Summer Reading List 2012

Week of: 
May 27, 2012
What is it: 

Summer is the perfect time to dig in to deep reading. Plato's Collected Dialogues may be a bit much to take on vacation, but there are lots of readable, beach-friendly classics and non-classics to add philosophical depth to your summer reading. Not to mention new and classic fiction books with a philosophical bent. John and Ken share some of the philosophically-minded titles on their reading list and take suggestions from listeners and special guests.

Listening Notes: 


Discussed on the air

Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale


Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding: A Novel

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

Teju Cole, Open City: A Novel


Paul Harris, Trusting What You're Told: How Children Learn from Others

Alfred Mele, Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will


Today, Ken and John draw up a stimulating summer reading list for the minds of the philosophically engaged. They are aided in this task by four guests who each provide suggestions.

Professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, joins the conversation. She points Ken and John to Colin McGinn’s meta-philosophical book Problems in Philosophy, which argues that humans do not have the cognitive wherewithal to solve some of the most vexing problems in philosophy, such as consciousness, free will, or the mind-body problem. She also suggests Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which offers plentiful statistical evidence that despite a deluge of media coverage on violent, hateful, and base occurrences, our time is actually one of the most peaceful in the history of humankind.

Next, Ken and John hear from Stanford University English lecturer and author of Busy Dying: An Autobiographical Novel, Hilton Obenzinger, who recommends Hermann Melville’s timeless masterpiece Moby Dick as a summer read. Ken, John, and Hilton agree that this exquisitely written classic explores the profoundest depths of the self and society and is a must-read for anyone philosophically inclined. John also throws in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, as something like baseball’s pendant to Moby Dick, which touches on themes explored by Thomas Nagel in his essay “The Absurd”.

Ken and John then speak to callers, amongst whom are Maria from Buenos Aires, who recommends Bernhard Schlink’s deeply existential The Reader, and Bridget who suggests Teju Cole’s post-modernist Open City.

Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University and author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastinator’s Puzzle, joins Ken and John and makes his recommendation for our summer reading lists: Alfred Mele’s Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will, which explores how free, sane, non-depressed agents perform actions that they believe to be contrary to their best judgment.

Ken and John’s final guest is professor of psychology Alison Gopnik (UC Berkeley), author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Her recommendation is Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others by Paul Harris, professor at Harvard’s School of Education. This book deals with a question that was already on Descartes’ mind: How can we justify beliefs based on testimony? While we are forced to accept some beliefs based only on the authority of others, Ken and John agree with Descartes that there is a dark side to testimony-based belief.

  •  Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 1:50): Caitlin Esch hits the beach to see what books sun-worshippers are reading. She finds that these range from do-it-yourself car restoration guides to instalments of the Hunger Games trilogy, and from erotic memoirs to Erik Larson’s portrait of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 47:32): Ian Schoales laments the crowding out of brick-and-mortar bookstores by predatory e-book sellers like Amazon and bemoans the loss of the days when it was possible to dazzle visitors to your house with impressively stocked bookcases and walls lined with sophisticated movies and CDs.


Author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein



Hilton Obenzinger, Stanford University



Timothy Pychyl, Carleton University



Alison Gopnik, UC Berkeley

Related Resources: 


Cole, Teju (2012). Open City

Gopnik, Alison (2010). The Philosophical Baby

Harbach, Chad (2012). The Art of Fielding

Harris, Paul (2012). Trusting What You’re Told

Larson, Erik (2012). In the Garden of Beasts

McGinn, Colin (1993). Problems in Philosophy

Mele, Alfred (2012). Backsliding

Melville, Herman (1851). Moby Dick

Newberger-Goldstein, Rebecca (2011). Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God

Obenzinger, Hilton (2008). Busy Dying

Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature

Pychyl, Tim (2012). The Procrastinator’s Digest

Schlink, Bernhard (2008). The Reader


Adler, Jonathan (2006). “Epistemological Problems of Testimony”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Nagel, Thomas (1971). “The Absurd”

Perry, John. “Structured Procrastination

Shmoop Editorial Team, (2012). “Moby Dick”,

Stroud, Sarah (2008). “Weakness of Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Researched By: 
Karola Kreitmair

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