A List of Books I Read in 2016 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

 

THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.

nonfiction

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  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
    • One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).

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  • Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
    • Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.

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  • The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
    • Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.

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  • Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.

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  • Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.

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  • Free Will – (Sam Harris)
    • Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.

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  • On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
    • I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.

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  • A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
    • As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).

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  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
    • Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.

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  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.

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  • A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
    • I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.

the controversial books**

**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).

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  • God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
    • This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.

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  • Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
    • A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.

books of poetry

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  • 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
    • A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.

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  • High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
    • Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.

fiction

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  • The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
  1. One Rainy Day in May
  2. Into the Forest
  3. Honeysuckle and Pain

    • Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.

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  • The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings
    • Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
    • Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.

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  • Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
    • Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.

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  • Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
    • This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.

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  • The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
      • The Fires of Heaven
      • Lord of Chaos
    • I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.

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  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
    • This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.

graphic novels

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  • Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
  1. Welcome to Lovecraft
  2. Head Games
  3. Crown of Shadows
  4. Keys to the Kingdom
  5. Clockworks
    • Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.

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  • SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.

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  • Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
    • This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.

webcomics

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  • Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
    • Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.
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WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 2

(on determinism and free will, and thus also on moral responsibility)

Before I even begin this post, let me take the time to define some terms. This part of my Why I’m Not an Atheist series is about determinism and free will, so it behooves us to make sure we all know what I mean by those terms. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “causal determinism” as “…roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” I like this definition. Later in this post, I am going to use what has been called the Basic Argument of determinism to attempt to show why I adhere to this idea. However, given that this post is at least in part about theology – I mean only that we’re discussing the God question and thus our terms are going to need to relate directly to this God question – I’m going to use the word “determinism” to mean “theological fatalism” when discussing the idea from a theist’s perspective (don’t worry, I think you’ll be able to follow…). The SEP defines theological fatalism as “the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree.” Basically, determinism itself is the analog of theological fatalism in a world in which God does not exist, and theological fatalism is the analog of pure determinism in a world in which God does exist. To put it more simply, we’re discussing the idea that the future is determined by something (nature and the state of the universe on one hand, God on the other), and so I choose to use the same term to emphasize what I see as the sameness of the issue. If you don’t follow that, it’s fine – that is basically what I’m going to try to argue in this post anyway. Okay, on to the next definition: free will. When I discuss free will in this post, I am not referring to the notion that human actions are completely undetermined by anything other than that person’s will. Thus, I’m not talking about a completely autonomous will. Most of us would reject that wording anyway, because most of us realize that our situations in fact do determine our choices to at least some extent. For instance, I cannot choose to be three feet taller, or to spread my arms and fly to Thailand. There are laws to this universe. Some people (Buddhists, maybe? or New Agers?) believe in the idea of “mind over matter,” but this is not the idea I’m talking about when I am referring to free will. For the duration of this post, think of free will as simply the ability of rational agents (humans) to choose between various alternative options that do not go against the physical laws of the universe. Free will is the idea that you can make a choice and thus influence the flow of time. Determinism is the idea that the things which happen necessarily happen – that they happen out of necessity, because they have been determined.

(I won’t get into much detail, but suffice it to say that as a Calvinist I believe that determinism/ theological fatalism is true. Some of my fellow Christians will balk at that – maybe even some Calvinists will balk at the usage of the word “fatalism,” since it has the connotation of meaninglessness. However, I personally believe that we have real wills that we exercise but which are ultimately under the sovereign will of God. There is no other possible way, in my opinion, for God to be said to be sovereign – because if everyone has free choices to make and thus can freely influence the flow of history, then history is at the mercy of people and not God. Okay. Just wanted to make that clear. Let’s get on with the actual post, since this isn’t supposed to be about me defending my own particular brand of theism).

Now that we have those terms defined, I can begin my main argument (if it can be called that). Some atheists I have met have posed to me a charge against theism which they find very strong indeed. The charge is that, if God exists, then we do not have a free, effectual will. Our choices are merely the illusions of choices, since a deity that exists outside of time and knows all the events of the future and that can interact within human history would be in control. The criticism can be seen in pop culture all over the place. For instance, think back to the movie The Matrix (yes, yes, I know this is an easy target, since virtually no other movie in popular culture has been so blatantly about philosophy). When asked if he believes in “fate” – the idea that the future is destined to happen – Neo replies “No… because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” This is a particular criticism of Christianity, since one of the attributes of the Christian God is sovereignty – the idea that this God is in complete and utter control at all times and in all places. This conception of God negates, in these atheists’ minds, the common sense notion that we have the ability to choose freely between alternative decisions. Note that this criticism, and indeed the whole determinism vs. free will debate, is very closely tied up with discussions of moral responsibility. I will get to issues of morality in the next two posts, but the main gist of this criticism of theism is that it seems to preclude real moral responsibility. After all, how can we be said to be morally responsible for an action if that action happened necessarily – if, in effect, we did not have any real control in the matter at all and the action was foreordained and predestined? I don’t shy away from the fact that this is a serious charge. However, what I want to prove here is that a move away from theism does not solve this issue. It merely moves the sovereignty from this deity to something else.

Brace yourselves, because this is where it’s going to get really dense and possibly hard to follow. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible (partly because going into depth on every term and theory would take a lifetime, and partly because the whole point of this thing is to be readable). To my knowledge, atheists tend to be materialists – that is, they reject the notion of the supernatural and hold that everything “supervenes on” the physical world. This is consistent with the usual reasons they pose for rejecting theism and supernaturalism in the first place, so you can’t fault them for that. However, let’s run with that scenario. The material, physical world is the only thing that can be said to exist in reality. Even mental processes such as love, pain, reason itself, happiness, depression, etc. can be said to supervene on or be based upon the physical realities. Consciousness is the result of the physical world behaving in a certain way. Okay? Now, here’s where the Basic Argument I talked about earlier comes into play. If this is the way that reality is, the atheist has not escaped determinism. Let me show you. I first heard of this argument in Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” which can be found in the 2007 edition of Ethical Theory (edited by Russ Shafer-Landau… the forthcoming quote is on page 347). It is he who termed it the Basic Argument and it can be stated thusly:

“(1) You do what you do because of the way you are. So,

(2) To be truly morally responsible for what you do you must be truly responsible for the way you are – at least in certain crucial mental respects. But,

(3) You cannot be truly responsible for the way you are, so you cannot be truly responsible for what you do.”

This is tough to parse on some levels – especially as it relates to the a/theism debate. So let me try to simplify it by connecting it directly with what we have been talking about. To the atheistic materialist, the world is entirely made up of physical things. In fact, even seemingly non-physical things supervene on the physical processes. So, our mental faculties are merely the result of the workings of physical processes in our brains. But, these physical processes behave according to strict physical laws that have been working on your physical makeup since literally before you were born. This is evidenced by the fact that alcoholism, for example, has a genetic basis. Therefore, since you cannot be said to have been responsible for your original physical makeup (after all, you didn’t exist yet and certainly did not pick out the physical properties you would have upon birth), and since you cannot be said to be responsible for the physical laws that have been acting on those original physical properties over time (since those laws existed before you did and are not mutable, or at least certainly not mutable by you), and since your physical makeup dictates your mental processes (this is materialism, the mental supervening on the physical), you cannot be said to have free will, nor to be morally responsible for the choices you make.

Let that sink in a bit. It is very difficult to object to this Basic Argument (in fact, I think it to be impossible if it is approached from an atheistic, materialistic perspective). If the atheist denies premise (1), she is denying the very materialism that she has claimed to espouse. If she denies premise (2), she must then try to figure out what it means to be morally responsible for something that she can’t be said to be responsible for in a nonmoral sense. That is, negating premise (2) is to say that, paradoxically, one is responsible for something one did without being responsible for one’s physical makeup, even though materialism would have to hold to the idea that what we do is predicated upon our physical makeup, according to premise (1). This seems illogical. It is basically like saying that I, Mike, should be held accountable for things I did even though those actions were the result of material processes over which I have no control. Where does this sudden responsibility come into play? Note: I am not saying the theist has it any better. I am simply showing that the atheist has not escaped the problem by a simple move to atheism. What would be required is a radical restructuring of the very common-sense notions of free will and agency that caused the atheist to object to theism in the first place. (Just to make sure I cover this, the only answer given to this problem in the Bible is a rather unsatisfying one. In Romans, Paul argues basically this same idea, but applied to God. He says that none can resist the will of God, that if God has made some to be vessels of wrath for the day of destruction and some to be vessels of mercy no one can resist those purposes. He anticipates the objection “Why does (God) still find fault? For who can resist his will?” and answers the objection by saying “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Check it out in Romans 9:19-20. My point is that I sympathize with the atheist at this point, because I do not have an answer for this problem. More on that later).

Really quickly, let me summarize the point of this long post. The reason I find it worthwhile to discuss is that some atheists I have talked to share the opinion of Neo in The Matrix: they do not like the idea of not being in control of their lives. Seeing within theism a determinism that goes against their notions of free will, they attempt to solve the problem by a move to atheism (I’m not saying this is the only reason, nor that all atheists even have a problem in this area, but simply that some do). However, what I have hopefully shown here is that making that philosophical move does not solve the issue. What it does is merely push the control down from a deity to Nature itself. If you go back and re-read the Basic Argument, you will realize that in a materialistic universe punishing someone for their actions is much the same as punishing someone for their hair color, or for their skin color. It is the same because in a materialistic universe all things necessarily supervene on the physical, and we do not have control over the physical. Any attempt to assert that we do have control over the physical properties of our bodies will lead to the inevitable fallacy of the causa sui (the notion that we are the cause of ourselves, which is obviously untrue as evidenced by the fact that we did not pick out our parents’ genes, etc.).

Finally, I want to point out a few things. There are many philosophers nowadays who are compatibilists. That is, they hold that free will and determinism are compatible. In fact, there are some who hold, seemingly paradoxically, that moral responsibility is only possible in a deterministic universe. One example of an atheist compatibilist is Daniel Dennett , and the link I just provided is a video of him discussing his views on this dispute. However, I would argue that any move that an atheist makes to solve this problem can equally be made by the theist. For instance, I hold that we are morally responsible for our choices. In fact, adhering to the doctrine of the Bible, I would hold that the problem is that our will is always and only in the opposite direction of God’s will – and that therefore the only way to repent (or, in other words, to turn toward God and from one’s immorality) is to be made to do so by God who is sovereign. Or, other theists (in the sense of including all forms of theism) reject the notion of moral responsibility or else reject the notion of determinism altogether, just like other atheists reject these notions in order to get out of the predicament. My point is that moving to a position of atheism does not help the problem. And if the problem is cited as a reason for the move away from theism, and the move to atheism does not solve the problem, then the reason for moving to atheism was invalid in the first place.
So that’s it. It’s a long one, I know. But I hope it was not too difficult to follow and that it can generate some discussion. My next two posts are going to deal with the issue that this one leads into: namely, morality itself and the supposed problems from which theistic morality is said to suffer. I am excited about these next two posts because, personally, I find morality to be the biggest indicator of a deity’s existence. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to suddenly switch my purpose here and start trying to convert everyone to Christianity. I merely plan on refuting the problems that atheists have with theistic morality.