“Beware of the person of one book.” ~ Thomas Aquinas
There are books that steady us, that calm and soothe us, that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The kind of books that uphold the status quo and make us comfortable. The kind of books that pacify our delicate sensibilities and maintain our perception of reality.
Warning: the following books are not those kinds of books.
The following books are the kind of books that pull us apart and put us back together again. Books that drag us kicking and screaming through the unexpected. Books that turn us inside out as our soul is smashed through The Doors of Perception. Books that alchemically transform us as we’re falling down the rabbit hole of imagination or ascending a wormhole of intellection. Mind-altering, reality-reshaping, Eureka inspiring books that cause us to say “Woah!” like Neo in The Matrix.
In no particular order…
1.) The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch:
“If you reject the infinite, you are stuck with the finite, and the finite is parochial. The best explanation of anything eventually involves universality, and therefore infinity. The reach of explanations cannot be limited by fiat.” ~ David Deutsch
The Fabric of Reality encompasses everything from how evolution affects the universe as a whole to how time travel is possible, to the very nature of a “theory” and how quantum computing could affect our future. Deutsch uses a four-strand Theory of Everything (TOE) to explain emergent phenomenon. The four strands are Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Karl Popper’s epistemology, Alan Turing’s theory of computation, and Richard Dawkins’s refinement of Darwinian evolutionary theory. The multiverse hypothesis, according to Deutsch, turns out to be the key to achieving a new worldview, one which synthesizes the theories of evolution, computation, and knowledge with quantum physics.
Deutsch writes about universal Turing machines, replicators, memes, free will, the Grand Father Paradox, and time travel machines, weaving it all together with a Popperian problem-solving epistemology. A no holds barred work of non-fiction that vastly deepens the rabbit hole by dropping an atomic wormhole right smack in the middle of it. A delicious read for the scientifically minded who are looking to shatter their mental paradigms and think outside of the box of mere simplistic reductive reasoning.
2.) Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter:
“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.” ~ Douglas R. Hofstadter
Godel, Escher, Bach is a great book if you enjoy thinking about thinking. Even better if you like thinking about thinking about thinking. It’s dense and wordy and deep. Not for the faint of heart, nor for the weak of mind, this book drags you into an intricate discussion of complex scientific, artistic, and philosophical ideas using pedagogical wordplay and artful brain teasers to keep you entertained along the way.
In comparing and contrasting Kurt Godel’s self-referencing systems, M.C. Escher’s optical illusion style artwork, and J.S. Bach’s fugues, Hofstadter breaks down the complexity of consciousness, and the complexity of complexity itself, in interacting layers of thinking that crosses, intersects, and re-crosses multiple domains of knowledge. Take this book with a grain of insoluble salt and Planck-length pepper. Just go into it with the disposition of discovering how cognition emerges from hidden neurological mechanisms and how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
3.) Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene:
“We need a kind of thinking that enables groups with conflicting moralities to live together and prosper. In other words, we need a metamorality. We need a moral system that resolves disagreements among groups with different moral ideals, just as ordinary first-order morality resolves disagreements among individuals with different selfish interests.” ~ Joshua Greene
Moral Tribes is hands-on moral psychology and a refreshing new take on utilitarianism. Greene wraps game theory, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience into a nice digestible package to bolster his theory of cognition, which builds elegantly into a theory of moral psychology. A sweeping synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, Moral Tribes opens a can of psychosocial worms that takes the concept of morality to the next level, revealing how we are exceptionally well-adept at solving the dilemma between “Me” and “Us,” through the concept of the “tribe,” but how we are ridiculously less-adept at solving the meta-dilemma between “Us” and “Them.”
Greene’s concept of metamorlity squares this psychosocial circle by counterintuitively applying utilitarianism to our base, knee-jerk reaction to morality (evolved morality) by becoming aware of our apathy in order to become more empathetic. By reinforcing humanity instead of nationalism, and worldly patriotism instead of patriotic nationalism, we turn the tables on both xenophobia and apathy and we become more compassionate and empathetic toward others. When we celebrate diversity instead of trying to cram the square peg of colonialism into the round hole of cultural affiliation, we turn the tables on the monkey-mind’s one-dimensional moral tribalism and we usher in Joshua Greene’s multi-dimensional metamorality.
4.) Escape from Evil by Ernest Becker:
“Moral dependence –guilt– is a natural motive of the human condition and has to be absolved from something beyond oneself.” ~ Ernest Becker
Escape from Evil is a companion book to Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning study, The Denial of Death, and is absolutely essential to the understanding of our troubled times. Delving into the gritty guts of cultural anthropology, Escape from Evil takes a close look at our subconscious and psychosocial revolt against death and the specific question of why humans do such awful things. Becker probes the social constructs of our subconscious guilt, as well as the psychological consequences of such guilt, and comes up with a fascinating solution: guilt expiation. The problem is we no longer have a way of dealing with guilt. As Becker points out, “Having abandoned the invisible world, we can no longer address gifts to the gods, so we cannot achieve expiation through sacrifice… man has changed from the giving animal, the one who passes things on, to the wholly taking and keeping one.” And so our guilt becomes repressed, resulting in an unhealthy balance between Reality and human “reality.”
Escape from Evil is a philosophical raging against the dying of the light. He advocates for symbolic spirituality against dogmatic religion, art against mortality, and expiation of power against power itself using the concept of the tribal Potlatch as an example. This book is an intellectual and existential tour de force that drags us kicking and screaming into the gnarly Rabbit Hole of the human condition and then spits us back out, vulnerable, astonished, and cataleptic from the fall.
5.) Endgame: The Problem of Civilization by Derrick Jensen
“Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.” ~Derrick Jensen
Endgame will take everything you think you know about being a human being in a seemingly functional society and turn it on its head. Definitely not for the typical diehard statist, nor the faithful law-abiding citizen. Endgame is about the imperative need to immediately dismantle our unhealthy civilization. Endgame is a scathing rage against the unhealthy, unsustainable, and ecologically unsound man-machine of modern culture.
Breaking the book down into a series of simple but increasingly provocative premises, Jensen takes us on a mind-bending and convincing ride into the unhealthy belly of the violent, ecocidal beast that is modern day civilization. His basic premise is simple: Industrial civilization is unsustainable. It’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” it’s going to fail. He argues that the longer it takes civilization to fall, the worse the tragedy will be. In that light, there are two things we should be doing: Bringing about the fall sooner rather than later; and preparing to survive it. His attitude is caustic and cavalier, but all the better for the shock value it provides. This book really flattens the box we’re all so desperately trying to think outside of. A complimentary (and perhaps less aggressive) read is Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn.
6.) Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde:
“Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best, to have no way at all but to have instead the wit constantly to make one’s way anew from the materials at hand.” ~ Lewis Hyde
Trickster Makes This World is a mythological cornerstone for Sacred Clowns the world over, digging into the guts of the primordial importance of sacred play and rowdy behavior. Hyde explores how trickster figures represent the “disruptive imagination” that inverts, rearranges, and overturns conventional wisdoms. From Raven to Coyote, Monkey to Crow, Hermes to Loki, Eshu to Legba, Hyde reveals connections between mythological tricksters that form a hidden network that connects cultural divides.
The best part about this book is its ability to show how mythology becomes reality. “Trickster consciousness’” is a vital component of human imagination. It reveals that we are the gods of renewal and rebirth, if we choose to be. We are the creators of mischief and mayhem. We are the trickster gods in training. Trickster is us, and we are Trickster. We are the ultimate boundary-crossers. No manmade rules or laws can contain us, unless we let them. Even cosmic rules and laws can hardly contain us. Trickster makes this world by tearing the old world down through high humor, moral ambiguity, foolishness, and strategic transgression and then dances in the ashes of its destruction. But it’s from the dancing, the kicking up of dust and ash, where brave new worlds emerge.
7.) Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
“To argue that our ancestors were sexual omnivores is no more a criticism of monogamy than to argue that our ancestors were dietary omnivores is a criticism of vegetarianism. You can choose to be a vegetarian but just because you’ve made that decision doesn’t mean bacon suddenly stops smelling good.” ~ Christopher Ryan
Sexy, controversial, and funny. Sex At Dawn will knock the prudery right out of you. It unapologetically debunks everything you think you “know” about sex. It’s a decisive body blow to the outdated Victorian sense of human sexuality. It knocks the wind right out of the standard narrative of monogamy being the default of human sexuality. As the authors state, “The assertion that human beings are naturally monogamous is not just a lie; it’s a lie most Western societies insist we keep telling each other.”
Tying together evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors humorously expose the ancient roots of human sexuality. They reveal that humans historically have been more egalitarian in their approach to everything, to include sexual partners. Our sexuality simply cannot be pigeonholed, as much as religion and masculine-dominated cultures attempt to do so. As the authors conclude, “It’s time we moved beyond Mars and Venus, because the truth is that women are from Africa and men are from Africa.”
E.O. Wilson hits the nail (the basic premise of this book) on the head: “All that we can surmise of humankind’s genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means of procreation.”