Having successfully avoided every year-end recap on television, print, and online, I am required to be a hypocrite and hand you my own. This is not a list of the best books published in 2011, this is my own personal list of books that will transform you into a better companion at the bading pools of your local Korean spa. High pressured jets of water emerge from cracks in the walls, massaging your neck, as you stand naked next to unknown neighbors doing the same. Conversations just don't operate in the same orderly manner as an Irish pub. How do you open up a conversation with someone when one accidental bump pushes an enlarged prostate into the palm of your hand? With this everyday problem in mind, I give you my list of 5 books that will nudge your lobes into new, powerful terrritory.
Get Existential. How does one cope with the boredom of daily life? A primal existential issue of modern humanity right up there with death, meaninglessness, and free will. DFW's posthumous masterpiece. Keep in mind that this is an unfinished early draft that his editor scraped together from pages littering the office. After many painful attempts, he abandoned trying to figure out the order of DFW's non-linear chapters. A brilliant, flawed, gutsy, sad final gift. And damn, you simply have to read about "fact psychics."
The fact psychic lives part-time in the world of fractious, boiling minutiae that no one knows or could be bothered to know even if they had the chance to know. The population of Brunei. The difference between mucus and sputum. How long a piece of gum has resided on the underside of the third-row fourth-from-left-seat of the Virginia Theater, Cranston, RI, but not who put it there or why. Impossible to predict what facts will intrude. Constant headaches.
To avoid this book is to reject the beauty of mental machinery.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Embrace Horrid Topics. How anyone can write a ~300 page book on running that is entertaining is beyond me. Tie some sneakers, move, and then list it as one of your interests on facebook. Yet, there are superhuman creatures in the same vein as Michael Jordan and Pele (minus the fame and money) who await your discovery.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
Flip Colloquial Phrases. Kids who don't develop insomnia after an ice cream scoop falls to the ground are resilient. Everyone is resilient. This word has been overused to the point of being useless. Read this non-fiction story and learn what resilient means. You will only be able to read this book in chunks because what Louie goes through as a rebellious kid, Olympic runner, WWII pilot, plane wreck survivor, POW in Japan, and combat veteran trying to re-enter civilian life is going to pull for emotions that don't even exist. His story offers a window into what certain human beings can endure and why some people survive and others don't.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Find Heroes that History Forgot. Add John Harrison to the list of neglected geniuses. With no formal higher education and a blue-collar background, he solved the most perplexing scientific/maritime/commerce problem of 200+ years. In a brief 175 pages, expect to be mesmerized by a topic that you probably never spent more than 30 minutes of your life thinking about- how do you reliably measure longitude and why bother? There is a thriller built into the story of how sexual jealousy, rigid thinking, and an old boys network almost stole brilliance. Dava Sobel is a woman who knows how to write and is on the path for every writing award in existence. Another compelling story about a seemingly tedious topic.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
Evil > Smooth Jazz. Even if you have read several books about Hitler and the Third Reich, this book offers an original perspective. What was it like to attempt an ordinary life in Berlin in the half a decade prior to WWII? How did people respond to the slow, steady, systematic decline in civilization? We all know the ending and that makes the escalating tension even more terrifying. Larson is at his best presenting historical facts in chronological order, using sporadic quotes from the main characters. Gain perspective on how people's views changed or failed to changed as one horrific event led to another. On a side note, I relished Larkson's coda of how working on this book affected him in unpleasant ways. I felt the same and all I did was spend a few hours on my buttery leather reading chair.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
There are dozens of other books that I could have picked but I have to get a headstart on this year's reading list. Forget the early rapport and move to soul sucking, lobe munching conversation with your naked compatriots. Don't forget to write comments about what you think of the books above. And if you read The Pale King, I'll search for you in local spas.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees, and health professionals on well-being. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to toddkashdan.com