Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Best of 2009

2009 was a….big year for reading. I’m a little staggered by how well I was able to maintain a weekly rhythm, being thrown off only by the paper season in the fall semester. This was my first full year in the same basic format, which pleases me still -- although I don’t quite know how to best approach a yearly review. The approach I tried last year was thorough, but perhaps a bit too lengthy. I want to both reflect on the year’s reading altogether and point out books that were especially memorable.

My favorite "quotations of the week" for this year are shared at my philosophy/humanities blog.

Philosophy and Religion:
Religion and philosophy dominated this year, unexpectedly. Although philosophical inquiry as a truth-finding discipline has been of interest since 2006, applied philosophy -- using philosophy to inform the way I live my life -- has only been an area of interest since reading Doug Muder’s take on Stoicism, which opened me up not just to applied philosophy, but to religious variants on philosophy, interpretations of god, and religion itself. Not only did I begin relating to religion in a way that I would have never anticipated, I also began improving my cultural literacy by reading about the basics of four religions that were then fairly new to me -- Buddhism, Islam, Wicca, and Taoism. Taoism is still largely unknown to me, as I only read two translations and explications of the Tao te Ching.

  1. The Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness.
  2. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton 
  3. Buddha, Karen Armstrong. This is a simple biography of Siddhartha Gautama and the story of how Buddhism began. 
  4. Drawing Down the Moon, Margaret Adler. Adler offers a broad take on Wicca and other Earth-religions.
  5. Jesus, Marcus Borg. I read perhaps four books about Jesus this year, but this was the most effective and stayed with me. Borg, in looking for the historical Jesus,  examines not just what was said about Jesus, but why such a thing might be said. 

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup. Braeustrup is a Unitarian minister who works as a chaplain for the state of Maine. This is her story of how she came to be in that position, and what being able to help others does for her. 
  2. God’s Problem. Bart Ehrnman examines how the Bible attempts -- and ultimately, fails -- to answer the problem of evil. The history given by Ehrman helped me make sense of Christianity, and he ends by humanizing the book of Ecclesiastes. 
  3. The Faith Club sees three women join together several times a month to discuss the similarities, differences, and meanings of their respective religions.  

Social Criticism:

  1. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the year's best books by far. I found Postman last year, but Amusing Ourselves to Death  stayed with me all year long and I expect that it will continue to do so. 
  2. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and The Zinn Reader act as both history and social criticism. The Zinn Reader chiefly consists of articles, essays, and book forwards penned by Zinn throughout the late 20th century. He's a powerful writer, and I admire his passion.
  3. Peter Whybrow’s American Mania, takes a biological look at consumerism. 
  4. Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be? taking a philosophical look at the same on an individual level, while his Sane Society examined society as a whole.
  5.  In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honoré, introduced me to the "Slowness" movement, which is somewhat similar to movements prompting "simple living". I was already a convert when I read the book, increasing my enjoyment.

My science reading was deficient this year, owing partially to the fact that my home library gutted its little-used science section and my options dwindled. Since this was the Year of Darwin, I did a good bit of evolutionary reading. I was unable to do any reading into the history of science, other than Robert Adler’s Medical Firsts.

  1. Evolution for Everyon Evolution is all too often seen as something that happened, rather as something that happens even now. David Sloan Wilson argues that scientists working on any biological problem ought to think in evolutionary terms. There's more to the book than that -- he first argues that religion need not be evolution's foe, and that evolution is easy to understand -- but the broader use of evolution compels me to reccommend it. 
  2.  Our Inner Ape by Frans de Wall examines the behaviors exhibited by other great apes (and some merely medicore apes), comparing or contrasting them to human behaviors to see which of our behaviors might be biologically based. His conclusion is that our biological history is responsible for both behaviors that we cherish (Empathy) and despise (xenophobia). 
  3. American Mania once more. This was my first time seeing biology, politics, and social criticism pulling together. 
  4. Through a Window, Jane Goodall. This is a straightforward account of her time spent with chimpanzees, and an interesting one at that. 
  5. Why Evolution is True. This book by Jerry Coyne is particularly strong is that Coyne not only lays out the evidence for  evolution, but examines why people resist it in the first place.


  1. A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn. Zinn focuses his narrative on the downtrodden of American history -- the native Americans, slaves, women, laborers, pacifists, and socialists who are typically ignored by the "Great Leaders" approach to history. 
  2. The Great Transformation is a bit of religious and social history, as Karen Armstrong examines what she calls the “Axial Age”, which gave birth to Aristotle, Buddha, Confucious, Lao Tzu,  Zoroastrianism, and the socially-concerned Prophets of the Hebrews. 
  3. Mysteries of the Middle Ages and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill, both his Hinges of History series are definitely worth noting. While the series as a whole is a mixed bag, I particularly enjoyed these two works. The hardcover version of Mysteries is a bit of art in itself. 
  4. The Roman Mind, M.L. Clarke. Clarke gives a history of philosophy, religion, and ideology in Rome, beginning with Greece and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the "last philosopher". 
  5. Tom Holland’s Persian Fire and Rubicon are both large historical narratives tackling Persia and Rome respectively. 

Honorable Mentions:

  1. The Sons of Caesar, by Phil Matyszak is a well-done narrative that tells the story of Rome's first family of emperors and documents Rome's transition from Republic to Empire. 
  2. Constantinople, by Isaac Asimov, was my first foray into Byzantine history and a very good at that. I would expect nothing less from the maestro.


  1. Roma. If I had to choose a fiction book of the year, I’d go with Roma. Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa mystery series is worth mentioning into itself, but with Roma he managed to fit a thousand years of history into one very readable novel. 
  2. Isaac Asimov  gave me plenty of enjoyment this year with his Black Widower series and the two posthumous collections of Magic and Gold
  3. Greg Iles’ novels are absurdly riveting and often thought-provoking. The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, and Footprints of God are all recommendations. 
  4. Robert Harris' Imperium and Pompeii sold me on Harris' abilities as an author.They're easily some of the best historical fiction I've read.
  5. Max Barry's Syrup and Company were hilarious satires of American consumer and corporate culture.

 Honorable Mentions:

  1. Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events captured July for me. The thirteen books all made for fun reading, each being marvelously fun, full of dark humor, snarky comments, and little treats for adult readers. 
  2. Drew  Karpyshyn's Darth Bane trilogy still comes to mind on a regular basis.  I've only read two of the books (the third being released in early December, and which I'll get around to sometime this spring), but they're the best Star Wars fiction I've read. 
  3. Ford County: Stories, by John Grisham, was almost my last read of the year. As much as I enjoyed this book, I finished it only last week and it's still digesting, as it were. 


  1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau. Walden is the author's account of his year spent in a self-built cabin on Walden Pond in his attempt to be self-sufficient and provide more time for reflection. He writes on varied topics, making the book hard to place. It's well known in the United States and reccommended as a classic, but I did enjoy it on its own terms.
  2. The Best of Robert Ingersoll is a book of quotations by the late great Robert Ingersoll, a 19th century orator, lecturer, lawyer, and politician. He's the most interesting American I know of, and I enjoyed reading through this collection of his opinions even though it contained no full articles as I'd imagined.
  3. Sway is a book I read in the very beginning of the year about the irrational "traps" people fall into. It's an easy recommendation for skeptics: I used part of it in a history paper this past term in explaining wartime behavior.
  4. Great Books by David Denby is his account of retaking two literature of the humanities courses, beginning with Greek plays and ending with English literature. In effect, he visits the western canon and examines criticism of it, comparing his experiences as a college freshman and as an older intellectual.
  5. Humanist Anthlology. Arguably, this could have been placed in philosophy, but it's a bit more varied than that. The editors glean humanistic thinking from authors as ancient as Socrates to as modern as Richard Dawkins. These various authors defend reason and reason-based ethics, emphasize the roles of wonder and idealism, and attack ideas based too much in irrationality and unprovable claims. 

2009 was an incredible year for my favorite hobby, and while I don't expect to rival it with 2010, I do imagine I'll be finding some nice reads this upcoming year. I'm planning to dive into contemporary Star Trek fiction, finish a few trilogies, and perhaps explore the classic Lord of the Rings series. One challenge this year will be finding more Isaac Asimov to read. As always, I welcome reccomendations.


  1. Impressive as always....

    As to Asimov - have you tried:

    The Gods Themselves

  2. Asimov often says that [The Gods Themselves] is his favorite book, but I haven't yet read it -- although I'm sure I will this year. I've been trying to read his other stuff before returning to his science fiction, but I'm about to start one of his Robot collections, so that's a moot point now. ;)

  3. recommendation: Asimov's "The End of Eternity"

  4. @ John Schmidt:

    Ah, thanks. Asimov alluded to the Eternals in one of the Foundation books (Foundation and Earth, I think) but I've never read the book about them.


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