Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow is a book by a brain guy who is careful to distinguish the dusty old school research--the subconscious--from what he and his cutting-edge colleagues term The New Subconscious, a fiendishly complicated and intelligent agent forming the bulk of the brain and which is responsible for all your actions and choices from Key Lime Pie to your favorite sniper rifle--all without your conscious awareness. Elegant experiments backed by brain-scan technology are designed in which people insist they can tell the difference between gut-rot wine and old family productions from Tuscany, but are simply responding to packaging or even a single syllable of the brand name. Best Part: Philosopher and scientist Charles Pierce solves the mystery of his stolen watch by just sort of "not trying." He theorizes that something is going on beneath the surface, but lacked the conceptual and tech stuff to find it. Main Idea: Not only is our conscious "I" the tip of the iceberg, it's actually even smaller--a minuscule melt-in-your mouth chip. Also: The next time some bore says something along the lines of, "Let me tell you why I do the things I do in my life--" tune him out or hit him in the face with a cast-iron griddle.
Drunkard's Walk also by Leonard Mlodinow above forms a good companion sample read because it's about another thing humans are very bad at: dealing with probability, patterns, and sheer randomness when interpreting the world and making important decisions. Both books might seem like bleak assessments of humans as bumblers with Rube Goldberg brains (who designed these crazy things? We all know the answer to that), but the two books' hopefulness arises from the fact that deep--and bemused--awareness of problems is the first part of improving our lot, if not perfecting it. Best Part: Long time screenwriter and keen Hollywood observer William Goldman's dictum regarding a film's success or failure: "Nobody knows anything." So if the new Batfuck flick coming up or Prometheus flops, all sorts of "reasons" will be offered, but the real reason is more likely random fluctuations in the market that have nothing to do with anything at all--not actors, writers, money, timing, star-tantrums in trailers because their toilet paper wasn't triple-ply and magenta--nothing! Main Idea: Randomness rules our lives, and understanding this can help us as we stumble along, or at least make us feel .07% better. Also: Drunks really are more predictable and probably safer than sober people.
Revelations by Elaine Pagels. All three books in this review taken together and absorbed by smart people could change the world. Her thesis, based on careful research: The Book of Revelations at the end of the bible . . . the one about the end times we see all around us, the coming floods, fires, wars and rumors of wars, Tim Lahaye's divine orgasms and bowel movements, all those books from the 1970s about the Late Great Planet Earth, Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" stuff . . .all that is based on the false assumption that the author was writing about the future. Uh uh. It's a wartime coded history of stuff going on in the early church. Oh, brother . . .Best Part: When John walks around the great Asian port of Ephesus and views with disgust and awe the monumental pagan buildings and statues of gods representing the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Main Idea: When your pastor or priest or cult leader or tiresome friend who plays Christian songs in his tea shop starts talking about the Beast or anti-christ or rivers of blood, you can walk away, snickering like Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny, saying "What a marooon!" Of course, none of this is new, but Pagels is very clear, simple, and more tolerant than I am. Also: The whole End of Times thing is like a bunch of hard-scrabble post-nuclear survivors finding a copy of a children's book by Madonna or Angelina Jolie and founding a movement based on it. Then slaughtering each other over the interpretive schisms. Life is Rich, Friends!