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2014 Book Countdown

Okay, so this isn’t actually a countdown, but I woke up and realized that it was New Year’s Eve (who knew?) and that’s what happens on NYE. We are creatures who can reflect on the past, (hopefully) live in the present, and anticipate the future. That’s no small feat for a species. Somehow these discrete moments in time, make up the continuity we call life. I dig NYE for these reasons: it can be a thoughtful reflection of the year which has just passed, it’s a day to have a ton of fun in the present, and you can start fresh for the future — truly a holiday in three dimensions.

So in the spirit of NYE I thought I’d reflect on one of my favorite things in life: books. I try to read about one a week, and if I can finish one off today, I will have reached that goal this year just under the wire. A bit off from the 64 last year but it’s been a busy year in other ways, so hey, 52 books is still respectable. Here are some thoughts on some of the books I’ve read this year in no particular order of books nor thought.

Away With All Gods! by Bob Avakian. Bob Avakian is a firebrand communist atheist. I love reading atheist books of all kinds. They are fun for me and they read like candy. Bob is a little out there for me, I think he comes from a completely different mold. I am really apolitical in that I really don’t have a lot of faith in political structures and the people who think they know what is best for society. I think Bob is a true believer in this respect, and I say “good on you Bob” but I remain unconvinced that I need Bob’s Brave New World. An important voice nonetheless, and I appreciate that there are guys like him saying what he says.

Unconquered: The Saga of Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley by J.D. Davis. I read a healthy amount of popular music books, especially bios, for fun and for my work. This book was a definite read for me because I was going to be playing onstage with Mickey Gilley and I wanted to do my homework. Guys from this time are heroes for my Pop’s generation of folk who grew up in the south with Bible revivals and Rock and Roll. Seems like you had to choose one or the other, but often they embodied the same person, and what then? This theme is prevalent throughout this book. I’m glad I can understand the vibe of that era having come around in the 70’s, but I’m sure more glad that I’m now in an information age and realize that “simpler times” is a fairy tale. It’s a decent read if you really like the subject matter.

Cogwheels of the Mind: The Story of Venn Diagrams by A.W.F. Edwards. I love these little niche books about the history of math and/or science. This one was a quick little read and is equal parts history and explanation of Venn Diagrams. I pick up books like this when I can find them and read them on a whim. I usually forget most of what I read but hopefully the process has given me a fuller and richer picture of science and math. My early education in science and math is woefully lacking, half due to my own resistance to it and half due to the miserable education system and their lack of emphasis on it. Well, I’ll chop the responsibility in 1/3’s and add that my religious upbringing if not outright had a disdain for science, certainly did not value it or in any way encourage it. So, having missed the boat early in life, I try and do what I can as an adult to compensate by reading the history and philosophy behind math and science. I think it’s the next best thing to actually being able to do math and/or science.

God, No! by Penn Jillette. This is a Penn Jillette bio. By the title (and cover) you’d think it was going to be all about his atheism. While there is a healthy dose of that, it’s just as much about Penn telling stories about his life. He definitely has had an interesting life, so if you want an atheistic pop culture beach book, this one is fun.

Fascinating Hieroglyphics by Christian Jacq. The book is a nice primer on hieroglyphics as it gives you the archaeological history and also quite a bit of detail about the deciphering and language behind them. Not sure I need to dig any deeper into the subject (honestly no archeological pun intended) but glad I read this little intro.

Godless by Ann Coulter. Ann says close to nothing I agree with. But it’s not nothing. I truly think there has to be some overlap in thought with everyone, although with some people you have to go pretty deep to find a sliver of agreement. Well, I didn’t find it in this book with Ann, but I’m sure at some point in print or on TV she has said something I agree with. Amazingly, Ann spends the last 4-5 chapters of this book bashing evolution. It’s not amazing to me she bashes evolution, it’s the sheer volume of her book she dedicated to it. She definitely did her homework, I was surprised and impressed about how much she had to say about it. She obviously studied all the wrong sources on evolution and went to the best deniers, so it’s highly flawed homework, but homework nonetheless. You can definitely see the fingerprints of the Discovery Institute and other anti-evolution organizations all over. Give her partial credit for at least speaking like the William Dembskis and Michael Behes of the world and not the Ken Hams and Ray Comforts (although there was a bit of that too).

People like Ann fascinate me because they are so smart and yet they get it so wrong. This is way more destructive than the obvious idiots who are unabashedly and overtly wrong. Someone who dismisses Ann Coulter is missing the point and does so at the peril of their cause. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s attractive, she’s articulate, she’s sharp, and most importantly she’s rhetorically effective. Ann Coulter has a lot going for her, and I don’t think her enemies get the appeal and until they do, she will win in the public arena. I obviously read her as someone who agrees with nothing she says (almost nothing, I think, still looking for agreement), but atheists need to read Ann with the empathy of someone who believes in what Ann stands for them to understand her appeal. Only then will they find ways to combat her on her playing field. I think we often make the mistake that being right is going to be enough to win over the public. This couldn’t be further from the case. People like Ann Coulter not only need to be refuted, but their rhetoric and style need to be studied and the psychology of her audience needs to be diagnosed (I think someone like Chris Mooney tries to make this point, but ultimately fails in both making the point, and relying too heavily on crappy social science). This book and others like it are fascinating to me. Ann’s a fascinating person and simple dismissal of people like her are done to the peril of scientists and atheists, or any other anti-right-wing advocacy.

Close Encounters With the Religious Right by Robert Boston. This book was out I think during the turn of the millennium, so it’s a bit dated (ancient for political writing). But I like to read books like this every once in a while as primary historical sources. What and who were secularists battling in the 90’s. Were the issues the same? Were they framed the same? Are the players the same a decade ago? A generation ago? In this book Robert Boston often went into the belly of the beast and would go to religious right conferences and “infiltrate” religious right advocate’s space. As I was saying before about Ann Coulter, you need to know your enemy and guys like Robert Boston are smart for trying to understand first hand what makes these right-wing nutjobs tick.

Hitler, Homer, Bible, Christ by Richard Carrier. This is a series of essays by Richard Carrier spanning his career as an historian. As with most writings by historians, it gets into much minutiae on narrow subjects which is yeoman’s work and also very necessary work, but not always interesting unless you are really, really into the subject matter. Which I am, because Carrier often focuses on the finer points of biblical history. I read his historiographical piece last year entitled Proving History which I also enjoyed. Richard is an advocate of using Baysian modelling to assess historical claims and write responsible, quality history. I agree with Carrier, that logical methodology, even scientific methodology, should be employed when doing history, but I think he has too much faith that there can be a consensus on prior probabilities when using Baysian methodology for history. I support the effort and I think Bayes modelling keeps historians in line and will give a better account of where the disagreements are, but as with everything, skeptical philosophy will always win and you certainly can’t “prove” history more than you can “prove” anything else. I think perhaps the “proving” in the title of Carrier’s is more logical “proof” than actual proof, but it’s still a fantastical title. I applaud the effort though.

Religion on Trial by Chester Dolan. Ah, good ol’ Chester Dolan. This book appears to be a labor of love for Chester (I have no idea who Chester Dolan is). It is a long, rambling, philosophically meager atheistic screed. Which makes it a whole lot of fun! Chester has taken on almost every atheistic subject with a million different chapter headings in this book. I like Chester, I just don’t give him a whole lot of credit for being an original thinker. The book uses an impressive amount of great quotes by great atheistic and secular speakers/writers, but I’m afraid Chester’s commentary surrounding the quotes isn’t that great. I still loved it though and I applaud you Chester Dolan for really putting it out there on this one. I think the book was even self-published. Good on you Chester.

Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger. Spoiler Alert: Victor Stenger says, “no”. Quite the opposite. Victor, I believe rightly, shows that science in fact allows us to negate all human concepts of god with a high degree of confidence and certainty. The god of the bible is out, all popular notions of god are out, historical gods have been out, the only ‘god’ left is the philosophically possible god, and who the hell cares?

Magnificent Vibration by Rick Springfield. Yes, that Rick Springfield. As an author, Rick is a great musician. I kid. I’m actually impressed with his writing, he’s fun and interesting. I wouldn’t have selected this book to read, but a good friend of mine is a Rick Springfield fanatic (stalker?) and the copy I read is even inscribed to me personally, so I’m very appreciative. The book is a little woo and (spoiler alert!), Rick’s ego is so large that the future of humanity literally depends on whether or not the protagonist (c’mon Rick, we know it’s you) has sex with a nun or not. I know, pretty silly, but I’m not above trash. Far from it. Most people feel a book given as a gift means an obligation to read it. I do too, except instead of a burden, I enjoy it. If a friend gives me a book I’ll read it. Even if I hate the book (I rarely hate a book) it is always a great topic of conversation, is something you will always have in common with your friend, and it will definitely give you insight into what someone else enjoys. I try and have as many personal “book clubs” as I can with other people. This is the main reason I share my bibliography with everyone on this blog, and that’s why I’m writing these year-end book reviews. I hope someday I can have a world-wide book club with people I share interests with.

Skeptics Answered by James Kennedy. This book is trash. It’s written to be some sort of answer guide to college-aged kids as they “go out in the world”. Christians are so scared and paranoid about their little brain-washed automatons going out and getting real knowledge after they leave home that they write and hand out awful, awful books like this one. Look, they have good reason to be paranoid, they have nothing but faith and indoctrination to hold things together. It saddens me that people live and think like this. It’s a horrible way to think and I’m intimately familiar with the process as most of my family and extended family think like this. Reading a book like this makes my heart break for all the 18 year olds this book has been given to and how miserable their lives seem to me from the other side. I’ve been on both sides of this religious equation and it’s much more sympathetic and empathetic from the non-religious side. Oh yeah, and also Christianity in no sense of the word is “true”.

Rhymes for the Irreverent by Yip Harburg. What a great little find this was. A wonderful collection of Yip Harburg’s irreverent poems. What a unique voice (and mind) this guy had. Always clever, always witty, and always presented with a smile for the world. What a great natural character he was. Life is serious, issues are serious, the world is serious, living should not be.

Realism and Nominalism Revisited by Henry Veatch. This is an annual series of books put out by Marquette that puts in print their Aquinas Lecture Series. Some of their lectures are philosophical, most are theological, but even their theological lectures in the series have a philosophical bent to them. I may be naive in thinking that questions of nominalism and realism, are dichotomies of the past, destroyed by the self-realization that we have socially constructed ideas and there is no real ontology because they are reducible to “no-thing”. I despise postmodernism as a model for our universe, but it does have one useful insight that I believe crushes many ontological questions: we just made the shit up. But it is naive for me to say so and that’s why philosophy will always continue to be relevant. In spite of my scientism, philosophy is not only alive, it will be forever relevant. Even if you want to scrap-heap certain philosophical dichotomies like free will/determinism and realism/nominalism, the awareness of the philosophical history I believe is invaluable going forward, making it ever-relevant.

The Reality of the Historical Past by Paul Ricoeur. Another lecture in the Aquinas series. What a great little read, combining two subjects that fascinate me: philosophy and historiography. I believe as an axiom (with a lot of induction to back it up) that science, logic, and reason (philosophy), is the best way to approach most fields of study such as economics, politics, and especially history. I don’t think using such methodology will ever result in an ultimate conclusion, but I believe that a logical, scientifically methodological process is likely to to approximate the closest satisfying analysis. This is especially true for history as I believe history is a subject which is in part empirical, but more parts philosophical. The current perception of history and its lessons also place a great deal of responsibility upon the historian to “get it right”. But that simply isn’t possible, one cannot omit themselves from the process, nor can they physically insert themselves in the past. All the more reason to be cautious with history and have sound philosophical (skeptical) understanding of how you pursue the past. This is another way philosophy must never leave the academic process: it shows us our limitations, and when it comes to historiography there are many, many limitations.

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. This is my second reading of this very quick read. It is one of my favorites and one that I believe I will make its way onto my annual reading list. What’s there to say? It has everything that The Hitch is known for: great writing, eloquence, intestinal fortitude, wit, and some really, really great advice for would-be contrarians. I think many people accused Hitchens of being contrary for its own sake, but that’s a miserable and lazy cop-out for those that didn’t want to engage in his arguments (can you blame them???). Contrarians like Hitchens are contrary because being as sharp, lettered, and thoughtful as Hitchens is, puts him in a very elite minority of people that inherently run in opposition to “common sense”. Not because they crave to be antagonistic (although I believe Hitchens did get a charge out of that), but because the “common” world is a very backward one. Intelligent insight on the world by definition puts one in opposition to a vast majority of the global population. I cannot recommend this book enough. Even if you are not a fan of Hitchens, this is a quick, delightful read.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. This book is a collection of essays by The Hitch written after he received his diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Sharp literally to his death, he died as he lived, with brutal honesty and as a writer – always a writer. Like Letters to a Young Contrarian, it’s a quick read. I read those two books back to back in an afternoon and the contrasts are breath-taking. If you have the inclination, please do read these books back to back as bookends of Hitchens’ life in words. The first, so full of piss and vinegar, a rallying cry for freethought, the second shows the same amount of strength, but now the words come from a cancer-stricken, withered body. Strength in mind and words is the common thread of both works, but the inevitable finite context life imposes on us all weighs heavy in Mortality. The man never fails to engage me. Never.

Language and Thought by Noam Chomsky. Yet another great example of why philosophy isn’t going anywhere. We have the complex subject of our language and its relation to thought and to think science is going to answer all the questions we have about mind and consciousness, especially strictly from a quantitative standpoint is naive scientism at its worst – and I count myself in the ranks of engaging in naive scientism! But, what once was simply in the realm of pure philosophy such as Descartes, Hume, and Kant, is now equal parts philosophy, equal parts science and Noam Chomsky straddles that line perfectly. Sorry neurologists, you have no chance of understanding the mind without philosophy, it’s not going to happen. Sorry, philosophers, you better be scientifically literate and on the cutting edge of neurology if you are going to have a chance at synthesizing a coherent philosophy of the mind/brain.

Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Finally put this one to bed after picking at it for two years. I’m slowly working my way through all the classical literature. This one was entertaining but literature isn’t my strong suit and it definitely is lost on the likes of me why this is brilliant. Seemed like a medieval soap opera to me. I read literature like this and I’m more interested in the purely incidental historical clues it provides about the time in which it was written than I actually am in the literary content. I see a lot of value in my endeavor, I hope to get more savvy with literature, and there is always cultural and historical to be had in my pursuit of classic literature. As far as this one goes: 150 pages probably would have been good for me and Chaucer, but it is rare that I start a book without finishing it – I’m rather compulsive that way – so 700 pages it was.

There were a lot of other books I read that aren’t really worthy of note: I read popular philosophy in the bathroom and I finished a couple this year on 30 Rock and Philosophy and Star Trek and Philosophy. I like to read books about places I visit. I took my annual trip with friends and family to Las Vegas so I read a books on the history of the mob in Vegas, the history of the city itself, the history of the casinos, a couple of travel guides, a history of poker, etc. Same with Cape Cod, we visit my in-laws every year and I’ll pick at Thoreau, or some other author or work explicitly or tangentially related to the east coast. The Selfish Genius about Dawkins I already posted about. I’m also an online bookseller so I read some books about bookselling and the antiquarian side of the book world.

Looking forward to reading in 2015. I’d like to read quite a bit more than the 52 in 2014. I have dozens of books I’ve started, and several shelves of books I keep in my “read soon” docket. It’s always a matter of time rather than desire as to what I choose to read. My library now contains over 3000 volumes and I would read them all in 2015 if time didn’t press. But I have a pretty weighty philosophy of math that I’ve been dying to get to; I’ll re-read Douglas Adams in 2015; It’s been a few years since I revisited Darwin and evolution as a subject; as always there will be atheism; I’m going to read James Joyce Ulysses this year for my literary classic; I’m reading Paul Tillich much to my dismay; I’ll read on Jefferson; I might pick at some enlightenment history and philosophy; and finally there is always science to get through: philosophy, history, and primary source science.

Happy new year everyone! And good reading in 2015!!!





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