Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Summer Book List for Readers Unwilling to Rest Their Minds

Over the course of the year, I keep a growing list of books recommended to me by friends, congregants and colleagues. From this list, I have excerpted the most popular suggestions and added a number books from a variety of fields that have piqued my interest for one reason or another. Getting to all of them over the short summer may prove a bit ambitious, but I invite you to peruse these titles and to submit your own favorites which I will be happy to include in a future post. Happy reading.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat
As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.
Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.
Balzac's Omelette, Anka Muhlstein
"Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are." This is the motto of Anka Muhlstein’s erudite and witty book about the ways food and the art of the table feature in Honoré de Balzac’s The Human Comedy. Balzac uses them as a connecting thread in his novels, showing how food can evoke character, atmosphere, class, and social climbing more suggestively than money, appearances, and other more conventional trappings.
Full of surprises and insights, Balzac’s Omelette invites you to taste anew Balzac’s genius as a writer and his deep understanding of the human condition, its ambitions, its flaws, and its cravings.

Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz
To err is human. Yet most of us go through life assuming (and sometimes insisting) that we are right about nearly everything, from the origins of the universe to how to load the dishwasher. If being wrong is so natural, why are we all so bad at imagining that our beliefs could be mistaken, and why do we react to our errors with surprise, denial, defensiveness, and shame?
In Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce; medical mistakes to misadventures at sea; failed prophecies to false memories; "I told you so!" to "Mistakes were made." Drawing on thinkers as varied as Augustine, Darwin, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Alan Greenspan, and Groucho Marx, she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift—one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.

Better, Atul Gawande
The struggle to perform well is universal: each of us faces fatigue, limited resources, and imperfect abilities in whatever we do. But nowhere is this drive to do better more important than in medicine, where lives may be on the line with any decision.
Atul Gawande, the New York Times bestselling author of Complications, examines, in riveting accounts of medical failure and triumph, how success is achieved in this complex and risk-filled profession. At once unflinching and compassionate, Better is an exhilarating journey, narrated by "arguably the best nonfiction doctor-writer around"

Imagine, Jonah Lehrer
Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?
From the New York Times best-selling author of How We Decide comes a sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity. Shattering the myth of muses, higher powers, even creative “types,” Jonah Lehrer demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.
Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing the rut, thinking like a child, daydreaming productively, and adopting an outsider’s perspective (travel helps). He unveils the optimal mix of old and new partners in any creative collaboration, and explains why criticism is essential to the process. Then he zooms out to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective.
Collapsing the layers separating the neuron from the finished symphony, Imagine reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind, and it’s essential role in our increasingly complex world.

Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic, Raphael Jehudah Zwi Werblowsky
Joseph Karo (or Caro) was one of the Kabbalistic mystics of 16th century Safed, Israel. However, he is far more famous for his compendium of Jewish Law (Halakhah) entitled the Shulkhan Arukh). Indeed, it became (and still is) the ultimate book of traditional Jewish law--more than Maimonides' books! It seems amazing that the author of such an outstanding and orthodox work could not only be a Kabbalistic mystic, but also write a book about his Maggid. Sometimes (as in the Maggid of Mezerich), a Maggid is a preacher (usually itinerant). But, in this case, the Maggid is a spiritual on non-material being who instructs a person (you can interpret it as a spirit guide or angel or whatever). In this instance, even more interesting than that, Karo's Maggid is considered the essence or embodiment of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah or law later included in the Talmud which is, essentially, a commentary on the Mishnah). I think Jung would probably take a symbolic or archetypal view of this, and one could argue that it was really an aspect of Karo's psyche--but, who knows? It's not that easy to read this book, and the information in it is not all that wonderful or earthshaking, IMHO. But, it is, nevertheless, a major contribution to the literature of Kabbalah in English. It might be interesting to compare it to the works of Stewart Edward White (e.g. "The Unobstructed Universe").

A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
For too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?
Written originally as a wedding gift to his son and daughter-in-law, A Letter in the Scroll is Rabbi Sacks's personal answer to that question, a testimony to the enduring strength of his religion. Tracing the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created -- from covenant to sabbath to formal education -- and showing us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time, Sacks portrays Jewish identity as an honor as well as a duty.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century rabbi and founder of the Hasidic movement, famously noted that the Jewish people are like a living Torah scroll, and every individual Jew is a letter within it. If a single letter is damaged or missing or incorrectly drawn, a Torah scroll is considered invalid. So too, in Judaism, each individual is considered a crucial part of the people, without whom the entire religion would suffer. Rabbi Sacks uses this metaphor to make a passionate argument in favor of affiliation and practice in our secular times, and invites us to engage in our dynamic and inclusive tradition. Never has a book more eloquently expressed the joys of being a Jew.
This is the story of one man's hope for the future -- a future in which the next generation, his children and ours, will happily embrace the beauty of the world's oldest religion.

Strictly Kosher Reading, Yoel Finkelman
For centuries, fervently observant Jewish communities have produced thousands of works of Jewish law, thought, and spirituality. But in recent decades, the literature of America's Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has taken on brand-new forms: self-help books, cookbooks, monthly magazines, parenting guides, biographies, picture books, even adventure stories and spy novels - all produced by Haredi men and women, for the Haredi reader. What's changed? Why did these works appear, and what do they mean to the community that produces and consumes them? How has the Haredi world, as it seeks fidelity to unchanging tradition, so radically changed what it writes and what it reads? In answering these questions, 'Strictly Kosher Reading' points to a central paradox in contemporary Haredi life. Haredi Jewry sets itself apart, claiming to reject modern secular culture as dangerous and as threatening to everything Torah stands for. But in practice, Haredi popular literature reveals a community thoroughly embedded in contemporary values. Popular literature plays a critical role in helping Haredi Jews to understand themselves as different, even as it shows them to be very much the same.

The Art of Fielding. Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal
Edmund de Waal is a world-famous ceramicist. Having spent thirty years making beautiful pots—which are then sold, collected, and handed on—he has a particular sense of the secret lives of objects. When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.
And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations. A nineteenth-century banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, the Ephrussis were as rich and respected as the Rothchilds. Yet by the end of the World War II, when the netsuke were hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, this collection of very small carvings was all that remained of their vast empire.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely
The New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality returns with thought-provoking work to challenge our preconceptions about dishonesty and urge us to take an honest look at ourselves.
  •     Does the chance of getting caught affect how likely we are to cheat?
  •     How do companies pave the way for dishonesty?
  •     Does collaboration make us more honest or less so?
  •     Does religion improve our honesty?
Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but, in fact, we all cheat. From Washington to Wall Street, the classroom to the workplace, unethical behavior is everywhere. None of us is immune, whether it's the white lie to head off trouble or padding our expense reports. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, award-winning, bestselling author Dan Ariely turns his unique insight and innovative research to the question of dishonesty.

Generally, we assume that cheating, like most other decisions, is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. But Ariely argues, and then demonstrates, that it's actually the irrational forces that we don't take into account that often determine whether we behave ethically or not. For every Enron or political bribe, there are countless puffed résumÉs, hidden commissions, and knockoff purses. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely shows why some things are easier to lie about; how getting caught matters less than we think; and how business practices pave the way for unethical behavior, both intentionally and unintentionally. Ariely explores how unethical behavior works in the personal, professional, and political worlds, and how it affects all of us, even as we think of ourselves as having high moral standards.

But all is not lost. Ariely also identifies what keeps us honest, pointing the way for achieving higher ethics in our everyday lives. With compelling personal and academic findings, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty will change the way we see ourselves, our actions, and others.

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he promised to deliver. But when he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter's recipient, he becomes privy to a secret that will alter the course of his—and his family’s—history. From the small Hungarian town of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in labor camps, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a family shattered and remade in history’s darkest hour.

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.
In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.