This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)
Tag Archive: books
I just read a very interesting article about a girl who hasn’t aged in 16 years (which isn’t exactly an accurate statement, but fits well enough). The story briefly talks about how studying the girl’s bizarre condition could potentially teach us a lot about human aging, and perhaps even how to prevent it.
But I was a bit troubled when I read this:
In the long term, the idea that the aging process might somehow be manipulated raises serious questions about what human beings might do with that knowledge.
“Clearly, that’s the science fiction aspect of it,” said Walker, describing the social and ethical dilemmas that would arise. “We can’t have continued reproduction and people who don’t age.”
This confuses me, and makes me wonder why a doctor would say such a thing. Surely he has no problem with treating people medically to prolong their lives. Aging is a natural process, but so are cancer and seizures and disease. Thanks to medical science, the average human lifespan has doubled over the past 2000 years or so (I didn’t bother to look up that number, by the way). In a way, aging is just another problem with our bodies for scientists to fix.
I read a lot of books, and if I have the time or inclination, and if a book is good enough or relevant to this blog, I like to write reviews for them. However, my time is not infinite, and I have a big backlog of books to review. So rather than just let my mental list get longer and longer until I forget what’s on it, I decided to just do some “quickie” reviews, to urge others to check these books out.
In this edition:
- Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
by Dr. Edzard Ernst & Simon Singh
- How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science
by Michael Shermer
I was in Barnes & Noble just now, browsing through the science section. I came upon a book called “String Theory Demystified” by David McMahon. I’ve been meaning to find a good book that lays out String Theory and Quantum Physics in a way that even a Graphic Designer can understand, and this book looked perfect. Just 306 pages, well organized, seems well-written.
Here’s what I see on page 5:
That’s from the friggin’ Introduction. The rest of the book is filled with even more complex equations.
I’m sure the book is great, but it’s clear to me now that this is WAY over my head.
But before I talk about that, I want to talk about why that’s such a big deal for me.
One of my deepest, darkest secrets (besides being an atheist) is that I’ve been struggling with social anxiety disorder for the past several years, probably longer. It’s not something that I ever talk about, and only a handful of people even know that it’s a problem for me. Most people just think I’m shy and awkward, which of course is also true.
This problem is something I’ve wanted to write about on this blog for a long time, but it’s been very difficult for me (and you’ll find out exactly why if you continue reading). In fact, one of the big reasons why I started this blog was to help me work through my own “issues”. Staying silent hasn’t worked for me, so maybe getting things out in the open will.
This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.
The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.
Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.
The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.
No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.
I used to buy a lot of books, which I’d almost always read just once and then put on my shelf. Having a full bookcase makes me feel smart, even if most of them say “Star Wars” on the spine. However, when I went broke, I realized how much of a waste it was to buy books, and eventually remembered that I could always go to the local library for most of the books I want, like I did when I was a kid.
My local library system (the Ramsey County Public Library) has a pretty good selection (including comics, to my surprise) but their collection of atheist and religion-critical books is unfortunately limited to the big names (Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, etc.) and they don’t have any of the interesting-sounding books I’ve heard about on Point of Inquiry. (Seems like I add a new book to my “To Read” list every time I listen to a new episode.) For a while, I thought I’d have to buy the books if I wanted to read them (or even download them on the internet) but then I decided to think bigger. There’s a bigger library!
So today, I wandered out into the rain, drove into downtown St. Paul, and eventually stumbled, dripping, into the Central Library for the first time, about 20 minutes before they closed. An employee set up my Ramsey County library card to work with their system (awesome, I don’t have to carry around another card in my wallet) and I immediately came to the Non-Fiction section, where I picked up 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison, and Irreligion by John Allen Paulos. I was looking for something by Robert M. Price, but I didn’t find any in the limited time I had.
The Central Library is amazing. It’s one of those huge, old stone buildings with thick walls and dark wooden shelves. There are pillars and arches, and elaborately decorated ceilings. It feels like the kind of library you only see in movies, and except for the computers and barcodes and handicap accessibility, it doesn’t look like it has changed at all since it was opened, in 1917. I only got to see a small part of it because I got there as they were closing, but next time I’ll be sure to give myself lots of time to gawk.
The history of the library is also pretty interesting, and includes some pretty familiar names in Minnesota history – people who now have counties named after them. It was surprising and sad to hear that the previous St. Paul Public Library burned to the ground, taking 158,000 books with it.
Anyway, I’ll definitely be spending more time at that library in the future. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to check it out.
This is one of the first atheism-oriented books I read once I realized that I was probably an atheist and that it was ok to read books on the subject to learn more. If I remember correctly, it was #4, after The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (great), God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (I couldn’t get into it, even though I really liked his writing), and Harris’ own The End of Faith (mostly pretty good).
This book was written as a direct response to the criticism Harris received from The End of Faith. It’s written directly to “Christian America”, and attempts to address the biggest issues and apparent omissions from his previous book. As a result, it reads more like a conversation than a lecture, which really helps.
Though I enjoyed The End of Faith, I found Letter to a Christian Nation to be much easier to read, to understand, and to recommend to others. Harris addresses specific questions that you commonly hear when theists are questioning the atheist point of view (as they should, even though they rarely apply similar questioning to their own religion), and in a calm, matter-of-fact way.
In fact, this book seems more mellow and casual when compared to The End of Faith. This helps it a great deal, because the book can’t be as easily dismissed as the angry ranting of a “militant atheist” (a term which seems to refer to any atheist who doesn’t just sit down, shut up, and let the Christians do what they want).
The best part is that it’s short. It’s only 144 pages long (or 2 hours in audiobook form), which makes it much easier to digest for the common reader. Harris doesn’t ramble or tell unnecessary anecdotes or quote other books very often. He specifically focuses on Christianity (as if the title of the book wasn’t a big clue) in order to tailor this book to the general public. If you want to read his opinions on other religions, he covers them at great length (especially Islam) in The End of Faith.
I listened to the audiobook version on my MP3 player, which I think is a great way to go. (I’ll address my inability to actually read non-fiction in a future post.) The narrator is very good, and either believes the material he’s speaking, or he’s an excellent actor. His calm voice lacks any venom that could distort what Harris is really trying to say.
(I was just thinking…it must be hard finding book narrators who don’t have a problem with narrating an atheist book. It’s probably a good thing that they’ve never done an audiobook of Mein Kampf, because anybody who takes that job is going to come out of it sounding like a nazi. They’d have to get someone who can in no way be mistaken for a nazi, like Morgan Freeman or Woody Allen.)
The best thing about this book is that it’s actually something you can give to your believer friends to help them understand why you can’t believe in God. It specifically addresses the common Christian throughout its pages. Will it convert them? Probably not, unless they’re already on the fence. And true believers won’t be swayed by any of the arguments Harris makes, of course. But most rational believers will probably come away with a better understanding of who atheists really are, and they’ll probably never look at their own religion the same way again.
On a slightly unrelated note, I find it hilarious that someone wrote a book called The End of Reason in response to Harris’ The End of Faith. Guess they didn’t give much thought to that title, did they?
I am, by most accounts, the brokest person most people know. But being as broke as I am, I’ve learned a few key ways to save money that many people may just overlook.
1. Use the library.
This is moronically simple, but many people I know just don’t use the library. And why not? It’s free. They have nearly every book you’ll ever want, although you may have to wait a bit if the book you’re looking for is checked out or at another library. But the nice part is, they’ll hold it for you once it’s in, and if it’s at another library, they’ll bring it to the library of your choice for you. And it’s still free.
And it’s not just books. They have magazines, DVDs (new releases must be rented, but they’re far cheaper than Blockbuster), CDs, audiobooks, and shockingly enough: comics. I was very surprised to find out just how wide a selection of comic trade paperbacks the Ramsey County library system has. I quickly grabbed up the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books (far better than the movie) and picked up Watchmen on a whim (which is fucking phenomenal).
I’m one of those people who likes to have my own personal library, so I can lend books and movies and stuff to anyone, whenever I feel like it. And I do still buy books and movies sometimes, if they’re something really special. But there’s just no reason to buy most books if you can just get them at the library. They’ll probably always be there if you want to read them again or have a friend read them.
And the best part about the library is, if you see something you think you might like, it doesn’t cost you anything to just grab it and try it.
The downside? The more popular books can get kinda worn out, and if you’re not careful you can start to wrack up late fees (which are quite reasonable). Fortunately, you can renew your books online (at least in the Ramsey County libraries you can).
2. Get a Netflix subscription
There’s really no reason to buy most movies. You watch them once, maybe twice, and then you don’t think about them for years. And thanks to Netflix, you don’t even have to go to a rental store anymore. What is Blockbuster up to now, $4.00 for a 3-day rental or something? 9 bucks will get you a month of Netflix, where they’ll send you one movie at a time, and send them back to you as fast as you can watch them. If you rent or buy one or more movies each month, it’s worth the cost.
Also, they let you download some movies onto your computer whenever you want, so you don’t even have to wait 2 days for the next movie to come.
I must admit, I miss having a constantly-expanding, ever-current DVD collection. But keeping a collection costs a hell of a lot of money. 9 bucks a month is much more manageable.
3. Play World of Warcraft (or some lesser MMOG)
Sounds crazy, I know. How do you save money by playing a game that costs 15 bucks a month? Well, for starters, you spend less because you’re not buying as many OTHER games. A new game will cost you 50-60 bucks these days, and let’s say you get an average of 25 hours of gameplay out of them before you beat them. Well, WoW never ends. Even if you get a character to 70, you can still hit the battlegrounds and fight other players, duel it out in the arenas, hit the dungeons, join a raiding guild, start a new character, or just sit around and talk with your guildmates.
Also, Blizzard is constantly creating new content for the game. Major patches feature new quests, activities, dungeons, areas, and so on. They also release an expansion pack ever 1.5 years or so, but those only cost $40.
The downside, of course, is that you wind up missing a lot of good games. But if you’re having fun with WoW, who cares? You can’t play everything, and the games that REALLY stand out will be $20 in a year.
4. Buy second-hand
Half-Price Books is my store of choice for buying used media. They’ve got tons of great, cheap books, CDs, DVDs, games, and even some collectibles. If you really want to buy something rather than just use the library as mentioned earlier, just about everything you’ll want can be found second-hand. There’s no reason to buy anything for retail price, unless it’s brand new and you absolutely MUST own it.
5. Buy online
You know what traditional stores are good for? Physically checking something out before you go and buy the item online. You can find EVERYTHING cheaper online. Let me repeat this. You can find EVERYTHING cheaper online.
For example, I and some friends (you know who you are) were looking for a boxed set of 3 large, hardcover books. The store we went to was selling them for about 90 bucks. But I found it online for $41. Brand new. Last week, I decided I needed an HDMI cable. A 15-footer at Best Buy or Target costs about $80-90. I bought one online for nine dollars. NINE. Brand new. Very nice.
Of course, the trick is knowing where to look. Personally, I always check PriceGrabber first. You’ve gotta be a little bit careful though; always choose a seller with at least 4 stars, and over 500 votes. Read the reviews too.
6. Quit your bad habit
I used to go down to the local gas station at least once a day for a big-ass Mountain Dew. It was only $1 each time, but that’s $30/month, or $365/year.
I don’t even want to think about what smokers pay.
It can be hard to quit, of course. I love my delicious Mt. Dew, and I like being caffeinated. But you’ve gotta make sacrifices. And not only are drinks, coffees, and cigarettes expensive, but they’re not exactly good for you either (and cigarettes are, of course, basically poison). So you’ve gotta drop the habit. You’ll probably backslide, but don’t feel bad; just stop again. Maybe try cutting your intake by half at first, then half again and again. Special occasions are ok.
7. Buy from the fountain, not the bottle.
Ok, I know I just told you to stop drinking soft drinks. But if you must, buy from the fountain. A 20oz bottle of Dew will cost about $1.40 these days. You can usually get a 32oz fountain drink for $1.
8. Only buy fast food at Taco Bell or Wendy’s
It’s usually cheaper to cook your own food of course, but if you need to eat out, Taco Bell and Wendy’s are cheapest. Wendy’s has a pretty good dollar menu, and most Taco Bell combo meals will cost less than $5. Mind you, this shit’s not very healthy.
This sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it? Well, it works. You can’t save money on gas, so you need to find ways to use less of it. It’s nice to be able to come and go as you please, and listen to your own music and all that, but if you can work something out, do.