10 June 2020

Some essential books

With states re-opening and a new wave of the pandemic gathering steam, staying home as much as possible is becoming more essential than ever.  These books can not only help pass the time but, each in its own way, improve the mind.


The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins.  The most important book of the "New Atheist" revolution of the last twenty years.  It sets out in detail the various arguments for God, where religion came from, why there almost certainly is no God, and why an aggressively anti-religion stance is necessary today.  Dawkins is also a heavyweight evolutionary biologist, and his many books on that subject provide a good grounding in it.

The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018) by Steven Pinker.  Why the world has been getting less violent and more humane for thousands of years, and how we can make sure that it continues to do so.  These books are a mortal blow to fashionable cynicism and defeatism.  They're big books, because Pinker well knows that many readers will be predisposed to reject his conclusions, so he assembles mountains of supporting evidence to prove his case.  I reviewed the second book here.

The Darkening Age (2017) by Catherine Nixey.  Yes, it really was Christianity that destroyed the great Greco-Roman civilization, deliberately and systematically, plunging the Western world into what truly was a dark age by comparison.   Nixey spares us no details of the sad, brutal story.  If you're a Western person, this will help you understand how your true heritage was stolen from you long before you were born.  I reviewed it here.

No Man Knows My History (1945) by Fawn M Brodie.  A biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.  Smith was a fascinating and energetic personality, and the story of how he created a new religion offers some insights into how older religions, too, may have gotten started.  The episodes of persecution of Mormons by Christians will likely shock you.

Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) by Jared Diamond.  Why did some peoples progress more rapidly than others and eventually come to dominate them?  Diamond concludes that geography, and the distribution of domesticatable plants and animals, gave the inhabitants of some regions advantages in the development of technology and also in resistance to disease.  He makes a compelling case.

Infidel (2007) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  An autobiographical account of growing up in Somalia and Kenya, followed by the extreme culture shock of coming to the Netherlands as a refugee.  Her efforts to understand the differences between cultures eventually led her to leave Islam and embrace atheism.  I reviewed it here.

The Singularity Is Near (2005) by Ray Kurzweil.  A mind-blowing compendium of the prospects for new technology from now to mid-century, from curing aging to molecular manufacturing to brain-computer integration.  The central theme is overcoming the limitations of conventional biology.  I've discussed these themes often on the blog over the years.  Regardless of how much of this you believe will actually happen, it's a fascinating "bank of ideas" about the future.

Natural Law (1987) by Robert Anton Wilson.  An antinomian classic.  You won't agree with all of it (I certainly didn't) but it will make you think and question assumptions.  It's quite hard to find now -- I got it from Loompanics back when Loompanics was a thing.  But it's a very short book and the whole text, in decidedly rough form, is here.


Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad.  A journey into the interior of the Belgian Congo becomes an exploration of some dark aspects of humanity.  It's a haunting and evocative story, and surprisingly short for such an enduring classic.

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson.  In a world entirely taken over by vampires, the last normal man struggles to stay alive, to fight back as best he can, and to come to terms with his utter isolation.  I haven't seen any of the movies, which sound godawful -- forget them and read the real thing.  It will stay with you.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson.  A respectable man's unorthodox effort to deal with his own dark side goes horribly awry.  Another classic story which is shorter than you'd expect but full of insights into human nature.

The War of the Worlds (1897) by HG Wells.  A classic that helped shape science fiction as we know it, confronting nineteenth-century readers with the unnerving prospect of humanity at the mercy of a ruthless and far more advanced species.  None of the movie versions really do it justice.  Wells's The Invisible Man is also worth reading, making some profound points with surprising humor.

The Persian Boy (1972) by Mary Renault.  One of Renault's series of historical novels, this one covers the later career of Alexander the Great through the eyes of a former slave of the Persian king who later became Alexander's companion.  The book is open about the omnipresence of homosexuality in ancient Greek and Persian culture, and about the cruelties of war.

Household Gods (1999) by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove.  A harried twentieth-century woman who longs for life in an earlier and simpler era gets her wish and is transported back in time to spend a year and a half in the Roman Empire (not in Rome itself but in a border town on the Danube), only to find that the pre-modern world has a few unexpected drawbacks.  It does include some scenes of brutality, if you're sensitive to such things.

The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  Probably the best science-fiction novel I've read.  Humanity establishes contact with an alien species more intelligent than ourselves, yet bafflingly less advanced -- and that's only the beginning of the mysteries which emerge.

[Image at top:  part of my own book collection]


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Ohhh so good!
The God delusion is the only one of your recommended non-fiction I have read. The others sound fantastic. I should try at least two of those.
From the non-fiction I've read them almost all, except the last two. I should re-read Renault, four sure.

Is that your bookshelf?


10 June, 2020 06:35  
Blogger PhilD said...

Hi, a minor correction. Mote was published in 1974. I read it when it came out. Raved about it to all my friends, but only got one of my sisters to read it.

10 June, 2020 08:14  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

You're a well-read cuss, Infidel. The only things on your list that I've read are "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" and "The Persian Boy." In my opinion, Joseph Smith was the consummate American con man and cult leader.

10 June, 2020 08:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: You obviously have excellent taste. Yes, that's part of my book collection in the photo.

PhilD: Thanks, I've corrected that.

Debra: I do read a lot. Some older books like Jekyll have a lot to offer, though most people don't read them any more.

Brodie does convey pretty well the fact that Smith was a con man -- he even had a criminal record for it before he got into the religion racket. She's just, you know, more polite about it than most of us would be.

10 June, 2020 08:55  
Blogger Mike said...

I'm not much of a book reader but I did order The God Delusion when it came out and finished it in two days. VMAT2. It's the God gene. The more expressed it is the more likely you are to believe. I liked his separation of spirituality and religion.

Some people need religion just like some people need tRUMP. It's sad but it's just a fact. I think if we started taxing religious institutions they might go away.

10 June, 2020 15:09  
Blogger Victor said...

Thanks for the tips!
I've read a few of them.

I have a bunch of books to get through,before I try one if your recommendations - including rereading I, Cladius, and Claudius the God.
If you haven't read them, I strongly recommend them.
Robert Graves was also a major poet, and those are certainly worth reading, too.

I love your site, Infidel.
Sunday's aren't Sunday's without your ab/fab eclectic list!

10 June, 2020 22:17  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: I'm skeptical that there's a genetic basis for religious belief -- so many people who grow up religious eventually abandon it, and there are populations (mainly in Europe) which were pretty much solidly religious fanatics five hundred years ago but mostly non-believing now. Genetics doesn't change that fast. I think it's mostly a matter of cultural transmission -- which can be interrupted and stopped.

Victor: Thanks! And thanks for the recommendations. I did see the I Claudius TV series, but I haven't read the books yet.

11 June, 2020 16:03  
Blogger Martha said...

I've always got my nose stuck in a good, so I appreciate recommendations. Surprisingly, I've only read one of the books listed: I Am Legend. I'll have to check out the rest.

12 June, 2020 15:55  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

"Joseph Smith was the consummate American con man and cult leader."

That's the long and short of it.

21 June, 2020 14:09  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

Good list. I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Steven Pinker. Also, Daniel Dennett. Somehow the latter slipped by my radar in the New Atheism fervor years ago.

21 June, 2020 14:13  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Martha: If you do, let me know what you think.

Jeremy: Reading the details of Smith's antics, it's amazing that he was so successful. It helped me realize that founders of other religions might well have been pulling similar scams, among people centuries ago who were even less educated and more credulous.

Pinker is well worth the read. I'm not as familiar with Dennett, unfortunately.

21 June, 2020 15:52  

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