Category Archives: Books I Recommend

A Few Things I Recommend Reading

I find it difficult to write blogposts these days, mainly because every time I form a coherent thought I want to express, something else crazy happens and makes whatever I was about to say seem suddenly irrelevant. I frequently find the current state of my country and the world infuriating and/or terrifying, although I am still optimistic about the future, at least most of the time.

Since I can’t seem to write anything of much use, I thought I would just link to a few things other people have written that I have found most informative, explanatory, and otherwise helpful.

First on the list has to be Timothy Snyder’s indispensable, pocket-sized book, On Tyranny. I’m glad to see it is a bestseller right now. Everyone should read it.

Next would be the work of Sarah Kendzior. She knows authoritarianism very well, and she analyzes, explains, and predicts clearly and accurately.

The third that comes to mind is an article I read last week that has stayed with me. It is by Adam Gopnik, published in the New Yorker on May 25th, and called Emmanuel Macron’s French Lessons for Donald Trump. Here is a brief excerpt:

“What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France — not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.”

I am hoping to remain optimistic.

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Best History Book Ever: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Everyone should read this book. Its full title is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it is exactly that, but it also somehow manages to be both a work of philosophy and a very entertaining read.

Harari writes with a clarity and wit rarely seen in academic writing, or any kind of non-fiction. Reading it is a delight, but that is not the main reason why you should do so.

Even if it were a struggle to wade through, it would be worth it for the content. In this book, millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human history are analyzed, organized, and woven into a fully comprehensible tapestry, enhanced by an original perspective.

Multiple times, during the course of reading Sapiens, I found myself thinking, or even saying to someone nearby, “I guess I knew that, but I never looked at it quite that way.”

If you, like me, are a devoted fan of history, this book won’t provide you with much new information, but it will give you a new perspective on what you know. If you think history is boring and history books are unbearably dry, this one will very likely change your mind.

In any case, every human should have some idea of what the history of humanity has been, and this is by far the best overview I have ever seen. If you read every new history book, or if you have never read even one, read this one!

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

My father owned many paperbacks by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’m not sure if he had their complete works, but it must have been close. I read them all in quick succession sometime in my early teens and developed a deep affection for them. I recently reread The Big Sleep and it was every bit as good as I remember.

There is such originality and wit in Chandler’s writing. In the very first paragraph Philip Marlowe tells us, “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” The first bit of dialogue goes like this:

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”

He packs a great deal into short descriptions, for example, “Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.” The wonderfully entertaining noir tone never flags, and the story is full of complications, with an ending that fits the characters and the world they inhabit.

For pure entertainment you can’t do better, and the level of craftsmanship is inspiring. I also love the descriptions of 1930s Los Angeles and the cultural references to that era. The movie version with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is great fun too, but if you have never read the book, you should treat yourself to the original.

You can buy it here.

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This book provided me with the most intense reading experience of my life. I know it is very famous, and most people are introduced to it in school, but when I read it I had never heard of it. I will never forget how I came across it.

I was about ten years old, and I was wandering around the house looking for something to read. Our house was packed with books, with floor to ceiling shelves in almost every room. I was the very definition of a voracious reader, consuming books like candy, and I had just finished reading something. I don’t remember what it was.

I went into my parents’ room, where my mother was making the bed. Scanning the titles on the shelves, I came across this one. Thinking it sounded just disgusting, I said aloud in my best tween sneer, “Lord of the Flies? Yuck!” My mother had the best possible reaction. She did not scold me or mock me. She simply said, completely calmly, “Actually, that’s a very good book,” and continued making the bed.

That made me curious enough to pull it from the shelf and read the back cover, and when I learned it wasn’t really about flies, but about children running wild on an island, I became interested enough to read the first page, and then I was hooked. I could not put it down. I did my chores with one hand, reading the whole time. My mother forced me to put it down long enough to eat dinner, but then I went right back to it.

I lay in bed reading long past my bedtime, but I absolutely couldn’t stop. Finally, at some point in the middle of the night, I finished the last page. I realized I had been holding my breath, so I let it out, and as I closed the book I couldn’t refrain from saying, “Wow!”

I already knew I wanted to be a writer, although I kept it more or less a secret, because somehow I didn’t think writing novels was a proper profession, but that book sealed the deal. I thought to myself, if I could write something that had the impact on other people that this book just had on me, if I could make people feel things that strongly just by putting the right words together, I would be completely happy. I would know I had accomplished something great, and I would need nothing else from life.

I suppose I was an odd, intense child, and I know I am an odd, intense adult, but for me the alchemy of writing and reading holds a kind of magic. I still dream of writing something that powerful, and maybe someday I will. William Golding certainly did.

If you don’t already have the book, you can buy it here.

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