Books

Sarah Bakewell
Existentialism was always a confusing word at the edge of my psyche. I heard about it, especially in the phrase existential angst, but I never really understood what it was. More than that, although I was always interested in Simone de Beauvoir as someone who tended the light of feminism between the first and second waves, I hadn't heard great things about Satre, an apologist for Stalin etc. As an encouragement to those who say intelligent things to other people and think they may go unnoticed, a Spanish colleague of mine, Raul, told me not to dismiss Satre, and that...
Jason Goodwin
For hundreds of years the vast Ottoman Empire, spanning countries and cultures, was a multicultural and progressive force compared to other regions of its day. At a time of religious conflict and persecution in Europe, other religions could practise their faiths so long as they paid respect and the appropriate taxes to the Sultan. Great libraries, including the texts of the Ancient Greeks, were set up attracting scholars from all parts of the empire. The Janissaries, made up of troops from all parts of the Empire, was the most feared fighting force of its day. This book is a wonderful...
Will Storr
Subtitled "How we became so self-obsessed and what it's doing to us". This is my favourite sort of book, sweeping, well informed, compelling and empowering. The author takes us on a couple of stops to explain the conception of self in the West, from the ideas of Ancient Greece, to Christianity and onto modern culture. I found the paradox of the ideas at the centre of Western thought interesting, that of the Greek philosophers very much being about the perfectibility of human life, but then the Christian doctrine of original sin. This makes it sound like an academic book, but...
Richard Dawkins
Having recently read Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great, I thought I would follow it with perhaps an even more famous book lamenting the persistence of religious faith in the world. I really enjoyed the book and found it a much deeper and less anecdotal dispersal of religion as a rational belief system. Hitchens lists many instances of the evil behaviour of people professing faith, and is clear that the evils they did were because of their faith, not in spite of it. Dawkins does this too but I find his style of writing more compelling, because he is less...
Christopher Hitchens
I came late to this book, indeed some years after the author had died. During his later years and illness, he was told many times that he would renounce his atheism as death approached, but that reversal never happened and he stayed true to himself until the end. I'd always found the title interesting as if it implied that there was a god, they just merely weren't great. In the early part of the book I found Hitchens in a couple of places almost suggesting he might be open to the existence of god which I found surprising. I guess...
Herman Hesse
I don't want to say too much about this book. It is the sort of book which I think will speak to each person in different ways, and I don't want to put a frame of reference on it. I really enjoyed reading it, I read a lot of technical books, a lot of other hard to read books, and I found this just a perfect breather in between them. The main message that stands out to me from the book, is that there are many ways to "enlightenment". Of course, what is enlightenment, and is enlightenment even necessarily a...
anon
I read the Koran in 1997 a few years before some people flew themselves into a building and did their faith such a great disservice. It was a real trial to get through it. If you don't believe in God and you are looking for any other sort of wisdom in this book, I am afraid you will be disappointed. Mohammed was basically a small-time warlord, and the only reason he ever gave for people following his version of the faith was that God said so. Of course, his immediate followers were definitely not small-time warlords, they led armies to...
anon
I first tried to read the bible beginning with the Old Testament. It was about as much fun as reading the Koran was, and when I got to a part where they were telling you when you should stone someone to death, I decided "there is no wisdom in this book" and stopped reading. Really whatever quotable sayings in this book might exist, the genocide, slavery, abduction of women, and other horrible things in this book make me wonder how anyone ever thought this was the word of a merciful God. Anyway, there are different translations of the Bible, different...
Anon
It is hard to imagine a more beautiful and epic poem than the Bhagavad Gita (gita means song). Its theme is a dialogue between Arjuna and Lord Krishna, as they drive a chariot between two parts of an extended family, about to go to war. Arjuna tells Lord Krishna that he has no heart to kill people who are his own blood, and Krishna tells him not to be silly, that he should go calmly into war, because no matter what he does in life, his fate is not his own to command, but rather Lord Krishna's. Anyway, once the...
E.W.F. Tomlin
This is one of the most influential books I have ever read. I can't even find a decent link to it on the web, so no chance of anyone buying a copy, and I am unlikely to lend it either. It would be wrong to think that this is merely a book about Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, it ranges far deeper than that. It was meant to be a companion to his other book called Great Philosophers of the West, and he seems to have tried to cover everything else of major note in this book. It starts out talking...