Here are most of the unreviewed books that I’ve read since I started blogging.
(For a list of the books that I’m reading right now, see “What I’m Reading.”)
This list is inspired by the impressive, eclectic, and ambitious list that John Walker has been keeping since 2001.
The list is a work in progress — eventually, there will be short comments on all of the books on the list. Some worthy books may pop off the list and become full reviews.
Books are listed alphabetically by title, but sets are grouped together.
Last updated: February 26, 2013
|Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
The book’s pseudo-scholarly approach combines with clean, uncluttered prose and, importantly, the complete absence of winking parody to create a book that, against the odds, is worth taking the time to read. You might even learn something. After all, until I read the book I hadn’t known that the real reason for the Civil War was that vampires . . .
|Age of American Unreason, The
Like other books with the same disdain for the “dumbing down” of American culture, but by virtue of its close reasoning and clarity a cut above most of the rest. Jacoby is Chris Hedges without the terminal pessimism. Not as good as FREETHINKERS (see below), but worth reading if the subject interests — or frustrates — you.
|Anti-intellectualism in American Life
Nearing its 50th anniversary, Hofstadter’s study of the roots of American cultural character is still relevant. Surprisingly even-handed and non-ideological, given Hofstadter’s connection with socialism and brief membership in the American Communist Party. Serves as the template for such more recent works as Susan Jacoby’s THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON (above).
|Archaeology as Political Action
A worthwhile look at contemporary Marxist archaeology, although I disagree with the author’s insistence that purposely bringing one’s politics to one’s work is a good thing. But then, the author disagrees with my characterization of his work. He insists that he’s no postmodernist, which I now concede, but there’s more than one way to be a relativist.
|Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, The
Discursive, self-indulgent, sometimes interesting, but overall a disappointment. Suffers from its lack of structure, and from the fact that much of it is remarkably pedestrian. One of the best parts is the extended introduction, which examines Twain’s thought process as he debates how to present his material. His decision to dictate the book’s original material is intriguing, but it’s also one source of the book’s lack of focus.
How did a provincial 16th century actor, producer, and writer become the “Sweet Swan of Avon” and the “Soul of the Age”? Lynch traces the growth of Shakespeare the Literary Icon in a book filled with ancillary factoids and historical cycles of bust and boom. It’s often interesting, but it almost totally lacks the energy and passion of Shapiro’s much more compelling A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (see below).
|Blank Slate, The: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Steven Pinker
As always with Pinker, richly detailed and clear. And also as always, rhetorically sharp and intellectually intolerant. Pinker is not someone with soft stances or impassive positions. Here, he takes on what he sees as the erroneous relativist dogmas of the blank slate and related ideas like the Noble Savage and naturism.
|Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon
Suffers from Dennett’s characteristic lack of rhetorical grace, and from his interminable confidence that he is totally right and his critics totally wrong. Still, BREAKING THE SPELL makes a good enough case for the natural origins of our sense of the unnatural. This book won’t convince the unconvinced, as hard as Dennett tries.
|Bring Up the Bodies
Historical novels are not my usual cup of tea, and despite the hype for WOLF HALL (not to mention the Man Booker Prize), I didn’t read it. But when the sequel was shortlisted for the Prize, I picked up the book. I soon put it down again. Thomas Cromwell as a 21st century COO was unengaging, as was the breathless and self-consciously arty prose.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Not a sequel, but it does continue the main ideas of Diamond’s bestselling GUNS, GERMS & STEEL. This time, it’s the ecological choices societies make that are most important. Fairly familiar territory for readers of Diamond’s other books.
|Darkly Dreaming Dexter
The first of six Dexter novels, the book is the basis for the first season of the hit TV show. Less fully developed, but the main character is considerably darker than in the cable version. Well worth the time for fans. Be prepared for some major story and character changes — especially if you read the entire series of books!
|Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Long, thorough, and endlessly interesting. Relies heavily on Darwin’s correspondence to get behind the public figure to the private man. One of the best science biographies I’ve read, certainly better than the Isaacson book on Einstein (see below). Darwin was never unsure of his ideas, but he was nearly consumed with the social implications of publication.
|Darwin, God, and The Meaning of Life
|Darwin and Design
Despite Ruse’s well-known accommodation of religious belief, something that drives his more rabid British atheist colleagues starkers, in this book he shows that he has no such sympathy for Intelligent Design theory, which he calls not bad science or even pseudo-science, but no kind of science at all.
|Dawkins Delusion, The
Successfully targets Dawkins’s rhetorical weaknesses, including his fondness for first defining religion in a way that makes it an easy target and then shooting at it successfully, but the book has nothing convincing to say in favour of belief.
An earlier version of the ideas in Damasio’s later work, HOW SELF COMES TO MIND (reviewed here). Worth reading for the clarity of its expression of the author’s central ideas.
|Dragon with the Girl Tattoo, The
The title is the only good thing about this puerile parody.
Don’t waste your time.
|Einstein: His Life and Universe
Isaacson’s Einstein is a long and detailed look at Father Albert. Interesting, despite its flaws, which include misrepresenting the kind and extent of Einstein’s “spiritual” side. For a clearer look at that side of the great man’s mind, read him in the original.
|Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
|Evolution of God, The
Wright spends much time describing the cultural forces – economic and political, often explained in the language of Game Theory – that shaped monotheism. While in the main he sees religion as the driving force behind intellectual and spiritual change, he acknowledges that “as understanding of the world grew–especially as it grew via science– religion evolved in reaction.”
Never shy, Dennett takes on the question of the existence and nature of free will. His conclusion: Even in a deterministic universe, free will exists, if consciousness is understood correctly. There’s the rub, of course, but for fans of philosophical treatises there’s a lot of interesting material here.
Another mini-e-book, like LYING (see below). FREE WILL is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners essay by Harris, whose writing style consists of declarative sentences followed by a rhetorical smirk — “See? I proved it. Next point, please.” His basic thesis here is that brain science proves that free will is an illusion, but that this lack of reality shouldn’t bother us. If you want a counterpoint, Amazon thoughtfully offers a libertarian response (it even quotes Ayn Rand!) for 99¢.
|Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The
Girl Who Played with Fire, The
Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, The
The blockbuster trilogy is a bit uneven, but the good parts are very good, and the title character is a cleverly feminist twist on the cyberpunk hero. The first book has the best story, and the third book the meatiest themes. Almost mandatory prereading if you intend to watch the very good but very truncated Swedish film versions.
This irreverent and openly sexual set of essays, organized around the Ten Commandments, is often a lot of fun. Thanks to its structure, I liked this first volume better than I did the “sequel,” EVERY DAY IS AN ATHEIST HOLIDAY! (reviewed here).
God, The Devil, and Darwin –
|God Wants You Dead
Sean Hastings & Paul Rosenberg
|Greatest Show on Earth, The
Dawkins fills in what he saw as a gap in his writing — he has defended evolution many times, but until now he hasn’t presented the step-by-step evidence for it. A fairly standard account of the science, peppered with Dawkins’s trademark arrogance and a few mandatory shots at the creationists he loves to hate.
|History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe Robert Bolt
It seems that Kit Marlowe was the Queen’s Own double agent, and is now in need of a new identity. So he fakes his death, moves to the Continent, and pays a hack London actor named Shakespeare to front the new plays he keeps writing. If this seems at all plausible to you, or implausibly intriguing, you’ll like this book.
|How the Republicans Stole Religion
Two kinds of readers will like this book: lefties who love to hate the right, and righties who love to hate the lefties who hate the right. Press is best known for his work as the former resident liberal on CNN. His book is pretty standard partisan attack stuff, with few new insights.
|How We Know What Isn’t So
Gilovich’s book summarizes psychological research into belief and persuasion. Part I reviews some of the contexts in which we misjudge the information with which we are presented. Part II focuses on the unsurprising truth that we believe what we want to believe.
Another in a growing series of popular science books about the human brain and the ways we think. Readable and useful, but I prefer both Ramachandran and Damasio, whose analyses seem more thorough, thus more convincing. If you like Oliver Sachs a lot, you’ll like HUMAN more than I did.
|Human Touch, The
|I’m a Stranger Here Myself
After twenty years in England, Bryson returns to New England to write for the British market humourous essays that attempt to explain those perplexing Yanks. Like most of Bryson, witty and worthwhile, if rather irredeemably fluffy.
|Illusions of Postmodernism, The
It’s a topic that’s been done to death on a philosophy that’s lately been declared dead, but no one does an obit quite like Terry Eagleton. This small book crackles with the British Marxist’s highly-charged criticisms of the conceptual confusions of a theory that declares even itself not really, truly true. Entertaining and eminently readable!
|Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The
Much more than the story of the development of an endlessly-replicable line of cancer cells, Skloot’s book skillfully explores the recent history of race relations in the United States. A family history as well, HENRIETTA LACKS is a well-deserved bestseller.
|In Defense of Atheism
I’ve read quite a few books that all say more or less the same things about the irrationality of “magical thinking,” but none of the others match Onfray’s hatred of churches and the religious doctrines they propagate. Even the prose of THE END OF FAITH, by Sam Harris, who is never mistaken as a model of rhetorical restraint, lacks Onfray’s contempt.
|Invasion of the Party Snatchers, The
The book’s real attraction is the case Gold makes that while there’s a lot of evangelical fervor in the new Republican Party, there’s little true conservatism. Today’s Republican Party is, in his view, an evil mix of imperialism, fiscal irresponsibility, and an attack on the personal freedoms enshrined in the American Constitution.
Invisible Man, The
Island of Dr. Moreau, The
Time Machine, The
War of the Worlds, The
H. G. Wells
These were enjoyable rereads as the core texts of a continuing ed course with a delightfully pretentious title, “The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells: Decadence, Darwin & the Macabre in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Ah, academia! The course turned out to be very good, as are Wells’s short novels.
|Language Wars, The
|Lost Continent, The: Travels in Small-Town America
Like most of Bryson’s books of little essays and travelogues, THE LOST CONTINENT is full of entertaining and insightful pictures of the telling details of mundane, daily events. His account of his encounter with a Mississippi state trooper is a classic of culture clash. If you like this one, you’ll love THE LOST CONTINENT , which chronicles Bryson’s similar tour of England.
A mini-book, originally at a mini-price of $2.99, although his newer mini, FREE WILL (see above) sells for $5.99. Remember when Amazon sold first edition e-books for $9.99? What happened to that, anyway? LYING’s single, direct premise is that we shouldn’t do it. Even white lies are generally bad things.
|Map That Changed the World, The
|Meaning of Everything, The
Winchester’s second book on the OED tells the wider story of which THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN (reviewed here) is a part. Not as compelling as the more “human” story of Dr. Minor, but worthwhile for those who want the details.
Bart D. Ehrman
|Moral Landscape, The
Typical Harris self-assurance on a subject that doesn’t justify it. Science can tell us about the universe, but how that information is relevant to human morality — the structure of our social interactions — is not satisfyingly explained. Interesting, but unconvincing in its most important claims.
|My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare Jess Winfield
Slight and only mildly diverting mix of scenes from Shakespeare’s day and a modern Renaissance Faire. Give it a miss.
|Notes from a Small Island
One of my favourite travel books. Bryson chronicles a solo exploration of England, a trip which is very similar to one I took in 2008. We visited some of the same places, and many of the others about which he writes are places that now I wish I’d visited, too.
When we have too much information, McLuhan wrote, all that’s left to us is “pattern recognition.” For my money, this is the best of William Gibson’s more recent novels. An unparalleled fictional insight into the psychology of the online world, Pattern Recognition sometimes achieves the poetic. Thoroughly enjoyable, on several levels.
|Philosopher and the Wolf, The
In an important way, this earlier book is the basis for British philosopher Rowland’s later, more technical work, CAN ANIMALS BE MORAL? (reviewed here). An often moving narrative of the author’s 10-year-long relationship with a wolf, this book was a justified bestseller among the animal rights crowd.
|Price of Civilization, The
Jeffrey D. Sachs
|Pride and Prejudice & Zombies
Much better known than but not as good as the author’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER. The zombie bits are tacked on to the existing classic, and for that reason they never feel natural, unlike the Lincoln book, which has the advantage of an original story.
|Reason, Religion, and Revolution
Eagleton’s entry in the belief circus — it’s subtitled “Reflections on the God Debate” — makes his familiar Marxist arguments at the same time that it gleefully shreds “Ditchkens” and the other “New Atheists.” For Eagleton, Christians and the NA are both too conservative, the former missing the revolutionary message of Christ and the latter stuck in liberal moderation. Not bad, but if you’re going to read just one Eagleton, better Why Marx Was Right (see below).
|Religion in Human Evolution
Robert N. Bellah
This is a very large book, and it’s a very slow read. Bellah’s scholarship (he spent thirteen years on this book) is prodigious and not a little bit overwhelming. This book reminds me most of Taylor’s A Secular Age, with which it shares deep ideas and endless detail. A good book to skim — I admire anyone who reads every word!
As bleak and unrelenting as the film, and as grimly determined an apocalyptic future as you’d ever wish for. If your idea of a happy ending is heroic sacrifice and noble death in the face of end-time disaster, this is the book for you. Definitely not for the Polyanna crowd.
|Science of Good and Evil, The
Published between WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS and THE BELIEVING BRAIN, Shermer’s book is an attempt at a logical confabulation of a little bit of this and a little bit of that, to construct a surprisingly pedestrian materialist morality. Good in scattered places, but since you’ve heard it all before, I can’t recommend that you read the whole book.
|Scientific Sherlock Holmes, The
Disappointing. O’Brien spends the entire first 1/3 of the book cataloguing Holmes data that may interest afficianados but that has little if anything at all to do with the science in the title. I stopped reading before I ever got to the good stuff, if there is any. Others, as here, liked the book a lot more than I did.
|Shock Doctrine, The
|Short History of Nearly Everything, A
|Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog
Kitty Burns Florey
This is simply the best book on sentence diagramming you’ll ever find. No, really, that’s what it’s about. And it’s a good read. If you’re looking for an analysis of how Gertrude Stein’s love of diagramming sentences influenced her writing, go no further — this is it!
|Superstition in All Ages
Meslier was a country priest with a secret. Among the few possessions he left after his death were copies of a manuscript which revealed that he had been a closet atheist. Meslier had lived in moral torment over his part in deceiving his parishioners about the nature of the universe, and his manuscript detailed his rejection of God and the Church he publicly served.
|Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!
|Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, The
|Third World America
|Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age
A major disappointment, considering that while there is a great deal of information on Enigma, Colossus and the rest, there is very little about Turing himself. Certainly, we get no real insight into the man. And we get too little contact with the mathematician. In fact, there are long, long sections where Turing makes only the briefest of tangential appearances, if he’s mentioned at all.
Markson, best known for the polemically-titled THIS IS NOT A NOVEL, was one of those postmodernist writers who spent much of their careers trying to write non-novels. In VANISHING POINT, he comes close to achieving the goal of the title, “writing” a non-book which is, purportedly, a literal transcription of a random arrangement of the contents of hundreds of notes, written on 3×5 index cards.
|When the Sleeper Wakes
H. G. Wells
Less well known than the novels (see THE INVISIBLE MAN, above), but an important precursor of 20th century One State classics like WE (see below) and BRAVE NEW WORLD. Amusing for its take on the consequences of unfettered capitalism, as The Sleeper corners the entire global capital market during a centuries-long coma. So much for capitalism being about the production of literal value!
|Why Would Anyone Believe in God?
Justin L. Barrett
|Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, A
Wonderfully evokes the context of four of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including HAMLET. One of the best critical analyses of Shakespeare that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them!
|Year of the Flood, The
Written after ORYX AND CRAKE, but the central story is really a kind of prequel to that better-known book. Has the style and themes of its predecessor.