A few years ago, when I still had what the world calls a “real” job, I crossed paths on my worksite with a new hire.
She gave me a beautiful smile and said, “Do you like Kierkegaard?”
The short, out loud answer was “I don’t know.” The longer, internal answer was holy crap, I was just pegged as the kind of girl who can talk early European existential philosophers when really I’m a total ignoramus.
It’s not to my credit that I still haven’t read Kierkegaard.
But right now, I’d like to share five books published within the last twenty years that, in addition to being extremely well-written, have really stretched my brain. And when I say I “read” these books, it might be more accurate to say that they hacked my skull wide open and poured coals on the comfortable mass of my brains.
The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability (2009)
By Lierre Keith
Keith’s detractors rail that she’s out to destroy the world with a heartless, ill-founded attack on eco-friendly eating and living. I wonder if they’ve read her book. Keith forces the reader to consider the truths of our food system, and it’s not what you’d expect from someone who’s trying to save the world from the over-consumption of factory-farmed meat.
Her basic premise, packed with knowledge and heart, is that those who promote vegetarianism or veganism as healthy, natural or eco-friendly – despite their excellent intentions – are wrong. A pillar of her book is what she calls “adult knowledge”: the fact that death is essential to life, and anyone who tries to live (or eat) without causing death is denying the real nature of life. She promotes a diet of sustainably-raised plants and animals, and argues that whether it’s foraged or grown, food can’t be sustainably produced without a symbiosis of animals and plants.
She dares us to consider that the modern vegetarian or vegan diet (often founded on grain or soy-based products or massive vegetable mono-crops) may engender more death and tragic illness than any other diet in the history of the world. She points out the damage of modern industrial agriculture to our planet and its species, including the disappearance of entire habitats as more and more of the earth’s surface becomes dedicated to rigorously maintained, genetically-engineered monocultures that must be doused with chemicals to survive. By daring to emphasize the deaths that keep our world in balance, she takes a holistic view of planet-wide food sources, asking us why we’ll refuse to eat a cow or a chicken, but allow the wholesale destruction of eco-systems in favor of fields of wheat and soybeans.
Her book examines veganism or vegetarianism for moral, political, ecological or nutritional reasons, and lest you think she’s shilling for the meat industry, she rails against the atrocities of modern factory-farming. There isn’t room for all her revelations, research or proposed solutions here. I urge you to pick up The Vegetarian Myth for yourself. I’m not even a vegetarian and the book left me quaking inside – but eminently glad to have read it.
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us (1995)
By Kate Bornstein
I was a wife well into my twenties before I managed to grapple with questions of human sexuality and gender. This book was the first one to really open my mind on the topics.
Many of my former teachers at the Christian academies I attended as a child and teenager would find this a wholly dangerous title. It’s written by a transsexual woman (Bornstein was born a man).
The most charitable handling I can recall of deviations from the standard marital narrative of gender and sexuality, according to my upbringing, went like this: it may be ok to offer friendship to people who are homosexual, as long as those people are truly doing their best to fight their disorder.
I never truly bought into this mindset and was glad to leave it behind when I got to college outside of my religious community, and decided that it wasn’t my job to judge people’s sexuality.
So Gender Outlaw didn’t only interest me because it was an introduction to something beyond the idealized vision of man and wife and the cloistered, condemning lessons I’d had as a young person. The book’s real punch came when I considered that I had still failed to realize that human sexuality and gender are a vast spectrum.
I used to think there were basically two options: gay and straight (bisexuality was a fuzzy third). There were two genders: men and women. I assumed that sexuality had consistent implications for gender or gender expression: i.e., loving men meant that you identified as feminine, and loving women meant you identified as masculine.
I had grown up with such rigidly enforced norms of gender – not only that real men love women and real women love men, but that men and women always have easily defined characteristics and roles – that it took me many years to see the world for how it was.
Bornstein’s fascinating book helped me realize that your sexuality can have little or nothing to do with your gender, and that definitions of gender, for all the surety of many religious institutions, are surprisingly slippery (read what she has to say about it).
Loving women doesn’t mean you conform to traditionally masculine preferences or roles, and loving men doesn’t mean you act in traditionally feminine ways. Your gender is not necessarily determined by your genitals at birth, and who you’re attracted to is a separate proposition entirely.
Bornstein is at her most challenging when she asks why we put so much stock in identifying people by a traditional concept of gender, and how these norms control us in dehumanizing ways.
Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007)
By Edward Humes
Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Religion (2000)
By Kenneth R. Miller
Ok, I know I cheated and this is two books, but they hammered my mind in similar ways, so I’m lumping them together. Humes’s book details a 2005 Pennsylvania court case that erupted when a public school board voted to require its teachers to put Intelligent Design on the syllabus. Miller’s book asks if the concepts of evolution and God are mutually exclusive, and decides that they are not.
I’m fascinated by the concept of evolution, and I will read books about everything from bacteria to dogs to dinosaurs if there are wild evolutionary conjectures involved. I think my interest began in a high school comparative religions course, during a field trip to a local Baptist church. The clergyman there told us that evolution was a lie and dinosaur bones were a trick of the Devil. He said the fact that there are “no transitional forms” in the fossil record proved that the Bible was scientifically as well as spiritually correct.
I asked him about archaeopteryx or the coelacanth, but he showed little interest.
I’m a Creationist-ist. My family, friends and neighbors and Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, atheist and whatever else, but I don’t know any Creationists and I don’t want to know any.
That’s why these books were so challenging. Yes, they scrupulously debunk the fallacies of the evolution-deniers and I ate it up, patting myself on the back for being on the side of truth. But these books also dared to humanize the proponents of Creationism, and they forced me to admit what I’d never admitted before.
At heart, religious people who deny evolution don’t do so because the evidence is insufficient or because they’re too stupid to process the science. This has nothing to do with the value of facts and everything to do with gut belief. How can religious fundamentalists accept evolution if they believe it means denying the basis of their whole life, i.e., that they’ve been specially and directly formed by God and not by millennia of natural selection among the animal world?
It must feel as if someone wants them to learn the physics of a tornado while it’s bearing down on their house, insisting that if they can just accept the scientific facts of how the storm formed, their house won’t be torn apart.
Some books, like Bornstein’s, have challenged me by nudging me outside the original parameters of my family’s faith. And some books, like Humes’s and Miller’s, challenge me by nudging me back in again. In this case, I realized that the fundamental problem facing the “debate” about evolution in America isn’t about making the facts more accessible or breaking them down into smaller words. Instead, it’s about exploring the ways in which God and science can go hand-in-hand. It’s a tough concept for a secularized biology-junkie like me. But my mind’s been feasting on it for years now.
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (2010)
By Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Ryan and Jethá, a husband-and-wife author team, take on scientists and writers from Dawkins to Pinker to Goodall to turn the standard narrative of human evolution on its head. This book is not for the faint of heart.
What are the real origins of humans’ sexual behavior? Is the nuclear family unit (a monogamous man and woman and their children) truly the natural basis of our species? Ryan and Jethá argue that most anthropological, sociological and evolutionary models of human sexuality explaining monogamous pair-bonds are based on the faulty science of projecting the patriarchal, agricultural, and hierarchical society of the last few thousand years onto our real genetic and social roots, which are actually millions of years old.
For centuries, we’ve learned that men’s sexual aggressiveness and women’s relative sexual reserve are due to opposing evolutionary strategies. It all boils down to a difference in biological resources: men have plenty of sperm and don’t have to invest in pregnancy or child-care, while women have a finite number of ova and must give years to motherhood. Therefore, men want to have sex indiscriminately while women are rarely tempted, only having sex when they’re convinced that the man is lifelong Daddy material.
Ryan and Jethá think there’s no truth to any of that. And they’ve got compelling genetic, sociological, evolutionary, anatomical and anthropological evidence. Do women have a lesser sex drive than men do? Are men and women’s evolutionary strategies in conflict? How do matriarchal societies affect men? Why do so many religious traditions threaten adultery with death? Why do humans have what is proportionally one of the longest penises in the animal kingdom? I bet none of these writers’ answers are what you think they’re going to be.
Here’s a fun tidbit. While other scientists are arguing that human males compete to win and keep a mate who will remain sexually faithful and therefore ensure the man’s genetic legacy, Ryan and Jethá point to compelling evidence for the theory of sperm competition. What if the battle between men’s genes takes place not on a socially observable level, as we’ve been assuming – i.e., which woman belongs to which man – but on a microscopic level: women aren’t as passively non-sexual as the standard narrative indicates, and may the best sperm win.
Best of all, the authors don’t pretend that their theories must influence readers’ life choices. They present their research in the name of more open and loving communication between partners – including the ones who have chosen monogamous single-family life. Just because we don’t know what to do with the information, or because it threatens an established mode of life, doesn’t make it any less true.
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995)
By Nelson Mandela
You might guess that this book makes the list because there’s no story more integral to the modern history of South Africa, my husband’s home, than the story of Nelson Mandela as told in his own words.
I knew it would be a rich and inspiring story that was necessary to have under my belt as a citizen of the modern world. What part of the book is most exciting? Mandela’s life in hiding, before his arrest? The extraordinary legal, political, and humanitarian landmarks of his public career?
The most eventful and intellectually riveting piece of the whole book, to me, was the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison, eighteen of them on the infamous Robben Island. You wouldn’t think that almost thirty years behind bars would be the most interesting part of the book that includes Mandela’s early life, his education and political rise, harrowing adventures eluding the police, and his becoming the country’s first democratically elected president.
But it is astounding to read about how Mandela and his fellow political prisoners banded together, often during their backbreaking work in a rock quarry, not just for emotional support but to avail each other of their intellectual powers. For years, Mandela and his imprisoned contemporaries pooled the knowledge of their respective fields and experience to share it with each other by any means possible, whether whispered across bars or scribbled in the margins of books. Under the eyes of their prison guards, they determined to emerge from exile enriched by the others’ knowledge.
Sometimes it seems like education is for the classroom, a detour from the rest of our lives. Mastering knowledge is a matter of syllabi, textbooks, exams and papers. Proof of that learning is a diploma that costs thousands of dollars but promises to improve your salary. But if Mandela and his contemporaries could turn Robben Island into a clandestine university at the height of apartheid rule, is there anywhere in the world where we can’t engage in new ideas if we so choose?
My Kierkegaard-reading friend, having reached her mid-twenties, is well into the studies of her PhD. I have no plans to follow her into academia, but I still like to think that I’m learning in my own way. I recommend reading any of the books above, but only if you’re up for some challenging notions.
Do you have a book that’s changed your own intellectual outlook?