I’m going to try to write a regular post here. I’ve had two radiation treatments and one chemotherapy blast. I got yesterday and today off and it’s back to the machines tomorrow. Other than two sudden onrushes of dizziness and nausea — sending me scurrying for my bottle of super-duper anti-nausea dope — I’ve been living normally.
It feels as though my mouth is getting dry and thick. I can’t tell at this early date if it’s a real side effect or my imagination. Either way, I’ve knocked off alcohol-based mouthwash and I’m drinking water like a man fresh off a stroll in the Gobi. The Loved One is flitting around every few minutes, reminding me to keep hydrated. I’m lucky to have her around.
So, in lieu of a third dizziness/nausea wave, here I go with something I’ve wanted to put up here for a couple of weeks. Behold Big Mike’s Must-Read Nonfiction Books for Every Home Library™. [BTW: Pay no attention to all the ™ marks I’ve been using of late — they’re just another in my series of silly affectations. I like to have a weird brand of Fun™, in case you haven’t noticed.]
Anyway, herewith in no particular order are the books every smart citizen should have read, plans to read, or keeps in her/his library to give visitors the impression s/he is enlightened:
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, by Truman Capote, 1966 — A landmark in what would become known as “the new journalism,” Capote wrote the scariest goddamned account of the random murder of a farm family in Nowheresville, Kansas back in the ’50s. The subsequent 1967 Richard Brooks movie starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith also was top-notch.
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier, 2007 — The New York Times science writer visits experts in the major scientific fields of inquiry — genetics, cosmology, biology physics, chemistry, and many more — for insights into what humanity knows as of the dawn of the 21st Century about…, well, everything. She writes in a poetic, almost flowery manner that takes the edge off what could have been an arid tome.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, 1995 — The frequent Johnny Carson guest (who, BTW, never actually uttered the phrase “billions and billions”) searches for the reasons people believe malarkey. If you’ve been paying attention to this year’s presidential beauty pageant, you know folks eat up malarkey as readily as as they down McDonald’s french fries. Sagan actually connects credulity in ESP, speaking with the dead, homeopathy, etc. with our growing inability to discern real from bunk in the political sphere.
The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report, by Timothy Ferris, 1997 — No, not the Timothy “Tim” Ferris who writes all those toss-away self-help books, this TF writes science books. Shebang is written for the scientifically unschooled (me, for instance) and updates us on the what we know about that big dark, sometimes glittery thing we occasionally see in the Midwest at night. He explains arcana like curved space and multi-universes so that even I can grasp them.
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, 2005 — Levitt’s the rogue economist, Dubner his writing guru. This book made a lot of people itchy by proposing that US crime statistics went down in the ’90s as a direct result of the Roe vs. Wade decision and that municipal election cycles produce spikes in police hiring. You know the old saw, Lies, damned lies and…, but this statistical carnival ride is a hoot — and fairly informative.
The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532 — Through the centuries the term Machiavellian has become a slur but old Nicky was a brilliant political scientist and student of psychology. The following diverse actors can be described as Machiavellian: FDR, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, JFK, LBJ, Hillary Clinton, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Jesse Jackson. If you haven’t read this, you don’t get politics.
Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, January 10, 1776 — The kick in the ass many citizens of the 13 American Colonies needed to start blasting away at their British overlords. For more than 200 years it was the biggest-selling American book ever printed. Simple, concise, and a bit religious in its themes, CS nonetheless was a revolutionary manifesto to equal any before or since.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X & Alex Haley, 1965 — A riveting account of the life of a man who actually led three — or even more — lives. He grew from a street hood, a convict, a minster, a Black nationalist, a human rights activist, and, finally, a consensus-seeker. A brilliant man who otherwise could have bee the President of the United States, only he was born the wrong color, and too soon. Naturally, he was assassinated.
Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale & Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, by Art Spiegelman, published in Raw magaine, 1980-1991, the second volume in 1991 — If you want a kid to learn about the Holocaust and what it created in its survivors, you’ll find no better tool than this. And Maus is by no means a kids book. The first graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, it’s the story of Speigelman’s old man and his times in pre-World War II Poland, in Hitler’s concentration camps, and in his psychologically troubled post ordeal life in America. Speigelman draws the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and the Polish authorities as pigs. If you’re not drained of tears by the time you’re finished reading this, you ain’t human.
A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, by Stephen Hawking, 1988 — This became one of those bestsellers, like Thomas Picketty’s Capital, that everybody bought and no one read. That’s a shame since Hawking’s our contemporary Einstein, here to explain to us that time, really, is nothing at all but a human construct. The universe goes about its business while we fritter away our time trying to capture it with a stopwatch.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson, 2011 — William Dodd was the last American ambassador to Nazi Germany. He and his family witnessed first-hand and up-close what the Nazi thing was all about. The book will disabuse you of the notion that simply assassinating Hitler would have turned the tide of Nazi history. It wouldn’t have. Naziism carried such a cachet that Dodd’s own daughter fell in love with a Gestapo leader. History’s a lot more complicated than the stuff you learned in elementary school.
The Liberation Trilogy, 3 volumes: An Army at Dawn, 2002; The Day of Battle, 2007; & The Guns at Last Light, 2013, by Rick Atkinson — A thorough and meticulous account of the War in Europe, 1939-1945. WWII was humanity’s ugliest, most evil endeavor, snuffing out the lives of upward of 60 million people around the globe. Yet Atkinson reminds us of all the little things that go into throwing a war, the number of staplers that had to be shipped to Normandy on D-Day, the petty squabbles between diva generals on all sides, the calculations of how many citizens this or that bombing mission would incinerate. We all know the end of this tale but I re-read the penultimate chapter often just for the frisson of imagining the German generals surrendering, unconditionally, at last. Atkinson carefully describes the tears running down the cheeks of Wermacht Commander Alfred Jodl at the signing table.
The Double-Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by James D. Watson, 1968 — DNA makes us human, pigs pigs, and the ebola virus what it is. Watson and his partners Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. And — oh yeah! — Rosalind Franklin who, by dint of possessing a vagina, was cheated out of honors, fame, fortune, and dignity, found this little fact out back in the 1950s. A must read for the scientific detectives’ tale and to glean how miserably women were treated by scientists back than ( and even today).
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro, 1974 — Moses remade New York City after his own imagination, moving entire neighborhoods, paving over riverfronts, constructing towering monuments to commerce and international affairs, and even unintentionally (or not) segregating its neighborhoods. How could one unelected man have so much power? Read and see.
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, by Desmond Morris, 1967 — What’s the difference between you, me, and a chimpanzee? Not much, acc’d’g to Morris. Nor between us and any number of other mammals, vertebrates, invertebrates, and earthworms. Morris has interesting hypotheses on why women have prominent breasts and like to wear lipstick. A fun read, although at times outlandish, but largely spot-on as most of its assertions have stood the test of time.
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel, 1974 — Terkel was America’s preeminent recordist of the average person’s feelings, hopes, and dreams. Here he speaks with everyone form a cop, a switchboard operator, a supermarket bagger, a welder and even football coach George Allen and actor Rip Torn. This is reality, not that flotsam you get on “reality TV.”
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter, 1979 — Prose poetry on mathematics, symmetry, intelligence, and knowledge (not the same things, BTW). It gives me great joy to be able to live in a town wherein I can see Hofstadter pedaling his bicycle on the way to teach class on any given day.
Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 — An expansion of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the civil rights martyr teaches us about history, racism, civil disobedience, and fascism. And to a large extent, Blacks are still waiting.
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, 1970 — Bouton was an outspoken, opinionated, iconoclast baseball pitcher. He was an outcast on the old, stuffy New York Yankees dynasty and a hanger-on on a couple of expansion teams not many years later. He chronicled his 1969 season, revealing what a major league clubhouse was really like. The book shattered all the stereotypes of valiant, superhero pro athletes and showed them as merely human. It was as revolutionary as any political book. I’ve loved it from the first time I picked it up at the age of 14.
Hiroshima, by John Hershey, 1946 — Simple eyewitness accounts of survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear blast on August 6, 1945. Their common perception? None of them heard the sound of the explosion. You’ll need a strong stomach and a stronger heart to get through this.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by Richard Hofstadter, 1964 — You think all this Tea Party, anti-immigrant, racist garbage all stared with reprobates like Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and Donald Trump? Think again. Politicians and demagogues have been selling fear and hatred here for our entire history. R. Hofstadter (not related, as far as I know, to Douglas) lays out the particulars in chilling fashion.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan, 1964 — Notice how many groundbreaking books came out in 1964? Here’s another. McLuhan was the first to show us how we touched each other in a society ruled by the electromagnetic spectrum. His message was the technologies themselves shaped us more than the messages they carried.
On the Origin of Species (By Means of Natural Selection), by Charles Darwin, 1859 — Every critter, every plant alive, every fungus, every slime mold, can trace its ancestry to a common, microscopic bit of what we call “life” some three and a half billion years ago. Mutation and adaptation helped all those forms carry on. That’s what Darwin was trying to tell us. Still, some people don’t believe it.
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, first Netherlands publication, 1947; first US & UK publication, 1952 — The firsthand account of an adolescent girl’s effort to hide from the anti-semites who wanted to kill her. Her flower was nipped in the bud. Evil resides alongside hope and love in the human heart.
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, 1962 — Hey, there’s a whole world out there that just might get trashed if we continue to use its resources promiscuously and dump our detritus back out. Carson alerted us to this a half century ago yet, like Darwin, she has many, many disbelievers.
Relativity: The Special and General Theory, by Albert Einstein, the special relativity paper was published in 1905, the general in 1916; the American translation in 1920 — Einstein one day looked at a clock tower and imagined what it’d be like to travel as fast as the light rays carrying the image of the clock’s face. Thus began his famous thought experiment that led to his conclusion that time is not set in stone, but a malleable, traversable conceit. His papers are surprisingly accessible to layfolk, but don’t think they’re all that easy to read. It’s still a challenge to grasp all this and the old line is, if you think you’ve got it, you probably don’t.
Hmm. I’m starting to feel a bit dizzy. Better take a shortcut and just list the remaining choices.
The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
The Art of War (Master Sun’s Rules of Warfare), by Sun Tzu, 5th Century BCE
Principia Mathematica (Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), by Isaac Newton, July 5, 1687
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes), by Edward Gibbon, 1176-1789
Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief Systems (Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistema del mondo), by Galileo Galilei Linceo, 1638
The Civil War: A Narrative, three volumes, by Shelby Foote, vol. 1 1958, vol.2 1963; vol. 3 1974)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
Black Boy, by Richard Wright, 1946
On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), by Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, 1845
The Feynman Lectures on Physics (three volumes), by Richard Feynman with Robert B. Leighton & Matthew Sands, 1964
The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay, 77 articles published separately, 1787-1788; collected in two volumes, 1788
The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith, 1958
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob Riis, 1890
The Americans, Robert Frank, 1958
The Joy of Cooking, originally by Irma Rombauer, succeeding editions incl. Marion Rombauer Becker & Etahn Becker, orig published in 1931; total of eight editions through 2006
Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, by Niels Bohr, 1961
Experience and Education, by John Dewey, 1938
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, 1963
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou, orig. published in Greece, 2008; in the US, 2009
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, by Frank McCourt, 1996
Prejudices, seven volumes of articles published in the Baltimore Sun, by H.L. Mencken, 1919-1927
Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, 1963
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi, vol. 1, 2003; vol. 2, 2004
Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley, 1999
The Blind Watchmaker: Why Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, by Richard Dawkins, 1986
The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, 1981
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O Wilson, 1998
King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz, 1952
Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis, 1989
Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, 1997 — Why do some societies dominate others? How do empires maintain dominance? Why do they crumble? Diamond answers these and other posers regarding our species’ bizarre predilection for beating the bejesus out of each other with the aid of our compatriots.
That’s it for now. Maybe when I feel a little stronger, I’ll finish up the blurbs on the titles that don’t have them. Don’t hold your breath, though.