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Bookshelf and Bust

For the deep thinkers, my list of the best philosophical posts of the year.

The top 10, in order:

1. Because the Universe Is Happening to You by Julian Barnes

This excerpt is pulled from Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which was probably the most potent book I picked up this year. Barnes’s writing is as cogent as I’ve ever read — the product a voice that quivers with intensity but never stutters or misses a word. This particular section complements well the reflection below from Pollack, and was also part of the inspiration for my speech ‘College, Life’.

2. Define ‘Life’ by Dr. Robert Pollack

Spoken at the Philoctetes panel on Origin, Evolution, and the Future of Life on Earth, Pollack’s opening answer to the prompt “Define ‘Life'” is powerful because it integrates three concepts which are rarely synthesized into the same worldview: a religious impulse, an acceptance of the persuasive findings of modern cosmology, and a recognition that existence is tragic by definition. (I highly encourage you to not just read the text, but listen to Pollack’s coolness as he gives his answer.)

3. What Is Happening When We See Somebody Die? by David Eagleman

My favorite explanation to the vexing (and perhaps unanswerable) question of what happens to consciousness and identity upon the death of the body.

4. If We’re Gong to Waste Our Time Like That by Sam Harris

An ideal statement to supplement your new year’s resolutions.

5. Mere Human Love by Julian Barnes

Here Barnes contemplates the human desire for love and how it is inextricably bound up in our need to judge and be judged. Such an insight has immense religious and interpersonal implications.

6. Why I Lived by Bertrand Russell

From the prologue to Russell’s biography, I especially like the spatial imagery which can be found in the following excerpt (and is implemented effectively by David Horowitz in The End of Time and Barnes in Levels of Life):

“Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth… the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

Side note: I’m extremely surprised Russell would opt to live his life once more. I’m undecided on the question, but know that the only affirmative answer that makes sense would require a caveat — “Only if I did not know I was doing so.”

7. Spending Our Brief Time in the Sun by Richard Dawkins

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” It’s quite an opening line, and Dawkins justifies it in three powerful, simple paragraphs.

8. Living a Life of Value (But What ‘Value’?) by Ronald Dworkin

This selection from one of the greatest philosophers of the past century has something for everyone, whether you’re a libertarian, a deist, a predeterminist, or just someone who’s interested in the question of what makes your life worthwhile.

9. A Universe from Nothing by Jim Holt

Although I posted several selections from Holt’s fantastic book Why Does the World Exist over the past year, this particular part — with its ridiculously clever opening paragraph and clear analysis — is the one I most enjoyed.

10. Darkness Visible by William Styron

Styron’s intricate prose and steady command of language produce a pang of envy and admiration in this reader; his lacerating descriptions of depression, on the other hand, can stir only emotions of sympathy and understanding. This was one of the most important books I read this year, and for that reason, among others, this excerpt deserves a place on this list. (His evocation of Dante is especially moving.)

Honorable mentions: We Do Not Each Seek God in the Same Way by Jules Renard; It All Adds Up to Happiness… Doesn’t It? by Julian Barnes; Friends by Socrates; If Life Is Finite, Why Does It Matter? by Sam Harris