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