What Book Changed Your Mind? The 4th Floor Weighs In

The history faculty read a lot of books. And once a semester we come together to discuss a recently published book. It’s not for our classes, not for our research, not for the university – it’s a book that one of us suggests to engage us all in conversation. And this year our conversation followed a popular thread in academia.

In November the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a dozen scholars which book published in the last 30 years most changed their minds – “not merely inspired or influenced their thinking, but profoundly altered the way they regard themselves, their work, the world.” We posed the same question to all of the scholars on the 4th floor of JRC.

The first of our responses come from Political Science:

Dr. Renee BuhrModern Tyrants by Daniel Chirot

Why I say it changed my mind:  As a political scientist, I am conditioned to view political phenomena through a largely objective lens.  So terms like ideology, scientific methods, and nationalism can be viewed in a very value-neutral way.  The way that Chirot uses these three variables to explain the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, however, makes painfully apparent how naïve a value-neutral view of them can be.  When taken together, ideological certitude, an unhealthy reliance on scientific methods, and virulent nationalism (all the “bad” varieties of these in my field) not only justify atrocities (certitude and nationalism), but also make the atrocities easier to carry out (the efficiency of modern science).  Utopian visions are found to be particularly dangerous, as the pursuit of utopia has justified some of the most violent and inhumane policies of the 20th century.  It made me want to learn more about human nature and how the base human desire for certainty and power leads to completely inhumane behavior.   Today, I have my senior seminar students read this and a number of related texts, because I want them to be aware of and vigilant against the “tyrant within” that is examined in these texts.

 Dr. Angela High-PippertSum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives  is a little book with lots of big ideas.  Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and each of the forty short chapters describes a different vision of what a next life might be.  All of the chapters are not equally compelling, of course, but there are a few that are difficult to forget — most notably, the first chapter, entitled “Sum.”  Judge for yourself.  Here’s the first sentence:  “In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order:  all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”  This translates into all of your life’s pain for one block of the appropriate amount of time, all boredom at once, all time spent waiting at once, all time spent driving down your street at once, all time spent calculating restaurant tips at once.  And all moments of pure joy (which I think Eagleman puts at approximately six minutes) at once.  This thought experiment changed my perspective on an ordinary day, which seems quite extraordinary through this lens.

Which books would you add to the list?

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