Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
What makes an Andrew Carnegie? What turns a Scottish immigrant boy, son of a poor weaver, into the most successful man of the 1800’s? He would name five people. His father, the “sweetest nature” he had ever known. And his mother, who respected all religions and lived by the Confucian maxim to “perform the duties in this life well, troubling not about another.” And his wife, “peace and good-will attend her footsteps.” And a librarian named Colonel James Anderson, “bless his name as I write,” who opened a library for working boys:
and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man. Life would be quite intolerable without it…the light of knowledge streamed in. Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. (Autobiography, 46).
It is no wonder, then, that Carnegie would give $41 million (today that’s several billions) to establish 1,689 libraries:
It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution…For if one boy in each library district…is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson’s four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain (47).
The Philosopher Philanthropist
Andrew took a trip around the world and learned that the “Great Power” had smiled on all cultures and peoples:
In China I read Confucius; in India, Buddha and the sacred books of the Hindoos; among the Parsees, in Bombay, I studied Zoroaster…I had a philosophy at last. The words of Christ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ had a new meaning for me. Not in the past or in the future, but now and here is Heaven within us. All our duties lie in this world and in the present, and trying impatiently to peer into that which lies beyond is as vain as fruitless (206).
When wealthy men become wise they give their wealth to worthy causes: "I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution…Shakespeare had placed his talismanic touch upon the thought… ‘So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough’" (255). And “of all my work of a philanthropic character, my pension fund gives me the highest and noblest return” (279).
Clearly he believed in education, as his money talks: all the libraries, a fund for university professors, for the Tuskegee Institute: “and to know Booker Washington is a rare privilege…No truer, more self-sacrificing hero every lived: a man compounded of all the virtues.”
I recommend reading this biography and his autobiography at the same time.
I roasted it! It’s 10x easier than you think. (1) get a hot air popcorn popper. Yep, that’s right: popcorn popper (got mine from Target); (2) get green beans (got mine from local roastery, also check out sweetmarias.com they seem really good); (3) put 1/3 cup in the popcorn popper, wait 5-8 minutes (listen for the “second crack”); (4) cool beans, grind, and enjoy. Done. (Obviously it’s a bit more complicated…visit sweetmarias.com or youtube for how-to videos). The longer you roast coffee (“dark roast”), the less caffeine.
It’s amazing that every single coffee bean that you see was probably individually picked by someone’s hand (machines aren’t smart enough for them yet). Coffee is born on coffee trees by the equator. The beans are actually found inside little red fruit cherry balls. Coffee beans are the seeds inside the fruit, small green hard beans that smell like spicy bread. It’s hard to imagine why someone roasted them in the first place, but very old civilizations certainly had coffee (there are various theories about how they stumbled on it).
Oh yeah, the biggest question of all: taste. My first batch tasted great and had a distinct smell. Not as good as a fresh cup of Starbucks or Waterstreet, but extremely close. I imagine they will get better. If you are looking to satisfy your do-it-yourself impulse, save some money (about 15-25%), and have the freshest coffee you’ve ever had, I recommend giving it a try. If you don’t like it, perhaps because of the smoke it fills your kitchen with, you’ve only wasted 25 bucks.
Home Coffee Roasting
Imagine the young George Washington, early in the political career, placing a keg of beer or rum next to the polling place. Now imagine him winning. Now imagine this happening all the time. Who needs to buy an election when you have beer, right? And we wonder why people don’t vote anymore. Just kidding.
Yes, this was real, this happened. In fact, James Madison stuck his nose up at the practice. He was going to win his election without booze, darn it. Well, James Madison lost. The fact of the matter was that alcohol had a much more prominent place in early American life, not just politics. The entire day, as this book details from cock-a-doodle-do to shut-eye, was filled with excuses to drink. There were official, city-wide dedicated breaks for guzzling, reminiscent of Muslim daily prayer rituals. Alcohol was God’s blessing. It was giving to babies and kids and sick people for a variety of ailments. Water wasn’t trusted, or known about, or sanitary half the time. Times were hard.
But “spirits” were hard too. Soon rum was demon rum, causing broken homes, useless husbands who beat their wives and children. Alcohol was causing too much harm. Soon the people who championed moderate drinking, like Benjamin Franklin, were fighting with more extreme people—temperance and prohibitionists. Get rid of the temptation was their motto. My favorite image of the prohibition movement, largely started by women who were sick and tired of not only a drunk husband, but no freedom to do anything about it—my favorite moment is when they decided they would kneel in front of saloons and pray and sing away the demon rum. And as I’m reading I think to myself: “No! Don’t do it; bad idea; this won’t work!” Well, guess what? It did work. For a short while at least.
This book is mostly about the movement to ban alcohol, which I didn’t expect at first. But it’s still good, interesting, and well written. For a similar book see Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol
The Spirits of America
Actually, if you look around, pessimism does seem to be the cool thing to do. The media only reports bad news (oh, yeah, I forgot the occasional story about a police officer trying to get a cat out of a tree. And because I have a cat I'm pretty sure it’s thinking: "I'll come down when I want thank you very much.") Most TV shows promote a very disturbing image (Maury). It wasn't until the 1960's that we thought maybe we should start figuring out what makes people happy and good—"Positive psychology" was born. Evolutionary biology has been banging its head against the wall for decades trying to explain how, just how could a thing like altruism exists! When people say "I'm a realist," they really mean "I'm a pessimist." Why is that?
Cicero said it best: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."
In the end there are a lot of reasons for us to be pessimists, the most obvious reason being this: we are bad. But that’s only half the truth. And only half the truth can lead to complacency, setting the bar way too low, not respecting yourself or others, clouding your judgment, being more likely to not help. Course it goes both ways: naive optimists who don’t accept evil have their own problems (read Voltaire's Candidefor a famous lashing of Optimism).
What about War?
Of course war is the cruelest and most horrendous thing in the history of human beings, and it happens too much. But what is amazing about war is the amount of effort the government has to go through to actually convince us to do it. Think about it. First, they have to convince the public that it’s a “just war.” This isn’t very easy. Second, they might have to force people to go (draft). Third, they have to turn a person into a soldier, by systematically breaking them down and building them back up. Sound “natural” to you? Rousseau pointed out that war is not between people anyway. Soldiers are pawns in a political chess game. And lastly, if you manage to put a young man on the front lines, gun in hand, picture of family in pocket, taught to kill, good luck getting him to actually kill someone. In World War II, for instance, a study found that only 15% of all soldier in combat used their guns at all. That means that not only 75% refused to kill, but refused to even use their weapons in combat!
Sadly, the book doesn’t make a good case for the other side of the story—all the amazing and good things that happen daily, yearly, throughout history. I'm still looking for that book, although I recommend Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.
I go outside. I pass a person on the street. They make eye contact. They nod. An amazing show of respect by complete strangers. So much in a nod! An ambulance goes by, perhaps saving a life at that very second. People are laughing in the park. A cookout? Ministry with Community feeds people every single day. The entire day will pass and I will not see one person harming another person; that will be a normal day. A church offers free breakfast. United Way clothes the poor. My mom calls just to say hi. A person watches a movie and cries. 40 million more people get health insurance. A person devotes their life to cure cancer. Okay, I’ll stop. As the character in American Beautyonce said, yes it might be hard to take all the suffering in the world—but it’s equally hard to take in all the goodness, all the beauty. Press on, you Optimists! You are creating the future!
The Brighter Side of Human Nature
Dr. Lobosky, who probably dictated this book to an intern, a red faced old school doc from the 70’s, raging mad about all the problems with health care, talking about the good ol’ days when doctors actually saw their patients... Anyway, he was hopeful when President Obama talked about a single-payer system, a public option, universal access, and letting Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices. But alas money and politics! The special interests (insurance, drug companies, trial lawyers) gobbled up Obamacare and spit it out. It’s mutilated, complains Lobosky, to the point that it may not solve the larger problems it began to solve in the first place. Like affordable access and care for all.
Now I must admit I really liked listening to this doctor rant and rave about everything, but eventually he does offer some solutions:
- Everyone has insurance and pays through the same system (single-payer system)
- Everyone gets the same coverage (universal access)
- Force insurance companies and hospitals to be not-for-profit: if a company must choose between profit and patient care, they will choose profit. After all, they have stock-holders to make happy. He sees this as a glaring conflict of interest.
- Protect doctors from getting sued so much
- Force drug companies to make new drugs, not just “copy-cats”: and increase their patents so it will be worth their while.
- Use evidence-based medicine: don’t waste resources by doing procedures that are unnecessary or don’t work
- Death Panels! This is called “rationing” in the health care debate. It boils down to the fact that we have a finite number of resources in our health care system. So if a person insists on getting a procedure that probably won’t work and probably won’t help their quality of life, then, the argument goes, they should have to pay for it instead of the government. Or perhaps a charity would.
This book will propel you into the health care debate. It’s written by a politically moderate doctor who has a unique view in the trenches. At times he sounds arrogant, and he knows it. I found myself laughing. But this issue is no laughing matter. I highly recommend.
We have many other books on health care reform.
It's Enough to Make You Sick
The good news: we are wired to be decent, empathetic people. The bad news: it takes a little work and envirornmental factors to foster that empathy.
The authors think we are failing in many ways. 80% of Americans are only really close to a family member, 25% say they trust no one with their secrets. Only 32% of Americans agree that “most people can be trusted” compared to 58% back in 1960. “The amount of time spent playing freely fell by nearly one-third between 1981 and 2003…the number of hours that children spend playing outside…was cut in half…only 57 percent of elementary school districts currently require recess” (295). “Two-thrds of children under six live in a household where the TV is on more than half of the day—even if no one is watching” (in 1/3 the TV is always on) (296). “On nearly all measures of social life…Americans tend to have fewer and lower-quality interactions with one another than our parents and grandparents did” (229).
The book stressed the enormous important on a primary caregiver, a individual that is always there for them. Babies die without them. A study compared babies raised in orphanages compared to babies raised in prison with their mothers. 37% in the orphanage died by 2 years old (none in prison died). A rich family hired several nannies to take care of their baby. When the child would get "too attached," the mother would fire the nanny and hire a new one. The child learned to never become attached to people. That boy ended up raping a disabled girl in high school, possibly a sociopath.
It's always important to remember that our genes do not seal or fate. The majority of children of addicts do not become addicts (they are simply at a higher risk than non-addict parents). Our upbringing and the environment decide what genes are "expressed" in us. Nature and nurture. And the book has amazing stories of people who, against the odds of nature and nurture, led good lives.
Well, I could go on and on about the interesting stories and studies that this book goes over. From why Scandanavians are so happy and healthy, to why women get a rush of heroin-like oxytocin when they look at their baby, to why TV is bad for children (yes, even baby Einstien!). If you want to read about empathy development in children, parenting, psychology and brain science, this is the book for you.
Born for Love
Most of these God-debate books either bash fundamental Evangelicals or New Atheism. This one bashes both, while saying some good things too. Author Frank Schaeffer comes from a unique perspective. He was raised by a fundamentalist evangelical preacher family and became a prominent one himself. Although he has a lot of good to say about his mother and father as people, he eventually rejects their religion on many grounds. He learned that it was almost impossible to love God if God is making you millions of dollars. He also thought that they worshiped the Bible more than God, as if God was the Bible. Also, they are never interested in what people have to say. Instead, every conversation is a chance to convert people. He reminisces the old days, when his mother and father would accept gay people into their community without thinking twice. Now days they target these people as a political tactic to strengthen the faith. An important point of the book not to overlook is this: you can bash a religion or atheism all you want, but this doesn't necessarily make the people bad. His mother and father were good decent people, he says, and that's because they didn't follow the nastier parts of their dogma.
He comes from the perspective of Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian mystic Existentialist philosopher (who I'm reading now): We have no clue what God is, so let's just be humble about it. We can try to figure out what God isn't (negative theology), but experience and openness is the best we got. In fact, this encapsulates his critique of the New Atheists: like fundamentalist Evangelicals, they think they know everything. They have no humility. It's a different form of the same thing. It's a frame of mind. This reminded me of a Jewish philosopher I read and blogged about recently, who blamed the Greeks for turning faith into a knowledge pursuit. This was a wrong step. Faith is not knowledge, and knowledge does not destroy faith.
The author talks about his new faith in the Greek Orthodox liturgical tradition. But mostly he talks about his family, and how much he loves them; and how much he thanks God for them and for all the good and bad in his life. He does not give an answer for why his God would allow children to suffer; he doesn't think there is an answer. His passion for life really comes through at the end.
Patience with God
This is the most honest book on faith I've read in a while. Whether you are a person of faith or not, you will appreciate this book. The author openly, candidly and honestly tells the story of how he began reporting on inspiring stories, on people of faith who gave up everything to help the poor. As the author was becoming a Catholic, the priest sex scandal hit, which he reported on. This became a "body blow" to his faith, leading to a steady decline until he realized he wasn't going to church, wasn't praying, wasn't reading the Bible anymore--in short, he woke up one day and realized he could never go back.
The way he explains his loss of faith is what I found interesting and original. He argues that it wasn't a choice, but an organic, slow, and steady series of natural events that led to where he is now:
"Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith. Yet it isn't simply a matter of will. Many people want desperately to believe, but just can't. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can't will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done...it would be natural causes--the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason" (141).
I especially like the beginning and end of the book, but almost the entire middle is filled with the detials of the Catholic molestation sex scandal that he exposed and reported on--which I thought was too long and didn't fit well with the memoir aspect of the book.
Losing My Religion
Utopias--perfect places of peaceful bliss--have been dreamed up from the beginning. They were planned, hoped for, written about, satired on, remembered, started and broken. Many civilizations looked backwords to find it: the Garden of Eden, the "good ol' days"; Rousseau imagined the "noble savages," uncivilized people not currupted by civilization. Many look to the future and wait for it: heaven, Nirvana; an age where technology and science solves all human problems. Many look to the present and find it here or coming soon: "the kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Stephen Pinker argues that now is the most peaceful time in human history. Whitmans says "to me every hour of light and dark are miracles."
The problem with utopias, as history shows, is that they rarely work and sometimes kill people. In other words, it's a slippery slope into dystopia (a chaotic, violent state). That's because if you have a perfect goal in mind, everything else seems expendable to acheive that goal--see the problem? It's the whole "you have to break an egg to make an omlette" thinking, only on a grander scale.
What amazed me most about this book is the sheer number and scale of utopian communities that have been developed over the years. America had a lot of them (I talked to a man at the library that was part of a utopian community based on B.F. Skinner's Walden Two!). They definitely hit a peak in the 17 and 1800's, and a few religious-based ones in American are still going today (Amish, Mormon communities). I noticed that almost all utopian dreams involve the sharing of wealth and property, or, at the very least, equality of rights among all people. What I didn't like about the book was that it didn't go in any detail about particular communities, making it read more like an enyclopidia or coffee table book.
Searching for Utopia
A Stronger Kinship is a story about a small town that decided to be fully integrated 100 years before most of the country was integrated. Fully integrated--think about that. At the same time when our nation was fighting a war over race-based human bondage, African Americans in Covert owned property, were elected to powerful political positions, send their children to the same schools as the white kids, conducted business together, were friends, went to the same churches, read the same books from the same library. Covert started on the right foot and never looked back.
Covert was a diamond in the rough, a city on a hill, a promised land for people of color. But this only makes sense if we have historical perspective. Living in the northern states as an African American (or Native American) was no picnic. The author quotes an editorial from the Illinois State Journal, 1862, which captures the feeling of many African Americans after Emancipation:
"The truth is, the nigger [sic] is an unpopular institution in the free states. Even those who are unwilling to rob them of all the rights of humanity, and are willing to let them have a spot on earth on whcih to live and to labor and to enjoy the fruits of their toil, do not care to be brought into close contact with them" (quoted on pg. 45).
If you learned in school that slavery and discrimination were "southern" problems that the "north" fixed in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation (as I did), then you might wonder why Covert is so special. Sadly, that history is as glossy as when people say the war was about "states rights." The truth is that slavery existed in the northern states too. A book from our reference collection says:
"a British census taken in 1782 counted 179 slaves among the 2,191 people living along both shores of the Detroit River. In 1796, 31 adult black slaves and 16 black children, presumably the children of slaves, lived in the Township of Detroit among a 'free white' population of 238. The actual number of slaves was probably higher becasue many families in Michigan owned Indians as slaves..." (The History of Michigan Law, p. 20).
Even when the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in 1787, it still existed in practice. Also, I think the ban was repealed in 1807 for ten years (because the Indiana Territories wanted white slave holders to move into their territory for economic reasons). And this is to say nothing about other forms of discrimination that existed in myriad forms at various times. As depressing as it is, slaves were freed only to find out they were not free.
So what was the secret of Covert? Why did Covert happen? Here is the beauty and the thesis of the book. There is no secret. The author, who is coming to KPL to speak by the way, says it best:
"Why did Covert happen? Although it may be the first question that comes to mind, it may not be the most powerful one. The question Covert should raise is, why not? Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm, that unfairness and injustice are the natural patterns that the nation falls into if given half a chance. That assumption is not surprising, given the horrific and sorrow-filled history of race relations in this country, but Covert reminds us that that terrible history was a choice. That choice may have been made by millions of whites over many decades, but it was a choice, not a given" (208).
It's the story of ordinary people making ordinary decisions. Perhaps they seem extraordinary because "we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people" (Charles Payne, quoted on pg. 201). It's easy to wallow in the depression of history and throw your arms up. What's your view of human nature? What do you think of yourself? And as you think about these questions, people are doing acts of kindness. We cannot take anything away from the amazing men and women in this book--they were giants.
A Stronger Kinship
It's actually as simple as this: (1) soak barley in hot water (2) boil with hops (3) put into bucket with yeast. No way. That's it? Well, yeah, of course it's a bit more complicated, but I must say it's a very fun challenge and learning experience to make your favorite IPA (my favorite is Two Hearted Ale, what's yours?).
But how much does it cost? That's what I wanted to know before I started. For me (I was very minimalist with everything), it all averages out to $5.88/six pack (compare Two Hearted @ almost $10/six pack). This includes all the equipment I ever bought, so it actually goes down with every batch I make.
If you're interested, we have some good books. Also check out the K.L.O.B. organization in Kalamazoo. Also, youtube "extract brewing," then "partial mash brewing" then "all grain brewing" to get an idea of the different ways to make beer (it depends on what sort of equipment you have or want to buy).
Needing direction, he randomly opens the Bible three times: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” What! Second, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Wow. Ok, so maybe the third won't be so extreme? Nope: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” This sums up Francis and the Order he started.
You know him as the Saint who talked to birds and flowers, but the real Francis was much more gritty, suffering, alone, real. He would live on a mountain for a month and come down with Stigmata wounds, and die soon after, and die in pain, and be glad for it. He was a rich kid who went to war, became depressed, gave up everything, and, as he says, "left the world" for a grueling life of serving God and the people who needed it most. The one thing that disgusted him--people with leprousy--became his passion.
What I like most about this "new" biography is that it has two separate parts. The first is the story of Francis' life, the best that the author can tell from the evidence. The second part is all about the scholarly debate, which I did not read and therefore was thankful for the separation.
Frank Sinatra said "I did it my way." Francis said "No one showed me what I should do, but the Most High himself revealed it to me, that I ought to live according to the form of the Holy Gospel." What's interesting is that the Medieval Church patterned their life according to the Acts of the Apostles, and denied that the wandering lifestyle of Jesus of the Gospels was appropriate anymore. It all worked out in the end, as Francis was whole-heartedly accepted by the Church.
And he liked animals too.
Francis of Assisi a new biography
1. Be not angry. Which means "judge not," "condemn not," don't ever think you are better or separate than other people. Tolstoy looked back on his life and realized that most of his anger came from separating his class of people (wealthy intelligent writers) with the vulgar, ignorant masses. He would eventually love these people and despise his old life of wealth and pride. He says "I understand now that he alone is above others who humbles himself before others and makes himself the servant of all."
2. Commit not adultery. He thought marriage made two people one, which made separation very painful.
3. Take no oaths. Even though it does come from one of Jesus' teachings, you might wonder why people think this is a big deal. First, it waters down your normal honesty. "I swear on my mother's grave!"--does that mean you normally lie? Second, think Abraham Lincoln. Whenever he talked about what he really believed, he said slavery was wrong. Whenever he said slavery was ok as long as it kept the Union together, he would talk about his "oath" of office and his "oath" to uphold the constitution. In other words, his oaths were forcing him to do things he normally wouldn't do. Last, think of Nazi's simply doing their duty or serving their superiors. That's what Tolstoy means.
4. Do not defend yourself by violence. Tolstoy interpreted Jesus command "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" in a very straightforward way--never resort to violence. So did Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi, etc. He thought this was the key to saving humanity and the only way to end violence.
5. Make not war. Follows from 4. Tolstoy was especially disturbed that the Church would support war, but he understood that it was because they were so intertwined with the State.
The story of Tolstoy's life and conversion, as told in his "My Confession" is an incredible story, partly because he's such a great writer (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, which he actually dismissed as sophistry later in life).
This blog is based on My Confession; My Religion; The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy. If you like Tolstoy, non violence, Confession-type narratives (think Augustine and Rousseau), or theology, you might like this book.
Tolstoy a Russion Life
If you don't like the recent trend of science and religion yelling at each other, you might like this book. Jonathan Sacks argues, like many before him, that science and religion are compatible, "more than compatible," harmonious. Like two sides of the same coin and the right and left hemispheres of the brain, they need each other. He actually takes the brain analogy literally. Science is a left-brain activity; it analyzes things, pulls them apart, explains them. Religion is a right-brain activity; it joins things together, tells stories, focuses on relationships, and interprets things. They are simply two different ways of being, two different perspectives on the world. A thing is a thing and a person is a person.
He also makes a very interesting point about why we Westerners confuse science and religion. He blames it on the Greeks! The Jewish religion, he says, was not scientific or philosophical at all. Neither was early Christianity. But then Christianity was married with Greek philosophy and science. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, created a beautiful system of Christianity based on Aristotle's science and metaphysics and the Bible. Science and religion became one. Once we figured out Aristotle was wrong, it chipped away at religion too, etc. Get it? They became enemies because they were on the same turf.
What I liked most about the book is that the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks knows his science and religion and philosophy (of course he is definitely an Old Testament scholar), which is nice. Usually these books are written by a scientist pretending to be a theologian, or a theologian pretending to be scientific. The book starts strong and ends strong, but the middle gets repetitive and loses its' vigor. Not a bad read!
The Great Partnership
John Woolman--18th Century American Quaker, reformer, mystic, abolitionist, writer, wandering preacher--argued that excessive love contributed to the institution of slavery. Yes, that's right--excessive, gluttonous, kinship love. The argument is quite simple: parents who had slaves could save more money for their childrens' futures; they could give them more stuff, provide a secure life for them. John Woolman, of course, thought this was narrow-minded, immoral love; not a Christian love at all. It's loving one person at the expense and misery of another. And he wasn't arguing against the sort of slave-holder you think about. He was arguing against his fellow Quakers who had slaves! They were the guilty kind, the kind who wouldn't beat their slaves, who perhaps didn't like the institution alltogether; the kind who said "necessary evil" and "at least it's a way to convert them to Christianity". John Woolman loved his children too. But he loved them as he loved everyone else (I know that's hard to comprehend, but the biography portrays his life that way...he barely mentions his family in his own autobiography; he is a rare man indeed).
Woolman's life-long project to end slavery by literally walking around America talking to the slave-holders themselves, is only a fraction of his beautiful soul. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. thought that racism was part of a larger problem (hence, he devoted his life to anti-war, pro-union, anti-poverty projects too), Woolman's life was filled with nothing more than an obsession to purify his heart of sin, to figure out God's Will, to be humble, to wait for God to speak to him, to pray, to travel across the world. What amazed me so much was this man's obsession to be morally perfect in God's eyes, as he understood it along the way. The title of the book--The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman--is apt. For him the big things and the little things mattered. At one point he realized that an unbleached hat would last longer than a bleached hat. This was practically a moral crisis for him. For the rest of his life he wore completely unbleached (white) clothes (which made him look very weird). He had similarities with the saints that William James analyzes in Varieties of Religious Experience. But what makes his soul most beautiful is his character, how he chose to carry himself: humble, meek, mild, understanding, loving, patient, hopeful, steady, grateful. He showed love to the slave-holder; that's why he was successful in changing their minds.
This is not the best written biography by far, although it's good scholarship. It repeats a lot, and reads much like a long, extended commentary of Woolman's own Journal. But the subject matter is fascinating and worth it.
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman
It's that time of year and our library has a bunch a good books on hunting, whether you are a beginner or just want to learn about the beautiful Whitetail Deer. (did you know they shed and re-grow their antlers every year? that they are the fastest growing bone in the world? that they chew their cud?)
The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food is the most well written. Besides being informative and practical, the author actually makes an ethical argument for the benefits of harvesting meat locally, natural, organic, non-wasteful, and in the most humane way possible. He calls himself a "locavore" and says it the closest thing to being a vegetarian.
Stop by the downtown Central library and check out our other books on deer and hunting. They are arranged by subject, so they're all in the same area.
The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food
If you love philosophy of religion like me, and like to wander the stacks in the 100/200's area, then you love reading about arguments for the existence of God, the rebuttals, the replies to the rebuttals, etc. It all begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas. In only a few pages, he gives us his famous five:
- The First Mover: everything is moved by something else. The tree was moved by the wind which was moved by the weather which was moved by something else, and so on. This could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with a "Prime Mover," a being that gets the ball rolling. That's God. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher that was not a Christian, believed in a Prime Mover (Thomas actually snatched the argument from him).
- The First Cause: everything that happens is caused by something else that usually comes before it. What caused you?--your parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. Because every physical event must have a cause, this could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with an "Uncaused Cause," the beginner of the Big Bang so to speak. That's God. Check out Dean Overman's book for a current example.
- Contingency: When I was a kid I remember sitting on the couch thinking: what if nothing existed at all? No universe. What would that be like? I closed my eyes and could only picture black space, but then I thought to myself: black space is not nothing, it's something! I couldn't imagine or even think about it; it was such a shocking thought. When we look around we see things that pop into existence and then die. They never had to be in the first place. What if everything was like that? If nothing has to exist, then we can imagine at time when nothing exists--no matter, no space, nothing! This is impossible because you can't get something out of nothing. Therefore there must be at least one thing that must necessarily exist. That's God. Check out Paul Davies "fine-tuning" argument in Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life.
- Degree: we use terms like "good" and "honest" and "noble" that point to some standard of perfection, some benchmark. When we say a person is honest, we are saying they have some degree of that virtue. There must be a concept of perfection, which helps us to know this. That's God.
- Teleology (Design): everything seems to be directed towards some goal, or end, or purpose. Even ants build complex houses, and everything seems to work together. The orchestrator behind all the design is God. Francis Collins, the DNA guy, has a similar argument in The Language of God.
Although these are Christian arguments, they are used for other monothestic religion (Islam, Judiasm) and probably others (they began as Greek arguments). The history of these five arguments is incredible; they have been transformed, altered, defended, rebutted, discarded, revived. Philosophy of Religionand Karen Armstrong's The Case for God will give you a good overview. Also don't forget Blaise Pascal's argument that, if you were a betting man, you should at least bet on God. And you must read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, a very nuianced and pragmatic argument.
As for rebuttals, a good start would be The Atheist Debater's Handbook, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God (author doesn't think they're good reasons), God: The Failed Hypothesis, and The Portable Atheist.
Aquinas Shorter Summa
"Everybody matters: that is our central idea," says the author of this book, Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher and champion of an ethical worldview called "Cosmopolitanism." This isn't new of course; when your mother said "eat your food...there's kids starving in Somalia" she was thinking like a cosmopolitan, greek for "citizen of the cosmos."
Cosmopolitanism is more of a challenge than anything else, a personal challenge to get past our hate, ignorance, and lack of imagination; and a national challenge to get past our pride, exceptionalism, and our differences. It's not an easy task to love someone across the globe; in fact, due to our evolutionary wiring, some would say it's impossible. Luckily, we don't have to. All we have to do is tolerate, or "get used to" other people that aren't like us. That's all. We don't have to agree. That's the beauty of it. If we learn about people who are different, we will tolerate them. That's the whole point of this book.
Cosmopolitanism also means realizing that people have basic needs that need to be met: health, food, shelter, education, consenting sex, to move, to express themselves (politically or otherwise). People deserve these things. This is a good place to start. But there are millions of details here, all of which even cosmopolitans could disagree on. For example, Appiah believes the "nation-state" is the best government to get things done, but others think a world government is. This is where the book falls short. There is no detail, no fleshing out of the theory, no meat so to speak. It's a primer, at best. I am disappointed.
He also has a bone to pick with the so called "cultural relativists," who think that values are subjective, that morals aren't real, that all cultures have their own ethical code which are neither right nor wrong and that talking about universal ethics makes no sense. Appiah wants to distance himself, and he knows that he's tiptoeing the line, so he spends some time on it with a nice philosophical discussion. It's a lot like "religious pluralism" (which I've blogged about before)--all religions can be equally valid paths to a single truth, or set of truths. That's the line he wants to take.
For those who want an introduction and light philosophical discussion and fast read, I recommend this book.
Most people don't know Howard Thurman (I didn't). You could say he was the John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr., the grandfather of African American nonviolence, a Gandhian, Christian, mystic, poet, and preacher.
Howard Thurman's childhood memories: burying his father because nobody else would (whites-only undertaker in their town); listening to the funeral sermon, which "preached my father into hell" because he wasn't officially Baptist. Thus we have the two things Howard Thurman fought against his whole life: Segregation and institutions.
But far more powerful memories sustained him: "The woods befriended me" and gave [me] "a sense of belonging...the ocean and the night gave me a sense of timelessness...death would be a minor thing." Of all the evils swirling around him, he would take solice in the storm and the God of the storm.
Like Tolystoy he became a Christian mystic, making a large distinction between "the religion of Jesus," which "offers me very many ways out of the world's disorders"--and Christianity. He felt God directly in nature, much like Emerson's "Original Experience"; a Chrisitian beyond Christianity: "the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience...this is not to say that all religions are one and the same, but it is to say that the essence of religious experience is unique, comprehensible, and not delimiting." This permeated his relationships: "That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable."
A pivitol point in his life is when the president of his college called them "young gentleman": "What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920's...the black man was never referred to as 'mister,' nor even by his surname...to the end of his days, he had to absorb the indignity of being called 'boy,' or 'nigger,' or 'uncle'." He was an amazingly disciplined intellectual:
the library was my refuge and my joy…at last the world of books was mine for the asking. I spent hours each week wandering around in the stacks, taking down first one book, then another, examining the title, reading the foreword and the table of contents, leafing through the pages, reading a paragraph here and there, getting the feel of the book and familiarizing myself with writers across centuries who would in time become as closely related to me as my personal friends…I kept certain books in the bathroom. Others I read only during the ten-minute intervals between classes…I would hasten to the next classroom, take my seat, and read until the lecture started.
He advocated for African American rights but, like his friend Martin Luther King Jr., he did so in a wholistic and strategic way: "Thurman would speak about race before white audiences, but on his own terms, and in his own way." He said: "This is always the problem of reformation: To put all of one's emphasis upon one particular thing and when that thing is achieved and the Kingdom of God has not come, then the reformer sits in the twilight of his idols."
After visiting Gandhi, Thurman really got to thinking about how to fix the problem of segregation and race problems in America. As a minister, he thought: how in the world can we tell the government to integrate white and black if our own religion is the most segregated institution in the country? It was embarrassing and wrong. Therefore, he helped create and became the minister of a truly interracial, multiculural church in San Franscisco. This was the legacy of Howard Thurman. Obviously his struggle continues.
Martin Luther King Jr. would listen to him preach in Boston: “He always listened carefully when Thurman was speaking, and would shake his head in amazement at Thurman’s deep wisdom” (192). Don't forget to supplement this book with Howard Thurman's autobiography With Head and Heart.
Visions of a Better World
Benjamin Franklin was a paragon of self-taught education. To learn how to write he literally took scholarly articles apart and put them back together (like a type setter would). Abigail Adams had no choice; being a woman in the 1750's, she had to teach herself. Andrew Jackson, an Irish farm kid, grew up in a sort of cowboy environment, open land, the time of the Regulators, no law, British invading and pillaging. His education was honor and violence.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sojourner Truth was growing up as a slave after the war when Noah Webster was writing his grammar book, arguing for abolition and a national language and education system. But her master could care less about emancipation, so she (literally) walked off to freedom with her one year old baby, living in the woods and finding work to survive. She realized that freedom was another form of slavery, and then became “Sojourner Truth,” a traveling minister and truth-teller like Frederick Douglas (When she met Lincoln he apparently tensed up and called her “Aunty,” as he would his washerwoman).
The boy Lincoln, who was obsessed with reading and mostly self-taught, said “among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand…that always disturbed my temper and has ever since.” This thirst and curiousity made him. Lincoln thought that reading separated him from the Natives. Thocmetony, aka "Princess Winnemucca," a Native "turned American," actually agreed. She grew up surviving, then tried to create a school for her people: "A few years ago," Sarah wrote the parents of her students, "you owned this great county; today the white man owns it all, and you own nothing. Do you know what did it? Education." Her school was to be different; it would not have this motto--"You cannot become truly American citizens...until the INDIAN within you is DEAD"--as the current ones did. It would be culturally integrated. Sadly, it failed and her people were virtually wiped out by the Trail of Tears.
Henry Ford, industrious to the core, had to learn by physically touching the machines (sort of like how Einstien had to visualize math). He thought education gives you a fundamental base, but after that vocational school is best (Booker T Washington might agree). Du Bois represents the beginning of high schools, which were actually created to Americanize the Irish immigrants bringing "discord, immorality, and poverty." Du Bois, a very poor boy with a poor, single, handicap mother, became the black kid that excelled among white kids; he was proving something. A man named Frank Hosmer became his mentor: teacher, president, progressive school reformer--a man who became part of Du Bois's "talented tenth" way of thinking.
Helen Keller is the story of the blind prodigy child. Rachel Carson (environmentalist) was a product of the "Montessori" school movement (back to nature, learn like the Natives). Elvis learned music at a poor, Pentecostal church. In fact, most of these great Americans grew up poor.
So what is the difference between Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and JFK?
Just as Carnegie thought libraries were "the great equalizer" between rich and poor, Horace Mann (founder of public schools) thought "free schools" were going to be the great equalizer. But many Americans were simply left out entirely (Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams), and even those who could be schooled (Andrew Jackson) weren't schooled the same, as the chapter on JFK's education shows--privileged, private, rich. Even the teenage JFK says "how much better chance has [the] boy with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth. This even to the most religious of us can hardly seem a 'square deal'." Talking about private schools, JFK's classmate said if you weren't "incorrigibly stupid or lazy" you could go to "any college you wanted."
I highly recommend this book. The author interweaves the stories brilliantly.
How Lincoln Learned to Read
Yes, a lot of them actually. But if you take a philosophy course, or read an introductory book, you learn about the "great white men and the ivy league cavalcade" (as Romano calls them). The point of the book is not to downplay these great white men (he devotes a long chapter on them), but to bring us up to speed, to survey all the great philosophers in America: African Americans, women, Native Americans, critics, psychologists, gay people, journalists, etc (he expands the term "philosopher" to include Hugh Hefner, which is a bit of a stretch).
For a small sampling: African American philosophers: Alaine Locke, Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Women philosophers: Margaret Fuller (1800's transcendentalist), Gerda Lerner, Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Martha Nussbaum.
Romano also has a bone to pick with so called "philosophy" departments, which have been reduced to analyzing language and splitting hairs instead of talking about issues that really matter to people (as a philosophy student I can attest to that a little bit). The author shows his true colors; he likes the pragmatic tradition (a very American tradition), and especially Richard Rorty.
I forgot who it was, but someone in 1800's America predicted that soon we all would be philosophers. Were they right? This book reads like a very long series of book reviews, which is fine if you want a survey of intellectualism in America. It can be long winded and too wity. Certainly it is not a good or "philosophical" argument that America is the most philosophical place in the history of the world. Not even close. He simply says "hey, look at all these smart people I'm talking about; therefore, we must be philosophical!" Still, if you want to know the inside story of philosophy in America, it's a good read.
America the Philosophical
If you agree with Emerson that "there is no history; only biography," then you will love the way Peterson describes the history of educational reform in American through its major players.
Before Horace Mann there was no State Board of Education, no "normal schools" to teach the teachers, no standard textbooks. After Horace Mann there was. John Dewey, sick of monotonous drilling and memorization, thought that teaching methods must match the student (not the other way around) and that arousing curiosity mattered. Before Martin Luther King Jr. there was black and white schools; after MLK they were mixed. Albert Shanker headed the teachers' rights movement, creating powerful unions. William Bennett used political sway to make school excellence a national issue. James Coleman was disgusted that schools resembled factories, and he thought more school choice was the answer. And last he looks at Julie Young and the potential of Virtual (online) Learning.
It's a gripping story and all the fun is in the details, especially since most of these reformers created unintended consequences, monsters they didn't see coming. And whether they indended or not, schools began as local, small, religion-based, women-taught, extensions-of-the-home. They ended as large, centralized, heavily regulated, state-run giants. The author also makes much out of unions and there tendency to block certain reforms, and you get a sense that the author is coming from a fiscally-conservative republican perspective. This book is fascinating even if you're democrat.
For similar books check out Left Back: a century of failed school reforms, The Little Red School House, Don't Whistle in School, The Underground History of American Education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: how testing and choice are undermining education.
On segregation, check out Root and Branch and Silent Covenants. On pro-union history, try NEA: the first hundred years; for anti-union, check out Teacher Unions: how the NEA and AFT sabotage reform and hold students, parents, teachers and taxpayers hostage. On school choice, try Voucher Wars andBreaking Free and Rethinking School Choice.
The book is really about putting basic consumer protections into student loans: bankruptcy, the right to refinance with another lender, and statute of limitations on collecting. Also, interest rates can be as high as 30%, student loan companies don’t have to get a money judgment in court to start collecting the debt, they are exempt from the Truth in Lending Act, and state-run non-profits are apparently exempt from the Fair Debt Collection and Practices Act (explains the harassing phone calls).
But of course this book is also about digging up the nasty stuff, the whistleblowers, the horror stories, the corruption of student loan industries, Attorney General investigations, the million dollar lobbyists, how they “went to bed” with the federal government and universities. One email was sent to a student loan company reminding them that a certain financial aid worker "likes tequila." The problem of universities receiving kickbacks from student loan companies was so big that Congress passed the Student Loan Sunshine Act of 2007 to stop it. If you don't remember "choosing" who to borrow from when you went to college, you were part of it.
It’s unfortunate that the author’s personal story, while sad, contains one glaringly bad life decision. In order to pay off his student loans better, he quit his nice UC Berkeley job to look for a higher paying job. He didn’t have a job lined up. Ouch! Well, we know how that goes—there were no jobs, he defaulted on his loans, and his life was ruined. But Alan Collinge is no joke. He started studentloanjustice.org, got the attention of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore, and has make significant change in the laws since then.
Part of the root cause of this problem, of course, is the cost of college in the first place. (check out Strapped: Why America's 20 and 30 something's can't get ahead) Why does tuition keep going up? Collinge argues that at some point our government decided to shift the financial burden from the federal government (investing in college directly with taxes) to the students (loans). Have you heard someone say “college is a business”? And why do they keep you so long? Remember the idea of a “four year degree”? Well, only 37% graduated in four years in 2003. Why did I need a Master’s degree to be a librarian? We have a lot of good books on higher education.
The Student Loan Scam
Surviving an earthquake is one thing, but the aftermath is a groundswell in itself. How to you interpret natural disasters? How to you cope with tragedy? On All Saints Day in 1755, when most Lisbonians were in church, a giant Earthquake rocked the city. Then a tsunami. Then a fire. Lisbon was destroyed.
A very Catholic and religious city at the hight of the Inquisition (Shrady describes it as medieval and anti-enlightenment), Lisbon couldn't help but interpret the catastrophe as God's divine wrath, a call to repentance, a punishment for Lisbon's greed. The hell-fire sermons were brought out, dusted off, and shouted from the rubble pulpits.
But of course not everyone interpreted it this way, religious or not. Immanuel Kant (my favorite philosopher), argued it wasn't a moral phenomenon but a natural one. And if you had to read Candide in high school or college, you know that Voltaire took this as the perfect opportunity to expose (with satire) the "optimistic" philosophy of Leibniz and the rose-colored glass of theologians--that with God at the helm we must live in the "best of all possible worlds." Rousseau, criticizing Voltaire, takes a more middle position.
But it was a man named Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo who was on the ground, who rehabilitated the city, and who eventually tried to "enlighten" it. This book is mostly about him. He rebuilds Lisbon, becomes a powerful leader, kicks out all the Jesuits, builds a bunch of universities that teach science (natural philosophy), obolishes slavery, and puts a lot of people to death (not for heresy, but for people who are not with the program). The author describes him as an ambiguous despot, but a despot nonetheless. And for every political push there is a counter-push. Carvalho gets removed, ridiculed, and replaced with a Queen Maria who repeals all his progress. That's European history for ya, right?!
Since this book is more about the history of Lisbon, I recommend this book more for the history aspect, less for the theology/philosophy.
The Last Day
This book started with a bus tour (The Poverty Tour: a Call to Conscience) and ended with a symposium held in Washington D.C., staring West, Smiley, Michael Moore, Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, our Community Read a few years ago), and others. If you’re into the Occupy Wall Street movement, you will like this book. It’s a look into poverty, a political call to action, a history of poverty in America, and a manifesto for poor people. It's also critical of Obama.
The Problem in Numbers
- 1 in 2 (48%): of Americans are either poor or near poor (low income, paycheck to paycheck).
- 33%: increase in incomes for the richest 1% in the last 20 years, compared to stagnant incomes for 90% of Americans ($33,400 in 1988 compared to $33,000 in 2008)
- 28%: increase in homeless people since 2007
- 50 million: Americans in poverty now
- 1% owns 42% of the wealth
- 38.2%: of African American children living in poverty, compared to 12.4% white
- 27.4%: poverty rate for African Americans; compared to 9.9% white, 26.6% Hispanics
- Over 90%: of so called Entitlement Benefits (e.g. Welfare) go to elderly, disabled, or working people. In other words if you think poor people are just lazy, you would have to look at a small 9% of non-working, non-elderly, non-disabled people getting welfare.
- Jobs should have living wages
- Invest in workplace day care and Head Start so moms can work
- Community-based infrastructure projects to create jobs (e.g. “green the ghetto” projects)
- Adjust mortgages to reflect true-market value: if you bought a house for $100,000 ten years ago, what could you sell it for now? Maybe $70,000? Their point is that you should be paying for a $70,000 mortgage then, not a $100,000 mortgage.
- Universal food delivery system to end hunger: they don’t really explain how this would work
- Stop incarcerating so many people of color: read The New Jim Crow for more on this
- Don’t privatize education or prisons, and give health care a public option
- More lobbyists in Washington D.C. for the poor
- Tax the rich more and close loopholes for corporations
- Make the people who caused the recession pay for their crimes by paying money to the victims (restitution)
- Health care public option (mentioned in #7)
- The White House should create an actual plan to end poverty
They argue that poverty should be a national security concern; it’s not an external threat, but rather an “internal rot.” Countries can be destroyed from the inside-out, sort of like what happens in the Hunger Games or the Detroit Race Riots.
The Rich and the Rest of Us
It's always been a big philosophical question whether our choices really are "free." If science tells us that all events have a necessary cause given a set of initial conditions, then how could anything be free? If you can predict my behavior by looking at my brain a few minutes beforehand, how is that free? If an all-knowing God knows what I'm going to do next, how is that free? If we are the "slaves of our passions" (Hume), rather than guided by Reason, how are we free?
This book sheds light on the debate by talking about how our legal system depends on and argues about this stuff all the time. The difference between a legal and illegal contract, the difference between murder and manslaughter, between sex and rape, has everything to do with whether the people "freely" chose something. The new health care debate is over choice. It has everything to do with "personal responsibility" as well (e.g. do poor people choose to be poor? our answer depends on whether we think they are "responsible" for there condition or not).
I loved Greenfields' discussion of court cases, but readers will also enjoy his grasp of brain science, culture, and our capitalist market--all things that influence and constrain our choices. Examples:
Bikini effect: show men a bikini and they will buy. In fact, show people an attractive person and they will treat them better, give them more tips, not send them to prison, think they’re smarter, etc.
Priming or “mental contamination”: in one study, students were asked whether they were happy. If they were first “primed” by asking them something depressing, happiness fell. Other students were asked how many countries in Africa? If they spun a wheel with numbers it affect their answer. When African Americans were asked about their race before a test, they did worse (negative stereotypes probably seeped in). President Bush put a subliminal word “RATS” in one of his commercials about Gore.
Context: A company was not selling their $275 dollar bread maker. They created another one for double the price, and the same $275 dollar one doubled in sales.
Memory problems: they way we remember events will affect choices we make about similar events. If you make the ending of a colonoscopy seem pleasant by leaving the probe in for 20 seconds longer, they are more willing to return for screenings.
The whole point of the book, however, is not to depress us, but simply to say that knowing what influences our choice is half the battle. Which, like most things, reminds me of the Matrix trilogy. The Matrix argues (in the words of the Oracle) that free will doesn't consist in the fact that we could have chose differently (sorry Neo, it's all set in stone); but rather free will consists in our ability to understand why we chose this or that. Know thyself; live a reflective life. This is sorta what Greenfield is saying. What's also not depressing is that influence is not coercion--in other words, you can influence me all you want, but in the end I get the last laugh, I stand alone with my stoic decisions.
Other books: The Art of Choosing, Nudge, Blink, The Impulse Factor, U-Turn, and The Paradox of Choice.
the myth of choice
Wait a minute: has violence declined? The first 361 pages argue that it has. A significant decline since records began; all forms that can be measured: murder, rape, war, etc. You might be thinking: wait a minute, World War I, World War II?! This is where you might disagree with what Pinker means by "violence has declined". He means the rate has declined, not the total number of people dying from it. A war that killed 2 million people back in the 8th Century, Pinker says, is much worse than a war that killed 2 million people nowadays, because there was less people then (it killed a larger percentage of the world back then). Get it? So taking the world population in consideration, Pinker is definitely correct that the rate of violence has gone down (all his graphs show a steep decline from top-left to bottom-right). In other words, if hypothetically you could pick any time period to live in, you may want to pick now because overall you have the least probability of dying from violence (unless you get dropped in Wash. DC!).
Another piece of his argument is to say that many forms of violence have been simply eliminated; no more witch burning, no nukes have been used, no great powers have fought since 1953, slavery has almost been eliminated, and so on. There's a whole new moral consciousness, caused by numerous developments (social, political, economical)--it's not that human nature changed.
Some people are a little worried about Pinker's arguments because they sound "old fashioned"; a little "arrow-of-history-ish" (history is pointing us towards some goal) which has a bad track record; or they sound a little ethnocentrist (civilized people are way better than primitive people who live in a state of war constantly); or a little democracy-biased. Plus I bet some historians are saying "who does this linguist think he is!" He is aware of these concerns, which is part of the pull to read the book (and watch his youtube videos).
Whether you have reservations or not, this book is an enormous endeavor, an audaciously large project that I cannot help but appreciate as such. It's part of a new trend to "mathmatize" history, using numbers to tell the story. I am amazed that one man could write on so many topics, pulling from so many sources. And it helps that Pinker is a master at writing good sentences that flow. There are hundreds of talking points. If you like history and evolutionary psychology, I recommend this book especially (oh did I mention it's really long?).
Better Angels of our Nature
In the recent storm of books over God and religion--full of name-calling, overgeneralizing, straw-mans, passion, fudging numbers and so on--the civility found in this book is a breath of fresh air. No low blows or cheap shots!? What impresses me most about this book is not only its "friendly" tone (others have that), which dominates the first several chapters and presents a liberal Christian theology (i.e. I can be a Christian and love science and not hate gay people)--what impressed me the most was the psychological studies and survey results that the author presents towards the end of the book. This is the meat of the book I think, where he takes a uniquely psychologists perspective (Michigan psychologist), citing studies that correlate devout religiousness (who go at least once a week) with not smoking, not getting arrested, overall health, happiness/well-being, cheritable giving, volunteerism, and some other random benefitial stuff. To be fair, he also points about psychologically harmful things that are correlated with religion. A nice evening read.
A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists
Lincoln would lean back on his chair to do his thinking. He would think about his speeches months in advance, writing and re-writing (yes it appears people wrote their own speeches back then). He would mumble the words out loud, get friends to read them aloud; and when it came time, he would read his speeches slowly (as I'm sure he did in Kalamazoo). What amazed me about this biography is that Lincoln's so called "eloquence" came with a lot of work. As a poor young man he would walk six miles to get a grammar book. Largely self-taught, he would devour books on grammar and speaking. Lincoln was very fond of the Psalms and used them for his speeches. For example, the main point of his Second Inaugural comes from Psalms 19:9: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln really was a brave man. On his way to office he said: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.” By "it" he meant the American promise "that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." Indeed he was.
Now his track record on slavery is, according to the many biographies and books, ambiguous. He was sort of a split personality. His personal attitude towards slavery seemed to stay the same throughout his political career; but his political attitudes changed.
First Inaugural address:
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
Later, after the war breaks out, Garrison and others are screaming for Lincoln to make a statement on slavery, to the make the war to be about slavery (as I said in my previous blog, people like Emerson wouldn't even let his son enlist for this reason). Lincoln replies immediately:
“if I could save the union and not save a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the union and save all the slaves, I would do it." Which this ends: "personally I wish all men were free." He also said “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”
Eventually he does make slavery the cause of the war:
“Without slavery the rebelion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” (181).
He realized that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free” (187), or as Martin Luther King would say, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and “I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road, because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me."
the eloquent president
Emerson once dreamed that the world shrunk into an apple. An angel told him to eat it, and so he did. A fitting image of transcendentalist thought! The world is so small we can eat it; the mind prevails,"there was never any thing that did not proceed from a thought"; a single human being can do anything.
By most accounts Emerson was a great American, a great speaker, and a great man. He was a transcendentalist, a nature writer, a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a literary figure, a speaker (yes, that was his profession!), a poet. He was anti-slavery, anti-establishment, pro-women's rights (all when it was "unfashionable"); and, even through family deaths and sorrows, he was a champion of unbridled and unparalleled optimism. But what impresses me most is the degree to which he thought for himself, went his own way, and fearlessly lived.
At 24 Emerson visits the South. He's at a bible study. He can hear a slave auction outside. He and his wife, part of the Underground Railroad in Boston, would always be vocal against slavery. On the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “[Lincoln] has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.” When the war was only about saving the Union, he wouldn't’t let his son enlist. He supported John Brown. In 1844 even the churches wouldn't open their doors for his speeches, which fueled his distrust of organized religion: “God builds his temple in the heart, on the ruins of churches and religions."
On the unity of all persons: “There is one mind common to all individual men” Like Thoreau's chant "Simplicity!" Emerson's chant was "Identity, identity! Friend and foe are one stuff, and the stuff is such and so much that the variations of surface are unimportant.” On us and Nature: “There is a relation between man and nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.” On beauty: “all is in each” and “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature.” He was so convinced in the power of a single individual that he said "properly there is no history, only biography." In other words, if you want to learn history, read a bunch of biographies--history is nothing but a list of great and terrible people. But we are all potentially great people: “each fine genius that appears is already predicted in our constitution.” In a stoic and Christian way, he thought groups of people only make things worse. After witnessing the French Revolution, he says “It is always becoming evident that the permanent good is for the soul only and cannot be retained in any society or system...the world is always childish." On courage, peace, and nonviolence Emerson was like Martin Luther King Jr: "Courage is grounded always on a belief in the identity of the nature of my enemy with my own [nature], that he with whom you contend is no more than you."
Yes I recommend this biography, but it's a commitment (due to length).
Emerson: Mind on Fire
We are what we read. But how do we decide what to read? Normally we don't have a systematic program for our reading life. Perhaps a friend told us, or the "customers also bought this..." on Amazon.com, or our last book mentioned it, or we heard it on NPR or Oprah. These are all great, but there's many other ways. Try the Now Read This through our website. Or, if you want a Read-a-Like based on an author you like, try our Books and Authors database (or try Good Reads or LibraryThing).
But, if you want to get super serious, we have tons of books that are about books (i.e. bibliographies, "treasuries," "anthologies," "companions").
Based on Age:
1001 children's books you must read before you grow up, 100 best books for children, The Book of virtues for young people : a treasury of great moral stories, Black Books Galore! Guide to great African American children's books about girls, 500 Great Books for Teens, Disabilities and disorders in literature for youth : a selective annotated bibliography for K-12, The Ultimate Teen Book Guide
"I just want the classics!" (usually this means great literature, not necessary from the Classical period):
Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Magill's survey of world literature, Literature Lovers Companion: the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers—past and present, popular and classical, Assessing the Classics: great reads for adults, teens, and English language learners, The modern library : the two hundred best novels in English since 1950, Harvard Classics series (has the actual writings)
Short Story Writers, The Essential Mystery Lists, Harold Bloom writes several books, e.g. on British Women Fiction Writers, Asian American Women Writers, Major Black American Writers, Classic Science Fiction Writers, and more.
To find the major books in an academic field, like philosophy or physics or astronomy, look for an introductory book. They usually have primary sources and "further reading" sections.
Racial or Cultural Identity:
African Writers, Sacred fire : the QBR 100 essential Black books, Concise encyclopedia of Latin American literature, Native American literatures : an encyclopedia of works, characters, authors, and themes
Movements and Places:
Literary movements for students : presenting analysis, context, and criticism on commonly studied literary movements, Promised Land: 13 books that shaped America, The Oxford companion to American literature (we also have these for Austrialian, French, Canadian, and more); Michigan in the Novel (really cool book list of novels set in MI or about MI)
Have fun reading, and slow down to think!
1001 Books for Every Mood
There's no way of understating the influence Plato's The Republic had on the history of Western thought. Whitehead said that all philosophy after Plato was nothing but a footnote to what Plato already said (he wrote several dialogues).
Plato was one of the first to start off the great "utopian" tradition of writing about a perfect world, a perfect society, the harmonious family, the best City, a sublime life-after-death, a tranquil existence within oneself--all imaginations that could be real, if only we tried it this way. Everyone has thought of their own version. Think of Jesus' "kingdom of God" and St. Augustine's "city of God" and Thomas More's "utopia" (called "utopia" as a satire because in latin it means "no place") and Martin Luther King's "beloved" community" and B.F. Skinner's in Walden Two. I met a guy at the library that was actually part of a real utopian commune in the U.S. (Emerson almost joined "Brook Farm"). Check out this book for a history of Utopias.
Plato imagines that the perfect city is a mirror of the perfect person. People fundamentally have three parts to their Soul: the rational part, the "spiritive" part (as in a warrior has spirit), and the "appetite" part (or desires). A City has the same parts, and they rank in the same order. Philosopher-Kings rule the city as model's of rational thinking, warriors protect it as model's of spirit and courage and braveness of heart, and the "commoners" make and trade all the stuff as model's of drive and desire and want. Thus we have a city as an extension of the perfectly organized self.
Plato and the gang, very regretfully, decide not to let poets into his city. Read it to find out why!
This book is a nice way to enter into the great American conversation, the great American experiment, hopes and fears, modes of thought, movements, tragedies, and great people. If you don't get a chance to read these books--Of Plymouth Plantation, The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journals of Lewis and Clark,Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Souls of Black Folk, The Promised Land, On the Road, Feminine Mystique--then I especially recommend reading this overview of them. For each book, Parini gives a brief section on the history of the books publication, the author, what the book is about, and it's lasting impression on America. Very readable, and the themes flow together in an amazing way.
We start with a small band of pilgrims landing on the coast of America, a great new experiment! then three "anonymous" Founders arguing for the existence of a federal government; then the amazing accomplishments of Franklin, a real Enlightenment, dabling in everything, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps man; then Manifest Destiny; then escaping to the woods to reclaim your identity and get rid of your stuff; then the horrors of slavery brought to light; then Twain unleashes his writing genuis; then black folk are not in chains, but still not free; then mass immigration and the promise of American freedom; then the Beat Poet's re-finding meaning in a world of destruction; and finally the "second wave" of women's rights, women who can vote but are chained to the home.
Also check the back of the book for 100 more reading ideas (Common Sense, Democracy in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Nature, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Up from Slavery, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions...to name a few).
Metaphors are brilliant, even in science. Descartes likened the world to a machine, Newton to a clock, Darwin used breeding as an analogy for evolution; and lately the mind to a computer. Noam Chomsky had an idea that the brain is "hardwired" to acquire language, an "innate" language capacity, a universal grammar so to speak. This explains why we learn it so easily, but yet we have particular differences (English, Chinese, Spanish). Hauser, in this book, takes it from Chomsky and applies it to morality. He argues that we have a "univesal moral grammer," an innate set of moral principles. This explains why almost all humans agree on the "big issues" (you shouldn't kill people), but show a wonderful diversity on the "small issues" (you should burn your dead vs. you should eat your dead).
The book is a whirling adventure, jumping from large philosophical points, to evolutionary speculations, to economic theory, psychological studies, linquistics and more. I must admit I couldn't read the whole book because I got lost in the trees (I'm a forest man). But the book is taking part in an exciting branch of study, the "science of morality."
One philosophical point that books like this bring up is the different between explaining what morality is versus arguing what morality should be, or the "is" versus "ought" distinction. What do moral judgments look like in the brain? How did morality evolve? How do people normally act? These are trying to answer the "is" question, studied by neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and psychology. But then there's the "ought" people--the philosophers and theologians and moralists--who try to convince people how they should act, regardless of how things "are". These are the people who changed history. Sam Harris argues, in an interesting blurring of roles, that science (not philosophy or religion) ought to be spending more time on the ought questions.