A Short History of Man, God, and Political Philosophy

In case you missed it, The New York Times published a lengthy article The Politics of God last weekend which essentially traces how the thought of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and other major political philosophers gave us secular politics, and particularly the separation of Church and State. They're innovations with many upsides, but also the downside that they put us at an intellectual distance from entire regions where faith still governs political affairs. This includes large swathes of the Middle East and other areas within the "Muslim orbit." It's a good piece to read if you've ever wondered how philosophy tangibly shapes our modern world. Written by Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor, the highly-readable article is adapted from his new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. Get the article here, and don't forget to subscribe to our feed.

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Google GeoMaps the Book World: A Little More “Gee Whiz” Than Utility

googleearth.jpgGoogle Earth added new functionality this week that lets you search the world by geographical location and find books that reference that location. So, for example, if you open Google Earth and type "London," you will be presented with numerous yellow book icons. Click on any one of them, and Google will show you instances where books specifically reference "London." (In this case, I found works by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two of England's most important political thinkers.) All of the books presented here are in the public domain, which means that you can continue to explore the complete text, courtesy of Google, should you want to. A nice touch.

There is a certain "gee whiz" factor to this new application, no doubt. But how widely it will be used is another story. Search for "Boston" and you will get more book icons than you can handle. And will you want to mouse over each one to find a potentially useful text? Doubtful. And the problem will only get worse as Google Book Search, a partner in the project, digitizes more texts. A more effective solution, it seems, is simply to head over to Google Book Search and conduct a good, old fashioned search, then read through the more legibly-presented and ranked search results. That's so 1990s, I know.

Please note that to use this new functionality, you should download a recent version of Google Earth, and check off "Google Book Search" in the "Featured Content" section under "Layers." You can get more information from Google here and here.

If I am missing something important about this new feature -- that is, if I'm wrong about its utility -- feel free to say so. The Google folks are smart, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're seeing something that I'm not. The jury on GeoMapping books remains out for now.

New Stanford Online Writing Courses

Just a quick heads up: Starting today, you can sign up for online writing courses from Stanford. Offered by Stanford Continuing Studies and the Stanford Creative Writing Program (which is one of the most distinguished writing programs in the country), these online courses give beginning and advanced writers, no matter where they live, the chance to refine their craft with gifted writing instructors and smart peers. Registration starts today, and courses will go from June 25 to August 17. You can find the list of courses below. For more information, click here, or separately check out the FAQ.

(Full disclosure: I helped set up these courses and think they're a great educational opportunity. But nonetheless take my opinion with a grain of salt.)

William Gibson, Father of Cyberpunk, Reads New Novel in Second Life

William Gibson, who launched the cyberpunk genre with the 1984 classic Neuromancer, hasn't lost any steam. Pattern Recognition, published a good 20+ years later, won wide praise in 2005. Now, he's come out with Spook Country, and it's currently #66 on the Amazon bestseller list. Below, you can catch Gibson reading from his new work in Second Life. What can be more fitting?Also, you may want to check out BoingBoing's "nerdgasmic" interview with Gibson (iTunes - Feed - MP3 Stream), plus Cory Doctorrow's reverential review of the new work. And finally, if you need more, you can watch Gibson give a book talk at Cody's in Berkeley CA, courtesy of Fora.Tv.For your daily dose of digital culture, subscribe to our feed.

OnClassical Relaunches

Here's a quick fyi for classical music lovers...

OnClassical.com has just relaunched its website, and you may want to give a look. If you don't already know about it, OnClassical is an independent classical music label based in Italy that features internationally-acclaimed artists. They offer a "maniacally high sound level" and produce their recordings without sharing profits with intermediaries ... which stands to benefit artists and consumers. Their audio is DRM-free and, what is more, their albums can be entirely previewed for free under a Creative Commons license (read more here).

For classical music (free Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) feel free to peruse our Music Podcast Collection.

The New Grammar Podcast on the Block

grammargirl.jpgIt didn't seem like an obvious blockbuster at first at least not to me but The Grammar Girl (iTunes - Feed - Web Site) has remained one of the most downloaded educational podcasts on iTunes. To be precise, each week, about 100,000 people download these short podcasts that offer "quick and dirty tips" for cleaning up your writing. And thanks to the enduring popularity of her free audio lessons, plus an appearance on Oprah, Mignon Fogarty, the creator of the Grammar Girl, has also managed to spin-off an audiobook ($9.95) that has driven strong sales. Plus she's got a good, old-fashioned pulp book somewhere still in the pipeline.

It was perhaps, then, only a matter of time before Fogarty faced some friendly competition. The Grammar Grater (iTunes - Feed - Web Site) is a new podcast that approaches language issues from a slightly different angle. It focuses on "English words, grammar and usage for the Information Age," which is to say that it deals with grammar issues that often arise when we write emails, blog posts, instant messages and beyond. Luke Taylor is the host, and, with him, you get a well-produced, often entertaining, podcast that touches on grammar issues that you're bound to encounter in your daily electronic writing. Give the Girl and the Grater both a listen and you'll almost certainly learn small bits that'll make a big difference.

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Life-Changing Books: Your Picks





We asked our readers what books made the biggest difference in their lives, and here's what they had to say. The list below tells you what books shaped their lives and why.

1984 - George Orwell

1984 “was the first book I actually enjoyed reading. It completely blew my mind at the time (I was 16) and it opened my eyes to the power of ideas and to the joy of reading a good book.” Tim

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

“Wow this book is incredible. At close to 500 pages Bryson covers everything from the moment the universe expanded from the intensely dense matter that was (aka the big bang) to man's origin. Reading this book has impacted the way I look at everything from bacteria to asteroids.” Alex

Ariel - Sylvia Plath

“After reading through these suggestions, I realized there’s a big hole: Poetry! So much poetry has affected my life: Sylvia Plath’s _Ariel_; Campbell McGrath’s _Road Atlas_; James Wright’s _Above the River_; Brenda Hillman’s _Cascadia_…Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Bly… Poetry may not be the “winning pick” here, but it definitely should be celebrated! And not just in April.” Amanda

Cat’s Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

“This book reignited the pilot light of my imagination like no other book had done in quite awhile. The whimsy of its narrative, which ended with the utter destruction of our world thanks to mankind, was stark, shocking, yet refreshing when it seemed every other book I read was just an exercise towards getting to a happy ending. Great book!” Spamboy

Crooked Cucumber - The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki

"Although I am not practicing Zen (yet), this book is like my Bible in that I plan to always read over it and reflect upon the messages therein. Suzuki had a humble vision that in order to change this world, we need to change the way people think and live, not just to change the symptoms of what is wrong. Not just to get rid of pop-prejudice and hatred, but to get rid of labels entirely, to `fight' war and injustice with peace and understanding instead of anger.... That’s just some of the stuff that is shaping the way I think right now.” Luella

Disturbing the Peace - Vaclav Havel

“I read it as a junior in high school, picked up on the bargain pile at a B. Daltons. It impacted me because it illustrated the concept of learning throughout life and how people can live with dignity. I’ve loaned it out several times and re-bought it at least three times.” Emmett

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

“…It’s as though that book has taken so much life from the past and made it all tangible to us here in the present. I love the emotional complexity that’s replicated in the grandmother’s and grandfather’s manuscript and letters, how they show how memory is fragmented, overwhelming, and sometimes incomprehensible. Seriously, I could go on and on. And I can think of hundreds of other books that have changed me just as much. It’s just this one has been at the forefront of my mind ever since I read it a couple of months ago.” Amanda

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

"I think it was the first time I had felt such a bond with a character. I triumphed with [Pip's] successes, felt the blow of failure in his defeats, and felt sorrow when he broke his own principles. I saw values in Pip that I wanted to emulate in my own life — a dedication to pursuing my dreams, overcoming my weaknesses, and treating others respectfully regardless of what frustrations I may have in my own life…” Jamie

Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World - Richard F. Mollica

“A stellar book released last year that I believe will quietly grow to classic status on par with Victor Frankl and Elie Wiesel… Mollica’s thesis, radical for a professor of medicine, is that humans have the tools to heal themselves from even the worst imaginable traumas. He gently shows the recipe for self-recovery, and reveals that the survivor is, in fact, the greatest hero for us all.” Megan

Hiroshima - John Hersey

“Hersey retells what happens when an atomic bomb falls on your city. Culled from interviews with survivors of the atomic bomb attack, this narrative was originally published as an entire issue of The New Yorker magazine. Haunting.” Morgan

How to Read a Book - Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

“Quite simply it has enabled me to get more out of the books that I’ve read.” Greg

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

It was the first "adult book that I read upon graduating to the adult section of the Municipal Library in Krakow. Having read all the classic science fiction on the shelves, Capote’s matter of fact prose was as disturbing to me as it was new. No aliens here among far away stars but a world almost ordinary and within reach, tangible and so totally frightening. Reading it felt like being caged with a wild animal, a quick fear followed repeatedly by the mind’s pangs of pride to subdue the brute. This was no fiction yet it read stranger than anything else up till then."

Language in Thought and Action - S.I. Hayakawa

A book that “provides a whole rationale for reading fiction that I have never forgotten. I grew up in a time and a household where reading fiction was analagous to wasting your time. Hayakawa writes of fiction as a tool to increase your experience of life, to increase the number and variety of experiences in your life, your appreciation of those experiences, to understand others and so much more!” Terry

Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

--“It’s for me ‘life imitates art’ because an old lover appeared in my life after 31 years. And if I hadn’t read that book I think I would have refused him.” Regina

--“Epic. Beautiful. My inspiration to become a writer.” Valentina

Man’s Search for Meaning - Victor Frankl

“[It] is one of the best books I have read. The book describes the author's imprisonment in several concentration camps. Faced with terrible suffering and loss he survives by finding meaning in the midst of this. He discovers that all of our freedoms can be taken from us….except one….the freedom to choose how we think and act under the very worst of circumstances.” Andrea

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

“A how-to manual of human behaviour, one that should be required reading for all aspiring politicians and leaders.” Carol

Narrow Road to a Far Province - Basho

"A quarter century ago, I set out on a bicycle trip across North America, and a friend stuck a paperback copy of Basho’s ‘Narrow Road to a Far Province’ in one of my panniers. ‘Narrow Road’ ... is a diary kept by the Japanese poet Basho in 1689 as he made a journey into the northern provinces of Japan. When I was in the Sierras, delayed by snow, I read through ‘Narrow Road’ two or three times. I don’t know whether the book affected me more greatly because I was traveling or my traveling affected my perception of the book (one of those zenny questions), but I came away with a much better sense of the journey that we all make through life, both the physical and philosophical journey, and a more humble sense of my place among the sojourners.” Charlie

Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction - Laura Berman Fortgang

“I’ve read this book 3 times over the past 2 years and it’s allowed me to overcome my fears, realize my dreams and start working toward new goals in my career, relationships, etc. It’s given me the courage to leave the things (marriage, career, etc.) that weren’t working for me and to face the fear of the unknown to start working toward a new future.” Merlene

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

“Read at 12 or 13 this book certainly opened my eyes to a whole new world.” Jason

Teaching as a Subversive Activity - Neil Postman

“One title that has had a big impact on me throughout my teaching career has been Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity. His concepts of helping kids develop their instincts for evaluating and analyzing all the messages tossed at them during their lives (he called it their crap detector) are more valid today than when he wrote the book in the 70’s.” Tim

The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

"As a teenager I was mystified by the audacity of the grand inquisitor. I’d never read such a succint indictment of faith. As I got to my twenties I read the whole book, but in my late twenties I began to appreciate it. I’ve never read a more powerful and realistic testament to faith in my life, and as I’ve grown, my reading of the book has grown with me." Don

The Candles of Your Eyes – James Purdy

“If the devil were alive he would be writing the works of James Purdy. ‘The Candles of Your Eyes’ changed my outlook on literature forever.” John

The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger

--“This novel touched my heart deeply.” Ellen

--“I’m going to go back to high school and say that Catcher in the Rye had a big impact on my life. While the content of the book in terms of character and story were accessible to me at 16, that isn’t really what made the difference. It was only after reading some criticism and talking with others in school and out that I began to see all that was going on in a novel beyond the plot: symbolism, irony, language and the rest. When I saw how much could go on in a book, how many things were going on simultaneously, I became very impressed with the complexity of literature as art. From then on I was pretty well hooked on books.” Jack

The Chaneysville Incident - David Bradley

This book “arrived in my library, as part of our rental collection, in the mid-70s. Since then, I have given away at least half a dozen copies, bought it for other libraries I’ve worked at, and had a brief correspondence with David Bradley, the author. It’s about time for me to reread it…. If only one of you, reading this, gets the book, I’ll be satisfied. Even if you don’t get past the dissertation on long distance public transportation." Papermaven

The Chosen - Chaim Potok

“I read this book as a teenager. I remember being completely fascinated with the Jewish culture portrayed in the novel, but the main impact came in the way Potok emphasized the values of intelligence, intellectual achievement, and compassion for others. I was incredibly moved by the conflict between these values, and find myself re-reading this novel and the sequel “The Promise” almost yearly for over 20 years.” Judy

The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

“Short and punchy, his macabre tales pack a visual whollop that modern longer stories lack. He can create mood and tone in less than a page. When I need a break from student narratives, I read a short story by Poe. There is a reason the guy’s writing has survived.” Chris

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

“I read The Grapes of Wrath in the 7th grade. That was 43 years ago. Steinbeck’s tender and loving prose and voice have never left me. I don’t think it’s too much to say that I actually, factually, love that book, and its author, very, very much." Fuzzo

The History of Sexuality & Discipline and Punish - Michel Foucault

“Both of these books philosophically ushered me into the modern world, changing the way I saw power, sex, sexuality, school, and nothing less than the Modern Self.” Dragon Management

The Journey to the East - Hermann Hesse

“For a young reader, this became a portal for enjoying books.” Bob

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

“The book that most influenced my life was “The Lord of the Rings” that I read when I was 15 years old. That book introduced me to the world of fantasy books. Ever since I keep reading this genre of books (plus a lot others of course), both in English and in Italian.” Francesco

The Illuminatus! Trilogy - Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

-- “It’s chock full of free-thinking anarchism and did a lot to push me towards my current semi-libertarian view point.” Dave

--“I would imagine this book had a similar effect on a lot of people who read it. This book really changed the way I think and introduced me to a lot of really great information. I went on to read almost all of Robert Anton Wilson’s books. He was a great philosopher who wasn’t afraid to state his mind. He recently passed away and I know a lot of people will and are missing him. His greatest effect on me was the introduction of `maybe logic.'” Cyen

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman

“A collection of assorted writings by a great scientist shows the full palette of a sharp intelligence animated by all-around curiosity.” Davide

The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

“I have two books that impacted my life; one from childhood and one from early adulthood. In the sixth grade, our teacher read The Secret Garden to us every day. I was captivated by the imagination, compassion, and touch of fantasy that this book awakened in me.” Jan

The Stranger - Albert Camus

“I love it so much. This book is for me pure philosophy.” Ellen

Ways of Seeing - John Berger

“A book that first opened up my eyes to the fact that there are many ways that one can examine things.” Darcy

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values - Robert M. Pirsig

--“Although I am not too much into philosophy, this book really made me see a lot of things differently!” Harish

--“After 18 years exploring philosophies I still return to Pirsig for clarity. Although I see many parallels now with more “respectable” philosophers, such as Hume, there is also a very human dimension to these books which manages always to move me. There is a sensation for many who read Pirsig of re-connecting with some long-forgotten wellspring of wisdom long lost to the reductionism of our daily existences.” David

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