My 13 Favorite Books (for now)
#1 - The Better Angels of Our Nature
Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and professor, argues in this mesmerizing, detailed, persuasive book that his readers as of the current moment are living in the most peaceable time in humanity’s history. Narrating humanity’s history on a massive scale, he portrays how violence has gone down over time thanks to the government, one’s colleagues, friends, and family, massive increases in the quality of life, cleanliness, technology, and information, and the mere existence of previous humane movements. He also provides in his book a list of humanity’s worst traits (“Inner Demons”) and its higher abilities (“Better Angels”), describing them in detail with multiple anecdotes. Pinker doesn’t shy away from providing many graphs and statistics, which work to his advantage, for they provide ample evidence that life indeed has gotten immeasurably better over time, though there is still an unimaginably large amount of work to be done for society to become ever greater. This book will serve as an excellent rebuff to those who claim that the present era is somehow depraved, degenerate, and obscene, for Pinker makes it clear that the previous eras—what some deem the good old days—were in fact terrible compared to today’s elevated standards. Thus, this book is likely to act as inspiration for people to try their best to make the world a better place, for it is by everyone’s effort that society changes for the better.
#2 - Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering?
A collection of brilliant, precise, and soul-stirring essays by David Pearce (a British philosopher who identifies as a transhumanist, negative utilitarian, and vegan), this compilation of texts present the notion that biotechnology such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering will eventually abolish suffering in all its guises, regardless of its type (though it should be noted that physical and mental pain are both tightly interlinked) and intensity. Discussing a variety of topics, from inferential realism to negative utilitarianism to animal rights to the sentience of robots to future science, this book is highly likely to change your outlook on a multitude of issues, as it has certainly done for me. On a personal note, my favorite essays are “The Abolitionist Project,” “High-Tech Jainism,” “Brave New World?,” “Utopian Surgery,” “On Classical Versus Negative Utilitarianism,” “The Anti-Speciesist Revolution,” “Compassionate Biology,” and “The Biointelligence Explosion.”
#3 - The Life You Can Save
Peter Singer is a prominent figure for today’s study of ethics, for he has published prolifically on subjects such as effective altruism (Effective Altruism), animal rights (Animal Liberation), ways to alleviate extreme poverty, income inequality, and a host of other issues. In this book he brilliantly makes the case for his version of effective altruism: people who can afford it should consistently give a portion of their income to charities and philanthropies that either have great promise or have demonstrated themselves to be capable of efficiently benefiting others. This has impacted me personally, for I’ve resolved that once I enter the labor force (as of the writing I’m currently a teenager) I will donate a substantial amount of my salary to aid others. If all goes well and I have a high-paying job, I plan to allocate 50% of my earnings to the eradication of extreme poverty and the advocacy of animal rights (I highly recommend Singer's Animal Liberation), for those who are in a fortunate position should aid others, for sentient beings may need help to improve their situation. Within this book Singer provides a variety of tips for people to make a positive impact and many groups that are committed to such causes, which I greatly appreciate. Overall, this is a phenomenal book for everyone to read.
#4 - The Precipice
Toby Ord, the author, is an Oxford professor who specializes in philosophy (ethics) and effective altruist (an organization he helped form raised more than $1 billion in funds for charities). In this book he portrays a young humanity being on what he deems “The Precipice”—a period of time in which a species through its science either becomes prominent or wipes itself out. Discussing existential risks from nuclear bombs to climate change to extraterrestrial objects to artificial intelligence (AI) to engineered pandemics, Ord makes the case that humanity should take great care to ensure its survival, for this will safeguard the vast promise of what it can achieve with time and advancement. Ord puts the risk of humanity going extinct within the 21st century at 1%, and the probability of an existential risk occurring is one out of six. Through basic mathematics, Ord states that humanity cannot remain in the Precipice for long, for doing so is dangerous: the longer it stays immature and irresolute, the likelier that it will annihilate itself, be it intended or accidental. However, as Ord points out, he isn’t a pessimist: in fact, he says he’s deeply optimistic (as I certainly am) regarding what humanity may achieve in both knowledge and ethics, though he is realistic in pointing out that we have much work to do, much wisdom to gain, and much science to discover. As Issac Newton put it, “What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”
#5 - The Singularity is Near
Written by Ray Kurzweil, one of the most prominent figures today regarding AI and technology, this book maintains a potential event delphically known as the “Singularity.” That is, the “Singularity” as a term was based off the center of a black hole in which gravity is so strong that the laws of physics become increasingly strained. Appropriately, the Singularity as it applies to humans (assuming that no black hole suddenly appears in our cosmic vicinity) defines a moment in human history at which our technology (to specify, our AI) will advance at such a dizzying speed that unenhanced humans will be unable to comprehend it. This will shape the future of life on Earth forever, for Kurzweil details that he believes humans will be augmented to dizzying heights of greatness by merging with our technology in a wondrous fusion. The Singularity will completely reshape human civilization, for abominations such as senescence, disease, suffering, death, ignorance, and unhappiness may be relegated by it into extinction: aging and disease can be dealt with by nanorobots in people’s bodies, suffering will be stamped out through removing the molecules that allow it to occur, death will become completely optional as people may save files of their consciousnesses online and may even upload their consciousnesses onto the Internet, ignorance will be routed through material abundance and AI that will vastly increase the computational capacity of the human brain, and unhappiness will disappear through cranial stimulation. While some people criticize Kurzweil for being wildly optimistic and unrealistic, I agree with the overall trend he’s projecting: even if his predictions (he’s a futurist, after all) are off by several orders of magnitude, his message is still probably extremely accurate, seeing how humanity is amassing ever more scientific knowledge.
#6 - The Hedonistic Imperative
One of the most thought-provoking, innovative, creative, and hopeful books I’ve ever read (that has definitely changed my life for the better), this book (or more accurately, a manifesto) discusses the future of technology and sentient experience. To specify, the author, David Pearce, describes how he believes that biotechnology and general improved science such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, pharmacology, and quantum supercomputing will eventually abolish suffering from the living world in due time. That is, the ultimate cause of suffering (deeply flawed biology) could, in theory, be stamped out eventually. He hypothesizes that once suffering is extinct, all sentient life will go through a “biohappiness revolution”—unimaginable states of bliss and sublimity will for them be the default state of existence. Gone will be physical and mental ailments into evolutionary history with the coming of the Post-Darwinian Transition, and for good reason: the unimaginable amount of suffering the world contains shouldn’t exist at all. And fortunately, this may be the case soon (though the exact date of the last aversive experience on Earth is impossible to predict through mere conjecturing, of course).
#7 - The Great Leveler
This excellent, detailed book by Walter Scheidel, a professor at Stanford, focuses on the history of material inequality and the “Four Horsemen” who have shown themselves capable of decreasing it drastically. These “Four Horsemen” are mass war, plague, state collapse, and revolution—not a charming lot. I find this book to be excellent due to the various sources used by the author, along with the numerous graphs. Scheidel also mentions numerous historical anecdotes that are the embodiments of each of the Four Horsemen, and he answers many of the questions regarding inequality which are brought up, such as “Have the only circumstances which have massively leveled monetary inequality consistently throughout history these ‘Four Horsemen?’” Overall, this is a fantastic book for most people, as it discusses something that affects us all—wealth and its distribution.
#8 - Candide
This humorous text, published by the famed Voltaire, is satire at its finest. This fictional text details the life of Candide, a foolhardy young man who is raised in a beautiful castle in great conditions, who is also mentored by Dr. Pangloss, “the greatest metaphysician in Europe,” who is a Leibnitzian optimist who reminds him constantly that “everything is for the best, as this is the best of all possible worlds.” Indeed, this book is a satire of unbridled Leibnizian optimism. Candide, despite his great early life, is soon cast off mercilessly into the “real” world, a world that is somewhat exaggerated but much like our own, in which he continues to defend optimism despite all the misfortunes that befall him and others. This book is fun to read, as Voltaire’s ruthless testing of unthinking positivity amid harsh and even absurd circumstances is entertaining, to say the least.
#9 - Cosmos
The famed Carl Sagan wrote this inspirational book on, well, the cosmos. In my opinion, this book should be read by every single intelligent organism on the planet who possesses the necessary faculties for its comprehension, for it shows us our place in the universe like few other texts. In this enormously popularly (and rightly so) book, Carl Sagan explores the cosmos, showing us what wonders are out there and how stupefying the sheer magnitude of space is—for instance, there are more than 100 billion galaxies (at the time of the writing: this number is constantly being analyzed and updated), each with more than 100 billion stars. Carl Sagan, utilizing his amazingly poetic language, narrates humanity’s journey to understand the world around us, as well as our mistakes and follies. This book is very balanced and humanistic—though Sagan acknowledges the limitations of humanity and addresses our numerous weaknesses, he attempts to give people inspiration for more “down-to-earth” tasks, such as treating others with decency and kindness and by practicing tolerance. This book, to reiterate, should be read by everyone, for its message is one of realization, awe, and responsibility.
#10 - Letters from a Stoic
Letters from a Stoic is a collection of works, in this case, letters, by a famed author. In this case, the author is Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher who survived the reign of Caligula and was advisor to the infamous Nero. In this collection of writings, Seneca writes to his well-to-do friend, Lucilius, to keep up correspondence and to give him advice. Seneca was a practicing Stoic—he followed the school of Stoicism, which boasts of other practitioners such as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Zeno, and Epictetus. Stoicism encourages people to have a calm demeanor, to do what they can and to accept what they can’t, to be content with themselves, to strive to be independent of external circumstances like wealth, to be decent and compassionate towards others, to examine death without fear or bias, and to cultivate virtues like courage. Stoic ideals are clearly present in Seneca’s letters, and his letters do include fantastic pieces of advice which have not aged at all when it comes to their relevance.
#11 - Pan’s Labyrinth
This is an adaptation of the famed Pan’s Labyrinth, which was directed by the equally famous Guillermo del Toro, who is known for his bizarre imagination and excellent directing skills. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in Francoist Spain, a totalitarian and fascist government. The reader is immediately introduced to Ofelia, who is the lost daughter of the king of the underworld, who was reincarnated into the mortal world repeatedly after dying there upon her initial venturing. In the story Ofelia moves with her pregnant mother, Carmen, to a fascist military outpost in the woods. There Ofelia meets Capitan Vidal, a military officer in Franco’s army, who is a monster—he is cruel, sadistic, uncaring, and above all, arrogant. Ofelia also meets Mercedes, Vidal’s housekeeper, who has an independent spirit and cares for Ofelia since they both act as freely as the situation allows them to. Not long after Ofelia’s arrival to the outpost, she meets a faun, “her most humble servant,” who informs her of her birthright and then proceeds to give her three tasks in which she must prove herself worthy to reenter the underworld. The same time that this happens, things happen in the “real” world, as Vidal was sent to the forest to wipe out the rebels—the Maquis—who were hiding in the woods. This novelization is an entertaining yet emotionally laced read for those who like fantasy, as it is a fairy tale for adults. The book also contains beautiful black-and-white illustrations, which can help readers visualize the plot.
#12 - Frankenstein
Hollywood films have so bastardized the original idea of Frankenstein and his “monster” that some clarification is needed—Frankenstein is the creator of the creature, not the creation, and the creature is never stated to be green or with screws in his head. Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, the daughter of the noted Mary Wollstonecraft, for a competition regarding who could write the scariest novel. Shelley won the contest, as well as the imaginations of countless readers through this work. This work, however, can’t be categorized as “horror,” as even though there are Gothic elements, it’s filled with suspense, not terrifying supernatural events. Frankenstein involves Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist, who discovers the mystery of life—he learns how to “breathe” life into inanimate corpses. Full of ambition, he creates the infamous “monster,” and then proceeds to run out screaming into the night, abandoning the creature to his fate. When he returns with his good friend Henry Clerval, the creature has vanished, the beginning of a long struggle between creator and creation, which takes a fatal turn when the creature, cursed by his hideousness, acquires knowledge and despairs at its wretched condition. The creature, contrary to many beliefs, is far from “evil,” as what he does can be rationalized—his “ugly” body caused him to be abused and tormented since his creation, through no fault of his own, and before he “devoted his creator to misery” he does a variety of good deeds out of pure altruism. Frankenstein is a literary classic because of its ambiguity—both the creator and monster are flawed, yet who should bear more of the blame?
#13 - The Conquest of Happiness
Bertrand Russell was one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, despite being born into a comfortable life in the British aristocracy—he was a mathematician, philosopher, peace and human rights activist, the mentor of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the receiver of fan mail from the likes of Albert Einstein, published more than a book a year for most of his life, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, most importantly from my perspective, was extremely open-minded and progressive. This book is extremely helpful and applicable, as Russell discusses the respective causes of sadness and happiness. He begins the book by discussing the causes of misery, then proceeds to illustrate the art of happiness in terms easy to understand. One of the most encouraging facts he gives in the book was his own experience regarding mood: as a child, he was severely depressed and “continuously on the verge of suicide” because of his social isolation, the deaths of his two parents, and other issues, yet he survived by doing something he loved—mathematics. This book can be labeled as “self-help,” yet it is much more than that.