.’ – from a book review by Cheryll Magness in The Federalist (10/30/20).
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer (1951)
From the book: “This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.”
Later in the book: “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole.” – excerpts and very good overview at Reason and Meaning
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe (1979)
A now classic and inspiring tale of courage, competition and prowess. From a NYT review: “…unlike the airbrushed portraits in the Life magazine articles and in the astronauts' own self-serving autobiographies, Wolfe's depiction of these intensely competitive men—who worried more about making a pilot error than that their rockets might explode, and who were more concerned about the respect of their peers than the adulation of the public—makes the Mercury seven more human, while in no way diminishing our admiration for their courage. Furthermore, Wolfe's voice, his mélange of technical jargon, test pilot shop-talk and whiz-bang hyperbole, is the perfect foil for the cool, laconic West Virginia drawl of those True Brothers in the cockpit.”
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger (2016)
“Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Tribe explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians-war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Tribe explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.” - from the book website.
Bonus Book: Daemon, by Daniel Suarez (2006)
Bret’s and my friend Jordan Hall gave us this novel many years ago, and I only just now read it. I know, I know—for all of you who have been long familiar with this book, and its sequel, I’m late to the game. Still: It quite literally gave me nightmares.
Here’s a review on amazon that I resonate with: “Five stars are really not enough for a book like this. The plot and character development are not outstanding, but the story idea is so original that it alone is worthy of a Hugo or Nebula award. There are plenty of science fiction scenarios about a computer taking over the world; this story explores the more realistic and plausible scenario of not an actual computer, not an actual artificial intelligence, but simply a cleverly written program that can infect the world's computers and take them over. It's also a story that makes you stop and think about how every aspect of our lives is now impacted by computerized technology, and how easy it is for rogue actors to control that technology and thus control us. If that happens, will we resist, or will we submit to the Daemon? Before you answer, consider the technology that controls your bank account, your medical and employment records, your very identity. You might be surprised at how quickly you surrender to the Beast.”
Let this book not be prescient, or more prescient than it already clearly is.
Read it and do not weep.
Read all the books on this list, and do not weep. Read them and figure out how to act.
Google “sci-hub,” land on a page with a crow with a red key in its beak, plug in the DOI (Digital Object Identifier, listed near the top of all published research) for this (or most other) research article(s), and have delivered to you the paper for free. No paywall. Your tax dollars paid for most of the work behind publishers’ paywalls; sci-hub does an end-run around the paywall. Support them if you can.