“What books have changed how you think about things?” I’ve mentioned already that the one who asks me these sorts of questions asked me this particular one the other day. These are the books that have changed my opinions over the years. Here, in date order, is a selection of the books that influenced my opinions and changed my mind.
A book I cannot now find about Washoe – the chimp who could talk. The book recounted animal experiments done in the 1970s when some young chimps were taught American Sign Language. The Wikipedia article includes a number of skeptical challenges to the interpretation that the chimps had mastered language. But what ever way you chop the logic, this book led me to believe that animals and humans are not qualitatively different – we just appear to be brighter than they are. At first I concluded that all creatures are equally spiritual, now I conclude that we are all equally animal.
Games People Play – Eric Berne – this turns up here in the “what” list because it demonstrates so clearly that most of the time we aren’t driving our own bus, we merely think that we are. Call it confirmation bias, but I’ve rarely come across anything that’s challenged my opinion on this since it was first formed by this book and its rather peculiar sequel What do you say after you say ‘Hello’?: I honestly believe we are 99.8% unconscious chimpy-instinct and only 0.2% conscious human intelligence.
The Heartland – Stuart Legg – Almost impossible to find these days, Legg documents the heartbeat of Asia pumping people out from the central grasslands century after century into China, Russia, India, the Baltics and Europe. It inverted my historical map of the world. It is a book which should have done much better and which certainly deserves re-reading now that China and Russia have opened up.
Green Pharmacy – Barbara Griggs – This is a history of herbal medicine and a scathing indictment of modern medicine which set me firmly on the path of mistrusting medics and following in my grandmother’s alternative footsteps. However, I am now won over by the fact that evidence-based medicine is based on evidence and so I plan to re-read this to see what I make of it 20 years on.
Why me, why this, why now – Robin Norwood – this book is immensely comforting if you are willing to accept its basic premise, that reincarnation is the mechanism by which unfairness is balanced out across lifetimes, in other words, that shit happens because it’s meaningful shit. It’s articulate, sane, solidly argued, tough-minded and encouraging. Unfortunately I now think it’s all lies. Oh well.
The Healing Power of Illness – Thorwald Dethlefsen and Rudiger Dahlke – This multilayered book argues that the illnesses we get are expressions of who and what we are. It’s a bizarre book with interesting things to say about the dangers of polarised thinking but it goes sliding off into discussions of reincarnation and karma. I gave it to my homoeopath, my osteopath, my cranial-sacral therapist, my NLP practioner, my pet medical student, all of them. However, it’s worth noting that scientifically- trained medics are also exploring the idea of illnesses which benefit the patient. So call it co-incidence, but it may be right about the effect if not the cause.
An assortment of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett – It is rather embarrassing to admit this, but Pratchett has articulated a lot of what I think and feel about belief, about cause and effect, about duty, responsibility and the balance between “personal” and “important”, and even about the casually murderous nature of cats. I’ll spare you the specifics though.
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins – this should be essential reading. This is Dawkins on his own subject and it’s fascinating. His argument comes down to the idea that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. This is a bit of a mind-fuck which is what makes the book so challenging. He explains why evolution works like this, and a lot else besides. Dawkins may be a scientist, but he can certainly write. This helped me form my view of the world and our entirely incidental place within it and it was probably the pivotal point on my journey away from flakiness.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Carl Sagan
Billions and Billions – Carl Sagan
The Demon-haunted World – Carl Sagan
In fact – everything I have ever read by Carl Sagan. Sagan leads us through a wide variety of subjects with simplicity, honesty and lucid clarity. Forgotten Ancestors is almost impossible to get hold of, but it explains why it is inevitable that mankind should pick stupid vicious and pointless fights, and why it has been inevitable since the first piece of RNA replicated itself. Billions and Billions comprises essays on a wide range of subjects including the simplest clarification of the abortion debate I have ever read. The Demon-haunted World looks at contemporary superstitions and compares them with those of our ancestors. We don’t come out of it well. They are all, however, optimistic and inspiring books. If I could, just once, form a thought as clear and apparently simple as any of the thoughts in any of these books I would sell tickets. These have taught me to value clear, simple, logical, evidence-based thinking. I unhesitatingly recommend any piece of non-fiction Sagan has ever written.
Snake Oil – John Diamond – this one put the nail in the coffin of my preference for alternative medicine. Diamond’s insistence that medicine should be evidence-based is hard to argue with. He acknowledges the sincerity of many alternative practitioners but his rage with their follies as he was dying of cancer flames through the book. Oddly, I now think alternative practitioners provide a real service by curing psychosomatic illnesses with placebos (I was that nutter, I took an imaginary treatment for an imaginary illness and suddenly the crippling pains I really felt really went away) but that’s another thing altogether. I strongly recommend this book.
Reincarnation: a critical examination – Paul Edwards – This was recommended to me by anticant, and it finally put paid to any ideas I had that we live in a spiritual world. I’m still working through the implications of this one. Life actually is a bitch, and then you do die. Bummer.
So there you are, a journey from a world-view which assumed that we are just the material aspect of a spiritual universe quite possibly perfumed with scented-candles and flower-essences, to a world-view which accepts, however unwillingly, that we are no more than the culmination of four billion years’ of evolution, and bloody impressive it is too. I’m embarrassed by the gaps – very little history, no politics, no actual science, just a reluctant journey towards empiricism.