Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 10 Most Intellectually Stimulating Books I Read in 2011

In alphabetical order by author:

I received a copy of Sigal Ben-Porath's excellent Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice last year, and started it immediately...but then was distracted by something, and didn't get around to finishing it until early this year. I'm very glad I did; it formed the basis of a couple of the most important lectures I gave in my "Simplicity and Sustainability" class this year. Her argument for the relevance of paternalistic policies, moral norms, and other communitarian truths (though she doesn't call them by that name, for reasons I found both curious and perhaps limiting) that can and should work to shape public choices in a liberal egalitarian society was persuasive, thorough, and original.

Jim Faulconer's Faith, Philosophy, Scripture is a collection of essays by a former, and much beloved, Mormon professor of mine back at BYU; I wrote about it, and the significance of his many ideas (as well as some unfortunate limitations arising from what was and what wasn't included in the book), with effusive praise here.

Shannon Hayes's rambling, always eye-opening Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, is, despite its several missteps, a superb challenge to the sort of bourgeois thinking which limits the "radical" potential and understanding that she asserts, persuasively, in embedded in the most conservative and traditional of family and economic decisions and actions. It is also a book I blogged about, here.

This collection of essays by Alan Jacobs, appropriately and lyrically titled Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was a delightful read, at times haunting, stimulating, sobering, and hilarious. I discovered Alan through our mutual love for Harry Potter, but now I'll read just about anything he writes.

Leigh Jenco's serious, meticulous Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao is a tremendous and concise work of scholarship. I've run into Leigh many times over the years, and been on the receiving end of her brilliantly intelligent (and usually harshly accurate) criticisms more than a few times as well (most recently at the conference I attended in Hong Kong last January), but reading this book was the first time I really understood the grandness of her aims: she is convinced (and she came close to convincing me) that the worldview of East Asia--call it the "Confucian tradition" if you'd like, though she doesn't--provides sufficiently distinct alternatives to how we think about political action and revolution that whole theories of the political can and should be worked out using those resources alone, without much (if any) reliance upon Western terminology or references. Leigh has gotten me to think differently about how communities are constituted before; through the writings of Zhang Shizhao, she's gotten me to rethink even more differently again.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is huge, magisterial, encyclopedic, and endlessly surprising and fascinating, even when it is only providing data which provides evidentiary support for something that I, as a pretty solid member of a religious community myself, always suspected was true. I'll be making use of this book in a writing project this year, and I'm not the only one; it's going to be discussed for years and years to come.

I read Jeffrey Robbins's Radical Democracy and Political Theology to review it for a journal, but ultimately found it the sort of book I would have wanted to read anyway. A book that probably tries to do too much, but which has packed within its narrow covers insightful readings of Carl Schmitt, Alexis de Tocqueville, Sheldon Wolin, and many more. If nothing else, it made me think hard about what it means to affirm democracy, especially being a member of a fairly non-democratic religion myself.

Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less is a somewhat older book, another book which I had my students read for the aforementioned "Simplicity and Sustainability" class, and one that didn't go over with them terribly well: they found it often obvious and repetitive. I did too. But I also haven't read a great deal of psychology in my life, and so much of the sort of research that Schwartz presented, and the kind of issues and questions he brought up in the context of that research, I found engaging and insightful. His basic thesis--that, both socially as well as economically, we are healthier when we do not allow our lives and our societies to be littered with excessive, technologically-enabled, often meaningless-apart-from-status choices--is intuitively obvious, but no less valuable for all that.

A fine, at times surprising and perplexing, but always entertaining read about, appropriately enough, a constantly surprising and perplexing entertainer. I blogged about Sean Wilentz's idiosyncratic paean to the greatest poet American pop music ever created here.

Ethan Yorgason's cultural and ideological study of how Mormon culture changed from the late 19th century up through the middle of the 20th century is an important and insightful addition to the more famous historical study of that same era by Thomas Alexander. Yorgason insightful reading of the relevant texts as well as his sociological analysis helped me see the much-belabored "Americanization" of Mormon communitarianism, feminism, and patriotism in a new (and perhaps, for a left-leaning Mormon like myself, even more tragic) light.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

My score. American Grace is on my to read list. Dylan in America I gave to my brother for Christmas 2010 and would like to read. The two books on choice I've heard of and would like to take at least a look at-or reread your reviews. The others are ones I had never heard of.

I'll have to get on the ball and write up my top ten.