My Top 20 Books

Antique books with candleI 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!

Popular-Level/Fiction:

  1. Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe 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.
  2. 19841984 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.
  3. The Know-It-AllThe 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.
  4. Don QuixoteDon 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.
  5. Guns, Germs, and SteelGuns, 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.
  6. Why Evolution Is TrueWhy 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.
  7. Don JuanDon 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.
  8. ConsumedConsumed 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.
  9. The Picture of Dorian GrayThe 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.
  10. The OdysseyThe 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.

Scholarly/Non-Fiction:

  1. Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical 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?”
  2. An Enquiry concerning Human UnderstandingAn 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.
  3. The Non-Existence of GodThe 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.
  4. When Prophecy FailsWhen 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.
  5. Religion ExplainedReligion 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.
  6. Lost ChristianitiesLost 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.
  7. The Black SwanThe 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.
  8. The Age of ReasonThe 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.
  9. The Myth of SisyphusThe 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.
  10. Why I Became an AtheistWhy 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!

4 responses to “My Top 20 Books”

feeno

W’dup Brother?

I hate reading anything but the Bible and even that sometimes is a chore. So my favorite books would be “James”, “Ecclesiastes” and maybe “Romans”?

But I loved the movie about Dorian Gray.

A couple things about Mr. Loftus’ book “Why I Became an Atheist”. It’s the only book on your list I have actually read. And have read it a few times. You know I like John and even found his book well written and informative. And I’m also glad that it’s on your list and here’s why; Even tho I was fairly new at atheist dogma and never heard many of these arguments before reading through his book, most seemed to raise more questions than actually answer anything. And for a novice “apologist” most of his arguments seemed to have a simple explanation. Now there are a few that still are hard for me to answer or that I still struggle with, but for me just sitting down and reading it, I was able to debunk his debunkness just from my own small understanding of Scripture.

I’m not trying to discredit John or his book. But If that’s the best atheism has got, then I can rest assure of what I believe.

Thanks for finding me. I hope all is well. look forward to talking with you.

Dueces

Jeff

Hey feeno!

Well, it’s been a while since I read Loftus’ book, so some of the details have gotten fuzzy for me. But you’re right about one thing for sure: Most atheist arguments “raise more questions than actually answer anything.” But that’s kind of the point. It’s the believer who is making a statement about the existence of a being, and so they’re presenting evidence and arguments to support that statement. The non-believer doesn’t have to present evidence that God doesn’t exist — they just have to point out flaws (if there are any) in the evidence and arguments that the believer presents. After all, if these are the reasons for believing in God, and the reasons are bad, we no longer have any reason to believe in God! So you’re right; a lot of atheist material is just counter-arguments against religious arguments, raising questions and pointing out inconsistencies.

As for whether his arguments have a “simple explanation” or not, I really can’t give a definitive answer, of course. Obviously, I always have to keep in mind the possibility that I’m just a total idiot, or that Mr. Feeno’s got some evidence that I just have never come across, or whatever. But in my experience, Christianity (or religion in general, perhaps) offers a lot of “simple explanations” that really don’t turn out to be all that explanatory after all. A lot of the explanations tend to come back to a few simple answers: “free will”, “God is mysterious”, “God did it”, or “God knows better than we do”, etc. But really, these aren’t answers — they’re just ways of deflecting the problem. If I say I have an invisible dragon in my garage, and you suggest we throw flour on it to see its outline, and I say, “No, my dragon is impervious to flour”, that’s not an answer — it’s just an excuse for not having a real answer.

In my own experience (and of course, you are free to disagree with me), there are many explanations that Christianity provides, but very few real answers that actually resolve the problem. The problem of evil really isn’t solved by proclaiming “free will”, despite what people seem to think. (And this is evidenced by the fact that Christian philosophers still try to come up with good answers to the problem.) It’s an excuse given for why one doesn’t have an answer. It makes sense — if you don’t want to give up belief in God, even an excuse can be satisfying. But it’s still not a real answer to the problem.

Anyway, I doubt I’ve really made myself clear, but that’s my opinion on the matter, anyway. Nice to hear from you again, feeno! You’re always welcome here 🙂

Kristin

Hey Jeff,
I always like discussing books and having some recommendations. I have to say, even some of the books on your popular/fiction list seem pretty intense, not to mention your scholarly list! I’ve read the AJ Jacobs book and loved it too. I also really enjoyed 1984. My brother would rather stick pins in his eyes than read, but he had to read 1984 for a class in high school and he really liked it.

I have a pretty eclectic list of favourite books too, although I read so many journal articles during the day, that the books I read for pure pleasure tend to be more fiction/”easy” reads. I really liked Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It was really funny, funnier than I was expecting. I remember really liking East of Eden too, although I read it a number of years ago so I am foggy on the details. I’m not sure if you like detective/mystery novels, but that’s probably my favourite genre. A guy named Peter Robinson has a series featuring the same detective, but a different case each book. I’ve read almost all of them and have never been disappointed. I could read the Harry Potter series over and over again, and never get tired of those either. I guess now that I know the ending, some of the surprise is gone, but those books have a ton going on- mystery, suspense, humour, love story, drama, magic… they’re good.

I’ve definitely thought things like “Does everyone see red like I do?” so I am really intrigued by the philosophy book you recommended. I think I’ll have to check that one out for sure.

Anyway sorry to ramble, but I love books and I guess I couldn’t stop!

Jeff

Haha yeah, I guess some of the books on my list are pretty intense. I try to pick my fiction carefully, because it’s really easy to make a terrible fiction novel, so there are tons of them out there. So most of the fiction I read these days are those so-called “classics”, since there’s a greater likelihood that it will actually be good 😛

But thanks for the recommendations! Catch-22 in particular looks pretty good, and I’ve heard good things about it in the past. I’ll have to add it to my ever-growing list! On the other hand, I tried once to read a Harry Potter book, and I think I made it through about five pages or so. I tried one of the movies too, and I was just completely uninterested. I’m not a big fan of magic, I suppose, lol. Oh well…I’m sure they’re great books if you like the magic/fantasy stuff. I made it through Lord of the Rings, but even that was pushing it a bit!

Anyway, yeah, I think you might like the Wittgenstein book. He was a strong proponent of “natural language philosophy”, so it’s really pretty easy to read (other than maybe a few parts here or there). And it’s available at the UW library, so that’s a plus 🙂

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