Recommended Reading

This is an excerpt from a book I call Fatherly Advice.

I have read all of these books at least once, and many of them multiple times, with one or two exceptions. All of these are excellent and potentially life changing. I've been as selective as I could; it would be possible to add many titles, and if you find these worthwhile, you may want to dip into the list of authors I provide at the end without comment. Depending on your level of intellectual sophistication, some of these may seem boring or too difficult, but I don't know of a better way to increase your intellectual sophistication than by reading difficult books. I most highly recommend all those marked with ***.

I've been thinking about what one book I would pick out as the most important for you to read. With regrets to Jonathan Kozol and Steven Pinker, I'm recommending the shortest book listed here, Tolstoy's Confession. If you are not deaf to his challenge, you may go on to read all these others. I guess I'm still pushing philosophy as important, eh?

Religion, Spirituality, Philosophy, Ethics, the Meaning of Life

Most of the books in the literature section also have some bearing on these questions.

***Leo Tolstoy: Confession (or My Confession). Tolstoy's record of his struggle with the big issues of life has never been surpassed. Confession is a brief, powerful autobiographical statement of the importance of religion, and a challenge to the reader to examine his own life. Indispensable and unforgettable.

My Religion is a readable and appealing follow-up (at least it seemed so twenty years ago), unlike some of his later and sometimes very turgid religious efforts.

***Henry Thoreau: Walden. Witty social criticism, transcendentalism, inspired nature writing, and occasionally tedious minutiae about beans, bread, and money. Walden will nurture the rebel in you, and refresh you as much as a week in the mountains. Indispensable. Because his literary references are obscure to the modern reader, I suggest an annotated version, but any version is better than none. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and other essays are also noteworthy; his other books are far less interesting than Walden, but if you really love Walden give A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers a try.

Thoreau probably makes a good impression here, but note that he once described himself as a "stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper" (letter to Calvin Greene, 2/10/56) and that Robert Louis Stevenson said of him, "It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish." (Quoted in Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Interpretations: Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, p. 4) Bloom, whose introduction in this book seems to me practically hostile to Thoreau, called this "the best single remark on Thoreau." (ibid.) Though very well educated, apparently Thoreau was quite a strange character, and certainly would be considered a curmudgeon and recluse today.

***Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of Happiness. Russell is the most readable and perhaps the most valuable of the great philosophers. It was his Unpopular Essays that got me started in philosophy. I have ever since thought of myself as a philosopher, and I think that's largely due to his influence.

Recommendations: A Free Man's Worship, The Art of Philosophizing, The Problems of Philosophy, Unpopular Essays, and ***The Conquest of Happiness: Art is a brief, lucid, "easy" introduction to deeper thinking. Problems is a classic introduction to epistemology. Worship is a sometimes turgid, sometimes powerful short statement of life without religion. Unpopular Essays is probably the most engaging, readable, and valuable of his many essay collections. Conquest is essential reading; it shares a lifetime of wisdom. All of his less technical books are worthy of your attention, though some are dated and some are esoteric. His History of Western Philosophy is a favorite of mine, but Bryan Magee's harsh criticism of this popular book has somewhat dimmed my enthusiasm. Russell was prolific and lived to age 97. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.

Neil Postman: The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools. This short, brilliant book about what is wrong with public schools and what is needed to fix them also reflects deeply on the human condition and especially the spiritual malaise of modern man. Postman's thesis is that the "gods" or "narratives" that used inspire us and give significance to our lives no longer have that power, and he offers some new alternatives. Quoted: Neil Postman: Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1992.

***Lin Yutang: The Importance of Living, The John Day Company, 1937. A funny, charming, and enlightening overview of Chinese pagan philosophy, with telling criticism of Christianity, and with great relevance to a godless lifestyle. Some regrettable nonsense, too.

William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Behavior, The Modern Library, Random House, New York, 1902. An important book that I recommend highly despite its age, but it is occasionally tedious because of the many examples included. Indeed, most of the examples are wonderful in themselves, and I find James's conclusions to be fairly compelling. His Will to Believe is also useful in the same vein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: On Certainty (Über Gewissheit), J. & J. Harper Editions, New York, 1969. Wittgenstein's style is difficult, but his ideas revolutionized philosophy. On Certainty is important and more readable than other of his books I've seen.

Houston Smith: The Religions of Man. Some (maybe all) religions have worthwhile things to say, and this book presents the best that Buddhism, Hinduism, and three others have to offer. Prepare to be astonished. I consider it important to know something about some religions, especially these, and this is a great place to start.

William Barrett: Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. I first read this in 1990 and was hugely impressed. On reading it again (1998) I was dismayed at the rampant wool gathering and obscurity I found, but much was also valuable. By all means read it, though be advised that the first three chapters are rather weak.

Walter Kaufmann: The Faith of a Heretic. Kaufmann's books, more than any other, have shaped my moral thinking and helped me develop my approach to life, and this is his most readable, comprehensive, and important. Others include Critique of Religion and Philosophy (excellent); Existentialism, Religion, and Death; Without Guilt and Justice; and Religion from Tolstoy to Camus, all recommended. Regrettably, I cannot recommend his bizarre Discovery of the Mind (in 3 volumes).

Thomas Nagel: Mortal Questions. A book of essays. Those on "The Absurd," and "Death" are important, but "Subjective and Objective" is the single most enlightening short piece of philosophy I've ever read. It provides a general viewpoint that sheds light on many difficult questions such as the meaning of life and determinism vs. free will, but it's not easy reading. His other book that I've seen, The View from Nowhere, was way over my head.

Alan Watts: Does It Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality, Vintage Books, New York, 1970. This short book is packed with brilliant ideas, many quoted here. Watts was a wonderful lecturer (I've heard him several times on the radio), but his books have often disappointed me. This one is a definite winner.

Steven Foster with Meredith Little: The Book of the Vision Quest: Personal Transformation in the Wilderness, Revised Edition, A Sun Bear Book, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1988. A Vision Quest, as described in this book, is a ritual fasting in the wilderness, lasting three or four days. The stories in this book are fascinating and the idea of a Vision Quest is appealing regardless of whether you accept the seemingly simplistic theology.

Frederick Edwords: As of 1989, Edwords was Executive Director of the American Humanist Association (AHA). He has written a number of short pieces about humanism which are distributed by the AHA and so may be taken as more-or-less official statements. The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective and What is Humanism? are noteworthy if you're interested in learning more about humanism.

Karl Popper: The Myth of the Framework. A different, better--even breathtaking--view of the scientific method, an introduction to critical rationalism, a discussion of culture clash, and other things of value. Somewhat repetitive, since it's a collection of essays or talks, but loaded with philosophical insight. Russell is philosophically mainstream (politically radical) but surpassingly brilliant; Popper is also brilliant, but philosophically radical and controversial.

Plato: Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Knowing the story of Socrates is essential, and these short, lively dialogs also offer an introduction to some of the fundamental questions of living.

Daniel Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained. Dennett's books are brilliant and tough, but well worth the effort. The subjects here are evolution and consciousness. Each one, if read and understood, is worth a half dozen other books on these subjects.

Ellen J. Langer: Mindfulness, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., Reading, Mass., 1989. We can choose what we pay attention to, and our choices play a significant role in our daily lives. This insight is very important, but this book is not great.

W. W. Bartley, III: The Retreat to Commitment. Another view (see Popper) of critical rationalism, plus a lengthy discussion of Protestantism. This book really gets to the foundations. The book Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, of which Bartley was co-editor, provides a wealth of additional material.

The "Holy Bible." I haven't read much of this, but it's certainly important to an understanding of our heritage and such. The books of Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jonah seem to me among the most important and readable of the few I've read. The books are not in chronological order, so you might want to look into Kaufmann's Critique or consult an encyclopedia or bible handbook before really getting into this.

Fiction and Literature

***Albert Camus: The Stranger. A deceptively simple novel that first mesmerized me in my teens and to which I've come back six or seven times with increasing admiration. I've tried several times to say more here, but I can't. Just read it, in Matthew Ward's translation. I've also written a long paper about this book.

***Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov. The chapters titled "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" are compelling and priceless and can stand alone, but the tales of Father Zosima are also important and appealing. The murder plot (part 2), though readable, is not all that interesting. I wrote a brief essay about this book.

Eleanor Porter: Pollyanna. The children's novel that practically changed my life in my 40s. Contains a true secret of happiness. Read the book, forget the inferior movie unless you adore Hayley Mills.

Edmond Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac. Is it possible to be both shy and heroic? Yes. All my life I've thought of myself as a "man unacceptable to women," and this is the best of the works on that theme that I've experienced. Two movie treatments of this play are on my all time top ten list of movies. I think this play is equal to Shakespeare's best, and nearer to my heart. I prefer the Brian Hooker translation as the most eloquent of those I've read.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Illych. These two irreplaceable works show a great writer at his best. War and Peace is equally excellent but somewhat less intensely personal. The various movie treatments of Tolstoy's novels typically ignore the most important issues.

A. E. van Vogt: The World of Null-A. Flawed and dated, to be sure, but still a thrilling novel that may also make you feel more intelligent and competent, or aspire to be. Introduces some concepts from General Semantics, which is well worth knowing about. The first sequel (Players of Null-A) is also mostly good; the second sequel (Null-A Three) is appallingly bad. Most of van Vogt's early novels are quite entertaining, but some later works are real embarrassments.

Olive Higgins Prouty: Now, Voyager. A great book to read if you're shy and lacking in self confidence. An inspiration, and the basis of my all-time favorite movie.

Reading, Writing, the Arts

Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics. A book of astonishing intelligence. The subject is comics (the medium of sequential art), but the treatment is profound and deep--well worth reading even if you're not very interested in comics. Will affect how you view movies and art, as well as comics.

Thomas Kane: The New Oxford Guide to Writing. The best and most readable book I know on how to improve your writing, and I've read a lot of these. Not for the raw beginner, perhaps, but it will help you appreciate fine writing even if you don't want to produce any yourself.

Peter Elbow: Writing Without Teachers and a couple of other titles. Definitely worth a look if you're trying to learn how to write or to learn more about the doubting and believing "games."

John Gardner: The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. Brilliant. The titles don't quite say it all, because Gardner is very insistent on pursuing your own vision, which is relevant even if you don't want to be a writer.

Betty Edwards: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. If you want to learn to draw, here's a good place to start. Her Drawing on the Artist Within also is good, though both of these now seem overlong to me.

Social and Political

The books listed here are all critical of life in the United States. I think this is more important than hearing praise, which abounds in political speeches, school classrooms, and as "common knowledge." Even if you aren't interested in school, I urge you to look into some of the books on education because of the great influence of school on the whole society, and on the lives of individuals.

***James Loewen: Lies My Teacher Told Me. Entertaining, disturbing review of high school and college history textbooks. Loewen sets the record straight on our treatment of Native Americans, Woodrow Wilson's racism, our invasion of Russia in 1917, Helen Keller's socialism, and many other officially neglected topics in our history. Shows how and why we lie to ourselves about ourselves.

***Jonathan Kozol: The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home, and other titles. Kozol is our most important social critic (of those I've read), and this book is a truly searing indictment of the "American Way" as well as an in-your-face challenge to the reader. All of Kozol's books are important and moving, and generally less romantic than John Holt. Also not to be missed are Amazing Grace and Rachel and Her Children. His latest (as of 7/2000) is Ordinary Resurrections; much like Amazing Grace, but more optimistic and personally revealing.

***John Holt: Freedom and Beyond. One of the earliest and best of the modern education critics. How Children Fail, How Children Learn, and The Underachieving School are the most valuable books on education that I know of and will give you insights into what it is we are really trying to teach, and much more. His What Do I Do Monday? is particularly useful for its discussion of mental models and many practical suggestions. Sorry to list so many titles, but I really like this guy's books. Freedom is his widest-ranging.

Noam Chomsky (his political books): Chomsky is our other most important social critic (not that I've read all social critics, you understand). His interest is primarily foreign relations and how we're one of the bad guys in the world, while Kozol concentrates on the home front. Both are indispensable, but Kozol is the more powerful writer. Chomsky unfortunately tends to get rather dry and piles on the details.

Jerry Brown: Dialogues. Interviews with eighteen important people, including Jonathan Kozol, Noam Chomsky, and Ivan Illich. A mini education in itself, primarily in government, economics, and social justice.

Derrick Jensen: A Language Older Than Words, Context Books, New York, 2000. Fascinating, wide-ranging, disturbing, and assumption-challenging, a book to change lives. He offers many interesting anecdotes to persuade us that coyotes, other animals, trees, stars, all of nature will speak to us if we're willing to listen. This is not convincing, though one can't help wishing that it were. There is also much trenchant criticism of white European culture, dire predictions of our ultimate demise (you might want to read Caldicott first), and a call for activism. Important, but not always persuasive.

Helen Caldicott: If You Love This Planet. The whole ugly story of what we're doing to the environment, in an easy to read but impossible to forget indictment of US.

Other Nonfiction

***Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997. This book is great, probably the best work of nonfiction I've ever read. The breadth and depth are astonishing, the clarity is remarkable, the presented facts and theories are relevant and powerful enough to substantially enhance my life. I've read a great number of books about the mind; this is easily the best, the most exciting, greatly surpassing my previous favorite, Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. I plan to read it again, right away.

This is a sort of textbook of the functions of the mind, but a textbook with all the dreadful boring stuff left out and just the exciting, useful stuff left in. He discusses and illuminates such diverse subjects as stereograms (magic eye pictures), vision in general, art, human relations, music, emotions, religion, sex, humor, philosophy, you name it, it's in there. This is stuff I can use. This is stuff I've been longing to know. There's not that much that's original with the author; rather, it's an overview, a compendium, a synthesis of recent thinking in many fields. Read this book!

It is long (it needs to be), and it does go into more detail than I wanted about a few things, but even the "excess" detail proved interesting and worthwhile. The style is very clear and readable, and often funny. The general theory or foundation is cognitive psychology and evolution.

***Esther P. Rothman: The Angel Inside Went Sour, Van Rees Press, New York, 1970. This is the astonishing story of a woman who took over a school for juvenile delinquent girls in New York and did tremendous things. She introduced into her school most of the reforms the '60s critics of education wanted, and made them work. Beyond this fascinating story, the woman's wisdom and humanity shine through this book and are an inspiration and an education in themselves. The girls of her school also live and breathe here, and their stories are touching. By all means, read this book! It has as much to do with the meaning of life and how to live as with something as narrow as education.

Torey Hayden: Somebody Else's Kids. White hot, possibly the best novel-like book I've ever read. The "true story" of Hayden and her five emotionally handicapped pupils. All her other books are highly readable, but this is the most intense and satisfying. See additional comment on page 48.

***Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Absorbing, challenging, and finally inspiring story of a man, reminiscent of Tolstoy in his sincerity and integrity. Unusually vivid and impressive, truly a great book.

***Hyemeyohsts Storm: Seven Arrows. A poetic, sad, complex tale of the plains indians which also provides a vivid introduction to indian symbolism and religion. Beautiful photographs and color artwork plates. See a full review in Appendix 8.

Gloria Steinem: Revolution from Within: A Book of Self Esteem. A grab bag of insights, techniques, and some nonsense about your mental health. One of the most stimulating books I've ever read. After I finished reading it I immediately read it straight through again, the first and last time I've ever done that with a nonfiction book.

Deborah Tannen: You Just Don't Understand! An important, entertaining book about the differences between men and women, offering valuable insights to some perplexing problems.

Ingrid Bengis: Combat in the Erogenous Zone. A feminist memoir and diatribe that may change the way you look at women.

Sonia Johnson: Wildfire: Igniting the Shevolution. Makes Ingrid Bengis look conservative. Rabid feminism that offers a valuable point of view as alien as a Martian's. Much regrettable nonsense mingled with some stunning insights. I think the basic flaw of the book is that Johnson believes in a vast, deliberate, conscious conspiracy of men against women. I think a more accurate view is that our social structure has many flaws that hamper both men and women, but that women suffer more. Johnson points to rape and murder as the tools used by males to oppress women; she doesn't consider, apparently, that it is also the males that put the rapists and murderers in jail, and that men may also be victims of these crimes. In this society, men that rape or kill women are not looked on as heroes of the system, which would seem to be necessary if she were right, but instead as evil or sick. This is not to deny, of course, that many men abuse and terrorize women; but these men are condemned, not praised, by most other men. At times she verges on the very position I'm suggesting here, such as when she says, "Brainwashing . . . is what is keeping every member of the human race in thrall, in total and grimmest captivity." (p. 151) I go on at length about this because I think the book has important and valuable insights that I've not seen elsewhere, but I can't agree with much of her basic position.

Alex Comfort: The Joy of Sex. The single best book I've seen on "sexual technique" and attitudes, but I haven't looked at this sort of thing for twenty years. Also, understandably, he has nothing to say about AIDS.

Dagmar O'Connor: How to Make Love to the Same Person for the Rest of Your Life. Surprisingly good, loaded with insights.

***Randolph Nesse, M.D., and George Williams, Ph.D.: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1994. Just about the most important, informative, and exciting book on the health of human beings that I can imagine. Not a general textbook on medicine or human physiology, it will teach you how to think about your body, using your knowledge of evolutionary processes (you have studied evolution, haven't you?) to understand yourself. Really stimulating, and not likely to go out of date as soon as you might think.

Susan Striker: Please Touch: How to Stimulate Your Child's Creative Development. A wealth of great ideas for enriching the environment of children through age 4. Very valuable.

Jean Liedloff: The Continuum Concept. A basic theory of how to raise a better baby. Sometimes nonsensical, but mostly a badly needed antidote to our "normal" child rearing practices. Worth reading even if you don't plan to be a father, because it will give you important insights into the human condition and your own upbringing.

William and Martha Sears: The Baby Book, The Discipline Book, and others. Comprehensive guides to "attachment parenting," approximately how you were raised. Remarkably free of nonsense.

Martin Gardner: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and many others. Gardner has written a lot of very useful books, some of them devoted to debunking popular pseudo-sciences, and these are quite interesting and valuable. Most of his other books are collections of columns on mathematical recreations from Scientific American, and are indispensable if you're into puzzles, brain teasers, math, or games. He also wrote The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, but I think his philosophy is weak.

John Scarne: Scarne on Cards. This entertaining book will tell you a lot about cheating, strategy, and calculating odds. Not the final word, however.

Joe Davis: His books on snooker are the best I know for learning how to play pool or snooker. They'll be hard to find, however, probably out of print.

Other Recommended Authors

I've read all the authors listed below, but given the necessity of earning a living and the limitations of a life devoted to many things besides literature and self-education, I am well aware of the many weaknesses of this list. My reading has been very limited in the areas of medicine, psychology, and recent fiction, and most extensive in education, literature, science, evolution, and philosophy. Authors may be listed more than once; authors listed above are not included again here.