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Baker Reading Shelf: Professor Marc Carter

June 1, 2007

This semester we’re rolling out a new feature for the newsletter: the Baker Reading Shelf. In it, a faculty or staff member will list four or five books — fiction or nonfiction on whatever topic — and briefly describe what makes each book memorable to him or her. In this way, we believe, we can learn more about each other and hear about great books that we may have hitherto missed out on. In the future we hope to have library space in which to display the books and write-ups. If you’d like to read one of the books listed here, links to the Baker catalog or an Interlibrary Loan form are provided below each description.

Associate Professor of Psychology Marc Carter provided us with the titles and descriptions for this inaugural edition of the Baker Reading Shelf. Thanks, Marc!

The Illusion of Conscious Will by Dan Wegner.
Most of us go through life assuming that our behavior follows thought, that we intend to do something — and then we do it. We especially assume that it is our conscious will that acts. Wegner tests these assumptions, and almost entirely rejects them. Drawing on research from psychology to neuroscience, he attempts to show (and is pretty convincing about it) that our conscious awareness of volition follows on our behavior. We believe that we act based on our conscious intentions, but it’s at least arguable that our conscious awareness of willing an action is a fiction created by a big fat brain. Whether or not he’s right, he sure makes you think.

The Copernican Revolution by Thomas Kuhn.
Most of us are aware of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the notion of “paradigms” (a word Kuhn is said to have wished he hadn’t used), but I think few people are aware of this remarkable book. In what may only be described as excruciating detail, Kuhn traces the history of the move from a Ptolemaic, human-centered universe to a Copernican, sun-centered universe. It turns out that the revolution was driven not so much by a better-fitting Copernican model, but rather by its elegance – something that is probably underplayed in our understanding of how science grows and changes. It was a tad simpler than the Ptolemaic model, but only just. If you’re interested in that time in history and an understanding of the social forces that both encouraged and impeded acceptance of the new system, this is a great place to start. But be warned: it is technical.

PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country by William Least Heat-Moon.
I’m a huge fan of the Flint Hills, and especially Chase County, and apparently everyone in the world had read this book except for me. It’s a remarkably poetic tribute to the land, the weather, and the people in what to most would have been a desolate piece of earth: arid, windswept, and only occasionally deviating from horizontal. In the book he wanders through many of the communities in Chase County, musing on historical events — “history” broadly construed to include time before people showed up – and reflecting in a magical way the very feel of the place. If you’ve been there and wandered around in awe, then this book reinforces that feeling and makes it present again. If you’ve not been out there, or worse, been there but weren’t awed, read this book and you will see it differently from any other place on earth.

 The Sorrows of Empire : Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic and Blowback : The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Second Edition), both by Chalmers Johnson.
As an unapologetic and unreconstructed liberal Democrat I have been somewhat, shall we say, dismayed at the reaction of the government and USAers to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But after reading these books it seems to me that the issues that undergird the desperation that led to those attacks goes back much farther and is independent of political party. In these books Chalmers Johnson outlines some of the behavior that the US has engaged in on the soil of other countries, from personal crimes committed on civilians living in allied countries to our attempts to direct the political course of other nations. It seems to me that the trope “they hate us for our freedoms” is ludicrous; they do not hate us, and they do not hate us for our freedoms. They are rightly angry at the way the United States behaves in their countries. This is not, of course, a justification for any act of murder or “terrorism,” but it certainly goes a long way toward explaining it. And unless or until we can explain it accurately, we can do nothing to prevent its happening again.

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