Thoughts about Reading (and my updated Book List)

In this post, I will first link to my updated book list (recommended reads) with brief reviews for Becker’s Birth and Death of Meaning and The Denial of Death, and a shortened review for Tallis’ Aping Mankind. I also want to express here some general thoughts about the process of reading and how one might go about choosing a good book.

Physician (web)

There are few things I enjoy more than reading… it involves expanding one’s view and enhancing what can be seen. In a world of illusions, the power of an enlightened perspective is as emotionally evocative as it is intellectually stimulating. It is an awe inspiring experience to have a complicated puzzle of previously disperate parts find unity through knowledge and insight. And yet the accumulation of true knowledge is a process and not a destination – we should aim to never be satisfied with what we know.

Those who are wise, will also be careful to prevent their unconscious longing, for absolute and permanent ideas, from betraying the need to remain open minded. A wise person is capable of entertaining the possibility that their view of reality might be wrong, and they never fully develop their ideas to the extent that they become doctrine.

I was always fond of that quote by Churchill: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” It seems to me that our world is not lacking in fanatics – intelligent fools professing their absolute Truth and knowledge. Ideas that challenge theirs must be angrily ridiculed and dismissed, before they rehash the same old diatribe over and over and over again. It has been said that ‘a wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool because he has to say something.’ This proverb is painfully accurate. It has also been stated that ‘a fool loves to teach; a clever man loves to learn.’ And yet, most of us do not want to learn, as Otto Rank observed when he said that the world is not lacking in Truth, but rather that “there is an overproduction of Truth that cannot be consumed

But enough of that – lets get back to the task of reading for the purpose of true edification. I could not agree more with this quote by Thomas Carlyle: “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.” But how do we choose the ‘right’ collection? Well, if you seek true knowledge, it would appear with great difficulty. I will share with my readers my own process. First, let us recall that every area of specialty, be it history, philosophy, science, or psychology, has its overarching theories and sub-paradigms. As discussed in this video post, theories are initially based on either assumptions or argued reasons, and seldom objective data or evidence, as it is often believed. Keeping this in mind, I tend to trust books written by authors who seem to demonstrate some awareness of their own assumptions with regard to their conceptualization of the topic at hand. Conversely, I will typically dismiss anything that sounds like an ideological polemic.

ReadingRightly or wrongly, I also tend to be very suspicious of ‘popular’ books. Why? Well, if you’ve been following along in my writings, you will get a sense that most human beings desire psychological equanimity more than rational truth. As such, people tend to gravitate toward ideas that fit within our cultural assumptions, or more rarely, new or recycled ways of thinking that nonetheless fulfill the needs of our collective unconscious. I have argued recently, for example, why popular science books are trending toward Darwinian heroism, as a possible replacement of traditional religions. So the books that tend to be mass consumed are often, though not always, working within assumptive frameworks that subtly distort reality and truth, rather than reveal it. And despite my concerns about intellectual works written by technical ‘experts,’ framed for example, by a restricted worldview incapable of grasping the whole, it also seems reasonable to be suspicious of authors of books that claim to present some grand or unified hypothesis for the sole reason that few intellectuals are truly capable of such feats. The reason being, again, is that we tend to gravitate toward restrictive intellectual communities with a ‘preferred’ literature that make it hard for us to entertain alternatives – a unified thesis is at increased risk of being a distorted one, though of course this is not always true. I prefer not to let others do my thinking for me, so even when an insight or unified interpretation is presented, I prefer to go back to the original sources or areas of study to explore any controversy that may exist there.

Okay, so here is my process for finding a good academic book. It is quite involving, but so is the time, effort, and energy that goes into reading a book. First, I look for an area that I want to become more knowledgeable about, though this implies knowing what it is that you do not know, something that I explored in a previous post. Remember that in order to see the ‘big picture’ we need to expand our knowledge to include areas such as biology, history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on. I might acknowledge an area that I do not know much about – say, the French Revolution, Bayesian epistemology, or the neurophysiology of emotion. I then do an amazon.com search for books related to my topic of interest.

When I consider a book, I first want to determine whether I might be the target audience. For reasons mentioned above, I tend to avoid anything that sounds like pop-science fluff or a little too ‘layperson friendly.’ I want to know that the author is writing for the intelligent and discerning reader. If I find a book that has been heavily reviewed (e.g. more than 25 reviews), I first look at the distribution of the reviews. Are they almost all negative? If so, I likely skip it. Are they mostly positive? If so, that’s a good start. But I won’t even bother reading the ‘5-star’ or ‘1-star’ ratings. Why? Because a book is seldom either perfect or a disastrous mess. Perfect reviews tend to be given by those whose theoretical worldviews are vindicated by the book, while extremely low ratings are usually given by those whose preferred theoretical paradigms are in some ways threatened by what has been written. No, first I want to look at what the rest have to say, paying careful attention to the ‘2-star’ ratings first. Do the criticisms make valid points or arguments, or do they ring hollow, suggesting that they might have an agenda or axe to grind? If the latter appears true, I then look at the three- and four-star ratings. Can I get a sense as to what people are reacting to, both positive or negative? Based on this, and my interest in the topic at hand, I will make a carefully reasoned decision to purchase the book or give it a pass.

As an aside, I must also say that I have a bad habit of buying more books than I can read at one time. It is embarrassing to admit that some books have sat on my shelf for over a year without being read. I guess some just get picked up and put back down depending on my mood or the perceived intellectual urgency of the book… some get started, some don’t. Most of the time I will be reading two or three at a time – usually a work of fiction, then something in either history, philosophy, or science/psychology. As reckless as that sounds, it seems to work for me. Figure out what works for you – and if you have some secrets to share, please do.

10 Responses to “Thoughts about Reading (and my updated Book List)”

  1. Alicia Says:

    “As an aside, I must also say that I have a bad habit of buying more books than I can read at one time. It is embarrassing to admit that some books have sat on my shelf for over a year without being read.”

    Oh Brad, that is the story of my life! I have bought so many books and I never read them, despite my love of books and reading! I’m always doing university work, so I usually wait til April/May to read a book, but I am late on my reading list as is. I usually read fiction because I like to dissect what my subjective meaning of the novel is and analyze the book. I received a Kobo ereader from my mother for my birthday last year and I love it! I have downloaded A LOT of free ebooks so I am able to have a lot of books and not have them take over my room! As I said weeks ago, I will be reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich on it. The stupid thing is, I recently saw it at a thrift store for less than I had bought it last year on ebook! Oh well!

    Anyways, I have had books that I have had for years and have not read. Same goes for movies.

    Brad Reply:

    Good to hear I am not alone!

  2. Simon Ashton Says:

    Ive just ordered Man Beast and Zombie by K Malik that you have recommended elsewhere, thanks for the tip.

    Brad Reply:

    You are very welcome – I don’t think you will be disappointed.

  3. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    Flew over Halifax yesterday at about three in the afternoon. I looked for you, hoping to spot the hat, but, from 36,000 feet I’m afraid I couldn’t really make any kind of a reliable identification. Read this upon arising today…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/07/health/psychiatrys-new-guide-falls-short-experts-say.html?src=recg

    Thought you might enjoy it.
    All the best
    Mrs. N.

    Brad Reply:

    Thank you for thinking of me – I always seem to miss these articles. I hope you enjoyed your trip and look forward to reading about it.

    It is nice to read that even those on the ‘inside’ are starting to question this work of fiction called the DSM. In my view, they come to the correct conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

    “Dr. Insel said in the interview that his motivation was not to disparage the D.S.M. as a clinical tool, but to encourage researchers … to disregard its categories and investigate the biological underpinnings of disorders instead.”

    Of course they miss the point… investigative neuroscience is not the solution. We need to stop pretending that ‘depression’ is caused by underlying biology in the same way as ‘tuberculosis’ or ‘cancer.’ At least part of what causes what we label as ‘mentally disordered’ (not to mention how we label it) are sociocultural. Until we come up with a causal model that fully incorporates that part of the puzzle, we will fail to understand what it is to be human.

    Mrs. Neutron Reply:

    I’m with you Brad. Have you read “Strangers to Ourselves” (Discovering the adaptive unconscious) by Timothy D. Wilson… ?[Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia]

    I started reading it in the plane.
    http://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Ourselves-Discovering-Adaptive-Unconscious/dp/0674013824/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368230007&sr=8-1&keywords=strangers+to+ourselves

    Brad Reply:

    No, I haven’t read it but it looks good and the reviews seem very positive. I might have to check it out. Let me know what you think when you are done.

  4. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113176/science-loneliness-how-isolation-can-kill-you#

    Just read this. Thought you might be interested. I was particularly struck by the statistics regarding gay people in-vs-out of the closet and their biological response to the AIDS virus. How many times do we see the devastating, across the board, health repercussions in our patients caused by culture that forces them into a loneliness caused by having to hide who they really are?

    Brad Reply:

    I absolutely agree. I am a bit skeptical about how broadly the author seems to define loneliness and some of the research used that I have learned to be highly suspicious of (e.g. whether monkey loneliness is the same as human loneliness, evolutionary explanations, and the estimate regarding the purported genetic basis of loneliness). That said, the take-home message is I think spot on. Humans need intimate connections to survive and early relationships with caregivers are important to ensuring we develop the capacity to emotionally relate to others. In fact, if I had only one question I could ask any of my therapy clients, to get a sense as to who they are as people, it would be this: “when you were a child, and you felt as any kid feels from time to time: upset, hurt, or especially sad… would you have gone to anyone?” The response to this question, in both content and form, verbal and nonverbal, seems to tell a very important story about how a person views intimacy and vulnerability.