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.
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.
Rightly 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.