Ten books to consider for a humanist summer reading list: recent works on science, environment, tech, business, law, and histories of struggle.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

As recently noted, OnlySky has entered into partnership with American Atheists. Some of us are taking a pause during the transition, but I’ll be right here with the team as we explore what comes next. (And I’m looking forward, alongside all of you, to seeing what that entails, so thank you to everyone who raised vital questions and shared thoughtful commentary around the announcement.)

On a personal level, you’ll still see news analysis and deep dives into humanist historical, political, and scientific themes from me in the coming months.

But I’ve also been thinking that this might be a good time for broader reflection. We’ve had a wild few years, no? Between pandemic and its crises of scientific illiteracy, Eastern European war, the fragility of US democracy and banking systems, and relentlessly missed climate change deadlines, this has been a potent period for analyzing the infrastructure that defines our lives. Is it sufficient? Can it be transformed? If so, into what?

On Friday, I’m launching a Humanist Book Club to chew over related questions. Our opening text will be The Dawn of Everything (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The first article will be less about the book itself and more about the context in which it was written, published, and received. Then we’ll dive into the 700-page work itself in hefty chunks. There should be plenty to discuss about the making of history, archaeology and ethnography, storytelling in popular science, political philosophy and human societies. But if you haven’t read the work yet? Not to worry: our conversations should also dovetail nicely into current events, so there should always be an access point for the topic of the week.

If you’re looking for other choice reads this late spring and coming summer, though, I’d also like to offer my own reading list. Some of these titles I’ve read in full; others are on the go; the rest are queued up. All address my attempt, as ever, to stay fully apprised not just of the latest knowledge about human and other worldly systems, but also of the ways we’re currently telling stories about one and the same.

Maybe one will pique your interest! Maybe you’ve already read a few. Either way, please feel more than invited to share your own recent lists in the comments. There are too many good books for any of us to read them all, but it helps to share what we’ve read or want to read with others interested in learning more about our shared cosmos, too.

Our ecosystems and natures

I’m at a point in my reading life where I have little patience for twee popular science, although I understand that there’s a role for fluff and cutesy anecdotes in holding lay-reader interest. I prefer writing that can integrate the personal with the technical and the historical in a more self-reflective manner, which is what Tom Mustill’s How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication (2022) does quite well.

Early on, Mustill talks with a friend about our inclusion of whale song on the Voyager Space Probes, which are carrying data about our planet and us into the stars.

If, in five billion years, our species fails to get out of our solar system before the Sun comes to the end of its life and in its death throes engulfs Earth and other near planets, these probes may become the only record left of our human existence, and those recordings may become all that remains of the whales. But Roger does not think any aliens that receive it would be impressed. If it had had, say, “sixty-two greetings from animals and one from a human,” then the aliens would be justified in thinking us advanced. But our focus on ourselves, our sidelining of our fellow passengers on our planet, is for him evidence that we have only just “put our toe on the lowest rung of the ladder … to a point where we can proudly announce to the court of intergalactic opinion that yes, there is intelligent life on Earth.”

From there, Mustill embarks not just on an exploration of the current frontiers of nonhuman animal studies, but also (and perhaps more tellingly) what our study of other animals does for us as humans. What are we trying to achieve when we look to other species on this planet, and tell stories about who and what they are? How does this drive to understand other animals build from our own communicative priorities?

How to Speak Whale is a lovely wander through history, science, philosophy, and relevant biography that reveals a great deal about whale behavior, puzzles over human symbiosis, and outlines potentials for deeper connection. But its greatest gift was the reminder that truly “objective” human research is impossible. Everything we turn our attention to has an underlying motivation. How well do we know ours?

Another quality read in recent philosophical science is James Bridle’s Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence (2022). (Alternately titled Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence. Sometimes publishers can’t make up their minds!) This one was recommended to me by fellow writer Ray Nayler, whose The Mountain in the Sea (2022) is receiving the acclaim it was rightfully due as a deeply humanist (speciesist?) near-future sci-fi about systems thinking, played out with an advanced cephalopod, a “real” AI, and human notions of Self and community in a tightly integrated yet deeply estranging sociopolitical ecosystem.

Bridle’s title alone might give the text a highly academic feel, but Bridle is an excellent and accessible writer. Here, he has crafted a vivid exploration of systems theory as it plays out in our material ecosystems, our artificial attempts to delineate between specific categories of being, and the politics that surround them both:

The same arguments that Turing rejected still hamper our ability to recognize all kinds of non-human intelligence, even when it’s staring us right in the face. Or, as we shall see, staring itself in the face. Or hitting us with a stick. Or singing, or dancing, or making art, or making plans, or making culture. No, we say, time and again. Not like that. Like this. The lengths we go to in our attempts to prove or disprove to ourselves that other beings are worthy of being called intelligent might be absurd if they weren’t so tragic. The experimental record provides a shining and faultless account, not of the lack or otherwise of intelligence in others, but of a lack of awareness on our own part.

This piece doesn’t just dwell on animality, though. A seasoned technologist, Bridle also reflects on the ways of being we’ve set into motion through our technologies and elaborate human systems that stand poised to destroy or diminish us, if we don’t change our relationship with the world as a whole. The relevance of what it means to perceive and to be alive changes, in other words, when grappling with the implications of our categorical divisions of life and related systems on this planet. Can we gain a level of planetary consciousness, of intelligence-in-action, advanced enough to save ourselves?

Which brings me to my next scientific read: on systems theory, writ small. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s thorough explorations of medical science topics have never disappointed (The Gene being my favorite to date, in large part because I love when fuller histories show how often we’ve reinvented the wheel, and other redundancies in scientific discovery brought about by shoddy information transfer and messier bureaucratic politics).

In his latest, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (2022), Mukherjee explores the history of one of the most important discoveries in medical science: the realization that we are constituted of intricate, dynamic assemblages of microscopic stuff, on which life depends. When our cells are in working order, we’re in working order (more or less). But when they break down, in the myriad of ways they can break down, we fall prey to the most striking range of disorders.

It’s both exhilarating and humbling to remember that, for most of human history, medicine wasn’t configured around cellular interventions. It’s only very recently that a whole host of related therapies have become possible, allowing us to tackle grave diseases and even global pandemics with a speed that would have staggered most of our ancestral physicians. As always, Mukherjee draws from his own work as a researcher and in clinical practice to balance his histories of biology: a winning combination with respect to making complex topics accessible to lay readers such as myself.

I have no doubt I will come away all the richer for having read his latest outing, too.

Our systems of tech, business, and law

But human systems come in many sizes, and outside the world of our cells there’s also the world of our info silos, which is why I was deeply struck by Malcolm Harris in interview around his latest book, Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read a book this long that focuses on just one place, but this deep dive into a small US suburb in Northern California offers significant insights into the state of the world in part because it’s such a regional text. How on Earth did one small plot of land gain such outsized importance on the world stage? Why is so much about Western financing and the future of tech decided here?

The book’s length is mitigated by its sharply critical tone, but that tone might also be counted as one of its weaknesses: a bit like gilding the lily, when there’s plenty in the data to speak for itself about the problems in Silicon Valley. Another might be the ambition of its prehistory, which sprawls to highlight pretty much every US sin under the sun on the local landscape. This scope creates a fairly comprehensive text, but one focused more on tying together everything, and not because there’s any hope that knowing everything can really change the current state of affairs. Indeed, the real challenge that Harris’s text seems to pose is the idea that Silicon Valley can’t be changed: that its structural failings and toxic ideologies are so deeply embedded that reform from within is unlikely.

Since I accept most of the premises in this thoroughly researched piece, I’m still sitting with what that might mean. I might return to sections of this again.

On a rhetorical level, I’m a touch skeptical of Paul Scharre’s Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (2023), which places complex issues into four neat categories: the fight for data, the fight for computing power, the fight for talent, and the fight for institutional control. However, what caught my attention about this piece was the sheer ambition of trying to discuss the rise of so-called artificial intelligence in relation to its implications for international politics. If the book’s tone feels strongly shaped by US national defence, that’s because of the subject-position of its author, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who now serves as director for the Center for New American Security.

As such, at the very least, I suspect this book will provide a better vocabulary for how Western warmongers and policy wonks are currently configuring the idea of US and European conflict with, say, China over the future of advanced computer chips (e.g., in the coveted Taiwanese economy), espionage, and the general struggle for state security.

I’m worried about the section on “talent”, though, because once one has established the existence of a war for civilization, all kinds of compromising behaviors become licit. Book overviews invoke the idea of certain countries being more favorable to tech companies and yet, as we’ve already seen from another text on this list, making an environment favorable to private industry isn’t always in service to the needs of the overall state.

So, we’ll see what sort of private-sector advocacy Scharre slips in as necessary to keep the US strong in its latest forever war. I don’t mean to be glib about the role of advanced technology in future global struggle (that is a given), but the vocabulary of highly militarized national defence can be a dangerous gloss, when talking usefully about solutions.

This should prove an enlightening read either way.

Also in the downer department is Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market (2023). Have you ever read a text that you agree with so much you have to put it aside awhile to be able to process its contents properly? This was that text for me. And no, that’s not my way of saying the book is perfect; it’s my way of saying that this was excellent for testing my ability to critically assess a book feeding me every idea I was already inclined to believe. If you’ve got issues with neoliberalism, too, this might be the critical-reading test for you.

Throughline has a terrific overview of many concepts that this book details with respect to neoliberalism and the normalization of private-sector politics among Republicans and Democrats alike. That podcast episode is also a lot shorter, while still getting the gist across. Readers here will no doubt be familiar with many pieces of the story Oreskes and Conway tell, but therein lies the sneaky danger of this text: for all that it takes its time to set the stage with relevant anecdotes, it only vaguely outlines its baseline for judgment.

This hand-waving matters when it comes to solutions in the text, because for all that Oreskes and Conway outline huge problems, they also seem to suggest that the solution would only require a few tweaks for improved government regulation. I’m not sold on the sufficiency of such an outcome, or on the belief that economics as a discipline can be as easily corraled into an empirically workable form as the authors suggest.

Both arguments stem naturally from the authors also having their own favorite economists, which adds a kind of individual hero-worship to history that I generally shy from myself. In order to critique neoliberalism, one doesn’t need a hagiographic treatment of Keynes, for instance, and it might even be counterproductive to treat different economic schools of thought as if they, too, were simply in free market competition with one another.

But I digress into dissent for a reason: because this book, in tackling ideas to which I’m generally favorable, offered an excellent staging ground for working out the details of related critique and thoughts about better solutions. A book doesn’t need to be perfect to be useful, especially to humanist thinking, and this one definitely was.

There are some books on this list I look forward to reading, but this is not one of them.

Still, I know there will be significant benefit to better understanding how the US justice system serves the country’s most affluent and prominent members, while perpetuating so much suffering for so many others. Elie Honig’s Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It (2023) explores why it has been so difficult to hold figures like Donald Trump, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby to account under the law for decades. Honig brings his experience as a senior legal analyst for CNN, and as the writer of Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department (2021) to the challenge posed by a system of double standards working exactly as intended.

Surprisingly, out of all the pieces on this list, Honig’s book also promises the most solutions-based commentary on how to “fix” the US justice system, but it remains to be seen how much the contents live up to that hype.

Our histories of struggle

I’m always fascinated by social analysis that has been described as both a thoroughly sourced primer and also as a politically skewed screed. I am under no illusions that the author of Evicted, Matthew Desmond, is going to be extolling the US in his latest book, Poverty, by America (2023). Rather, I will be going into this piece looking for two things: one, a robust body of historical data that not only reflects what’s happening in the US with respect to the maintenance of systems of poverty, but also what brought the country to its current socioeconomic state; and two, an analysis of possible solutions.

The latter, of course, is going to be the bigger challenge, especially if the book relies on a fierce indictment of the status quo for the bulk of its narrative momentum. There’s a critical role for writing that outlines how we got to where we are, and how bad that “where” truly is. The question is, can an analyst of broken systems then articulate the road to better?

This isn’t an idle question. I know I’m a huge offender for raising challenges to the status quo without being able to offer more than open-ended encouragement to imagine better.

I’m going into this book looking for a good example of how to write not just about the problems we face, but also the road maps to reform. Fingers crossed.

And speaking of maps:

I’m only halfway through Kelly Lytle Hernández’s Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, & Revolution in the Borderlands, but that’s because it takes a more concerted effort for me to finish works of biography. (I’m often leery of sensationalizing individuals, as I think other selections on this list attest to well.) Lytle certainly paints an compelling history of her immediate subject matter, the magonistas led by Ricardo Flores Magón who sought to oust the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, but that’s not why I picked up the volume.

What interested me, and what I’m still chewing over as I read, is the construction of borders and national identities through them. Lytle charts the way US officials and businessmen upheld Díaz’s regime, and how even the FBI got in on the hunt for Flores Magón to quash Mexican workers’ armed uprisings early in the 20th century. The result was a border crisis of a type not often discussed, but clearly still present in many parts of the world: for the ongoing “right” of the US to a frontier fluid for their business interests, and rigid for everything else. The way these private economy dealings were upheld by state involvement in another country’s government is all too familiar.

If nothing else, this book is affirming in me the importance of a huge rethink about the role of borders in our politics going forward, especially amid our climate-changing world.

This winner of the 2022 Orwell Prize was a paired read for me, as a kind of nonfiction accompaniment to Rabih Alamedinne’s fictional account of contemporary migration, The Wrong End of the Telescope (2021). It starts with a key anxiety familiar to anyone trying to write in an age of misinformation: trying to respond to worldly trauma promptly, while also doing due journalistic diligence with respect to corroborating facts as one goes.

In My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route, Sally Hayden moves from establishing the challenge of properly reporting on trauma in places like Libya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, where huge swaths of civilian humanity are caught in the grinder of war and oppressive government practices, with nowhere to try to go but out—if that’s even possible. If the corruption of brutal migration routes, and the brutal bureaucracy of nation-states on the other side, will ever let them find a safer shore.

I used to donate solely to UNHCR, out of all the possible international services focused on migration. These days, I better understand that the UNHCR has serious limits to its efficacy, and often serves as a weaponized gatekeeper in response to complex legal status issues. Another organization, Refugees International, which has expressly avoided government support to retain more political autonomy, is also part of my donations roster now precisely because of books like Hayden’s, which illustrate just how fraught the state of migration is for so many, and how much needs to be done to build a better world.

On the journey back to North Africa, Kaleb’s thoughts whirled. His family were fated to try and try, but they would never join the ranks of the world’s privileged people; those who could flee a war by plane; those who had a passport or the documents needed to apply for university; those who did not fear a pounding on the door in the middle of the night, a gun in the face, and the understanding you would never be spoken of again. History was repeating itself. Kaleb’s father had made a similar trip before him in 2012, after decades of obligatory, unending military service and a lengthy separation from his family. Already middle-aged, he had set out for Israel, taking an earlier migration route well-traveled by Eritreans. Instead of reaching his promised land, he died in Egypt’s Sinai Desert–of hunger, lack of water, or sheer exhaustion, Kaleb never knew.

These stories will haunt you. They will highlight not only the depth but also the intractability of injustice in our current world. I can’t say I’m a happier person for having read this book, but I am still thankful that I did.

I hope you’ll join me on Friday, for our opening Humanist Book Club foray into The Dawn of Everything. If nothing else, it should be at least a slightly more cheering read.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.