I used to write for a couple different places and one of them put out a call for suggestions for some new reading challenges. “Cool,” I thought. I sent in a couple suggestions via their team meeting site and, my job done, thought nothing more of it. Imagine my surprise when I got roasted in said team meeting site for one of the suggestions I had submitted. What was this horrible recommendation I made, you might ask? I said to read a book written by a person not of your political affiliation.
Now, this place where I used to write is generally pretty open and inclusive and tolerant, so it really was a genuine surprise to me that the consensus reaction to my earnest recommendation was “Fuck you. Hard pass.” Particularly considering that they are very politically oriented and want to effect change, bring social awareness and equality, and basically make things better for everyone, not just rich white dudes. It seems logical to me that, in order to change something, you first have to understand what it is that you want to change. How else can you understand the way people think but to read about the other side, the side you disagree with?
Learning what the other side of any argument, position, religion, political party, what have you, thinks in order to bolster one’s own defenses is certainly not a new strategy. For example, the ancient Stoic Seneca learned a great deal about the Epicureans; when asked about why he knew so much about a rival school of thought, he said, in his Moral Letters, “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout.” He knew the value of learning what others thought, whether he agreed with them or not. Seneca was a man who valued wisdom, regardless of its source, and was not ashamed to quote from an author or source he generally disagreed with if he felt the bit of wisdom itself was valuable. That is something people today tend to forget all too frequently. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still bits of wisdom in the Bible or Quran that I can find meaningful or valuable; I’m straight but that doesn’t mean a lesbian can’t write something meaningful to me. Dismissing something out of hand seems not only narrow-minded, but dangerous as well. To paraphrase Captain Picard, when people learn to devalue one group, they can devalue anyone. See? Just because that came from a sci-fi TV show doesn’t make it any less true or valuable. We have to be careful not to fall victim to a myopic view of the world where we only see things from one point of view – our own – and forget that there are many well reasoned and cogent arguments from the other side. When you get stuck in this kind of feedback loop, it is easy to fall victim, too, to confirmation bias in our thinking and not remain open minded or willing to learn new things.
So, because I am a liberal Democrat, I should make an effort to read books by a not!Democrat on occasion. I have a couple books below that were recommended to me by a Republican I know and trust, and who isn’t rabid like Ann Coulter. He recommended them as a good starting point for a variety of reasons and I will give them an honest read in the spirit of open debate and exchange of ideas. The notes after the titles are from my friend’s email:
- The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. It is a fun read, and doesn’t get into name calling or demonizing. It is a thoughtful and optimistic look at what true conservatives believe. This is about as far away from Ann Coulter as you can get, both in terms of its tone and its intellectual rigor.
- Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2nd edition by Thomas Sowell. Don’t be scared by the title [he knows me well], there aren’t any formulas and graphs. Sowell is a brilliant thinker and takes complex issues regarding gender, race, and education explains them in a narrative style using research. He basically uses available economic data to look at some of the biggest social issues of our time, often calling out the big discrepancy between good intentions and actual results.
Since I am also an atheist, there are plenty of religious books I could read as well, but I’ve read a ton of them already. I have read the Bible four times, cover to cover, using three different editions (King James x1, New International Version x1, and Douay Rheims x2), not counting the hundreds of times I have dipped into it to look up a specific verse for writing papers and whatnot. I also translated Genesis from the Latin Vulgate when I was taking Latin in one of my college classes. So I have read the Bible more times than a lot of religious folk probably have. I’ve read the Quran once, cover to cover. I’ve read the Book of Mormon in bits and pieces but never all the way through. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. I teach college level World Mythology, so I have read all the Greco-Roman myths, all the Norse myths, most of the Celtic myths, and various Native American, various African, various Asian, and various South American myths more times than I can count. So, since any religious text is, to me, from an opposite point of view from what I hold, I can recommend the below:
The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version (I prefer this version as this is translated directly from the Latin Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew)
The Holy Qur’an
The Upanishads, 2nd Edition
Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics)
World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics edited by Donna Rosenberg. This is the one I use in my World Myths class and it is a really good text, very diverse and it connects to modern life very nicely.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I picked politics and religion because those are two hot topics for a lot of people and I think it is easy to forget that both sides can have valuable points, regardless of whether you agree or not. So maybe try reading some books from a different point of view from your own and see what you can get out of it. What books would you recommend adding to the list?
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