I have this pressing sense of anticipation coupled with a general feeling of creative empowerment whenever I have a full plate of things to think about and to learn. The perfect combination. Sometimes thinking comes first, sometimes learning. But neither can really stand alone.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. -Albert Einstein
Books and the knowledge contained within them cannot be ends in themselves. Rather, they serve as a rich provocation for new insights and understandings. What I read consistently moves my thinking to new places and informs the thrust of what I write. Below is an annotated list of what I’ve found to be remarkable reads. Some are recently ingested and others are timeless favorites. All are books I’ve returned to after a first reading.
Featured Remarkable Reads:
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow
There’s that great trick where a tablecloth is yanked out so quickly from under the table settings that everything above the cloth lands in perfect, unbroken order back on the table where, just seconds ago, they were in place on the tablecloth. Everyone shakes their head in amazement or claps their hands at the feat. In The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and comparative archaeologist David Wengrow perform a similar feat when they yank out the [nearly] entire theoretical framework for the history of humanity’s social development over the last 300,000 years so that all of the structures, institutions, values and mores, and well-worn ways of relating to other humans land intact. But unlike the table settings, the components in The Dawn of Everything come to rest in completely new and different arrangements than they were before the conventional theoretical framework was pulled out from under them. From the organization of the earliest groups of Homo to the development of agriculture to the rise of governed city-states, all long-standing assumptions are fair game for critical review. The precisely targeted challenges (were royalty and other hierarchical roles only operating seasonally and rotating annually for some cultures?) and the bold insights (the grand economic shift to agriculture was in reality the playful experimentation of botany and gardening honed by women over centuries) throughout the book are backed up with sound logic and credible documentation from primary sources. If you enjoy the toppling of received dogma, this book is a veritable joy-ride. This is not to say that the alternative to that dogma is a cakewalk. There’s as much power-lust and violence in the new view as there was in the old. But the new view contains all the twists and turns and experimentation and flexibility that the old view ruled out. Far from a linear path to “civilization,” humanity has played around with just about every configuration of how we might coexist together. (How did Indigenous North Americans largely avoid the trap scholars have maintained follows from agriculture to the rise of states yet many of them still developed impressive political acumen? And perhaps most importantly, what are the origins of the inequality that persists around the world today?) The evidence presented is neither new nor controversial. Rather, it is the brilliantly coherent argument the authors make from that evidence that points to such dramatically different conclusions about who we have been and who we may yet become. If you think and talk much about human history and the social structures and conventions of humankind, you’ll want to read this book to avoid the risk of being behind in the conversation. Oh, forget about that–read it because you will learn so much and enjoy the journey while doing so. But don’t just take my word for it–Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan), for one, said of the The Dawn of Everything, “This is not a book. This is an intellectual feast. There is not a single chapter that does not (playfully) disrupt well-seated intellectual beliefs. It is deep, effortlessly iconoclastic, factually rigorous, and pleasurable to read.”
Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See the World (2021) by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti
Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See the World is a different kind of selection for this list, but I can’t help but think that anyone interested in our world—past, present, or future—will be intrigued by this book. From the perspective of graphics and cartography, it’s nothing short of amazing. From the perspective of human history, there are startling insights here—the kind that can only make themselves fully apparent through visual representation. And from the perspective of who we are and what we could be thinking about together, the invisible made known is a call to action. But though the insights from the depicted data often jump out at the reader, this isn’t a picture book to move through quickly. The maps and graphics and the accompanying text need to be taken in, fully digested, and then sat with for a while. Together the parts tell a powerful story about the whole. Engaging opening essays accompany each of the book’s four sections: Where We’ve Been, Who We Are, How We’re Doing, and What We Face. And there is a compelling narrative to accompany each of the visual treatments. These unique explorations are to be studied and, ideally, talked about with others as data becomes transformative information for those digging deeper. The fact that Cheshire and Uberti chose to focus their atlas on the invisible requires our time and attention even more so as we familiarize ourselves with the unseen patterns of our world. Sometimes taking issue with the received stories about our shared past, other times presenting the past, present, and future in ways we’ve just never thought of, Atlas of the Invisible reveals new vistas of the infinitely small and the incomprehensibly large, of the long ago and the recent past. (“In the past DECADE, humanity has generated more data about itself than it did in the previous CENTURY.”) After a slow and careful full-read, I’ve returned to this book repeatedly, whether for a visual that stuck with me and demands another look, or because I’ve learned some new piece of information on a depicted subject and want to see what the merging of this new information with the authors’ visualization of the data might produce in terms of yet another insight. Take a look for yourself.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (2014) by Alan Lightman
Alan Lightman was one of the first dual-faculty appointments in both science and the humanities at MIT. A theoretical physicist, novelist, and essayist, he brings a depth of knowledge but also a gift for insightful writing to his book, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. This collection of essays starts from the human desire to make sense of our world (and the universe beyond it). It culminates in the suggestion that the mysteries we are most interested in are most likely to remain unplumbable. In each of his seven essays, Lightman explores a different universe. Outlining and then temporarily setting aside the possibility of a multi-verse, Lightman considers the multiplicity of universes within our one known universe, “some visible and some not.” Balancing a sense of wonder and a value for scientific rigor, he implicitly builds a case for maintaining a passion for what we can learn from science but also an unattached discernment for what we can only speculate about.
The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century & the Birth of the Modern Mind (2016) by A. C. Grayling
Seventeenth-century Europe gave us Shakespeare, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo, Princess Elizabeth, Rembrandt, Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Queen Kristina, Descartes, Vermeer, Hobbes, Milton, and Cervantes, to name but a few. With such unprecedented creativity in so many fields–the arts, the sciences, philosophy, and politics, humankind’s understanding of itself and its world shifted to an entirely new paradigm–the age of reason leading to the enlightenment. In addition to giving birth to a host of new ideas, the seventeenth century was a time of fomenting the break with much of the tradition, values, and presumptions that had come before the advent of the modern world. Thus the period served as the launchpad for the paradigmatic shift’s true instantiation in the eighteenth century. Grayling grounds the intellectual growth in the tumultuousness of the times, including a focus on the Thirty Years War. As the intellectuals of the period were shifting from the religious to the secular, the war was rooted in the ever-ongoing religious conflict between Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists (as well as the ever-ongoing power struggles of the European nobles). Grayling sees this conflict as the opening for such profound change in thinking. His challenge at the end of this erudite tome is for the world to be fully capable of making the best use of the mind the seventeenth century gave birth to.
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966/1989) and The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For an Age of Anxiety (1951/1988) by Alan Watts
Alan Watts billed himself as a “philosophical entertainer” but in truth he was as deep and as approachable as any of his kind. Watts was a perfectly flawed voyager who lived a unique life in a unique moment in time with wisdom to share in a way done so by few. A spiritual polymath and an ardent student of philosophy, religion, psychology and science, he held a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in divinity, but more importantly, he was fluent in the languages of all of the primary Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. Considered one of the most original and “unrutted” philosophers of the twentieth century, he authored over twenty books, but his talks (still available on tapes and CDs and audible.com as well as YouTube) may be his greatest gift to those who appreciate his irreverent wisdom. Among the many favorites, two books by Watts stand out as apropos for any list of remarkable reads. The first, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, was written as the kind of text one might give to one’s young adult daughter or son and, accordingly, that’s around the age at which I first read it. Perhaps the idea is that the mind is still a bit open at that impressionable point in life. I know that when I have gone back to The Book the many times since, I’ve often wondered what my younger self thought because I find it immediately relevant to whatever my current age is when I return to this text. In terms of its core message–the issue of personal identity–our challenges may change over a lifetime but generally this socially-conditioned issue remains with us. Watts argues that at root, our most basic problem is that we misunderstand who we are. He proceeds to put forth an understanding of what it does mean to be human and an understanding of the very nature of existence itself. He shows us how the illusion of a separate self begets one’s conflict with the rest of reality. Watts writes infinitely better about the inexpressible than I ever could so I will leave it there, except to recommend one more remarkable read from Alan Watts: The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. At the time this text was first published, the world was struggling to come to terms with living in the ominous shadow of the nuclear bomb. Traditional values were no longer a given and the future was an unknown at best, unlikely at worst. Watts, on the other hand, embraced the insecurity and offered a path of self-examination as the way through. Not an avoidance of the sources of anxiety, Watts shows that by staying firmly grounded in the present moment and riding the crest of that wave, we are aware of the unavoidable impermanence of life and therefore unconstrained by it. Our circumstances today are eerily reminiscent of the conditions under which the book was first introduced–or is that just the human condition? In any case, there is great wisdom to be encountered here. [Note: Regarding that “entertainer” aspect of Watts, may I suggest that you go to YouTube and listen to a few of his recordings before sampling any of his writings. Watts’ resonant voice and his genuine, full-bodied laugh are so rich and engaging that you will want to be able to hear him in your head as you read his work.]
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (2010) by Robert W. Merry
This provocative book begs many questions and ends with the author’s disconcerting assertion that history turns not on morality, but on power, energy, and will. This claim seems to be embodied in the person of James K. Polk, a man thought to have few leadership characteristics yet he ended up demonstrating the drive and the will to bring his intentions to fruition. Walter Isaacson calls Polk the most underrated US president and if you don’t know much about him, this book is a great place to learn more. In the four years of his single term, Polk led a two-year war with Mexico that, together with threatening another war with Britain, garnered the United States an additional one million square miles of territory. But for a small portion of Arizona and New Mexico that was subsequently added, today’s geographic outline of the United States was essentially created during Polk’s tenure. This intense period of expansionism fulfilled what many saw as the destiny of this country, but at what cost and to whom? If you haven’t already studied this brief but crucial period in United States history, you are certain to find this book compelling.
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016) by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
Those unfamiliar with the Stoic school of thought imagine it to be a philosophy of stiff-upper-lip or a suck-it-up-and-move-on approach based on our contemporary use of the word “stoic.” But the philosophy of Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Musonius Rufus is a wise, practical approach to living a happy and fulfilling life through embracing what reality presents us with (amor fati) and by fully living as if we are truly mindful that life is finite for all of us (memento mori). Emphasizing the importance of focusing on what we can control, letting go of trying to change what we can’t control, and working on our own behaviors and actions through specific daily practice, is the foundation for living a Stoic life. The authors present a quotation from the Stoic standard-bearers for each day of the year and then provide a few paragraphs of contemporary commentary on the Stoic philosopher’s thought behind the quote. I love The Daily Stoic as part of a nightly practice. I read that day’s quote and commentary right before turning off the light and then reflect on it’s relevance for my own life before falling asleep. After repeated years of this cycle, the practice (unsurprisingly) deepens over time.
Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (2013) by Rebecca Stott
Every brilliant idea has its intellectual forebears and a history of collective discovery. These ideas evolve through a process of transmutation and rarely do so in a vacuum. Serving as a well-rounded case study of this process, Darwin’s Ghosts is a wonderfully-written history of the evolution of the idea of evolution itself, developing from the time of Aristotle and through to Darwin. While Darwin laid out the means through which adaptation occurred, Stott shows us that the idea of mutability of the species developed over centuries and across continents. She describes the resistance to the idea, engendered at nearly every turn, as well as its persistence as a developing theory even in the face of great danger given the heresy of its premises and ultimate ramifications. The book is inspirational in terms of both the imagination and the courage required to put forth ideas that will be ridiculed and rejected for their deviation from the norm. A truly unquenchable curiosity cannot be contained. By some accounts Darwin literally made himself ill with the conflict between his intellectual pursuits and the established norms he was running counter to. He crossed disciplines and geography, he played out his hunches through direct experimentation on beetles, pigeons, ducks and plants, and he kept secret notebooks of his thoughts long before he dared to share them. His fear caused him decades of procrastination, but finally nothing could prevent him from bringing forward the truth he was certain he had discovered. [Note: If you haven’t read On the Origin of Species but plan to, it’s best to get a facsimile copy of the first edition as it contains Darwin’s strongest, most confident statement of his ideas. Later versions are soft-pedaled somewhat due to the great opposition his ideas engendered. In 2001, Harvard Paperbacks put out a very readable facsimile of the first edition.]
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2011) by Sarah Bakewell
A compilation of the complete writings of Renaissance master penman Michel de Montaigne usually runs to around 1400 pages. Reading these essays directly is a rather arduous though rewarding experience for anyone appreciative of the historically unique perspective of 16th-century Montaigne, a thinker generally acknowledged as the first essayist as well as the first truly modern individual. Sarah Bakewell has done a great service in making Montaigne’s writings accessible by arranging and annotating excerpts from these essays in twenty highly readable chapters. Each chapter focuses on a different answer to the question of how to live well, Montaigne’s chief concern. Montaigne believed in starting any reflection or inquiry with an open skepticism and then remaining receptive to what he can discover from there. The essays are charmingly candid and will often resonate immediately with one’s own quotidian reactions to life. Interwoven with biographic material about Montaigne, the essays are enriched through placement within his public and his private life as well as the tumultuous times in which that life was lived. Montaigne himself interweaves the philosophy of the ancient Greeks into his essays in a way completely wholly to his own challenges. That chain continues as we find him a philosopher relevant for contemporary times over four hundred years later. Bakewell is completely enchanted with Montaigne and that sentiment comes through in a very positive way throughout How to Live.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World (2016) by Andrea Wulf
The Invention of Nature is both a biography and a treatise on our current understanding of nature and how it came to be that way. The 19th century geographer and polymath, Alexander von Humboldt, was himself a force of nature as he spent his legendary physical and intellectual energy on opening his contemporaries’ eyes to seeing the world as a connected web of complex interaction. In the course of his long life, he essentially invented the idea of environmentalism as he warned of the havoc being wreaked on the natural world by humans. A visionary and courageous trail-blazer, Humboldt saw the inextricable link between science and the poetic beauty of the natural world, sparking the imaginations of naturalists like Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Haeckel and Muir. His relationships with Goethe, Simón Bolivar, and Thomas Jefferson helped to cement his nineteenth-century notoriety (his fame at the time was second only to that of Napoleon), culminating in hundreds of species (both plant and animal) as well as geographic locations and towns being named after him. No longer well-known, his prescient ideas are coming to fruition, including his concerns about destructive habits of humans on the earth’s eco-systems and the need for proactive steps to circumvent negative changes in climate (Humboldt was one of the first to recognize climate zones as well as human impact upon them). Throughout The Invention of Nature, Humboldt’s passion for nature and his poetic aesthetic sense shine through and remind us that the two have always inspired each other, though Westerners periodically lose touch with that symbiosis. Andrea Wulf’s well-written tales of Humboldt’s travels and discoveries sit well alongside her compelling articulation of Humboldt’s arguments. The Invention of Nature brings new urgency to ideas now obvious but all the more forceful when we grasp how long this bell has been tolling.
Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (1979, 30th anniversary edition 2017) by Richard Rorty
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this book on later twentieth-century Western philosophy (much less on my own thinking about the nature of reality). With this book, a rather renowned analytic philosopher does an abrupt about-face and dismisses the analytic project as not even relevant to what matters in our philosophical understanding. Richard Rorty first shows that for Aristotle and most thinkers prior to Descartes, the intellect was not a mirror inspected by an inner eye, but rather, it was both a mirror and an eye itself. For Descartes, the intellect examined things based on retinal images; only the reflections or representations of things are thought to be present in the mind. These representations are then scrutinized by the mind’s “eye” to find evidence of their veracity. Thus the structure was set for a purely normative approach to Western theories of knowledge. Okay, so what? Why do we care? Because this is how modern philosophy gave up the reality of the actual world (though there were periodic challenges to the canon by Nietzsche, James, Wittgenstein, and others). Herein lie the roots of the separation of mind and matter and where the mind/body split becomes so pervasive in Western thoughts and practices across all formal and informal disciplines. Rorty’s book offered a pragmatic alternative grounded in the humanities. Rorty’s heresy was to show us the pointlessness of the mind/body distinctions and to give us back direct access to reality. If you are philosophically inclined, you have probably read this book; if you haven’t, you really will want to. If you are interested in the origins of our pervasive western ways of thinking about things in this dichotomized way, you too will want to read this book. It may require some ancillary work, but it will be worth it.
The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993) by Gordon S. Wood
Noted historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, makes a sound argument for a revolution that was about much more than a break with King George’s England. Wood’s unique perspective explains how the colonies that were far from united became an unruly republic of citizens focused on egalitarian outcomes. Without the terror of the French revolution and the upheavals that come with overthrow of a ruling class, the American Revolution sometimes has been painted as a placid transition from being governed by the British to self-rule by the colonies. Wood’s compelling depiction of a radical turn that transformed a whole social order, beginning in 1760 and continuing for another 60 years, was a “revolution of the mind” that inspired countries in Europe and Central and South America to seek their own version of the equality and democracy they saw occurring in what was to become the United States. The change from a hierarchical to an egalitarian society went well beyond what the founding fathers held as their aim, often to the consternation of many of those founders. The unanticipated and uncontrollable outcomes of this more radical revolution of the mind that followed the emancipation from British rule spawned a nation previously unimagined even in the Enlightenment texts and principles the founders followed in the design of their new republic. Wood first shows how the laxity brought on by distance from the patriarchal ruling system fostered a love of freedom and a resentment of British entitlements. He then gives credit to the British literature of social criticism at the time as well as an affinity for the Roman values of a republican social structure as primary influencers of the new republic’s framers. Today we know that equality then was not meant for everyone and that these righteous founders, educated and without market-corrupted interests, were elitist and bigoted in their claims to be the protectors of the common person’s rights and interests. It wasn’t long before the Roman-style republic gave way to more democratic assemblies (and, of course, parties of very definite interests). The most marginalized groups–women, slaves, and indigenous peoples–are not covered at any length here, but the implications are clear. The founding fathers, while still venerated, often felt dismissed and at sea to understand what had happened to their best laid plans. Wood’s excellent text leaves the reader with a new appreciation for the true originality of what was conceived and the even greater originality of what was brought into existence, as well as the less constructive unintended consequences and what this country’s origins mean for where it may be heading today.
Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (2016) by Eric Kandel
A renowned expert in memory studies, neuroscientist Eric Kandel applies reductionism to the seemingly disparate realms of brain science and abstract art, supporting the reader in the development of a new appreciation for both. Working seamlessly across science and the humanities, Kandel sheds new light on reductionism–the distillation of broader scientific and aesthetic concepts into smaller, more manageable parts–in both realms. Drawing upon his work in the neurobiological foundations of learning and memory, Kandel first breaks down the process of how we optically “see” and then associate an object or image with learned forms. Delving into the development of contemporary abstract art, he shows how the move from metaphor to direct expression as it occurred first in the art of Turner, Monet, and Kandinsky, then De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and later minimalists, brought the viewer more fully into the creation of meaning and content. Reversing the direction of understanding, Kandel then shows how art can be used to affect the neuro-processes of the viewer, creating a reality only existent in the observer’s mind. The thesis is thoroughly articulated and well-illustrated, engagingly expanding one’s understanding of how art and the brain interact to create a cognitive and emotional impact upon the viewer experiencing a piece of abstraction. This is definitely a book to go back to after living with its ideas for awhile and applying them to more than the visual arts.
A Short History of Progress (2005, 15th anniversary edition 2020) by Ronald Wright
The first thing to catch my attention was the quote on the cover: “If you read one book about impending doom this year, make it this one”–Ottawa Citizen. Not a great sales pitch so I assumed it was tongue-in-cheek and appreciated it being put on the front cover. Well, the book delivers on the promise of the quote–there is no optimistic outlook provided here, except for the fact that we can still learn from our past and the many mistakes made by the civilizations that have come before. Intriguingly encapsulating the rise and fall of the Sumerian, Roman, Easter Island and Mayan civilizations, Ronald Wright then gives his justification for the belief that we are unlikely to do any better today. As we continue to “do nothing” rather than taking the long-view both backward and forward and then acting accordingly, Wright finds us making the “biggest mistake” a civilization can make. Wright’s account of human “progress” through the course of history is beautifully succinct in its telling and it is impossible not to see the parallel in modern times to each of the gross missteps made by previous civilizations. This is not a book of solutions, but a brief yet compelling philosophical look at our species’ devolution. [Note: There is also an illustrated version of this book which adds an interesting aspect to the succinct telling of the tale.]
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2017) by Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads literally is “A New History of the World.” Despite the extensive ground to cover, Frankopan has an argument to make and while he criss-crosses continents and aeons in doing so, he never lets you lose the thread of that argument. Always relevant to the crises we face today, Frankopan insists that we must understand the remarkable histories and our western relationships to these rich trade routes of the world in order to truly understand the challenges confronting us at this time. The breadth and depth of Frankopan’s accounts are vast and always interesting, making the reader question the many assumptions underpinning how most of us think about the world. Drawing connections where none might have been imagined previously and challenging pre-conceived notions about both the past and the present, Frankopan places the East as the point of orientation and then repaints the last several millennia in new and vibrant colors. The fate of the West has always been linked to that of the East and today is no different. Frankopan helps us understand the history of this interdependency and what it means for the present and for the future.
The Snow Leopard by (1978; 2nd ed. 2008) Peter Matthiessen
Writing of his 1973 pilgrimage through the high mountains of Nepal in search of the elusive snow leopard, Peter Matthiessen further hoped to find the Lama of Shey who was thought to be at the ancient shrine on Crystal Mountain. Matthiessen had just lost his wife to cancer and, at 46, he was seeking both peace and direction for his life. I first read this book a few years after its release in the late 1970s. I loved it then and wondered recently how I would feel about it all these years later. For me it is still holds the magic and mysticism of the natural and cultural world in that majestic mountainous region. It is told by a masterful writer and sublime thinker on both nature and what it is to be an authentic human being in a world of suffering juxtaposed with immense beauty. [Note: If you enjoy listening to books via audible.com, I highly recommend that as a way to enjoy The Snow Leopard. Shortly before his death in 2014, Matthiessen read his book for audible listeners and the effect of hearing his elderly but powerful voice recount the tale of his trek 40 years earlier is spell-binding. The recorded book is, unfortunately, abridged but Matthiessen selected the abridgments and hearing his intimate reading of his own story more than makes up for it.]
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2012) by Stephen Greenblatt
The rediscovery, nearly six hundred years ago, of the ancient philosophical text De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, was a precipitating event for redirection of human thought and interest in the next several centuries. The discoverer was an Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, and the text was the only surviving manuscript of an ancient philosophical epic determined to have been lost forever after remaining unseen for a thousand years. Bracciolini’s discovery gave life to the early Renaissance and inspired artists like Botticelli and radical thinkers like Giordano Bruno. Subsequently it fed the imaginations of such diverse figures as Galileo, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Darwin, Jefferson and Einstein. The “swerve” in our vision of ourselves and the universe created by the finding of this book and the other texts that its recovery brought to light changed the course of human history as the ancient past created the modern philosophical understanding. The questioning of “truth” now was given free rein. This is a true account of our intellectual history–and most notably the birth of modern humanism–told through Greenblatt’s gripping story craft.
Think on These Things (1989) by Jidda Krishnamurti
My first reading of this book was in my late teens and subsequent readings–often of just a few germane sections at a time–have only deepened my appreciation for its wisdom. In simple, direct terms, Krishnamurti lays out the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the harmfulness–to ourselves, to each other, and to society as a whole–of our reactions to these circumstances. The implications are profound. They show the futility of our approach, but they also provide us with a way out of our predicament. Posed in the format of question and answer, Krishnamurti answers each question through the process of posing a series of deeper questions, taking the reader on a journey through one’s own thought processes and exposing those very processes as being at the root of most, if not all, of our problems. Always entreating his inquirers to keep an open mind, Krishnamurti asks them to question the assumptions underpinning the very foundations of all they have been taught and conditioned toward. Think on These Things is a timeless treasure from one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century. His wisdom supersedes ethnicities, religions, and even generations as it is accessible to open-minded thinkers of all ages.
The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (2016) by Nick Lane
It doesn’t seem possible that we don’t know definitively how complex life arose on this planet. To that end, The Vital Question is a fascinating book. It is also a technically tedious one. It is not your typical popular science book but if you are interested in getting an in-depth understanding of the most current thinking regarding the origins of complex life on this planet, i.e., how on earth did humans come to exist on a rock orbiting a rather unremarkable star, then you will find this book well worth reading and, most likely, going back to again. Nick Lane spares little detail but his explanations are always clear, accessible, and he never talks down to the uninitiated. If you occasionally find yourself wondering for a moment if you really need to have this nuanced of an understanding regarding things like what is needed to make a cell, hang in for a bit longer as you’ll soon see that yes, you did need to know that because you certainly do want to know and understand how, for example, that relates to deep-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents. Biochemist (and prominent metabolism-first proponent regarding the origins of complex life) Nick Lane reframes evolutionary history and proposes long-sought answers to some of our toughest questions. How, on a mere singular occasion in four billion years, did single-cell organisms like bacteria make the radical move to become complex organisms? Lane’s unconventional answers are bold and deeply thought-provoking. Fossil records tell us that archaea and bacteria–the earliest single-cell living organisms on earth–have been here for nearly four billion years. Around two and a half billion years ago something happened among them in order to create eukaryotes and then more time passed before complex life as we know it developed from these eukaryotes. I don’t want to give away Lane’s exciting thesis or his important conclusions, but suffice it to say that upon my recent second reading I resolved to read The Vital Question again before I even got to the last chapter. This is a dense book with much of interest to those of us who are truly curious about the subject.
What Is Ancient Philosophy? (2004) by Pierre Hadot
Making a case for its importance in everyday life, Pierre Hadot makes the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks and Romans more than relevant–it is a pragmatic tool for attaining happiness in life. Hadot is a noted French historian of ancient philosophy, but his writing never bogs down in the trappings of classical study. In an erudite but also elegantly articulated presentation of the first one thousand years of philosophy, Hadot makes it clear why we should be interested in and learning from these early thinkers. Philosophy in ancient times was not an academic exercise nor was it meant specifically for the elite. It was a serious pursuit for anyone interested in approaching life with intention. Ancient philosophy insisted upon the connection of theoretical propositions to actual quotidian application and practice, that philosophical reflection is an imperative for a fully realized life but that philosophical thought and discourse alone is insufficient until applied to a related way of life. Hadot understands ancient philosophy as an existential search for one’s preferred path to shaping and transforming one’s life in order to get the best from it. He explains, “It is essentially an effort to become aware of ourselves, our being-in-the-world, and our being with others. It is also, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty used to say, an effort to ‘relearn how to see the world’ and attain a universal vision, thanks to which we can put ourselves in the place of others and transcend our own partiality.” If you are interested in learning about the earliest foundations of Western philosophy, about ancient Greek and Roman wisdom, about the transition to Christian dominance in Western thinking, or about practical approaches to attaining a happy and fulfilling life, this is the best text for taking you on an enjoyable journey through that terrain.
The Wizard and The Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (2018) by Charles C. Mann
The global human population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Of roughly 8 billion people alive today, at least 1 billion are starving. One in ten people currently lack access to clean water. How will the planet support an additional 25 percent in terms of access to safe and sufficient food and clean water? And how will the planet continue to support humanity’s increasing energy needs while emissions from fossil-fuel consumption has created a change in climate that is already making more land unproductive and much of it uninhabitable? These questions are versions of the questions that two scientists spent their lives wrestling with in the twentieth century. Ecologist William Vogt was a key founder of the environmental movement and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug was the father of the “Green Revolution.” Both were visionaries deeply concerned about the future but the conclusions they drew from their work differed radically. Charles Mann has labeled Vogt’s followers as “prophets” and those who subscribe to Borlaug’s methods as “wizards.” The prophets believe we must regain a balance in our position within nature, always striving to remain within its biological limits. The wizards believe we have the ability to create and execute grand technical solutions to these problems, just as we have with so many others in the past. In a book intensely germane to our times, Mann presents a balanced history of the wizard and prophet perspectives. A gifted story-teller, he brings history, science, and philosophy to life as he applies them to a subject almost everyone has at least some interest in–the future of our world. As Mann lays out how we got here and the vastly different paths for going forward, most readers will find themselves reflecting on their own convictions about humanity’s relationship to nature. But the reader also comes away with a deepened understanding of the dilemmas of our recent past, present, and immediate future. Which path leads to a more realistic answer for humanity’s continuation–the wizard’s or the prophet’s? This is not a book about climate change so much as a book about how humans have and will approach the challenges of the future.