Some Good Books

All of these are well-written books filled with profound and important ideas. I aggressively recommend all of them.

Age of Gold - H.W. Brands

Describes to California gold rush mostly by following a series of personal stories (apparently largely extracted from people's diaries). Often when reading histories of that era I have a hard time empathizing with the people involved, just because their circumstances and methods of expression were so different, but this author does a good job of bringing them to life.

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee - Dee Brown

Tells the story of the human bulldozing of the Western US. A very intense book. It was disturbing to recognize the same pattern of behavior in the modern world as more traditional cultures continue to run afoul of American goals for economic and political expansion.

Nothing Like It In The World - Stephen Ambrose

This is a history of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The author's perspective is slightly right wing but overall it's an inspiring story that he tells well. I read it while flying from Michigan to San Francisco, mostly within sight of the railroad's route.

A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn

A left-wing historian fills in the details that history textbooks gloss over. Paints a clear picture of many of the fundamental problems with the American Way, especially the large gap between the freedom and political voice that we think we have (or wish we had) in America and what we actually have. Doesn't make any robust arguments for ways to fix it, but that would be enough for another book.

Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond

Discusses how human interaction with the environment has had a very strong influence on the fate of societies.

Ethics for the New Millennium - the Dalai Lama

Shows that it is possible to be spiritual/religious without having to carry any spooky supernatural baggage. He identifies and defends the core concepts from psychology, sociology, ethics, and religion that have always worked and can stand up to the challenges thrown at them by modern society. The result is a robust instruction manual for life. This is the type of thinking that the world sorely needs right now. It reflects an approach that has been promoted by many Buddhist scholars for a long time. I promote similar ideas in my "Three Questions" essay on the main page.

Mao in China - Stanley Karnow

Read this after reading/reviewing George Orwell's 1984.

Other Side of the River - Alex Kotlowitz

Describes the effect of mistrust and miscommunication in a racially polarized community not far from my hometown.

Cadillac Desert - Marc Reisner

This book tells the story of the development of the western half of the US. It shows how powerful greed and arrogance are in shaping our society and our world.

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn

This book describes the Garden of Eden story as an analogy to industrial revolutions.

Proportional Representation: The Key to Democracy - George Hallett

This book was written in the 1930's just before New York City adopted a voting method that virtually guaranteed political representation each New Yorker (as opposed to just the right to vote, or say who you wish your representative would be). It is the best short compilation of the arguments for this approach that I have seen. Sadly, the method was eventually repealed after incessant attacks by the preexisting political machine in the city. Cambridge, MA still uses it though.

Steady-State Economics - Herman Daly

Daly presents many of the major ideas of ecological economics, along with arguments against the outmoded ideas of the mainstream, in a way that is enjoyable to read. The basic idea is that we must make a transition from an economy which demands indefinite exponential growth in natural resource throughput to one which efficiently uses a bounded resource flow - a restriction that exists in the long run whether we like it or not. His prescriptions are questionable and poorly developed, and the book's organization is haphazard, but the ideas within are essential to the long-term prosperity of humanity.

The Cosmic Blueprint - Paul Davies

Shows that by looking at self-organization at different levels of complexity, one can see nature in a much more accurate and encompassing way. His other books are good, too.

Chaos - James Gleick

Introduces modern concepts of complex systems in a clear and engaging way. These concepts are valuable to anyone attempting to build a respectable understanding of the world, and how nature managed to get from protons and neutrons to trees and dogs. Gleick's bio of Richard Feynman is excellent.

Godel, Escher, Bach - Douglas Hofstadter

I know it's two inches thick, but read it anyway! It's worth the effort! It brings together some of the ideas in the above books and builds upon them from the perspective of math and artificial intelligence research.

Schools for Thought - John Bruer

This book presents an excellent, concise introduction to important modern theories of cognitive science, written for teachers but relevant to everyone.

Descartes' Error - Antonio Damasio

Complements the above and shows the insights cognitive science gives into the function of the mind as a whole. Stomps on the archaic reason/emotion dualism.

Dragons of Eden - Carl Sagan

Speculates on the evolution of the human mind and how it affects who we are.

Earth in the Balance - Al Gore

If you can get past the banal exposition of all the world's ailments at the beginning, this book has some very important and thought-provoking ideas on the basic philosophy of our culture.

The Way: An Ecological Worldview - Edward Goldsmith

Abandons anthropocentrism and builds a new way to look at the world, introducing some brilliant concepts and insights. It ends up slightly to the left of reality.

Green Delusions - Martin Lewis

Put this together with Goldsmith's ideas and you've got yourself a pretty strong environmental philosophy. This book clearly distinguishes the reasonable from the ridiculous among the ideas of environmentalism.

The Arrogance of Humanism - David Ehrenfeld

Exposes the logical and practical flaws of the mainstream anthropocentric worldview, particularly the faith that technology can conquer and even replace nature.

The 2025 Report - Norman Macrae

An economist and futurist, Macrae presents how he thinks humanity will develop over the next several decades. Most of his predictions are consequences of the advance of info- and biotechnology, and they suggest that humanity will be able to accomplish many great new things and grow to become a stronger, more sophisticated, happier society if we can just keep our act together. It is, in my view, both this promise and the challenge of bringing humanity into harmony with the ecosystem as a whole that makes our time the most exciting and important time to be alive (so far, I guess).