The Bookshelf

Books on Politics, Economics, Society & Culture

By Daniel Quinn: Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael; Beyond Civilization; Providence

Daniel Quinn is my favourite author. If you are interested in the history of the human species, how humans lived prior to modern civilization, the development of civilization, the nature and development of fundamental beliefs, values and practices shared by over 99% of humanity today, religion, economic systems, and societal structure, Daniel Quinn is an absolute must-read. I recommend reading the books in the order that I have listed. If nothing else read Ishmael.

By Robert Persig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values; Lila: An Inquiry into Morals

In terms of favourite authors, Persig is a close second to Quinn. Like the books of Daniel Quinn, Persig does a great job discussing deep philosophical issues in a very humanized and easy-going fashion. In ZAMM (Zen and the Art of…), Persig reflects on the history of Western philosophy, the fissure between the Arts and Sciences in the academic world, the world at large, and in individuals, and he provides insights regarding the nature and relationships between mind and external reality that would later become core fixations of the cognitive sciences and philosophy. He also makes occasional reference to core ideas in Zen philosophy, offers meaningful and often actionable insights regarding day-to-day living and how societal changes were having profound effects on individuals’ ability to find meaning and satisfaction in their day to day lives. I could not recommend this book more strongly. While all of this is happening within the protagonist’s mind, outside of the mind he is on a cross country motorcycle trip with his troubled son and friends. Persig makes masterful use of his and his travel companions’ experiences on the trip as a metaphorical backdrop on which to consider the deep issues he has on his mind. The novel is further humanized by Persig’s considerations of his own personal struggles. I cannot recommend ZAMM strongly enough.

In Lila, Persig carries his unique style of blending narrative of unusual life events with philosophical inquiry, this time looking into moral philosophy. As with ZAMM, part of what makes Lila interesting is how it considers timeless philosophical issues with reference to changing cultural practices and views of the time period.

By Ronald Wright: A Short History Of Progress

An overview of the development of modern civilization as well as the development and failure of other civilizations (e.g., Greeks, Aztecs, Incas).

By Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything

This is a non-economics book written by an economist and a journalist that applies core economic concepts to help understand interesting everyday and societal issues. How do crack gangs function? (Answer: A lot like McDonald’s and Walmart). Is it really in your real estate agent’s best interest to see that your house sells for as much as possible? (Answer: No). Do Japanese sumo-wrestlers deliberately lose matches? (Answer: Yes). Why did US crime drop in the 1990s? Was it improved policing? Better social conditions? (Answer: No and no. It has something to do with a Supreme Court decision from the early ’70s that continues to be a leading political issue today). Other issues addressed include insurance rates, how the Internet has encouraged the reduction in insurance rates by arming consumers with more information, how the No Child Left Behind policy actually gave teachers a very strong incentive to help their students cheat, and how some of the cheating teachers were caught.

By Charles Wheelan: Naked Economics: Undressing The Dismal Science

A non-textbook introduction to economic concepts and reasoning.

By Michael Lewis: The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine

A multi-narrative investigation into the causes of the US sub-prime mortgage collapse, from the perspectives of many different players that contributed to the creation and violent popping of the mortgage bubble, sending a riptide through the global economy.

By Niall Ferguson: The Ascent Of Money: A Financial History Of The World

Ferguson provides a historical overview of the evolution of financial systems. This was the first economics book I had ever attempted to read and it assumed more knowledge than I had. So I only ended up reading about 1/3 of it. Eventually perhaps I’ll finish it now that I’ve read a few other books to brush up.

By Eric Tyson & Tony Martin: Personal Finance for Canadians for Dummies

Useful, actionable information for Canadians looking to be smart with their money in the short, medium and long runs.

By Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman: Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy Of The Mass Media

A highly detailed investigation of how the structure and interrelations of American politics, media and business inherently discourage honest and rigorous journalism and foster media that panders to and protects politicians and many powerful organizations and people from having to be accountable to the public.

By Barry Glassner: The Culture Of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid Of The Wrong Things

Glassner, a sociologist, shows how news media, politicians, advocacy groups and others have caused people to fear the wrong sorts of things and generally be more fearful than they used to be, despite the fact that there is objectively less reason to be afraid.

By George Orwell: 1984;  Animal Farm

Great books that provide sobering insights into the nature and potential nature of individuals and societies.

By Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

I probably would have enjoyed this book more if the ending hadn’t been spoiled for me in advance. Nevertheless, an interesting book that uses analogy to reflect aspects and potential aspects of real world culture in the industrialized world.

By Douglas Coupland: Generation X; Generation A; jPod

I have not enjoyed Coupland nearly as much as some people seem to. Generation X investigates the substantial generation gap between the Baby Boomers and their children, showing how the work world for Gen-Xers differed significantly from that of their parents, that the expectations that had been fostered in Gen-Xers by their parents and society with regard to their professional potentials had often been grossly exaggerated, and how the two generations often have a difficult time understanding each other. This was a decent book that I think I would have enjoyed more if I were 5-8 years older. Generation A uses a narrative style somewhat similar to that of Gen-X in order to provide an often critical exploration of the culture experienced by young adults at the beginning of the 21st century. I would give Gen A a 5/10… Wasn’t my style. My favourite Coupland book has been jPod. I’d give it a solid 7+/10.

Books On Cognitive Science

By Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct; How The Mind Works; The Stuff Of Thought

Possibly the best-known popularizer of research into the mind, Pinker does a good job making the findings of often dry research articles interesting and relateable with his wit and references to common life experiences and well-known cultural facts and phenomena, including pop culture, folklore, and politics. Many of the ideas in The Language Instinct have been subject to modification given subsequent research (as discussed by Tomasello, the author below), the book nevertheless presents an enjoyable overview of what makes the cognitive science of language acquisition so fascinating. How The Mind Works attempts to do what you would expect based on its title. The Stuff of Thought makes ingenious use of findings in the study of linguistic cognition to shed light on how the mind and brain as a whole operate and about human nature more generally. I have only read part of the latter two books.

By Michael Tomasello: Constructing A Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition

While not exclusively intended for researchers, this book is more technical and “sciency” than Pinker’s books. As a cognitive science graduate student, Tomasello was my academic idol. He has been one of the leaders in ushering in somewhat of a paradigm shift in the study of linguistic cognition, helping to demonstrate that the Chomskyan inference of a module in the brain specifically evolved for language is both unnecessary and untenable. Tomasello reviews research from the past few decades which has shed light on how the developing mind/brain acquires new concepts, learns to see other people as intentional agents (i.e., as having minds), learns to understand the minds of others and engage in social reasoning, deciphers patterns in their environments (e.g., speech sound patterns), and how the brain uses this collection of abilities to acquire linguistic and cultural competence.

By Terrence Deacon: The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain

In this enjoyable book, Deacon investigates the evolution of human language, social cognition and cooperation, tapping research from such fields as cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive and cultural anthropology.

By Mark Baker: The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar

A linguist’s review of the structure of human languages, including commonalities and differences among languages.

By Alvin Goldman: Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mind Reading

A philosopher reviews research on how young developing humans come to appreciate that people around them have minds and learns how to empathize and engage in social reasoning.

Pascal Boyer: Religion Explained: The Cognitive Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

An investigation into the nature, origins and propagation of religion and religious thinking. Cited research comes from such fields as the cognitive sciences, cultural anthropology, and semiotics.

By Mihaly Csikszentmahali: Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience

A leading psychological research into happiness reports on research into what sorts of things make people happy.

By John Haugeland: Mind Design II: Philosophy, Psychology and Artificial Intelligence

Essays on the foundations of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence.

By Andrew Ortony: Metaphor And Thought

A collection of papers on metaphor-based cognition, including the roles of implicit and explicit metaphors in guiding reasoning.

By Robert Steinberg: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things; Wisdom: It’s Nature, Origins And Development

The former is a collection of papers on factors that lead people to under-perform and do irrational, foolish, self-destructive things.The latter is a collection of papers on wisdom, the opposite of foolishness, from perspectives such as cognitive science and various lines of philosophy.

By Ray Jackendoff: Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays On Mental Structure

Meh. Contains important info on the state of cognitive science with respect to linguistic and conceptual development, processing and structure. However, in my opinion, it was still a bit too linked up with the Chomskyan linquistic modularism of the previous generation which has been surpassed by more integrative approaches to understanding linguistic, conceptual and social cognitive evolution, development, and cognition.

Books on Wisdom, Wellness and Mental Health

By Richard Layard: Happiness: Lessons From A New Science

An economist investigates research into what factors contribute to happiness and well-being, considering research from such fields as Psychology, Sociology, and Economics.

By Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You: A Guide To Fearlessness In Difficult Times

Buddhist perspectives on dealing with difficult times and using them as growth opportunities. I strongly recommend it as a great applied philosophical adjunct to mindfulness training.

By David Burns: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

An introductory applied book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

By Katsuki Sekida: Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy

Philosophy and principles of practice of zen meditation.

Books On Atheism And Religion

By Sam Harris: The End Of Faith: Religion, Terror And The Future Of ReasonLetter To A Christian Nation

Summary: Atheism is evidentially substantiated; our world religions are not. Irrationality frequently leads to deleterious outcomes. This is especially true of religion. Religious (and non-religious) moderates inadvertently enable religious extremists by presenting religion as being reasonable and worthy of belief, and by deeming public criticism of religion and things associated with religion as impolite.

By Victor Stenger: God: The Failed Hypothesis

A physicist addresses and refutes cosmological cases for the necessity of a Creator. I read about half of it. It had some interesting ideas.

By Various People: The Bible

Only read the first 5-6 books of the Old Testament. The remaining 1100 small-text pages scared me off from reading the whole thing.

Other Books

By Hermann Hesse: DemianSteppenwolf; Siddhartha

I found Demian to be pretty good, but was only somewhat impressed by the other two. Many others speak very highly of the latter two books. Had I not already had some background in Buddhism, I might have enjoyed Siddhartha more.

Books In Progress

(Edited) By Saugato Datta:Economics – Making Sense of the Modern Economy

Published by The Economist, this is a collection of articles from The Economist over recent years.

(Edited) By Barry Boyce: The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life

A collection of essays on mindfulness philosophies, approaches, benefits and research.


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