There’s a lot of media out there to consume. It’s hard to know what kinds of things to read or watch to actually improve our lives, nuance our views and give us a little hope for the future. I’ve assembled here a list – a work in progress, expanding all the time – of media that will help form a basis of knowledge and intuition about how to look at the problems we face. Everything on this list will add depth and breadth to your humanism. It will build a foundation of wonder and engagement with the world. These works have all directly affected their readers, reminding us of our interconnectedness, our value, and our ability to overcome problems, fears, and calamity.
My hope with this list is to show that our culture’s intellectual discussions are not just about the day’s trivialities – celebrities, sensationalism, or despair at our slow decline. Instead, there is much to be thankful for, much to look forward to. There are still heroes in the world, people whose ideas and thoughts have truly improved our condition, who are worth remembering and emulating.
We must always be wary of believing someone simply because they’re an authority, of course. Better to build our set of values and judge people by how well they match to them. Not all the works of everyone listed here are worth your time, but you’ll have to be the judge of that. I think it’s fair to say that those that are on this list will interlace together very well, and will paint a picture of a future worth living in, and worth fighting for.
Pale Blue Dot is one of the most poetic and nuanced expressions of scientific literacy and future-oriented humanism in the English language. It was originally written as a sequel to Sagan’s landmark book and television miniseries Cosmos, and it continues his nuanced and carefully curated exploration of human history, art, and philosophy. Pale Blue Dot examines the origins of famous human logical foibles through tales like the Marsh of Camerina, which describes the ancient town of Camerina, which doomed itself by improperly estimating the dangers of its various policies. Pale Blue Dot touches on the joys of scientific exploration, the revealed wonders of astronomy and biology, and reminds us of the depth of human feeling to be found in both the complexity and humble origins of our species.
If Pale Blue Dot is Sagan’s masterpiece of hopeful futurism, The Demon-Haunted World is the dark side of human unreason, carefully shining light on the dystopias we create when nationalism, soft thinking, and selfishness rule our public discourse. It is a cry for help, a plea not to fall to crystal-waving and prayer to solve the very real problems and challenges we face, not to slip back into the superstition and fear of the premodern world. Like all of Sagan’s works, it is dense with wonder and curiosity, but the tone of the book is sobering and worried, and it makes a good counterpoint to the easy highs of other humanistic texts. Our reasoning faculties are necessary for a scientifically literate world.
An engrossing and often hilarious evisceration of modern organized religion, god is not Great systematically evaluates the common claims made by “true believers,” using the author’s own personal and direct experiences as well as historical, linguistic, and cultural keynotes. Arguably the strongest of the “New Atheist” books, god is not Great is also the most accessible, requiring neither a background in philosophy nor hard science. Hitchens’ tone is conversational, wry, and occasionally venomously outraged. Secularism never had a greater advocate.
This slim volume is one of Hitchens’ best pieces of polemic, and is a perfect example of longform journalism as a tool of policy advocacy. The Trial of Henry Kissinger lays out the case against former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger for the charge of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kissinger’s ‘realpolitik’ foreign policy strategies led to incredible, often pointless human suffering, destroying the reputation of the United States as a benevolent world power and creating blowback and secondary crises that are with us to this day. An indictment of pragmatic, anti-human foreign policy as much as of Kissinger himself, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is humanism at its most powerful, demanding higher moral stances from world leaders and decrying the crimes of power against the vulnerable and marginalized.
While he is best known as another of the ‘New Atheists,’ Sam Harris’s best work is in elucidating the beginnings of a new moral philosophy founded on principles of scientific reasoning. The age-old discussion about whether science can provide answers to moral questions is nicely answered here, first by showing the absurdity of seeking objective standards of morality outside of the suffering and well-being of conscious creatures, and then describing the fascinating means by which we are becoming able to measure suffering and well-being as states of the brain and of consciousness itself. Harris’s reasoning is incisive, carefully anticipating counterarguments from all sides of the philosophical and political spectrum. The Moral Landscape provides an excellent baseline to begin the work of creating fully humane and ethical guidelines for the organization of society.
Matt Taibbi was once an expatriate American journalist in Russia before accepting a senior editing position at Rolling Stone magazine. One of the things he noticed early upon his return was how differently the American public reacted to the extremism of its leaders compared with Europeans. When European politics became distorted, voters tended to flock to the middle, moderating the discussion democratically and costing the extremists their power. American voters, on the other hand, tended to fan to the walls, picking the strangest ideas they could find and sticking to them. Taibbi went undercover for much of this book, observing and recording thoughts on the 9/11 Truther movement, John Hagee’s “Cornerstone” megachurch in San Antonio, as well as ride-alongs with the US military to see the absurdity of US foreign policy and military spending firsthand. The book is written with an eye for the real insanity of the average voter’s thoughts and feelings, the distortions of the American media, and the way that peoples’ fears and emotions are consciously and cynically manipulated to keep extreme viewpoints in power.
The great populist masterpiece of the 2007/2008 financial collapse, Griftopia allows layman readers to easily understand the fraud and cynicism at the heart of Wall Street’s excess. Easy to read language, pitch-perfect comedic timing, and Taibbi’s masterful eye for the absurd make it a must-read for anyone attempting to understand politics in the ‘Bubble Era.’ Taibbi takes the reader through the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934, a piece of Depression-era legislation that safeguarded the US from finance disasters, all the way up to its repeal in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, and the subsequent buildup to disaster that followed less than a decade later. Further chapters describe the injection of Wall Street into such legislation as the Affordable Care Act, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 that led singlehandedly to the excessive gas prices that we’re still paying today. Griftopia is still a vital piece of current-affairs journalism, and in the future will be a wry, F-bomb-dropping record of one of the most consciously corrupt times in American history.
– John Dies at the End / This Book is Full of Spiders
David Wong is the founding editor of Cracked.com, and touts himself as proof that anyone can ‘make it,’ having overcome severe depression and cynicism to become a successful entrepreneur and author. The climb out of depression has also given him occasional startling insights into how we motivate ourselves, the lies we tell ourselves every day, and the ways we can overcome our own built-in desire to fail. These two books are poignant, and frightening in a curious way. The monsters that the main character confronts are everyday people, but the actual drama of the story is in seeing foot-dragging and apathy make everything worse, repeatedly, in ways that are remarkably realistic given the surreal-horror nature of the story.
They’re also hilarious. No, really, really hilarious.
– Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math (Rolling Stone, July 2012)
Once you’ve read Griftopia, you’ll understand the way that globalized banking and finance infiltrates every other human endeavor. The system of asset-leveraging that collapsed the global financial system in 2008 is also holding up the value of carbon assets all over the world, and those numbers mean our economy is tethered to the continued success of carbon-energy industries, creating a catch-22: Do we burn all the fossil fuels that our banking system has already put dollar signs on and leveraged, thus guaranteeing the doom of the human species in the coming decades, or do we trigger an unprecedented economic collapse by attempting to de-leverage fossil fuels fast enough to stave off disaster? The policy solutions for global climate change in the age of Wall Street largesse are going to require nuance and extreme care. McKibben’s full story cannot be missed.
– Cosmos: A Personal Voyage
Required viewing for anyone seeking perspective, humility, wonder, and scientific literacy. Cosmos first aired in 1980 andm along with his appearances on the Johnny Carson show, made Carl Sagan a household name. Cosmos is a 13-part miniseries containing a complete overview of scientific humanism. It begins with a discussion of what science is, how it works, and how it self-corrects. It explores evolution, planetary motion, the history of astronomy and cosmology, and the bizarre things that happen at the edges of human knowledge. It reveals the lives and times of scientists throughout history, from the Great Library at Alexandria to the radio telescope arrays scattered around the world today, and puts the continuity and inheritance of science firmly in focus. No small review could ever do justice to this monumental series, the most-watched science documentary of all time. Translated into more than eighty languages and estimated to have been viewed by more than 10% of people alive today, Cosmos has probably done more for worldwide scientific literacy than any other single piece of modern media.
– Inequality for All
Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, reveals the gross disparities our deregulated capitalist system has created for the average citizen. The level of material inequality, poverty, anxiety and deprivation that the average citizen suffers is shown in stark contrast to the lavish lives led by the very wealthy. By revealing step-by-step how this situation came to be, and the misuses and improprieties that were required to get us here, Reich dispels the myth of ‘trickle-down economics,’ that increased wealth at the top would create more wealth beneath. The myths of rising tides and welfare fraud are thoroughly debunked, leaving only the sociopathic greed of the rich, and the smoking crater of the American Dream in the background.
– Inside Job
Charles Ferguson first hit the mainstream with No End in Sight, a hard-hitting, award-winning documentary about the follies and perils of the American adventure in Iraq. Following on the success of No End in Sight, Ferguson turned his camera lens on the executive class of Americans’ financial sector. Through ingenious setups and deceptively softball questioning, he coerced many of the executives on Wall Street to admit their complicity, conscious foreknowledge, and even glee at their wrecking of the US and world economy. While it has none of the invigorating satisfaction of seeing frauds and con men go to jail, Inside Job does contain a few moments of vindication, where smug bankers and financiers realize halfway through the interview that their answers have revealed far more about them, on camera, than they ever intended. The indignity of these super-rich mooches is insulting in itself, and seeing it on camera suggests there’s at least some hope that one day the electorate will do something about it.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
– If all of the suggestions on this list have exhausted you with their outrage and fist-shaking, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is exactly what you need. This loving biopic follows a few weeks in the life of Jiro Ono, the owner and proprietor of Sukibayashi Jiro, a Tokyo sushi restaurant and one of only a handful of sushi restaurants in the world to win three stars in the Michelin “Red Guide” review. (A 3-star Michelin restaurant is asserted to be the best in the world at what it does, worth traveling to a foreign country for.) Jiro’s craftsmanship and artistic skill are on close display, with careful camera shots of finished products, as well as more conventional documentary scenes showing the means by which raw materials are selected at the market. Jiro Ono’s personality shines through even in his advanced age. The documentary deserves attention from a humanistic perspective as it describes a life of painstaking discipline and devotion to craftsmanship, the life of a ‘shoku-nin,’ something almost foreign to most people who watch it. Jiro Ono’s life story has been one of singlemindedness and extreme focus, creating brief, exciting pieces of art that often exist only for a few minutes, but create an experience that can last a lifetime. The profoundness in his simple, exacting life is impossible to miss in Jiro Dreams of Sushi.