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The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. In my extensive travels around the world, I have seen the power of myth. It’s not just odd tales that form points of common reference in ancient history. It is out there right now shaping lives and increasingly determining deaths. This book is like the PBS series: a collection of conversations that range across all of human experience in search of the themes around which people gravitate. As a whole it is almost overwhelming in scope, but each chapter can also stand alone, and because of that it is a book that will be (or should be) revisited often over a lifetime.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I wasn’t expecting to like this book when I first got it. I fully intended to read it, as I am fascinated by words and their meaning. I was thinking it would be like any other of the hundreds of dry reference books I’ve collected over the years: a clinical history of the compilation of a major dictionary. I was genuinely surprised when it turned out to be a real page-turner with more drama, plot, and character development than most fiction books. This is not only a good book for people who are fascinated by words, it is just a really good book, period.
The Trembling Mountain: A Personal Account of Kuru, Cannibals, and Mad Cow Disease by Robert Klitzman, M.D. I am often frustrated trying to explain the groupthink that distinguishes tribal cultures from ours. Klitzman does it better than almost anyone I’ve ever read in this book detailing his experiences as a medical researcher living among the Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea. I came to this book when I was researching cannibal cultures, but I came away from reading it with much more than I expected. To anyone who has come up against the glass wall of magical thinking, Klitzman’s telling of how tribal leaders built their own airstrips in order to make the planes that drop all the boxes of supplies reappear in the sky will provoke a grin and groan of familiarity. Especially when he goes on to describe their ongoing efforts to pry from him the magic incantations they were obviously lacking from any white person they encountered.
The Collected Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Someday I will write about India. But until I do, readers will have to rely on Kipling for communicating the utter essence of the place. Kipling’s stories also capture the dissonance of the experience of India for Westerners, even when they themselves have failed to recognize it. All his stories resonate with some aspect of Indian sensibility, but my favorite is ” The Man Who Would Be King,” which is a cautionary tale about crossing borders without really knowing the terrain. In this story, Westerners intent on using the locals’ magical thinking to their own advantage discover that more than technology separates some cultures.
Michael Yon, author of Danger Close, is an independent writer and photographer whose dispatches about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are published at his online magazine: www.michaelyon-online.com. The former Green Beret was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005 and returned to Iraq in 2007 to continue reporting on the war.p> ***** br> These Christmas Book recommendations appear in the December 2007-January 2008 issue of The American Spectator. This concludes this year’s list. For earlier installments, click here, here and here. /p>
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