Portland Book Haul

Portland Book Haul January 5, 2019

Book haul! And you thought atheists only read memes.

I visited Portland, Oregon for the first time just after the holidays, and I went berserk in Powell’s bookstore. (Thanks for the gift card, Sharon!) For the record, we atheists do read books, just books about religion written by atheists.

But Powell’s had so much more, and I’ll be reading these and providing feedback here throughout the new year. Check out my book haul, carefully curated by several cups of awesome Portland coffee at nearby Cheryl’s on 12th:

The Myths We Live By – Mary Midgley

The British philosopher, who just passed away in 2018, had always been a voice of sanity in a world of easy answers and glib scientism. This was her 2004 manifesto, taking on the secular attitudes that attempt to objectify and dehumanize us the way religious ones used to.

Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality – James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky

Here’s a new title whose authors take on attempts to provide a science of morality. It promises to be a critique of scientific overreach and presumption gone wild.

The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard

Australian-born novelist Hazzard (1931-2016) wasn’t a prolific author but was very well respected. Transit of Venus is a saga of many places, stretching from the Fifties to the Eighties, that was praised for its literary elegance and depth.

Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Wait, I thought it was myths we live by! Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant and many articles on the different approaches to language of liberals and conservatives. This book studies the many ways we use metaphor to define our reality and how we relate to each other.

The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge – Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann

“What is real? How is one to know? Isn’t the mere title of this shameless Shem-bait?” ask the authors, who go on to examine the processes by which society creates and reinforces our shared concepts of reality.

Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions – John Gray

The iconoclastic author of Straw Dogs continues his attack on the pieties and certainties of our supposedly enlightened age. In Gray’s estimation, knowledge doesn’t make us free, it isn’t error or ignorance that stands in the way of a better world, and atheism is nothing but a Victorial fossil. Hey! Smile when you say that, Johnny boy.

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

I just read Sinclair’s hallucinatory Radon’s Daughters this past year, and I’m ready for more of the British author’s “crazy, dangerous, prophetic” (in the words of Angela Carter) prose poetry. This novel of ideas deals with a film crew making a documentary around the Thames during the Thatcher era. In Sinclair’s hands, I assume, it will be about everything else too.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge – Jean-François Lyotard

This was the French philosopher’s influential screed describing the death of the meta-narrative. Gee, I didn’t even know it was sick.

Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues – Edited by Martin Curd and J. A. Cover

This massive Norton edition is an anthology of essays on the ongoing controversies in the philosophy of scientific inquiry, such as objectivity, explanation and the demarcation between science and pseudoscience. It contains offerings by the usual suspects like Popper, Quine and Kuhn, as well as from prominent contemporary philosophers like Helen Longino, Nancy Cartwright, Philip Kitcher and many more. I predict it will be fodder for many posts here at Driven To Abstraction.

The Culture of Make Believe – Derrick Jensen

Last but not least, here’s an immense book that asks whether hate groups are anomalies in a society ever progressing toward sanity and justice, or whether human society is just geared to making hatred, warfare and slaughter more efficient and acceptable. This looks like a very profound examination of historical and philosophical issues that are as disturbing as they are crucial for the future of our planet.

Has anyone read any of these books or authors? What are you folks reading in the new year?

(n.b. The bottle is a Collusion Imperial Stout by Portland’s Baerlic Brewing Company, a gift from my beer snob brother-in-law John. Yes, I finished the beer before I finished any of the books.)

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  • Michael Neville

    I’ve just finished reading Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves. the third of the Locke Lamora books. It wasn’t as good as the second book Red Seas Under Red Skies which wasn’t as good as the first book The Lies of Locke Lamora. Lynch is a good writer and can weave a decent plot. But his characters aren’t changing regardless of what happens to them and his world-building is rather slap-dash. Plus there’s just a bit of deus ex machina with the bondsmagi, wizards shouldn’t be that good.

  • Thanks for the recommendation! I don’t read as much fantasy as I used to.

  • Michael Neville

    Right now I’m reading Margaret MacMillian’s The Road to 1914: The War That Ended Peace. I alternate between light reading and serious books and MacMillian wrote a serious book.

    MacMillan begins her book with an account of the major players (France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and Austria-Hungary) to illustrate their national hopes and dreams pitted against their fears and suspicions and introduces the reader to the primary individuals who helped shape national policy. She then looks at the psychology of war and the peace efforts and compares them to the militarism that each nation experienced. She describes how the new concept of public opinion helped drive the leaders towards certain decisions. Next she looks at the series of run ups to the Great War’s outbreak, Morocco, Bosnia, the Balkan Wars, and even the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife. None of these events meant that war was ultimately inevitable. So long as there were at least some key players willing to negotiate and work through differences, war could be avoided.

    I’m only halfway through the book but I suspect that MacMillan will end up blaming everybody and nobody for the war. So far she’s shown that Wilhelm II, while having the personality that modern day people would call a “jerk” (or worse), had a way of standing down at the last minute. Granted, he was fascinated with all things military, and he took seriously the role of Supreme Warlord of Germany, but he did not set out to bring war upon the world as he has often been blamed for doing. His attempt to get von Moltke to stop the invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium at the last minute is evidence of this.

  • I’m into Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and will probably also get The Life of the Mind and her assertedly best work, The Human Condition. I got Origins to see what Trump is, totalitarian or mere dictator. Apparently, so many people are asking the same question about Trump that a new edition of Origins had to be published after the prior edition was sold out. (My opinion: Trump is a dictator, not a totalitarian)

    Three other short, but great books to consider:
    1. Peter Berger’s 1963 masterpiece, Invitation to Sociology. This little mind blower makes it painfully clear just how social humans are and how powerful society really is, most all of the effects being exerted unconsciously. This book can and should change how people view the human condition and the role of society in shaping perceptions of reality and the reasoning people apply to what they think they see, true or false.

    2. Edward H. Levy’s little 1949 gem, An Introduction To Legal Reasoning is another mind blower. Levy, a legal scholar and former US attorney general, lays out the basis for American legal thinking in terms of a flexible realism theory. The origins go back centuries, but the idea is that law needs to keep up with changes in society, technology and commerce and it does so in incremental steps. What also jumps out, but not discussed in the book (remember, it was 1949), is the basis for modern culture war using the courts to impose the conservative ideal of society on America. The war is legal formalism of Scalia and others vs legal realism of Levi and others.

    3. Also mind-blowing is Edward Bernays short 1923 book on the power of propaganda, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Bernays, a Jew, was so good at propaganda that the German propaganda machine in the 1930s and 1940s looked to Bernays as their teacher. Bernays, seen by many as one of 100 most influential people of the 20th century, almost single handedly converted America from a needs based society to a desires based society. He single handedly conned American women into smoking cigarettes by selling them as ‘torches of freedom’ and falsely synonymous with female emancipation. Bernays was one a few propagandists who coaxed a reluctant American public into sending US troops into the misery and slaughter of WWI.

    Of the three, Berger and Bernays are the most stunning reads, but Levy is pretty close. All three are written in lay, non-technical language and thus easy and fast to read.

  • What a coincidence that I picked up Berger’s Social Construction of Reality and you mention his earlier title!

    Thanks for the recommendations.

  • Ann Kah

    Just promised myself to reread Transit of Venus, one of my favorite books…

  • I’m looking forward to that one!