One of the major aspects of the year-end holidays, for me, is having at least a few consecutive days of unscheduled time. Itís important to me to take these rare breaks to decompress, reflect and do some deep reading.†I both read and write†all the time, of course, but I hate snatching 10 minutes here or a half-hour there. I relish the large blocks of quietude that allow me to fully immerse myself in something challenging and meaningful for me.†I want to be a better, smarter, more effective citizen at the end of it. So I am very careful in selecting the reading material I will give this time to.
I know our readers out there are also very passionate about activism and supporting their causes. So given time to read, say, one great book during your holiday downtime, what should you choose? Allow me to narrow it down for you a bit:
1) The Omnivoreís Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan:
“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world ó and what is to become of it.
This is a very readable book, but it overturns so many assumptions, traces out so many implications, it behooves you to give yourself time simply to reflect on what youíve learned. Good for anyone interested in environmental issues, personal or public health or a type specimen of how to investigate a complicated issue with all its world interconnections.
2) The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier:
The left needs to move on from the Westís self-flagellation and idealized notions of developing countries. Poverty is not romantic. . . . The right needs to move on from the notion of aid as part of the problem ó as welfare payments to scroungers and crooks. It has to disabuse itself of the belief that growth is something that is always there for the taking, if only societies would get themselves together.
A very challenging read, but worth it. This is the book that makes me regret not studying international development or world issues in-depth as a student. Collier takes an evidence-based, relatively politically-neutral approach to determining why some developing nations are quickly catching up to the world`s strongest economies (China and India being excellent examples), while others seem mired in conflict, poverty and misery. The†challenges are daunting, potential solutions are multi-faceted. When you read this, leave your preconceptions at the door.
3) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: Why didnít American Aboriginals conquer Europe? Yes, their seafaring technology was limited and their politics were different. But again we ask why? North Americans, Latin Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and many, many more should read this book. All of us live in societies that are the end result of a centuries-long history of colonialism, and we never think to ask why things went the way they went. Why?
Perhaps we just assume one group of people was inherently better than the other. Diamond will demolish that assumption, and more. So I say, if youíve never been curious about these issues, thatís all the more reason to read this book.
4) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs:
It is easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic . . . or immigrants . . . or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want, and to our ignorance about how cities work. The forms in which money is used for city building ó or withheld from use ó are powerful instruments of city decline today. The forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration ó from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex, and gentler change.
A book recommendation from an architecture drop-out friend of mine. Iím a city-dweller myself, but what I learned from this book is that city planning is not about prettier balustrades or better commutes. At its heart, itís the battle of decay versus regeneration. Dying neighborhoods mean crime, poverty, loss of hope. Urban renewal is such a buzzword, itís easy to forget that this is ultimately all about people. This book is Collierís Bottom Billion on an urban scale.
5) The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan:
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
If you only ever read one book remotely related to scientific thinking, this is unquestionably the one to pick. All of us find ourselves wrong about things, no matter how old we get. The only concern is being unable or unwilling to correct our missteps. I know you all want to save the world. Clear thinking will surely be a necessary ingredient in doing so.
And… what do you have to add to the list? Sound off in the comments. I’ll be reading with interest.
Photo: Guns, Germs and Steel cover, from W.W. Norton (publisher).