We at SFI are often asked for reading recommendations, so we feel it is time to make our responses more broadly available to the public.
Beginning with this first installment, future issues of our newsletter, Parallax, will feature three new recommendations on a specific theme, each from a different member of our community. The books may be new or old, obscure or celebrated, and drawn from any genre. The only condition is that they are accessible to a variety of readers. Since this column is a new creation, for our inaugural theme we have selected “the reciprocal forces of creation and destruction.”
A. Edward Newton, who wrote The Amenities of Book-Collecting, once claimed that “the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” Another distinguished bibliophile, Alberto Manguel, made a similarly hyperbolic statement in his elegy, Packing My Library: “Perhaps the books we choose determine our perdition or salvation in the eyes of whimsical gods.”
Whether one is striving towards infinity or seeking to avoid perdition, whether one buys books merely for their beautiful domestic aura, for some insatiable encyclopedic urge, or for immediate consumption, we hope this new column will be of some assistance.
Danielle Bassett, SFI External Professor, J Peter Skirkanich Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania recommends:
Curiosity and Power: The Politics of Inquiry, by Perry Zurn (University of Minnesota Press, 2021)
Curiosity is a force for the creation of knowledge, or the unveiling, voicing, freeing, and growth of ideas. Power can be wielded as a force for the destruction of knowledge, or the hiding, quieting, policing, or demise of ideas. When curiosity and power spar, the epistemic cataclysm is of universal proportions.
Katherine Collins, Chair of the SFI Board of Trustees, Head of Sustainable Investing at Putnam Investments, and Founder of Honeybee Capital recommends:
Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed, 2020)
“Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us.” This book is science, and also poetry. Robin Kimmerer is a professor of environmental biology and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and a combination of science, indigenous wisdom, and sheer love of our natural world shines through on every page. Whether you swim in a sea of digital data or in a pond hidden deep in the woods, you will find beauty, creativity, and wisdom here.
David Krakauer, SFI President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems recommends:
When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut (Pushkin Press, 2020)
Great books are ontological funhouse mirrors. They can return us to the mysteries of childhood or allow us to live another life. Somehow, this book did both for me. Labatut looks at the existential turning points at the end of pro- found understanding by inspecting the lives of Schwarzschild, Grothendieck, Schrödinger, and many others. He suggests that in our endeavors we are all the epigones of Einstein, devastated by the fog shrouding human creativity.
We would like to thank Ian McKinnon, Vice-Chair of SFI’s Board of Trustees, for suggesting this column, and SFI Research Fellow Anthony Eagan for compiling the recommendations.