Monday, July 27, 2009

Books you need to read

I don't often give orders to my readers, but this time I'll make an exception...

One of the most difficult things about living in an information-dense culture like ours is getting out of it. We are inundated by images, noises, publications, and the new phenomena of web content, all of which sweep us along like a great tide. The attitudes, presuppositions, and outlooks that dominate this flood of information are rarely examined, and the power of this tidal surge makes it difficult to rise above it, to understand it critically from a detached point of view.

Of course, this is the goal of a true liberal education - to anchor one's understanding and conceptual framework in a foundation that lies deeper than the transient intellectual trends of any particular time. And though my formal education wasn't broad enough to be considered truly liberal, I've tried to deepen my informal education to be liberal in the classical sense.

That has meant a lot of reading over the years, and I wanted to pass along some of the books that have helped me most. Those who know me will hear me constantly recommending them. A couple I've loved for years, one I just finished recently, but all three are invaluable. They all help the reader rise above the rhetoric and assumptions of our culture and examine things from a different perspective. There are many books that help do that, but these three address particular challenges facing our culture. If you want superb analysis of critical modern problems, and are brave enough to have your presuppositions challenged, I cannot recommend these works too highly.

The Flight from Woman by Karl Stern
Psychiatrist Karl Stern offers a keen insight into one of the central intellectual imbalances of our age: the exultation of the discursive intellect at the expense of the intuitive intellect. He explains how the triumph of rationalism following the Enlightenment led to a neurotic imbalance of thought and perception in the modern mind. This work is a rigorous intellectual workout but well worth the time.

Family and Civilization by Carle Zimmerman, as abridged by James Kurth
I'd heard of this scholarly tour de force years ago, but understood that the multi-volume work had gone out of print. Fortunately, ISI Books undertook the task of re-releasing it, in the process abridging it for the lay reader. This is not just another "family values are deteriorating" screed - Harvard sociologist Zimmerman prepares a sweeping survey of civilizations throughout history and how they relate to the family structures that underly them. Of course, his analysis of where our culture stands in light of historical patterns is not cheering, but he backs up his conclusions with firm research. If you want to understand the relations of the family to civilization, this book is a must-read.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
An NYU professor and student of Marshall McLuhan, Postman was a keen thinker and critic of modern culture. This book is considered his masterpiece, but don't expect another "there's nothing but trash on TV" rant. Postman begins his critique with epistemology - the understanding of how we know what we know - and takes the reader through the history of oral and written cultures to set the framework for understanding how a video epistemology changes a society.

I recommend that anyone who seriously wishes to understand our culture, the challenges we face, and possible solutions, should study these books carefully. You'll be rewarded.

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