I try to spend as much time as I possibly can reading. I still read far less than I would like to, but I’ve managed to read quite a few books over the past few years. The difficulty for me is to pick my favourites out of the ones that I’ve read. Certainly some I didn’t like, but many were good yet incomparable to each other. One may have a great plot, while another has compelling characters, while another has interesting themes underlying it—it all gets very difficult to compare one book to another.
With that said, I have tried to do my best here to come up with a decent list of my favourites. My list is far from complete, since I am sure there are many, many books out there that are amazing, but that I haven’t yet read. There are also probably some that I have read but have forgotten about. But without further ado, here is my list, divided into two (rough) categories: popular-level/fiction and scholarly/non-fiction. I’ve included links to Amazon.ca for each, so if any of the books strike your fancy, why not go on over and purchase yourself a copy? Even if you never get around to reading it, you’ll look smarter just carrying it around!
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (amazon.ca) — Hitchhiker’s Guide continues to be one of my favourite books no matter how many times I read it. It’s a crazy story about an ordinary man who watches his house get demolished to make way for a highway overpass, and then on the same day, watches as Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. He manages to escape just in time, but then is sent on a zany trip across the universe to find the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (I won’t spoil the answer for you). There is no way to describe the book that would do justice to it, but it is truly a book that is enjoyable, funny, and at times even thought-provoking in its own special way.
- 1984 by George Orwell (amazon.ca) — This book is a classic work that deserves to be read by everyone. In a dystopian future where the government (“Big Brother”) controls every aspect of life, down to the thoughts one thinks, how does one gain freedom? Is it even possible to do so? Orwell’s book challenges our notions of privacy, government control, and human nature and takes us to a hypothetical place that we must hope never becomes reality. His work also can be read as a criticism of over-sized bureaucracy and the perils of groupthink. If you have not read this amazing book, you need to do so.
- The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs (amazon.ca) — This book tells the true story of a guy who took on the challenge of reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and documenting his process. The book intersperses interesting anecdotes from the encyclopedia with humorous stories from the author’s personal life during his challenge. Despite what might be dry subject material, Jacobs manages to keep it light, entertaining, and all-out amazing. Whatever your personal feelings at the thought of reading an entire encyclopedia, you will not be disappointed with this book.
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (amazon.ca) — Don Quixote is, quite simply, one of the best pieces of literature to come out of the 17th century. (Well, okay, Shakespeare might have something different to say about that.) It is a story of a man who reads too many books about knights in shining armour, goes crazy, and decides to become a knight himself. He convinces a dim-witted neighbour to become his squire, and then they go about the countryside rescuing damsels in distress (and making things worse), fighting giants (which are really windmills), and rescuing captives (which are criminals being taken to prison). In the process, some of the people they meet decide to have a little fun with them, and play pranks on them for their own amusement. In the end, the result is a lively and light-hearted tale of mistakes and misadventures, and will have you laughing throughout.
- Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (amazon.ca) — This book is an ambitious attempt to answer the question, “Why did the white man win?” Or to put it another way, “What factors led to the dominance of the Western world over the rest of the world?” Diamond’s argument is that Western cultures benefited from natural advantages, and focuses largely on the geographic, demographic, and ecological differences that led to Western prosperity. It is an attempt to avoid the arguments about biological or racial superiority, in the sense of innate differences between cultures. While some of the material has been challenged, it still offers a valuable perspective and remains one of the best books written for a popular audience on this subject.
- Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne (amazon.ca) — When I read this book, I was fairly well-acquainted with most of the major arguments in favour of evolution. Even still, I was able to learn some very interesting facts that help to explain why the overwhelming majority of biologists accept evolution to be true. It is an amazingly well-written book that still remains easily accessible to an audience that may not be very familiar with biology, paleontology, genetics, etc. It lays out the arguments in simple terms and with plenty of diagrams, and makes a strong case for the truth of evolution. If you are at all interested in the subject, I’d recommend it for a good primer on how evolution is defended by scientists.
- Don Juan by Lord Byron (amazon.ca) — Another classic work which deserves mention on anyone’s top 10 list. A boy of 16 is caught in a love affair at home, and to avoid embarrassment his mother sends him away. From there the adventure begins, as he is whisked away to Italy, to Greece, to Russia, and to England, in each place finding love and adventure. Byron turns the womanizer Don Juan into a hopeless romantic and uses the character to draw out the differences between Byron’s own culture and the cultures of foreign lands. It is at once a satire, a social commentary, and love poetry. The only disappointment is that Byron died while writing it, so it remains unfinished. All the same, a great work of literature worth the read.
- Consumed by Benjamin Barber (amazon.ca) — This book is a scathing criticism of modern consumer culture. Barber’s main focus is the “infantilization” of consumers, a sort of induced childishness that serves both to bring increasingly younger children into the market and also to keep older consumers in an impulsive, narcissistic state of mind. While I don’t agree with everything that he says in the book (including his offered solutions for correcting the problem), he offers some valuable points about the methods that aggressive advertisers use to “create demand” for their products.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (amazon.ca) — This book is an intriguing tale about a handsome man who has a portrait painted of himself. After seeing the beauty of the portrait, he makes a wish that the man in the picture would age and decay and that he himself would remain beautiful. When his wish comes true, the tale takes a turn for the worse, as each evil act and sin of excess that he commits is revealed only in the (now hidden) painting. It is a haunting story of the corruptibility of the human soul, played out in almost an allegorical manner. Quick and easy to read, this is a book you won’t want to put down until you’re finished.
- The Odyssey by Homer (amazon.ca) — Last, but certainly not least, comes a timeless ancient epic, The Odyssey. A tale of adventure and woe, it follows the life of Odysseus as he travels home by sea after the end of the Trojan War. After struggling against the wrath of the gods to make it home and encountering obstacle after obstacle, Odysseus finally makes it home to find that his wife is being courted by a number of suitors wanting to take over the area. (After ten years, everyone presumed Odysseus dead at this point—everyone but his wife.) This book explores timeless themes such as fate, the “man of sorrows”, and persevering love. And Cyclops, of course.
- Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein (amazon.ca) — This book is one of my favourite philosophical texts of all time. To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure why. But this book is surprisingly readable for being a philosophy book, and it has had a huge impact on fields like linguistics, semantics, and philosophy of mind. Wittgenstein talks a lot about how one’s subjective experience is inaccessible to others, and yet we are still able to communicate about feelings, emotions, perspectives, colours, etc. Wittgenstein also developed the idea of a “language-game”—a set of rules governing language and the meaning of words that a given group of people agree upon. He argued that words do not have any specific meaning outside of these language-games. It’s a fascinating read, and like I said, easy to read. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s ever wondered, “Is what I see as red the same thing that other people see when they see red?”
- An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (amazon.ca) — This is a treatise by another one of those philosophers that completely changed the course of philosophy. Hume was the iconic skeptic, and continually challenged the philosophical arguments concerning what we can know about the world. This book is best known for two sections: the formulation of the problem of induction and the argument against miracles. The former in particular is a problem which is largely regarded to be yet unsolved (though some philosophers believe they have solved it). If you want to understand the problem that has sent philosophers into agonizing spasms ever since, you need to read this book. Again, it is highly readable, even for a book from the 1700s.
- The Non-Existence of God by Nicholas Everitt (amazon.ca) — As far as I am concerned, this is one of the best books that has been written to make the case for atheism. Of course, I haven’t read all of them out there, but this does a fine good job at first challenging the arguments in favour of God, and then making several arguments against the existence of God as well. That sounds deceptively simple, but Everitt places a great deal of time outlining the arguments before considering criticisms and (for the theistic arguments) punching holes in them. His philosophical background leads to a well-reasoned and well-stated case, and sets up no straw men. This is the book I would recommend most highly to those wanting to understand the case for atheism.
- When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger (amazon.ca) — This book takes a fascinating look into the minds of members of a small doomsday cult and asks the question, “What happens when a prophecy with a specified date clearly does not come true?” With people planted on the inside, Festinger and his colleagues create an in-depth picture of what challenges the cult members face in spite of the obvious disconfirmation of their beliefs. The amazing result is that after the prophecy fails to come true, the members become more passionate about spreading their beliefs! The study described in the book helped to flesh out the psychology of cognitive dissonance which is now a fairly well-known term. When I read this book, I could barely put it down—I just had to know what happened next! This book is simply a must-read.
- Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (amazon.ca) — This book is an attempt to explain religion using the normal, everyday cognitive functions of human beings. It is an ambitious project, to be sure, but Boyer does an excellent job at explaining religious experiences and rituals by appealing to functions such as agency detection, face perception, and so on. Certainly with such hindsight analysis, it is difficult to prove that this is indeed how religion sprung up, but it is at least an argument against the notion that religion must be the product of specialized cognitive modules that deal only with the divine. Boyer lays out his case well and backs up his work with solid research. All in all, it is a book which greatly increases our understanding of how religion functions from a psychological perspective.
- Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman (amazon.ca) — Written by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars today, Lost Christianities describes the amazingly wide variety of Christian beliefs that existed during the first couple hundred years of the church. The range of Christian beliefs we see today is dwarfed by the range that existed back then, where some viewed Jesus as wholly divine, others as wholly human, and yet others as a human “adopted” by God at his baptism. Some thought Jesus was one with Yahweh, and others thought he was sent by a different God, above Yahweh. Ehrman lays out the theology and history of the early churches in a way which is easy for the layman to understand. Though none of what he has written here is unknown to scholars and historians, it seems mostly unknown to the general population. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in why the Christianity we see today “won” over the others.
- The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (amazon.ca) — While this probably is classified more of a “popular-level” book, the incredible amount of knowledge that Taleb fits into this book makes it worthy of being placed on the “scholarly” list. Taleb outlines the inherent unpredictability of financial markets and explains how extreme, improbable events (“black swans”) are difficult to predict but have huge effects. By assuming that financial markets follow a regular, predictable course, one can be completely caught off guard by the real drivers of the markets: these relatively rare and random events that throw the whole market into disarray in a single step. It is not the first book to cover this topic, nor has it been the last, but it is certainly one for the bookshelf.
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (amazon.ca) — The simultaneous eloquence and vitriol of this Enlightenment thinker is what makes this book an excellent read. Paine was involved in the French Revolution and also became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but was an avid critic of Christianity and was himself a deist. The Age of Reason is Paine’s treatise against Christian doctrine, and lays out several arguments against revelation, against the divine inspiration of the Bible, and against religious institutions. Regardless of what your own opinions on these issues are, the passionate rhetoric of the book is sure to stir some sort of response within you. A fascinating read.
- The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (amazon.ca) — This book is a fascinating journey into the heart of existentialist philosophy. Camus states that the primary question of philosophy is, “Why not commit suicide?” In the face of a meaningless and absurd world, is suicide the proper answer? His answer is that suicide cannot be the answer, but that tireless revolt against the meaningless world is the only proper response. This book grapples with the difficulty of absurdity, and Camus’ answer in the end seems grim to some. But it is a valiant attempt to come to terms with an indifferent universe, a journey which all humans must face in our darkest times. As such, it is an important book that comes face to face with the starkest reality and, in my opinion, survives the journey.
- Why I Became an Atheist by John Loftus (amazon.ca) — This book is at the same time a philosophical argument and a personal reflection of a former pastor who left the faith and became an atheist. Loftus attempts to provide a solid cumulative case for atheism, and the book is absolutely great in laying out the arguments others have formulated in a concise yet complete way. The most original argument of the book comes in Loftus’ own “outsider test for faith”, which challenges believers to test their beliefs as if they were outsiders to the faith they were evaluating. The argument is more complex than I have space to describe here, but it is an important contribution to the arguments surrounding religious belief.
So there you have it, folks! I am sure there will be some people who will disagree about some of these books and think they are not worth the paper they’re printed on. If so, great! Tell me all about it in the comments. Also, I’m always looking for book suggestions to add to my (ever-growing) list to read, so make sure to leave a comment about those too. Thanks, and happy reading!