The best books on the human condition

The Books I Picked & Why

The Iron Dragon's Daughter

By Michael Swanwick

The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Why this book?

How I wish I had read this book as a teenager! Swanwick’s brilliant tale of a human changeling, stolen by the Sidhe and growing up on her own in a hard world that resembles ours all too closely (think jet-powered dragons and the all-powerful rich who corrupt people’s souls) is the best coming of age story, here or in the Other Lands. The closing pages will leave you shaken, and maybe a tiny bit wiser about our shared condition.


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Hard to Be a God

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko

Hard to Be a God

Why this book?

Can a society as mired in misery and oppression as ours be helped by a few well-intentioned “progressors” from another world? You land in secret, wielding godlike powers (remember Clarke’s Third Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and possessing a perfect understanding of sociology and historical dynamics, only to find how hard it is to be a god. What would you do?


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Dialectic of Enlightenment

By Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Edmund Jephcott

Dialectic of Enlightenment

Why this book?

The standard liberal (and neoliberal) response to those who complain that enlightenment and progress leave behind precisely those people whom they are supposed to help the most has been to double down and demand more progress. In this 20th century classic of political-sociological analysis, Horkheimer and Adorno show that the concept of enlightenment as interpreted by the liberal politicians, and as touted by them to the masses whom they hold in thrall, is self-undermining.


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The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy

By Murray Bookchin

The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy

Why this book?

A better world is possible — just not through the kind of progress touted by liberal politicians. In this 1982 collection, Bookchin sketches such a new world, based on his concept of social ecology — a prescient integration of the people’s desires for a better life, for personal freedom, and for coexistence, mutual aid, and respect.


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Always Coming Home

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Always Coming Home

Why this book?

This book, by one of the greatest American authors of all time, is an “archaeology of the future”: a record of the daily life, the customs, the beliefs, the poetry and stories, and the spirit of a people who live in a far-future California that is at the same time deeply connected to the past of its original inhabitants. Of all the utopias that are on offer in world literature, this is the one that makes the most sense to the social scientist in me, and also the one that I would like the most to wake up in someday. This would never come to pass, though — unless we start building it now, together.


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