The best novels that reach across the boundary between poetry, science, & society on what it means to be human

Why am I passionate about this?

I have long been fascinated by what makes us human. Great art is about the human condition. We are very quick to reject art that gets that human condition wrong. I’m a poet, a playwright, and a scientist.  While my science has found itself at the center of fields such as computational psychiatry and neuroeconomics, I find myself turning again and again to the insights from great novels to understand the subtleties of the human condition. So to complement the scientific questions of morality (because morality is all about the human condition), one should start with great novels that ask who we are and why we do what we do.  

I wrote...

Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality

By A. David Redish,

Book cover of Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality

What is my book about?

Everyone talks about morality as “do the right thing, even though we know you want to cheat.” But that’s not our lived experience. Instead, people help each other. We work together to form complex societies. This new science book, written for a popular audience, argues that moral codes are technologies that change the social environments in which we live. They do this by interacting with our decision-making processes. Weaving art, science, and poetry into a comprehensive story, this book shows how we now have a sufficient understanding of neuroscience, psychology, economics, and sociology to discuss moral questions in a scientific language, and how we can use that knowledge to break the bonds of tribalism and build better societies that are better for everyone within them.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Invisible Cities

A. David Redish Why did I love this book?

Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Kahn tells of the fantastical cities that he has seen on his journey. 

Each city, told in a vignette of a page or two, each more amazing than the last is another reflection on the universal city – the way humans come together to build something larger than themselves. And through these views, one comes to see how we construct societies and the bonds that hold us together.

A masterwork of poetry and vision.

By Italo Calvino,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Invisible Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A subtle and beautiful meditation' Sunday Times

In Invisible Cities Marco Polo conjures up cities of magical times for his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, but gradually it becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice. As Gore Vidal wrote 'Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.'

Book cover of Haroun and the Sea of Stories

A. David Redish Why did I love this book?

In 1989, Salman Rushdie he had to go into hiding because of the fatwa against his life. In trying to explain this decision to his young son, Rushdie spins a magical tale of a storyteller who decides to stop telling stories.

The hero, Haroun, always wondered where his father's stories came from. His father always said “I drink from the ocean of stories. They install a spigot in the wall for me to drink from.” (Yeah, right.) Until, on that one fateful day, Haroun catches the water genie uninstalling the spigot.

On his way to save the ocean of stories, Haroun finds wonderful friends and the power of teamwork. The moral contrast between the Guppees (who argue all the time, but in the end work together) and the Chupwalas (who never disagree because they live in fear, but are so unable to work together, they fight with their own shadows) is a fable for our times.

By Salman Rushdie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Haroun and the Sea of Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A captivating fantasy novel for readers of all ages, by the author of Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses

"This is, simply put, a book for anyone who loves a good story. It's also a work of literary genius." -Stephen King

Set in an exotic Eastern landscape peopled by magicians and fantastic talking animals, Haroun and the Sea of Stories inhabits the same imaginative space as The Lord of the Rings, The Alchemist, The Arabian Nights, and The Wizard of Oz. Twelve-year-old Haroun sets out on an adventure to restore his father's gift of storytelling by reviving the poisoned Sea…

Book cover of Anathem

A. David Redish Why did I love this book?

A science fiction tale couched in the language of a novel study of academia, Anathem by Neal Stephenson describes a world in which monk-like academicians ensconce themselves away in “maths” which shut their doors to the world for a day, a year, a decade, a century, or a millennium. 

A marvelous vision on what it means to study something, to understand it, and, thus to see the world from a different perspective.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Anathem as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. There, he and his cohorts are sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world, an endless landscape of casinos and megastores that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, dark ages and renaissances, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides it is only these cloistered scholars who have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his friends, mentors, and teachers are summoned forth…

Book cover of The Dispossessed

A. David Redish Why did I love this book?

The classic study of the balance between written and unwritten rules, Le Guin’s story of two societies – one full of written rules, but with extreme freedoms, and one with no written rules, but full of carefully enforced social norms – is both a thrilling and thought-provoking read. It speaks to the underlying humanness of our social milieu.

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Dispossessed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the very best must-read novels of all time - with a new introduction by Roddy Doyle

'A well told tale signifying a good deal; one to be read again and again' THE TIMES

'The book I wish I had written ... It's so far away from my own imagination, I'd love to sit at my desk one day and discover that I could think and write like Ursula Le Guin' Roddy Doyle

'Le Guin is a writer of phenomenal power' OBSERVER

The Principle of Simultaneity is a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize interstellar civilization by making possible instantaneous…

Book cover of The Curse of Chalion

A. David Redish Why did I love this book?

The best description of sainthood I have ever found. In The Curse of Chalion, Bujold starts from a world of visceral reality with a new religion based on family archetypes. 

In her world, these gods are real and play very specific roles within the society, and well-constructed prayer opens up a space for the gods to use one for their purposes. As the main character learns what it means to be a saint, to allow miracles to flow through him (as he says, “like a mule being whipped up the mountain pass”), we see the difference between supportive and unsupportive roles, how failure can lead one astray and how the journey home can be long and difficult. 

Warning: This book contains scenes and situations not suitable for children.

By Lois McMaster Bujold,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Curse of Chalion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril returns to the noble household he once served as page and is named secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule. It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it must ultimately lead him to the place he most fears: the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies who once placed him in chains now occupy lofty positions.

But it is more than the traitorous intrigues of villains that threaten Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle here, for a sinister curse hangs like a…

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Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

Book cover of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

Wendy Lee Hermance Author Of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Wendy Lee Hermance was heard on National Public Radio (NPR) stations with her Missouri Folklore series in the 1980s. She earned a journalism degree from Stephens College, served as Editor and Features Writer for Midwestern and Southern university and regional publications, then settled into writing real estate contracts. In 2012 she attended University of Sydney, earning a master’s degree by research thesis. Her books include Where I’m Going with this Poem, a memoir in poetry and prose. Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat marks her return to feature writing as collections of narrative non-fiction stories.

Wendy's book list on why Portugal is weird

What is my book about?

Weird Foods of Portugal describes the author's first years trying to make sense of a strange new place and a home there for herself.

Witty, dreamlike, and at times jarring, the book sizzles with social commentary looking back at America and beautiful, finely drawn descriptions of Portugal and its people. Part dark-humor cautionary tale, part travel adventure, ultimately, Hermance's book of narrative non-fiction serves as affirmation for any who wish to make a similar move themselves.

Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

What is this book about?

"Wendy Lee Hermance describes Portugal´s colorful people and places - including taxi drivers and animals - with a poet´s empathy and dark humor. Part travel adventure, part cautionary tale, Weird Foods of Portugal is at it´s heart, affirmation for all who consider making such a move themselves."

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