Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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To Thine Own Self

sexatdawnAmong the books that I would rate very important, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn would need to be on top, or nearly so. As I’ve often stated on this blog, religion and sex are very closely related. Every religion, in some way or another, intimates itself into sexuality. Like religious belief, however, it is something about which we blush, look at our feet, and politely change the subject. Perhaps it would be helpful to shift focus, then, to the subtitle: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Well, not even that reaches the depths to which this book plumbs. Ryan and Jethá actually peer back deep into prehistory and look at the changes that agricultural life brought onto humanity. Comparing that information to conclusions drawn from evolutionary theory and serious biological study, they derive a picture of a much more equitable culture for which humans clearly evolved. Agriculture, and just plain culture, changed all that.

With culture, you see, comes the materialist idea of possession. Hunter-gatherers, even today, are the best sharers in the world. Their generosity isn’t noble, as Ryan and Jethá point out, but entirely practical. In addition, their lives are longer, healthier, and happier than those of the modern, stressed-out, perpetually frustrated, “cultured” individual. We are constantly trying to get ahead, and own more. Of course, we don’t want to mention or think about the fact that when we die, all that ownership will mean nothing. We invent complex laws that so only our biological (we think) offspring will carry on that legacy until the last bit is parceled out so fine that all that remains is a name that few will remember millennia down the road. For that we suffer nearly constant frustration. I’ve not read a book in decades that made me want to throw all of this off and head out to the woods, sharpened stick in hand. (Problematic, since I’m pretty solidly vegetarian.)

Some of the larger implications, however, that Sex at Dawn doesn’t address, are the roles that religion plays in problematizing what we’ve evolved to be. Of course, sex scandals in churches are referenced, since they are such crucial evidence. What is overlooked, for the purposes of the book, is that religions have always tried to define and control sexuality, at least since the dawn of agriculture. We don’t often consider that agriculture, in addition to making us fat, and lazy, also gave us organized religion. It may be that religion came first, but it only grew into a coercive social force with the temple culture of ancient Sumer, and it has been with us ever since, dictating who may love whom, when, and for what purpose. Sex at Dawn is not for those who are set in their ways, nor for those who take a one-size-fits-all attitude toward life. For the rest of humanity, however, there is hope that perhaps we can learn to be a little more true to what nature intended us to be, and to understand that nature may be many things, but it is seldom evil.