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
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
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
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
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).