Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Not to Recommend Books

My friend behind the always witty, thought-provoking, and iconoclastic Prototrype blog alerted me to a list by pop science fixture Neil deGrasse Tyson of 8 books that every intelligent person should read. It’s two years old but seems to have been given new life as end-of-the-year book recommendations circulate on the internet. Tyson’s intriguing angle is that he recommends them on the basis of their impact on civilization; read them all, he writes, and “you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.” Unfortunately, Tyson’s commentary doesn’t so much inspire you to read some of these works as it does prejudice you against them.

Here are his book recommendations and one-line descriptions of their cultural influence:

1) The Bible - “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

2) The System of the World by Isaac Newton – “to learn that the universe is a knowable place.”

3) On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin - “to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.”

4) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – “to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos.”

5) The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine – “to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.”

6) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith - “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

7) The Art of War by Sun Tsu - “to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.”

8) The Prince by Machiavelli - “to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it.”

Admittedly, narrowing any one of these books down to a single sentence description of its influence is a daunting task. But when Tyson says, for example, that reading the Bible teaches you that “it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself,” this is not a description but a complete dismissal. He has reduced the entirety of the Bible’s incalculable impact on the world to a single sneering comment which in fact does precisely what he accuses the Bible of – it tells you what to think. Tyson is not recommending it in the neutral way that he does the Newton book (“to learn that the universe is a knowable place”); he is in fact telling you to reject it as mere brainwashing. You don’t have to be a believer to give the Bible’s impact a fairer assessment than that condescending jab.

Capitalism is an economy of greed? Sun Tsu elevates killing to an art? As with the Bible comment, these reductive “descriptions” are not only unfair and inaccurate but do not at all do justice to the influence these books have had over the centuries. How about this instead? Read The Wealth of Nations to learn how capitalism has elevated more individuals and societies from poverty to prosperity than any economic system in history. Or this? Read The Art of War to learn how the world’s most renowned military theorist abhorred war as a necessary evil and designed these strategies to win swiftly and efficiently, in order to limit the loss of life and treasure. 

Beginning in March, Neil deGrasse Tyson will host a reboot of the famed TV series Cosmos, which made his Cosmos predecessor Carl Sagan a household name. Tyson isn’t yet so famous, but he is a prominent pop science figure, having hosted NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and appeared frequently on The Daily ShowThe Colbert ReportReal Time with Bill Maher, and even Jeopardy! He has over a million and a half Twitter followers. His opinions reach a vast audience, which is why the personal prejudices he injected into this book list make it so disappointing, intellectually dishonest, and unfortunately misleading for his fans.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 12/30/13)