Books Read > 2008
  1. The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens)
  2. What We Believe But Cannot Prove (ed. John Brockman) — A collection of over 100 bite-size essays from influential scientists and philosophers speculating on God, free will, alien life, language, evolution, and many more. Best, to my mind, was the spine-tingling essay speculating on a possible connection between the languages of the Indonesian island Flores and the "Hobbit" human species recently discovered there.
  3. Bones, Rocks and Stars (Chris Turney) — A brief but information-dense and richly detailed book on the methods scientists use to determine the ages of ancient objects. Starting with ancient kings and Egyptian pyramids, it moves progressively farther back in time to the emergence of humanity, the extinction of dinosaurs, and the age of the Earth. Importantly, Turney doesn't overlook the relevance of this work to creationism. Some of the chapters were confusing - especially the one on astronomical dating of the pyramids, which badly needed some pictures - but his explanations of dendrochronology, varves and isochron dating are some of the best I've read.
  4. Riddled With Life (Marlene Zuk) — A breezy, but addictively readable account of the many ways parasites and diseases have shaped the course of evolution, a la Carl Zimmer.
  5. The Mind of the Market (Michael Shermer)
  6. Good Germs, Bad Germs (Jessica Snyder Sachs) — A solid, well-referenced account of human beings' interactions with bacteria, less breezy and more serious in tone than Riddled With Life. The meticulously detailed section about the microbial jungle living inside the healthy human body is not for the squeamish or for hypochondriacs, and the chapters about the evolution of antibiotic resistance and virulence are frightening, but the author closes with a persuasively reasoned and optimistic argument that the solution lies not in eradicating all bacteria, but in restoring the natural balance by dosing ourselves with helpful varieties that can outcompete harmful ones.
  7. Irreligion (John Allen Paulos) — A mathematician debunks twelve common arguments for the existence of God. The book is brief, almost pamphlet-like - to my mind, in fact, it was too brief. Chapters like those on the ontological argument or the argument from prophecy could have used more detailed refutation. On the other hand, there's some puzzling digressionary material, like ruminations on the "Brights" or an imaginary instant-message conversation with God, that seems off-topic to the book's main point.
  8. 40 Days and 40 Nights (Matthew Chapman) — A great blow-by-blow account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design trial and the events that led up to it, spiced with plenty of entertaining anti-fundamentalism editorializing. One caveat: The author's lack of a science background means that most of the scientific material presented at the trial gets only a cursory treatment.
  9. I Am a Strange Loop (Douglas Hofstadter) — A discourse on the role of self-reference and recursion in consciousness. Throws out a lot of marvelous and thought-provoking ideas, though it raises at least as many questions as it answers. The earlier chapters are somewhat self-indulgent, and have an annoying tendency to repeat the same points over and over. The last section of the book is more tightly focused and much better overall.
  10. The Virtue of Selfishness (Ayn Rand) — A mad rant against a strawman. In the very beginning of the book, Ayn Rand constructs a definition of "altruism" that differs drastically from the commonly accepted one — that altruism means throwing away your own life for the benefit of strangers — and then spends the rest of the book railing against this definition without ever explaining exactly who holds this view. See also Three Objections to Objectivism.
  11. The World Without Us (Alan Weisman) — A fascinating and wide-ranging account of the changes humanity has wrought upon the Earth, written through the lens of a very clever conceit: If we were all to disappear tomorrow, how would the world transform as nature reclaimed the artifacts of our civilization, and what would be the longest-lasting remnants of our presence?
  12. God's Problem (Bart Ehrman) — Bart Ehrman, a lifelong and fervent believer, former pastor and trained New Testament scholar, was persuaded to leave the faith and become an agnostic by the problem of evil. In this book, he charts the various theodicies offered by the Bible and shows how each of them fails to overcome the dilemma. His deeply personal account of his deconversion, in my opinion, was actually more compelling than the book's delving into biblical minutiae.
  13. Sweet Dreams (Daniel Dennett) — Essays on the nature of consciousness. At times it gets densely technical, but there's also one of Dennett's best explanations yet on the nature of his "Multiple Drafts Model" (also called "fame in the brain") which attempts to explain what it means for an idea to be held in conscious attention.
  14. Miracles (C.S. Lewis) — More of the same. Lewis' basic arguments are: we can't be rational unless our minds are supernatural; you can't prove that miracles don't happen; but anyway, no religion other than Christianity really has any important miracles; and finally, Christianity's miracles just feel true, don't they? Not impressive. See also the review on Ebon Musings.
  15. Great American Hypocrites (Glenn Greenwald)
  16. The Missionary Position (Christopher Hitchens) — See Shattering the Myth of Mother Teresa.
  17. On Witchcraft (Cotton Mather) — Mather, one of the ministers who took part in the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, wrote this pamphlet to argue for the existence of witches and justify his own role in fomenting the trials. A chilling first-hand account of the terrors which religious hysteria and theocracy can bring. Notable for his paranoia about continual demonic attacks and his scriptural argument for why the world would end by the 1800s.
  18. Blind Faith (Richard Sloan) — On the mixing of religion and medicine: in clinical trials of faith healing, in pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control, and other, more subtle and insidious methods. Written in a clinical, textbook-like style, but packed with useful information - a great reference book. Especially good is its devastating dismantling of faith-healing trials, showing the rampant methodological flaws in nearly all of them.
  19. Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
  20. The Paperback Apocalypse (Robert Price) — Christian apocalyptic writings from past to present. The first few chapters present a speculative and, honestly, somewhat dubious interpretation of the origin of apocalyptic thought in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The latter half of the book, however, which discusses Christian apocalyptic fiction of the 20th century (Left Behind is just the latest in a long line) is tremendously entertaining. Price has great fun dissecting this stuff, and it shows.
  21. The Intentional Stance (Daniel Dennett) — A compendium of philosophical papers on Dennett's model of consciousness and intention. It has its bright moments, but by and large it's extremely technical. Recommended mainly for the expert reader.
  22. Doubt: A History (Jennifer Michael Hecht) — A magisterial history of religious doubt, dissent and freethinking from the ancient Greeks to the modern day. Readers who can get past the book's admittedly intimidating size will find treasures on nearly every page, showing that doubt has been alive and well in even the darkest of dark ages. I learned an enormous amount from this book and will use it often as a reference - strongly recommended.
  23. The Caged Virgin (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) — A set of essays, comprising some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's speeches, interviews and policy papers on the role of Islam and feminism in modern life. More practical and less personal than Infidel, but there were still some deeply affecting parts.
  24. The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins) — In a sweeping epic that travels from human prehistory to the dawn of life itself, Richard Dawkins leads readers on a pilgrimage to our own past. Along the way, we meet up with more and more distantly related species at the ancient branch points where our lineage diverged from theirs, and learn about their ways of life and what messages they have for us about our evolution. This book is a treasure trove for the diligent reader.
  25. Taking on the System (Markos Moulitsas) — Not a political tract, but a handbook for members of any activist movement seeking to win society over to their point of view. Although the advice tends to the general rather than the specific, there are enough useful tips in here to light a fire in the soul of any would-be radical seeking to challenge the powers that be.
  26. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (Andre Comte-Sponville)
  27. Brainchildren (Daniel Dennett) — A series of papers on artificial life and artificial intelligence. Less technical than The Intentional Stance, though still recommended for the expert reader. Downside: Some of this is now fairly dated.
  28. Moral Minds (Marc Hauser) — Surprisingly, a disappointment. Although I've heard Hauser speak on several occasions and he always has something new and interesting to present, this book was immensely tedious, burying its good examples under reams of redundant philosophizing and taking way too much time to establish the obvious. This book sorely needed some good editing - its length could have been cut in half without seriously impairing any of its major points.
  29. The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell) — A clever, tightly written argument outlining the circumstances in which trends and other memes can spread like wildfire through society. Plenty of good examples and well worth reading. (Especially for bloggers looking to gain in popularity!)
  30. The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
  31. A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah) — Although I was expecting a harrowing account of life as a child soldier, my skepticism started to tingle at some narrative coincidences that seemed too convenient (e.g., after wandering in the jungle for months, Beah returns to his family's village just in time to witness the rebels destroy it, then hides in the bushes and overhears them boasting about how they killed everyone there). Subsequently I discovered that others have raised questions about the book, to be met with stonewalling by Beah's publisher. Although I don't doubt that such tragedies happen, I suspect this story may be a fictionalized composite rather than a chronicle of one person's experience.
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January 12, 2008, 8:13 pm • Permalink

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