Here’s my selection of the best nonfiction.
Full disclosure: on this page, all links to books are affiliate links. That means whenever you click on one, you’ll be taken to the relevant book page on Amazon. If you buy the book, I receive a small commission.
My nonfiction picks form a long list. I suggest that you scroll through the whole thing for maximum enjoyment (like browsing in a bookstore), or of course you can use the links below to jump straight to the category which interests you most:
Writing, reading, and thinking
Religion, belief, and sacred texts
Mythology, archetypes, and spirituality
Writing, reading, and thinking
How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published by Jody Rein & Michael Larsen (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A well-informed, well-organized, engaging, step-by-step guide to writing a proposal for your nonfiction book: the document that agents use to decide whether to represent you and editors use to decide whether to offer you a publication deal.
Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P.J. Corbett (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This college textbook, first published in 1965, is much more than a mere aid for students trying to learn how to come up with essay topics and then how to write the essay; it is a labor of love, even a cri de coeur, by a man who wants to revive the ancient and much-examined art of rhetoric. This book can be studied with great profit by anyone who wants to write effectively.
The author breaks his text into five parts:
- an Introduction, in which he defines rhetoric and presents examples of effective discourse, ancient and modern
- the Discovery of Arguments, or formulating your thesis and finding persuasive points for supporting it
- the Arrangement of Material, or how to present your points in an effective way
- Style, and examination of sentences, diction, usage, and figures of speech
- and a concluding Survey of Rhetoric, in which the author gives a brief history of rhetoric as it has affected English prose
Read my complete review of Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student on Amazon.com
The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This dense, authoritative textbook takes all of Aristotle’s teachings on logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and some of his teachings of poetics, adds some of the insights gained in the subsequent centuries, and presents it in a well-organized flow.
Sister Miriam Joseph (1898-1982) was an American nun who, inspired by a lecture by philosopher Mortimer J. Adler on the liberal arts, developed a course on the language arts at Saint Mary’s College which she called “The Trivium.” There being no existing textbook for it, she wrote her own, and The Trivium was published in 1937. And, luckily for those of us who would like to think, write, and read clearly, it’s still in print.
Read my complete review of The Trivium on Amazon.com
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This book gives you specific, step-by-step techniques to get you to read as well as possible.
First of all, who would be so presumptuous as to advise fellow adults on how to read–a skill notionally possessed by everyone who’s made it through public school? Well, Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher, longtime editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and moving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series; and Charles Van Doren, Adler’s colleague at the Institute for Philosophical Research and author of, among other works, The Idea of Progress. Observing that most of us don’t get very much out of a book when we read it, they set about to help those of us who want to, to get more.
Their method applies mostly to reading nonfiction. While they devote 2 chapters out of 21 to reading “imaginative literature”, and have useful things to say about such reading, I found these chapters to be the weakest, since imaginative literature lies outside the zone that is most conducive to their analytical approach.
But for nonfiction reading they set out a powerful, systematic method for getting the most out of a book.
Read my complete review of How to Read a Book on Amazon.com
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
I knew from an early age that I wanted to write stories, but it wasn’t till I was about 17 that I learned that there are actual methods, principles, and techniques involved in storytelling, when I received as a gift a copy of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Wow! What a revelation! I read it greedily.
Fast-forward to 1990. I was 31 and now had my own TV series, The Odyssey, in development with the CBC in Canada. My writing partner Warren Easton and I were under pressure to come up with a pilot script and 12 more stories to flesh out a possible first season of the show. We’d bought a copy of The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves and The Complete Fairy Tales of Brothers Grimm, Volume 1 to search for story ideas for our mythologically based fantasy series, but were not really finding stories that would fill our action-packed half hours. One of the CBC executives offered to let me have a photocopy of a set of notes from McKee’s workshop, taken by a fellow participant. I’d heard of McKee and so I gratefully accepted them.
Back home I started reading, and was electrified. (The notes themselves were excellent, typed by this person on a laptop and capturing most of what McKee said.) Here was everything I wanted and needed to know: genre, character, structure, controlling idea, protagonist, acts, turning points, and much, much else. McKee came across as definite and authoritative. Here was no “well, some people say this, but on the other hand other people say this other thing….” As far as McKee is concerned, the principles of sound story design have long since been established; they are simply not widely known, and he sees his task as remedying that deficit as much as he can.
Read my complete review of Story on Amazon.com
Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This is a reference book, with entries arranged in order of their occurrence in the text. Originally compiled to help students in Gifford’s own classes on Ulysses, it sets out to answer just about anything you might want to “look up” while reading Ulysses–which is a lot, and this is a big book.
For example: you’re reading the Lestrygonians episode, and you come across a mention of “lemon platt”. What’s that? Look it up in the Lestrygonians chapter of Ulysses Annotated, and you find: “Candy made of plaited sticks of lemon-flavored barley sugar.” In the next line or so of Joyce’s text you come across the mention of “a christian brother”. What’s that? It’s right here: a paragraph on “a teaching brotherhood of Roman Catholic laymen, bound under temporary vows.”
In a similar way, Gifford goes into references to the Bible, to Irish history, to Greek mythology, to references to Blake, Yeats, Wagner, and many others, to identifying the specific Dublin individuals and businesses named in the text, as well as giving full verses of the many poems and songs alluded to by Joyce, and much else besides these things.
Read my complete review of Ulysses Annotated on Amazon.com
The Epic Cosmos (Studies in Genre) by Larry Allums (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Looking at epics ancient and modern, each of the 12 essays in this collection offers deeply considered insights into the significance of epic as a literary form.
Nowadays the word “epic” is used loosely to denote various works that are large, sprawling, contain heroic adventure, or have large casts of characters. Robert McKee, in his screenwriting text “Story”, defines a “modern epic” as a story that features the conflict of “the individual against the state”. But epic is much more than this.
Aristotle, when he named epic as one of the four genres of poetry (the others being comedy, tragedy, and “dithyrambic” or lyric), defined it as a long connected narrative, in contrast with the genre that interested him most: tragedy, which was dramatic (performed) and so of greater inherent power than a narrative, which was simply told.
This book, prepared by a group of scholars at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture under the guidance of Louise Cowan (who provides the excellent introduction), aims to right the scales a bit by examining what makes epic a valuable and profound genre in its own right.
Read my complete review of The Epic Cosmos on Amazon.com
The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This thoughtful, probing exploration of how fiction is narrated will make you a better reader and a better writer.
The title’s reference to “rhetoric of fiction” makes this book sound obscure and academic, but I found Booth’s inquiry into fictional “rhetoric”–that is, the techniques used by authors to persuade readers to accept what they are reading–accessible and insightful. Starting from the old “show vs. tell” debate of fiction-writing (the relative merits of presenting action directly vs. summarizing and explaining), Booth points out that storytelling has always involved the artifice of the author’s giving the reader information, as of the inner nature of a character, that is not available to us in real life. We accept the biblical narrator’s description of Job as a man who is perfect, upright, and who eschews evil, when we would never accept any such statements made by one living person about another.
Taking examples from a variety of works, from “The Odyssey” to “The Decameron” to “Emma” to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“, Booth shows how writers’ approaches to narration have evolved to the 20th-century situation of authors’ attempts to efface the narrator altogether and give the impression that the narrator is not providing any point of view at all (Booth thinks this effort hasn’t exactly worked–at least, not without large and perhaps unintended tradeoffs). A recurring touchstone in the book is Henry James, who Booth feels is a particular master of the subtleties of narration and its authority.
Read my complete review of The Rhetoric of Fiction on Amazon.com
The ancient world
Hellenistic civilisation by W.W. Tarn (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A keen-sighted overview of a turning-point in the development of Western civilization, by an author with deep knowledge of the period.
I wish I’d got this book sooner, for it has provided me with a better orientation than any other work I’ve consulted for the period in which my own work in progress is set: the Hellenistic age. The name itself is not ancient; it was coined by the German historian J. G. Droysen in 1836 to denote the period following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, and ending about three centuries later. Scholars differ as to when to place that end-date, but a commonly accepted one is the date of the Battle of Actium, 31 BC, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and gained supremacy of the Roman world, making it effectively into an empire. From that point on, historians speak of the “Roman” period.
Read my complete review of Hellenistic civilisation on Amazon.com
Archetypal Images in Greek Religion: 3. Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence by Carl Kerényi (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This brief, richly illustrated monograph offers deep insights into the mythology of the archetypal physician.
Whatever brings you to the study of Asklepios, if you’re seriously interested in the topic you cannot afford to pass over this volume. It provides a cogent, subtle, and profound discussion of the myth of Asklepios based on Carl Kerenyi’s long, passionate investigation of Greek mythology.
If you’re already familiar with Kerenyi’s work, then you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from this volume, which, though numbered 3 in his Bollingen Series, was actually the first published. In his preface you’ll read about Kerenyi’s ideas on mythology, on which he was one of the greatest authorities of the 20th century. His views stand distinct from those of other major authorities such as J. G. Frazer, Robert Graves, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell (to name a few). He sees myth-making as a distinct mode of creative thought, not to be reduced to other types of human activity, and he believes that authentic mythologems from widely different times and places can illuminate each other. Thus Kerenyi regards Goethe as one of the great mythical thinkers of modern times, and occasionally Kerenyi will refer to the insights of Goethe and others to help elucidate obscurities in Greek myth.
Read my complete review of Archetypal Images in Greek Religion: 3. Asklepios on Amazon.com
The Roman Conquest of Italy by Jean-Michel David (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This dry but fascinating book shows how and why ancient Rome transformed painfully from one city-state among many to hegemon and then capital of the Italian peninsula.
The special and rare virtue of this book is that it examines the underlying causes and motivations that brought Rome first into conflict with its neighboring peoples, then, ultimately, into a state of mastery over them. More than other ancient-history books I’ve read, it gives a sense of Rome in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC as a society in process of change–changes which were as often as not forced on it. David shows how the evolution of the Roman Empire was neither smooth nor inevitable.
He starts with an overview of the peoples of Italy, all different from each other, many of whom were still organized in rural village structures rather than as cities–from Gauls in the Po Valley to long-standing Greek colonies in the south. The most important shock to the system was the Second Punic War, when Rome was barely able to survive Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in 218 BC. It was Hannibal’s political shrewdness as much as his military prowess that enabled him to woo many Italian peoples to his side, forcing the Romans to take steps to secure their own alliances.
Read my complete review of The Roman Conquest of Italy on Amazon.com
Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews by Avigdor Tcherikover (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
The author’s depth of learning and keen deductive powers make this book a treat for anyone interested in the Hellenistic period.
Victor Tcherikover made a career out of studying the Jews in the Hellenistic era, and this text exudes authority in every sentence. The book is divided into two parts: “Hellenistic Civilization in Palestine” and “Hellenistic Civilization in the Diaspora”. In each of these he develops his account by describing the world in question before moving on to addressing important puzzles that have exercised scholars over the decades. In Palestine the question is about the order and causes of the events surrounding the Hellenistic reform of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC; in the diaspora the question is about the status of Jews in Alexandria.
In both cases, but particularly in Palestine, Tcherikover finds convincing answers to the outstanding questions (such as “Why did Antiochus IV decide to ban the practice of Judaism in Palestine?”). He does this by examining all the information without prejudice, and then challenging some common assumptions. With innovative ideas such as reversing the order of two events, everything falls into place and a whole series of events becomes clear, motivated, and convincing.
Read my complete review of Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews on Amazon.com
Religion, belief, and sacred texts
A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Editor) (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy by Rainer Albertz (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A deeply researched and well thought-out examination of how Israelite religion evolved in response to social, political, and economic changes.
I bought this volume because I had already read volume 2 and really liked it. I decided to begin with volume 2 because it covers the period closer to that of my own epic in progress, and I thought that volume 2 was so good that I wanted to go back to see what events led to the initial conditions of volume 2 (which takes up the story at the beginning of the Babylonian exile), but also just to enjoy the way the author fits the pieces of the puzzle together.
I was not disappointed. After a chapter in which the author discusses the history of research into “Israelite religion” (a term chosen with care to distinguish it from the religions of the “Hebrews,” the “Canaanites,” and others), he launches into an examination of the religion in the period before the state, that is, until around 1000 BC. According to the author, Israelite religion arose from a collision between two social groups: one, the “Exodus group,” consisted of a relatively small band of refugees from forced labor in the Nile delta led by a charismatic rebel named Moses; the other, much larger group was formed by people who had come to occupy the hill country of Palestine, having decided to abandon life in the cities of Canaan. Both of these groups were actuated by a desire for freedom and social equality, but it was the Exodus group that had an encounter with the god Yahweh, who was seen as their liberator and savior in their escape from Egyptian domination. Yahweh, in throwing off their overlords and leading his people to safety, acted as a warrior-chieftain would have done, and established himself as unique among gods in associating himself with a people and not with a place (the theology of Zion as the abode of God would come much later). The message of Yahweh as liberator and champion of equality found ready ears among the people of the Palestinian hill country, and when the still rudimentary cult of the nomadic Yahweh was augmented with the existing beliefs and practices of Canaanite religion still held by the hill people, Israelite religion was truly born.
Read my complete review of A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: Volume I on Amazon.com
Jesus the Man: New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls by Barbara Thiering (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This technical, meticulous, expository work of New Testament scholarship is the elephant in the room for all who wish to believe that the gospels are literal documents that portray events that actually happened as described.
My introduction to the idea that Jesus survived the Crucifixion (apart from seeing Ray Bradbury spitball a scenario for it on a TV talk show in the 1970s) was in 1994 when I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, a book subsequently made even more famous in the frenzy around Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It was July in the Colorado Rockies, on one of two days off during an 11-week Buddhist seminary, and while other students were off hiking or making town trips, I spent the hot afternoon in the great dining-tent, hunched over my paperback. I knew I should stop reading, but I couldn’t. The idea that Jesus had not only survived, but had had children to perpetuate the royal dynasty of Israel–a dynasty that has survived–was too electrifying.
Fast-forward to January 1996. I was perusing my local bookstore (an excellent place run by a Korean couple, now long gone, alas), when what should I find but this book by Barbara Thiering. As soon as I realized what it was about, I knew I had to have it. I bought it, started reading, and again became electrified.
Read my complete review of Jesus the Man on Amazon.com
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This classic on the experiential aspects of religion is as fresh, relevant, and authoritative as when it was published in 1902.
The qualities of James’s mind made him superbly well equipped to write a book such as this, for as a thinker he was penetrating, perceptive, objective, skeptical, candid, courageous, and open-minded. He was also deeply read in philosophy and science, and expressed himself with clarity and humor.
The book is composed of a series of talks James gave as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and covers the key experiences and attitudes that we tend to call “religious”: the sense of the “reality of the unseen”, for example, and the feelings of sin and beatitude, as well as conversion, saintliness, mysticism, and the relationship of philosophy to religion.
James treats all these phenomena with interest and respect. His attitude is scientific and impartial, and from these lectures it is not possible to tell where his own spiritual convictions lie.
Read my complete review of The Varieties of Religious Experience on Amazon.com
The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
If you read this sweeping but detailed survey, you will know more about Buddhism than most Buddhists do.
Economics and politics
The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A passionately felt and forcefully argued–and prescient–defence of liberalism, the doctrine of individual freedom that is opposed by all collectivists, whether of the left or right.
Lacking a liberal education, I was slow to come to an appreciation of political science and economics. To me, “political science” seemed like a contradiction in terms, like “military intelligence”; and economics seemed like a field that used jargon and equations to study the least interesting aspects of life: employment and finance. I never dreamed that economics could be exciting until I read Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs in 1986, when I was 27, on the recommendation of a coworker. And I didn’t really come to be excited by political theory until I got myself a set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and discovered that a number of the Great Ideas that the editors had identified were political ideas: Aristocracy, Citizen, Constitution, Democracy, Government, Law, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Revolution, State, Tyranny, and, possibly, War & Peace. Now in my 50s, I started digging in.
Friedrich Hayek, born in Austria-Hungary in 1899, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, but his two doctoral degrees were in law and political science, and he states in his preface to The Road to Serfdom that his book is a work of politics. It was written and published in Britain, where he was now a subject, while World War II raged. Hayek had witnessed the rise of Nazism first hand, and so was in a stronger position than most of his fellow Britons, even apart from his educational background, to perceive the parallels in thought between the UK and other Allied countries of that time and in Germany in the years leading up to and following World War I.
Read my complete review of The Road to Serfdom on Goodreads and on my blog
The Capitalist Manifesto by Louis O. Kelso (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This mature, rational examination of what kind of economy a modern democracy needs to have is even more relevant today than it was in 1958.
I bought this book in 2010, a well-worn hardback that had belonged formerly to the University of Keele (“withdrawn from stock” is stamped faintly over the bookplate). I guess not enough people in Keele were borrowing it. But they should have been: for this is a work of cogent economic and philosophical analysis of the growing predicament of the United States, and, by extension, all other developed industrial economies. That predicament, as the authors see it, is that the form of capitalism that has evolved there is fundamentally inconsistent with a free and democratic society, and if things are simply allowed to progress along the same path, this inconsistency must eventually produce a society that is entirely unfree and undemocratic. That is, it will produce a totalitarian socialist state–a state in which all political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite, as was the case in the USSR at the time when these men were writing, and as is the case today in countries such as Cuba and North Korea.
Read my complete review of The Capitalist Manifesto on Amazon.com
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Paperback by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A lively account of the application of the methods of science to a field where politics, philosophy, and ideology usually reign.
I was put onto this book by an ecologist friend who really liked it, but who laughed as he said, “The economists think that they’ve just discovered the scientific method!” He was referring not to the authors, but to those who have been going ga-ga over this book.
He’s got a point. At the same time, I can see why economists and others concerned with elevating the world’s poorest people from their poverty might go ga-ga over this book and its implications. This is one time when I think that a book’s extravagant subtitle–“a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty”–is not overblown.
The authors, two high-achieving young economists, set out to test a number of poverty-alleviation policies and programs, using the scientific technique of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) across many poor communities in 18 countries (as I recall). For example, asking why it was that more people in malarial regions of Africa did not acquire and use treated bed-nets for their children, the authors set up a number of experiments in which these bed-nets were made available to different villages in different ways and at different prices, from free to full market price. In doing this they came to discover what gets more bed-nets over more beds, and thereby saves more people from malaria. They performed many other such tests across a range of issues affecting poor people, such as education, health care, insurance, and banking. In setting up these RCTs they worked closely with local aid organizations, and they also talked with many people in the poor world. Their book is replete with fascinating case studies of poor people living their lives.
Read my complete review of Poor Economics on Amazon.com
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by Ludwig Von Mises (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
One of the most important books of the 20th century, not yet as influential as it deserves to be.
I was brought to this book in 2009 after a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with “expert” explanations being offered for the various financial and economic calamities that seemed to be happening worldwide. Economic commentary by journalists and pundits struck me as being opaque, partisan, and contradictory. Gradually I had become interested in the ideas of the so-called Austrian school of free-market economics, and eventually I decided to take the plunge and read its principal text, Human Action.
I was bowled over. In the first place, the title, Human Action, intrigued me. As a category this seemed to extend far beyond the bounds of what I thought of as economics, and indeed I was right. Von Mises founds his argument on a little-known 19th-century discipline called praxeology, or the science of human behavior. While psychology is the study of human thoughts and feelings, praxeology is the study of human actions. To be alive is to be continually in action, doing things. Why do we do what we do? What guides our actions? What motivates us?
Read my complete review of Human Action on Amazon.com
A Study of History (Volume 1) by Arnold J. Toynbee (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This first volume of Toynbee’s 10-volume investigation of how civilizations arise, flourish, and die provides a fresh and exciting panorama of the whole terrain of human history.
The first reference to Toynbee’s work that I can recall was in Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God series, where Campbell, who as a young man had been a big fan of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, makes a rather dismissive remark about Toynbee, whom he sees as being too attached to a Christian viewpoint. Looking at other references and reviews, I see that dissing Toynbee seems to be an accepted practice, almost a consensus.
But so far, I disagree. Toynbee is a great thinker and a great writer, and his ideas deserve careful consideration.
I decided to read Toynbee when my own research into the epic genre (especially reading the excellent The Epic Cosmos edited by Larry Allums) had brought me to see epics as being essentially about the birth or transformation of societies. What exactly is a society or civilization? What are its boundaries, its defining features?
Read my complete review of A Study of History (Volume 1) on Amazon.com
A Study of History : The Growths of Civilizations (A Study of History, Volume 3) by Arnold J. Toynbee (buy from Amazon.com)
Once a static, primitive society has responded to a certain intensity of challenge, it shatters the “cake of custom” and begins to change—to differentiate and develop. If the conditions are right, it begins to grow. But what are those conditions, and what exactly does it mean for a society or civilization to “grow”? In this third volume of his mighty Study of History, first published in 1934, Arnold J. Toynbee sets out to answer these questions.
According to Toynbee, the phenomenon he calls Challenge-and-Response continues to operate. The challenges to societies come from two main sources: the physical environment and the “human environment”—other surrounding societies. A challenge that is successfully met produces a change in society that can be called growth. For example, in our own Western civilization, which Toynbee calls Western Christendom, an early challenge to the scattered and disorganized society that existed after the collapse of the Roman Empire was the pressure of barbarians to the north and east of Western Europe, and the response that was created was the set of social, political, and military institutions that we call feudalism. The feudal system remained in place until further challenges provoked further innovations by Western Christendom, which in turn constituted further growth.
Read my complete review of A Study of History : The Growths of Civilizations on Amazon.com
A History of Technology: Volume 1: From Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires by Charles Singer (buy from Amazon.com)
This richly illustrated 1954 classic is still illuminating and authoritative.
In the early 1950s the British company Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. agreed to underwrite the production of a 5-volume history of Western technology, written by experts in the various fields covered. The result was a rich, detailed, and exceptionally well-informed work that has stood the test of time.
Volume 1, “From Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires”, takes us from the earliest archaeological records from the Paleolithic Age up to about 500 BC. The book is organized in seven parts, starting with the “Basic Social Factors” underlying human technology, such as chapter 1, “Skill as a Human Possession” by Kenneth P. Oakley, which contrasts human tool-use with that of animals. The other six parts are:
2 “Food-Collecting Stage”
3 “Domestic Activities”
4 “Specializing Industries” (including domestication of plants and animals)
5 “Utilization of Metals”
7 “The Preparation for Science” (includes writing, measures, and mathematics)
Each of these parts contains from 3 to 7 chapters written by various authorities.
Read my complete review of A History of Technology: Volume 1 on Amazon.com
A History of Warfare by John Keegan (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Taking issue with Clausewitz’s contention that war is an extension of politics, the author makes an absorbing and thought-provoking survey of the history of armed conflict, and provides a rich context for the military problems that face us today.
The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 by William James (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
The Principles of Psychology, Vols. 1-2 (2 Volumes in 1) by William James (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This 1400-page work in two volumes, published in 1890, is probably the best single survey of psychology ever written.
The work is of imposing size, but James covers such a wide field, so thoroughly and so engagingly, that to my own surprise I read both volumes cover to cover, back to back. The two volumes comprise 28 chapters, including “The Functions of the Brain”, “Habit”, “The Stream of Thought”, “Attention”, “Association”, “Memory”, “Imagination”, “The Perception of Reality”, “Reasoning”, and “Will”–to name just a few that I found the most fascinating.
James’s reasoning is sharp and subtle, his writing clear and vigorous. The qualities of his own mind, which come through in the prose, are astonishing: he is both skeptical and open-minded, deeply versed in the existing literature, and an original and fearless thinker. He must have been a fantastic prof.
I was a little afraid that the age of the book would make it antique, with fusty 19th-century notions that have long since been disproved. Not a bit! With few exceptions, the material is as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1890. Even the material on brain physiology and function, an area where the 20th century can claim to have made some progress, was sharp, perceptive, and interesting.
Read my complete review of The Principles of Psychology on Amazon.com
The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
A prominent psychologist, knitting together the elements of Jung’s psychological theory and some new elements of his own, shows how the great cycles of world myth depict the hard-won development of ego-consciousness in humanity, and how this development is recapitulated in each individual’s life.
Twenty-six years ago, when I first read this book, Jung’s ideas were much more popular than they are now. In this era of cognitive science and its focus on the physiological underpinnings of psychology, there doesn’t seem to be room for Jung’s collective unconscious, its archetypes, and their polymorphous manifestations in myth and symbol. But this, I think, is more a matter of fashion than any reflection on the quality of Jung’s thinking, which was vast, deep, and bold.
Neumann, a student of Jung, with erudition comparable to that of his teacher, synthesizes Jung’s ideas into a unified theory of psychology around his own new concept of “centroversion”, his name for the integrative force of the organism–its survival instinct in the widest sense. He shows how ego-consciousness–the self-aware “I” of the modern human being–is the preeminent organ of centroversion, and that, like other, physical, organs, it has had its own evolutionary history.
Read my complete review of The Origins and History of Consciousness on Amazon.com
Ideas and education
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Volume I: Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens by Werner Jaeger (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
An impassioned, authoritative, and in-depth account of how the character-shaping ideas of education and culture developed in ancient Greece, and how the civilization’s first educators were its poets.
I forget how I first got to hear about this book. Probably it was offered by the recommendation engine on Goodreads or on Amazon. I was already acquainted with the Greek word paideia from reading the works of Mortimer J. Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Adler himself had written a book with that word in the title: The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Published in 1982, when Adler was 80, it is a call for sweeping change to the American educational system, from elementary school to postsecondary learning. The vision of Adler and his colleagues is to wrench public education away from vocational training, which it had largely become even in 1982, and toward the ideals of liberal education. He and the other members of the Paideia Group believe that this is the only way to save American democracy.
As he puts it in chapter 1: Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy–not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.
Here in British Columbia, where I live, the issue of education is often in the news, usually in the form of conflicts between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers Federation–the teachers’ union. They have fought over things like who is to determine class sizes. What’s never in the debate, at least not that I’ve seen, is the question of what education is for. What is the aim of our education system? Usually it’s assumed to be employment: putting our kids in position to get “good jobs.” Our universities are now almost entirely vocational schools: law, medicine, accounting, engineering, forestry, and so on. Adler was strongly critical of this approach. Vocational training does not teach us how to be citizens of a free democratic society–the society that we live in, or like to think that we live in.
Read my complete review of Paideia on Goodreads and on my blog
The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto by Mortimer J. Adler (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This short manifesto gives a cogent overview of what public schooling should be setting out to achieve, the rationale for doing so, and how to get started.
In doing some research on education in the ancient world, I made a search of the word paideia on Amazon, and this was one of the books that came up. I’ve been a fan of Mortimer J. Adler for a few years now, and I was reminded of how I’d already intended to read this book sometime. So I bought a copy.
I’m glad I did. This crisp little print-on-demand paperback makes a powerful and impassioned case for the urgent need of reform in the American public-school system (the book was published in 1982). The argument is presented in four parts:
the role of education in a democracy
what form public schooling should take
what are the best ways to learn and to teach
what form postsecondary education should take
Read my complete review of The Paideia Proposal on Amazon.com
The idea of justice by Otto A Bird (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
This short monograph sets out to clarify—not to resolve—the ancient idea of justice and thereby enable the reader to recognize and compare different arguments on and appeals to it.
The Idea of Justice was one of five such monographs created by the Institute for Philosophical Research in the 1960s under the guidance of the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler. (The others were The Idea of Freedom, The Idea of Happiness, The Idea of Love, and The Idea of Progress.) They are all Great Ideas, as identified by Adler in his Syntopicon to The Britannica Great Books of the Western World series published in 1952. Through the 1940s Adler and his Britannica team compiled a list of the greatest books in the Western tradition and made an inventory of the idea content of the entire list—in effect, the main ideas discussed by the greatest writers in the Western tradition.
The approach taken by the Institute was unique. While Otto A. Bird was the author of The Idea of Justice, this book, like the others, was a collegial effort of the Institute as a whole, in that the ideas and drafts were circulated and discussed repeatedly among the team before the book was published. The intention was to expunge any bias or personal editorial viewpoint on the part of the author. And while it’s not possible to achieve this, their method brought them as close to this ideal as can be done.
Read my complete review of The idea of justice on Amazon.com
The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon – I (Angel To Love) (Vol. 2 of Great Books Of The Western World Collection), edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins & Mortimer J. Adler (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
The 2-volume “Syntopicon” of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, providing a survey and a concordance of the Great Ideas treated in the remaining 51 volumes of the set, is itself one of the most important works of the 20th century.
One of the criticisms I’ve read of the Great Books series is that it is little more than a “reading list” of important works of literature. That criticism might have some justification, if it were not for the Syntopicon, which orients the reader to the content of the Great Books, breaking down the entire set into its 102 component “Great Ideas”–the key topics addressed by Western literature as a whole since its inception.
As Robert Maynard Hutchins was editor in chief of the Great Books series as a whole, Mortimer J. Adler was editor in chief of “The Great Ideas”, the 2-volume Syntopicon. During the preparation of the series, Adler worked with a staff of up to 72 people, combing through the Great Books to identify and locate the main ideas contained in them, and distilling the result into a final list of Great Ideas, listed alphabetically from Angel to World.
Read my complete review of The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon on Amazon.com
Guitar Fretboard Workbook by Barrett Tagliarino (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Finally, after plugging away for 18 months on Barrett Tagliarino’s Guitar Fretboard Workbook, I’ve completed exercise #59, the last in the book (except for a “final project” he leaves you with at the end), I can report on my experience with it. I would say that thanks to this book, my guitar-playing has improved more in the last 18 months than it has in any comparable period since I bought my Sigma acoustic guitar in 1977. Speaking for myself, Mr. Tagliarino’s objective in writing this workbook—helping me gain much greater understanding and mastery of the guitar fretboard—has been achieved.
I’m a hobby guitarist who belongs in that vast category usually termed “intermediate”. My training on the guitar consists of periods of instruction with four different private teachers for periods of between a month and a year each, and whatever I was able to pick up from those few people I’ve played music with over the years. In this I’m probably like the great majority of guitarists, and my knowledge of the instrument is accordingly patchy. Indeed, my knowledge of music theory is probably better than most guitarists at my level of ability due to the fact that I had a friend who shared a lot of what he was learning when studying composition, plus I just like theory of any kind and seek it out.
Still, did I know exactly what an F-sharp minor 11th chord was, and could I construct it from scratch? Did I know exactly how to use the terms “major”, “minor”, “augmented”, and “diminished” in their various contexts? If I knew where the root note was on a string, could I quickly locate, say, the 6th for that scale? I can do those things now, and much else besides.
Read my complete review of Guitar Fretboard Workbook on Amazon.com
Mythology, archetypes, and spirituality
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
One of the most important books of the 20th century, Campbell’s breakout text transformed the word myth from denoting something antique, primitive, and false into one signifying those stories and images that express the deepest and strongest forces that underlie our lives today, as they always have done and always will.
I first heard the name of Joseph Campbell in 1979, during my three-month flirtation with university education at UBC. My English prof was a passionate enthusiast of Campbell, and did his best to get his students to attend a lecture that Campbell was giving on campus (I believe the topic was Dracula). I never went (drat!), but I see from my disintegrating copy of the Bollingen edition of The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I bought it in December that year, which proves that Dr. Whitehead did eventually get through to me. Thank heavens he did.
I’ve read the book four or five times, and my copy is heavily highlighted. As I flip through it now I see it’s time to read it again. Oh boy!
Read my complete review of The Hero with a Thousand Faces on Amazon.com
Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential by Caroline Myss (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
If you want to make your life more meaningful and more fulfilled, this book gives you a powerful and specific means to do it.
I was introduced to the concept of archetypes by reading Jung back in the late 1970s and early 80s. I found the idea powerful and provocative, like all of Jung’s ideas, and much more attractive than what I could understand of other psychological theories, which all seemed depressingly reductionistic. (One of the reasons I avoided studying psychology at the University of B.C. was that its psychology department appeared to be, at that time, focused on behaviorism.) Jung faced the spiritual dimension of life as an important, indeed the most important, psychological reality, not as a mere neurotic compensation for repressed sexual urges, or whatever.
In this book Caroline Myss, although she does not base her approach on Jung’s ideas, does make use of the concept of archetypes, introducing a much larger menu of them as a way of recognizing aspects of ourselves. Sacred Contracts pushes further in the direction opened in Myss’s earlier books, Anatomy of the Spirit and Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can, moving from the issue of healing ourselves of chronic illness to the broader task of healing our lives by discovering and living the purpose for which we were born.
Read my complete review of Sacred Contracts on Amazon.com
Journey Without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha by Chogyam Trungpa (buy from Amazon.com / Amazon.ca)
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier (buy from Amazon.com /Amazon.ca)
If you have the aptitude to read full-strength science (the book is targeted at microbiology students), you will find this very affordable volume to be clear, complete, detailed, and well and richly illustrated.
This book (which comes with a guarantee, right on the cover, that it will improve your grades in 30 days or you get your money back!) is thoughtfully organized and covers all the main areas of microbiology, from cellular chemistry to microbial metabolism to genetics to applied microbiology to how disease works to the immune system, and much else. Each of the 29 chapters concludes with review questions, a self-test, and detailed answers to the review questions. This book is serious about boosting your command of microbiology. The author and publisher have done everything in their power to improve your knowledge (and grades) short of sitting your exams for you.
Each chapter is lavishly and clearly illustrated with blue-and-black drawings and diagrams. I’m looking at chapter 18, Nonspecific Defenses of the Host, about the nonspecific immune reponse. The drawings so far have been a closeup of the structure of the skin, with about 30 different types of tissue clearly labeled; a diagram of phagocytosis, or how a phagocyte ingests and digests an invading microbe; a diagram of margination and emigration, or how phagocytes can stick to the walls of blood vessels and roll along them till they find an intercellular crevice to squeeze through to get to infected tissue; a diagram of the fever response; and I see six more diagrams in the remainder of this chapter. They’re all excellent–and that’s just one chapter.
Read my complete review of Microbiology the Easy Way on Amazon.com
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