Let’s read!

Anyone who has read this weblog over the last few years has sensed my hopelessness and despair about the fallen world and in particular the American republic and Western civilization. I have told Rod Dreher many times privately that we irreligious also need our “Benedict option” in a “darkening world.” But while the Roman Empire fell due to the exogenous shocks of barbarian invasions, as well as internal decay, I feel the exogenous shock of coronavirus just exposed our societal ills, and we’re committing suicide all by ourselves.

My wife is reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. When I first heard the author, Nicholas Carr, talk about his book in 2010 on a podcast I was walking up Cedar street in Berkeley. I remember this moment so well because I laughed loudly. I scoffed. I almost dropped my iPod shuffle. Those were the days.

Unfortunately, though Carr’s book is dated, and some of the research seems tenuous, I am beginning to accept more and more of his conclusions. A few years ago I expressed some alarm at the rise of YouTube commentators. They are fine as far as it goes, but they are extremely popular and often informationally vapid.

Today, we have TikTok, where some of my younger friends admit to me that they spend hours and hours watching sequences of videos such as this.

But despair isn’t the point of this post. I’m almost done with The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century. The question then is, what do I read next? But then I thought, why just me? I haven’t done anything like a “book club” in many years. But why not? There isn’t a reason I have to march alone through the TikTok world.

So here’s the plan: I will pick a book, and read one chapter a week, and write a blog post about it. And those of you who also want to read the book can comment (if you have a blog or something you can post and I will link to that post; but who has blogs now?).

Here are some options, and I’ll let readers in the comments help choose:

The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia

Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders

The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity

Champlain’s Dream

Against Fairness

I’m open to selections outside of this list…but I would prefer something on this list unless you have an awesome idea. These are books I already own and are in my “stack” of to-reads. Also, obviously remember that books written by academics are going to be much more dense than those written by journalists and commentators, which will be “quick reads.”

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66 thoughts on “Let’s read!

  1. Greetings on this lovely Austin evening! This sounds great. I vote for “The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution”. Thanks.
    Kazimir

  2. I vote Decadent Society. Got a really good review from Tyler Cowen, and his columns are usually excellent.

  3. sucker for history, I’d vote for Autumn or Champlain.

    As others have said, we’re in the mix of a something like the reformation. It would be interesting to run that model in China — in the 19th century — and see what it looks like. Far enough removed from us that maybe people will be less emotional, and you might learn something in the process. You can’t understand spain, for instance without understanding the Carlist Wars, or modern Greece without understanding the Balkan Wars.

    Champlain looks well written and reviewed, certainly don’t know much about it, but anything that involves Henri IV is worth reading.

    I can’t say Greek Buddha would be interesting to me personally, but I’ve read too much in that area already.

    Pagans sounds interesting but I’ve read too many book on the end of the Roman empire that are disappointing.

  4. I think the most important social science book of this century so far is:

    “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” by Charles Murray
    https://www.amazon.com/Coming-Apart-State-America-1960-2010/dp/030745343X/

    It lays out the vast gulf between classes, that I believe is the core of the class conflict that powers political strife in contemporary America.

    Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis Kindle Edition
    by Robert D. Putnam (Author)–https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00LD1OQLY/

  5. The following books might not be your usual cup of tea, but I have found them all interesting, and would like to hear what other intelligent people think about them. Well, some of them are a bit of cult classics, perhaps.

    Peter Worsley, The trumpet shall sound: a study of “cargo” cults in Melanesia, 1957.

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1959.

    Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976.

    Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History, 2001.

    Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, 2010.

    Also, maybe something from R.C. Zaehner. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Charles_Zaehner (“Our Savage God”, for example, although it’s written in a bit strained tone).

  6. On a more metaphysical bent, maybe some of these:

    Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1849 – 1874.

    Nikos Kazantzakis, Ascesis: The Saviors of God, 1922 – 1944.

    Something by Olaf Stapledon, for example, “Star Maker”, 1937.

    I haven’t yet read this, but one day I intend to: Colin Wilson, The Outsider, 1956.

    Also, I would be interested about your take on J. B. Haldane’s views. Yes, he was a Marxist, but I bet many woke would choke on their morning latte if they were forced to read his essays. These can be found on a few Canadian sites.

  7. I’m interested in the history of science, so I read a couple reviews of Wootton, Guardian and FT. They made it sound like the most basic schoolboy simplification, a quantum step from Aristotle to modern science, with no mention of Archimedes or Roger Bacon. Perhaps the reviewers simply did not read the book, but I don’t want to be the first. (Actually, the Guardian reviewer does mention Archimedes: “This leads him to make some odd claims: for example, that the empirical inquiries of Aristotle into organic life or the physico-mathematical achievements of Archimedes were of qualitatively different sort from those of early modern and modern naturalists…”!)

  8. This is partially my own thought, partially a response to Max Avar above:

    The rise of YouTube commentators, TikTok personalities, Twitter stars, and other social media stars who hold themselves out as a kind of popular public intellectual has been greatly distressing, because their fan bases are often so dedicated that suggesting “I think he’s wrong on that point” or “That’s a massive oversimplification” generates intense, instinctual feelings of personal insult, as though by saying a personality someone looks up to is wrong on some point is the same as kicking that someone’s dog in the face. I had thought we couldn’t get lower than conservative talk radio or nighttime cable TV newstainment a la The Daily Show, but 20something social media stars, who ramble out a wikipedia summary about obscure or extremely well-known events while doing their makeup or playing video games and inserting snide commentary, have shown that there was still much lower we could sink.

    Yes, there are, like Max said, thoughtful commentators who do college-style lectures like Jordan Peterson (who I’m not personally a fan of, but his style is at least academic), but far too many social media and podcast materials are based mostly on whether the person’s style of speaking, dressing, appearance, attitude, whatever else, is capable of appealing to a large number of people, but not so large that the fanbase is no longer capable of feeling that their tastes are personally curated. Most figures serve the same function that a rock group or TV actor would have served for teens and 20 somethings in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

  9. @Mekal Very good description and analysis, but can you explain why wild u-tubers are more dangerous than having SJW censors bearing down on social media?

  10. Good idea, Razib, thank you.
    I’d also vote against the history of science one (just read a history of science tome) and also against the Pyrrho themed one.
    Some I suspect to be repetetitive or are unlikely to include much I don’t know (science of who we trust eg). But I’ll gladly read anything Razib chooses.

  11. Both selected titles were actually available in ebook in L.A.’s city system. I checked them out but will “return” them later today after downloading in case anyone else is pinching pennies.

    Look forward to it and hope I can keep up.

  12. @iffen

    I wasn’t really comparing the two, and obviously censorship is bad, but since you raise the point, I will suggest that youtubers, TikTokers, et al. are bad because they make society dumber, less thoughtful, and less informed, which makes it easier for the SJW censors to justify their decisions to the masses. Similar idea as Idiocracy.

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