It may seem like a strange topic for the holidays, but the gifts that books bring into my life are most precious when they stretch my thinking, challenge old beliefs, and put into words the feelings I have that are too complex or deep to be able to articulate. There are many original thinkers and writers out there: these are only a very few of my favorites. So this is my holiday “gift” to those of you who like to read widely–a list of books, most fairly recent, that have given me new insights into life’s many ideas.
The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman
Ackerman is one of those writers whose subjects, mostly scientific, explore her boundless interest in how humans “work” in the world. Here, she tackles the deeply important question of how humans have changed the world; how the intersection of people and nature have made for both innovation and extinction. She optimistically explores innovations in farming, such as the exploding popularity of organic and rooftop farming in urban-landscaped places such as Manhattan. She also examines human innovations using energy sources such as wind, solar and even body heat. She is less optimistic, and rightly so, about the changes in animal species and their longevity as a result of intersecting with humans. And where, she asks, is the charm in inventions such as robotics? Her conclusion: there are a lot of tradeoffs and this is the world as we get to experience it–for good and ill. Ackerman always writes with both charm and intelligence, which is what has kept me reading her books for years.
Justice, by Michael Sandel
When I first read this book a few years ago, I knew it was an important book–very important. And so do thousands of others, based on how widely distributed the contents have become. Sandel, a Harvard professor of political philosophy since 1980, has become a celebrity (with standing room only classes and a PBS series based on the book), partly because of the topic of this book, subtitled “What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Sandel explores the ethical issues, where no black and white answers may prevail, to contemporary topics such as military conscription, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and surrogate parenting. He explains, in empathetic and open-minded terms, theories of justice based on maximizing personal freedom, minimizing social harm, and concern for developing collective civic virtue. He wants his students, in particular, to grasp that ethical concerns are difficult to juggle, and that there is no “perfect” answer, mostly hard choices.
For all the screeching from pro and con sides of the vaccine debate (fueled partly by the fear that vaccines have contributed to the soaring rates of autism), here at last is not only a history of vaccines but an intelligent look at all sides of the issue. Why I decided to pick up a book on the subject has to do with the fact that I have been advised not to have any more vaccines, due to an immune illness several years ago. Biss deserves kudos for not only the uniqueness of her subject, but her dogged pursuit of all sides of the issue, and profiles of people involved such as scientists, patients, and political decision-makers. Who would believe me if I told them a book on immunity was one of my top picks among the books I read this year? Science has many skilled and imaginative writers now days, and Biss is a writer to be watched. This book provided me with an education of the most intriguing kind.
The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison
This is one of the most unique books I have come across in a long, long time–a collection of essays that explore the many aspects of empathy–both from the author’s own experience and that of others. I would call it a brave book. Jamison’s stories encompass a huge range of examples of empathy, from deeply graceful to exceedingly painful. She starts with her own experience as a “medical actor”, helping medical students learn to carefully listen and diagnose from scripted symptoms. Violence and crime, reality television, extremely painful illness, tourism in a country of dire poverty–I was constantly astounded at the depth of this writer’s intelligence and compassion (and she looks so young in her cover photo!). I have recently been seeing this important book appear on lists of the year’s best non-fiction, and it is tremendously well-deserved. Take a plunge here, and I am sure you will be impressed too.
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
So far there is not a book or column (NY Times) of Gawande’s that I have not read with great interest–and as a top-rated physician, he is in a unique position to write about modern medicine. I think this book is his best, and most important. Half of the book concerns living options as we age–and how we can age with more choices and self-respect. The second part concerns how we can die with dignity. One of his major points is that the amazing advances in medical care in the past century have left most health care providers with a laser focus on saving a life, and almost none on the quality of life the patient will have after being subjected to those techniques. It is the subject of conversation we all should be having with our loved ones and each other–it is a subject whose time is unconscionably overdue, and Gawande brings great credibility and passion to the subject.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
Of all the books that have been recommended to me about why a person would want to live–this is the classic. I am sure most of you have read it at some time, but I would be remiss if I did not include it as one of the books that has a place of great importance in my life. Named one of the ten most influential books in the world, it chronicles the experience of Viennese psychologist Frankl in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. What Frankl noticed, in particular, was that some less hardy people survived when others who were not as ill and starving died. He came up with his theory, that those with meaning, or hope in their lives had a greater chance at survival. Called logotherapy, it promotes three methods of discovering meaning: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude a person takes toward unavoidable suffering. No wonder the book has sold over 12 million copies!
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
In my opinion, Diamond is a truly original thinker, and I have read this book and watched the PBS version of it with utter fascination. His theory that three of the major influences on the rise of civilization and survival of societies have been geography, environment and the ability to develop tools and technology (not to worry, germs are not left out! While ambitious in scope (it covers human history since the ice age), it is intellectually intriguing, and has given rise to many spirited discussions among those who have read it. Instead of attributing Eurasian influence and domination to racial or intellectual causes, he makes the case that those who could produce their own food and tools, leaving behind the hunter-gatherer life that most humans maintained for centuries, had the greatest opportunity to travel and conquer other peoples. When Diamond writes a book or article, I tackle it with gusto.