Looking into another New Year, I see too many dark things to be cheerful, yet am loath to exit 2014 on a somber note. I’d suggest resolutions, but, often too broad in scope, they can pave the way to failure, not the yellow brick road to success. Instead, I’ll mention four books I read this year that have helped me approach some of the bigger problems—debt, religion, historical disunity—one page at a time.
Anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is a tome I’d ordinarily never open, but once I’d happened into the first few pages, found myself enthralled, from the first myth-breaking information that early societies were not solely barter-based, to the intricacies of the early credit systems of five centuries ago, the first time society became divided into debtors and creditors, finally learning that as gold and silver coin moved in, interest rates rose, and debtors became slaves.
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by historian and journalist Colin Woodard, shows clearly that America has never been a single nation. From the entrenched histories of Woodard’s early eleven, (among which are “Yankeedom,” “Deep South,” “El Norte,” and “Greater Appalachia”), came the splits and schisms of today. Descendants of these American settlers with diverse religions, politics, and ethnographic characteristics still vie with one another. Knowing some of the whys may help us realize the ongoing antagonisms our descendants will face tomorrow.
Reza Aslan has written two important books: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. The first presents a Jesus out of the contexts we’re ordinarily taught, while the second examines Mohammed and Islam within the history, social, and religious milieux of his day and beyond. Religious or not, in this shrinking world, it behooves us to know something of the spiritual powers that impel literally billions of believers.
While each of these books was personally rewarding, sometimes the World becomes just too much. On those tired, cold days when my mind slows and optimism wanes, I dip into my Scott Adams collection, and through Dilbert, Wally, et al., confront the Big Questions in a more comforting—and humorous—way.