The Books That Have Influenced Me Most

the quote is attributed to “Jo Godwin”

In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

It’s been eight years since I updated my ‘Save the World Reading List‘, so I guess I’m overdue. Of course, since I know there’s no saving the world, its title seems a bit of an over-promise.

So instead, here’s a list of the books that have most helped me understand human nature, the more-than-human world, our culture and civilization, complexity and collapse, the nature of reality, and how the world really works.

Most of these books run counter to what most people believe, and want to believe, is true about these subjects. They run counter to what I once believed on most of them. In some cases I wasn’t ready to listen to their messages on first read, and set them aside, only to come back to them later.

These aren’t necessarily my favourite books — I enjoy memoirs and insightful personal stories, thoughtful, non-manipulative fiction, and provocative ‘big idea’ books like Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, Laura Kipnis’ Against Love, Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus, and James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. I read, as often as possible, for fun.

In contrast, few of the books on this list were enjoyable to read, and most were hard slogging. But something draws me to books with well-researched, novel ideas about the big questions: What might become of us? How does the world work, and how did it get so fucked up? What might we learn from other cultures and creatures about living comfortably and usefully and sustainably in this world? And underneath it all, do we have free will, and what is the nature of ‘reality’ anyway? How are we to make sense of this world, in all its staggering and terrible beauty?

Over the years I have outgrown books with prescriptions. The books on this list appreciate complexity and don’t presume to tell us how we should live or what we should do. They’re listed in roughly the order I first encountered them; links are mostly to my synopses of them:

Dave’s ‘Making Sense of the World’ Reading List

Title Author Subject
1 Full House Steven Jay Gould Evolution, complexity, and the nature of reality
2 Beginning Again David Ehrenfeld Collapse
3 Rogue Primate John Livingston Human nature
4 Extinction Michael Boulter Evolution and extinction
5 The Other Side of Eden Hugh Brody Indigenous cultures
6 The Wealth of Man Peter Jay Prehistoric cultures
7 The Long Emergency James Kunstler Collapse
8 An Elephant Crack-up and The Wauchula Woods Accord Charles Siebert The more-than-human world under stress
9 Figments of Reality Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen Human nature, reality, the self and free will
10 Beyond Civilization and The Story of B Daniel Quinn Human nature, culture and collapse
11 A Language Older Than Words Derrick Jensen Human nature, trauma and civilization
12 The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram The more-than-human world
13 The Triple Helix and Biology as Ideology Richard Lewontin Evolution, human nature and the nature of reality
14 Biomimicry Janine Benyus The more-than-human world
15 Requiem for a Species Clive Hamilton Collapse
16 Against the Grain Richard Manning Evolution, agriculture and collapse
17 The Logic of Sufficiency Thomas Princen Alternative economies
18 A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright Evolution, human nature, civilization and collapse
19 Straw Dogs  and The Silence of Animals John Gray Human nature, culture, evolution and collapse
20 The Dark Mountain Manifesto Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth Human nature, culture, art, and collapse
21 H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald Human nature, and the more-than-human world
22 The Origin of Consciousness Julian Jaynes Human nature, the self, evolution, and free will
23 Learning to Die in the Anthropocene Roy Scranton Human nature and collapse
24 The Secret History of Kindness Melissa Holbrook Pierson Human nature, the self, free will, conditioning, evolution and the more- than-human world
25 The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing Evolution, collapse and alternative economies
26 The Doughnut Economy Kate Raworth Ecology and economy; a balancing act
27 Behave Robert Sapolsky Human nature, evolution, free will, the self, and the more-than-human world
28 Caste Isabel Wilkerson Human nature, evolution, culture, and hierarchy
29 (on Managing Complexity) —videos 1 and 2 Dave Snowden Complexity and sensemaking
30 (on Effective Thinking and Dialogue) — video Daniel Schmachtenberger Critical thinking, sensemaking, and dialogue
31 (on Radical Non-duality) — video transcripts 1 and 2 Tony Parsons Self, free will and the nature of reality

I am in the process of reading The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and may well add it to this list.

I am aware that all but five of these books are by white males, and I’m not sure what to make of that except to ponder whether, and why, white males seem most prone to write (and read) difficult, pessimistic books on ‘big arc’ subjects we can do nothing about.

I am hoping that one day soon books will replace the videos on the subjects in the last three slots on this list, but for now the videos will have to be the placeholders.


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3 Responses to The Books That Have Influenced Me Most

  1. Just a suggestion from the bookseller… lot of white guys in this list. Maybe some other perspectives would be helpful.

  2. ray says:

    when selecting books, I think it is useful to dig somewhat deeper in history. Not everything worth reading has been written in the last 50-100 years.
    Interesting that 13 books in your list would also figure in my list. That’s more than random. To be expected when people share the same biases, interests, preconceptions, etc.

  3. Alan Orth says:

    I stopped going to book stores years ago, because I already knew more than I could effectively deal with. I am a social environmentalist, who believes that man and nature in their interdependence co-evolve (develop). Two biographies I would suggest are “The Invention of Nature” about Alexander Von Humbolt, and “Eugene Odum, Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist” also like “The Poverty of Affluence”, “Nature’s Metropolis” (Cronan) and “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”

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