The key? A computational flattening algorithm.
An international team of scholars has read an unopened letter from early modern Europe — without breaking its seal or damaging it in any way — using an automated computational flattening algorithm.
The team, including MIT Libraries and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers and an MIT student and alumna, published their findings today in a Nature Communications article titled, "Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography."
The senders of these letters had closed them using "letterlocking," the historical process of folding and securing a flat sheet of paper to become its own envelope. Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson Conservator at MIT Libraries, developed letterlocking as a field of study with Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London, and the Unlocking History research team. Since the papers' folds, tucks, and slits are themselves valuable evidence for historians and conservators, being able to examine the letters' contents without irrevocably damaging them is a major advancement in the study of historic documents.
"Letterlocking was an everyday activity for centuries, across cultures, borders, and social classes," explains Dambrogio. "It plays an integral role in the history of secrecy systems as the missing link between physical communications security techniques from the ancient world and modern digital cryptography. This research takes us right into the heart of a locked letter."
This breakthrough technique was the result of an international and interdisciplinary collaboration between conservators, historians, engineers, imaging experts, and other scholars. "The power of collaboration is that we can combine our different interests and tools to solve bigger problems," says Martin Demaine, artist-in-residence in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the research team.
The algorithm that makes the virtual unfolding possible was developed by Amanda Ghassaei SM '17 and Holly Jackson, an undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and a participant in MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), both working at the Center for Bits and Atoms. The virtual unfolding code is openly available on GitHub.
"When we got back the first scans of the letter packets, we were instantly hooked," says Ghassaei. "Sealed letters are very intriguing objects, and these examples are particularly interesting because of the special attention paid to securing them shut."
"We're X-raying history," says team member David Mills, X-ray microtomography facilities manager at Queen Mary University of London. Mills, together with Graham Davis, professor of 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary, used machines specially designed for use in dentistry to scan unopened "locked" letters from the 17th century. This resulted in high-resolution volumetric scans, produced by high-contrast time delay integration X-ray microtomography.
"Who would have thought that a scanner designed to look at teeth would take us so far?" says Davis.
Computational flattening algorithms were then applied to the scans of the letters. This has been done successfully before with scrolls, books, and documents with one or two folds. The intricate folding configurations of the "locked" letters, however, posed unique technical challenges.
"The algorithm ends up doing an impressive job at separating the layers of paper, despite their extreme thinness and tiny gaps between them, sometimes less than the resolution of the scan," says Erik Demaine, professor of computer science at MIT and an expert in computational origami. "We weren't sure it would be possible."
The team's approach utilizes a fully 3D geometric analysis that requires no prior information about the number or types of folds or letters in a letter packet. The virtual unfolding generates 2D and 3D reconstructions of the letters in both folded and flat states, plus images of the letters' writing surfaces and crease patterns.
"One of coolest technical contributions of the work is a technique that explores the folded and flattened representations of a letter simultaneously," says Holly Jackson. "Our new technology enables conservators to preserve a letter's internal engineering, while still giving historians insight into the lives of the senders and recipients."
This virtual unfolding technique was used to reveal the contents of a letter dated July 31, 1697. It contains a request from Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague, for a certified copy of a death notice of one Daniel Le Pers. The letter comes from the Brienne Collection, a European postmaster's trunk preserving 300-year-old undelivered mail, which has provided a rare opportunity for researchers to study sealed locked letters.
"The trunk is a unique time capsule," says David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history, Radboud University Nijmegen. "It preserves precious insights into the lives of thousands of people from all levels of society, including itinerant musicians, diplomats, and religious refugees. As historians, we regularly explore the lives of people who lived in the past, but to read an intimate story that has never seen the light of day — and never even reached its recipient — is truly extraordinary."
Advancing a new field
In the Nature Communications article, the team also unveils the first systematization of letterlocking techniques. After studying 250,000 historical letters, they devised a chart of categories and formats that assigns letter examples a security score. Understanding these security techniques of historical correspondence means archival collections can be conserved in ways that protect small but important material details, such as slits, locks, and creases.
"Sometimes the past resists scrutiny," explains Daniel Starza Smith. "We could simply have cut these letters open, but instead we took the time to study them for their hidden, secret, and inaccessible qualities. We've learned that letters can be a lot more revealing when they are left unopened."
The research team hopes to make a study collection of letterlocking examples available to scholars and students from a range of disciplines. The virtual unfolding algorithm could also have broad applications: Because it can handle flat, curved, and sharply folded materials, it can be used on many types of historical texts, including letters, scrolls, and books.
"What we have achieved is more than simply opening the unopenable, and reading the unreadable," says Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University. "We have shown how truly interdisciplinary work breaks down boundaries to investigate what neither humanities nor the sciences can hope to understand alone."
Computational tools promise to accelerate research on letterlocking as well as reveal new historical evidence. Thanks to this research, adds Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University, "we can now imagine new affective histories that physically connect the past and the present, the human and the nonhuman, the tangible and the digital."
The research team includes Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator, MIT Libraries; Amanda Ghassaei, research engineer at Adobe Research; Daniel Starza Smith, lecturer in early modern English literature at King's College London; Holly Jackson, undergraduate student at MIT; Erik Demaine, professor in EECS; Martin Demaine, robotics engineer in CSAIL and Angelika and Barton Weller Artist-in-Residence in EECS; Graham Davis and David Mills, Queen Mary University of London's Institute of Dentistry; Rebekah Ahrendt, associate professor of musicology at Utrecht University; Nadine Akkerman, reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University; and David van der Linden, assistant professor in early modern history at Radboud University Nijmegen.
This research was supported in part by grants from the Seaver Foundation, the Delmas Foundation, the British Academy, and the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek.
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Imagine it's 2045. You start hearing rumors from your well-heeled friends about a mysterious corporation based on an undisclosed island that's offering an unprecedented service: the ability to genetically design your baby.
The baby will have some of your genetics, and some genetics from a sperm or egg donor, selected by you. But the rest of your child's genetic profile will be engineered by science. These changes will make it impossible for your child to develop genetic diseases. They'll also allow you to customize your child for dozens of traits, including intelligence level, emotional disposition, sexual orientation, height, skin tone, hair color, and eye color, to name a few.
This raises unsettling philosophical questions for some customers. "When does my child stop being my child?" they ask the corporate representatives. These wary customers are reminded of how risky it is to reproduce the old-fashioned way. The Better Genetics Corporation's motto sums it up: "Only God plays dice—humans don't have to."
This is the world described in a new science-fiction series by Eugene Clark titled "Genetic Pressure", which explores the moral and scientific implications of a future in which designer babies are becoming a major industry. The first book begins with the story of Rachel, a renowned horse breeder who befriends a billionaire client, and soon gets the funding to visit the tropical island on which the Better Genetics Corporation is headquartered.
There, corporate executives walk her through the process of designing a baby—an experience that feels like an uncanny mix between visiting a doctor and designing a luxury car. The series is told from multiple perspectives, serving as a deep dive into a complex moral web that today's scientists may already be weaving.
[T]he introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.
Case in point: In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had helped create the world's first genetically engineered babies. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR on embryos, He Jiankui modified a gene called CCR5, which enables HIV to enter and infect immune system cells. His goal was to engineer children that were immune to the virus.
It's unclear whether he succeeded. But what's certain is that the experiment shocked the international scientific community, which generally agreed that it's unethical to conduct gene-editing procedures on humans, given that scientists don't yet fully understand the consequences.
"This experiment is monstrous," Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian. "The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer."
Importantly, He Jiankui wasn't treating a disease, but rather genetically engineering babies to prevent the future contraction of a virus. These kinds of changes are heritable, meaning the experiment could have major downstream effects on future generations. So, too, would a designer-baby industry, even if scientists can do it safely.
With major implications on inequality, discrimination, sexuality, and our conceptions of life, the introduction of designer babies would create a labyrinth of philosophical dilemmas that society is only beginning to explore.
Tribalism and discrimination
One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.
"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."
For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product."
Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with.
Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate?
Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.
But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.
But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image.
When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc.
Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.
"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.
But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme.
Regulating designer babies
On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.
In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough."
After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations into the 1970s). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century.
Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies.
But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits.
If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the opposites of those traits are undesirable. As the International Bioethics Committee wrote, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."
"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps" by Eugene Clark is available now.
Perspective twisting books on biology, social science, medical science, cosmology, and tech.
- The best science books push us to think, feel, and behave differently.
- This list includes new releases by authors Merlin Sheldrake, Isabel Wilkerson, James Nestor, David Attenborough, and others.
- Besides making us more knowledgeable, these books inspire curiosity, passion, and empathy for the universe in and around us.
The best science books have the power to shift perspectives, pushing us to think differently and even behave differently. The following titles push boundaries by making novel connections and challenging conventional wisdom about the world as we think we know it. Besides making us more knowledgeable, they inspire curiosity, passion, and empathy for the universe in and around us.
These are our picks for the 10 best books released in 2020, plus a few notable mentions too good to leave out.
Merlin Sheldrake's enthralling study of fungi will reframe your view of the world through the perspective of mycelium networks, providing a natural lesson in the interrelations between all living beings. Fungi have colonized nearly all of Earth's environments, and their interactions with other matter has been one of a subterranean magician creating and transforming the world we inhabit.
Sheldrake, a mycologist who researches underground fungal networks, takes the reader on a journey into unsettling mysteries that shroud his field of study. At the center, just how alive are these networks? Weaving together stories, scientific observations, and philosophical questions, "Entangled Lives" is a book on how beings contaminate and change one another in a perpetual, transformative dance of matter.
From wildfires intoxicating our air quality, to a pandemic caused by a respiratory-system attacking virus, to the social justice cry "I can't breathe," the mundane act of breathing was brought to the forefront in 2020. It's the most fundamental thing to our lives, marking the beginning and the end of it, and yet our culture rarely gives it a second thought. Journalist James Nestor sought to amend that in "Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art," as he interviews men and women around the world to trace the origins of our failure to remember correct breathing, what the consequences have been, and how it can be fixed.
This is an enrapturing look at the history of human breathing through a physiological, evolutionary, cultural, and spiritual lens. Far more exhilarating than a description of pulmonology lab studies, Nestor finds answers in ancient burial sites, New Jersey choir schools, and Soviet facilities. He also offers practical breathing exercises to give the reader a hands-on experience into the simple power of breathing correctly.
This year was one defined by heartbreak and pain across the globe. This was especially the case for Black Americans for whom COVID-19 exposed the ugly racial inequalities in our healthcare system and the loss of more Black lives at the hands of police officers revealed the fundamental injustice of the American justice system. And, so, 2020 saw backlash against the legacy of white supremacy in America.
In her latest book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson met this revolutionary year with her groundbreaking exploration of identity in America. Wilkerson radically and powerfully reframes injustice, racism, and inequality in the United States as undergirded by a caste system likened to those in India and Germany's Nazi regime. Applying more than a decade of research, ethnography, and reporting for the book, Wilkerson offers us a deep revisionist history through interviews with experts along with ordinary people, and stories from her own life. Woven together, she creates an electrifying and perspective-flipping theory of injustice and racism in America, and the role we all continue to play in perpetuating it.
Renowned and beloved naturalist, journalist, and defender of the planet David Attenborough delivers a witness statement of the state of life on planet Earth. This book was awarded this year's Goodreads Choice Award in Science and Technology.
Part testimony, part heartening memoir, and part battlecry, Sir Attenborough's book proves a much needed imagining of the future if through collective, rapid action we can save Earth's beautiful and wild places and before it's too late.
A gripping tale that is part medical mystery and part case study of abnormal psychology, Robert Kolker presents a riveting piece of narrative non-fiction. "Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family" is the story of a seemingly cookie-cutter '60s American family: the Galvins. Kolker, a decorated crime journalist, digs under the picture-perfect surface to spotlight a family ravaged by mental illness, violence, and trauma.
Of the Galvin's ten sons, six developed schizophrenia, transforming their home into a traumatic and abusive environment. The book traces scientists' quest to find out if this family's genetics could hold the key to the many unanswered questions the medical and psychiatric field has about the disease.
Of course, it's shameful that a book debunking racist pseudosceince had to have been written at all. Nevertheless, geneticist Adam Rutherford's "How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race, and Reality" is a remarkable telling of the shared ancestry of the human race. The book is a treasure trove filled with gems of knowledge from the field of genetics and what it knows about skin color, intelligence, ancestry, athletic ability, and racial superiority.
By showing how ancestry and family trees scientifically work, Rutherford proves the concept of racial purity to be an erroneous delusion. "For humans," Rutherford explains, "there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes." The reader is provided the fascinating scientific weaponry to confidently take on questions about race, genes, ancestry. Ultimately, Rutherford's book is a challenge against the manipulation, misrepresentation, and abuse of science to justify hatred and prejudice.
While nations and leaders have entered into a battle to rule the big data sphere, most of us still remain in the dark about AI — a subject shrouded in complex lexicon and confused with sci-fi plots. But AI is real, here to stay, and already has profound and alarming implications on our world. Michael Kanaan, a nationally recognized expert of the topic of artificial intelligence, details these realities in a way that the everyday person can grasp.
Detailing the global implications of AI, Kanaan also presents the ways that cultures and nations have failed to adjust their policies and ethical questions to meet the rapid growth of modern computing, and the erosion of democracies around the world as dubious leaders weaponize the technology to spread misinformation. We're entering this brave new world, there is no turning back, and "T-Minus AI" is our survival guide coming at a critical moment in time.
"Vesper Flights" is Helen Macdonald's dazzling collection of essays about human and other-than-human relationships. The naturalist and poet explores and meditates on subjects ranging from nostalgia for landscapes to the migrations of songbirds from the Empire State Building to the challenges of farming ostriches. And, of course, her own vespers.
Woven throughout the collection of her writings are the themes of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, precarity and enchantment, time and memory, and ultimately, love. Helen transports the reader into intimate observations of the natural world such as watching tens of thousands of Hungarian cranes, encountering a wild boar, foraging for mushrooms, and the peculiarities of bird nests. "Vesper Flights" re-enchants and brings back to life the world of the other-than-human as more than the backdrop of the human drama. In a time of isolation, Helen reminds us that we are part of a multitude of narratives at play in the natural world, and the wondrous and baffling magic found in paying attention to it.
In "The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another," Ainissa Ramirez explains how inventions from the clock to steel rails to hard disks have powerfully transformed society. By ingeniously describing how matter has transformed humans as we create inventions out of it, Ramirez shows how eight inventions created the world as we know it today, and molded our perception of it.
Ramirez, a material scientist and science writer, illustrates how clocks, steel rails, copper telegraph wires, photographic film, carbon filaments for light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware, and silicon chips revolutionized modern society. The chapters each tell the story of the creation and rise of one of the inventions and the impact it had on the world. For example, how the railway contributed to the commercialization of Christmas. Ramirez's storytelling and expertise give life to the innovations by contextualizing them in history and providing the biography of the creators behind them. This includes those who have been overlooked in historical tellings of innovation, such as women and people of color. Ultimately, this is about how we manipulate matter, and the matter changes us.
For centuries, human art, religious beliefs and rituals, our social hierarchies, value systems, scientific innovations and discoveries, and even our DNA has been shaped by the heavens. Yet over the last few decades, we have severed that innate and intimate relationship with the cosmos, which are today experienced through screens and mind-numbing data fields. And it's come at a cost.
Jo Marchant's spellbinding book seeks to put the sense of awe, wonder, and mystery back into our relationship with the stars. Presenting various ways that different cultures have celebrated the once-mystical majesty of celestial cycles, she invites you to experience the night through your naked eyes fixed unto the star-spangled sky. It's an experience that has sparked imaginings and ideas that have radically transformed human civilization for millennia, even, Marchant argues, made us human. In "The Human Cosmos," you'll discover Chumash cosmology, learn about Tahitian sailors who navigated by way of celestial maps, and understand how Einstein arrived at his revolutionary theory that space and time are the same entity.
There were so many brilliant books released in 2020, and these picks are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are several other books that almost made our top ten list.
- "All We Can Save" edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
- "Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl" by Jonathan C. Slaght
- "Explaining Humans" by Dr. Camilla Pang
- "Children of Ash and Elm: A History of Vikings" by Neil Price
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Add these great titles to your wish list or secure copies for yourself.
- We asked BigThink's readers and staff for their recommendations on books everyone should read.
- A collection of fiction and non-fiction works from around the world spanning millennia, these books will expand your horizons.
- Many of these books are long out of copyright, and can be read for free.
Do you ever want to read more but find yourself unsure of what to read? Lots of people have the same problem. To help, we're adding to the collection of "books everyone should read" lists. For this one, we reviewed hundreds of suggestions on what book everybody should read from a post on our Facebook page and combined them with some of our staff's picks.
They span more than 2,000 years of literature, include fiction and non-fiction works, and will make you think, laugh, and cry. So without further ado, here are 13 books you should read when you get the chance.
If you prefer digital books but yet own an e-reader, we've included links to purchase one (at two price points) at the bottom of this list.
"Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one…. cities will never have rest from their evils"
One of the most famous books of all time, Plato's "Republic" depicts Socrates debating the nature of justice. To do so, he appeals to the metaphysical theory of the forms, a vision of a Utopian city designed to exhibit perfect justice, the allegory of the cave, the Ring of Gyges, and the metaphor of the Ship of State.
To say that it has influenced and excited thinkers since it was written (around 375 BC) would be an understatement. The British philosopher Julian Baggini argued that while in this book Plato, "was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it."
Plato failed to take out a copyright on his book [it being written over 2,000 years ago likely played a role in this error] and several translations aren't copyrighted either. You can buy a copy at the link above, but it can also be read for free on Project Gutenberg.
"But rest assured: This tragedy is not a fiction. All is True."
Set in an unnamed Indian city during The Emergency, the story follows four people from very different walks of life as the country endures the struggle and changes of independence, a shifting economic picture, and social difficulties. Diving into one of the most controversial parts of India's modern history is no easy feat, but this book does it in a way that manages to keep the focus on the human side of the era.
Praised as one of the 10 greatest Asian novels by The Telegraph, the book won many awards upon release. The Wall Street Journal considered the book "A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life."
"The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be defined is not the unchanging name."
Taoism's foundational text, and a philosophical work that influenced most Chinese philosophy that came after it. The book attempts to explain The Way (Tao) and the virtues which can express it. Nature and actions in accordance with it are praised. The unity or oneness that underlies the universe is also highlighted.
The oldest known copies of the text date back to 300 BCE. Despite ups and downs in Taoism's fortunes, the rise and fall of other philosophies, and occasional persecution, this book and its wisdom have endured all the while. Hundreds of Millions of people still adhere to some form of Taoism, and this book is the key to understanding their worldview.
Many thinkers have commented on the brilliance of the book. Chinese philosopher and writer Lin Yutang went so far as to say, "If there is one book in the whole of Oriental literature which one should read above all the others, it is, in my opinion, Laotse's Book of Tao."
"Oh dear, you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?"
While the various editions of the book differ, the basic plot remains the same. Arthur Dent, recently forced off Earth due to it being blown up so a freeway could be built, goes on hilarious adventures around the galaxy with President Zaphod Beeblebrox, joyfully existential writer Ix, and Marvin the Paranoid Android—yes, Radiohead got it from here.
Also, the answer is 42, but we don't know the question.
Deemed a "whimsical odyssey" by Publishers Weekly and "inspired lunacy" by the Washington Post, the book series has legions of dedicated fans and several well-known adaptations.
The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." — Mark 12:31
As the holy text of Christianity and a collection of books with many focuses, there can be little wonder why the Bible is a frequently read, studied, criticized, and praised book. Featuring heroes like Sampson, teachers like Jesus, and epic tales like the Exodus, the Bible is a book with a large footprint on history and one to be counted among the great works of literature.
Even if you aren't a Christian, the Bible is worth a read. LearnReligions.com points out:
"If you're an avid reader, this is one bestseller you shouldn't miss. The Bible is an epic story of love, life, death, war, family, and more. It has its ups and downs, and it's pretty riveting. If you're not a reader, this may be the one book worth saying you read. If you're going to read anything, you can say you read the biggest bestseller of all time."
Plus, you know, understanding the belief system of the world's largest religion might come in handy sometime.
While some versions have copyrights, others don't, and most of them can be read online for free. Project Gutenberg has the very popular King James Edition here.
"A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others."
A behemoth of a book centering around a murder, "The Brothers Karamazov" is part mystery, part love story, part court case, and part theological drama all wrapped up in a philosophical novel that has attracted the attention of the world's greatest minds since it came out.
It was declared "the most magnificent novel ever written" by Sigmund Freud. William Faulkner and Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed to have read it regularly. Both Franz Kafka and Martin Heidegger felt the book directly influenced their work. Anything a group like that can all agree on is likely worth reading.
"The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired."
For the person who wants to know how the universe and our understanding of it came to exist but also wants a side of extremely dry British wit, this is the book for you. Featuring only a single equation, E=MC2, Hawking's book explores the history of astronomy, ideas of space and time, black holes, the universe, quantum mechanics, the theory of everything, and frontiers in science without jargon or the assumption that the reader has a degree in the hard sciences.
Widely praised on release, the book became a best seller and went through several editions, including "A Briefer History of Time" and an illustrated version.
"It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU the caption beneath it ran."
The magnum opus of George Orwell, this novel considers a then-future England under the boot of a totalitarian state known as Oceania. The plot follows mid-level bureaucrat Winston Smith as he tries to navigate the surveillance state in which he lives, works, loves, and secretly dreams of rebellion. All the while, Big Brother is watching.
As one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the review from Victor Pritchett read: "I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down."
"What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."
The story of a road trip from Minnesota to California features discussions of life, philosophy, hang-ups, and the effect of altitude on how well a motorbike runs. The problems of living life from a Romantic point of view against a Classical stance are a crucial part of the novel, and the attempt to find a middle ground lasts long after the road trip ends. All the while, ghosts from the past stalk the characters and ask questions that even they weren't prepared to answer.
The original New York Times review called the book "intellectual entertainment of the highest order," and it has become the best-selling philosophy book of all time.
"I haven't seen Calvin for about 15 minutes now. That probably means he's getting in trouble."
An anthology of comics by the great Bill Watterson depicting a young boy and his stuffed tiger, the series was the most popular comic strip in the United States for much of its run and continues to be loved by millions. While lacking an overarching plot, the series features several running gags and never loses its ability to touch on elements common to every childhood.
Praised as "vibrant, accessible, and beautiful" by mental floss and "one of the most beloved comic strips of all time" by the New York Post, this series is among the champions of comic strip fun.
"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly. No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried. Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked. "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone." "And what difference does that make?"
Our first staff pick is the hilarious, zany, and shell-shocking story of bomber pilots in WWII just trying to stay alive while they navigate the bureaucracy of the U.S. Army Air Corps. It follows the misadventures of John Yossarian as he and his squad mates try to get out of having to complete their ever-increasing quota of missions. The book also considers (anachronistically placed) elements of American society that began to emerge in the '50s and the absurdity of human existence.
The New York Herald Tribune called the book "A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book." Despite the non-linear plot, surreal occurrences, and dense language, Harper Lee said it was the only war novel she ever read that made any sense.
Widely considered a cult-classic, the book, fittingly, didn't win any awards on release and has been deemed a significant work of the 20th century.
"It is important to understand that the system of advantage is perpetuated when we do not acknowledge its existence."
Our second staff pick is from psychologist and Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum. Written in 1996, the book returned to the New York Times' best-seller list in June of 2020.
A bold consideration on how we discuss, or fail to discuss, race in America and its effects on our psychology, the book has sparked endless conversations and advanced debate since it first hit shelves. Featuring personal stories, empirical data, and her previous work in this field, the book makes a strong case for the need to engage with issues of racial identity in ways that many people currently do not.
Kirkus Reviews concluded that it is:
"A remarkably jargon-free book that is as rigorously analytical as it is refreshingly practical and drives its points home with a range of telling anecdotes. Tatum illuminates 'why talking about racism is so hard'' and what we can do to make it easier, leaving her readers more confident about facing the difficult terrain on the road to a genuinely color-blind society."
"'That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!' He added, after a pause: 'Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.'"
Our final staff pick is a masterpiece that tells the story of reformed criminal Jean Valjean, his adopted daughter Cosette, the people they met from all parts of French society, and the battle of the human spirit against the injustices of the world. Along the way, it takes the time to consider questions of life, death, God, evil, justice, convents, revolution, love, and French slang.
Described as "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world" by no less a writer than Upton Sinclair, and a frequently adapted favorite of audiences since its release, the book continues to speak to an essential part of our humanity in a way few others have.
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