Recognize this title? You've seen it before—I stole it from Ctein. I've wanted to write my own take on the idea ever since his column appeared.
I can't speak for Ctein's picks, but my choices are books that will make you think as a side-effect—while you're being entertained. None of these five books are too heavy...depending, of course, on how much thinking they inspire in you. They're books that are deserving of the highest accolade my own writing ever got (from Sally Mann)—they're "tasty."
In no particular order—
Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada. (The title refers to the increasing lethality of the weapons commonly used in inner-city fights over the years.) You've probably seen Geoffrey Canada on television*—as the Founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, he's become a leading social activist and educator, and he was the kid who was waiting for Superman in the award-winning movie Waiting for Superman. Before all that, however, came this 1995 memoir about what it's like to deal with daily violence while growing up as a poor kid in the inner city (in his case, the South Bronx). Just read the short first chapter about the stolen jacket (which you can do online), and you'll get the measure of this one. It's a wonderful little book, one that I read shortly after it came out (on my brother's recommendation—hi, Scott) and have never forgotten
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton. (U.K. link; U.K. cover shown.) My favorite book yet from one of my favorite writers. The author freely admits that his title will turn off people on both sides of the debate; atheists will react by saying "but I don't need religion!" and the religious will say, "but I'm not an atheist, so this book isn't for me." But not so fast. The book is an entertaining and enlightening (and dare I say, original) look at the way religion and its institutions function at a social and emotional level to keep communities healthy. Botton, who describes himself as "very respecful [of religion] and [yet] completely impious," necessarily overlooks religion's shortcomings, and some of the "solutions" he offers in the spirit of being helpful are only remotely likely to come about. But those are quibbles here. It's a delightful short read, and if this one doesn't make you think, then...well, you're probably not a thinker. Note that I've linked to the hardcover—that's deliberate. It's a lovely little example of fine bookmaking, and you'd be cheating yourself out of a pretty little artifact for your bookshelf by reading the book (um, like I did) on the Kindle.
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen—who, by the way, looks a bit like Abraham Lincoln might have if he had grown old. This is an almost outlandishly popular book for a history title, having sold more than a million copies since 1995. Intellectually, it's like candy. Just a treat. Every nation has it "mythos"—the inspiring lore that props up its power structure and unifies its citizens, like the "fact" that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree as a boy and then refused to lie about it to his father**—and there's nothing wrong with that on the face of it; peoples and nations need their stories. But the truth behind the stories is often far more fascinating, and, not surprisingly, reflects human nature with greater authenticity. (Note that the readers' reviews on Amazon run on arguably longer than the book itself, and contain every conceivable slant on interpretation. I suggest you just read the book yourself instead; it's easier, and much more fun, and afterwards you can make up your own mind.)
Montaigne: Essays, translated by John M. Cohen. (U.K. link.) Sarah Bakewell's brand spanking new biography of Michel de Montaigne, How to Live, which I loved, has ignited a brushfire of interest in the French philosopher and writer, inventor of the essay and type genus of the reflective introvert. And that got me to thinking about reading Montaigne. Screech, in England, and Frame, in America, are considered the standard translations, and although of course I have the 1300-page Frame tome (doesn't everybody? I can't conceive otherwise), which is always described as "contemporary," it's actually pretty creaky, being as old as I am (vintage 1957), and Frame tries to respect the somewhat unfamiliar diction of Montaigne's 16th-century French. Like most people, I read several of the essays in school, and acquaint myself with one or two more from time to time, and then put the brick back in place up on the shelf. So I did a little readin'n'research, and concluded that the best volume for actually reading Montaigne is John M. Cohen's Penguin Books selected works. Cohen's English has an easy fluency that I find good to read, and, let's face it, you really don't need to read all of Montaigne to get a good idea. Better to read Cohen's selections and Bakewell's biography together. Frame's language, admirable though his translation undoubtedly is, seems halting and a bit opaque by contrast.
Our Inner Ape by Frans de Waal. (U.K. link.) The author looks at human nature through the prism of primatology. Some readers complain that he anthropomorphizes chimpanzees too much, although that might just as well be a function of human beings' extreme reluctance to associate any of our own honored feelings and impulses to animal behavior and instinctual programming. Theory aside—this is a popular book rather than a scientific one—the renowned Dutch ethologist and primatologist is a facile and entertaining writer and a fine storyteller, and at the very least you'll come away from this book having "met" the bonobo as a distinct cousin of the chimps (and of ours), and with a heightened sense and appreciation for the drama of the lives and societies of these amazing creatures. (If you can read the famous story of Luit without emotion, you have a steelier heart than I.) He also really does make you think about our animal nature—however you come down on the issue in your own mind. Not the last word on human nature—what is?—but a rewarding (and thought-provoking) read for sure.
*Apologies for linking to a right-wing conservative show***.
**Itself an invention, made up by a popular biographer of Washington, Mason Locke Weems, after Washington's death.
***UPDATE Monday the 3rd: 'Kay, so here's the joke. The Colbert Report, the source of that interview link, is a liberal show, but the premise of the show (and the source of much of the show's humor) is that the host is a right-wing demagogue. On the show, part of the gag is that Stephen Colbert, the host, always stays in character. So what I'm doing here, y'see, is continuing the gag, by pretending that I think The Colbert Report actually is a "right-wing conservative show." If I had really linked to a right-wing conservative show, I wouldn't have apologized for it. Because that wouldn't have been funny. Are we clear now? It wasn't my intention here to insult anyone. My mistake, to assume that everyone would know the premise of that show. Incorrect assumption, it turns out.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Dave: "Great list Mike. Lies My Teacher Told Me has been on my night stand for over a year. Maybe I'll finally pick it up. While your on the subject of books that make you think I'd like to suggest Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Nonzero really changed the way I think about world history and human relations. To me, Nonzero was just as big of a mental bombshell as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel."
Featured Comment by valerie: "Have you seen Sacred Economics? Charles Eisenstein...if not check it out!"
Featured Comment by Ed Kirkpatrick: "Might I suggest, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt? 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction; 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Couldn't put this one down...."
Mike replies: Great minds think alike; it's on my bedside table.