On the 1st of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!

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#5: Godel’s Proof, Newman & Nagel – 1958

The first selection this month is a bit more theoretical than most – James R. Newman and Ernest Nagel’s 1958 overview of one of the grandest mathematical achievements of the 20th century: Godel’s incompleteness theorem.

Godel's ProofGodel’s work, itself published in 1931, was in response to a growing trend amongst mathematicians to find a deterministic, simple, and all-encompassing foundation for the mathematical world. A sort of ‘Grand Theory to Explain Everything’ mindset, one that was hardly contained to just mathematics in the early 20th century.

Godel came along and, in a single academic paper, yanked the rug out from that body of thought. In a (rough) nutshell, Godel demonstrated that no axiomatic (i.e., rule-following) system could possibly account for all the truths of arithmetic within that system. In a different sort of nutshell, consider the mind-benders we’ve all heard that center on someone saying something like, “This sentence is not true.” If the sentence is true, then it must not be true (because that’s what the sentence says). But if it’s not true, then it is true. And so our minds spin off to infinity.

Well, Godel essentially demonstrated that any axiomatic system of arithmetic math can be twisted and poked to ‘say’ just such a self-contradicting statement.

And Newman and Nagel walk you through how the heck he did that, in a way that a layperson can understand. Godel’s actual paper, a layperson could not understand. It’s hard for professional mathematicians to understand. I gave it a shot once, and was thankful for the newfound humility it offered me. 

Thank goodness for folks like Newman and Nagel – unleashing the excitement and wonder of otherwise incomprehensible mathematics!

If you like having your mind seriously bent, give this one a read!

#4: Then Came You, Jennifer Weiner – 2011

If Godel taught me a new chapter of intellectual humility, Weiner taught me the lesson of not judging a book by its cover.

Then Came YouWith foil printing and a hip coffee- and ipod-including picture on the cover, I thought this one was going to be a cheesy and predictable novel. I laughed when one of the narrators inside makes a snide remark about empty-calorie novels with foil printing on the cover. Can’t help thinking that Weiner is poking a little self-aware fun at herself and her reader.

Then Came You tells the intertwining stories of four women: Bettina, a multimillionaire’s skeptical daughter; India, the new romantic interest of Bettina’s divorce father; Jules, a college student offered a lucrative deal for donating eggs; and Annie, a mother of two considering being a surrogate to make some extra money.

Weiner crafts her characters with a keen eye and understanding sentiment. A book with multiple narrators can sometimes struggle to find a balance between creating indistinct narrative voices that all blend together, and exaggerating distinctions to the point of creating overly two-dimensional voices.

Weiner avoids these pitfalls, instead giving us four personally distinct and believable narrators, whose emotions and trials we’re quick to sympathize with. 

Then Came You examines the idea of motherhood, and what ‘family’ really means in the 21st century; along the way it touches on issues of bioethics, gender relations, love, trust, and fidelity.

For a light, enjoyable read, Then Came You is a great choice.

#3: The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath – 1963

Sylvia Plath’s one and only novel, The Bell Jar remains one of the most poignant and raw novels of the 20th century.

The Bell JarIn it, we delve with Plath into the life of Esther, a college student who’s won a scholarship to intern for a summer with an esteemed magazine in New York City. Transitioning into adulthood and womanhood, Esther faces an emotional and psychological crisis as she attempts to make sense of the world and people around her – and find her own place therein.

The Bell Jar is a moving example of existential literature, and is one of the few novels to focus its gaze on the existential crisis particular to women in 20th-century America. It reminds me of Camus’s writing, if perhaps he’d written with emotional realism rather than mythological strokes. Plath explores what it means to be a person, the crisis of choice, gender relations, individuality, sanity, and normativity.

The book also happens to include some of the most emotionally resonant images and scenes that literature has to offer – the fig tree comes to mind in particular, for anyone who recalls it.

The Bell Jar is one of those books that many of us have read sometime in the past, whether in school or out – and it also happens to be one of those books always worth another read!

#2: Homicide, David Simon – 1991

Homicide is a true-crime novelization of author David Simon’s year spent shadowing the Homicide Unit of the Baltimore Police Department. In it, we follow the drama, development, and trials (figuratively and literally) of Baltimore’s finest detectives.

HomicideThough hailed by all involved for its true-to-life accuracy and verbatim depiction, Homicide reads like a gripping, intricate, and psychologically powerful novel. Of Russian-novel proportions – the big is long, yet never feels dragging or bloated.

Simon paints his characters with emotional poignancy; we quickly feel as though we know these guys inside and out (as Simon himself came to, in real life). Their personalities bleed through the pages, and their challenges and journeys – emotional, psychological, and physical – become our own. 

One detective, I immediately pictured vividly as Wilhem Dafoe. Go figure. I’d say they should get him to play Landsman if they ever make Homicide into a movie, but it’s already been turned into a widely acclaimed HBO series, The Wire – and while I hear it’s pretty incredible, they seem to have somehow missed out on casting Dafoe. Alas.

True-life novelizations can sometimes struggle to create a strong narrative faithful to reality, either depicting seemingly disconnected events that don’t cohere into a single story, or embellishing and twisting the facts to craft an artificially simple storyline. Simon, though, seems to have a natural eye for seeing – and showing us – the forest through the trees. 

An engrossing and emotive read – check it out!

#1: The Phenomenon of Man, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – 1955

The Phenomenon of Man is the pinnacle work of philospher, paleontologist, and Jesuit priest Perre Teilhard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man lays out Teilhard’s assertion that, through evolution, the universe is transforming itself into greater complexity of consciousness, and that humanity is a pivotal point on the path towards an all-encompassing world consciousness – the Omega Point.

Le_Phénomène_HumainThis book is, to me, one of the most powerful philosophical works of the last century. Teilhard’s notion of the Omega Point of consciousness is mind-bending in itself, and even more so when one considers it in the internet-immersed world of today. The perspective of consciousness that Teilhard lays out is transformative in its scope, and its consequences resound beyond course Teilhard takes. These ideas engender new perspectives on ethics, individuality, community, value, compassion, and more.

Although The Phenomenon of Man is written for the masses (meaning it doesn’t require a working familiarity with centuries of philosophy, like many philosophical texts do), it’s not the quickest or lightest of reads. The first time I read it, I did so spaced out over a few months. This is definitely a book to take your time with, and give yourself the space to digest it.

Although the Catholic church was not initially overly supportive of Teilhard’s ideas (Teilhard the Jesuit priest, mind), there have increasingly been sympathetic and supportive voices in the last couple decades. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI commented on part of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, remarking: “It’s the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: at the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. Let’s pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense, to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves.

Whatever you take away from it, The Phenomenon of Man is an incredible book, one to transform your view of the world. Grab a copy, and enjoy!

Have you read any of these books before?

Will you be picking up any to read this month?

Join the discussion in the comments, and share your thoughts on these picks!

Daniel Klayton

Author Daniel Klayton is a poet and writer – as well as a lifelong student of philosophy, and a man of peace. Learn more about Daniel at his artist page!

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out his latest collection of poetry, Elemental Sonnets.

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