Books this Update:
- The Age of American Unreason , Susan Jacoby
- Socrates Café, Christopher Phillips
- Why Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne
- A People’s History of the American Revolution, Ray Raphael
This week began with Susan Jacoby’s excellent The Age of American Unreason, a critical look at contemporary American society and an explanation of how it got this way. Jacoby’s work doubles as a history of intellectual and anti-intellectual movements in the United States, and she addresses a range of issues from biology to celebrity cults. The book reads very well and seems to be fairly well-argued, and was immensely interesting.
Next I read Christopher Phillip’s account of his attempt to take philosophy to the streets by hosting hundreds of “Socrates Cafes” in which people of all ages and backgrounds are brought together to ask questions of themselves — and to grapple with them in the spirit of philosophical inquiry. Although Phillips advocates for the spirit of philosophy to be revived in our everyday lives, his concern seems to be more about living in a sense of wonder and trying to find the truth honestly and less of applying philosophical advice to living one’s life (like you would find in something written by Tenzin Gyatso, for instance). I found the subject matter to be very interesting.
Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True is a very straightforward introduction or refresher to the theory of evolution. It seems to be written for a popular audience, judging on its length and style. Coyne first establishes what evolution is, writing about the general principles on which it operates. He then makes predictions based on these principles, shows that the evidence fits those predictions (devoting separate chapters to the fossil record, vestigial organs, and so on), and finally explains how evolution works in practice. His last chapter is separate from his argument, but explains his belief that evolution denial is based more on the fear of potential consequences of evolution if it is true, including moral uncertainty. He then attempts to to do with those fears, rather briefly. I think it’s a very good introduction or refresher.
Finally, I read A People’s History of the American Revolution, which focuses on the common people of the Revolution — those who were not Founding Fathers. Individual sections comment on political activism among the common people long before 1775, the plight of common soldiers, the increasingly active and miserable lives of colonial women, the treatment of native Americans and blacks, and the treatment of loyalists and pacifists who opposed the war on their respective grounds. Although some history books may give lip service to these people, this book is all about them: the Founding Fathers and the Constitutional Convention are barely mentioned. The book manages to give the Revolution more depth and greater context than I’ve ever encountered.
Pick of the Week: I’m giving the nod to Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.
- The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer. Jesus records the Gospel in the first person.
- The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton. I’m reading this more for the author than for the book: he hosted a six-episode television show that I’m very fond of on the usefulness of philosophy in everyday life.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig.
- You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. This is in the pursuit of my comparative religion studies.
- (And maybe) The Earl, Cecelia Holland. This is historical fiction set during the reign of the English Henry II.