May 1, 2019

We have created this thread to provide a dedicated space for the discussion of books. Pretty much any kind of book – it doesn’t have to be about atheism or religion or science or politics. It doesn’t even have to be non-fiction.

All we ask is that, whatever the topic or genre, the books are stimulating, intelligent and thoughtful, so that they are actually worth discussing, and that you post any recommendations along with a commentary giving a bit of background and explaining why you’re recommending it. Clearly “worth discussing” is open to interpretation, but hopefully you get the idea. Books originally in a language other than English are fine too, provided an English translation is available.

The only real restriction is that, in keeping with our Comment Policy, users should not use this thread to promote any books they may have written themselves or  have any other kind of personal stake in.

We hope you enjoy this new thread.

50 comments on “BOOK CLUB

  • I’ll be back here after work to post a fuller review of Saini “Inferior” a book I’ve come to like a lot.

    Quite a few others to catch up on too…


    Utopia for Realists

    The Goodness Paradox

    Creating Freedom

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  • Currently revisiting Sam Harris ‘Waking Up’. I never finished it but enjoyed re-reading the first chapter, which for me was more engaging than some of what followed. He goes into an early teen experience with solitude during a summer camp and how he wasn’t able to fully appreciate it and wondered about the transcendence noted by some of his older peers. He then segues into an experience a few years later with a male friend where he tries MDMA for the first time and how that was absolutely transcendent for him. An interesting juxtaposition of experiences just a few years apart.

  • I’m currently reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers. This book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, 2019. So far, separate stories with a motif of trees running through them.
    Glad to see this thread show up here. I love to hear what people are reading!
    On deck, I have the new one by Oliver Sacks and I think I remember preordering a new one by Jared Diamond.

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  • I just finished reading Attack of the Theocrats, How the Religious Right Harms Us All – and What We Can Do About It, by Sean Faircloth.  It’s a good companion to Kevin M. Kruse’s book One Nation Under God.  Faircloth has been the Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, as well as director of strategy and Polity at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. 

    What I particularly like about the book is Faircloth’s emphasis on organization.  Faircloth has been a successful politician, so it’s not surprising that he would recognize that.  The reason the theists have so much political power is their ability to organize.  Although the “nones” are a fast-growing segment of the population, we are not organized and therefore not recognized by politicians as a group to be courted.  There should be several atheist / freethinker clubs in every city and town in this country – it’s a small village indeed that doesn’t have at least one church at its center, and yet atheist clubs are nearly impossible to find even in the largest cities – at least in the United States.  Faircloth says that by 2020, he wants to have organizations in every state of the USA.  I hope he’ll be successful. 

    On this Labor Day – May 1, I’m remembering the words of the anthem Solidarity Forever – “Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one, But the union makes us strong.”  I’m sure Faircloth would endorse that concept, and I hope that as our organizations become more numerous, we remember the organizing strategies of the old labor movement, the leaders of which eschewed the superstitions of religion.  It’s no coincidence that when the labor unions were at the height of their power in the 1950s, the religious right was in its infancy and in just a couple decades as their influence grew the unions’ declined.  The theocrats would probably never have attained the power they now have absent the energetic support of the wealthy industrialists and other influential people who had been forced to pay their fair share by the policies of the New Deal and by the strong organization of the working class.  The theocrats saw the power of organization which they found in churches of all stripes at the same time as the rank & file worker grew tired of it. 

    I think Sean Faircloth lays out a great blueprint that deserves a lot of attention.     

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  • I’ve been a huge fan of Faircloth ever since he asserted that atheists should lead on the moral potential it offers. Maddeningly too many atheists were content with the claim that we can be moral too.


    No, we start from a more honest base.


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  • Phil

    Maddeningly too many atheists were content with the claim that we can be moral too.

    I for one could never be content with that claim. We can be moral too?! In fact, I won’t be lumped in with theists at all when it comes to morality. I would edit the claim to read – Theists can be moral too, despite the fact that they’re religious.

    I think that was very generous of me.  😉

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  • Great idea to have this thread. I’ll take my chance and ask you: have you ever read “A universe from nothing” by L. Krauss? I bought it with “some” delay few weeks ago (it was years that I wanted to read it, never got the chance, my wishlist is incredibly long), but I would like to have some comments by anyone of you that read it. Is it worth my time or not? Some reviews are not so positive about it…

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  • Donnie, hi.

    FWIW I’m an atheist and a physicist (by education) but have never been a great fan of LK on either of these counts. I mention this because jealousy may be a thing here.


    On  “A Universe from Nothing” it is OK but flawed by his equivocation of what “nothing” is or could be. I think better accounts exist that allow that there is always something, just not necessarily  matter, energy, dimensions, unidirectional time etc. I think a better description of our current (net) understanding is that there is in existence a Principle, some version of a quantum reality (a subset) that is unextended  by the existence of a spacetime and all its properties, that if it has time at all, it is time symmetric, that is yet able to spawn a spacetime (which itself is net nothing) with those  interior properties of matter, energy, dimension and entropic time. This principle simply IS (so not to be thought of as simply a “before thing”) and if it is, then, “from nothing” is misleading. More to the point many physicists work on this “nothing”.

    Krauss isn’t misrepresenting what may be true, its just that his metaphorical picture painting isn’t as helpful as others.


    In fairness also he does acknowledge Alex Vilenkin with one of the best views to date, though he snidely observes he published without fully understanding what his maths told him.



    For me a much richer and broader book and straying well outside of physics alone, is Sean Carroll’s latest, “The Big Picture”. Just bursting with good ideas. Twice as thick and four times the content.

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  • Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong” is an important book. I won’t detail it in any great way, though its full of delicious nuggets.


    I had problems with it at first because of judgement calls on Darwin and Simon Baron Cohen. But the specifics of the objections were sound, just that I had the feeling that other aspects of their work was seen to be contaminated.  This was utterly unjust of me. Saini time and again distinguishes the quality of  ideas from opinions on scientists’ cultural bias etc..

    The grim failure of male scientists and philosophers (mostly of the past) to conceive alternative models for a gender spared ribbed into irrelevance, was quite an embarrassing, in a well detailed litany of self serving aggrandisement.

    This is a thoroughly good grounding in all of science’s stumbling towards a more realistic understanding of our species, for it is exactly that, not a restoration of some imagined gender balance but a rich complex insight into how our species actually works at all its levels. The anthropological data was a particular pleasure to me, not having anywhere near enough in my head.

    The jewel of an idea for me, (and unsurprising for me given her contact with Birkbeck and UCL) was the insight offered by neuro-constructivism that allowed culture and very early experience to dictate neural outcomes that may well be misapprehended as driven solely by genetic factors. This really does account for why there are these entirely different modes of gender role in the anthropological data. It was an idea that could see very much greater expansion perhaps in later books. We really do breed ourselves.

    And this is why I still hurt a little over Simon Baron Cohen’s treatment. Of late he has been entirely open to this new way of seeing even early gender differentiation. His and Darwin’s gender hypotheses were after all, well, hypotheses, some still good some not.

    But excuses have no place in that strict mistress, Science.

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  • I’m pants at editing against the clock.

    Yes, the previous editing window didn’t really give you long. We’ve just doubled it, to 10 minutes. Hope that helps!

    Just be aware that returning to posts to edit them (especially if they contain links) increases the risk that the system will automatically put them into moderation. There’s nothing we can do about this (and the logic behind it is sound in any case), but we do check regularly and will restore legitimate comments asap.

    The mods

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  • Yay! Doubling the time will possibly triple its utility. I look at the clock. 2 minutes? Not worth the risk. Even finding the problem again in the weird little window is intimidating.

    On  links I often announce my intention to link then single link in subsequent posts. It helps get stuff out in a timely fashion e.g. before folk go to bed.

    Thanks, mods. This is, though, a good help.

    Oh and

    “…quite an embarrassing experience…”

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  • I’ve read A Universe From Nothing a couple times.  In my opinion, Professor Krauss makes a very complex subject somewhat understandable for lay people like me. I say “somewhat” because there are times when I have to say to myself “just keep reading, pretend you understand the material.” Eventually things fall into place and begin to make some sense. After reading the book, and reflecting frequently on it, I have more confidence in my own atheism. Although I long ago rejected the idea that there is a supernatural world, it’s exciting to have a glimpse at 21st century knowledge of how the cosmos actually works.

    I also like Dr Krauss’ book, The Greatest Story Ever Told, So Far.  Based on Phill’s recommendation, Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture goes to near the top of my reading list.

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  • One of the first essays I posted on this site was #13, October 2018, the subject of which was my thoughts after watching a YouTube clip entitled ”St. Thomas Meets Richard Dawkins – Aquinas on God,” in which a Dominican friar and professor of philosophy, makes his case that Aquinas’ teachings, found in The Summa Theologiae and The Summa contra Gentiles, are more relevant than the science espoused by Professor Dawkins.  My point was that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the 1200s, and that if Aquinas had known then what we know now, Aquinas would probably agree with 21st century science. 

    It was later pointed out, #116, that I erroneously noted that Georges-Henri Lemaître had coined the term the term “Big Bang,” when it was actually Fred Hoyle who coined it. I acknowledged the error, # 121, and continue to do so.  

    Fast forward:

    I’m currently reading God: the Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger. In chapter 4, under the heading Beginning and Cause, Stenger writes:  “In 1951 Pope Pius XII told the Pontifical Academy, “Creation took place in time, therefore there is a Creator, therefore God exists.”  The astronomer/priest Georges-Henri Lemaître, who first proposed the idea of a big bang, wisely advised the pope not make this statement “infallible.””  

    When I read that passage, I had to laugh, and I went back and reread the October 2018 passages.  That particular remark in #13, was something I had not checked, and it only took a couple minutes to verify that I had indeed been mistaken, but I knew I got the notion someplace. While I was wrong that Lemaître coined the term, I was right that he counseled the pope on that subject, and that he had proposed the idea for which Sir Fred coined the term. 

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  • Hi Phil [#1],

    I read Econocracy, on your recommendation.

    It is tempting to sideline it as undergraduate diatribe, but at the end I confess they won me over.

    They report on the very worrying trends where fixed pricing has led to long term under funding, universities are forced to consider themselves as primarily economy-supporting training units and the subsequent undermining of liberal education – particularly critical and creative thinking.

    They also come up with some good ideas on how to improve the current devaluation of university education – I could find no news on universities actually grasping the nettle though.


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  • Hi Michael [#13],

    In my opinion, Professor Krauss makes a very complex subject somewhat understandable for lay people like me. I say “somewhat” because there are times when I have to say to myself “just keep reading, pretend you understand the material.”

    I like your candid admission.  It reminded me of high school.  My old English teacher, Mr. Smith (no really), once asked the class: “Who here has trouble reading?” and he was the only person who put his hand up.  He then asked a series of other questions: Do you ever get to the end of a line and find yourself re-reading the same line?  Do you ever find yourself stopping and having to re-read a paragraph to grasp its meaning? Do you ever discover that you must have skipped a sentence in an earlier passage, and have to hunt backwards for it?

    Then the teacher asked the class again: “Who here has trouble reading?” and most hands went up.

    Text is old technology, and like all technologies designed to aid human communication it’s flawed.  From that day I was never embarrassed to read with a dictionary at my elbow, or to admit that I’m a slow reader.

    The Net, of course, has greatly simplified checking for the meanings of things. I remember, as a teenager, being greatly frustrated that my family did not possess a medical dictionary – no problem today.

    Technical language is necessary, and each field has its own.  Lawrence Krauss tries hard, but cannot completely escape the use of philosophical and scientific language – specifically from cosmology, particle physics and the theories of spacetime – in A Universe from Nothing.

    I urge you to spend time looking up the meanings of the words being used by Krauss, and to use a search engine to look up anything that looks like a stock phrase and see if alternative uses might help you to better understand their meaning.


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  • Hi Stephen.


    I bought the Phil Torres on sciento-eschatology and rather speed skimmed it. It looked honourable enough but the subject matter seemed familiar to me and I couldn’t resist the lure of other books in areas where my education is lacking. I should give it another go someday.


    I’m glad you got something out of Econocracy. I can see why you might have thought it getting rather parochial, but I thought the observation of a dramatic narrowing in (global!) economics education, reducing it to neo-classical economics dogma with its poverty of metrics of the Good and indeed poverty of reliable epidemiological validation, was very, very timely.


    The book offers a staging post between the extensive and malign educational project of James McGill Buchanan in the 1950s  (Nancy MacLean “Democracy in Chains”) and the growing rediscovery of earlier and other economic tools in the books of Rutger Bregman and Ja Hoon Chang etc.. We are remarkably automatic in our judgement calls (compared with only a few decades ago) of what good economic governance constitutes and there is some kind of willful blindness in our Western understanding of the distinctions of  Tiger Economies despite their 5% growth versus our own 2%.

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  • Thanks Phil.

    To be honest I was quite looking forward to someone coming along and telling me that Torres’ book is great.  C’est la vie.

    We are remarkably automatic in our judgement calls (compared with only a few decades ago) of what good ….

    … information consists of.

    Indeed. It is a trend we need to reverse.

    No, I’m not joking, and yes, that seems a big ambition.  To me this is a natural corollary to the knowledge and application of critical thinking.  It is not epidemiologies we need to pursue it is epistemologies.



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  • I have frequently proposed in my ideal economic system that measuring the hell out of everything all the time, improvements in services, declines, changes in all the metrics of well-being, attitudes to those changes, by all the different social groupings we can conceive and epidemiologically tied to policy enactment via probabilities and offered back to the voting public, both as raw and processed data, with official and non-official commentary, then, then the loop will start to be closed as the metrics however they are termed, will start to mean what they detectably do.

    Like language, meaning is only reliably made by what words ostensibly manifest. Metaphysics as Wittgenstein  demonstrated endlessly, cannot of itself, prove any mooted metaphysical objects.

    I think new metrics will emerge in the same way as language emerges, from ostensible need.

    Now we can enact such massive continual data gathering. Truly knowing effects on society in the finest-grained fashion, we ought to be able to manage what we may or may not have achieved through policies like thus and so, through building, in Bayesian fashion, a better predictive model of policy outcomes. It ought to allow the kinds of policy technocrats, like the Chinese, enact, fully predicting outcomes with error bands and forming contingency measures for things coming off track.

    Policy in the hands of dogmatists should become anathema. Only with a refined sensitivity to all consequences on all folk of enacted policy, can a society evolve away from crude manipulations and choose between increasingly informed policy offerings.

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  • Hi Phil [#20],

    Blimey guv’nor I said I had a dictionary at my elbow, not that I swallowed one!

    Nice one.

    Now we can enact such massive continual data gathering. 

    I’m not a fan of the surveillance state.

    I’m also not a fan, as a manager, of box-ticking exercises.  Forgive me if I have misinterpreted.

    Big Data, as the ICT companies term it, may indeed hold out much potential.  But at what costs to human rights?

    Policy in the hands of dogmatists should become anathema

    That’s a nice dream.

    Only with a refined sensitivity to all consequences on all folk of enacted policy, can a society evolve away from crude manipulations and choose between increasingly informed policy offerings

    I support your vision of a state that is truly empathetic to its citizens.  I’m a practical guy, I need something more.


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  • Sorry about the excessive words.

    I stammered as a kid. Then I was taught Latin and some Greek vocabulary which are secret codes to the English language. My vocabulary tripled so I always had an alternate word when some problem term loomed on the horizon. No longer beaten for being pathetic, I was beaten, rather, for being a show off. Much better… Its stuck, sadly. If anything its getting worse.


    No surveillance intended. Like a census on your smart device you can report your opinion. It would be part of the democratic process. Data really would be anonymised. The tech would need to be validated transparently because if the reassurances could not be comprehensively provided none of this would work. (I have in mind a combination of VPNs, a blockchain phantom-self and a heisenbergian algorithm that prevented sufficient data being extracted at any transient phantom identity occasion to search records for a living person match… OK hit me.)

    Myself, I don’t do social media and I put nothing out I don’t feel safe with. I loathe private companies using and profiting from my data, but I do believe my data can be used for the good of all if subject to the best controls.


    Evil governments? Well that’s really the whole point of putting policy selection in the hands of a much more informed and engaged electorate. A much more transparent government and Civil Service is needed in response, not least because I imagine quite a lot of us will become at least part time civil servants as even more jobs are robotised.

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  • Quarecuss (#23)

    I have not read the book you mentioned. Even so, saying that in his book the author describes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as strident is not a recommendation of the book to others, for there is simply nothing strident about either of these men in either their published writings or the great array of film and video footage of each of them available to the public. In writing of screeching activists shouting down public speakers, one might have reason to use the word ‘strident’, but one has to wonder what the author you mentioned means by that word. Since the study of idiolects was never a branch of linguistics that interested me much, I will not read the book to find that out either.

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  • Quarecuss #25

    If you find that Massimo Pigliucci has something interesting to say about Stoicism or stoicism in that book, I am sure I would not be the only reader here who would like to know what you found most interesting. It is fitting that you should stoically press on with it.

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  • q and Cairsley


    Here’s the man himself-


    Within Stoic circles, the major source on happiness is of course Seneca, who wrote a whole book about it. From that book, we can extract what I occasionally call Seneca’s seven commandments, though wise suggestions would be a better way to put it (On the Happy Life, XX, commentary here):
    I) I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.
    II) I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.
    III) I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.
    IV) Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.
    V) I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.
    VI) I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half-way.
    VII) Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.
    I wager that this would be a far better world if we all strove to match our behavior to Seneca’s advice.

    FWIW, I think he misjudges both RD and Harris for thinking they don’t endorse the separateness, and personal-ness of value, distinct from scientific truth.

    But his interest in multilevel evolution is a valid disagreement, though, for me not always on the money. But, hey, there’s a lot of new territory now.

  • Many thanks, Phil, for the input. Being unfamiliar with Massimo Pigliucci and put off by a report of his misrepresentations of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in his book How to Be a Stoic, I have been moved to find out more about him and to add him to my reading-list, thanks to your comments and the link you provided.

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  • I logged a post about three years ago after reading a book that I thought would be of interest on this site but there was nowhere specific to post it. Thanks for creating the Book Club.

    ‘ The Second  Coming ‘ by John Niven, published 2011. If bad language offends do not read it, if you want a good laugh and cry about the usual subjects on this site, have a good read.


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  • Jesus, #32

    Can you tell us more? Give us a bit of a feel for the book and tell us why you are recommending it, what makes it stand out in your view? A recommendation on its own doesn’t really tell us much!


    The mods

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  • I just finished reading God: The failed Hypothesis, How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, by Victor J. Stenger (born January 29, 1935, died August 27, 2014).  I became aware of the book while watching a YouTube video in which Christopher Hitchens refers to it.  The first thing I noticed when I downloaded a sample of the book was that the Forward is written by Hitchens.  Hitchens notes that Stenger shows that science and religion do not belong to “non-overlapping magisteria,” Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase which Hitchens frequently used.  Hitchens’ recommendation was enough for me, I downloaded the book and was not disappointed.  Because I downloaded the book, I’m unable to provide page numbers for the quotes I give below.
    Stenger argues that we no longer need be agnostic – that we can say with scientific confidence “god does not exist.”  Rather than concede that the existence of God cannot be disproved because science deals exclusively with natural rather than supernatural phenomena, Stenger’s thesis  is that any claim, i.e. any hypothesis, put forward by religion, can be tested in the same way as any other hypothesis.  Unless a hypothesis, natural or supernatural, passes muster, it can, and should be, rejected as failed.  In a series of 10 chapters, a preface and a postscript, Stenger subjects the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions to the scientific method and finds that not one belief comes close to success.  Stenger demonstrates that religious beliefs developed during humanity’s childhood and infancy when the existence of a divine celestial ruler was as good an explanation of natural occurrences as primitive people could come up with, and how their ideas comported with their ideas of social and political as well as scientific concepts. Stenger shows how beliefs, expressed in scriptures contain gross errors of scientific fact; nor can a single biblical prophecy can be shown to have been fulfilled.  Not a single claim of private revelation has ever been confirmed.  To those who would argue that God created the physical laws of the universe, and then somehow withdrew to let nature run its course, Stenger says: “Based on our best current scientific knowledge, it follows that no creator exists who left a cosmological imprint of a purposeful creation.”  Stenger tackles the problem of evil, and the problem of a god who does not revel “himself” such that no one can deny “his” existence, both of which detract from the possibility of divine existence.
    I thought that a particularly beautiful chapter was No. 5, The Uncongenial Universe, where in Stenger shows that if the cosmos was created for human beings, there was a lot of wasted time and effort.  Stenger writes: “If God created a universe with at least one major purpose being the development of human life, then it is reasonable to expect that the universe should be congenial to human life.”  In this chapter Stenger discusses the enormous scale of the cosmos, and how we evolved on this tiny speck of dust, that Carl Sagan described as a pale blue dot.  “In short, if God created the universe as a special place for humanity, he seems to have wasted an awfully large amount of space where humanity will never make an appearance.  He wasted a lot of time, too.  Instead of six days, he took nine billion years to make Earth, another billion years or so to make life, and then another four billion years to make humanity.  Humans have walked on Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth’s history.”
    Stenger spends time showing that our moral values do not come from the scriptures.  He quotes George Bernard Shaw: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says.  He is always convinced that it says what he means.”  Atheists are often asked what it would take for them to believe, to which Stenger answers: “If scientific observations had confirmed at least one model god, then even the most skeptical atheist would have to come around and admit that there might be some chance that God exists.”  Stenger offers 11 hypothetical observations which would favor the god hypothesis.  E.g., purely natural processes might have been proved incapable of producing the universe.  I like his 11th possibility: “Believers might have had a higher moral sense than nonbelievers and other measurably superior qualities.  For example, the jails might be filled with atheists while all believers live happy, prosperous, contented lives surrounded by loving families and pets.”
    Are scientists just closed-minded bigots who stubbornly refuse to believe in god?  On the contrary, Stenger writes: “If scientific evidence for God turned up that passed the conventional tests … then scientists in every field would be happily busy writing research grant proposals to study his nature…”    

    In a lot of the book I found that rather than plowing new ground, Stenger restates and summarizes a modern, scientific, view of the cosmos in which we live.  Stenger freely quotes and cites authors such as Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krause, Stephen Hawking among many others including his own work.  In my opinion, this book and its bibliography is an excellent resource.  The book was both informative and a pleasure to read.  I think it will be a resource for me for a long time to come.

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  • Michael 100

    Good one! I remember the first time I viewed the video that the book is based on. It changed everything.

    I finished The Overstory by Richard Powers and I come away from it with new knowledge of trees, a sense of foreboding over the destruction of our forests and some guilt over my lack of knowledge about trees in general. I admit to spending a disproportionate amount of my studies on the zoology side of biology and neglecting the botany side of things.

    I do know of most of the trees that were referenced in that book but when I look out to my street and neighborhood and lately driving around I realize how deficient I am in identifying more than four or five types of trees! I really want to remedy the situation.

    Overstory is a fiction but it’s a fiction that a nonfiction reader can love. I’m not much of a fiction reader and I tend to lose my patience with most fiction and I’m properly ashamed of myself for that. I do recognize the art and skill and talent of writing fiction but just when I pick up a nonfiction on the topics I love it really does seem like it was written just for me and my arcane special interests. The list of those books reads like a collection of evo-psych science nerd brain candy.

    Last night I started Everything in its Place by Oliver Sacks. The book is a posthumous publication of essays and I’ve gone through a couple so far.

    Sacks must have been a fascinating person. One of those types that everyone thinks – I wish I’d have been friends with that guy! So smart. So interesting. Never boring! His death is a great loss. I’ve enjoyed everyone of his wonderful books that I’ve read. I may have missed two or three but I’ve worked my way through most of them over the course of a few years now.

    In the new book, Sacks writes about his love of swimming and how it was a connection with his father who was also a skillful swimmer. Sacks himself must have been an accomplished swimmer based on his description of the distances he swam and the years he devoted to the sport.

    Another essay deals with the life of Humphry Davy, extraordinary chemist who Sacks admired greatly. I read about the life of Humphrey Davy in the excellent book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, but I was happy to read Sack’s version of the life of Davy.

    I’ll keep plugging on Sack’s book and then it’s on to the new one by Jared Diamond, Upheaval.


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  • I’m half way through  Richard Holmes Coleridge biographies (about to start the second) But I also have his Shelley of whom I rate as critical to our collective liberation from the mind forged manacles. I’m hoping also for a good helping about the Wollstonecrafts, mother and daughter. Such truly innovative thinkers all three, as much as any inventing our modern, curious, creative and braver culture.

    Must get that Sacks!

    Michael, your Stenger review was excellent. There is something delightful about finding reviewers that are like minds enough to trust, but different enough to surprise and stimulate.

    I think this thread could become essential.

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  • Phil

    I was just about to mention that TV series Genius that started with the first season on Einstein, the second on Picasso and the third season to come was to be on Mary Shelley. I was really looking forward to that but now I see on the series Wiki page that they’ve changed the subject to Aretha Franklin. I’m sure this will be perfectly good but I was soooo looking forward to Mary Shelley. Oh well. Your book list is duly noted.


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  • cairsley #30  and phil rimmer #29

    saw pigliucci’s ted talk

    and now finished his how to be a stoic book

    here’s part of the response to it/him


    it might have been a mild success
    but for that anti-godlessness
    that    though it takes up little space
    still permeates you stoic case
    and poisons all the sage advice
    with philosophic prejudice
    ignoring harris    for example
    on whose name you briefly trample
    without one mention of free will
    which he argues with great skill
    we do not have    despite our view
    we have control of what we do
    so much of what you stoics hold
    is based on what can be controlled
    your fourfold virtues so depend
    upon the sense that we intend
    have agency and mastery
    of part    at least   of history
    but neuroscience sharp and new
    does not support this antique view
    thus undermining your dry tome
    not just the virtues    but the list
    of twelve commandments you insist
    will see us through and get us home

    part of a little book being a cynic

    with images of diogenes of sinope barking at many including plato

    and maybe pigliucci

  • Maybe, q, maybe we have it wrong to think that the four virtues, say, reside in us and are exerted or expressed by individuals through acts of will. Indeed, just as you suggest.

    Perhaps we need to imagine them as residing in specific cultures, and that culture breeds and trains  individuals likely to express a culture’s virtues. Culture is the principle owner of the virtue in question.


    “Creating Freedom”, Raoul Martinez. might prove interesting.

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  • Yesterday, I happened to think of an author I started reading a few years ago, got distracted and never finished – Arthur Koestler.  I went to the Appel book store and discovered that a lot of his work is now available in electronic format.  Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 and died in London March 1, 1983.  He and his wife committed suicide (  I wonder if Koestler and Christopher Hitchens were friends, I have to think that Hitchens would have found Koestler influential (does anyone know?).  Had he lived, Koestler would have made a wonderful addition to the Horsemen group.  In his younger days, he was a Communist, but broke with the party when he discovered what the revolution had become under Stalin.  His most famous novel is Darkness at Noon, is about the 1930s show trials in the Soviet Union – I’ve read that a few times and am going to read it again soon.  Before the Russian Revolution, he was a war correspondent for a British newspaper and covered the Spanish Civil War (see Spanish Testament).  During the war, he was captured and sentenced to death (see Dialogue with Death).  Those two just went to the top of my reading list.
       Koestler wrote a novel about Spartacus entitled The Gladiators – much better story than any of the Hollywood versions.
     I read Koestler’s Arrival and Departure which tells the story of a young man who arrived at a refugee port where he waits for his documents to be processed to a safe country.  While he was waiting, he met a psychologist – also waiting for travel documents – who he knew as a child.  She has the young man move in with her since she has better accommodations, and while they waited, she helps him sort out some mental health issues.  Finally, his papers are processed, and he boards a ship bound for the United States.  Before the ship sailed, however, his conscience gets the better of him and he decides that he must rejoin his comrades in the war.

    Writing this has made me anxious to re-read the novels mentioned above and to read the rest of Koestler’s work.  In addition to his great subject matter, Koestler’s style of writing is beautiful – he was a real wordsmith.     

  • Michael #44

    I’m glad you’ve moved the discussion onto fiction (even if much of Koestler’s work reads like journalism).

    His Darkness at Noon is one of the most searing books I’ve ever read: a truly devastating portrayal of totalitarianism and repression. And, as you rightly say, beautifully written.

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  • Phil: Thanks for the article by Christopher Hitchens about Arthur Koestler. When I reread some of his novels, and read others for the first time, I’ll keep this article close by.  When I read Arrival and Departure, for the first time, I remember wondering how much of the psychological turmoil of the main character was autobiographical.  I think the Michael Scammell biography  might be worth a read too ( it looks like he wrote two, one in 2009 the other in 2011).  I think I remember reading about the chaotic circumstances of Koestler’s suicide, and the tragedy of his wife joining him.


    One thing I found interesting in Hitchens’ article was Koestler’s theory that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the lost people of Khazaria.  By coincidence, five or six years ago I read a book by Shlomo Sand entitled The Invention of the Jewish People.  In Chapter 4, there are sections under the headings: Jewish Kagans? A strange Empire Rises in the East; Khazars and Judaism – A long Love Affair?; Modern Research Explores the Khazar Past; The Enigma – The Origin of Eastern Europe’s Jews.  When I read Sand, I was most interested in learning about Zionism vis-a-vis the rise of nationalism in Europe, but I recall his sections about the Khazari people.


    It’s sad to learn that Koestler became “bewitched” (to use Hitchens’ word), by theories of levitation, ESP, telepathy, and UFOs.  My impression of his earlier life was that he was an atheist, through and through.  Perhaps in the end, the alcohol and mental illness took it’s toll.  Back in the 1960s, when I was a freshman in college, I had a professor who said: “A genius is like a man with the sun in his belly – he gives light to the whole world, but it burns his guts out.”


    Thanks again for the link to the article.

  • My pleasure, Michael.

    Hitchens can be a bit bitchy at times. He gives good gossip. But the supernatural nonsense was a notable lapse for Koestler towards the end.

    The only book of AK’s I still have is Janus, A Summing Up. which details a quite respectable theory of “holons”, a bit like fractals working bidirectionally in scale… er… or something. These had the capacity to explain life the Universe and Everything, but also transcendental, or supernatural phenomena [?!]. He may well have developed a desire to find evidence of these to validate this final work.


    Orwell has an interesting review of the three key novels. He rated Darkness at Noon very highly.



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