Summer Pleasure Reading for Philosophers . . .

Summer pleasure reading. We all need something to take us away from our research a bit, but which looks smart and fun. But what to read?

So, on Levi’s suggestion, I just recently started reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, as the first of some well deserved summer ‘pleasure reading’ (which is generally stuff I read that’s not directly related to my current research, but could be useful at a later point, but which looks like too much fun to pass by).

And what a great recommendation! Its one of those books that will keep you chewing and chewing on its many and varied points for, well, a long time. And its a page turner. I really never thought I’d be fascinated by which plants were domesticable in a given region, but the geopolitical ramifications Diamond draws from this and similar areas of research are profound.

Its one of ‘those books’ that will just stick with me for quite a while. You just feel your polymath muscles growing, ya know? (Of course, I’ve heard Braudel does that too, but that’s a major investment that I will hopefully do at some point in my life . . .)

Anyway, I ordered Diamond’s next book, Collapse, as additional summer pleasure reading. But it also got me to thinking, what other books have I read that also opened up whole new areas of interest for me, and in a way that was so engaging, I couldn’t put them down?

Here’s my list, for anyone looking for some great summer reading that will, in the words of a colleague, ‘rewire your brian’ a bit, while still keeping you engrossed. Please give your suggestions in the comments or on your own blog!

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. Why did some parts of the globe get ‘guns, germs, and steel’ before the others, thereby allowing them to conquer and otherwise dominate the rest of the globe? The intersection of geography and biology was never so much fun.

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radial Remaking of Economics, by Eric Beinhocker. This excellent book really gives you the entirety of how complexity theory and economics relate. In the process, you learn tons about everything from complex systems theory to a ton of modern evolutionary theory, history of economics, computer simulation models, and lots of really smart ways to reenvision what the economy is or could be.  Great stuff.

Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, by Philip Ball. When I was teaching a class called ‘Theories of Networks’ at Pratt, I had to choose one book that I thought could really introduce them to complexity theory in its wide variety, yet still entertain them. I went with this one. This book is great because it also spends a good deal of time tying this back into philosophy (he starts off with a lot of interesting stuff on political physics and econophysics), but also everything else from game theory to scaling patterns and so much else. Fun, fun stuff. As one student said, ‘I brought it home for break and my dad got hooked on it’

Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra, by John Derbyshire. This is one is a complete page turner, and like many of these others, you just feel yourself getting smarter in unexpected ways. I don’t know if its possible to write a better ‘history of math’ book. What’s really interesting here is that while it starts with a history of math and numbers in general, and them moves to a history of algebra as most of us know it, the entire third part of the book works to explain modern algebra, which has only the faintest connections to ‘finding x’, and a ton to do with modern group theory, which is VERY useful for philosophers to know. Let’s just say that had Lacan not been introduced to some ideas from group theory, we likely wouldn’t have his ‘four discourses’ . . .

Society of Mind, by Marvin Minsky. From one of the originators of the field, here’s artificial intelligence with tons of pictures. Basically, Minsky asks the question – ‘if we wanted to build something like a brain from scratch, how might we do it?’ A classic outsider book, its written in tiny chunks, with diagrams galore.

Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means, by Albert-Lazlo Barabasi.  There are quite a few excellent intros to network science, but this was the one I decided to use as the intro text to my ‘Theories of Networks’ class at Pratt. There are others that are equally excellent, and they each have a slightly different emphasis. I’d also recommend those by Duncan Watts (Six Degrees) and Steve Strogatz (Sync).

The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain, by Terrence Deacon. Ok, this one is a bit more difficult than some of the others, but its worth it. This one was essential to stuff I was working with in ‘The Networked Mind,’ its all about trying to answer the question: “how did language evolve?” Deacon goes far and wide to answer these questions, using artificial neural networks and chimp studies, but what’s really great is that he makes extensive use of Peirce in a completely scientific setting.

What is Thought? by Eric Baum. Ok, this one is actually really long and really hard and so I’m not sure it really qualifies as easy reading. But it gives you a real tour-de-force on how thought can take many forms. If you really want to understand how DNA, embodiment, and brains think, this is the book for you. Written by a computer scientist, you also get a guided tour of computer science, computers, artificial neural networks, and everything else that can be considered ‘thought’ in one way or another along the way. Baum’s final word: thought is compression. I can’t even begin to say how much this book has influenced my own work, but it seems no-one outside of computer science has heard of it. A purchase you’ll never regret.

About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, by Paul Davies. I used several chapters from this to teach relativity and quantum theory to my ‘Space, Time, and Bodies’ class at Pratt. I don’t know if there’s any other book that explains these topics clearly and simply, without glossing over the important details, as well as this. And Davis places it within a larger genealogy of the question of time in western thought. Also a page turner, really well written. If you always wanted to dig into relativity and quantum stuff a bit in your free time, this is the place to go.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, by Daniel Dennett. Everyone should read this book, or at least know the ideas Dennett develops in expanding Darwin into the 20th century. You get a great summary of this in the Beinhocker, but the source is great as well, explaining things like fitness landscapes, hill-climbing algorithms, and the wondrous ‘library of babel’ . . . what’s not to like?

Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption, by Mark Taylor. Mark Taylor is a complexity studies guru who started out as a religion scholar who did a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Hegel and became a Derridean along the way. Basically, he’s what happens when a philosopher becomes interested in things like science and economics. While other books of his do a great job on the science end of things, this book is the Bible if you want to understand things like derivatives, credit default swaps, and why they create crashes. The fun thing, however, is that he spends most of this book trying to explain why the 1997 LCTM crash happened, and he predicts that if we don’t change things, something else like this could happen again – and this was published BEFORE the whole sub-prime mess. If you ever wondered what these odd economic instruments mean, go here. And he’ll throw in some Kierkegaard for fun . . .

Ad Infinitum . . . The Ghost in Turing’s Machine: Taking God out of Mathematics and Putting the Body Back In, by Brian Rotman. Anything by Brian Rotman is simply great. He’s a professor of mathematics who decided mid career to start writing about philosophy and culture, and I’ve got to say, he’s the best philosopher of mathematics who can talk continental thought I’ve seen yet. This book is all about limits and infinity, but he’s got another one on the semiotics of zero (which links everything from linguistics to painting), and a great new one on networks.  For Rotman, all math is about two things – space/geometry, and time/algebra. What he can do with this idea is pretty astounding. A VERY smart man.

Dune, by Frank Herbert. Ok, yeah, its fiction, and yeah, its science fiction, but if you’re looking for a real change of pace, every philosopher should read this one. Its what got me into philosophy in the first place, quickly leading to a read of all six books, and then the desire to study philosophy when I went to college. And it wears really well over the years, cause the dialogue is Dostoevskian and the fictional world he creates is as baroque as it is a reflection of possible futures. If you liked the movie, you’ll love the book. A real (only semi-guilty) pleasure.

Runners up: Anything by Andy Clark (cognitive studies), Ian Stewart (introducing really abstract math to the layperson), Lisa Randall’s book on hidden dimensions (Warped Passages), Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (the best intro to the history of slavery imaginable), Richard Schechner’s work on Performance Studies, Jose Munoz’s work on performance, gender, race (Disidentifications), George Chauncey’s Gay New York (a really cool cultural history book on, well, gay life in nyc before WWII), and I’m sure there’s others . . .

Anyway, please send me yours!!

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~ by chris on May 23, 2010.

One Response to “Summer Pleasure Reading for Philosophers . . .”

  1. I like it, well researched and a delight to read..best regards John

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