Books I’m reading now, or about to start

After a period when my reading fell by the wayside, and before I disciplined myself to stay off the Internet in the evening, I’ve finally gotten back in the swing of reading for several hours each night. (I swear that the Internet, with the short attention span it fosters, will be the death of books.) Here’s what’s on my bedside table (I invariably read in the supine position):

Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger.  I finished this on Thursday, and give it 1.5 thumbs up. I heard about the book not only from readers here, but from Elizabeth Loftus, who recommended it highly at the American Humanist Association meetings.

Dreger, a bioethicist who recently resigned from Northwestern University in protest against censorship by her dean, has produced an absorbing account of her struggles against bands of Regressive Leftists and Scientific Authoritarians who held their ideologies higher than the inconvenient truth. The several stories she tells include her fight against sex-reassignment surgery performed on babies or children who can’t consent; her struggle to get a doctor, Maria New, to stop using untested hormone therapy on fetuses whose mothers might have been carriers of genes producing intersex offspring; and her exposure of the abysmal treatment given by his colleagues to Napoleon Chagnon, a noted anthropologist whose work on the Yanomama of Brazil has become iconic. (Chagnon was falsely accused, among other things, of deliberately infecting the Yanomama with measles and paying them to kill each other for his research.)

Dreger is clearly a woman of great courage and tenacity, but endearingly exposes her own fears and weaknesses. If you want to see how some cultural anthropologists or gender studies professors can ride roughshod over facts to promote their own political agendas, the book is well worth reading. Its only flaw is that at times it dwells too extensively on gossip that seems irrelevant, though even that serves to humanize Dreger’s story.

The New York Times’s review is also positive, and says this:

“We are almost always too late,” Dreger writes. “We can bear witness afterward, of course. And witnessing matters. But so many days, I find myself selfishly wishing that witnessing felt like enough.”

Dreger’s lament aside, I suspect most readers will find that her witnessing of these wild skirmishes provides a ­splendidly entertaining education in ethics, activism and science.

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The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, by Jim Baggott.  In my lifelong (and largely futile) attempt to understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics, I acquired this book, sent to me (and edited) by Latha Menon, my own editor at Oxford University Press. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it, and although it’s hard slogging at times (when Baggott proffers equations or technical explanation), it’s fascinating and well worth a read. Baggott, a former physical chemist who has written a slew of popular science books, divides the history of quantum mechanics into 40 chapters, starting with Planck and black body radiation and going through string theory and the discovery of the Higgs boson (you can see the contents on the Amazon site). It’s a masterful interweaving of the tortuous history of this branch of physics with the often colorful people who advanced it. I give it, again, 1.5 thumbs up (- 0.5 thumbs because of the sporadic difficulty of the text). And just maybe, when I reach the end, I’ll finally understand Bell’s Inequality and the experiments on quantum entanglement. But I hold out little hope.

The book sold very well, especially for something from a university press, and has been added to OUP’s “Landmark Science” series.


Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why do they Say It?  by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. Shermer previously wrote one excellent chapter on Holocaust denialism in his  2002 book Why People Believe Weird Things, and he and Grobman have now expanded that treatment into an entire book. As I’ve just started it, I can’t say much about it, except that it looks thorough and worth reading by those who either deal with this kind of denialism, increasingly pervasive in the Arab world, or want a case study in confirmation bias and pseudoscience.


And here are two books that are next on my list:

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean M. Carroll.  This book deals with the implications of physics for philosophy and our own self-image, espousing what Carroll calls “poetic naturalism”. I’m a big fan of Carroll’s popular writing: as you know—he’s our Official Website Physicist™—and he’s my go-to person to explain arcane physics stuff. Here he synthesizes much of his thinking over the last few years (he’ll present it as well in the prestigious Gifford Lectures this winter), and the title is self-explanatory. The book has sold extremely well, even making the New York Times‘s best seller list, and has gotten generally excellent reviews (the NYT one is here). I suspect I’ll like it a lot—except for the bit on free will, for I’ve heard that Carroll comes out as a compatibilist.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The older I get, the less fiction I read, as the real world just seems more interesting to me in my dotage. But I won’t give up fiction, and this is one book I’ll read. Our local Powell’s bookstore has a discard box outside the shop, where they put out for free all the used books people try to sell them but they don’t really want. I saw a mint copy of The Goldfinch in this box, and, recognizing the name and the book’s reputation (it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014), I snapped it up. I barely know what it’s about (see details here), but the critical acclaim has been tremendous, and I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with an author I’ve never read.


Finally, I’m reading a SuperSecret book that I can’t name as I’m going to review it formally. Stay tuned.

Now it’s your turn, as once or twice a year I solicit book suggestions from readers. What are you reading now, and do you like it? What summer books do you recommend for other readers?


  1. Anastasia Cheetham
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I recently re-read Timothy Findley’s “Not Wanted on the Voyage”. You’d love it; a very irreverent imagining of Noah and Flood, featuring – as one of the main characters – a cat named Mottle.

    • Merilee
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Loved Znot Wanted on the Voyage!!

  2. Scott Draper
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    This is kind of shallow compared to what you’re talking about, but I just finished “Ted Talks”, by Chris Anderson, the curator of TED.

    Although I’ve come to loathe TED talks, I think they do exceedingly well at what they attempt to do. If you’re going to give an entertaining 18 minute talk, TED is probably an expert at that.

    I’ve been a critic of the boring, ineffective PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen at work, but my criticisms never gained much traction until I mentioned that I read this book. I was asked to present a summary of the TED recommendations in a meeting, then write it up for a company newsletter. Later, someone who gave particularly bad PP presentations asked to borrow the book. So, mentioning this book is like name-dropping.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Arguably – essays by Christopher Hitchens

    Half entertaining, half intellectual challenge, half free-association… more than the sum of its parts … you gotta love it, even when you say “well, ARGUABLY” – d’oh! He got me!

    Side note : the single reason I got this was because I searched for “I’m dirty” in the library and this came up. I’ll leave it at that.

    • Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read that collection, and found it good too.

  4. Rupinder Sayal
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Excellent summer reading list. I recently read Jim Baggott’s “Origins”, which is a kind of big history book, a story of creation, but from the scientific side. Highly recommend it.
    I am about to finish “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker.
    These are on my shelf for reading during summer:
    1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
    2. The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson
    3. Written in Stone by Brian Switek

  5. George
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I just started Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. One review of the book said “the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.” Have not read enough yet to have an opinion. And now I think I should see if PCC has written about it.

    Recently read:
    Fire On the Prairie: Harold Washington, Chicago Politics and the Roots of the Obama Presidency by Gary Rivlin. It originally came out in 1992. A revised edition was published in 2013. This was a book I had always intended to read and just got around to. Very well written. Gives great insights into the current state of US national politics.

    Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide by Alex Reinhart. You will never give credence to a p-value ever again.

    Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Pearlstein. See where Little Donny, the short fingered vulgarian, came from.

  6. Barry Lyons
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    As Anastasia just posted in the first reply, I’m also engaged in some rereading.

    On the nonfiction front, I’m rereading “The Mysterious Flame” by Colin McGinn. McGinn’s thesis is plain: we will NEVER solve the riddle of consciousness (how the mind “emerges” from the brain) because, evolutionarily speaking, we are ill-equipped to do so.

    On the fiction front, I’m rereading “The Houseguest” by Thomas Berger, an underrated comic novelist. While my favorite novels by him remain “The Feud” (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), “Neighbors,” and “Sneaky People,” Berger excels here, too: I saved the NYT review, which calls this farce “wonderfully bizarre” and “bitterly funny.”

  7. Drhack
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Highly recommend Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, another big history book, but it is more than that.

  8. Kevin
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    It’s too hard to pass up the idea that the fully deterministic universe is compatible with free will when so little can be predicted with certainty. Physicist no longer struggle to find solutions for most ground state conditions, but many body systems, boundary conditions, and asymmetric or nonlinear solutions just seem out of our reach that a free will universe is indistinguishable to one without it.

    I understand where Carroll comes from. Great book.

    • Michael
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Richard Feynmen supposedly said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

      • phoffman56
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        I’d be interested in a ref for that quote—are you sure it’s not just:

        “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
        ‘Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature’, the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 129.

        Apparently both Feynman and Gell-man advocated something like the Everett interpretation as do Steven Weinberg and Sean Carroll

        It would be interesting if Jerry got the latter’s opinion of the work of his other physics prognosticator Baggott in his list

        (My full-stop and comma keys are misbehaving!)

        Anyway I cannot recall whether Baggott’s unhappiness with ‘multiverse’ refers to Everett or (more likely) to inflation or both—in either case being quite unconvincing jumping on the bandwagon of a band with crappy music

  9. Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Cambridge zoologist and professional actor Matt Wilinson’s account of the evolution of locomotion is a triumph: Restless Crestures. Some quite challenging fluid mechanics and physics, but witty and at all times elegantly written, with the all round perspective of a nineteenth century natural philosopher. One of the best popular science books I’ve ever read.

  10. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to recommend “Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World” by Tim Whitmarsh, professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambrdige. The book spans about a 1000 years and is mainly about Greek scepticism and atheism, rather than Roman. Whitmarsh’s thesis is that as long as there has been religion, there have been people willing to call it bullshit.

    There are two excellent and long review by the Guardian and the New York Times.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I too recommended that book, not having seen your recommendation before typing!

      • EvolvedDutchie
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        I guess it’s a popular book among atheists. 😛 I haven’t finished it yet, but so far the book has been great.

    • largeswope
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I am reading it also. Enjoying it so far.

      • EvolvedDutchie
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        We now already have three people recommending the same book! If that doesn’t convince PCCE, I don’t know what will.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      The atheism book sounds interesting. I’ve added it to my long list of “to reads”.

  11. Christopher Bonds
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Books I’ve recently read most of (it’s often hard for me to finish a book these days!):

    J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar. A memoir of a boy who grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional family and who learned many life lessons from men who frequented a local bar in Manhasset, Long Island. It’s not the sort of book I would have picked up on my own, but it was recommended, and it’s extremely well-written. Not a dull moment in it!

    David Silverman, Fighting God. Silverman is of course president of American Atheists. A no-holds-barred defense of “atheist evangelism.”

    Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the ancient world. Somewhat scholarly but accessible history of ancient atheism in the Mediterranean region, with emphasis on Greece and Rome.

    Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. Weinberg as usual is as clear as glacial runoff. A bonus is the technical supplement which goes into more detail about stuff in the main text, for those with some understanding of science and math.

    Starting to read: Peter C. Whybrow, M.D. The Well-tuned Brain: The Remedy for a Manic Society. I’m not far enough into this one to comment, but the title intrigued me. As a violinist, “well-tuned” struck a chord, and I’m always interested in knowing more how the brain works.

  12. Steve James
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    The Emergent Multiverse

    David Wallace, Oxford University Press.

    Fantastic book, even if one has to skip the rather high level maths.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Second that. The clearest, most comprehensive account I’ve seen of what quantum mechanics actually tells us about the world, and a refreshing antidote to the overused slogan that “nobody really understands quantum mechanics”.

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Been reading a fair amount about
    America’s Founding Fathers and religion and am currently engaged with

    “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic” by Matthew Stewart

    and a good general book on the Founding Fathers

    “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789″ by Joseph J. Ellis”


    If JAC ever writes a book on Free Will he could have readers submit photos reading it in front of places like this

    I cannot resist the lame pun that tonight I am attending the first of four independent annual Shakespeare in the Park festivals in the greater Bay Area, so yes out here we do believe in “free Will” (Will Shakespeare that is).
    (Edmunton, Alberta, Canada even has a Shakespeare stage company entitled “Free Will”. However, oddly one must pay to see their summer festival outdoor performances.)

    • nwalsh
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Edmonton it is 🙂

  14. Christopher
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    My current bedside selections aren’t going to be of any great surprise for readers of weit, but I’ve finally gotten to the only Dawkins book I’d never read, The Extended Phenotype, which is more like reading a stack of scientific papers than his later, general audience books. And to prepare for November’s nose-holding vote, I got Hitchens’ book on Bill Clinton, No One Left To Lie to. Just yesterday I put down Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which is just a miserable slog in my opinion. I struggle to say much of anything good about it (the back cover blurb makes me wonder if a full review of it was done by PCC, I don’t
    remember). And finally, while I don’t read fiction much anymore either, and for the same reasons, I did buy a beautiful copy of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, and a 1950 ed. three-volume boxed set of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, as I’d never read a single Holmes adventure in my almost 40 years of existence.

    • colnago80
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      The complete set of Sherlock Holmes fiction is available on-line.

    • Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read Waking Up by Sam Harris and found it excellent…. but I’ve been interested in meditation for 25 years, so the issues he dryly discusses are things I’ve been reflecting on for decades. I usually fall asleep instantly when people write about meditation, but I thought he did an excellent job of covering the subject.

      I would not recommend it for people who aren’t interested in the subject already, and also not (especially) for people hoping for an introduction to it.

      • Christopher
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        I found the neurological discussions interesting, but his language, even though he admits up front that the terms may be off putting for many, was exactly that, and when he delves into gurus and the varieties of meditation and his years of practicing them I got quit bored. So yeah, I agree that it is probably a better book for anyone with an interest in meditation itself, but not for those like me more interested in the science of it. One thing that really bothered me, and I’d like your take on it, is the insistence on meditation being the dissolution or whatever he said, of the “self”. Why would it not be the integration of the “selves” (conscious, subconscious, right and left hemispheres, etc.)?

        • Vaal
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          When I read or listen to Sam on the information he believes meditation can deliver us, I remain uncertain as to whether he has gained actual insight, or has been himself bamboozled by the subjective nature of meditation.

          It sure seems to put a lot of import on “what it feels like subjectively” when meditating, given the dubious nature of subjective reports.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            There’s nothing inherently dubious about subjective reports in the appropriate context. When a triage nurse asks you to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10, or a recipe directs you to add salt to taste, they’re relying on your ability to evaluate subjective sensations.

            Meditation is no less legitimate. Since meditation is all about subjectivity, how else can you know if you’re doing it right, other than relying on the subjective accounts of experts?

            • Vaal
              Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

              I never meant to imply subjectivity is inherently dubious – in one sense it’s all we have to work with. Of course I’m talking about what happens when we cross reference subjectivity with other methods of evaluation. Obvious examples being someone who subjectively thinks they are experiencing God, or channeling spirits, etc.

              I just get a bit suspicious when Sam starts extrapolating from meditation to claims about the nature of the mind and consciousness. He is after all something of a mysterian about consciousness, falling it seems for the “hard problem” and he seems to draw some of his inferences from meditation.
              I’m just not sure one can extrapolate from one mode – the one you experience during intense meditation – to the other modes, e.g. the day to day conscious experience.
              As in “When I meditated it feels like consciousness is mysterious, there is no real me, and my thoughts arrive with no explanation from nowhere” to “this is a discovery about the very nature of consciousness and can apply to all modes of activity.”

              I don’t doubt the reports of what it feels like to meditate; but I’m not yet on board with the type of extrapolations to other modes of conscious activity.

              • Posted June 26, 2016 at 2:51 am | Permalink

                I didn’t read anything like that in the book. One of his central points is that you *can’t* extrapolate from one mode of consciousness to others.

                I don’t recognize anything of what you represent him as claiming.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          There is no self and meditation can help you experience that. I found this part very interesting from a science perspective.

        • Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          “the insistence on meditation being the dissolution or whatever he said, of the “self”. Why would it not be the integration of the “selves””

          That’s a very good question, which I’ve never heard anyone ask before. My answer: the selves don’t exist — they are an illusion, just like “the self” is an illusion. Or rather, the continuity of a “self” existing as a unity over time is an illusion.

          Awareness is of the present moment, and that’s all it is. One does not need a self (an “I”) to experience it.

          Does that make any sense at all to anyone?

          I also thought he did a good job of covering the neurological background.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          My problem with Harris’ talk of the dissolution of self is that he seems to take it for granted (in both Free Will and Waking Up) that everyone means the same thing by “self”, so he needn’t bother to explain what he means by it. The nearest he comes to a definition is that self is the thing that disappears when you meditate successfully, which isn’t terribly helpful.

          • Vaal
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that’s the kind of thing I’m getting at in my other reply to you.

          • Posted June 26, 2016 at 3:24 am | Permalink

            It’s an inherently difficult thing to talk about. I know people who have meditated their whole lives without noticing the thing that Sam is referring to. Others find it immediately but consider it insignificant.

            I thought referring to the split brain experiments was a good was an interesting approach to it. Also his point that that the Abrahamic religions are based squarely on the assertion that the “I” is real, is an important point.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted June 26, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

              One technique Sam brought up was a kind some monks came up with (can’t remember who) where you try to see your head. Doing this is impossible of course without looking at a reflection of yourself. In doing this practice as meditation, it becomes obvious that you have no self. I oddly found this much easier to get.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 26, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                My take on that was more along the lines of:

                “Dude! Ever notice that you can’t see your own head?”

                “Whoa! Heavy, man! Pass me that bong.”

                I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t any insights to be gained from meditation; I think there are. I just don’t think Harris did a very good job of spelling out what they might be.

                A somewhat better book in that respect is 10% Happier by Dan Harris (no relation), a tightly wound network news talking head whose career tanked after an on-air meltdown and panic attack. He turned to meditation to get a handle on his inner turmoil, and wrote this engaging book, in plain, non-mystical language, about his before-and-after experience.

      • Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        I concur. I liked the book, found it useful and interesting, and it gave me a better understanding of Sam Harris.

        Currently, I’m casually reading The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. It’s OK so far; haven’t got far into it. It was amongst a bunch of books left behind by a friend and I hastily grabbed it, since I’d just finished a great biography of the author called Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner who was a close friend at the latter part of Hemingway’s life.

        • Posted June 27, 2016 at 8:12 am | Permalink

          Sorry, Ernest, I’ll have to put aside the Garden of Eden for now… I don’t have the patience! In all fairness, this one was published posthumously, and I can imagine him thinking that it wasn’t quite ready for that.

  15. Isaac
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    When The Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery by Frank Vertosick

    After seeing blurbs of this book by both Ian McEwan and Sam Harris, it was impossible for me not to get it. It is splendid in its prose, quite gratifying in its humor, and, although I am only halfway through, I feel like I’ve learned so much. I say this as a neuroscience PhD student myself.

    I am also reading The Count of Monte Cristo, but that’s a different endeavor. I set out to read all classics a while ago, and that’s the book in turn.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I was unaware of those blurbs. McEwan is one my favorite novelists. I particularly like “Enduring Love” and “On Chesil Beach.”

      • Rick
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        I like McEwan’s novels, too. I haven’t read “Enduring Love”. I thought that “On Chesil Beach” was okay. I enjoyed reading “Saturday” a lot. I wonder if McEwan read “When the Air Hits Your Brain” while preparing to write “Saturday” since the main character is a neurosurgeon. To my mind, though, McEwan’s great book is “Atonement”. I found it very moving.

  16. Rob
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science” by Alice Dreger is one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years. It’s not for everyone, but I loved th real life examples of how science works. (I think the title is unfortunate because it probably puts off a good share of potential readers who would greatly enjoy and benefit from this science story.)

  17. Mike hagan
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t already read them I would highly recommend Wolf Hall & Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantell

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Serialized on PBS a year or two ago but it will definitely help to have read the books first.

  18. Bogi T
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. An excellent book on Humboldt’s life and his influence on pretty much everyone, from naturalists to politicians of 19th century.

    • Christopher
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      This is one I keep meaning to grab after hearing a podcast interview with her. That’s the wonderful problem with posts like these, I always get reminded of things I wanted and find new things I have to read, as if I don’t have enough in the queue already!

      And adding to it, has anyone ready Steve Jones’ book, I think called No Room for Geniuses, or something like that? I just heard about that in passing on another podcast, but I’ve already got two of his other books sitting as yet unread on my shelves.

  19. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Valiant Ambition (George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution) – copyright 2016, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Mainly about Arnold and all of the details throughout the war. Very good

    The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough – copyright 2015. Well done as nearly everything this author does. I decided I knew a lot less about the Wright Brothers than I thought I did. Most surprised that they found fame and discovery in Europe first and later at home.

    Holy Shit, The Insanity of Blind Faith, Casper Rigsby – copyright 2015. A fun little book to read about what else, Christianity. Uses the word insane allot.

    Seward, Lincoln’s indispensable man, Walter Stahr, copyright 2012. Long and detailed look at the guy. Probably only for history nuts.

    • Historian
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just started Valiant Ambition. Philbrick is a very good writer. I think the average reader interested in the American Revolution will learn a lot as well as enjoy the book.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, a lot learned about Arnold that I did not know. The most people will get out of their history lessons are some details on how he was discovered and he is the most famous traitor.

        He was also about the best general Washington had but in personality and character he was just about the opposite of Washington. When people get screwed over and overlooked we often do not consider the damage it does to them. Washington did not see it coming at all – one of his few character flaws.

        The book also reminds us of the fact that the revolutionary war was also a civil war underneath and probably a third of the population was on the British side.

  20. MarkMyWords
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Cannot recommend Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” enough! It’s always a good sign when I’m reading a book and, before I finish it, I go back and start over at the beginning, because I keep rethinking things based on the later parts of the book.

    Recommendation: Bart Ehrman’s most recent book, “Jesus Before the Gospels”. It’s a good study incorporating sociological and anthropological research on the oral transmission of stories to the period before the gospels were written. Needless to say, it doesn’t provide very much comfort to religious literalists. Even if you’re not that interested in Jesus, Xtianity or religion in general as a subject, Ehrman’s presentation on various theories and ideas concerning individual and collective memories was very interesting.

  21. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been on a fiction jag lately. Just started Nick Tosches’ novel Me and the Devil. Haven’t encountered gorgeous belle-lettres prose from a street-smart perspective like this since reading everything I could get my hands on by Henry Miller.

    Next up is Don DeLillo’s latest, Zero K. Last week it was one of Lawrence Block’s “Keller” novels, Hit Man. Right before that, I finally took the plunge and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest cover-to-cover — all 981 pages of text, all 388 footnotes. Took most of a month. I’d previously read DFW’s other fiction, and most of his journalism, but his door-stop tome IJ had been staring me down from the bookcase for years. It was well worth the effort.

    • bric
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      I’ve tried three times to read Infinite Jest, but I just can’t get through it, there’s something rebarbative about it. Zero K on the other hand is brilliant – chilly but brilliant. And short.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        I had a couple false starts with IJ over the years myself. But once you’ve got the momentum to go all the way, it’s like riding the Bonzai Pipeline in to O’ahu’s north shore.

      • bric
        Posted June 26, 2016 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        The DeLillo short story that Zero K emerged from is available free online

        Most if not all of the short story appears in the novel, but the context is completely different. Fascinating.

    • Posted June 26, 2016 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      I also put off IJ for a while, not having been crazy about “The broom of the system”, which I thought sounded like he was trying to write like Thomas Pynchon but without Pynchon’s fantastic imagination.

      Well, in IJ, he has found the imagination. Great book. It didn’t even seem long.

  22. Karst
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I am now reading “The War on Science: Who’s waging it, Why it matters, What we can do about it” by Shawn Otto. For a review, see Greg Laden’s blog.

    Just finished Galileo’s Middle Finger. Both of these books are well worth reading.

  23. Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I am reading and can highly recommend “The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos” by Leonard Mlodinow, a highly readable account of the rise of modern science, enleavened with scores of interesting stories about the science discoverers.

  24. Rick
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I just ordered 4 books that should arrive soon and that I’ll be reading in July. They are Noam Chomsky’s “Who Rules the World?”, Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great”, Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood”, and Jean Rhys’s “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie”.

    • Bric
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Nightwood is famous for it’s extraordinary first sentence:

      Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed, of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms, – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 26, 2016 at 1:53 am | Permalink

        Wow. Now there’s a sentence ripe for parody in the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest.

        Funny, how closely the sublime and the ridiculous can be juxtaposed in such matters.

        • bric
          Posted June 26, 2016 at 2:52 am | Permalink

          It does sound as if it was a dark and stormy night . . .

    • Rupinder
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I loved “God is not great”. One brilliant argument against religion and its claims of making world a better place after another. Classic Hitchslaps!

    • bric
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Many years ago I took a creative writing course with the novelist David Plante, mostly he talked about Jean Rhys who he held in great esteem. Later he wrote a memoir of her which was included in his book ‘Difficult Women’

      • Rick
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that NYT link.

    • largeswope
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Hitch does the audio for “God is not Great” It is wonderful. I love his voice.

  25. Bob Bottemiller
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    “In my lifelong (and largely futile) attempt to understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics…”
    Cheer up, Jerry, and recall the words (approximately) of Richard Feynman:
    “I think you can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.”

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Feynman said that 50 years ago, in 1965. Here’s David Wallace writing in 2010 in The Emergent Multiverse (see Steve James’ comment at #12):

      The third customary thing to do in a discussion of the quantum measurement problem is to remind the reader of how crazy quantum mechanics really is and how no one really understands it, but quantum mechanics is not crazy at all, and after eighty years of hard work I think we basically do understand it, or enough to see how it relates to the world we observe.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        I angrily told off someone for making that remark, overly quoted from Feynman. If no one understands quantum physics then why do we have iPhones that work?

        • Jiten
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

          We can make iPhones because we can “shut up and calculate” whatever is required. What Feynman was saying is to do with Meaning.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but as Wallace points out, we’ve spent the 50 years since Feynman figuring out what it means.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            What is this capital M “Meaning”?

        • Alexander
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          Just the same way as no one understands how high-temperature superconduction works, but high tc superconductors are used in experimental transmission lines, magnets, superconducting transformers, motors, etc.

          By the way, IPhones don’t use “weird” quantum physics, but quantum encryption does.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

            But all modern electronics (or even not modern electronics) rely on an understanding of quantum mechanics – you know, transistors and such.

            • Alexander
              Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

              Yes, most of what is called quantum theory, which includes what happens when accelerated electrons hit the phosphorescent layer on the inside of the old-fashioned television tube, is quantum mechanics: an electron hits an atom, excites its electrons that when they return to lower energy levels emit the photons that excite the light sensitive cells in our retina, producing electrical signals that travel to our brain, etc, these are all quantum phenomena, but they are not the “weird” ones (unless you think quantum numbers are weird). A “weird” phenomenon is entanglement, which implies that one particle knows instantaneously the state of a particle it is entangled with, even if they would be separated over millions of light years. It is as if each particle (or its wave function) spreads out over the whole universe, (the principle of non-locality) and the wave functions interact, causing the entanglement. These phenomena are for us mortals counter intuitive, they violate cause and effect and determinism. Another example is radioactive decay, you can’t tell when an individual atom will decay, it can happen in a second of in ten hours, but you know the average, expressed by the half-life of this atom.

              But not everyone agrees that quantum mechanics is not deterministic and defies causality.
              See for example the recent book by Physics Nobel Gerard ‘t Hooft: arXiv:1405.1548v3, available on the internet. The introduction is not technical, and he argues that underlying all this quantum weirdness is still classical physics, causality end determinism.

              • Alexander
                Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

                Causality “and” determinism

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

                It’s not just entanglement that is considered “weird” but things like the whole wave and particles and observation phenomenon. And the knowing the spin but not the location and the idea of probabilities (uncertainty). Lots of modern electronics rely on quantum mechanics. One is quantum tunnelling, which uses the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and this whole wave-particle duality thing. So, yes we do in fact understand quantum mechanics so well that we can use it to make predictions reliably enough that our modern world request on it heavily.

        • Posted June 26, 2016 at 12:47 am | Permalink

          As someone has said, “Shut up and calculate.” QM is weird not because it is unusable but because it is so highly counter-intuitive. But then so is the science behind the ideas of self and consciousness.

          Science is showing us that things are not what we thought we were. Better yet, it is showing us how and why. That’s the message from physics and from biology.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted June 26, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Yeah, it’s weird but lots of things are weird and yeah, consiousness is one of those weird things as well as the illusion of the self….try telling someone there is no “I”; they’ll think you’re a lunatic!

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        “I think we basically do understand it, or enough to see how it relates to the world we observe.”

        Still, a touch of hesitation, a touch of qualification.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted June 25, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          But only, I think, in the sense that all understanding is provisional and subject to modification. The thrust of Wallace’s book is that QM is not inherently more mysterious than other scientific theories; the historical confusion about it came from reluctance to take at face value what the theory is telling us about the world.

    • Ben
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      This provides an excuse for linking to my favorite source of info on Quantum Mechanics state of the art, Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction: She has a way of writing more clearly and directly about the subject than others I’ve read.

      She has a review of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” at .

  26. dabertini
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading climbing mount improbable which is excellent and my next read will be money by emile zola. Speaking of books, when can we expect to see PCC(E)’s venture in the children’s book market with his book on the Indian man who has 40 cats? I’ll definitely camp out the night before at my local bookstore to get my hands on a copy or two of the first edition. And then the book tour begins with a scheduled stop in TO of course. Toronto has a great international food scene as i am sure you are aware.

  27. lwgreen1
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Since I learned about Michael Herr’s death this morning, I decided that it’s finally time to read Dispatches, something I couldn’t bring myself to do in the seventies when it came out. It got good reviews so I hope I’m not disappointed.

  28. bric
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Currently in the middle of E B White’s collected Essays; the first section is a kind of ‘Natural History of Selbourne’ translated to Maine in the 1950s. PCC will particularly enjoy the section about a mother raccoon who industriously rears her brood in a hollow tree right outside White’s bedroom window.
    I have the new (2016) edition of Richard Dawkins’ Ancestor’s Tale (with Yan Wong now promoted to joint author)to tackle next.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      What new 2016 edition with Yan Wong? I don’t see it at Amazon. All I see there is the 2005 edition.

      E.B. White is great. “One Man’s Meat” is a good collection.

    • Christopher
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s another one I wish to buy, as I have an addiction to owning hard copies of books, even though I already have the original edition of Ancestor’s. Add to that the new anniversary edition of the Selfish Gene, which I think comes out soonish here in the US, but available already in the UK.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        My friends bought me a nice hard cover copy of The Ancestor’s Tale when it first came out, as a birthday present and I broke the binding on it. 😦 It is such a beautiful book too in its hard cover form!

  29. Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Here are some of the books I’ve been reading recently. Mostly not requiring a huge amount of thought as my heart is misbehaving and withholding oxygen from the brain.

    1. All the Sherlock Holmes stories sequentially from start to finish. I’d read many of the Sherlock Holmes stories before, but not all and not sequentially.
    2. “Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped” by A. Roger Ekirch.
    3.” Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World” by Rosalind Miles. (I’d read her trilogy on Guinevere many moons ago
    since I’m a King Arthur buff and have hundreds of books about King Arthur, Guinevere, Launcelot, et al. Although I knew a great deal of the history she writes about in this book, there were a few terrible things I hadn’t known (especially some surgical procedures on women performed by U.S. and British surgeons.)
    4. “Adam, Eve and the Serpent” by Elaine Pagels.
    5. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” (A continuation of the Lisbeth Salander stories
    by David Lagercrantz.)
    6. “Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates” by Tom Robbins. My very first ever reading of a book by Tom Robbins.

    I have numerous other books I’ve started and not yet finished: by J. Craig Venter, Steven Pinker, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, etc. If/when my brain begins to function at the appropriate level, I’ll continue to read these.

  30. Art
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I think there may not be many people here fond of military history, but if WWII interests you, I recommend the Pulitzer winning “Liberation Trilogy” by Rick Atkinson: “An Army at Dawn,” “The Day of Battle,” and “The Guns at Last Light.” At about 600 or so pages apiece, they definitely require a recess from the net, but it is worth it to anyone who wants to try to understand the worst conflict in human history (so far!).

  31. amyt
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I too rarely read fiction. Too many good non-fiction out there and there’s so much I don’t know. I have been going to the same library for 25 years. About 10 years ago I went in search of a fictional book recommend to me. I didn’t see a call number for it in the catalog and went to the front desk. “How/where do I find this book?” The person at the front desk looked aghast. “All fiction is shelved alphabetically by last name.” Who knew? It’s been 10 years; maybe it’s time for some fiction.

  32. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Fatigue has robbed me of my ability to read at night as I normally do but I recently was able to start again and I’m really enjoying the book WEIT readers recommended years ago called Hyperion. I don’t remember who recommended it but I think it may have been Ben and/or GravelinspectorAiden.

  33. Bernardo
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I bet one thousand dollars the SuperSecret book is “The Gene: An Intimate History”

  34. Phil Garnock-Jones
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve almost finished “The Cabaret of Plants” by Richard Mabey, and I’m really liking it. I’d describe it as literary non-fiction in that the writing is very good, and the botany is accurate. At times he seems to be veering off into the mystical on topics like plants’ intelligence, but I think that’s a deliberate device and he almost always comes back to a conclusion I’m comfortable with in the end. It’s a personal loosely-organised ramble through the plant world, with conveniently short chapters. I found it a little hard to get started, but I’m glad I persevered.

  35. Ken Pidcock
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal, on how the Democratic party went from being the party of workers to the party of technocrats.

    Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts. Cannot recommend it enough.

    Thomas Leonard, Illiberal Reformers. on the frankly depraved agendas of early 20th century progressives.

    Rana Foroohar, Makers and Takers. The financialization of the American economy.

  36. Steve Pollard
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Some great suggestions here. I have Dreger and Carroll on the to-buy list.

    Best newish science book I have read recently is Nick Lane’s “The Vital Question”. Strongly recommended.

    Like PCC(E) I have rather gone off new fiction, but have been catching up with some of the classics I neglected in my misspent youth: currently Zola (who is jolly good!) The complete works of most of the classic authors are only a couple of quid or so on Kindle.

  37. Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m thoroughly enjoying Carroll’s The Big Picture. Definitely a book I will be able to return to time and again. Have tried to read Tart but it’s not quite my cup of tea. If you’ve got *plenty* of free time give Knausgaard’s My Struggle a try. It’s 3,600 pages of autofiction that pretty sharply divides the lovers from the haters. I love it. My wife read about three pages and commented that it was some damned expensive toilet paper.

  38. Jiten
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading Sean Carroll’s book at the moment, and it is very good. You are not going to like his take on free will because it’ll make you change your mind on your own view. Briefly: of course at the most fundamental level there is just the schrodinger wave function but as an emergent phenomenon it makes perfect sense to talk about free will in explaining human choosing. His argument is very persuasive and well explicated.

    One thing that Sean does is place a lot of importance on Bayesian reasoning but David Deutsch has a short refutation of it on his blog.

    • Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      I’m mulling over Carroll’s argument re free will too. It comes off at first as ‘there is no free will but there really is’ and I’m not sure on which side he finally falls into.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Actually I was hoping Carroll would have something more interesting to say about free will than just that it’s a convenient way of talking. For a while he seemed to be leading up to an argument that choice and “could have done otherwise” are as real as entropy and the arrow of time, and for the same reasons (i.e. coarse-graining). But when it came to it he seemed to breeze past that point rather perfunctorily.

      Still, on the whole a good read.

      • Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        Although I favor the compatibilist view, I must admit that I find that many or all compatibilists tend to do this. Just when I am primed for a precise explanation of how (what we call) free will emerges from the fundamental micro actions of our neurons, they start waving their hands. Perhaps our understanding of neuroscience is still too primitive to provide a full coarse-graining type story.

  39. Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently reading Paul Scott’s A Division of the Spoils, the fourth in his Raj Quartet, and the 13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Moers. But I did recently read The Selfish Gene for the first time (review up on my blog). In the near future I’ll be reading Why I Am Not a Christian by Russell, The Portable Atheist by Various (edited by Hitch), Hitch’s God is not Great and Genius – a biography of Feynman.

    • Christopher
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      I recently finished Feynman & Leighton’s What Do YOU Care What Other People Think, which, like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! was so good I couldn’t put it down, and read it in two evenings. Then, against better (financial) judgement, I went into a local bookshop in KC, Prospero’s, and found a copy of the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Not light reading, that, but too good a find to pass up.

  40. Kiwi Dave
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Recently finished Retribution by Max Hastings about the fall of Japan, 1944-45. Nothing new on the big picture of strategy, but very readable and with lots of how things were for the ordinary soldier and some information on civilian life in war-torn areas.

    I’m halfway through The Improbability Principle (2014)by David Hand. The sub-title, Why Incredibly Unlikely Things Keep Happening, identifies the books contents. Despite having long forgotten my introductory statistics lessons, I found this a highly accessible read. It includes a brief and lucid take-down of the Anthropic principle.

  41. Michael Ball
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    QED And The Men Who Made It by Silvan Schweber. Fantastic scientific biography of the pioneers of Quantum Electrodynamics. If you don’t have a background in graduate level theoretical physics then sectons on QED will be tricky. At any rate there’s still a lot of very interesting biographical materials on the scientists themselves.

    Also To Explain the World by Weinberg

    A beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek.

    The Princeton Companion To Mathematics by numerous people. Brilliant (weighty) tome covering many areas of mathematics. I read it cover to cover, but probably most people would want to keep it as a reference to be dipped into from time to time.

  42. Merilee
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink


  43. Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for some excellent suggestions, in the comments as well.

    I have a few on the go at any one time, so it can be slow going, but they include The Looming Tower (about Al Qaeda), God in the Age of Science, by Herman Philipse (excellent analysis of Swinburne’s arguments) and Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s autobiography; he can really write!

    Recently finished recommendations include Team of Rivals (about Abraham Lincoln), So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson, and Howard’s End.

    A recommendation relevant to this website is This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson, a fictionalised account of the voyages of the Beagle, focusing on Fitzroy, which I notice is available for 99p in Kindle format at UK Amazon atm.

  44. Posted June 25, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Dregers book is xclnt, a bit gossipy in spots as mentioned but well, well worth it.
    “In the Shadow of the Sword”, Tom Holland. If we doubt Xianity due to the lateness of the gospels, Islam is far worse in being concocted much later, centuries rather than decades. Xclnt treatise.
    “In the Land of the Invisible Women”, Qanta Ahmed. For an inside view of the smothering effect of Islam on daily life in Saudi Arabia. Along with Jerry’s recommended “Looming Tower” Lawrence Wright, a real education on Islam.
    Harris’s “Waking Up” was OK. Good neuroscience and consciousness discussion but more impactful for what was missing. Sam being more than an apologist for Eastern mysticism readily tells us there is no evidence any mystic, including the Buddha himself ever reached nirvana. Sam devotes roughly 10 pages to the adolescent level con-man behavior (usually involving sex with some Westerners hot wife) of many so called gurus. I then expected pages more certainly on all the alleged profound truths the “great contemplatives” have discovered for us. Wasn’t forthcoming either. I’m always amused at the claims of the enlightened that they “experienced true reality when shorn of the self.” I’m always moved to ask, “Really, how would you know? YOU weren’t there.” Beyond the mild and documented benefits of meditation and mindfulness, Sam doesn’t give us much more. Telling.

  45. bluemaas
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Mr Thomas King of dual Canadian and American citizenship and of; Doubleday Canada, y2012. Mr King is author, too, for little kiddos of several books re the Northern Hemispheric First Nations.


    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      Oooo The Inconvenient Indian is on my to read list.

  46. Merilee
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    A Japanese exp’n describing the state of having too many unread books on one’s zhelves:

    Two excellent shortlisters from last year’s Man Booker Prize: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Jamaican Marlon James and Satin Island by Brit Tom McCarthy. Currently in the middle of Rohinton Mistry’s door-stopper, A Fine Balance. Fantastic writer ( and current local to Toronto area boy). Read and loved his other two biggies when they came out: Family Matters and Such a Long Journey. Will get to Infinite Jest “any time from now”, as the Nigerians are wont to say…

  47. Posted June 25, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Recently finished:

    Persian Fire by Tom Holland – great if you like popular history books (Rubicon is great, too)

    Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie – his memoir, very well written, honest, and interesting.

    The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald – mind blowing; highly recommended

    Currently reading:

    The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – excellent so far; Rushdie is now officially in my top five favorite authors

    In the on deck circle:

    Middlemarch by George Elliott – partly on PCC’s recommendation.

  48. kelskye
    Posted June 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Right now I’m reading 3 books:
    * Daniel Dennett – Breaking The Spell
    * Phillip Kitcher – The Ethical Project
    * Frank Wilczek – A Beautiful Question

    Of the three, I’m enjoying Kitcher’s the most – though it’s the most technical of the lot. The subject matter is fascinating, and Kitcher does well to tie it all together. I also am enjoying Dennett’s book, though I think I’ve come way too late to the party because a lot of what he says has been covered by others since then.

    I’m surprised I’m not into Wilczeck’s book as much as I thought. It’s an interesting subject matter, but something about the presentation just isn’t grabbing me.

    • kelskye
      Posted June 25, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      I also just finished reading:
      * Massimo Pigliucci & Jonathan Kaplan – Making Sense Of Evolution
      * Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths – Algorithms to Live By
      * Michael Graziano – Consciousness & The Social Brain

      Of those, Algorithms to Live By was a must read – though my computer science background makes me a little biased. And being neither a working scientist nor philosopher of science, I was not the target audience of Making Sense Of Evolution. It had some interesting conceptual discussions (such as: informal vs formal selection, spandrels, etc.), but the discussions on technical methods just went over my head. Consciousness & The Social Brain was interesting enough, though way too sparse at this stage for it to move the conversation about the nature of consciousness along.

      • Merilee
        Posted June 25, 2016 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the Algorithms suggestion. Just ordered it from Amazon ( dangerous late-night impulse buying:-)

  49. Posted June 26, 2016 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I also have been reading more non-fiction than fiction for the last 2-3 years. Except last year, I read a couple dozen crime novels. I have sworn off them this year. So far so good.

    As for fiction, the best I’ve read this year were “Middlemarch” (deserves its reputation) and Amitov Ghosh’s “Flood of fire” (no. 3 in the Ibis trilogy). The trilogy is about the first Opium War, when the British forced “free market” policies on China. Sound familiar?

    I liked Sean Carroll’s “The big picture” a lot, but was a bit disappointed in his take on free will. His method of using different vocabularies to describe reality at different levels is interesting, but won’t change the world, I think. It’s great tho that a physicist take on such a broad subject.

    To anyone who wants to “understand” quantum mechanics and is not afraid of some math (basic differential calculus is about all), I highly recommend Leonard Susskind’s “Quantum mechanics” in the “Theoretical minimum” series. You can watch the lectures for free, but the book is clearer, at least for me. Yes, he does entanglement.

    I finally learned something about evo-devo (How do you pronounce that?) from Sean B. Carroll’s “From endless forms most beautiful” and am looking forward to learning more. Carroll’s presentation is good but it’s not always clear when he says “hox genes” whether he means homeobox genes or any old toolkit genes.

    Finally, Oliver Sacks’s “On the move” is a simply marvelous book about a fascinating man who knew lots of fascinating men (Crick or Edelmann, to name only two).

    • Posted June 26, 2016 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      Forgot one of my favorite recent books, Vera Brittain’s “Testament of youth”. Far better than the movie, it takes you into the life of the British middle-upper class before, during and briefly after WWI. Doesn’t matter if you already know what happens, it’s the telling that counts. A bit stiff at the beginning — I don’t know if it was she or I — but that passes quickly.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 26, 2016 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      Re your “evo-devo” inquiry: the post-hyphenate is pronounced the same as the band of “Whip It” fame. The pre-hyphenate rhymes with the post-, in the manner of other rhyming reduplicatives (such as pell-mell, willy-nilly, and razzle-dazzle).

      You’re on your own figuring out “punk eke.” 🙂

      • Merilee
        Posted June 26, 2016 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        OK, Ken, but is it Deevo or Devo? I’ve heard of the band and even heard Carroll lecture about evo-devo, but damned if I can remember how he pronounces it.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 26, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          You’ve never heard the band Devo say, “Are we not men? No! We are Devo!”?


          • Merilee
            Posted June 26, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            Got it, Deeeeeana:-)

          • Posted June 27, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

            Thanks. That’s the way I’ve been saying it to myself.

    • Christopher
      Posted June 26, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      After rewatching the movie Awakenings, I decided to read the book. That led me to seek out and read everything Sacks wrote. I was 3/4 of the way through Migraine, his first and the last on my list, when he died. He made quite an impact on me, intellectually and emotionally. I dearly hope that whatever he was working on when he died, and he said he was writing for as long as he could manage, will see publication. His partner, Bill Hayes, wrote a good little history on the classic Gray’s Anatomy that is well worth a look as well. And I still argue that Sacks’ book Hallucinations is a fantastic, if unintentional, takedown of religion, especially of those who claim God exists because all human cultures have god(s). The more rational explanation is no, humans just have the same brains that go wonky in the same, fairly predictable ways that pre-science cultures attributed to the supernatural.

    • amyt
      Posted June 26, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Going to listen to “On the Move” during my upcoming road trip.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 27, 2016 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      I have just finished Sean Carroll’s ‘The Big Picture’, and like others was a bit disappointed by his take on ‘free will’ – that the quarrel between non-compatibilists and compatibilists is in essence a storm over a category mistake, or, rather results from confusing incompatible modes of description, or ‘vocabularies’ as Carroll calls them. The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that the incompatbilist, whatever the truth of strict physical determinism (and it seems to me to be true), is simply unable to provide an adequate description or explanation of human (and perhaps other animal behaviour) in the terms he or she favours, and is reduced, as Carroll points out, to necessarily describing human behaviour in terms of ‘choices that they and other people make in their daily activities’, while afterwards making light of their ‘lapse’ by asserting, ‘Except of course the concept of choice doesn’t really exist.’
      Other excellent science books I’ve recently read: ‘The Serengeti Rules’by Sean B. Carroll & Frans de Waal’s ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?’
      And I would second justjase79 in comment 57 about ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ by Naguib Mahfouz, since, like much good literature, it shows the complexity of people’s lives, and suggests that they are not reducible to easy generalisations about Islam or whatever. Mahfouz was stabbed and seriously wounded by a Muslim fanatic in 1994, after he, along with a number of other Muslim intellectuals, stood up for Salman Rushdie.

    • Posted June 27, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Have read and loved On The Move!

  50. Posted June 26, 2016 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    I am reading “Nature’s Nether Regions” by the Dutch entomologist Menno Schilthuizen. A great read on what genitalia can tell us about evolution.

  51. Posted June 26, 2016 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Hardin’s “The Ostrich Factor” on our institutional unwillingness to come to terms with population’s relentless pressure.

    “Free Radicals” by Michael Brooks, where he describes some very unorthodox ways science has advanced. Interesting to see how science outside my field is PR and politics. (I thought it was just infectious disease epi that suffered from this)

    For the cherry on top, I just finished Doug Stanhope’s “Digging Up Mother”, which was alternatingly hilarious and horrifying… and read in two sittings. An excellent case study in the kind of dysfunction and deviance that makes for the kind of dada comedy I adore.

  52. bonetired
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    One science and two history…

    Firstly the science: Junk DNA by Nessa Carey. No sure about this: an accurate but a bit lightweight trot through modern developments in DNA research.

    Now the two history books, both of which deal with the tragedy that was the Battle of the Somme which started 100 years ago.

    William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” is a revisionist account of the Somme battles ( there were at least 2 in 1914-18) in which he argues that the battle was both necessary in the context of the time and, in the long term, a victory (I doubt that my grandfather, who served there as a gunner officer, would have agreed).

    The second history book is a classic: Martin Middlebrook’s “First Day on The Somme”. Now normally I don’t like survivor accounts of such events – especially after decades – but Middlebrook’s book, written about 50 years ago when there were plenty of survivors still alive, manages to combine first-hand accounts with a clear analysis of how and why nearly 20,000 Britons died.

  53. bobkillian
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Just finished Sean Carroll’s “From Eternity to Here” which is another rewarding-but-challenging look at cosmology.

    I strongly recommend Richard Powers’ “Orfeo,” a perfect book for anyone interested in biology, music and the collision of great ideas.

    A prediction: you’ll be disappointed with “The Goldfinch.” I was unhappy with it halfway through but slogged on to the end, an effort I regret. I’d like those hours back.

    • Posted June 27, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      I really like “The big picture”. I’m eagerly awaiting Jerry’s comments on it, tho.

  54. jwthomas
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal

    Anything and everything by the chronicler of our closest relatives in nature is worth reading.

  55. merilee
    Posted June 26, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the Orfeo reminder. I really like Richard Powers and had Orfeo sitting on my stairs crying “Read me!” for over a year. It’s amazing what you can ignore when you walk by it several times a day and now it’s buried because we had to carpet the stairs because of a certain aging canine who was slipping down the last few steps and we had to move the stair-books.

    • Posted June 27, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I didn’t know about Orfeo. Thanks for mentioning it. I like the way Powers mixes science and art — most of the time. My favorites are “The time of our singing” and “The gold bug variations”. (I like musicx)

      • Merilee
        Posted June 27, 2016 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        And thanks for reminding me of Goldbug, which has been languishing on my shelves for eons. I did read Powers’s Prisoners’ Dilemma last year, and it was excellent. Too msny good books to get to!!!

        • bric
          Posted June 27, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          The Goldbug Variations is the only book I have come across with a reference librarian as heroine. Apart from Bach and Poe it encompasses genetic coding and information theory. Quite a read.

        • bric
          Posted June 28, 2016 at 5:06 am | Permalink

          Paris Review interview with Powers here:

          “The loneliness of writing is that you baffle your friends and change the lives of strangers.”

  56. Posted June 26, 2016 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I try to write a few words about the books I have read here. They are mostly (“popular”) science books that everyone can read and understand. There are some more technical books too.

  57. Posted June 26, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Ok, I thought of a suggestion. Last year I read and reviewed The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. It may not be something Jerry would find an entertaining read, but there are some aspects he may find interesting. It is a saga of three generations of an Egyptian family from the First to Second World Wars. There are aspects of colonialism, independence, generational clashes and clashes between sexes as well as some interesting characters and events. But there are two aspects Jerry may find interesting. The first is that, while the family is outwardly a fairly conservative Muslim family, Mahfouz lifts the lid on an underground Cairo full of alcohol-fueled parties, drug use, adultery, prostitution and even homosexual affairs that the male family members partake in. The second is that a central character is a bright young man, expected to become a Muslim scholar, but is exposed to Darwin and Russell and Enlightenment philosophers and becomes agnostic if not atheistic. Mahfouz is, I think, still the only writer who wrote in Arabic to have won a Nobel Prize for literature but is controversial in the Muslim world for the skepticism contained in his stories. I believe some Muslims have argued that if Rushdie deserved a fatwah, then surely Mahfouz does too. One interesting side note – if you read these novels in English, you may be reading a version edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her career as a book editor.

    • Posted June 27, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Mahfouz is very good. I’ve read some other books by him which are quite critical of Egyptian life. Thanks for suggesting the trilogy. My favorite by him is “Children of Gabalawi”, which is a fictional “history” of the three Abrahamic religions. That’s probably what brought about an attempt to assassinate Mahfouz, that and his defense of Salman Rushdie.

  58. Mike
    Posted June 27, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    At the moment I’m reading S.P.Q.R., by Mary Beard, I,ve loved her Documentaries on Ancient Rome ,and the Book which covers a millenium of Roman history is a good read. Another good read is The Tyrannicide Brief by Geoffrey Robertson, about John Cooke the man who prosecuted Charles 1st and suffered greatly as a result,as a Republican, its a subject close to my heart.

    • bric
      Posted June 27, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Strongly endorse recommendation of SPQR, in particular Ms Beard’s ability to tell a story but also point out that the stories ‘history’ has accepted may well not be the right ones (on Cicero and the Cataline conspiracy for example). I had just read Tom Holland’s ‘Dynasty’ which covers much the same ground, but as historical fiction: in fiction there is no room for equivocation so Holland must choose a line. Read both.
      NYRB review of both books –

      If you are a fan of Professor Beard (and who isn’t?) don’t miss her 10 appearances on ‘In Our Time’

      the most recent were Spartacus (6/3/14)
      Romulus and Remus (24/1/13)
      Roman Satire (22/4/10)
      The Augustan Age (11/06/09)

  59. Posted June 27, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I’m going through the huge stash of unread books in our library and considering a novel, Kusamakura, written by Natsume Soseki and translated by Meredith McKinney.

    • bric
      Posted June 27, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Soseki’s first novel was ‘I am a Cat’, a satire on the Meiji fascination with Western fashions and ideas narrated by a disdainful cat

      • Posted June 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I noticed that on the inside flap, and am intrigued.

  60. Posted June 27, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I recently reread (while considering what to get next) _Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of Rene Descartes_. This is a modern, non-hagiographic biography by R. Watson. (No “Saint Rene Descartes” as the author puts it.)

    It does contain one very minor error (at least) which is sadly amusing, alas, but it is still worth reading.

    I also recently read _Prophets and Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present_, which is slightly out of date, not having the recent change in ruler. It is also a bit uncritical (not *so* bad; it isn’t sugar coating, for sure) of the current regime, and also relies on the Islamic tradition for the early history, which is likely wrong, given how these things go, but …

    Finally, does anyone have a good reference for Dalton? Some CFI friends and I were wondering if there is a collected works I’ve missed. (The _Norton History of Chemistry_ suggests that a lot has been lost somehow.)

  61. Mark Loucks
    Posted June 27, 2016 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I am currently reading Calamity by Brandon Sanderson. It is the third in his reckoners series. Sanderson is a fantastic scifi fantasy writer. His books are all entertaining with engaging characters and are just plain fun.

    I just finished THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS by M. L. Stedman. There are a lot of great Australian authors, and she is one of them. The light between the oceans is an excellent study of good people making one bad choice which not only affected their own lives, but the lives of many others. This was not a nice subject, it made me cringe, however I think Stedman nailed the emotions involved and the reactions of people in the surrounding society to the circumstances. This is well worth reading.

    Staying on the Aussie kick for a moment, read anything by Colin Cotterill. He has two mystery series, the Dr. Siri Paiboun set in late 1970’s Laos, and follows the career of an old communist surgeon who gets roped into heading the new communist government’s medical examiner position. Cotterill has obviously spent considerable time in Laos and the country is one of the this series characters. THe other is newer and follows ex-Bangkok journalist Jimm Juree as she adjusts to living in a small town along the southern coast of Thailand while solving mysteries.KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT exposed the enslaving of Burmese refugees with humor and tragedy.

    I am an avid reader and could go on for hours…David Weber, Steven Saylor, Bernard Cornwell all excellent reads. Michael Connolly writes fantastic detective thrillers which are quick entertaining reads.

    I also read a lot of non-fiction.

  62. Posted June 28, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks – I added Denying History to my reading list.

    I’m still stunned by Holocaust denial. I’ll never forget when I first heard about it. I was probably 22 or 23 (I’m 49 now.) I’d never once heard anyone say something so asinine. Then I was visiting an Uncle (Korean war vet – German dude – go figure) with my dad. Out of the blue he went off on this nutty tangent, and my dad joined in (WTF?) My uncle actually had these little subversive publications (cheap, seedy looking things) that purported to provide mathematics that prove it was physically impossible to achieve what we actually know happened.

    I was dumbstruck at the time – literally didn’t know what to say. My father-in-law was among an army division (terminology?) that liberated a concentration camp (can’t remember which – have to ask the spousal unit) and were he still alive today, and were my uncle still alive… well, I’m pretty sure my uncle would lose his teeth.

    Denialism is, to me, dehumanizing the Jews all over again. It sickens me. But it will probably be worth a few Tums to get through this book.

  63. merilee
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Da Donald as a steak:

    can we ever enjoy steak again?

  64. Dominic
    Posted July 6, 2016 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford

  65. Posted July 12, 2016 at 2:27 pm | Permalink


    The Great Influenza John Barry, excellent

    Recent reads:

    The Painted Word Tom Wolfe, excellent

    The Gene, An Intimate History Mukherjee, only got about 50% of the way through (may return later). Not in the same class with The Emperor of All Maladies

    Paper Kurlansky, excellent

    Birdseye, The Adventures of a Curious Man Kurlansky, excellent

    Guests of the Ayatollah Bowden, excellent

  66. Leo Glenn
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I realize I’m arriving late to the party on this post, but I recently finished One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, by Peter Manseau, and I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating and beautifully written alternative history of the intersections and influences of many spiritual traditions in the creation and shaping of the U.S. I found it particularly relevant in the current, Trump-fueled climate of nativism, bigotry and xenophobia.

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