Book Recommendations for the New Year
Happy holidays! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year, and general happiness all round to you and your loved ones.
As 2023 approaches, I'd like to share some of the most interesting books I read this year. Not all of them are new to the world, but there were new to me in 2022. This list is admittedly idiosyncratic---there is no system here, I just happened to read these particular books at this particular time. The main thing I look for in a book is that it helps me learn about, understand, or see the world in a different, better, and more thoughtful way. All of these titles did that for me in some way, and I hope they do the same for you!
The Stoic Theory of Beauty (Aiste Celkyte, 2020/2022)
A scholarly and thought-provoking examination of how the ancient Stoics thought about beauty. Celkyte starts with Greek philosophy in general, including Plato and Aristotle, and discusses how Chrysippus in particular framed beauty within Stoicism. Very relevant for anyone who has wondered how beauty fits into a Stoic worldview.
Sacred Nature: How We Can Recover Our Bond with the Natural World (Karen Armstrong, 2022)
One of my favorite historians of religion examines our sacred relationship with the natural world. Most of the material is not new if you've read any of Armstrong's previous works, but it's a beautiful summary of how various wisdom traditions have respected and related to Nature.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013)
Wall Kimmerer is an exquisite writer and observer of the natural world. Her prose just reaches out and grabs you as she describes the wisdom of North America's indigenous peoples, as well as her personal life story and relationship with nature. As both a trained botanist and a person with indigenous heritage, Wall Kimmerer has one foot in the world of science and one foot in the poetry and beauty of nature. This book will make you see and appreciate everything around you with fresh eyes.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber and David Wengrow, 2021)
This book lives up to its name as history of humanity. I've always enjoyed deep history takes, from Jared Diamond to Yuval Noah Harari, although I generally take these theories with a grain of salt. No one knows for sure what humans were really like in the distant past. All accounts of deep history are highly speculative, and since there's very little actual evidence to go on, they are also highly contentious. I read many negative review of this book---that it was scientifically inaccurate or the authors were biased in some way---but when I read the book for myself, I found it both engrossing and illuminating. Since I'm not a scientist myself, I can't vouch for the accuracy of every fact, but the general picture Graeber and Wengrow present is extremely rich and interesting. They surprised me and made me question my assumptions about human cooperation, group cohesion, and political organization. A long and dense book, but well worth it if you like thinking about things in a new light.
Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who's Been Through It (Karen Duffy, 2022)
Karen Duffy is one of my Stoic role models. A chronic pain patient for most of her life, she spends her time helping others as a hospice chaplain, patient advocate, community volunteer...oh, and as a producer of feel-good Hollywood movies (like her latest with Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, and Bill Murray). I had the honor of interviewing Duff at Stoicon Women this year about her excellent new book Wise Up, co-written with her longtime collaborator Francis Gasparini. Designed as a series of letters to her 18-year-old son, this is a light-hearted-but-serious take on Stoic wisdom for modern times. Along the way you'll learn about Duff's crazy family, her love for donkeys, and interesting factoids about death, love, etymology, and much more.
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Sarah Bakewell, 2010)
So many people have already praised this book, I don't think I have anything original to add here. I'll just say this is one of the best books I have ever read, and everyone should read it. Whatever your interests---history, philosophy, biography, literature, or life in general---you will find something to love in Montaigne and in Bakewell's rendering of him.
How to Live Like a Monk: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Life (Daniele Cybulskie, 2021)
I'm very interested in medieval monasteries as places of learning and communal living. We don't have much information about how the ancient philosophical schools functioned as living communities, so I often use monasticism as a stand-in for thinking about how a philosophical life might look. Yes, there are also significant differences---not to mention corruption of the original intention behind monasticism---but if you read this book you might agree with me that there are relevant similarities in the communal life of wisdom-seekers. Plus, Cybulskie draws out relevant points for modern living (minimalism, respecting nature, etc.), and I love the colorful medieval manuscripts and artwork included in the book.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Paul Bloom, 2016)
Paul Bloom is a psychologist going against the grain of common opinion--much like the ancient Stoics. (As he puts it, "Being against empathy is like being against kittens--a view considered so outlandish that it can't be serious.") He makes an excellent psychological case that emotional empathy leads to bad decisions, favoritism, and burnout. This is something we know as Stoics, but it's great to have some hard data to back this up. Bloom also makes a compelling argument for reason and rational compassion. This is a great read on the interplay between reason, emotions, and human sociability, from a 21st-century perspective.
Learning to Live Naturally: Stoic Ethics and Its Modern Significance (Christopher Gill, 2022)
In this landmark new book, esteemed scholar and Modern Stoicism co-founder Chris Gill explores the relevance of Stoic ethics for today's academic philosophy. This is a very scholarly work, priced for university libraries, so it may not be for everyone. I'm planning an in-depth commentary on it next year, so if you can't buy this one, I'll try to summarize some of the main points and explain why this is such an important book.