Desert Island Books (Fiction)

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Dark and foreboding yet and soulful and uplifting. This post-apocalyptic novel won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. The prose is stark and tight and the phraseology is a thing of beauty. Ostensibly, the book is about a father and son’s struggle to survive in a world gone wrong. But I would argue that the real protagonist of this story is the deep resolve inside all of us. Even in a blackened world, McCarthy shows that people can still yearn; still worry and love even after cities crumble and hope is all but lost. The book shows that the inner drama of what it means to be human cannot be atomized. It isn’t our societies or our cultures that make us what we are; the answer is more profound than that. The Road is a showcase of fine writing as well as a blistering exaltation of the human spirt.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (1961)

This book is set in 1950s suburbia and follows the destruction of a young married couple’s relationship. Yates has a knack for surfacing the unseemly truths of life in his writing and this book is no exception. Most people, most of the time, bury life’s little tragedies into the dark recesses of their unconscious, but Yates drags them out into the open for his readers to confront. His stories tend to disregard mirth and zero in on sadness and despondency. So why read something so depressing, you ask? One answer could be that the without the having gone through a brutal winter, spring cannot feel as sweet as it does when it arrives. Much more can be said as to why people should deliberately choose to examine the bitterness of life, but the real reason to read this book is that Yates is a talented and gifted writer who, like most great artists, can beautifully depict the not so beautiful parts of life.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Have there been better stories? Sure. Have there been more memorable characters? Definitely. But I’m sure if there has ever been a better written novel. Poetry is what sets Gatsby apart from everything that came before and has come after. Every line is fresh and dances off the page. Fitzgerald takes a mundane drive from New York City to Long Island and imbues it with style and sexual energy. It’s clear in his writings that he relishes flexing his literary muscle, but, with Gatsby, he is rarely pretentious when doing it–always charming and debonair. In his early works, he tried too hard for the metaphor, stretched too much to prove his greatness every chance he got. Here, he writes without insecurity. Once the genius can relax and settle into his chosen form of expression, beauty occurs as easily as the lightning bug’s flash.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

The first third of this classic was like medicine. I had to force it down. But once Holden heads to NYC and begins traversing the city and interacting with its inhabitants, it become clear what Salinger’s point is. Some lines are infuriating, others are utterly enlightening. Is it clear why this book became an written anthem for the socially distressed and alienated? Yes. Should it be remembered as simply a youthful protest against the social pressures of conformity? Absolutely not. It is far too complex a work of art for such a conventional label.

Symposium, Plato (385-370 BCE)

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Desert Island Books (Non-fiction)

Religion and Science, Bertrand Russell (1935)

I remember first becoming aware of who Bertrand Russell was after taking a The philosophy of language course in college. The professor assigned a writing of his on descriptions where he described the purpose of the word “the” for about 15 page. Sounds like something from a bad dream but Russell made it interesting and useful due to his keen intellect and amazing ability with the pen. I starting reading his other, less arcane work and its fair to say that Religion and Science changed my life. It was one of two books (the other Guns, Germs, and Steel) that I read in my early twenties that showed me how powerful science was and will only continue to be. It showed me that the process of science was a revolution in the way humanity came to acquire information about nature. We come out of the womb with mind prepared to think wrong thought and make bunk conclusions. Science has proven to be the only system that we have created that really allows claims about nature to be validated. It is not a perfect method, but, it is all we got and we should celebrate we have it.

Consilience, E.O. Wilson (1998)

Wilson has been a Harvard Entomologist (study of ants) for nearly 5 centuries and through his illustrious career he has contributed groundbreaking theories and made numerous discovers within the walls of biology and ecology. He is also considered the father of two academic subjects and has been awarded the pulitzer prize in Non-fiction not once but twice. Can Wilson do sometime with his life already?

His book Consilience (many of his books could have made this list) is an interesting blend of good writing and science like all of them, but I really love this book’s main thesis. The title comes from the Latin word meaning “jumping together”. Wilson make a book long argument for the breaking down of arbitrary boarders that divide academic subjects. Wilson says that physical concepts and equations make up the fundamentals of Chemistry. Chemical compounds make up everything studied in Biology. Biological theory and knowledge must, therefore, influence any investigation of behavior: from animal interactions in the wild, to psychology—even all the way to the arts and humanities

Wilson is a scientist who thinks like a philosopher and writes like a poet. He writes about deep and perplexing questions about life’s origins and complexities and brings a wealth of scientific data to the table that offer innovative ways to frame these timeless problems.

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (2012)

A disciple of E.O. Wilson, this book is one long augment for the innateness of our moral judgments. Moral decision making is more like taste or aesthetics than math and logic. For most people, most of the time moral choices are based on quick “gut” affects. The affect of disgust is one salient example. We consider a choice or think about another’s behavior and the negative feeling of disgust influences and moralized the choice or judgment for us. Consider the school shoots at Sandy Hook Elementary. When you heard the news you didn’t have to sit down in an armchair and think about if this was wrong or not. The only sane response was to feel deeply disgust by the acts committed inside that school and judge the behavior of the school shooter to be abjectly wrong.

Haidt’s groundbreaking research tells us something new and interesting about the human animal. That we get these moral feelings based on our predictions of the social would around us automatically, affected developed by evolution, and designed to help our ancestors navigate through their ever increasing social worlds. Haidt’s research does raise interesting questions for future study like how emotions and feelings design by evolution interact and active so well with cultures and social norms that have close to nothing to do with biology (similar to language in the sense that we seem to be neurobiologically prepared for language but need the cultural invention of words and speech to develop or activate the biological settings in the brain). Heidt’s book jumps from science to politics from plato to Adam Smith seamlessly. He writes and a quick and incisive way, and makes the book both a light, fun read about ideas and topics of substantial depth.

 

 

Desert Island Records

 

Live/Dead (1969) – The Grateful Dead

Before I heard this album, I only knew one thing about the Grateful Dead: There was a cultish group of people claiming the live music they produced was the highlight of human cultural achievement. As a young music fan I had to know if the hype was real or if it was just the blotter acid talking. I found that this album in no way needs the help of chemical enhancement. After buying Live/Dead, I began trekking through of massiveness of the band’s catalogue, but, to me, this album is the greatest live rock n’ roll album ever made.

Siamese Dream (1993) – The Smashing Pumpkins

Hunky Dory (1971) – David Bowie

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) – Derek and the Dominos