Recommendations

Discover my recent book recommendations below, or explore the full searchable recommendations archive.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

By David Epstein

Recommended on: 23rd January 2020

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. Range has been recommended to us by a number of LHTLers, and now that we’ve finally read this marvelous book, we can see why. It lays out, in clear and convincing detail, why being a narrowly- ocused expert may seem like the way to go in your life and career—but it actually makes you less capable of creativity, not to mention more narrow-minded. As Epstein notes “I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination.”  

Key graf: “‘Eminent physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson styled it this way: we need both focused frogs and visionary birds. “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon,’ Dyson wrote in 2009. ‘They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.’ As a mathematician, Dyson labeled himself a frog, but contended, ‘It is stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper.’ The world, he wrote, is both broad and deep. “We need birds and frogs working together to explore it.’ Dyson’s concern was that science is increasingly overflowing with frogs, trained only in a narrow specialty and unable to change as science itself does.”

Epstein makes the case that even those without any advanced education can sometimes think more clearly, and make more intelligent insights about intractable problems than the so-called experts.  Read this marvelous book to discover why. (This is also a good book for audio listening.)

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Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe

By Steven Strogatz

Recommended on: 16th January 2020

Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, by Steven Strogatz. Strogatz is a wonderful writer, and Infinite Powers is a wonderful book about the beauty of calculus. But we hasten to add that you don’t need to know any calculus to enjoy Strogatz’s work. The book begins with a quip that the physicist Richard Feynman made to the novelist Herman Wouk when they were discussing the Manhattan Project. “Wouk was doing research for a big novel he hoped to write about World War II, and he went to Caltech to interview physicists who had worked on the bomb, one of whom was Feynman. After the interview, as they were parting, Feynman asked Wouk if he knew calculus. No, Wouk admitted, he didn’t. ‘You had better learn it,’ said Feynman. ‘It’s the language God talks.’”

So Wouk went on to try—and fail—to learn calculus.  Strogatz continues “It shouldn’t be necessary to endure what Herman Wouk did to learn about this landmark in human history. Calculus is one of humankind’s most inspiring collective achievements. It isn’t necessary to learn how to do calculus to appreciate it, just as it isn’t necessary to learn how to prepare fine cuisine to enjoy eating it. I’m going to try to explain everything we’ll need with the help of pictures, metaphors, and anecdotes. I’ll also walk us through some of the finest equations and proofs ever created, because how could we visit a gallery without seeing its masterpieces? As for Herman Wouk, he is 103 years old as of this writing. I don’t know if he’s learned calculus yet, but if not, this one’s for you, Mr. Wouk.”

This is a timeless book that puts all of calculus into a grand, beautifully written perspective that you’ll enjoy whether you’re a physicist or an English teacher.  Enjoy! 

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Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life

By Ozan Varol

Recommended on: 5th January 2020

Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life, by Ozan Varol. Varol really was a rocket scientist—he served as a member of the operations team for NASA’s 2003 Mars Exploration Rover project; which sent two rovers to examine the Martian surface. But, in a tribute to his wide-ranging intellect, Varol is now tenured law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School. Think Like a Rocket Scientist is a wonderful book—a sort of vade mecum of critical thinking, whether in business, learning, or life. Varol has an unparalleled ability to weave together the brilliant thoughts of others into a coherent narrative that is greater than the sum of its parts.  A counterintuitive thinker, Varol often surprises: you’ll learn about how to act under conditions of uncertainty; how to think big, but carefully; how moving fast and breaking things doesn’t work well for rocket science or many other situations; how success can cause failure, and many other mental frameworks and strategies. We particularly like Varol’s quote from T. H. White: “The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” Think Like a Rocket Scientist is a book to savor. Those who pre-order the book can get digital access to it within 7 days through a service called Netgalley. That means they can start reading it now, months before the book is released to the public. Pre-orders also come with the bonuses listed on this page. All you have to do is forward your receipt to rocket@ozanvarol.com

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No One Cares About Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America

By Ron Powers

Recommended on: 2nd January 2020

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers. Both of Powers’ sons were afflicted with schizophrenia, which fueled his desire to begin sorting out and writing about why there is such chaos in the US regarding treatment for those who clearly cannot care for themselves.  The essence of the problem lies with lies anosognosia, which, as Powers writes, is “the false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind. It stems from a physiological by-product of psychosis, and accompanies about 50 percent of schizophrenia occurrences and 40 percent of bipolar cases. Anosognosia disrupts the parietal lobe’s capacity to interpret sensory information from around the body.” No One Cares details how virtually every ideology—left, right, and libertarian—has contributed to the disastrous set of policies for mental health that have increasingly unleashed heartbreak and chaos both for US families caring for the mentally ill, and US society as a whole.  (It’s interesting to watch, however, as Powers attributes simple lack of knowledge as underlying the mistakes of his favored party, but outright malevolence as causing the mistakes of the party he dislikes. A more dispassionate observer might draw very different conclusions.) A worthwhile book on a vitally important, but all-too-neglected problem. Also good for audio listening.

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As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

By Cary Elwes

Recommended on: 26th December 2019

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes. We’ve long been fans of the cult-classic movie The Princess Bride. After reading As You Wish, we had to watch the movie yet again, this time to observe where Westley gives a slight hobble (a result of breaking his toe while romping offset with André the Giant), and to once more enjoy such classic lines as “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!” The Princess Bride has a low key humor that creeps up on you instead of smacking you in the face—all this makes it one of the nicest holiday films around to enjoy with the family, even as you can regale the family with anecdotes of movie-making from Cary Elwes’ wonderful As You Wish. Enjoy!

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The Gift Inside the Box

By Adam Grant

Recommended on: 18th December 2019

The Gift Inside the Box, by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, illustrated by Diana Schoenbrun.

Adam Grant wrote one of our very favorite books, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (which also discusses Barb’s work on Pathological Altruism.) Adam and his wife Allison have been looking for ways to help teach kids about the joy of giving. The result? The sweet-natured children’s book The Gift Inside the Box. If you’re looking for something to read together with your little one to help inspire an attitude of giving, this simple little book is a great gift.

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Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

By Ronan Farrow

Recommended on: 6th December 2019

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, by Ronan Farrow.  We’ve long been interested in the “successfully sinister” among us. These individuals can become so powerful that they can get away with virtually anything—that’s how they can destroy so many lives. Ronan Farrow is to be commended for pursuing the story of Harvey Weinstein and others of his ilk, despite the threats and imminent personal danger that put off so many for so long. Catch and Kill might as well be a thriller—we’ve become huge fans of Ronan and his fearless ability to uncover behavior of those who can feign doing good while doing so much harm.

The successfully sinister are the subject of Barb’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. For six years, while overtly working towards tenure as an assistant professor of engineering, she covertly delved into an analysis of the holes and flaws of the field of psychology. She remembers thinking “Why am I even doing this? Nobody’s going to read a book that’s focused on psychology, but written by an engineer.” Ultimately, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker called Evil Genes “A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail.” 

As one correspondent recently wrote Barb, “Reading your outstanding book [Evil Genes] today…. I work with organizational behavior, reading a lot recently about narcissism. Everything I just learned is in your book. From my work with others and most recent personal experience of aggression directed at me and accepted by a Board, I asked myself that questions that you did years ago to write your book. Seems like the Me Too movement exposes this everyday behavior…”

Yes, the Me Too movement does expose this type of behavior, which, sadly, is equal opportunity and can be found in women as well as men.  The hypocrisy of news organizations like NBC reporting on sexual abuse in organizations such as the church, while killing stories that might incidentally be related to their own sordid abuses, or the horrific behavior of their favored people or politicians, is a perfect example of Conquest’s third law of politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Sadly, we feel Conquest’s insight is relevant to the field of education.

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The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss

By Jason Fung

Recommended on: 27th November 2019

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss, by Jason Fung. We’ve met several friends lately who have shifted to eating only one meal a day—whatever they want during that meal—and have successfully lost, and kept off, dozens of pounds. One friend finally clued us into The Obesity Code, which has helped them a great deal to provide a good background and framework for this type of semi-fasting lifestyle.  We have to say, after a month’s tryout, we’re finding this lifestyle has done a lot for helping keep us alert, even while we still enjoy our meals and knock off a few pounds.  The Obesity Code is a wonderfully thoughtful book—if you are having trouble with losing pounds that creep back, even while you’re trying to keep your cognition in tip-top shape, give this approach a try.  It works great except on days where Barb’s giving major presentations and can’t eat until late. If you’re in a hurry, just read the final chapters on how to set up this lifestyle.

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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Recommended on: 18th November 2019

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This extraordinarily well-researched volume reveals what can happen when a vicious, brutal, but charming-whenever-necessary killer climbs to power in a system that has nothing by way of checks and balances. Even Churchill—no fool when it came to Hitler’s intentions, was wowed by Stalin—a man who enjoyed the mental as well as physical torture of all who opposed him. Montefiore describes the strange family and public life of a man who led one of history’s greatest democides. It’s hard to convey just how difficult life was for anyone who thought independently, or even anyone who made a simple joke, in Stalin’s time—Montefiore does an outstanding job at this virtually indescribable task. An extraordinary book.

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Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

By Michael Erard

Recommended on: 10th November 2019

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard.  For years, Barb has thought she would like to write a book about language superlearners. Babel No More is what she had in mind. This fascinating book begins with the story of legendary linguist Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the Italian cardinal who was said to speak 72 languages. It goes on to share dozens of interesting language learning tidbits. Although in 2012 (when this book was published), neuroimaging techniques weren’t as advanced as they are today, Erard does a fine job of exploring how the brain of language superlearners might be different from those of more ordinary learners.  Interestingly, “..individuals living in multilingual communities seem to settle on an optimal cognitive load. The hyperpolyglot possesses a similar patchwork of linguistic proficiencies. Yet he or she exceeds this optimum with a conspicuous consumption of brainpower.” 

We particularly liked learning how the common mentality that you only speak a language if you are a native or near-native speaker is actually not a reasonable measure. “[People think] that when you really know a language, you think in it. In fact, the brain doesn’t think in any language. What people refer to as ‘thinking in a language’ comes from being able to speak more immediately in a language without rehearsing it or translating it from a language one might know better; the spoken thought feels as if it’s closer to its source in the brain.”

If you’re interested in language-learning, and want some inspiration, you’ll find it here in this book.

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Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

By Luke Dittrich

Recommended on: 7th November 2019

Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, by Luke Dittrich.  H.M., that is, Henry Molaison, rivals only Phineas Gage as one of the world’s most famous brain patients.  As it turns out, Dittrich’s grandfather, neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville, performed the notorious surgery that removed Molaison’s hippocampuses and helped spur extraordinary bodies of research on memory. Dittrich’s family history means he has an unparalleled perspective to share on what actually happened to Molaison and what type of man Scoville actually was (hint—there are many dark secrets). This can sometimes be a bit graphic about what can happen during brain surgery, as well as what happens when people undertake to do experiments on people, but its final revelations are astonishing.

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Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

By Robert Preston

Recommended on: 30th October 2019

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Robert Preston. We’ve been fans of Robert Preston ever since his gripping New York Times best-seller The Hot Zone first came out. Crisis in the Red Zone focuses on Ebola—Preston traces its origin back to a little boy playing in the forest, probably touching a bat. Ebola got its initial foothold in humanity largely because of lack of education—most people simply couldn’t believe that the love and care that is at the heart of our humanity is what allows the contagion to take place. The bravery of the nurses and doctors on the front lines of this epidemic, and the potential danger to humanity of these types of diseases, is something everyone should know more about.  Don’t miss this edge-of-your-seat thriller.

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Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

By Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S.

Recommended on: 21st October 2019

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S. If we had to select a single book to recommend to instructors of any kind, it would be this masterpiece—the best book on teaching that we’ve ever read.  

In Powerful Teaching, Agarwal and Bain provide a tour de force of practical ideas and explanations involving retrieval practice, explaining how this vital topic is related to concepts such as interleaving, deliberate practice, formative assessments. 

Retrieval practice is so much deeper than simple memorization: As Powerful Teaching notes: “we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. On the contrary, one of the most robust findings from cognitive science research is the importance of getting information out of students’ heads. Based on a century of research, in order to transform learning, we must focus on getting information out – a strategy called retrieval practice.”  

If you are a K-12 teacher or university instructor, or a parent, don’t miss this teaching book for the ages. Think retrieval practice is only for plebeian facts? Think again—as Agarwal and Bain note: “When it comes to retrieval practice, how far up the pyramid can we move student learning? If we want students to think on a higher-order level, then we should make sure our retrieval questions are basic and higher-order. It’s shortsighted to think, ‘Gee, well, if I have students retrieve a vocabulary word, they should be able to apply this in a higher-order example or a higher-order type of material.’ Based on research, provide a mix of fact-based retrieval and higher-order retrieval if that’s the type of learning you want to see in your students.” 

Part of what we love about this book is the simplicity of its explanations—not only is it well-researched, it’s elegantly written. Looking for a Christmas present for a parent or teacher friend, or for yourself? This is it.

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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham

Recommended on: 16th October 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham. This extraordinary book tells of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster—but it is also a powerful testament to how governmental propaganda and secrecy can cause these types of global-scale disasters to unfold. 

The surprisingly positive upshot of the disaster is that far safer nuclear power is being developed.  As Higginbotham notes: “Less than a month before the explosion of [Chernobyl] Reactor Number Four in 1986, a team of nuclear engineers at Argonne National Laboratory–West in Idaho had quietly succeeded in demonstrating that … the integral fast reactor … was safe even under the circumstances that destroyed Three Mile Island 2 and would prove disastrous at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), an even more advanced concept developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is fueled by thorium. More plentiful and far harder to process into bomb-making material than uranium, thorium also burns more efficiently in a reactor and could produce less hazardous radioactive waste with half-lives of hundreds, not tens of thousands, of years. Running at atmospheric pressure, and without ever reaching a criticality, the LFTR doesn’t require a massive containment building to guard against loss-of-coolant accidents or explosions and can be constructed on such a compact scale that every steel mill or small town could have its own microreactor tucked away underground. In 2015 Microsoft founder Bill Gates had begun funding research projects similar to these fourth-generation reactors in a quest to create a carbon-neutral power source for the future. By then, the Chinese government had already set seven hundred scientists on a crash program to build the world’s first industrial thorium reactor as part of a war on pollution. ‘The problem of coal has become clear,’ the engineering director of the project said. ‘Nuclear power provides the only solution.’” [Hat tip: Mary O’Dea] 

We read Midnight in Chernobyl in conjunction with watching the HBO documentary Chernobyl.  Television doesn’t get better than this.

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The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

By Niall Ferguson

Recommended on: 5th October 2019

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson.  One experience that struck Barb when she worked as a translator on Soviet trawlers was just how easy it was to convince people to go along with certain ideas, no matter how bizarre they might be. Once you get enough people thinking in the same way, that’s enough to get them to blithely hurdle themselves, lemming-like, off a societal cliff.  

Ferguson’s book is a prescient reminder of how countries get themselves into terrible trouble when society turns a blind eye to profligate overspending. In 2010, Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Jennifer Dorn, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Public Administration, jointly wrote: “Much is at stake. If we as a nation do not grapple promptly and wisely with the changes needed to put the federal budget on a sustainable course, all of us will find that the public goals we most value are at risk.” (See also Pathological Altruism and “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism.”)

Ferguson’s book gives an overview of a future that could still be changed through the will of a well-educated populace.

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Marie Antoinette: The Journey

By Antonia Fraser

Recommended on: 28th September 2019

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. We’re used to reading history books about compelling, intelligent men and women like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Queen Isabella of Spain. We’re not-so-used-to reading books about apparent intellectual lightweights. And indeed, Marie Antoinette started her life as a coddled royal who successfully eluded attempts to, for example, teach her how to read. But despite her love of frivolity, Marie Antoinette had a great and good heart—you’d be hard put to find a woman who could face the worst and remain brave until the end.  Her ultimate, raw intelligence in front of the jury, with its pre-ordained verdict of guilt, is heartrending. This is the story of how dangerous “fake news” mobs—as easy to lead then as they are now—put Marie Antoinette under the guillotine. A spell-binding read.

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Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career

By Matthew J. Louis

Recommended on: 22nd September 2019

Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career, by Matthew J. Louis. This book is a special treat for those in the military, and military veterans. Nearly a quarter-million leave the service each year, but transitioning to civilian life can be a challenge—as Barb knows, having shifted out of the Army to begin her engineering studies as a civilian. As the book cover notes: “Mission Transition is a practical guide to career change for service members considering leaving active duty. It attempts to address this primary question: How can transitioning veterans realize their full potential by avoiding false starts and suboptimal career choices following active duty? The book has been endorsed by Generals, Astronauts, Super Bowl winners, members of Congress, and best-selling authors.” We’re all in accord that this is an extraordinarily useful book!

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Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

By Cal Newport

Recommended on: 15th September 2019

How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, Cal Newport.  Oliver from Switzerland (see his inspiring email below) recommended Cal Newport’s book on studying—this book launched Cal’s authorial career.  We’ve actually read Cal’s book twice over the years. It’s a sound, common-sensical guide not only on how to study, but how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of study advice from well-intentioned “experts” who don’t think things through, such as giving a detailed 12-step process for reading a chapter (including coming up with 20 questions) and studying till 10pm every night, including on the biggest party nights of them all: Friday. In fact, one of the points we most appreciated about Cal’s book is his advice to set a strict quitting time each day. We’ve tried to keep to the approach each day, although we suppose it also depends on what’s meant by “quitting.” For us, that usually means diving into a book!  Also, don’t miss Cal’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

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The Grapes of Math

By Greg Tang

Recommended on: 9th September 2019

The Grapes of Math, by Greg Tang. We’ve recently become aware of Greg’s work as a math educator. He came about his calling through a circuitous path—first earning a B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics from Harvard, and later an M.A. degree in Math Education from New York University. Greg is certified as a middle and high school math teacher. His books, including the Grapes of MathMath-terpieces, the Best of Times, and many more, are cleverly designed to allow young people to learn and become excited about math, and to learn how to problem-solve in creative ways.  Enjoy!

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The Wrong Kind of Muslim

By Qazim Rashid

Recommended on: 31st August 2019

The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution & Perseverance, by Qazim Rashid. This is a soul-searching book about one man’s attempt to discover why people would want to die for their faith. Not in the sense of being suicide bombers, but exactly the opposite: How can one be willing to stand fast for one’s beliefs even when faced with torture or death?  Qazim is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is deeply persecuted as heretical within Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Qazim notes the Prophet Muhammad’s words that “Faith is a restraint against all violence, let no believer commit violence.” He also notes that “Islam champions universal freedom of conscience for all people of all faiths, and for all people of no faith.”  Unfortunately, as Qazim relates, pointing out these kinds of ideas nowadays, in certain places, does indeed make him The Wrong Kind of Muslim

This book describes little known facts such as how the first Pakistani and first Muslim to be awarded the Nobel Prize in the sciences, Abdus Salam, was disavowed by his own country for being an Ahmadi Muslim. A real eye-opener about what can happen when discrimination becomes law.

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