The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity was one of the first books I picked up purely for my reading pleasure after liberating myself from the ridiculously demanding work schedule that I had as a university professor. I am so glad that I did (that is, both pick up the book and leave that job behind)!
This hefty book has been getting a lot of press, positive and negative, so there are already tons of places that you might look for a summary, if you are so inclined. I’m not so sure that one can really successfully summarize a book like this one, though, so I’m not going to try.
I will mention some of the things that I most appreciated about it. From the start, it forced me to confront (not for the first time) the shortcomings and miserable failures of my own education when it comes to the indigenous cultures of North America. As the book progressed, I learned a lot about various cultures across wide swaths of space and time. Gaining a greater understanding of the great diversity of ways in which humans have intentionally chosen to organize their societies would be reason enough for many people to give some time and attention to the book.
But what I probably found most valuable for getting the old brain juices flowing were the authors’ discussions of some very fundamental freedoms. Over many years as a student and then also as a teacher, I’ve thought a lot about the ways in which many of us are socialized into obeying authorities rather than deciding for ourselves what a good life looks like (and how best to pursue it). This book enabled me to think about a whole host of related issues from a new angle, and I suspect some of the ways it has changed my thinking will be quite long-lasting.
Of course I’m neither an anthropologist or an archaeologist, so I don’t have the right kind(s) of expertise to assess the methods used to collect, analyze, and interpret data in the background research, but the book did also help me learn a lot about the preoccupations, habits, and assumptions that are common to many practitioners of those disciplines, which was both interesting and useful for me.
Oh, wow – it is great to end the summer with a really spectacular novel. Everyone should go out and read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (and that goes double for any budding scholars interested in philosophy of mind and/or cognitive science).
Don’t read any blurbs or reviews first, just get straight into it!
Why? There is a significant surprise reveal midway through it, and it would be a real shame if you didn’t get the chance to figure things out on your own. This sometimes funny, often thought-provoking, and consistently well-written book starts out as just a regular story about growing up in a family of flawed people, but I’ll leave it for you to decide whether we can say that it ends that way …
I started reading Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching for reasons that had nothing to do with COVID-19. But may I say that it could not be any more relevant to our lives at this particular time?
Dr. Michael Greger does a wonderful job of explaining the science of viruses in general, the history of pandemics (and our political/economic/public health/media responses to them), and the steps that we would need to take to reduce the terrible dangers that pandemic influenza poses to human life, health, economics, national security, and so on. His writing is clear, engaging, and accessible, while being grounded in meticulous research and including copious citations from all sorts of relevant experts around the world.
No joke: this is not good bedtime reading, but it is a great read!
I’ve always loved animals, but I don’t always see myself in other people’s vision of what it means to be an animal lover. For instance, I don’t keep pets, and lots of people would expect an animal lover to do so. However, I am a vegan, which might be (and I think should be, but often isn’t) expected of people who self-identify as animal lovers. Plus, I generally love learning about animals more than I love interacting with them, but I do find it deeply painful when I witness harm to animals, even in fiction. And I’m seriously committed to environmentalism, which many people think means choosing what is good for whole species and ecosystems, even if and when that means killing or otherwise harming various individual animals.
I suspect there are a lot of other people out there who love animals in some sense, but that maybe don’t fit into stereotypical ideas about what it means to be an animal lover.
For an awesome book that challenges all of us to rethink what it means to stand in an ethically good relationship to non-human animals, I strongly recommend Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s Zoopolis. They don’t frame their book in terms of being by or for animal lovers, (though their work clearly expresses love for animals, along with many more intellectual virtues). Instead, they make a powerful, extended argument that existing academic and activist work regarding animal ethics is limited in key ways that can be overcome by shifting to a political model of human/non-human animal engagement. Here’s some high praise from any philosopher: their insights and arguments really changed my mind about a lot of things!
And (bonus!) this is among the most engaging and accessible books in academic philosophy that I’ve had the pleasure to read. It is one of those unicorns that falls into both the “for fun” and “for work” categories that I often use to mentally sort books. Seriously, check it out.
William Gibson’s newest novel, Agency, has a lot to offer to longtime Gibson fans (like myself) as well people who haven’t previously read his work. You’ve got a cast of uniquely talented characters with fascinating personalities spread across the globe in the not too distant future, quick-witted dialogue, surprising turns of events, brilliant social commentary, and plenty of individual sentences that can captivate your imagination by encapsulating a person, a mood, a place, or a complex event all on their own.
As with other Gibson books, what I could say about the plot won’t do it justice, and might spoil the thrill of … well, just read it.
That said, if you are new to Gibson, don’t expect an escapist departure from the nightmare that we are living. Agency is sure to spark some troubling reflections about our present predicament (however you understand that).
I’m so pleased that news media outlets are increasingly engaging with the climate crisis. It is hard, and maybe impossible, to overstate the need for us all to work together in taking action that will help stabilize the climate that we, and all living things, rely on.
For folks who are looking for an introduction to many of the key issues regarding climate change ethics, politics, and economics, might I suggest Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, by John Broome? Broome has been writing about climate change through the lens of his economic expertise for decades, but this book focuses on ethics in a way that his previous work did not. I don’t agree with everything that Broome says, but it is a well-informed, accessible place to start that will give you plenty to think over, whether you are new to the climate debates or not.
So I heard about this novel that was about … trees. I had no idea what a novel about trees would be like. But I like trees (that may be an understatement), so I got my hands on a copy. I started reading it, and sure, trees appeared in the initial parts. But I didn’t immediately see where things were going, or why the reviews I read had framed this as a novel about trees. That said, at some point, I’m not sure when, I really got into it.
What a world that Powers creates! His rich descriptions of all aspects of the varied trees that the cast of characters encounter and engage with took me back to childhood nature walks where I was encouraged to notice and revel in the minutiae of a natural world all around us that is all too easy to take for granted. What I’m saying is: stick with it, even if this book doesn’t immediately grab you.
In fact, if you need a break from a cubicle or other dreary workspace, or if inhospitable weather is getting you down, that might be a particularly good time to get this book, and immerse yourself in a story of twisting and turnings, both in the roots below us, the branches above us, and the lives of the people around us.
That full title is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll give my own gloss: in that book, Klinenberg introduces the idea of social infrastructure – all the places and stuff and systems that can help us develop and thrive as social beings (or get in the way of social flourishing). With chapters about libraries, residential neighborhoods, schools, green spaces, and more, this book really gets you thinking about how those things (or lack thereof) impact quality of life for everyone in a community, whether they realize it or not.
I have very fond memories of my family walking to the local Carnegie library on Friday nights with an old, half-broken picnic basket to fill with kids books. I remember the “ka-thunk” sound of the librarian putting cards into the slot on the top of a machine that would stamp on the due date and then tucking them into the special envelopes at the back of the books. I remember the majestic-seeming stuffed bison head that hung at the top of the stairway, and the smooth glide of the drawers in the adults’ rooms card catalog. Everything about the public library was, to me, a source of wonder and delight – may we all, together, take the necessary steps to ensure that our public libraries, parks, and other elements of our social infrastructure do as much to support the flourishing of the new generation as they did for me when I was young.
Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, which is about about her childhood, education, and early career up through her first appointment as a judge, is a book that I’ve had on my list for a while, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m really glad I made time for it. Her writing style drew me in right from the first few pages, and her story shed light on places, times, and cultural practices that I didn’t know all that much about. When you add to that Sotomayor’s finely tuned skills in self-reflection, by the end, the book left me feeling like she and I could be old friends.
Sotomayor’s life has been different from mine in many, many ways, but I found a lot of what she had to say about growing up resonating with me. (What she had to say about integrating logic and emotions was particularly welcome to me.) And, since part of her stated purpose for writing it was to be of use or reassurance to others whose ambitions somehow outstrip the circumstances of their upbringing, I can safely say that the book served that purpose for me.
The Mechanical, by Ian Tregilis, is an adventure story set within an alternate history in which Christiaan Huygens used alchemy to create and enslave thousands of mechanical people, which allowed the Dutch to maintain a worldwide empire for over 250 years. The story puts you inside the perspective of a range of characters, including a mechanical named Jax, a noblewoman at the head of a French spy network, a Dutch pastor, and many more. It is a fun read that can be taken at a galloping pace, but if you slow to a walk, there is a lot to think about regarding free will, sectarian religious disagreements, colonialism and slavery, human reliance on technology, and other substantial philosophical issues.