Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch. Italian original 1983.
By exploring everything from Talleyrand’s sex life to African folk tales, Calasso tries to understand what went wrong with our civilization that led to Hitler and Stalin.
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. 1971.
A panorama of everything strange and magical in Elizabethan England, from upper class astrologers to a peasant woman who foretold the future from the croaking of frogs.
James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman. 1982.
This biography of Richard Feynman is a model of how to narrate the life of a thinker, and also to get at the reality of a man who created many different public personae. It includes a great section on how one gets to be thought of as a genius even among physicists. (One trick: only publish part of your work, so that when someone else does publish it, you can say, “I derived that result a few years ago but didn’t think it was very important.”)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin. 1985.
The argument of this book is not very convincing, but it is an amazing compendium of obscure Celtic lore and its relations to ancient myth and British history.
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. 1975.
Morgan set out to answer the question of how Americans came to be slave-owning devotees of liberty, and in the process wrote the best book about seventeenth-century Virginia.
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. 1985.
A remarkable narrative of this remarkable event, full of fascinating characters and situations.
Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: the Origins of Religion. 1970.
La Barre was both an anthropologist and a psychologist, and in this book he looked at how religions begin through the question of what religion is for: “material culture, technology and science are adaptations to the outside world; religion, to the inner world of man, his unsolved problems and unmet needs.”
Melvin Konner, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. 1982.
My favorite exploration of what we now call “evolutionary psychology,” that is, the way the conditions of life among our distant ancestors influenced the way we think and act today. Konner is both a scientist and a humanist, the sort of man who explores both physiology and what it feels like to have a small child.
Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: a True Story of Men Against the Sea. 1997.
Journalism at its best, this little book explores the culture of New England fishermen, the physics of waves, and the heroism of some men in times of crisis, through the story of one storm and the people caught in it.
Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Italian original 1989.
When they were put to the torture, European peasants all told similar stories about flying to the witches’ sabbath on brooms or goats. Ginzburg asks where this vision came from, a question that leads him through medieval heresies to the most ancient myths of Eurasia.