Understanding the world by reading books
August 9, 2010 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Suggest books that illuminate world-views and the way perception is flavored by ideas and sentiments!

I enjoy reading and have found some books really fascinating, and I feel that they have much in common, but I can't find words for what, exactly — and sense that there are reservoirs of similar stuff that would be interesting to me. Books I've loved include
  • William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience — so beautifully written, learned, and intelligent;
  • Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life — the mana concept is really fascinating;
  • Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  • Richard Rorty's Irony, Contingency, and Solidarity — the discussion of the contingency of final vocabularies really struck a note with me;
  • Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain;
  • Alistair MacIntyre's After Virtue — for the discussion of the ancient view of ethics based on telos;
  • Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception;
  • Friedrich Nietzsche's writings on moral feelings; and, perhaps the best example,
  • Roland Barthes's Mythologies.
Putting it down like that, I realize what tickles me about these books is their way of illuminating "world-views" and the way perception is flavored by ideas and sentiments. (*goes back and changes question summary*) So give me some pointers on that, please! Don't hesitate to recommend real basic stuff — I'm quite naive. (The list of books might make it seem like I'm searching for something extremely particular, but they're just examples.)
posted by mbrock to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I can't say it's the very best writing, but any of Karen Armstrong books on religion put the three major monastic religions in perspective, but I don't think they're give you that personal flavor you're looking for. I do suggest A History of God, though. It's a good followup book for any book that deals with losing one's religion for something else - perhaps simply existentialism - a quick and incredible read for that would be, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. If you haven't read already, another quick and easy and genius book is simply Siddartha, by Herman Hesse.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:01 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Guns, Germs and Steel is the obvious answer here.
posted by resiny at 11:08 AM on August 9, 2010

Two books come to mind: The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx and A Natural History of Pragmatism by Joan Richardson.
posted by xod at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2010

Okay, I think I misread the intent of the question. Guns, Germs and Steel probably isn't at all what you're looking for.

Though, to be honest, I find it pretty unconvincing, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell is certainly an interesting read.
posted by resiny at 11:22 AM on August 9, 2010

The Postmodern Condition, by Lyotard.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:45 AM on August 9, 2010

For a scientific perspective, I recommend 'The Demon Haunted World" by Carl Sagan.
posted by grizzled at 11:52 AM on August 9, 2010

I'm not quite sure if this is what you're looking for, but the fiction work A Yellow Raft in Blue Water really helped illuminate, to me, the subjectivity of our own experiences and if there is indeed a truth that we all seek to approximate but can't due to our own biases and perceptions. The book is a coming-of-age story for one of the major characters, who are all women. The story is told slightly differently through the eyes of each character.
posted by Dukat at 11:54 AM on August 9, 2010

I think Ishmael might fit.
posted by Busmick at 11:59 AM on August 9, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion by Eliade and maybe The Golden Bough by Frazer

For me, the wikipedia article about the Golden Bough is far more enjoyable than the book.
posted by Duffington at 12:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Crestien (Chrétien) de Troyes - Perceval or the Story of the Grail - written the 1200's, the earliest version of the grail story in medieval verse romance. Crestien raised questions about the conflict between the knightly code of honor and Christian ethics, and about status of women in medieval society. He was also an amazingly good writer.

(This recommendation is for Crestien's version of Perceval, not Eschenbach's. They're quite different. I'm not recommending a specific translation. Crestien died while writing it, so the story goes up to a certain point and just stops.)

Christine de Pizan - The City of Ladies. If you have serious questions about the Catholic Church's position on patriarchy, and the inquisition in full swing, how do you think and talk about it? This is a womens studies classic, but it really deserves to be more widely read. Obviously she made decisions that resulted in her not being executed, you being able to read this book, but even from a modern perspective, it's interesting and instructive to watch her struggling with it.

Tacitus - Annals and Histories - Roman history written by a Roman dissident.

More about religion: Felicitas Goodman's Ecstasy, Ritual and Alternative Reality looks at religion from a cross-cultural, anthropological perspective and examines the relationship between people's way of life and their beliefs.

Michel de Montaigne's Essays are always good.
posted by nangar at 1:27 PM on August 9, 2010

I think Emily Martin's work might be of interest to you. She is an anthropologist who examines the way that cultural beliefs have shaped our ideas of (for example) reproduction, the immune system, and mental illness.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:41 PM on August 9, 2010

Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor
The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek

You might want to look into Critical Theory.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:50 PM on August 9, 2010

Perhaps The Gift by Lewis Hyde (and he has a new book about copyright and the commons coming out called Common As Air. And Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam, for a new introduction to John Calvin.
posted by newrambler at 2:25 PM on August 9, 2010

Check out my namesake's essay The Sceptic. While It doesn't discuss any particular worldview, its guided by Hume's belief that "If we can depend upon any principle, which we learn from philosophy, this, I think, may be considered as certain and undoubted, that there is nothing, in itself, valuable or despicable, desirable or hateful, beautiful or deformed; but that these attributes arise from the particular constitution and fabric of human sentiment and affection. "

If you like that, try Book II of A Treatise of Human Nature.
posted by Hume at 3:08 PM on August 9, 2010

This is not a book but you might try essays in The New Yorker. They often take a look at a large issue and then zoom in microscopically on something small, then zoom out again. It seems standard style in The New Yorker that the writer should not believe too strongly in finding the 'correct' answer to the issue at hand. Malcolm Gladwell is a prime example of this kind of writer. His collection of essays "What the Dog Saw" is great, and I never knew that ketchup or woman's hair dye could be so enthralling (in the same way that Weber makes Protestantism something worth considering).

Also, what about a little art history? TJ Clark is masterful at seeing the implicit politics in art. I recommend his books on Courbet and Manet. It showed me that Impressionism isn't just about pretty pictures.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 4:47 PM on August 9, 2010

I noticed there is no fiction in your list, but that's one of the themes Tolstoi goes over and over again. Give War and Peace or Anna Karenina a try. Those new translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are really good.
posted by MrMisterio at 7:26 PM on August 9, 2010

Also any fiction or essays by D.H. Lawrence, Crowds and Power by Elias Canneti and Musil's The Man Without Qualities.
posted by MrMisterio at 7:38 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Hume.

Treatise of Human Nature is amazing. Book II is more up your alley, but his general approach to the science of the mind is in line with your interests.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:13 PM on August 9, 2010

Robert Bellah on the notion of civil religion, Mary Douglas' classic Purity and Danger, Victor Turner on liminality and the ritual process
posted by ifjuly at 10:37 PM on August 9, 2010

Oh, and Sacvan Bercovitch
posted by ifjuly at 10:39 PM on August 9, 2010

Ah another--Laura Kipnis is queen.
posted by ifjuly at 10:39 PM on August 9, 2010

And this one's less clearly correlated yet I get the feeling you'd love it--Richard Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. You might like (love!) Walter Benjamin too. (God knows I do...)
posted by ifjuly at 10:43 PM on August 9, 2010

It took some serious mental energy for me to read this one, but it was well worth it
posted by Redhush at 6:24 PM on August 10, 2010

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