God: A Human History – Reza Aslan

god human history reza aslan

A book to challenge the way you think about the divine and its role in your life

Where does belief in God come from? How has the concept of God, or gods, evolved throughout human history? Why are we so prone to make God in our own image? Author and religion scholar Reza Aslan addresses these questions and more in this book.


The quest for the divine – Where does the impulse to seek the divine come from? The author explores what we know about the beginnings of human history, what our ancestors must have been like, and their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He concludes that animism “is very likely humanity’s earliest expression of anything that could be termed religion.” Aslan makes a case for cave paintings largely being an expression of seeking the divine, as well as stone pillars and alters.

What are the origins of religion? – Can the development of religion be explained by Darwinism, experiences of awe and transcendence, the search for meaning, cultural/social developments, biological/psychological adaptation? The author explores each of these lines of thinking and the faults with each.

The agricultural revolution – Did the change from hunter-gatherer to agriculture based society bring about religion, or is the opposite true? Aslan describes the oldest known temple site of any kind at Gobekli Tepe, going back at least 12,000 years, which predates the rise of agriculture (and writing as we know it).

Humanized gods – Why is anthropomorphism so dominant in the majority of religions, especially ancient religions and mythology? We have a natural urge to explain the divine using the same emotions, motivations, and needs that we have as humans.

Polytheism to monotheism and beyond – Aslan traces the history of polytheism in Mesopotamia and the various forms of this to the development of monotheism practiced in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He also explores other views of theism, dualism, and spiritual practices that aren’t based on a traditional notion of God.


This is a very well documented book that will likely make many uncomfortable – theists and atheists, believers and non-believers alike. Though scholarly, it is still very readable and avoids the excessive antagonistic and/or condescending tone that many contemporary critics of religion use. I really appreciate the perspective Reza Aslan brings to the discussion about religion and spirituality. He will also likely surprise you with his own admission of belief. I definitely recommend this book.

Find out more about the author on his website here. That is also where you can find info about his other books and projects.


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari sapiens

A unique perspective and narrative of human history

In Sapiens, Professor Harari takes the reader on the wild ride through human history, what makes us different from other animals, and examines the major cultural shifts throughout the years. Evolutionary biology leads the early portions of the book, while later sections discuss the role of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, religion, philosophy, and economics.

This paragraph from the author’s website does a great job summarizing what the book is about.

“Sapiens focuses on key processes that shaped humankind and the world around it, such as the advent of agriculture, the creation of money, the spread of religion and the rise of the nation state. Unlike other books of its kind, Sapiens takes a multi-disciplinary approach that bridges the gaps between history, biology, philosophy and economics in a way never done before. Furthermore, taking both the macro and the micro view, Sapiens conveys not only what happened and why, but also how it felt for individuals.”

Topics Covered

What makes humans unique? – Prof Harari makes a convincing case on how homo sapiens ability to cooperate and work together in large numbers has given us a strategic advantage to be able to expand our territory and succeed in hostile climates.

Capitalism as religion – This is probably my favorite unique perspective that the author takes. Capitalism definitely fits many of the criteria of religion, especially the dedication of its followers and the rituals and traditions surrounding it.

Human happiness – In many ways, modern humans have it much better and easier than ancient hunter-gatherer societies, but there is a pretty strong case that we aren’t happier these days. There are many reasons for this that are addressed throughout the book.

The dark side of the Agricultural Revolution – This ties in with the above about happiness. The Agricultural Revolution had certain benefits for humanity, but it also had very specific costs for humans and animals that are often overlooked.


This is a really thought-provoking book that pushes the envelope in several areas. It challenges many long-held beliefs, assumptions, and special dogmas of certain groups. While the author takes some liberties to make assertions about the future and makes conclusions that will seem to be a stretch for some (the author clearly has a tendency towards exaggeration and has received much scholarly criticism for this), this is still a good book to make you think. I put it in the recommended list as long as you keep that in mind.

Here’s a link to the Wiki page for the book. Here’s that link again to the author’s website.

The Birth of Loud – Ian S. Port

ian s port the birth of loud book cover

Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Here’s a departure from the usual on the eclectic reading list blog. I love music and play a few different instruments, including guitar. I enjoy many different types of music, but I’ll always have a soft spot for rock and roll. In this book, author Ian S. Port chronicles the history of the development of the electric guitar through innovators Leo Fender, Les Paul, and others. It’s an enjoyable story, whether or not you play guitar yourself or like rock music.

Here’s a good synopsis from the publisher’s website:

“In the years after World War II, music was evolving from big-band jazz into rock ’n’ roll—and these louder styles demanded revolutionary instruments. When Leo Fender’s tiny firm marketed the first solid-body electric guitar, the Esquire, musicians immediately saw its appeal. Not to be out-maneuvered, Gibson, the largest guitar manufacturer, raced to build a competitive product. The company designed an “axe” that would make Fender’s Esquire look cheap and convinced Les Paul—whose endorsement Leo Fender had sought—to put his name on it. Thus was born the guitar world’s most heated rivalry: Gibson versus Fender, Les versus Leo.

While Fender was a quiet, half-blind, self-taught radio repairman, Paul was a brilliant but headstrong pop star and guitarist who spent years toying with new musical technologies. Their contest turned into an arms race as the most inventive musicians of the 1950s and 1960s—including bluesman Muddy Waters, rocker Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton—adopted one maker’s guitar or another. By 1969 it was clear that these new electric instruments had launched music into a radical new age, empowering artists with a vibrancy and volume never before attainable.”


Innovation leaders – The author does a great job of presenting the reality of the people involved, including their brilliance and flaws. I really appreciate that he includes a historical timeline of who came up with what, and when, while also acknowledging that no one single person can be credited with “inventing” the solid-body electric guitar as we know it today.

The arms race to be the best – Like most breakthrough innovations, things like the solid-body electric guitar, electric bass, special amps, and the like were largely rejected by those “in the know.” Once these things finally caught on, the race was on to perfect the instruments and be the leader in production and sales of this new technology. Competition between old friends and acquaintances was often heated.

Famous (and not famous) guitar pioneering musicians – While some musicians like Les Paul became well known, many other brilliant musicians aren’t known, even among music fans. I really appreciate that players like Muddy Waters are given some space to shine. Hendrix, Clapton, and other rock gods get their due, but this book doesn’t overlook those who came before.


Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, you don’t have to be a guitarist or even like rock music to enjoy this book (but I think you’ll love this book if you fall into either of those categories). It is as much about the race to innovate and create as it is about the actual music and instruments. I learned a lot through this and it was well written. I also really appreciated how it didn’t present a glossed-over view of the main characters involved, but let you see them for their brilliance and deep flaws alike.

Here’s a link to the author’s website. You can also find him on Twitter. Here’s a link to the book on the publisher’s website.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson

just mercy bryan stevenson book cover

A bold and brave look at injustice and racism in America

How committed are we to justice in America? Are we consistent with this commitment to justice, or are some groups given preferential treatment while others are discriminated against? Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and has occasionally been in the headlines over the years for his work in defending people of color on death row. “Just Mercy” addresses the inconsistencies we have in our judicial system and looks at ways to make things better.

The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy


Injustice in our judicial system – There’s no ignoring the statistics. Black men are significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white men, even when you factor in the same crimes. Black men are also sentenced to the death penalty far more often. This isn’t just some artifact from our country’s white supremacist past, this is current-day America.

American incarceration – The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Does this mean we have more lawless people or are the laws themselves (and how they are enforced) the real issue? I think it’s pretty obvious that the latter is the case.

The death penalty – Since the science has finally arrived with DNA evidence, many people who were wrongfully sentenced to death row have been exonerated. The author makes a great point about the morality surrounding this question – “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”


I can’t recommend this book enough. It is very well done, but it is also incredibly sad. My heart breaks to think of how many people have unjustly suffered under the cruel judicial system we have here in the USA. It can be easy to turn a blind eye to statistics, but when you take a moment to hear the stories and the people who have suffered, you can’t look away and pretend you didn’t hear. I suppose you can try, but you’d only be deceiving yourself.

You can find Just Mercy on Amazon here. You can learn more about the book on the EJI website. The book is being made into a movie – more on that here.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era – James McPherson

illustrated battle cry of freedom book

The best book about the American Civil War

If you’re ready to take the plunge and get the fullest account of the events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War, then this is the best book there is. James McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1988 with “Battle Cry of Freedom” and it has been updated with illustrations in subsequent editions since then. What were the causes of the war? Who were the leading figures? What were things like in politics at that time? If you’ve ever wondered on these things and felt that history class in high school skipped over some parts, you’ll find the answers here.

Think that’s a little heavy on the acclaim? Here’s a quote from one reviewer:

It is the best one-volume treatment of its subject I have ever come across. It may actually be the best ever published. It is comprehensive yet succinct, scholarly without being pedantic, eloquent but unrhetorical. It is compellingly readable. I was swept away, feeling as if I had never heard the saga before. It is most welcome.

Hugh Brogan, NYTimes review – https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/mcpherson-freedom.html

Topics Covered

Notable people – Quotes, sections from journals, and in-depth information on all the main political and military figures, as well as detailed background info on people who are often overlooked. Lincoln, Generals Grant, Sherman, and McClellan on the Union side and Generals Lee, Jackson, and Forrest on the Confederacy all have center stage at various times.

Important events leading up to the war – How the Mexican American war brought about events to come. The passage of the Fugitive Slave law and other polarizing legislation on the topics of slavery and “freedoms.” The creation of the new Republican party. Threats of secession in the face of legislation that would limit slavery. Reluctant abolitionists and conflicted slaveholders, it’s all in there.

Major battles – Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Atlanta are all covered, as well as the lesser known but very important battles that shaped the outcome of the war.

Slavery – Yes, the war was about slavery. Multiple quotes from Confederate leaders clearly show that they viewed slavery as the pillar of their culture and their God-given right. White supremacy in all its ugliness is revealed time and time again in the horrific treatment of African slaves and attempts to expand slavery and even to restart the Atlantic slave trade. The Union leaders don’t get a free pass though, as they are often guilty of horrible abuses as well. It’s an ugly time in our history that we tend to gloss over.


I know the size of this book will turn some people away. Even the edited, abridged version has over 700 pages! But please, please, don’t let that be a deal breaker. This doesn’t read like a textbook, though it is incredibly informative. This is a remarkable book and the author has done a fantastic job in making the subject come alive. If you like history books, you’ll really enjoy this. Trust me on this one.

Here’s a link to the illustrated version on Amazon.