|Killian.COM||Earl Killian||Commentary||Quotes||Books etc.||Friends Only|
Earl Killian’s Recommended Books
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.
These are the best books that I’ve read in the last few years and which I heartily recommend if the subject interests you. The Non-Fiction category contains books on Environment, History, Social Issues, and U.S. politics. Science includes books about Science for the lay reader. Fiction contains Science Fiction, some classics, and some contemporary novels. The book reviews here are a little short, I admit.
For some reason I haven’t added things to this page for a while. You may want to check out the list of books I have read recently and ask about them.
For convenience I’ve provided links to Amazon.COM in case you would like to look up the details or even buy one of the books mentioned here.
Small Is Beautiful, Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.
Schumacher was a British economist whose work included being chief economic advisor to the UK National Coal Board. Small Is Beautiful was published in 1973, and identified early the unsustainability of the modern Western world and made the critical observation that our natural resources are capital, and that our apparent wealth is partially based upon the spending of this inherited capital. He questions the value of GNP as an economic measure. Finally Schumacher looks at third-world economics and what we might learn there. It was a ground-breaking work, and it remains relevant today.
Natural Capitalism, Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Hunter Lovins, Amory B. Lovins.
Hawken and the Lovins’ present a vision of capitalism transformed by treating our ecosystem as capital. From this vantage, the destruction of natural resources becomes not production, but the drawdown of assets, and thus uneconomic. Capitalism based on this axiom leads to a different calculus for production, industry, and consumers. For example, natural resources might be rented instead of bought and sold, and factors of ten in efficiency in the use of natural resources would be encouraged and achieved. The authors assert that this leap in efficiency is inevitable, and the undertone is that those that realize this first and exploit this potential will become the new industrial leaders.
Most of the book is in fact a litany of examples where industry has achieved radical improvements (factors of four, ten, or more) in the use of natural resources, resulting in improvements to the bottom line.
Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, by Robert Fisk.
Fisk has lived in Beirut since 1976, during the PLO, Syrian, and Israeli invasions, and witnessed them first-hand. (That he is still alive is amazing.) He also was there for the arrival of the US, France, and Italian peace keepers (the “multi-national force”), their withdraw, followed by the Israeli withdrawal, and the rise of Hezbollah. He was on the scene of the US embassy, US Marine barracks, French barracks, Shin Bet headquaters, and Hezbollah headquarters, etc. bombings shortly after they happened. He was at Sabra, Chatila and Qana massacres shortly after they occurred too. The story of Terry Anderson’s kidnapping and release is also there (Fisk and Anderson are close friends). There is a wealth of information about the ways in which democracies, dictators, guerrillas, and theocracies fight wars. Pity the Nation’s style is pretty much to tell what happened and what he saw, and point out the falsehoods in what the various sides said about those same events. He’s not on one side or the other (he has equally nasty things to say about Arafat, Sharon, and Assad, for example).
Pity the Nation should be required reading for those interested in foreign policy, especially in the U.S. state department and the National Security Council, and the rest of the White House. So far, much of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq appears to be following the pattern seen so many times before in Lebanon. Will we never learn?
Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, by Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel.
Mitchell and Schoeffel have taken the transcripts of a series of teach-ins Chomsky gave in the 1990s and turned them into a book on the way the political system works. The first goal of someone navigating the political system, whether establishment or anti-establishment, must be to understand the system, and this book is an excellent source. The book is also very accessible, being in a transcript of verbal answers to verbal questions. At the same time, Chomsky’s answers have enormous depth and breadth. Topics include the western media (and the propaganda model from Manufacturing Consent), the Vietnam war, the Israel-Palestine conflict, U.S. policy in Central and South America, East Timor, Pol Pot and Cambodia, Cuba, Operation Mongoose, COINTELPRO, and so on. Almost anyone can gain new insight into the history behind these events, as Chomsky refuses to accept the convenients myths and explanations offered for events, but instead often uses original sources or declassified government material to understand the real workings of the system.
Only occasionally does Chomsky delve into what alternatives might be to the existing system; this is not a text for that. He does offer several reassurances however that the efforts of his audience have made a difference.
The Q&A format has been supplemented by extensive online footnotes (claimed to be longer than the book itself if printed).
The Myth of the Liberal Media, by Edward Herman.
The title of this book does not do it justice. Myth is really a wide-ranging second look at the media (the first being Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent). It details how western media act as pillars of support for the elites of their countries, and therefore, by implication, are not liberal. The book is filled with data, such as column inches or story counts devoted to two topics being compared, and the use of vocabulary for different topics. The message is powerfully delivered in an engaging manner. I highly recommend Herman’s book.
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch.
This is a book that really makes you wonder about yourself. It is more than a tale of genocide. It is more than a tale of international complicity and cover-up. It is more than a tale of the individuals that have tried and are trying to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. It is all of those things, but it is also a simple story of discovery told in the first person through his conversations with the survivors, the génocidaires, and the rebel commanders that liberated the country. Any other way of telling this story would likely be too antiseptic.
That the genocide happened is enough to make us sick; that it happened and we did nothing is inexcusable; that we did nothing and stood in the way of those who would do something and then protected the génocidaires is utterly shameful. Whatever happened to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide? Whatever happened to “Never Again”?
The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, by Marjorie Spiegel.
This is a short book, but what an impact! I’ve abhorred animal slavery for some time and even written about it on my own, so perhaps it is unfair for me to praise this book — its thesis being so aligned with my own thoughts — but Spiegel’s essay on the parallels between nineteenth century American slavery and modern animal slavery is so well researched and presented that I am certain that even animal slavery advocates will be forced to admit its worth, if only they ever read it.
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.
The breadth of Diamond’s hypothesis and data to supprt it is awesome, and yet it is convincing. To grossly oversimply, Diamond explains how the differences between a multitude of human populations can be primarily explained by geography and plant and animal resources.
The Penguin Essays of George Orwell.
Orwell’s writing is a pleasure to read. The essays range over subjects including literature, writing, war, politics, antisemitism, Gandhi, experiences in Burma, and boyhood, but with an emphasis on literature and writers. I enjoyed his political and social commentary the best, including Shooting an Elephant, The Lion and Unicorn, Notes on Nationalism, Politics and the English Language, Writers and Leviathan, Antisemitism in Britain. Still the literary essays are fun to read as well (but I feel less able to pass judgement on them). One in particular stands out. His essay Inside the Whale manages to coherently drift in out of many subjects, literary and otherwise, but begins and ends with the work of author Henry Miller.
I bought this book at Crown books, but the ISBN and title are unknown to U.S. booksellers, so perhaps it was imported from the U.K. Therefore I cannot provide a link to a U.S. source; the link below is to Amazon U.K.
The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet by David Kahn.
I read this book in college (long ago), but when I saw it in the bookstore recently in a new edition, I immediately remembered the pleasure I had in first reading it. Codebreakers is comprehensive and it is fun; I can’t think of a better combination. The book is probably not the best on newer cryptography; the original was published in 1967 and the latest edition does not appear to cover matters since then as well as it might. Still, as an overall introduction to the history of cryptography, it is a classic.
Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, by Alan Weisman.
So many of the serious books I read bemoan the state of the world (with reason), but this one offers a vision of how it could be. Not a dream vision, but one rooted in the reality of a small village in Columbia that has achieved the unbelievable. Perhaps the author could have written a better book, but don’t let that detract from the story he has to tell.
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson.
I knew that Silent Spring started the environmental movement in the 1960’s just as The Jungle was responsible for the regulation of the meat business early in this century. I had decided to read it for its historical value, but while reading, I realized first just why the book was so important, and second that it was just as relevant today as it was when it was written. Silent Spring changed the course of history because it is so well researched and written. It is technical while easy to read. And while most of the chemicals mentioned in the book are now banned in the United States (e.g. DDT), the problems and solutions that Carson wrote about are still with us. We learned a little, but we haven’t learned enough.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is from the
reaction to the book. As Albert Gore’s introduction points out,
Carson and her book met considerable resistance from those
profiting from the poisoning of our land and water.
The scope of Carson’s book is remarkable considering it predates modern ecology. Countless examples illustrate Carson’s points as she covers chemicals, the ecology of water, soil, plant, birds, and mammals. The implications to human health are well covered in a section that explains what and how pesticides do to us. And finally Carson shows how pesticides often fail to achieve their purpose, and how successful alternative approaches can be.
Who Will Tell the People, The Betrayal of American Democracy, by William Greider.
This excellent book details what has gone wrong with U.S. politics. It is an in-depth look at who has power and why. It looks at both parties with a critical eye. It looks at the failures of both Congress and the President, and examines why corporations and lobbyists wield such control over our politicians, our regulatory agencies, and our citizens. Other sections look at why the press has ceased to be anything but a mouthpiece for the power elites. While the story of the legislation for sale may not seem surprising to the cynic, the story of how laws are rewritten and not enforced by the regulators and fixers is at least less familiar. Moreover Greider has a prescription to heal our system, and it is a surprising one. Don’t read this book if you are prone to despair, but if there’s a chance it may spur you to action, then buy a copy, read it, and do something!
Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.
This carefully researched book published by Common Courage Press, provides a brief history of the Public Relations (PR) industry, and detail on their involvement in many contemporary events, including the out-and-out lies used to incite our anger toward Iraq after their invasion of Kuwait. Chapter One, Burning Books Before They’re Printed, explains how the Ketchum PR firm helped scuttle a ground-breaking environmental book before it even went to press using spies and dirty tricks on behalf of their client, the California Raisin Advisory Board (creators of the California Dancing Raisins). Chapter Two, The Art of the Hustle and the Science of Propaganda, talks about the early days of the PR industry. Chapter Three, Smokers’ Hacks, explains how the Tobacco industry has used PR. Chapter Four, Spinning the Atom, covers the early successes and later failures of the nuclear industry in using PR to lull the public in complacency about the dangers of nuclear power. In Chapter Five, Spies for Hire, we see that the techniques the PR industry uses extend well beyond advertising and include infiltration of their client’s opponents and the staging of criminal activities to discredit them. Chapter Six, Divide and Conquer, shows how corporations use PR to make it appear they are good citizens when they are in fact not. Chapter Seven, Poisoning the Grassroots, explains how PR industry manufactures grass roots movements (“astroturf”) on a moments notice to support their clients positions. Chapter Eight, The Sludge Hits the Fan, looks at the PR effort to use Toxic Sludge from waste treatment plants as fertilizer for the crops we eat. In Chapter Nine, Silencing Spring, we see the PR response to the environmental movement (starting with the reaction to Silent Spring) and finally the co-opting of the environmental movement to neutralize it and even it turn in against its original purpose. Chapter Ten, The Tortures' Lobby, looks at how foreign governments use US PR firms to shape American public opinion and foreign policy to their ends. Chapter Eleven, All the News that’s Fit to Print, explains why we have more PR industry employees than journalists in the US, and how much of the “news” we see is produced by PR firms. Chapter Twelve, Taking Back Your Own Backyard, very briefly describes the condescending attitude of the PR industry to Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) movements, and yet shows that they can be successful. Finally, there are two Appendices and extensive references. Appendix B is particularly interesting; it is Clorox’s PR Crisis Plan as obtained by Greenpeace and it describes how they would try to manage the day when it becomes clear to the public that their product is harmful.
When Elephants Weep, The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, Delacorte Press.
This book argues that the taboo in the scientific community against “committing the sin of anthropomorphism” stifles investigation of animal emotions when lots of data exists. It is not itself a scientific work, being primarily anecdotal, but it convincing enough that the burden of proof should be on those that would argue against animal emotion.
The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.
Like its predecessor above, this book is a series of anecdotes about animals, but it focuses on those species humans use for food and clothing.
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook got wrong, by James W. Lowen, Touchstone Press.
Orwell’s Ministry of Truth rewrote history whenever it was convenient. This book points out that the United States does the same for its high-school students, albeit less frequently (we usually feel comfortable with our myths for decades). In particular, Lies analyzes twelve American History high-school textbooks and finds that they occasionally lie, often invent, and almost always omit key facts that are critical to understanding American History. The purpose of these lies and half-truths is to keep our history and our historical figures heroic and honorable when that was often not the case. Besides distorting the facts, he shows that the resulting textbooks are ineffective, making American History one of the least liked and least learned subject in U.S. schools. Lies uses examples from many eras of history, including European exploration of the Americas, contact with Native Americans, slavery, Helen Keller, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam war. Finally, Lies demonstrates the significant white European bias to our high-school texts.
Secrets of the Temple, How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, by William Greider.
A fascinating history of the Federal Reserve, with particular emphasis on the Volcker era. There are important lessons here for any student of politics, government, and public policy.
The Coming Plague, Newly emerging diseases in a world out of Balance, by Laurie Garret, Farrar Strauss & Giroux.
The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, Random House.
The Media Monopoly, by Ben H. Bagdikian, Beacon Press.
We’ve got a serious problem in the United States: most of our news and information is comes from media owned by large corporations and funded by advertising by large corporations. The result is that we are only allowed to hear part of what we need to make our democracy effective. This book explores this situation in depth.
From the back cover:
Manufacturing Consent, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Pantheon Books.
This book unmasks the supposedly “free press” of America as one of the most successful propaganda machines ever built.
Deterring Democracy, by Noam Chomsky, Hill and Wang.
This book looks at United States foreign policy, and argues that its goal is not the establishment of democracy, freedom, human rights, or justice, but rather ensuring that the rest of the world serves our business interests, regardless of the human toll that this might require. The book looks extensively at the actions of the U.S. in establishing client states and their reigns of terror, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It also analyzes the invasions of Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown, Pocket Books.
This is a disturbing but true story. It is a tale of 25 years of treachery and genocide by the United States of America.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, by Paul Kennedy, Random House.
From the cover flap:
The Global Politics of Arms Sales, by Andrew J. Pierre, Princeton University Press.
The Ecology of Commerce, A Declaration of Sustainability, by Paul Hawken, Harper Collins.
This book details and argues against the environmental crimes of current industrial society. It isn’t as focused as it should be, but he does have a vision of how things could be set right, which makes it well-worthwhile (and besides his vision coincides with mine). Interestingly, the book points out that the problem isn’t that we consume too much, it is that we don’t consume enough.
The Fate of the Elephant, by Douglas H. Chadwick, Sierra Club Books.
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice for One of the Best Books of 1993. An exhaustive look at the status of the world’s elephants prior to and after the bans on ivory.
The Winner-Take-All Society, by Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook.
A look at the problems of winner-take-all markets and the gross disparities in income that result. While it is fairly obvious why top athletes, actors, models, CEOs, etc. earn hundreds of times more than the rest of us, this book also looks at some of the problems of such systems. For example, enormous differences in return for relatively small differences in performance lead to ever escalating attempts for insignificant advantages. They call these positional arms races, and show how many current social policies fit the framework of positional arms control agreements. Their examples remind me of giant instances of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. While classic game theory predicts that iterated Prisoner’s Dilemmas leads to cooperation, it seems that having a large number of players defeats cooperation, unless imposed by government action. There is a section on a few ideas on how to modify the system slightly, but this could use further development.
The Prize, The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, by Daniel Yergin, Simon and Schuster.
Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. This is simply a history of oil from the 1850s to modern times, but what a history it is! The intrigues of corporations and nations, the wars, the follies, the ironies, it’s all here.
Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen.
Into the Buzzsaw, edited by Kristina Borjesson.
There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos, by Jim Hightower.
No one can accuse Hightower of euphemism; he’s clear where he stands and lets you know it as directly as he can, even if he dresses it up with a little humor and wit (he loves the one liner). Hightower is a progressive and his is a progressive agenda. Even if that’s not your politics, his book get you thinking about the corporate takeover of our politicians, media, and heck just about everything else in our society. Hightower is not an apologist for the Democrats or Bill Clinton — he’d throw out those bums with the others — he’s pulling for a party of the people.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press.
Modern evolutionary theory very well explained. Evolution doesn’t work on species, but on genes, with some surprising results.
QED, The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, by Richard P. Feynman, Princeton University Press.
This is an impressive book. It explains QED (Quantum Electrodynamics), the theory of photons and electrons, in 120 pages or so (with a little more thereafter about Quantum Chromodynamics). How is this possible, when it usually takes several years of graduate school to teach QED? Feynman’s explanation in the introduction is that he’s going to show us the concepts without teaching us how to calculate with them efficiently. His own analogy is of a Maya priest teaching someone unschooled in Mayan arithmetic about subtraction: to subtract 236 from 584 you count out 584 beans into a pot and then take out 236 of them, and then count what’s left to find out the difference. You wouldn’t want to subtract that way, but it gives you an idea of what’s going on. Thus his presentation of QED tells us how we might in theory do the calculations without showing us the mathematics necessary to really do it. The purpose is for us to learn both how simple and comprehensive, and how terribly strange this part of physics is.
The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick, Simon & Schuster.
This book is about what is known on the way the brain works, and Crick’s thoughts about it.
The Symbolic Species, by Terrence W. Deacon.
Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill: The Complete Guide to Fats, Oils, Cholesterol and Human Health, by Udo Erasmus, Alive Books.
Everything you ever wanted to know about the biochemistry of fat and especially the Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). Erasmus is perhaps a little too enthusiastic about the benefits of getting enough EFAs in the proper ratio, but there’s a lot to be learned from his work.
Advanced Bread and Pastry, by Michel Suas.
The San Francisco Baking Institute’s courses (I took four: Artisan I, Artisan II, Whole Grain Breads, German Breads) taught me a lot about baking artisan bread. This book covers much of the course material for those not able to travel to South San Francisco to take the courses. Being vegan, I cannot comment on the pastry portion of the book.
Bread, by Jeffrey Hamelman.
This book is filled with useful bread forumlas.
The Bread Builders, by Daniel Wing, Alan Scott.
This book is about bread: making it, and making ovens to bake it. It is technical in places, practical in others, but always a joy to read. The frequent sidebars talking about wonderful bakeries, their ovens, their practices, really helped make the book.
The UNIX-HATERS Handbook, by Simon Garfinkel, Daniel Weise & Steven Strassmann.
I loved this book. I’ve complained over the years about all the things wrong with Unix, but I figured I was just a solitary crank. Now I find I am one of many cranks with similar opinions about how Unix has set back operating systems by decades. This handbook goes into great detail on a number of subjects to illustrate its thesis that the whole Unix philosophy is flawed.
The Mythical Man-Month, by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.
This book is required reading for anyone in complex systems design involving a team of people.
The Art of Computer Programming, by Donald E. Knuth.
As old as this book is, I doubt that it has a peer for the student of computer science. The mixture of mathematics and practicality is unique. It is a text that makes you think, and there is no better way to learn.
Applied Cryptography Second Edition, by Bruce Schneier.
This an excellent and comprehensive introduction to the use and practice of cryptography. By starting with protocols in Part I rather than encryption algorithms, Schneier gives strong motivation and background for understanding and evaluating the algorithms when they are presented in Part III. The book is clear and easy to read as well.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward R. Tufte.
Design of a Computer the Control Data 6600, by J. E. Thornton.
A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al.
The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, John Tenniel (Illustrator), Martin Gardner (Introduction).
This book should need no introduction. It is a classic in the best sense of the word.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
We is an early (1920-21) example of distopia fiction. The power of its vision puts it on a similar footing of other great novels in this tradition, including A Brave New World, with which it is contemperaneous, and the later 1984. When it was published abroad in translation (it was published in Russia only in 1988), Zamyatin became unwelcome in the Soviet Union, for which he requested and received exile.
1984 by George Orwell.
1984 is a distopian vision of the future written as a warning of what might have been or could be. Most would consider his work successful, and say that we have thus far avoided Orwell’s scenario, in part because his warning was heeded. I believe Orwell predicted more than he gets credit for, if you substitute corporations for the government in 1984.
Mind control through propaganda and the rewriting of history (Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) is an accurate description of the first world today, where generally accepted beliefs of society are controlled by a handful of media corporations in the search of profits and power. What Orwell missed is that big brother would be invisible instead of omnipresent and that only statistical mind control is necessary; absolute mind control is not attempted. Indeed, Orwell’s Smith is not only allowed to exist, he is necessary for the mind control to succeed, as one of the hobgoblin’s to be attacked with propaganda (for example, the WTO protesters in Seattle were demonized by the press instead of taken seriously).
Lost in Translation, by Nicole Mones.
This is simple but wonderful story set in modern China that is both an adventure story (but not a thriller) and a love story.
Grendel, by John Gardener
The Beowulf legend told from the Monster’s point of view.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire
Wicked recounts the early lives of the Wizard of Oz characters before that fateful house arrives, and then briefly covers the events of its predecessor. While the characters generally follow the Oz story line once Dorthey arrives, their character and motivations are very different from the original. Wicked’s compelling narrative propels us through the story while giving a completely different perspective on the Witch of the West. It took a touch of genius to weave a story this well.
Friday, by Michel Tournier.
Friday is a masterly retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story.
Glory Season, by David Brin.
A fascinating, engineered society based on cloning and genetically modified homo sapiens.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Avon Books.
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, A savage journey into the heart of the American Dream, by Hunter S. Thompson, Fawcett Popular Library.
The book has impossible energy. It is nominally about a drug-crazed journalist covering a motorcycle race: completely implausible, but at the same time a story you can’t put down. It is like a drug trip, in its initial rocket-like climb into the stratosphere and the slow descent.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Fawcett Crest.
A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
The first novel of a best-selling author. This novel was ignored when it first came out and only garnered attention after The Firm was published. However, in my opinion, it is his best book. His others are far-fetched thrillers, whereas A Time to Kill is completely plausible.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera.
The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse.
Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse.
Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
Snow Falling on Cedars, by Guterson, David.
Copyright © 1997-2008 Earl A. Killian. All Rights Reserved.