Islam: Past, Present and Future, by Hans Küng (Oneworld Publications). Hans Küng's deep and thoughtful Islam: Past, Present and Future completes the trilogy he started with his books on Christianity and Judaism. Küng, arguably the world's leading Christian theologian, believes that both Christians and Jews can find considerable common ground with Muslims and that a religious dialogue is a must. This is the definitive Western source on Islamic theology and how Islamic doctrine was shaped by the history of the Middle East. Küng speaks against the idea that different religions' civilizations must clash, but he is not uncritical of Islam; he also offers reasons why a Christian should not accept every element of Islamic doctrine.— T.C.
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, by Christine Kenneally (Viking). In her compelling book The First Word, Christine Kenneally explores how and why we are able to talk. Examining the issue from an evolutionary perspective, she reminds us that researchers interested in this question once had to break free of influential linguist Noam Chomsky, who thought answering it was a waste of time. (Chomskyans tended to emphasize the uniqueness of language, setting it apart from other human cognitive abilities as well as from adaptations in animals.) Over the past 20 years, however, a messy, thriving field dedicated to tracing the origins of language has developed, with contributions from scholars of linguistics, neuroscience, and genetics, among other fields. Many researchers now agree that language can be fruitfully studied in relation to other human and animal phenomena. Kenneally describes research, for instance, on the vocalization and gesturing of nonhuman primates, the neuroanatomy of apes, and the genes of mice and songbirds to suggest that language evolved piecemeal, over many, many years. Kenneally also presses researchers to extrapolate on their views: "If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galápagos Islands," she cleverly asks them, "would they produce language in any form when they grew up?" (Answers include no and yes and every shade in between.) The book's wit and sophistication will appeal to anyone interested in talking about talk.— Amanda Schaffer
Around the World on a Bicycle, by Thomas Stevens (Stackpole Books). My favorite thing I've read recently is Thomas Stevens' epic two-volume account of his bicycle journey across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Around the World on a Bicycle, originally published 120 years ago and reissued in a single softbound edition the size of a cinder block. The book offers pleasures not found in contemporary travel literature, chiefly, some serious derring-do. Stevens fought off attack dogs in Angora using his pennyfarthing's big front wheel as a shield, biked through blinding snowstorms in Persia, faced down sword-brandishing Kurdish bandits, and fled mobs in cities throughout Central Asia, adventures which Stevens recounts in a hilarious High Victorian deadpan. ("For the first time in China I have to appeal to my Smith & Wesson in the interests of peace.") The book brims with the prejudices typical of an Englishman of the time, but the writing is brisk, occasionally lyrical, and filled with passionate praise songs to the bicycle, then a cutting-edge machine. But Stevens was not averse to older transportation technology: His subsequent travel memoir—my big summer beach read, if I can find a copy on eBay—was titled Through Russia on a Mustang.— Jody Rosen