David W. Maurer’s The Big Con provides a fascinating look into the carefully orchestrated scams pulled off by early 20th century con men. The “big cons” were truly elaborate, involving a large cast of con men, carefully scripted stories, props, role-playing and more. A typical big con started with a roper identifying a mark. The roper was a smooth-talking, respectable looking traveler who kept up with the news and could converse fluently on any number of topics.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker examines the central and unique tension of the human creature: we are going to die, and unlike other animals, we know we’re going to die. This is the fundamental source of human anxiety. It’s not culture-specific. It’s universal to the species, affecting all humans everywhere. We’re born into a world we don’t initially understand. We arrive helpless and dependent, and we know that. Bewilderment, helplessness and dependency are terrifying.
This book came to my attention when the Independent Book Publishers Association named it as a finalist for the 2023 Franklin Award. It describes the grassroots effort to rebuild rural communities in Sierra Leone after its bitter, decade-long civil war ended in 2002. The war left the country wounded and deeply polarized. Neighbors had committed atrocities against neighbors. Communities broken by distrust were barely functioning, and there didn’t seem to be a path forward.
Stephen Galloway’s Truly, Madly describes the long and tragic arc of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary love affairs. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh fell in love while each was already married to someone else. Each had a child, and neither was suited to parenthood or fidelity. Olivier’s first wife, Jill Esmond, seemed to recognize early on the intensity of the Olivier-Leigh bond, and what it meant for her marriage.
Gregg Allman’s memoir, My Cross to Bear, covers a lot of ground, from the murder of his father to the musician’s coming to terms with his own fatherhood late in life. Gregg and his older brother, Duane, were born in Nashville and raised by a single mom who could barely keep the family afloat. The brothers were sent off to military school at a young age–Gregg was only eight–to avoid being sent to the orphanage.
Daniel L. Pals Seven Theories of Religion describes seven different attempts to describe what religion is, how it arose, and what it means to society. The book begins with a look at the two writers who first attempted to study religion through a scientific lens: E.B. Tylor and James Frazer. Both men described what they perceived as the evolution of religion across numerous societies around the world. They each described essentially the same progress, from primitive magic to animism (where everything in the world was inhabited by some spirit) to polytheism to monotheism.
The premis of The Holographic Universe is not that the universe is a literal holograph, but that a holograph may be the best metaphor for understanding the universe. Michael Talbot describes how holographs are made: using mirrors and lenses, you split a laser beam into two parts, the object beam and the reference beam. The object beam reflects off the object you want to record (a strawberry, or a bird, or whatever) onto holographic film, while the reference beam hits the same film at the same time from a different angle.
Everything in this book is common sense, but it’s the kind of common sense people need to be reminded of all the time. Want to get along with people? Consider things from their perspective and treat them well. Simple enough, right? In principal, yes. In practice, no, because there are too many things in our reactive emotional nature working against it. This is a persistent problem in human nature, with whole religions devoted to solving the problem of people not being able to treat each other well.
Bad Boy was Jim Thompson’s first take at autobiography. Although he was only forty-seven when he wrote it, he had already lived a pretty full life. This volume covers his escapades through age twenty-three. Thompson spent his early youth in Oklahoma, where his father was a county sheriff and one of the most popular men in town. When his father ran for state office on platform that included a commitment to racial equality, he was run out of town.
In this superbly written overview of the Western philosophical tradition, William Barrett traces the roots of 20th century existentialism back through Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard all the way to the Greek and Hebrew traditions that formed the foundations of Western European civilization. Writing in 1958, Barrett begins by describing Europe’s spiritual and intellectual crisis after two world wars. If twenty centuries of religious faith and scientific progress led only to slaughter and destruction, then what was the good of science or religion?
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