Category Archives: Books

Book recommendation: His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It’s a delightful series which presents a humanistic worldview, so I thought I’d write a quick recommendation for it here. (Readers unfamiliar with the trilogy may know the title of its first book, The Golden Compass, which was also made into a movie in 2007. The movie didn’t impress me, but the books did!)

The Golden CompassThe story is set in a parallel universe similar to our Victorian England. In this world, humans have animal companions called daemons – sentient creatures that go wherever their humans go, and are inextricably linked to them. There are differences between children’s and adult’s daemons; the daemon of a child can change shape at will, but then settles into one particular form as the child reaches adolescence. The main character of the story is Lyra, a parentless child who has been raised and educated by Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. When she finds out that all over the country children of low-status families are being abducted, including one of Lyra’s friends from Oxford, she becomes involved in a quest to save them. Along the way, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle that permeates the universe, called Dust, which may have something to do with the difference between children’s and adults’ daemons. Lyra and her allies also come into conflict with a powerful church called The Magisterium, that wants to destroy Dust and obscure the truth about it.

Though His Dark Materials contains adventures and battles and interesting worlds galore, ultimately the story sends a message about the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of inquiry. There is a scene near the end where the heroes are told by one wise character to never stop learning, and to keep their minds “open and free and curious.” What’s not to love about that?

Something, apparently – as there has been a good deal of controversy about the books and the movie. A number of Christian groups and representatives for the Catholic Church have called the story “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” An archbishop in New Orleans wrote that the trilogy poses a “special threat to Christianity”! That’s quite the review, if three books can undo what two thousand years of history hasn’t.

I must say I don’t quite understand the protest. While the Magisterium in Pullman’s books bears a number of superficial similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, the reason they are portrayed as the “enemy” is because they want to keep people ignorant. The Magisterium opposes the values of thinking for oneself and making one’s own decisions, and the heroes of Pullman’s story don’t take kindly to that. Is this message inimical to the Christian religion or to the Catholic Church? I’d say it’s up to them to decide. But so far, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In 2007 when The Golden Compass movie was about to be released, a bishop in Austin had the books removed from every Catholic school in the diocese. If the Catholic response to books that encourage thinking for oneself is to ban them, then I would say they’ve conceded Pullman’s point rather nicely.

PS: Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of His Dark Materials way back in 2002. Readers may want to check it out, as it’s always a delight to read anything by Hitchens. But beware – it does include spoilers!


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Filed under Books, Catholic Church, Freethought, Humanism

The Kindle Touch saves Tim from a mountain of books

I have purchased a Kindle Touch! I have already breezed through one book using it, and am looking forward to starting several more.

I think the Touch is really going to have a big effect on my reading habits. Unconsciously, I think I’ve been avoiding buying new books partially because I’m opposed to the accumulation of stuff. I love having books, but I also hate the idea of needing a place to keep them, and having to transport them when I move to new locations. The Kindle takes care of all that. Granted, the Kindle isn’t good for when you have to flip around inside a book to reference parts you read previously, and books that are heavy on graphics become difficult to read as well. As such, I probably won’t read Steven Pinker’s new tome, The Better Angles of our Nature, on my Kindle. But I do foresee myself doing a lot more reading due to the convenience of it, and that makes me happy.

What technology has improved your life lately?


Filed under Books, Technology

We should always be free to ask questions

A recent post at the Friendly Atheist mentions what looks like an interesting book.  Christian blogger Anne Jackson asked readers to respond to the question, “What is one thing you feel you can’t say in church?” She published the responses in book form, and the excerpts over at the Friendly Atheist seem to confirm what many people already know – there are some questions it’s not okay to ask in church. For example:

My brother is gay and a Christian. I don’t feel that I can talk about it in church.

If homosexuality is a moral wrong, as many Christians will claim, it should not be difficult to explain why. And yet, Andy apparently doesn’t feel comfortable asking for that explanation in his church. Could it be that questions on such matters are not welcomed?

We should always be free to ask questions. Life is a search for knowledge – to be able to conduct that search honestly is a basic human right.


Filed under Books, Freethought, Human Rights, Religion

New book on bird evolution

Well, it’s new to me anyway.

Brazilian Tanager

Brazilian Tanager

I was at Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, browsing their section on birds. I used to be into birdwatching when I was younger, and I still get excited about seeing new birds whenever I travel someplace new.

I was thinking recently that I would love to know more about bird evolution. Normally a trip to the bookstore wouldn’t yield much on that subject, but that’s why I love Labyrinth – they carry lots of academic and esoteric books that you would normally have to send away for. Much to my delight, they had several books on bird evolution, and I chose The Origin and Evolution of Birds, by Alan Feduccia.

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

I am really excited to read this, so much so that I’ve included in this post some pictures of birds that I took on my recent trip to Rio. I’m also a little bit disappointed to have learned from an Amazon review of the book that Feduccia doesn’t subscribe to the now commonly-accepted view of birds as having descended from theropod dinosaurs… but oh well. I guess I’ll learn more about a competing theory to start.

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Filed under Books, Evolution