Books Read > 2011
  1. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) — Despite its enormous length, Rand's magnum opus isn't terrible considered purely as a work of fiction. Aside from the parts where the plot stops dead so that she can dump a bolus of exposition on the reader, it's a surprisingly enjoyable potboiler about brave capitalists taking on an evil, oppressive world government. In her world, where everyone is either a brilliant, heroic Prometheus or a greedy, bloodsucking mound of protoplasm in human form, with no in-between gradations, I'd certainly be on her side. (Whether the real world is like this is another matter entirely.) That said, it severely needed an editor; there are enough repetitive parts that its length could have been trimmed by at least a third without changing anything important to the plot. More to the point, there's nothing in it that changes my criticisms of Rand expressed previously.
  2. Trusting Doubt (Valerie Tarico)
  3. Right-Wing Women (Andrea Dworkin) — A strange hybrid of the brilliant and the batty. There are entire chapters where Dworkin launches into off-the-wall rants without making any effort to bring her readers along. Moreover, she suffers from the defect of perception common in radicals, that of seeing literally everything in the world through the lens of her own pet issue. Not everything is about sex, let alone rape. However, when it comes to the purported topic of the book - why some women choose to join a political movement that severely and consistently devalues their worth as human beings - I thought her analysis was incisive and spot-on. The best chapter was the one about her experience reporting on a women's rights convention, which was attended by delegations from conservative states sent specifically to prevent anything from being accomplished.
  4. The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris) — See Stepping Across the Is-Ought Gap.
  5. Unholy Popes (Bob Curran) — A hilarious overview of the Caligulan depredations, intrigues, and squabbles of popes through the centuries, including more than a few that the Catholic church has tried to erase from the history books. Expect to see this book referenced in future posts on Daylight Atheism!
  6. Why Evolution Is True (Jerry Coyne) — A patient, thorough, and delightfully well-argued case for the reality of evolution, which stands as a worthy companion to books like Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. Even educated readers will find it a useful reference.
  7. The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan) — How humans have shaped the evolution of plants, and how they've shaped us in turn, viewed through the lens of four species - apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes - that each appeal to a different human desire. The narrative frequently felt directionless and meandering, but plenty of great tidbits made it worth reading.
  8. Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) — Robinson's landmark Mars trilogy begins with the story of the first hundred settlers who colonize the red planet, confront the daily challenges of survival, grow divided over the question of terraforming, and as more and more settlers follow in their wake, join opposing sides in a burgeoning rebellion against the megacorporations that want to colonize Mars for profit. A grandly plotted epic on a vast scale, which is both a blessing and a curse. Robinson's detailed vision of the science was enjoyable to read, but there's little plot in a conventional, narrative sense - I slogged through endless landscape descriptions and other long sections that do little to move the story along. It picks up a little near the end, but only slightly, and one of the major events of the novel - the murder of one main character by another - is never well explained or justified in terms of character motivations.
  9. Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) — As the terraforming process begins in earnest, the survivors of Mars' original settlers go underground to lead the revolution against Earth's colossal metanationals. My favorite of the Mars books, mainly because it's the shortest and has the tightest, most cohesive plot. Even so, there are long sections that contribute little to the story and can safely be skimmed, particularly at the beginning.
  10. Blue Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson) — The leaders of a now fully terraformed Mars, some of the original settlers among them, tread a perilous path in a power struggle among the expanding colonies of the solar system. Although Robinson's science is shown in full and glorious imagination, this book has the least plot of any of the Mars trilogy. It's more like a collection of occasionally intersecting biographies than a novel, and the narrative threads meander and often peter out with no satisfying resolution. Badly needed an editor to trim and tighten the many pointless and repetitive sections, as well as a more conclusive ending.
  11. Losing My Religion (William Lobdell)
  12. The Life You Can Save (Peter Singer) — Singer's call to arms asks the hard question of why wealthy Westerners are doing so much less than they could to cure global poverty. His basic moral claim is inarguable, and those who can afford it (including me) should undoubtedly be doing more - though I'm not entirely convinced that ending poverty is just a matter of scaling up our existing aid efforts, as the next entry on this list shows.
  13. The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier) — A former director of the World Bank explains his trade-based vision for helping the world's poorest. A measured and balanced approach, though it makes clear just how difficult ending poverty is really going to be: it requires a cure to some deeply ingrained types of societal dysfunction (though I think he gives short shrift to the complementary explanation of exploitation by multinational companies and wealthy-nation governments).
  14. Creating a World Without Poverty (Mohammad Yunus) — The Nobel Prize-winning founder of Grameen explains his vision for curing poverty through microfinance and his concept of non-profit "social businesses". The author's enthusiasm and belief in his ideas is obvious, although long sections are frankly tedious and overly academic.
  15. The Black Cloud (Fred Hoyle) — The famous astronomer who devoted his career to fighting the Big Bang spins this hard-science sci-fi tale of the Earth menaced by a colossal, sentient gaseous lifeform from interstellar space. A classic that's remarkably Asimovian in its methodical and somewhat bloodless telling.
  16. Deep Future (Curt Stager) — What effect will climate change have on to the Earth over the next few tens, hundreds, or thousands of years? Stager methodically lays out the best scientific forecasts, devoting one chapter to each kind of effect under different emissions scenarios: ice caps melting, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, and more. Given the book's extremely long-term perspective, I sometimes thought he emphasized the planet's overall resilience to the detriment of the short-term dangers to human society. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to read that we may well have already averted the next ice age!
  17. God, No! (Penn Jillette)
  18. Musicophilia (Oliver Sacks) — Like other books by the great neurologist, this one is a collection of case histories, all organized around the theme of music - how it originates in the brain, how brain injury or disease can either disable it or make people more musically inclined. My favorite chapters were the ones about dementia patients who can be brought back to themselves by hearing or playing a familiar tune.
  19. Packing for Mars (Mary Roach) — The history of human space flight, both its glories as well as its (many) stresses and indignities. In the chapters about space toilets and sex, Roach's trademark adolescent giggling was on full display, as you'd expect; still, I liked this one better than Bonk, though not quite as much as Stiff, my favorite of her books.
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January 22, 2011, 10:45 am • Permalink

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