As I've grown older, I've tried to expand my reading and include more non-fiction. Though this list isn't even a cursory attempt at an exhaustive "things everyone should read"-list, these seven books all provoked intense thought in me and in many cases changed my opinions. These aren't works of reporting; they're works of reflection and they cover a variety of subjects, from feminism and the body to animal rights and physics. With each of my suggestions, I've included a short quotation that gave me food for thought.
The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir
This, one of the most important books in human history, certainly had a hugely significant impact on my own life and it's crucial reading for any student of feminism or gender studies. The Second Sex encompasses a mind-boggling array of subjects, from biology and literary criticism to economics and behavior studies, and examines them through the lens of feminism and de Beauvoir's essential thesis that women were and are oppressed. Sex and gender are implicated in every facet of our lives, in every discipline, in every art - de Beauvoir's masterpiece shows us how.
"Biological need - sexual desire and desire for posterity - which makes the male dependent on the female, has not liberated women socially. Master and slave are also linked by a reciprocal economic need that does not free the slave."
Better Never to Have Been - David Benatar
Benatar's groundbreaking philosophical treatise comes to the painful and radical conclusion that procreation is inherently unethical and, that in order to behave strictly morally, human beings should cease to have children. Better Never to Have Been cannot but provoke a powerful and ambivalent reaction. Without invoking religious beliefs, his argument is, thus far at least, unanswerable, his reasoning entirely sound. This emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and morally challenging book unsurprisingly influenced Nic Pizzolatto while he was writing True Detective.
"First, what is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators? That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world."
Out of My Later Years - Albert Einstein
Einstein's reflections on science and religion, education, and social questions reveal the intellectual workings of the man who revolutionized our understanding of the physical world. Though the chapters on physics prove enormously challenging to those who have not studied mathematics and physics at the university level, they are well worth an essay, given the transformational effect these esoteric ideas, the theory of relativity and quantum theories particularly, have had on modern human life.
"Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be."
Zamba - Ralph Helfer
In this memoir of his life-long relationship with a lion named Zamba, Ralph Helfer, an animal wrangler who worked tirelessly (and controversially) to ensure better treatment and training techniques for wild animals working in the entertainment industry, provides a passionately delivered plea for respectful treatment of animals, particularly those that we fear and that could harm us. Zamba's story is an extraordinary one - he is not so much a pet as a brother and friend. Though most of us who have owned and loved pets are already convinced of the complex emotional lives at least of fellow mammals, it is difficult to read Zamba and fail to feel new respect towards animals.
"Lying together in the sun were camels, a llama, a baby hippo, an eland, a few deer, a swarm of ducks and geese, a few tigers and cougars... It was a totally impossible scene, one out of a movie, or a children's story-book.... It was like the Garden of Eden must have been."
The Problem of Pain - C. S. Lewis
As regular readers of this blog know, Lewis is one of my absolute favorite writers and, although I often disagree with him, his writing never fails to provoke in me serious and studious reflection. In this volume, Lewis sets himself the task of reconciling the brutal fact of suffering with a belief in a God both loving and omnipotent, one of the thorniest difficulties of Christian theology. Though the focus is on human suffering, Lewis also addresses the suffering of our fellow animals. Lewis had an extraordinary gift for facing the difficulties of life, whether suffering or spiritual doubt or grief, with courage and compassion. The Problem of Pain is one of his finest works of apologetics.
"Indignation at others' sufferings, though a generous passion, needs to be well managed lest it steal away patience and humility from those who suffer and plant anger and cynicism in their stead."
And There Was Light - Jacques Lusseyran
Lusseyran's memoir of his childhood, his leadership of a French resistance group called the Volunteers of Liberty during the German occupation, and his internment in Buchenwald is a powerful document of the realities of resistance under the Third Reich. Aside from being a rather brilliant intellectual who learned German in order to be able to understand radio broadcasts, Lusseyran was also blind. And There Was Light is beautifully and movingly written - it's also free from self-pity. Through this book, those who do not have disabilities can access the reality of living with a difference, one that limits but also liberates.
"There is nothing I want more than not being an exception."
The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking work of feminism posits that, as women have gained greater political, social, and professional power, the standards of so-called beauty have become increasingly burdensome and stringent. A bold, uncompromising vision of modern patriarchal culture, Wolf's critique makes a compelling argument and in doing so offers a means for women of partially freeing ourselves from the bonds of the beauty myth.Whether or not one identifies as feminist, this book provokes a deep engagement with the ways in which we judge the body.
"A girl learns that stories happen to 'beautiful' women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not 'beautiful'."