After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.
One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?
When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)
The Early Years
- Democracy for the Few by Michael Parenti – An assigned text for my American Government 201 class in college, Parenti’s Marxist-inspired critical look at America’s political-economic system was an eye-opener to say the least. It would inspire me to read other works he’d written like The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism Revolution and the Arms Race, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media and finally, decades later God and His Demons. Looking for other authors like him, I followed renegade CIA officer Philip Agee’s advice and read Jerry Fresia’s Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and Other Illusions.
- There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America by Alex Kotlowitz – Stumbled across this book at the public library a year or so after college graduation and was blown away by Kotlowitz’s intimate look at life in one of Chicago’s infamous public housing projects. Left wanting to learn more “how the other half lives” I’d go on to read Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States and Gabriel Thompson’s Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.
- Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano – After seeing this referenced in book after book I bought a used copy at some old bookstore. If you wanna understand Latin America start here.
Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look
- Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by John Shelby Spong – First book I ever read that tried to interpret the Bible in more modern light.
- What Paul Really Said About Women: The Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love by John Temple Bristow – An attempt to make the writings of Paul (or those impersonating him) less misogynistic while still staying within a Christian context.
- A Short History of Christianity by Martin E. Marty -First book I read that showed me how Christianity evolved as an institution over the last two thousand or so years.
- God: A Biography by Jack Miles – Miles treats God as a literary character tracing his development over the course of the Hebrew Bible.
- The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes – Another book like Spong’s that tries to proclaim a kindler, gentler Bible.
- The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman – Based on Ehrman’s book early Christianity should be thought of competing “Christianities” as opposed to one, monolithic young Church.
- The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels – A novel look at one of those competing versions of early Christianity and its scriptures.
- The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times by David Kling – A cool look at how the Bible has been interpreted throughout history and how it’s influenced.
- The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch – Fun look at those bizarre, frequently bawdy Bible stories you never heard in Sunday school.
- The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman – There is zero archeological evidence supporting the Biblical narrative of the Hebrews’ wandering in the desert.
- Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox – Trained classicist Lane Fox turns his highly educated critical eye upon the Bible.
- The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing – Remember all that rapture talk you might have heard in Sunday school? It’s all a recent evangelical construct.
History: A Deeper Understanding
- The Twentieth Century: A People’s History by Howard Zinn – 20th century American history from the underside.
- East and West by C. Northcote Parkinson – According to Parkinson East and West are like an oscillating piston forever vying for supremacy.
- The Fifties by David Halberstam- Commonly thought of a conservative decade, the truth is rather otherwise.
- Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill – It’s amazing the degree that disease has impacted human history.
- Backgrounds of European Literature by Vincent F. Horton and Rod W. & Hopper – Classical, Hebrew and Gothic influences have all profoundly shaped European thought and expression.
- How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill – Who would have thought the Irish were so influential in preserving Classical knowledge?
- Medieval Europe: A Short History by Charles Warren Hollister – The Middle Ages weren’t uniformly the “Dark Ages.”
- Europe: A History by Norman Davies- Taught me Europe is merely a peninsula of Asia, and the 19th century was the true birth of the Modern Age.
- Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe – Think all the killing ended once Germany surrendered? Nope.
- The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth – Even after the conclusion of World War I the fighting especially in Eastern Europe continued.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson- Blacks leaving the South for the North, Northern Midwest and California in the decades following World War I is a story needing to be told.
- The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan – Western Europe’s rise to prominence in the Early Modern age was fueled by trade with Central and East Asia.
Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad
- The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon – Why colonialism is so harmful and how to fight it.
- Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire – Colonialism is bad but you can fight it, and be proud if you don’t happen to be white.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley- Inspiring story of an man who went from convicted petty thief and prisoner to world-class civil rights leader. And he read like a scholar while in prison.
- Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. – Terrific history of one of America’s sadly forgotten political movements.
Developing a Post-Religious Worldview
- How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael Shermer – The book that made me start questioning things.
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris – Great critique of religion told using direct, accessible language.
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens – Hell of a writer. And persuasive.
- A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian – More of a manual for creating great critical thinkers.
- Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker – What makes an evangelical minister walk away from religion?
- Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith by Carlene Cross – Cross is a likable, intelligent woman, who for excellent reasons gradually left the faith. A highly underrated memoir.
The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding
- From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman- First book I read about the Middle East and it’s still a fave.
- Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East by Jared Cohen – Excellent first hand account of Cohen’s person to person contacts across the region.
- The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East by Neil MacFarquhar – Another excellent first hand account of an author’s person to person contacts across the Middle East.
- Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 by Kai Bird – A memoir recalling the the “Golden Years” of the modern Middle East by a person who grew up there.
- We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands by Rachel Shabi – Outside of Israel, few people are aware of a segment of the country’s Jewish population that hails from the Arab World, sharing many of that region’s cultural characteristics.
- Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas – One of the best books on the Middle East published this decade.
- The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr – Prescient and powerful.
- The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd – Required reading if you wanna understand Iran.
- Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright – Wright is an expert on the Middle East and it shows.
East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations
- Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson – Militarily speaking, the West has prevailed over the rest of the world thanks to a collection of shared concepts such as dissent, inventiveness, adaptation and citizenship. Too bad this author is now a big Trump supporter.
- Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – Europe conquered the world not because Europeans are smarter. Favorable geography helped played a major role.
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson – Unlike the above mentioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson believe human institutions help determine whether a nation becomes rich or poor.
- Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy by Ibn Warraq – According to Warraq, Western values we take for granted like pluralism, individualism, freedom of thought and secularism are keys to our success and should be passionately defended.
Corruptions of Power
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – Essential reading if you wanna understand the American political landscape.
- Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us by Brian Klaas – All of us at least once in our lives has encountered someone who abused his or her authority. Does power ultimately corrupt? The answer is nuanced to say the least.
Animals: Smarter Than You Think
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – If there was ever a book that changed my worldview it’s this one. Frequently the cognition gap between human and beast is a lot narrower than you’d think.
That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!