Josh Niesse is the founder and co-owner of Hills & Hamlets Bookshop and our sister store Underground Books in Carrollton. Josh's parents fed his love of reading early on with dutiful purchasing of Dean Koontz thrillers and the Dragonlance Chronicles, which somehow turned into Henry Miller and Daniel Quinn as time progressed. Josh graduated from Western Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a minor in religion.
I absolutely loved this book! As a bookseller who has learned from experience not to say this, I'm going ahead anyway -- I think everyone should read it. Harari's brilliant cross-discipline synthesis of humanity's last 100,000 year story arc is sweeping and brilliant. I would almost use a phrase usually reserved for beach read thrillers -- it's a page-turner. Rarely does a book stir up conversation in academic circles while still being so accessible to a general audience. That a history book like this has been on the recommending reading lists of such big name entrepreneurs as Tim Ferris, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg is worth noting. These are practical get-things-done folks, not dorm room intellectuals.
Even critics of Sapiens (usually complaining that Harari sometimes verges on sensationalist) seem to have mostly acknowledged that it is a well written book that raises important questions. I finished the book feeling both inspired and disturbed. And that's about where homo sapiens sapiens is a species about now -- both inspired and disturbed. Looking forward to reading Harari's sequel to Sapiens, Homo Deus.
I've picked up a few graphic novels before, but never been hooked. I thought my brain just wasn't wired for the format. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters blew my mind. I'm usually a slow reader, but I could not put this book down, burned through its gorgeous, dark, unruly pages, and was crushed when it was over. Can't wait for part two. The profound emotional sophistication combined with the eccentric pulp horror art creates a unique and deeply satisfying reading experience.
When I read Ishmael at age 16 or 17, it blew my mind. An older friend (herself studying philosophy in college, like I eventually would) gave it to me, and it forever changed my perspective on the world. It examines the mythological thinking at the heart of modern civilization, its effect on ethics, and how this relates to sustainability and societal collapse on the global scale. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that anthropocentrism and several other widely accepted modern ideas are actually cultural myths and that global civilization is enacting these myths with catastrophic consequences. As a work of fiction, it will leave something to be desired – consider this purely a philosophical/historical read for exercising your brain and examining our culture’s basic ideas.
When I was a teenager, my older brother gave this book to me as if it was some kind of dangerous and sacred object. Famous for its candid sexuality and the 1960s free speech trials it aroused (ha!), Tropic is the semi-autobiographical tale of Miller living as a nomadic-bohemian-expatriate in Paris in the early 1930s. The book meanders around and among Miller and his musician, artist, and writer friends as they drink and carouse. As a story it really goes nowhere linear, with a lot of stream of consciousness chapters leading toward big epiphanies, meditations on the human condition, and social critiques. If you can overcome the pretension, it’s a fun and dirty romp through 1930s Paris, with a good dose of lyrical philosophy and social criticism.
During my four (okay, five) years as a philosophy undergraduate, I read only nonfiction. After graduating, the first work of fictional pleasure reading I picked up was Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker. It concerns the love affair between an environmentalist princess and an outlaw. The novel encompasses a broad range of topics, from aliens and redheads to consumerism, the building of bombs, romance, royalty, the moon, and a pack of Camel cigarettes. The novel continuously addresses the question of “how to make love stay” and is sometimes referred to as “a postmodern fairy tale”. Still Life is a fun, easy read, but still full of witty, thought-provoking, and quotable aphorisms. Megan and I even included a passage from it in our wedding vows.
Vonnegut’s 1973 novel is set in the fictional town of Midland City and is the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” Breakfast introduced me to the offbeat, brilliant humor of an author who thinks like a kind of zany alien anthropologist. Illustrated throughout with Vonnegut’s own humorously childish drawings, the book also explores serious and troubling aspects of U.S. history by providing oversimplified explanations for things like racism, oppression, and inequality in such an exaggerated fashion as to highlight the absurdity of such justifications.
This pop history of urban planning and architecture in America opened my eyes to the ways our built environment has contributed to so many of the social problems we face today. Kunstler was a vocal critic of suburban sprawl starting in the early 1990’s and helped popularize New Urbanist design themes, which emphasized walk-able & bike-able neighborhoods and mixed use village-style planning. Part of my love for downtown Carrollton, where our other bookshop is located, and for Serenbe was explained to me by this book, celebrating the human scaled intimacy of pre-automobile urban village design. Kunstler’s biting sense of humor makes learning about the dark and sad history of America’s urban planning (or lackthereof) a less bitter pill to swallow.
Pronoia is the suspicion that the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf. Rob Brezsny, one of America’s most popular astrologists and the author of the Free Will Astrology column appearing in most of the country’s alternative newsweeklies (like Creative Loafing), persuasively argues that we attempt to go along with the Universe’s good intentions. He uses witty parables, tender rants, cultural riffs, pagan wisdom, and lively rituals to make a case for a cagey optimism that requires a vigorous engagement with the dark forces. He asks us to rethink life as a sublime game created for our amusement and illumination. It’s easy to dismiss Pronoia as ridiculous new age fluff, but for those with less deeply ingrained cynicism, it can be a playful and enjoyable breath of fresh air. In fact, I credit it with the inspiration to be foolish enough to open a bookstore (the first time)!
This book was the primary textbook of my college course “Introduction to Native American Religious Traditions” at Western Kentucky University. God is Red is not just an introduction to native religious ideas, it is an in-your-face challenge to Western Christianity. It details the hardships faced by Native Americans as their country was quickly flooded with foreigners eager for land and other resources. Deloria links the anthropocentrism of Christian orthodoxy and subsequent American economic philosophies with increasing environmental upheaval. Deloria also explains how religious views are rooted to “place” as opposed to being universal. God is Red is a challenging and important read that transformed my understanding of all religions.
Against the backdrop of Bolshevik Russia, this incredibly charming novel features Count Rostov, a former aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Over several decades he carves out a fulfilling life among the colorful cast of characters at the hotel. The story and world Towles creates is wonderful, but what makes the book true pleasure to read is the lovable characters who, by the end of the book, I felt like I knew like family.
Pollan didn’t create the local food movement, but his books brought our attention to it, catapulting the conversation to farmers markets and dinner tables everywhere. In How To Change Your Mind, Pollan has turned his eye to psychedelic drugs. What The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules did for food, this book is set to do in the fields of end of life care, addiction treatment, depression, and (most radically) questions of spirituality & meaning. A+
My favorite novel in years, a sweeping, brilliant, page-turning environmentalist epic. It’s long, but I listened to the audiobook and was devastated when it was over. It’s like Richard Powers kidnapped Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, Rachel Carson, and a shaman and spent 5 years in a room with them while writing this book. Whether you’re a tree hugger or not, this is storytelling at its best.
Tena Clark’s memoir about growing up in rural Mississippi is the southern memoir of the year y’all. This isn’t my wording, but I will paraphrase the publisher’s blurb on the arc: Southern Discomfort is The Glass Castle meets Fried Green Tomatoes. Get ready bookseller friends, this will be a big hit this fall when it comes out. A powerful, satisfying, page-turning memoir, good for fans of this year’s earlier hit memoir, Educated by Tara Westover.