There is a moral imperative to write an end of year summary about something, anything to be part of the cool crowd of the media. Allow me to deviate slightly from the prototypical list of best books in 2010. As someone who studies emotions, let me give you my favorite readings from this year for evoking particular mental states. Decide what emotional state you want to feel and then choose from the list below. Most of the time, we want to up-regulate positive feelings and down-regulate negative feelings. But some of us are more flexible and understand that negative feelings are often useful to tap into.
Please note that these are the books that I read in 2010, many of them were published in prior years. My aim is to help you navigate the tyranny of choices when it comes to finding the perfect book to elicit the right mindset for the right time in your life.
To Feel Inspired- Not by Chance Alone. This is an autobiography by Dr. Elliot Aronson, one of the greatest psychologists in the 20th century. He arose from poverty and tragedy, and he overcame excruciating shyness to try to change the world. In many ways, he did. Social psychology was his weapon to reduce racism and then later, battling the evils of a politically correct culture (among other profound insights that he uncovered with his work). Be warned, this will be an emotionally intense journey. Before finishing, you will be motivated to do something profound for humanity.
To Feel Contempt- Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. Before reading this book, I never heard of Dr. John Brinkley. That in itself is terrifying in light of his ability to make millions off the most bizarre and unsubstantiated ideas in the twentieth century (which is saying a lot). Someone has to turn this into a movie because it is incredible that the stories in this book are true. Learn some overlooked, weird aspects of history within a cat-and-mouse game between a real doctor obsessed with truth and a fake doctor obsessed with money and prestige (regardless of how many people died in his hands). If you want to understand the dark side of the self-help market and pseudoscience, read no further.
To Feel Anxious and Grateful- Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Some of the best psychologists are writers. You will be hard pressed to find a non-fiction book that does a better job of capturing the tension and confusion of being in combat.A unique perspective of what our warriors go through and how they can never be expected to be the same afterward. Expect to cringe from the explicit details of their physical and social pain. Never take veterans for granted again.
To Feel Awe- The Sparrow (and the sequel, Children of God). How do you create a series of books that masterfully merge science fiction, splatterpunk horror, philosophy, and an emotional love story that runs the gamut from romance and friendship to religion? Do not run when I tell you that this series is about Jesuit priests in space on the search for God. Do not run when I tell you that this series is about how religion and belief in God does not offer any guarantees about living the good life (this point is brought home with explicit sexuality and violence). These books address the moral complexities of what to do when entering a new society in complete ignorance - when innocent, small actions can lead to devastating consequences (the butterfly effect). There are enough plot twists and moral perspectives to cause you to forgo eating and trips to the bathroom until these books are finished. You must read them in order and you would be foolish not to read both.
To Feel Suffering- American Pastoral. There is a reason that Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this offering. If you haven't read it, what are you waiting for. (NOTE: I tire of the amount of practitioners who rely on the Guest House by Rumi as their script to introduce people to mindfulness when there are endless pages of poetry and literature to choose from. This book is filled with excerpts for mindfulness practice).
To Feel Curious- Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Regardless of how many books you have read on evolution and creationism, expect to be intrigued. Want to know what you have in common with sharks? reptiles? jellyfish? Follow my directive here and you are bound to be a more interesting person to talk to at cocktail parties.
To Feel Hope- The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. There are writers who know how to make statistics sexy and interesting. Matt Ridley happens to be one of the best. A perfect complement to all of those fluffy self-help and positive psychology books on your bookshelf. A formidable challenge to pessimistic views of our society (morality is on the decline, prosperity is on the decline, and life was clearly better when we lived in houses made of lincoln logs).
To Feel Invigorated- The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America. Another historical figure who eludes history classes, Joseph Priestly. You know about Ben Franklin, you know about Thomas Jefferson, you know about John Adams, now read about the unheralded genius of the American Revolution. Don't be scared off if you are not a history buff. This biography reads like a novel. Just like Not by Chance Alone, read this book and you will be motivated to do something more profound with your life.
To Feel Love- An Equal Music: A Novel. Very simple, if you love music and romance, and you want to be reminded why, this fictional tale will own you.
To Feel Perverse and Confused- Geek Love: A Novel. If you can handle the bizarre underbelly of society, if you can resist the words "too much information" when somebody shares something intimate with you, if you appreciate courageousness and authenticity, then expect to be blown away by Katherine Dunn and the stories she weaves. No matter how many dips you've taken in sensory deprivation tanks, no matter how many times you've been exposed to opium, you will never imagine the world in this novel. Go ahead, take a risk.
To Feel Confident- The Exceptional Presenter and Made to Stick. You don't need to a be a public speaker by trade to read these books. We all tell stories, try to attract and persuade people, and socialize. It is impossible to read these books and not become a better communicator. You can thank me later.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. His new book Designing Positive Psychology can be pre-ordered. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena
and yes, I am fully aware that there are more than 10 books....most rules and guidelines are negotiable.