I was moderately disappointed on Christmas Eve that I no longer felt the wide-eyed enthusiasm for Christmas morning that I used to, when I would wake up at 4 a.m. to be begin a second-by-second countdown until 6 a.m., when my parents agreed to be woken up to open stockings. Three days later, that feeling of excitement is back: I leave for Thailand in just an hour (and am arriving in just thirty-nine)!
I can’t imagine I will have much time to post updates while I’m in Thailand. In the meantime, here are my ten favorite books. Some of them I might even recommend you read:
1. Animal Liberation – Peter Singer
“Will our tyranny continue, proving that morality counts for nothing when it clashes with self interest? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power? The way in which we answer this question depends on the way in which each one of us, individually, answers it.” There is only one book that I can genuinely say continues to have an observable, daily impact on my life years later. This is it. While I don’t much like the idea of forcing everyone in the world to read one book, I do think that everyone should force him or herself to confront the ethical implications of their diet, and in that respect, Animal Liberation is a good place to start.
2. Cry the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” As this list betrays, I am not really one for novels, and I have never been very good at appreciating fiction. The non-non-fiction books that do capture me are those that pull broad social justice issues down to a human scale. Looking over it again, I realize that this tale of racism and humanity in South Africa is as poignant as ever.
3. The Perfect Mile – Neal Bascomb
“Now, bid thee run, and I will strive with thing impossible.” My parents gave me this book—the story of Oxonian Roger Bannister’s successful quest to run a four minute mile—for Christmas my senior year of high school. I forced myself to read only a chapter of it a night; by the end of twenty pages, my heart was usually racing and I wanted to go do a midnight track workout.
4. The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
“No society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance … was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.” I’ve read many, many critiques of capitalism, and the majority of them are polemical and simplistic. This one is nuanced and creative. Polanyi’s historical account of how markets gradually erode human society and culture seems even more relevant 70 years later in the era of bank bailouts and mass consumerism.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowlings
“You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.” Now, I know that everyone says this, but I totally jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon before the rest of society did (seriously, I remember buying the second book upon release…) Later installments were more epic, but I love this one because, for me, it marks the point where I realized the series was not just a collection of amusing children’s books, but also a literary masterpiece.
6. Possibilities – David Graeber
“I am drawn to anthropology because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it serves as a constant reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.” Denied tenure from Yale for spending his time organizing against the WTO with anarchists rather than publishing in reputable journals, David Graeber is, to me, a true example of the power of academics to go beyond ivory tower theory and have a real impact on the world.
7. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
“Man’s destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he’s done–almost. He hasn’t quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing.” This book is a mind-blowing challenge to the fundamental tenets of civilization and the value of “growth” and “progress.” I read this book at a time where it was gradually occurring to me that saving the planet meant changing a lot more than lightbulbs: no wonder it is a favorite among the freegans.
8. The BFG – Roald Dahl
“The matter with human beans is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.” Best children’s book ever, plus words like “whizzpoppers” and “Her Majester” come in handy when living in England.
9. Vita – Joao Biehl
“One wonders what kind of political, economic, medical, and social order could allow the disposal of The Other, without indicting itself.” Joao Biehl is a professor at Princeton who taught one of my all-time favorite courses, Anthropology of Globalization. His book exposes the way that the globalized world renders entire categories of people invisible, and he does it by revealing the single story of a woman living in a mental hospital in Brazil.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” If I ever go to law school and become a lawyer, I want to be like Atticus Finch. It’s impressive when someone is both a role model and, well, fictional.
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Soundtrack: Chuck Ragan – California Burritos