Summer Reading Recommendations by Readers

Photo by piksel / 123RF

Thanks to our loyal readers for answering Senior Editor Maggie Ardiente’s call last week for summer reading recommendations! There’s still plenty of summer days left—be sure to check out any of the books recommended by fellow readers. Due to the large volume of recommendations we received, we regret that we could not publish them all.

naturesgodI highly recommend Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart. It is an excellent historical narrative of how the U.S. was founded on Enlightenment principles that, in turn, were founded upon secular ideals of ancient and medieval philosophers. It was no accident that Jefferson used the term “Nature’s God” in describing a “God” in the Declaration of Independence; likewise it was not an oversight that “God” and all other deities were excluded from the Constitution. It is well known that most of the Founding Fathers were at least deists, if not outright agnostics or atheists. Stewart provides an intriguing insight to the meaning of these terms in the context of their times. The result is a clear and persuasive refutation of the myth of the U.S. being founded upon Christianity principles. While masterfully weaving the historical and philosophical narrative, Stewart provides the reader with fascinating tales about the Founders—famous and less well known—and their philosophies. Combined with his skillful writing, the result is not only a great summer read, but a book for all seasons.
—Jerry Staub

I recommend Natchez Burning by Greg Isle (fantastic book about the South), Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis (one of the Freedom Riders) and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (just a good book).
—Sharon Berthrong

innerfishI suspect much reading we do is rather myopic. The three books by Jared Diamond I’ve read this summer have really expanded my perception of humanity: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Skeptic leader Michael Shermer characterizes Diamond as the Charles Darwin of our generation. These are profoundly revealing works on the history of human societies and how we’ve changed from our hunter-gather ancestors.

Another even more revealing history of our evolutionary history is told in the fascinating read by Neil Shubin: Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into 3.5 Billion-year History of the Human Body. It’s such a joy to see literally proved what many of us think daily as we involve ourselves with other animals. We’re all related!
—Ron Priest

I recommend Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, a very important book on world-wide inequality and particularly in the U.S. It has been called the most popular book and the least read. It’s really not that difficult to read; it’s written in a very clear style. The way to read it, though, is not straight through. Reading a section and shifting to another book and come back later, I found to be the way to take it all in.

uncertainjusticeI also recommend The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers. The author is a well-respected biological scientist and professor at Rutgers University. The primary title is misleading—likely the publishers doing. The book is a serious presentation of an astounding insight into human nature based on solid research. We need to understand this about the human species. It is well written and engrossing.

Finally, Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution by Lawrence Tribe and Joshua Matz is a fair scrutiny of the Roberts court is a most welcome in view of some of the decisions it has been making. This one is interesting and erudite with extensive analysis of decisions. On the same subject and just as good, but with a more personal look at the justices themselves and a little more fun is The Oath by Jeffery Toobin. The latter’s prior book The Nine is also a page turner. The last two are out in paperback.
—Bill Newnam

I highly recommend What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe and Not In Your Lifetime: The Defining Book on the J.F.K. Assassination: Fifty Years On, Weighing the Evidence by Anthony Summers.
—Darryl Hamson

lightsoutI just finished Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor of BoingBoing and New York Times columnist. It did a great job of summarizing the problems with energy consumption and the complexities that come along with proposed solutions. I was expecting a book like this to be a little depressing, but this book helped me see the energy crisis as more of an engineering problem that we can overcome than an existential one.

I also recently finally got around to reading Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg and God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters by Sarah Posner. These were both published near the end of the Bush administration and are both very much of that time. It’s interesting to read stuff like this about religious movements that were maybe more newsworthy at the time with a little bit of hindsight. Some of the personal stories Posner relays towards the end of her book about faith healing are almost as infuriating as they are heartbreaking.

And a few weeks ago while on vacation I spent a weird and wonderful day outside with my dog, a bottle of whiskey, some music and a book called Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III. It’s a novel about four squatter punks who get jobs working for Satan’s fast-food restaurant, which is actually a front for stealing souls. It’s dark, surreal, apocalyptic, funny, and hard to put down. Oh, and there’s a morbidly obese Jesus.
—Josh Bunting (@josh_b42)

margaretfullerI recommend Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall (bio of an early 19th century modern woman), Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (bio of the early days of computers and Alan Turing’s genius) and Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts by Charles Fernyhough (describing the science of memory as we currently understand it). For light reading, I suggest two books by Philip Pullman: The Broken Bridge and The Shadow in the North (part of his Sally Lockhart series).
—Rachael Solem

I recommend The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written and highly critical of religion), Unbroken: A World War II story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Lauren Hillenbrand (the astounding story of Louis Zamperini, soon to be a major movie), and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Towers (hilarious, wild stories—read them on the advice of David Sedaris, who declared them better than anything he has written).
—Mark Duncan

provinghistoryI’m reading Dr. Richard Carrier’s Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus for nonfiction, and I recommend anything by Christopher Moore for entertainment.
—Elizabeth True

I like biographies, autobiographies or memoirs of Hollywood personalities. I just read Rob Lowes’ new book, Love Life. He is an intelligent, thoughtful and insightful writer. The book was fun to read and I learned a lot about Lowe (and life)!
—Pete Prunkl

I’ve read Guests On Earth by Lee Smith, Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss, and Nomad: From Islam to America—A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
—Brad Miller

transformingangerI just read Transforming Anger: The Heartmath Solution for Letting Go of Rage, Frustration, and Irritation, an approach to directing one’s interactions in those emotion-soaked moments. It’s a practical system for observing oneself and then directing one’s response, when old patterns are not rewarding. I found it useful despite a lead-footed prose style.

Much more enjoyable, despite its density: Calliope’s Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art by Richard L Anderson. It’s a text in anthropology/ethnology, knowing people by what they produce to enhance their life and express ideals. I think of it as the bridge over what we say we believe/admire/desire and what we create, make, live with. And the writing is full of insights, surprises. The ten cultures of focus are well chosen, a range from foraging people (the San) to mixed hunting and gardening (the New Guinea Sepik), present day Navajo to ancient India. I took a month, on and off, taking notes all through, to absorb this book. How do we explain what we sense as the eternal? How live with the distance between dreams and failures? Maybe it’s just the time of my life, my history—this evening I listened to a woman playing the sitar and thought, now I understand something of the aesthetic of India—beyond words, with drone resonance.

Before that I read the Cutouts of Henri Matisse by George Braziller. These were executed by Matisse after his body had failed, his wife of many years had left. From his bed or wheelchair he took hand-colored hanks of paper in hand and sliced with scissors. He re-created paradise—a woman’s body, flowers of Hawaii, a man falling through space and time, peacefully and joyfully. He built them into wall-size patterns that are transports to delight. That sent me back forty years to the critic who looked at Matisse’s early portrait of his wife, with a green line dividing her face, and labeled the artist a fauvist, a mad dog. I’m reminded of Anderson’s summary of western art’s traditions, a French academy that gave the highest respect to crowded, reality-driven historical scenes of generals subduing other generals. That’s a reality, but not an ideal to strive for as winner or loser. Matisse made his cutouts after World War II had shown Europeans the futility of zero-sum values.
—Jeanette Miller

I’m reading the following books this summer: Inferno by Dan Brown, Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz, Essays in Idleness by Kenko, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and Good Without God by Greg Epstein.

unbelieversThe Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi (I always get a kick out of how that can be read as “St. Joshi”).  This is a concise overview of unbelievers from the last 150 years, from Thomas Huxley to Christopher Hitchens. This book is not a valentine to its subjects; Joshi points out the strengths and weaknesses of each of his subjects.

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman, a self-described agnostic, points out that while many Christians consider Jesus to be God (or some form of God), the historian (using empirical evidence) cannot accept that theological interpretation of Jesus.  In historical research, supernaturalism cannot be a factor.  So, following what evidence there is, Ehrman tracks down how Jesus’ followers probably came to believe that he was in some sense God.  Just as there were a variety of different Christianities early on, so there were also a variety of ways in which early Christians thought of Jesus as God.  Those who did not agree with the more powerful Christian leaders were condemned as “heretics.”

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George M. Marsden. In case you’ve ever wondered where Christian Fundamentalism came from (and nope, it wasn’t straight from Jesus), this is a pretty good history of it. It started as an outgrowth of conservative Christianity of the late 1800s, peaked in the early 1920s (before the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” helped reduce its popularity), and then grew to greater popularity in the 1970s (with the help of some big conservative money). The focus is on the growth of Fundamentalism from around 1910 to 1925. The author is a Christian, but for the most part he does not let that interfere with his narrative.
—Doug Long

lonesomedoveMy summer reading started with Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (Don’t even think about the mini-series. The longer ago you saw it, the better.) This book is an honest depiction of post-Civil War life in the nation’s mid-section. Civilization is only beginning to take hold. The characters are brutal exploiters of one another, yet at the same time they long for real and personal connection with one another. Push through the rough spots, take a break from the violence if you have to, but if you make it to the end, you will find the sweet spot. You will see parts of yourself in each of these characters, who are both innocent and jaded, kind and mean, good and evil—in other words, truly human.
—Stephen Pickering


What have you been reading this summer? Tell us in the comments below!