By the Book: Alan Lightman, the Physicist Who Craves Books on Philosophy

By the Book: Alan Lightman, the Physicist Who Craves Books on Philosophy

In David Kertzer’s magnificent history of Mussolini and Pope Pius XII during World War II, “The Pope at War,” I learned that Mussolini, who was no friend of the church, ordered many thousands of church bells confiscated in order to be melted down for war munitions.

As a scientist, it would be natural for me to say the subject of science, but there are already many wonderful books about science. I wish more authors would write about philosophy in an accessible and meaningful way, as does the writer Rebecca Goldstein.

Our lives are so brief, and in those few years there’s only a limited amount we can see and experience. Great works of literature can partly compensate for these limitations by allowing us to travel to different places and times in our minds. I am moved by those mental adventures in a book. I also love complex and troubled characters, and difficult moral situations. Of course, I always appreciate good dialogue, which is so hard to write, and skillful scene setting.

I organize my books by fiction and nonfiction. The fiction books I arrange by author, and the nonfiction by subject matter. There are about 20 books that I cannot do without, and whenever I go somewhere for more than a month, I try to take them with me if possible. These books keep me company. They remind me of places and experiences I’ve had in my mind. Some of these essential books are: “Mrs. Dalloway,” by Virginia Woolf, “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez, “The Periodic Table,” by Primo Levi, “Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino, “The Character of Physical Law,” by Richard Feynman, “The Blue Flower,” by Penelope Fitzgerald, “The Trial,” by Franz Kafka.

“The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” by Sogyal Rinpoche. Although I do not believe in rebirth, I have come to admire many of the elements of Buddhism, such as being present in the moment, accepting the impermanence of existence, and being able to observe the world and your own behavior from outside of yourself, in a humble and egoless manner. My wife meditates every day and has introduced me to Buddhism. Our house is littered with books on the subject.

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