As always, I'm reading like a maniac, here's what I've read so far, roughly in order.
Now in a very strange order
American Prometheus - Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Now Finished! Great read, and certainly one to inspire a myriad of ethical discussions. Oppenheimer was a flawed proud man, but he did not deserve the treatment he received at any point in his professional career.
I've had a morality story I've wanted to tell that has involved Oppenheimer for a long time, after some discussions with Joe M I realized I might not have quite the understanding of Oppenheimer I always thought I did. The book has re-enforced that idea, Oppenheimer was (initially) much less ethically guided than I had thought, and much of what I admired about his ethics seems to have developed after the Manhattan Project, rather than before it.
That said, the new information doesn't unwind the story I think I want to tell - expect something interesting on that front in the coming years.
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Not what I remembered from high school, and certainly worthy of the praise it routinely gathers. A dark meditation on exploration of space and the soul, with no happy answers. As relevant now as a century ago, and much blunter than any modern writer might dare. If you haven't encountered this book since your teenage years it is short and mandatory - I don't think a 16 year old has the life experiences necessary to understand just how deep this book goes (I certainly didn't).
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
After decades of delay I've finally started the journey down the rabbit hole of classic Russian literature. Fascinating book, steeped in the aristocratic culture of 1800's Russia. Interesting to see what is timeless in human interaction, and what comes from a specific culture/time. While Dostoevsky brings up a ton of interesting meta thought on sanity, earnestness, and the silliness of high culture, it also felt very soap opera-y. What I'm saying, I think, is that I enjoyed the book, but it hasn't stuck with me, but this often takes time. I've been recommended the lectures of Nabokov on the literature of that era, will read that in due course, and then mindlessly adapt the opinion of his.
The Prophet - Khalil Gibran Written by a Lebanese philosopher in English in the 1920's (this is what the intro tells me anyway). Very short, essentially 50 pages of well thought aphorisms on 26 topics regarding life (this is not a bad thing). Things I agree with, things I don't, things that challenge me - but lots of good thoughts to raise many good questions. Deep in the "ecstatic enjoyment of every small detail in life as a path towards religious enlightenment" sort of thought, and does not promote any specific dogma - IE, I think there is something for everyone here. If you are feeling especially happy or especially down (or if you want to feel especially happy or down), I highly recommend.
The Gift - Hafiz and Daniel Ladinsky A "translation" of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky. To be up front - I highly enjoyed this book of poetry. Silly, irreverent but deeply moving, and contains a heavy does of appreciation for the breadth of the human experience. Apparently, though, this is not so much a translation of Hafiz, but a book of poetry in English inspired by Hafiz. Not being able to read Persian, I can't comment. Searching for a good translation now.
Why am I reading a book of ancient Persian poetry? Because this guy fascinates me. His name has been coming up for years in conversations with Persian friends, and recently in random places. I did some wikipedia research, and was pleasantly surprised by the story I found - mainly in how against the grain of my preconceptions of middle eastern culture his story is. I highly suggest reading up on the man and his impact.
The Gun - C.J. Chivers
This is the story of automatic weapons, with a special concentration on the development and proliferation of the AK-47/AKM. The author makes a strong contention that this development and spread is as critical to our modern world as that of the development of the atomic bomb, and I'm now inclined to agree. A great insight into how capitalism failed the west in our weapon design during the cold war, and how the incredibly centralized nature of the Russian government at the time helped their efforts (while, I think clearly, the opposite was taking place in non-military industries). A potent lesson especially now, as our weaknesses in the military industrial complex are becoming especially visible in American warship/warplane development. This is a cold read, and discusses very little uplifting understanding of the world, but I think it is important to understand just how much of the world has changed by the introduction of automatic weapons and the power they bring to any who wield them.
What it is like to Go to War - Karl Marlantes
Written by the author of Matterhorn (which I really recommend), this is an excellent non-fiction account of the author's experience with war and its aftermath. I have not read anything so blunt since With the Old Breed, and I certainly haven't read anything on the topic so thoroughly thought out on a philosophical/spiritual level. The author shares his mental/physical experience in a brutal honest fashion, and makes a strong case that more warriors should do so - with the hope that nations will be less ready to commit themselves to "unjust" conflicts when their populous fully understands what a commitment to conflict really means. He comes from a philosophical point of view that does not believe war can be successfully abolished from human society (a belief I share), but lays the groundwork for a spiritual/philosophical understanding of combat that could prevent the worst humans have to offer. I highly recommend the book - even if you disagree with the author, it is a good challenge to any line of thought that needs to be dealt with.
Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl
Star put this one on my radar before I left, and I read it on the plane ride to Seoul. Beautiful book by a beautiful human - Frankl was a Jewish Viennese psychoanalyst in the 1930's that stayed in Europe to try and protect his parents from the Germans. He ended up spending years in one of the most brutal concentration camps Germany had to offer. From this experience, he built a stunning view of what happiness means, how to find purpose in the darkest hours of life, and how to structure a life around its individual meaning. I can't recommend this book enough for both building perspective and aligning your visions - at at 140 pages there is no excuse to not read it.
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
I've been meaning to read this one for a long time - first recommended to me by Andrew Choe after we spent the summer after junior year reading everything we could get our hands on.
Now that I've finally gone and done it - what an insane work of fiction. I really don't know where to start. Funny, genuine, dark, often all at the same time. Never have I been more glad to have the eReader dictionary (also, electronic reading made the infamous footnotes much easier to handle).
I don't know what to say, really, beyond that the novel inspires intense emotions across the board, that it is incredibly unique prose, and that it makes a strong case for eagerness in an increasingly cynical world. Very much worth the time and effort required to read it.
Girl With Curious Hair - David Foster Wallace Zehara was reading this during the Indonesia leg of travel, and when I finished Infinite Jest and needed more DFW, I read it as well. A collection of short stories, some great, some ok. Highly recommended for reading after Infinite Jest leaves you wanting more and you've already read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (big PDF), Federer as Religious Experience, and This is Water (Thanks to Katie for giving me that one a long time ago (another big PDF))
The 158 Pound Marriage - John Irving
I actually read a physical copy of this while training, lent to me by fellow Muay Thai student Jolene. Typically depressing and weird Irving, but with no real saving grace of an ending. The first of his work I've read where the narrator hates wrestling/wrestlers (John Irving frequently has narrators who wrestle in High School/college for whom the experience is a critically positive one). If you love Irving and haven't read it, go find it - if you haven't read Irving, go read The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meaney, which are just the best.
Dark Star Safari - Paul Theroux
Katie recommended this as a must read, and it was dark and fantastic. An unfiltered view of a bus/train journey from Cairo to Capetown, from an author in his late 50's that spend the late 1960's in Africa with the Peace Corp.
I've had a lot of volunteering/working with the bottom billion on the mind lately, and this work very much adjusted my view of what people should be doing to "help". He takes the view that lots of the thoughtless activism from abroad that has gone into African causes has been highly toxic - a combination of projecting western values, creating an environment of dependence, and ignoring the realities of funneling money through intensely corrupt governments has helped to weaken vast swaths of the continent. On the positive side, he has countless great experiences with locals on their own turf, people finding meaning even in their supposedly hopeless situations. Highly recommended.
Re-Reading I've quickly re-read Jitterbug Perfume (Tom Robbins) and A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole) after recommending them to others - both still all time favorites, read them!