Sunday, December 15, 2013

What was the best book you read this year?

We asked all the faculty in the Sac State  Philosophy department to name the best book (not necessarily philosophy) they read during 2013, and to say briefly what they liked about it. Here, in no particular order, is what they said.

Russell DiSilvestro recommends Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, by Jonathan Glover

This is a selective ethical study of some of the 20th century's most morally regrettable episodes--found especially in various international conflicts (including wars) and repressive regimes (including communism in Russia and China). It's not fun reading given the first-hand accounts of these horrors. But it's sobering to read, and it's very carefully, thoughtfully, and philosophically written. Glover strives to understand how these episodes were even possible, why the episodes were morally regrettable, and how to prevent such episodes from being repeated. Interestingly, he does all this while still retaining his own skepticism about the moral law (he does not think that morality is objectively binding on us in any traditional sense) and his own sympathy with consequentialism (although he is critical of what he calls the 'hard consequentialism' of many of those he writes about).

Matt McCormick recommends: Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola

Dennett and LaScola conduct in depth interviews with a group of priests, preachers, and clergy who don't believe in God. The insight into these people who are required by their jobs to have certain beliefs, but who have lost them, is just amazing.

Kyle Swan recommends The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen

Hey political philosophers, your preoccupation with theories about the nature of perfect justice are at best an interesting bit of autobiography, but irrelevant. At their worst, they lead people to think it's ok to run rough-shod over those with rival conceptions of justice because they must be irrational or bad. Stop it. Re-focus.

Lynne Fox recommends Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, by Mario Livio.

The book is a collection of accounts of brilliant thinkers who have made important contributions to our understanding of the world and who yet made major errors—largely due to being over-committed to their own theory.

Mike Pelletti  recommends  The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward Wilson

I was overly confident that Wilson must be wrong in his thesis defending group selection. The arguments of Hamilton (“The Genetic Evolution of Social Behavior”) and Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) had convinced me that the gene, not the group, and obviously not the individual for sexually reproducing species, was the proper unit of selection upon which natural selection acts. Chapter by chapter Wilson convinced me that group selection is a viable model to understand how evolution works and that it provides insights into tendencies missed by gene selection.

Randy Mayes recommends  Benediction, by Kent Haruf

This is the last novel of a trilogy about the residents of a fictional rural Colorado town called Holt. The books can be read independently, and in any order and they are all superb. Haruf is one of the most sensitive contemporary writers about the lives of ordinary people that I have ever encountered. This novel is about an older man who has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has only a month or two to live. He is the owner of a local hardware store who has lived a good life for the most part, but who also has some profound regrets. It doesn't sound like a fun book to read during the holidays, but it is strangely uplifting and it contains some of the most beautifully wrought chapters I have read in a very long time.

Tom Pyne recommends The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer

Essays by the likes of Lawrence BonJour, E.J. Lowe, Tyler Burge, Timothy O’Connor, Terry Horgan, generally arguing that physicalism regarding the mental is a thesis in philosophy, not science. Thus it is not forced on us by the acceptance of scientific developments, prominently in neuroscience. Reductivist and eliminativist programs are given an unsparing audit, and caught cheating. Some essays, like Burge’s, propose alternatives to physicalism. Others, like O’Connor show that Kim’s supervenience proposals rely on questionable assumptions.The introduction by Koons and Bealer is, all by itself, worth the cost of the book.

Brad Dowden recommends 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,  by Charles Mann

A new history of how European settlements in the post-Colombian Americas (i.e., post 1493) shaped the world. I didn’t realize that in 1493 the Americas were so densely populated or that the Amazon river jungles were not a hodge-podge of vegetation but were the result of careful planting, or that in the 1500s so much Spanish silver went directly from the slave mines of South America through their new city of Manila to China, the world’s richest and most powerful country. Before 1493, the Americas had no earthworms, mosquitoes, cockroaches, honeybees, dandelions, African grasses, or rats.

Christina Bellon recommends The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

This is a sustained thought experiment (369 pages) in which the author entices us to think about the world minus humanity. It's quite an eye opening examination of our effect on the land, water, air, and other life forms, in both the near and long terms. It's not a very cheery read, but it is well-written and well-researched. The thing I really like about it is that the impacts and effects are really well-researched in their complexity, from engineering and energy, to art and zoology. It's not a shoot from the hip thought experiment, as too many popular counterfactual analyses can be. In the end, you get a real sense for both our fragility and dependence upon our technological reconstruction of our world and on the deeply lasting modifications we have crafted, for good or ill. The book is also interestingly non-judgmental. The author prefers to lay it our for us to think about and draw our own conclusions.

David Denman recommends Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis.

Not one to put you in the holiday mood, but a great book. It's an examination of how Imperial policies turned El Niño droughts into enormous famines (30-60 million deaths in 25 years) in the late 1800s.

Clifford Anderson recommends The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. 

The title refers to the massive and disproportionate incarceration in the U.S. of blacks and Latinos since the "war on drugs" was declared by Nixon and then Reagan. She does a good job of spelling out the several causes of this phenomenon. It is an institutional problem, not simply a problem of racist cops. There is an especially good chapter on a series of outrageous Supreme Court Decisions that have significantly contributed to the problem.

Joshua Carboni recommends: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto

While the title might suggest that this book concerns an in depth look at the philosophy of Descartes, it only delves into the particular philosophy of Descartes and his contemporaries on a very basic, introductory level. Russell Shorto comes from a journalist background, and as such, the text reads like an investigative detective story detailing a treasure hunt. However, the treasure in this case is not gold but the precious remains of Rene Descartes. Shorto traces the lines of modernity alongside the fight over – and international travels of - these remains, and in so doing, he illustrates how the thought of Descartes and many of his contemporaries transformed the intellectual sphere in Europe. The most interesting aspect of the book, however, was the story of the bones themselves – their travels, mysterious locations and the various claims to ownership.

Scott Merlino recommends The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. British historian and fiction writer presents a travelogue to medieval England. For all you Middle-Earthers and Harry Potter fanatasists, here is a dose of reality without the magic. A brisk, eye-opening read.

Patrick Smith recommends Existential America, by George Cotkin.

A historical examination of existentialist themes in American literature, philosophy, art, and culture stretching back to the late 18th century up through the 1980s. Cotkin presents an engaging and entertaining narrative showing the influence of canonical existentialists like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus in the work of figures like Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William James, and Ralph Ellison (among many others). Cotkin's chapter on existential moods in Moby-Dick is especially interesting. Highly recommend.

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