blond with gun“Remember when all the #NRA guys said that Travon Martin would still be alive if he’d had a concealed 9mm? Me neither.” -John Fugelsang

That’s a year in a tweet right there. The top 10 headlines of year, compiled by Time on the 12th of December–before Sandy Hook, before the NRA press conference, before the tweet–are no picnic either. Somehow, my book choices knew the zeitgeist of 2012 before it zeited, in particular the three books that made my five-star list.  We can wish to turn over a new leaf and leave it all behind, but we can’t.  All of the terrible conflicts of 2012 are inherent in a group of people trying to live together.

I attempted to read What Hath God Wrought, an enormous history of America from 1815-1848, for more than a year. Finally I scheduled a visit with a friend half-way across the country and set loose the audio book, not really knowing what I was in for. If you want to be proud of America, don’t read this book. The last time we had a deficit like we have now, we cured it by kicking the Cherokee out of their homes and re-selling all their land. Come to think of it, if you want to feel hopeful for America it might not be such a good read either.

The day after TEDMED I ended up sitting next to a fabulously grumpy Norton Hadler at a dinner in Chapel Hill. He gave a speech that night, drawing largely from the material in his book The Last Well Person, a book that demonstrates with practical and specific examples how the medical industry is set up to make you diseased and what you have to do to be well. Here is a great 8 minute video from Dr. Hadler demonstrating why being made into a cardiac bypass patient might be something worth declining.

Compared to these the fictional enlightened drug kingkin and mystical psychic connects of The Godfather of Kathmandu may seem exotic. But every day I travel roads that were originally developed from the land of the American aboriginal refugees. I live in a country where the myth of the white man settling the wide open landscape alone is in every breath. I live in a country where the happier you are with your prolific medical care, the more likely it is to kill you. The Godfatner of Kathmandu is no more exotic than this very familiar America.

It is fourth in a series that starts with the equally fabulous Bangkok 8 so it must be very normal.  Anything you can write four novels about is normal.  If a major work of history and a serious book about medicine are also on the same topic, it is very, very normal.  The very normal thing that pervades all three of these books is the evil inherent in institutions, and the necessarily fearsome world faced by individuals in society.

If you want to understand the difficulty of living together and creating societies you should read* Natural Law and Moral Philosophy by Haakonsson , Democracy in America** by de Tocqueville and The Technological Society by Ellul.  Toss in The Nature Of Prejudice by Allport just because it one of the best books ever written and very appropriate for anyone trying to make sense of 2012.

Only it is so much more complicated than that.  There are 10 more books after that to try to make sense of it, and meanwhile we keep living in it.  The tag line of this blog is “celebrating hope as an ethical decision.”  Hope is not a purely rational reaction to the world and it is not a purely spiritual reaction to the world.  It is an ethical commitment to be a part of the world where we find ourselves.  For Christians, it is a commandment.  In 2013, we do it all again.

what god hath wroughtlast well person      godfather of kathmandu     bangkok 8

natural law and moral philosophy     democracy in america     technological society nature of prejudice



*Yes, these are difficult books. de Tocqueville is long, but engaging and easy to read.  de Tocueville knew if we kept our rural values in an urban life we would all be shooting each other, but how did he know that and what should we do about it? To get anything out of it however, you need to read it with questions in mind:  How is the environment different from the current environment (rural/urban, average age, education, typical family life, etc.)?  Did de Tocqueville’s predictions come true, are they in process, or was he wrong?  What does that mean?  How do all of those previous issues affect the present day?

The Haakonsson is very approachable for a philosophy book.  One of the reasons I really like the book is that it was written with great generousity- Haakonsson kindly addresses contrary thoughts in footnotes and brings in a lot of approaches.  What this means is you can understand how this book fits into the wider world of philosophy even if it is the only philosophy book you read.

The Ellul is very difficult, I won’t lie.  Allport is easy reading, but tedious as it catalogues all the possible permutations of prejudice. Both are the most useful books I have ever read to understand the difficulty of social living.

**I am partial to the Lawrence & Mayer translation, The New York Times ran a negative article on the Mansfield & Winthrop translation.  If you are purchasing through Amazon take care as the links are not correctly grouped, so you may click on one soft cover but then the associated hard cover is a different translation. 

(c) sergey_peterman / Stock Photography

6 Responses so far.

  1. Carol says:

    Just out of curiousity, do you ever read fiction? Something light and breezy just for kicks? Your reading list looks a lot like homework. Or perhaps we just have different ideas regarding what constitutes light reading?

  2. loafingcactus says:

    We probably want different things. I am a Myers Briggs* ENTJ–either doing some productive, sleeping, or hovering dangerously between the two–so my problem is what does light reading get me? And to feed my “E”, what does it get me that is social? If I read a light career or self-improvement book, it is because I want to be a certain kind of person and then I interact around that book with other people who want to be that way. But I’ve learned through torturous book club attempts that if someone else happened to read the same murder mystery I read, that doesn’t give me any information about whether I want to talk to them about anything.

    There’s also the issue that if I do read a fiction book I’m not likely to write much about it because I’m bad at writing about fiction. Though you should try the Bangkok 8 series- it is very engaging!

    *Here’s a free Myers Briggs type test for anyone who is interested:

  3. Carol says:

    Where to begin… In my experience, reading fiction has opened me up to things I may not have otherwise known I enjoyed. I “discovered” Van Gogh because I read “Lust for Life”. I found an interest in the American pioneer movement because my kindergarten teacher introduced me to Laura Ingalls Wilder books – and I followed it up by reading many others, including Willa Cather. Fiction gives me fascinating insight into human nature. Reading Louisa May Alcott’s tabloid stories, would you ever have imagined she could also author “Little Women”? A 10th grade class in World Literature helped me understand the ways culture can impact outlook. When I read “Girl With A Dragon Tattoo”, I recognized an undertone I sensed long ago reading Russian folk tales. A book I have long forgotten the title of by an Egyptian author helped me to better understand the conflict in the Middle East. I could have learned those things from non-fiction, but I would have quit from
    boredom long before
    I finished a dry
    recounting of facts
    and statistics about those same topics. And that doesn’t begin
    to address the ways
    reading fiction (or at
    least good fiction) brings you into character’s worlds. It reminds me that hardly anyone enters the world with the same outlook and vision – even if our background and experiences seem virtually identical.

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