I’ve been sharing this around a few places as people have been asking me about books on cultural and human evolution. @Bottlenecked_Y specifically asked for a list of books I’ve found influential (meaning aside from evolutionary stuff), so I went ahead and made one. The list is a work in progress and I’m still building it, but you can find it below:
As you go through the list you might come across a few that stand out as bizarre, so I’ll go ahead and explain the weirdest ones here.
The first one you should see on the list is America’s Great Depression by Murray Rothbard. You can actually get this in PDF form for free through the Mises Institute’s website in English or Polish. I’ve included Rothbard because when I first started college my primary interest was in global and historical economic trends. I was drawn to the Austrian school of economics because of their emphasis on causal analysis. At about 350 pages, this is one of the better and shorter works by Rothbard and is a textbook example of the application of Austrian business cycle theory to a real-world event (the eponymous Great Depression). Although I later moved on from economics to anthropology and realized that the Austrian school was rather lacking in nuance, I still find myself thinking on this one especially in respect to its analysis of historical economic events. I would imagine Nassim Taleb doesn’t much care for this book.
Further down the list is The Foxfire Book by Elliot Wiggington. This is actually part one of a twelve-part series based around what was a massive ethnographic project carried out by Wiggington and a number of secondary school students. Their job was to catalogue the local culture of Appalachia as it manifested in a small corner of Northwestern Georgia. I really don’t think there is an ethnography of Appalachian peoples, or any peoples for that matter, which is nearly this extensive. The book has since become popular for the back-to-the-land American transcendentalist types trying to build lives off the grid- an excellent example of a culture preserved and now used as a shortcut for modern peoples. It’s also filled with a great deal of oral history from the time. I enjoy this sort of Americana which has all but disappeared from modern American lives, the vital and necessary nature of culture in what was essentially a frontier continent is evident in the tales told in these books.
Also on the list and in the same vein is the book I’ll Take My Stand. I was introduced to this book by my journalist/historian friend from Vanderbilt, Robert Holladay. Perhaps you have noted something of a light bent in my writing against technology – this is because of Bob. I’ve talked on this subject before in a Medium post, and while I’m not anti-technology myself, a number of books in my life including I’ll Take My Stand and The Evolution of Culture by Leslie White have taught me to view it as a rather disruptive force for human social systems.
The book itself was written as something of an anti-modernist manifesto in the form of a collection of essays by 12 Vanderbilt poets and historians back in 1930. Some of the authors are quite controversial; Frank Lawrence Owsley in particular was notoriously racist, I think even for his time. The essays are for the most part strict warnings against corporate modernity and a re-emphasis on restoring the connection between peoples and their land. If you read just the introduction, you might find it seems rather Marxist:
It is an inevitable consequence of industrial progress that production greatly outruns the rate of natural consumption. To overcome the disparity, the producers, disguised as the pure idealists of progress, must coerce and wheedle the public into being loyal and steady consumers, in order to keep the machines running. So the rise of modern advertising-along with its twin, personal salesmanship-is the most significant development of our industrialism. Advertising means to persuade the consumers to want exactly what the applied sciences are able to furnish them. It consults the happiness of the consumer no more than it consulted the happiness of the laborer. It is the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself. But its task grows more difficult even day.
The premise here is not actually Marxist, but it is anti-corporatist, anti-progressive, pro-individualist, pro-artisan, and anti-technology. It is certainly worth a read if you can get your hands on it because in it is also a form of conservatism not parroted by any modern Republicans, as far as I know, but which still holds true to the South and conservatism’s deepest social values. Personally I don’t share the prescriptive values of of the authors who wrote the book, but find it interesting for the reason that many of the statements written as urges for caution in the face of technological advancement will seem very familiar to and have already been played out to some readers.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is the only fiction book here and might be the only one that most of my readers have heard of before. Set in the 14th century, the book follows the monk William of Baskerville in a Sherlock Holmes type mystery as he attempts to solve the consecutive murders of several monks in an Italian abbey across a period of seven days. As a fictional story, this book is good, but that is not the reason it is on the list. In reality, the book is one of Eco’s seminal works on semiotics and was heavily influenced by the German biologist and philosopher Jakob von Uexküll. Although it is rather postmodernist in nature and maybe linking something by Uexküll might be more informative, the English translations of Uexküll’s writings are rather dry and his anti-evolutionist, vitalist standpoints are outdated. I would just read more on Uexküll online and try to understand the meta of this book.
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola is probably the weirdest and most esoteric work on the list. Aside from The Bell Curve, it is also undoubtedly the most controversial and ideologically-driven. At this point, it might be hard for me to convince you that I am not anti-technology nor anti-progress, but after thinking long and hard about it, I went ahead and threw it on the list anyway. This won’t be the only book list it appeared on, as apparently Steve Bannon is a reader of Evola, too.
To put it straight, Evola was a crackpot. If you could imagine a world where Friedrich Neitzsche and Aleister Crowley had a baby, Evola would be it. The book is a rather short spiritual pontification on the issues presented by the modern world and why humans need to go back to the spiritual hierarchy we had in the days of Charlemagne. Contrary to things said on the internet about Evola, I didn’t find that this book was racist whatsoever, nor fascist per se (Evola wrote another book in 1974 titled Fascism Viewed from the Right in which he outlines his position as rather anti-fascist, pro-traditionalist).
The biggest thing about this book this book is that it was Jordan Peterson before Jordan Peterson was a thing. Evola’s emphasis on the spirit and importance on tradition, on the need to complete a hero’s journey, and on the issue of lack of constraints in modern civilization all scream Jordan B Peterson. I had read this book back in 2016 when I first entered graduate school while I was looking to explore rhetorical trends in anti-modernist authors, and when the Peterson phenomenon hit I have to say that I was quite frankly shocked that a psychologist was saying the exact same things I had read a year before. Between Evola and Carl Jung, the mid-20th century was philosophically a weird time, I suppose. I only recommend this book if you want to really get inside the head of a traditionalist thinker and understand why it is they preferred what viewed as the old pre-Democratic regime. Their emphasis on the importance of hierarchy, safety for the masses, and place in the world makes you think a great deal on historical stasis and the effects of modern technological progress.
In any event, I hope you enjoyed walking through these books with me. If you want more information on them, you can click the pictures to go to an Amazon link (I also imagine most of these are on libgen, but I didn’t tell you that).
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