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2016 Book Reviews and Book of the Year

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Book Reviews 2016 , Top 5 Books, & Book of the Year 2016

“There is only one subject.” -GK Chesterton

I’ve always been fascinated by philosophy, motivation, psychology, science, religion, politics, culture, biology, fitness, performance, and sports. One subject invariably leads to another.

There really is only one subject.

2016 was a really good year for reading.  Some of the books I started in 2016 I didn’t finish, so I’m going to review those next year.  As for 2016, basically I read what interested me- faith, fitness, history, politics, culture, and science, for no other reason that learning itself.  Some of these I speed read, and some are reference books. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so there is an outweighed number of books on history, philosophy, and religion.  I’m sure I left a few out.

Here are my 2016 book reviews, with my pick for book of the year at the end.

And oh my goodness, it was so difficult to pick just one.  It honestly could have been one of three or four.

The State of the American Mind: The rise of the new anti-intellectualism in American life   4.5/5 stars
This is a series of essays edited by a history professor at Emory. I stumbled upon it in a bookstore and it really resonated with me because I encounter anti-intellectualism quite a bit.  It pops up quite a bit on both sides of the political spectrum.  Free speech and free thought are under attack on college campuses in particular. 
 
How Dante Can Change Your Life by Rod Dreher
4.5 / 5 stars
This was a very good book because it took you on a journey through Dante’s Inferno.  Considering I am very unlikely to go back and re-read the Inferno, this was a practical way to gleam the timeless lessons without having to struggle with the original again.

Rewriting Your Broken Story by Dr. Ken Boa
4/5 Stars
My friend and client Dr. Ken Boa, one of the premier theologians and philosophers in America wrote this book.  It is an excellent book and discusses ways to have a better and healthier spiritual life.  It’s never too late to change your story.

How the Right Went Wrong by Pat Buchanan
4/5 Stars
Pat Buchanan, as ornery and unpopular as he is in some circles, has long been a hero to me because he is willing to tell the uncomfortable truths about how war and government spending have become too big in the “conservative” party. I always admire courage.  This book was written in 2004 but foreshadows the coming 2016 election: snooty elites looking down on working class whites, manufacturing leaving the US, costly wars, huge deficits, and globalization all putting pressure on the neoconservative Right to reform back towards the classical conservatism of a solid currency, tight borders, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

A Sunlit Absence by Martin Laird
4/5 Stars
This is a book on Christian meditation.  It is deep, but very readable.  People forget that Christ lived a quite life for most of his life, doing whatever it is he did.  And he was tempted alone in the desert.  There is a rich meditative and contemplative tradition in Christianity and it’s unfortunate not many people know about it.  This books teaches some good ways to integrate Eastern and Western thought in meditation.  

You Are What You Love by James KA Smith
5/5 Stars
This gem of a book is about liturgies.  Liturgies, both secular and religious, train people what to value and train them on what to love.  Many of our cultural liturgies train us to love things which are not healthy and will not completely satisfy.  I will be re-reading and sharing this book for years to come.  In another realm, it is a critique of the current paradigm: “What can my country, family, church, etc, do for me?” versus a true liturgy which trains us to ask “What can I do for the organization I love?”  As Aristotle said, and Smith teaches us: We are what we love, and excellence of soul is a habit.

The Godwins
3/5 Stars
My brother gave this to me for Christmas and it details the history of The Godwins, a prominent Anglo-Saxon family in England around the time of the Norman Invasion of England in 1066.  It was a volatile period in Anglo-Saxon history and the Godwins have been in England and America ever since.

The Eucharist: Wine of Faith Bread of Life by M Basil Pennington
4/5 Stars
The history, meaning, and symbolism of the communion service is something that fascinates me, particularly considering how hard it is to turn off the rational, materialistic mind in our world.  I did not grow up doing this ritual very often.  We did communion sparingly growing up but I have found it to be very meaningful for me in my spiritual life.  We moderns live in an unenchanted world and somehow seem at times to miss out on all the beauty and amazing splendor and wonder of life. The way divinity is implied and revealed in the physical world, and the way believers can commune with the creator by partaking in the elements of bread and wine in the physical and present realm is a powerfully healing spiritual concept.  Though communion has a ritualistic character, it also has a joyous and spontaneous element, and in my opinion the ritual provides an opportunity for meditation not boredom, considering the lack of sudden innovation or novelty.  The faithful can contemplate deeper spiritual realities and commune with the creator, and with each other.  This book compares the metaphors and symbolisms of the new covenant with the old covenant of the Jews through the communion service.  I think it is easy to forget the magic of creation in day to day life, in the eyes of others and in nature.  This book does a good job of bringing back the wonder, joy, and awe of deeper realities.  Plus, other than the national anthem, our lives in the US never make contact with anything sacred, particularly in a communal setting, which is unfortunate.  Interesting and inspiring book. 

45 Letters by Robert Bradshaw
4/5 Stars
Really interesting book.  My friend Robert Bradshaw compiled this collection of essays which his father wrote to his mother when he was deployed during WWII.  It is touching to put yourself in this young man’s place as he writes his beloved.  

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus
3.5/5 Stars
I speed read this before I went to the Holy Land, so I could get an idea of what the city of Jerusalem was like in the time of Jesus.  What amazed me the most was how the Jewish people took order, hierarchy, and cleanliness very serious.  They even had people who were employed to clean the streets at night.  This was a dry book, but a good reference if you’re taking a trip there.  There are many sites listed off of the beaten path.  

A Pictoral Pilgrimage through Jordan
4/5 Stars
If you’re going to the middle east, please go to Jordan.  It is a peaceful and historic place, with welcoming people and it’s so unfortunate that so few Americans visit the middle east.  There are actually many Christian pilgrimage sites in Jordan, as well as places of significance from the Old Testament period.  Petra, in southern Jordan, is a can’t miss.  This book reveals some of the off the beaten path places to visit in the country.

The Manipulated Man by Esther Vilar
5/5 Stars
I pulled this out and re-read it again recently.  This book blew my mind years ago and made me re-think everything.  Esther Vilar is a self-proclaimed hardcore feminist.  But in this book, she lays into women, as well as men.  A friend recommended it originally.  Her main thesis is that women don’t really want to play by the same rule book as men, that they want to manipulate and control men with sex and affection.  Even so, men are dumb in her opinion, and they play along and allow themselves to be controlled.  Instead of being honest with themselves and women, and treating women like true equals, men allow themselves to be manipulated like dogs for sex and affection.  Each side plays the game and manipulates each other.  This book really challenged me to re-think my traditional views on men and women.  Vilar wants liberation for women, but she wants real liberation, which she says the large majority of women don’t really want.  She says women would rather keep manipulating men, because it’s easier, and they’ve been doing it for millennia and know how to do it well.  I can’t say I think her hypothesis is always true in every case, but I found myself nodding along with her a good bit of the book.  It is amazing to see how many men slave away at jobs they don’t like, killing themselves to buy stuff they don’t need just to please a wife who in many cases doesn’t appreciate it anyway, living miserable and lonely.  It would be better if like Vilar says, we were all honest with each other.  Women want resources and men want sex, but we should be as up front as possible about all of this instead of playing games.  That way we can get to a point where women and men are honest equals.  Read this book, but be careful, it might hurt your eyes.  

The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Phillip Reiff
5/5 Stars
This is one of those books that changes your life and the way you see the world forever.  I had seen this book referenced more than just about any book I had seen in the last few years so I finally decided I had to read it.  Rieff details in painstaking brilliance how man’s very existence changed from a religious or community life focused on character and / or salvation, to a life based on therapeutic “happiness”.  According to Rieff, the explosion of mental illness and the mental health industry was a direct result of this shift.  The consequences have been so large and so widespread and so ubiquitous that most of us are not even aware of how drastic this change has been.  

MAGA Mindset by Mike Cernovich
4/5 Stars
How did Donald Trump go from real estate developer and B-rated reality star to president of the US?  This book gives you the answers.  Mike Cernovich is an influential online personality and writer.  Trump was a master at communication, marketing, and persuasion and that’s how we won.  He literally had the entire universe against him- the media, the government, Hollywood, Colleges & Universities, the UN, every major country in the world, and all the major political parties, and he still won. That is worth a study.  I did not realize it, but I’m not surprised to learn that Trump has been studying self-improvement and sales books his whole life.  On a personal level, I used to get nauseated at the site of Trump, but somehow someway, he eventually won me over.  Maybe I started to overlook his many flaws to focus on his positives- the fighting spirit, the confidence, the love of country, and his support for the forgotten police, military, and working class as well as free speech.  I still don’t trust him completely, but it’s amazing what he did considering how many forces were aligned against him.   The book is worth a read.

A Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
4/5 Stars
I was expecting not to like this book very much but I did.  It is a summary of the author’s views on death, and his theory that most of the problems we have in life are centered around not being able to process or cope with or handle our own mortality.  It sounds like a deep subject and it is.  One of the main ironies of the book, is that people create immortality projects through various means, wealth, status, family, religion, sexuality, roles, and and that these are usually normal and healthy, but also that these projects can cause conflicts with other people who have their own projects which do not agree with our own.  The main point of contention I have with the author is that he does not make any clear recommendations, although he does defend the religious individual as someone who, even if susceptible to bigotry and hatred of those with whom he disagrees, is at least someone who is ultimately heroic in the sense that he is grappling with mortality the best way that he can, rather than retreating into mental boxes in his own mind, in the case of neurotics and schizophrenics, or retreating away from life in general, in the case of depressives.  This book opened up my eyes to many “hero” projects of immortality that people engage in, and argued for communal heroic projects, but left me wanting a more clear ending.  

Investing in Retail Properties
4/5 Stars
Dry reference book about how to create value in retail real estate properties.  Does a good job of getting you to think creatively in how to create value in real estate.

Gray’s Anatomy
5/5 Stars
This is an excellent reference source for anatomy. Sometimes when I take a break from writing and blogging and working with clients, I will take a look at this and study various joints.  The illustrations are beautiful and intricate.  It’s been around forever but is still one of the best, a true classic!

The Code of Man by Waller Newell
4/5 Stars
Newell lays out 5 core virtues of manhood: Courage, Honor, Patriotism, Family, and Love.  Each chapter is basically a long essay about each virtue, with many interesting historical examples.   

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
5/5 Stars
This is hands down the best travel book I’ve ever read and left me laughing out loud in many places.  It is an exploration of the fascinating and kooky history of Australia, as well as an exploration of the biological, aquatic, and ecological wildlife there.  

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
3/5 Stars
This is a big book, several hundred pages, and I read it at the beach.  It’s perfect for a trip to the beach and you can read it in a week.  Wolfe’s characters jump off the page, because like real life, they have their strengths and flaws.  It made it particularly interesting that I think I knew several of the main characters in real life.

Secret Knowledge: The Dismantling of American Culture by David Mehmet
3.5/5 Stars
David is a jewish former Hollywood screenwriter and producer who finally got burnt out on the nihilism and shallowness of Hollywood and decided to cut his ties.  Very good behind the scenes book about the changes in Hollywood over the years.

The American University of Beirut by Betty Anderson
3.5/5 Stars
I picked this up on a whim in Amman and read it while I was in Jordan.  It really amazed me to find out how influential this university had been in the middle east.  It started as a Christian evangelical college, set up to promote a liberal arts model of education as well as Christian values in the middle east.  Over time, like many religious universities, it dropped the religious focus and became just a liberal arts school.  There are many famous and successful alumni from the school. What was fascinating about the book was reading about how they were caught up in the middle of the Arab nationalism movement of the 1950s, and were torn between American foreign policy and imperialism, and local anti-American sentiments.  Beirut is a crossroads between many different cultures: Syrian, Arab, Greek Orthodox, French, and American influences are all present.  Studying the history of Lebanon and the region in general is well worth the time. The main theme of the book is the ongoing changes and role of liberal arts in a religiously conservative Islamic region of the world.

Surprised by Scripture by NT Wright
NT Wright is a gifted theologian and English Scholar, and one of the best theological writers I have read.  He has a knack for interpreting biblical narratives in ways that make sense for modern readers in light of historical and cultural developments.  Too often, biblical teachers get thrown into 2 opposing crowds: the rationalist, materialist atheistic historians and the fundamentalist firebrands.  Wright is able to transcend both of these narrow view points to a broader and more relevant focus on ways that ancient wisdom could speak to political and social challenges of today like war, immigration, economics, ecology, and faith in public life.  He reminds me greatly of the English philosopher Os Guiness, who I enjoy reading when I can.  The English have always had a knack for turning out brilliant theologians, writers, and philosophers like CS Lewis, NT Wright, and TS Eliot.  I want to read more NT Wright.

The Political Philosophy of James Burnham
4/5 Stars
I thought I understood politics, until I read James Burnham.  With the calculating precision of a surgeon, James Burnham dissects the political world into a chess-like and cohesive game of power plays.  Very little we think about in politics is rational.  Most of it is groups trying to out-manipulate the other by appealing emotionally, not rationally, to the baser instincts of the crowd through demagoguery. Burnham is a former Marxist / Communist turned conservative so it is fascinating to hear his point of view. I am currently finishing up his classic: “Suicide of the West”, which is even better.

The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distractions by Mathew Crawford
5/5 Stars
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Crawford hit the nail on the head in his synthesis of various fields- history, philosophy, technology, science, biology, and politics into a cohesive story of where we find ourselves.  His thesis is that in today’s world, in our rejection of anything remotely resembling authority, we are failing to mature into adult individuals with the power to act on our own.  Ironically, our rejection of all authority, instead of making us free, is having the exact opposite effect, keeping us trapped in a culture of autistic addictive behaviors and emotional and moral immaturity.  

Crawford might describe his book in a different way, but for me it was a powerful argument for the absolute necessity of self-imposed historical practices, by which, through our participation we can become better, more human, more virtuous, more successful, happier, and healthier.  Though there is a time and a place to reject authority if we are ever going to learn and develop into a masterful and truly powerful human being, we must submit to a tradition of teaching, history, wisdom, and best practices.  Crawford’s first book, Shopclass as Soulcraft moved his work in this direction but this book takes the thesis further, by clearly deconstructing how rejection of authority, pervasive personalized technology and mass markets, are creating a colonized culture of stunted human development in many ways.  

As an example, Crawford says that what happened to the Indians when the Europeans showed up, is slowly happening to us.  We are colonizing ourselves into a mediated and stunted existence with various things like food, social media, games, entertainment, pornography, consumerism, and so on.  This is a fascinating book, and supposes a fairly high level of understanding of philosophy and history, but I think even if you aren’t well-versed in those areas you would find it interesting.  It is a strong argument for entangling ourselves in cultural practices- music, art, family, trade, creative, agricultural, religious, civic, by which there is an ongoing conversation with the past about how things were done and how they can be improved.  

Some examples from the book are organ-building, sports, and teaching.  Sports is one of the few areas where we don’t seem to have moved as far down the “in our own head” road he’s describing, i.e. the coach is still the authority and sports have to have rules, but you can see the tension moving that way in some ways even in sport.  I think the physical “groundedness” and public nature of sports creates a buffer against the cultural autistic devolvement Crawford describes.  His work fits very well and is complimentary to “A Secular Age”, “After Virtue”, the older “Brave New World” and “Do the Work”, and I’ll be using it as a basis for further work.  Another major theme of his work is how the love of our own enslavement may end up causing our destruction, similar to Brave New World, but with a more modern and nuanced twist, considering the changes, both technological and cultural, since the time it was published.

The War on Women
3.0/ 5 Stars
I would have given this book a higher rating, because it had quite a bit of interesting information in it about some of the things women have been subjected to throughout history.  I picked it up as part of my effort to read more that I would normally not read, and probably not agree with.  In my own life and experience, I have not seen any “War on Women.” As a matter of fact, I think most of the things that happen in the world happen “for women” not necessarily “towards women”.  In other words, men from my experience do what they do for women, not to hurt them or engage in war with them.  Men work hard and do stuff they don’t want to do so they can get women and reproduce and have sex, not because they want war.  The author completely overlooks the effect of reproductive biology on human behavior.  

But that being said, the author does a good job of pointing out the limitation women have had in participating in government and in public life, and I believe she has a point here, but missed an even bigger point.  Throughout 6 million years of human existence, the default lifestyle has been extreme hardship for most peoples.  Only with the advent of the steam ship in the early 1800s, did enough economic surplus eventually develop to where childrearing could be outsourced to public schools and professionals.  In other words, things for the most part were the way they were due to the need to survive.  Someone had to work at home and with the children and someone had to leave and hunt and fight.  Until the industrial revolution, economic advancement was non-existent and consisted of winning a war and taking the other side’s wealth.  

Life was set up in a practical sense with gender roles because it had to be that way, not because it was the most “fair” way.  Biology is not “fair” or moral.  The gene doesn’t care.  The author failed to discuss evolution, biology, or economics from a historical standpoint and with this, her critiques can’t be given full weight.  She only made moral judgements with 20/20 hindsight about what could have and should have been done to prevent this supposed “war.”  

The truth is that people did what they could, and though there was certainly prejudice and discrimination, there was no such thing as a “war on women”, because reproduction is the great driver of human behavior, not the only driver, but certainly the most important.  That being said, I’m glad I read the book, and I’m glad women are participating more in public life, regardless of the fact that no war against women ever took place.  

The Holy Land by George Knight
4/5 Stars
This is an excellent small book you can use when touring the Holy Land. It will easily fit in your back pocket or in a purse.  The thing I liked about it was that it contained places in Jordan, Israel, and Egypt, versus just Israel.  My hope is that things will settle down in the middle east and some of the other countries ill Syria and Lebanon will become safe to visit soon as well. It’s a fascinating place to visit.  

If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxis 
3.5/5 Stars
I got to see Eric in person a few months ago at the Atlanta History Center and it was quite a thrill for me, because he is one of my favorite writers and radio personalities.  He gave a strong defense in this book of faith, freedom, and virtue all requiring each other for a democracy to function, echoing the work of Os Guinness.  But he also dives into some of the troubling developments of the last 50 or so years, as America has become more fragmented.  Peace, democracy, and a constitutional republic are not a guaranteed way of life and I think we as Americans tend to take this for granted.

After Virtue by Alisdair Macyntire
5/5 Stars
After Virtue is a classic of moral philosophy and history.  What Macyntire shows is how our times are not rational and even more, that we refuse to admit it.  The discourse, or public conversation, or narrative our lives doesn’t make any logical sense and Macyntire approaches the subject from a historical perspective, starting back in the tribal era, moving towards Judaism and early religion towards Catholic Europe, and on through the reformation into modernity.  It would take about 3 pages to review this book properly, so I will just say that it changes you and opens up your mind.  If you want to read something that makes the world around you as well as history make sense unlike anything you’ve read, I recommend this book as much as possible, though it won’t be easy.  I had to approach reading it like a workout!  Macyntire recommends living a life of community and virtue, if you want to live a good life, and he particularly favors a return to Aristotelian ethics. If you decide to read it, I’d recommend having a dictionary handy.  I will be reviewing my 10 or so pages of notes quite a bit.  

How Not to Die
4/5 Stars
A friend gave me this.  It’s a great reference book for research about eating healthy.   It’s a little dry, and the author approaches vegetarianism with religious fervor, but I tend to support his hypothesis that eating less meat is a good thing.  That being said, it’s practically impossible to control for other factors which affect the health of populations: pollution, stress, alcohol, smoking, religious life, and many other factors which prevent or cause disease and aging.  

Acedia and its Discontents:  Metaphysical Boredom in the Empire of Desire by RJ Snell
4.5 / 5 Stars
This is a work of philosophy by the author, and the subject is Acedia, better known as the “noonday demon”, or laziness. The book makes a strong case that Acedia is the current affliction in our society, in that we are refusing to live into whom God created us to be.  This is one of the best books I read this year.

Talk like Ted by Carmine Gallo
4/5  Stars
One of the most popular phenomena on the internet is “TED” talks.  TED talks are basically conferences where people get together to hear speakers speak for 20 minutes each about various topics.  The author of this book gathered the best advice and tips and observations from 1000s of TED talks and made a book about it.  This is an excellent study on public speaking.

The Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress by Charles Rubin
4/5 Stars
From Amazon:
Tomorrow has never looked better. Breakthroughs in fields like genetic engineering and nanotechnology promise to give us unprecedented power to redesign our bodies and our world. Futurists and activists tell us that we are drawing ever closer to a day when we will be as smart as computers, will be able to link our minds telepathically, and will live for centuries—or maybe forever. The perfection of a “posthuman” future awaits us.

Or so the story goes. In reality, the rush toward a posthuman destiny amounts to an ideology of human extinction, an ideology that sees little of value in humanity except the raw material for producing whatever might come next.

In Eclipse of Man, Charles T. Rubin traces the intellectual origins of the movement to perfect and replace the human race. He shows how today’s advocates of radical enhancement are—like their forebears—deeply dissatisfied with given human nature and fixated on grand visions of a future shaped by technological progress.

The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to fuel your life, work, and team with positive energy by Jon Gordon
3/5 Stars
This is a good book for coaches, and gives 10 really good tips for keeping your team or organization moving in a positive direction. 

Show Your Work by Derek Rivers
4/5 Stars
Entrepreneur Sivers teaches you how to use social media to build your business.  Excellent book.

                                             2017 Movement & Meaning Book of the Year: 

The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in the Age of Distraction by Mathew Crawford

It was extremely tough, because I read some of the best books I’ve ever read in my life this year.  That being said, Crawford’s book is the perfect prescription for what ails us right now, and for moving out of our heads and into the world of doing good things.  I couldn’t recommend this book enough.

Here’s something to think about:  To do anything important, we have to be able to humble ourselves and learn.  We have to focus and cooperate with a tradition or a teacher.  If we don’t we will never truly become an individual or become free.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire by RJ Snell
  • After Virtue by Alysdair Macyntire 
  • You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James KA Smith
  • In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
  • The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Phillip Reiff

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​Scott

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