Books Read > 2009
  1. The Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama)
  2. Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama)
  3. Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation (Olivia Judson) — Sorry, Dan Savage, but even you can't hold a candle to Dr. Tatiana. Judson's book is a highly entertaining excursion through the all-important fourth F of evolutionary biology, driven by a brilliant conceit: it's presented as a series of "advice columns" written by the eponymous Dr. Tatiana to members of species large and small, offering ironic commentary on their sex lives and advice on problems that make the worst of human love life look tame.
  4. The Meaning of the Body (Mark Johnson) — For the philosophically inclined atheist, an extended academic argument on why our status as material beings is an essential prerequisite for living a meaningful life.
  5. Discarded Science (John Grant) — A survey of pseudoscience, mistaken ideas, and superstition from ancient to modern times. A delightful, clever idea for a book with all kinds of interesting tidbits; that said, its value as a reference is dimmed by the fact that the author didn't see fit to include footnotes.
  6. Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin) — The discover of Tiktaalik summarizes the five-hundred-million-year evolution of bodies and what we can learn about our own bodies by studying those of other creatures, from fish to worms. It held my interest, though at times it seemed breezy and excessively casual when I would have wanted Shubin to go more in depth.
  7. The Atheist's Way (Eric Maisel)
  8. Job: A Comedy of Justice (Robert Heinlein) — A clever, well-drawn conceit - a protagonist wandering through a world that keeps mysteriously changing around him - but the plot takes a sharp, unexpected turn near the end of the book, and the final revelation feels arbitrary and contrived.
  9. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (John Shelby Spong) — See Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well.
  10. Why Christianity Must Change or Die (John Shelby Spong) — See Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well.
  11. Consciousness Explained (Daniel Dennett) — A weighty, comprehensive tome on Prof. Dennett's theories about consciousness, with his "Multiple Drafts Model" taking center stage. Those who brave this text will find much that is novel and illuminating, although as Dennett himself would be first to admit, there are many mysteries left to be solved.
  12. Skipping Towards Gomorrah (Dan Savage) — A lighthearted look at the seven deadly sins in America, with some genuine flashes of insight, but also several missed opportunities (I would have liked Savage to draw a lesson, in the envy chapter, from the fact that rich and poor seemingly each envy the other's lifestyle).
  13. Jesus, Interrupted (Bart Ehrman) — Ehrman provides a competent, steady introduction to the contradictions in the New Testament and other aspects of the historical-critical method that most lay Christians aren't taught about. These contradictions are well-known to most atheists, but Ehrman's authority does give them additional weight to use in citations.
  14. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) — From the master of American satire, a biting critique of religion (superstition and the church are consistently presented as the villains), contrasted with the sensible level-headedness of Yankee rationalism and Twain's own progressive views. An excellent companion to Letters from the Earth.
  15. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell) — Campbell's book is worth reading just for the invigorating journey through the boundless realms of human mythology. That said, his endorsements of Freud felt jarring and archaic to me, and I found his attempt to synthesize all the world's myths into a single ur-story to involve too many overbroad generalizations.
  16. The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien) — The Bible redone by a far more sophisticated, eloquent and creative author. It doesn't have any better of an answer to the problem of evil, however.
  17. Misquoting Jesus (Bart Ehrman)
  18. Inferno (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) — A modern retelling of Dante's epic. The authors, in trying to justify the existence of Hell, come up with a far more clever explanation than traditional Christian theodicy has ever proposed - yet one that, to my mind, still falls short in light of the horrendous cruelty they so vividly describe.
  19. The Mind's I (Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter) — An anthology of philosophical essays exploring the nature of mind and consciousness from a wide variety of authors, from Jorge Luis Borges to Raymond Smullyan. There were some truly standout, fascinating selections in here - I highly recommend it.
  20. Not the Religious Type (Dave Schmelzer) — See Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet.
  21. Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell) — A clever, pop-science exploration of the factors responsible for success. Many of Gladwell's examples struck me as overly simplistic or debatable - in particular, I wasn't convinced by his argument that the differing educational philosophies of the United States and Japan are rooted in long-obsolete agricultural practices - but there's plenty in here to inspire and provoke thought.
  22. 13 Things That Don't Make Sense (Michael Brooks) — A survey of anomalies, weird discoveries, and other things that don't make sense in the reigning scientific paradigms. Science needs books like this - this one, however, is marred by including pseudosciences like homeopathy and cold fusion alongside legitimate mysteries like dark energy in cosmology or the origin of sex and aging in evolution.
  23. What Are You Optimistic About? (ed. John Brockman) — See In Defense of Optimism.
  24. UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God (Christopher Hallquist)
  25. Religion Explained (Pascal Boyer) — A cautious, methodical scientific study of the origins of religion. Best of all, it doesn't feel the need to pay the inevitable lip service to supernaturalism that so often afflicts books of this type. We need more like this.
  26. The Preacher's Son (Marc Adams) — The author, a gay man and a refugee from an extreme fundamentalist Christian family (so much so that they viewed Jerry Falwell as a squishy liberal) provides a gripping autobiographical account of his gradual awakening and his escape from fundamentalism.
  27. The Stuff of Thought (Steven Pinker) — Despite the imposing length, this was a genuinely enjoyable excursion into the neurological roots of human language and what it reveals about the way we conceptualize the world. The chapter on profanity will have you laughing out loud!
  28. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein)
  29. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. LeGuin) — (Novel) A man whose dreams can change reality is dragooned by a sinister psychiatrist into participating in a dangerous utopian scheme.
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin) — (Novel) An emissary from a federation of human planets visits a world whose inhabitants can change gender at will.
  31. Rapture Ready! (Daniel Radosh) — A witty exploration of the strange parallel universe of Christian pop culture. Some of this, like creationist museums or the abstinence-only movement, may be familiar to the atheist reader; other aspects, like Christian wrestling or the Christian music industry, I found far more novel and enlightening. The only thing that marred the book was Radosh's simplistic conclusion that religious liberals, not atheists, can turn back the tide of fundamentalism. The liberal churches have been around for decades, and if anything, they're losing ground to the more zealous sects, not making inroads against them.
  32. Lost Christianities (Bart Ehrman) — Ehrman the agnostic Bible scholar offers a lively tour of the early era of Christianity - the numerous sects that all called themselves Christian, despite their radically different theologies; the proliferation of gospels and epistles they produced in a mutual war of words; and the means by which one particular sect became ascendant and then erased its rivals from the pages of history. I strongly recommend it as an introduction to a fascinating and skeptically useful field of inquiry.
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January 12, 2009, 10:06 pm • Permalink

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