Non-Fiction Book Roundup 2011

Partial Non-Fiction Book Roundup 2011

Here are some of the non fiction books I have read this year, which I recommend for one reason or another. A good practice, imo, with any new idea, thinker, theory, or whatever is to read what is being said in criticism of it. To that end, I have added (MCR) links which point to the most critical review I could find, or a list of critical reviews.

1 History of Western Philosophy
2 Guns Germs and Steel
3 Consilience
4 Holographic Universe
5 Critical Mass
6 Black Swan
7 How the Mind Works
8 Emergence
9 Rubicon
10 Meme Machine

The History of Western Philosophy

The History of Western Philosophy is a daunting book, but once you start reading it you realize why it is so highly regarded. This is a history of thinkers, and the schools and religions they influenced, and it sheds light on many forgotten but important forerunners of the memes and ideas that fill our heads now.
Russell's writing style inspires confidence in his integrity. I never once got the impression that he was trying to push his own agenda or beliefs, even in the Christian chapters. He simply lays the
subject matter out and chapter by chapter you learn huge important chunks of how Western societies got where they are, and think the way they think. It is such foundational material that I am rather annoyed that my school did not get me reading this as a boy instead of the bible. My boys read small snippets of this, mostly when I prompt them to. I always emphasize that it is a book to go to for short passages, rather than something they should read cover to cover.
Sometimes - not often at the time of writing this - we just use it a text for reading aloud. It is not essential to understand it all at any particular stage, just getting exposed to the words and ideas within is educational. MCR

Guns, Germs and Steel

Another fascinating, but sometimes difficult to read book. The difficulty in this case is that some parts go into great detail and you end up asking yourself whether you really need to know all this, but Diamond has several fascinating points to make and prove, and these points are worth struggling through the drier passages.
Why did some areas of the planet produce and support societies that exported amazing *cargo*
and other areas produce societies that are still firing arrows to catch their food, and in need ( or
desirous of ) that fantastic cargo. 
Why did a tiny contingent of Europeans conquer so much territory, people and plunder so much, so easily from massive empires in the Americas? Read this book to find out, or watch the author give a lecture about it if you prefer - video is available online. MCR


The concept that this book teaches about means the 'Unity of Knowledge'. It is interdisciplinary-ness taken to the max, so I would read it even if it were awful in other ways, which it is not. Academia is famous for breaking knowledge into subjects, departments and territories, and this mode of thought flies in the face of that. For internet connected home educated kids and parents this would seem to be a good meta/subject to move into to take advantage of our greater freedoms.

One thing to note however, is that although some people online think very highly of Wilson's work, the writers of the three splurbs on the cover of my edition are all literary types, not scientific ones, whom would have perhaps been a more appropriate choice. On the other hand, maybe it takes literary types to see the broader projected picture in a positive light, as they are not constrained to one or other 'Great Branches of Learning'.
Consilience is definitely on my reread list, both the boys have read it, and I expect to read it with my grandkids, as the concept will still hold, I am sure. Which grandchild generation schoolkids will have heard of the concept by then? MCR

Holographic Universe

This book takes a key scientific idea and expands and extrapolates to explain many bizarre
phenomena in a logical way. Are our minds co-authors of the reality we 'perceive'? They certainly are, but to what level? 
My whole family has marked this book for reading. If you are interested in spiritual and/or supernatural things the ideas contained in this book - once you get past the science bit at the start - might help you understand them, and see them in a whole different perspective. 
At times I cannot help  but wonder if the author is over working the base material, and using it to explain too many things. That other fascinating phenomena? Holographic! That unknown mystery? Holographic! 
Nevertheless it remains an interesting read and one I will return to again because the theory does have explanatory power. The thing is, it has enormous explanatory power, or he is pretty wrong and has been conned. 
I haven't looked up any online material critical of this book yet - for some reason I am holding off - but a theory of such great power needs skepticism and scorn poured all over, it needs to be tested, to see how well it holds under pressure. MCR - I guess I did look it up.

Critical Mass

I paid full price for this one, on a bad mood whim one time. As with Guns, Germs and Steel it has some parts that are slow going unless you happen to be interested in the actual material presented, but it is worth it for the greater points he is trying to make. Again it is multidisciplinary, and meta, the product of a great mind's years of trying to figure important trends out. It gets critiqued in the next book on this list. MCR

Black Swan

Wow! The safer(more stable) you feel, the less safe you are, because it is the extremely rare, unpredictable events that are likely to shape your life and society. The more you come to feel like you can predict the future - especially using as system based on numbers -  the more vulnerable you are to a Black Swan event. ((Although a BS can be positive...)) 
This is mind blowing! 
And how could I have never known the word 'erudite' before reading this?!? (It means well read, to save you a quick search) 
Where some of these books are sometimes wordy and dry in a slow paced kind of way, this one is a footnoter, something which bothers me less. However I have decided to teach the idea of this book to my family verbally, myself, rather than strew this book heavily, or ask them if they want to read it.

I intend to read it again, possibly backwards by chapter, or at least the last few sections first as I did feel that as I reached the end, there was another bit , then another bit, and maybe the good author was saving the very best till the very end. Cheeky, but he doesn't give a damn I don't suppose, having earned a great deal of money by being extremely smart. He was also, interestingly, not whatever it-takes enough for TED, his talk having been *buried*. 
I wonder if it will ever leak. If you find it, please post the link! MCR

How the Mind Works

I thought this one would be a boring run through of best/favourite articles of psychology, but stuff I had best brush up on, as I don't want to not know about something. 
It was pretty much that, but less of the boring, and more interdisciplinary than I had expected. How can anyone not want to know this stuff? It's not on the school curriculum, and personally I don't care whether they adopt it, but it makes super easy reading of psychology, biology; when textbooks of those subjects are overweight, overpriced and an upgrade and often exam board con. Great for someone like...home educators with extra learning freedoms. If your kids want to specialize, those textbooks and college classes will still be there. Unless of course, they have become obsolete by then.

I don't think this book will have become obsolete, although it does have an updated version from mine. We have purchased another of Pinker's books, but have not read it yet, and his latest looks interesting too, arguing the the total cruelty of the human race has gone down. A recommended read, a recommended thinker. If you disagree, I'd love to hear about it. MCR

Emergence by Steven Johnson

How does the greater, excellent thing, emerge from a multitude of much smaller, basic units? I was intrigued to find out that bits in this book felt dated, but I am glad to have bought and read it, as it what feels like dated knowledge to me is still great for the kids.

The History of Western Philosophy is dated too, but it's position in the canon of English language head coffee is assured. Emergence is an important concept, this is the book about it. It goes far beyond the wikipedia article on the subject. 
I guess more knowledge about it will groans you know, emerge. MCR

Patterns in the Mind

Linguistics is one of those subjects which a greater understanding of, enables a greater understanding of other areas, in this case, music appreciation, cultural, and social interaction. I doubt many want however to read Chomsky's linguistics works in the original, well Jackendoff provides the overview. He also provides, as a basis, another competing theory. 
Generative Grammar vs Innate Knowledge then, form an axis on which to hang this study, but the author goes further, adding a third and also sections on how children learn, and how language can be acquired under odd circumstances. 
I've yet to come across a book on semiotics as good as this one is for linguistics. MCR


Rome was already great before it was an Empire. In fact the Roman Republic is even more interesting in my opinion. This society did not want anyone to climb too high! They were ever afraid of a tyrant arising from within and gaining too much power. Despite this they kicked major ass and held dominion over a large area, all without a particularly distincitve culture of their own. This book takes an important era of history and teaches you about it in a way that is as gripping as a good novel, whilst reminding us that historical truth may not be all that truthful.

A fantastic learning experience for a home educated kid, is to read this book over the same period as playing the pc game Rome: Total War as one strand will fertilize the other, and mental links will be made. There is, of course, plenty of other material that falls into this period, but we found that these two went brilliantly together. 
Studying Classical Civ has an unassailable feel to it as well; no one is going to diss your child for studying this, it contains our world in retrocosm. While we're on the subject, we learn Latin and ancient Greek words, but not much of written or spoken language. This informs the use of modern language without getting bogged down in learning a virtually useless dead tongue. 
Rubicon rules, I want this authors other book too. Both boys read it, and will certainly read it again, I guess so our faction is better able to ... no wait that's the game! MCR lol

The Meme Machine

Why do I read books like the ones in this list? Partly because I want to know things, especially things that might prove useful, but also things that help me to better understand the world, universe and people.
But also because I am responsible for educating my kids, and humans learn by copying. I want my boys to see me reading these books, and see me punch the sky when I finish one or grok something.
They have already started practicing the reading meme and I want them to also get the reading smart stuff meme so I have to do it first. 

This book describes natural selection and how this applies to more than just physical organisms but their thoughts possessions and behaviours. Susan Blackmore is onto Richard Dawkin's meme concept with a view to pushing it outwards and trying to see things from a meme's eye view. 
She has also coined a new term, the teme, which is another extraordinary concept, and well worth learning about. She has an excellent TED talk which you can look up to get the overview from, her book is worth reading and digesting. Mine is falling apart. MCR

1 comment:

Cap'n Franko said...

I'm mostly commenting to say "Hi!" but I will say that Bertrand Russell is my dawg, yo! That man was the schiznit.