Each year I list my favorite books of the year. I felt the need to deviate from the mainstream media tradition of listing the notable books published within the year. New does not mean better, especially when it comes to great thinking and writing. This list is simply a portion of the 85 books that I read since January.
It would be selfish to keep these great works to myself. There is a link to purchase each book so that you can be impulsive and start a new emotional and intellectual journey within seconds.
1. For lessons on the transformative powers of pain
On Purpose: Lessons In Life and Health From The Frog, The Dung Beetle, and Julia by Victor Strecher
My favorite read of 2016. I met Victor in California earlier this year when he described the impact of his daughter's death, and what led him to craft a path to help others find their purpose. He described one of his purposes in life (because you can have more than one): to treat all of his students like his daughter. An amazing man who created a rare treat.
A graphic novel that is emotionally intense, integrating psychological science and philosophy, entertaining, and jam packed with interesting metaphors and ideas for thinking about life purpose. This is how you get science to the people. This should be mandatory reading for high school and college students. You can thank me later.
2. For understanding what it means to build a romance that lasts decades
The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
So much attention is given to the origin of romantic love. So little attention is given to years three through 52. Until now. Here is a teaser to appreciate de Botton's gift for the written word:
Love reaches a pitch at those moments when our beloved turns out to understand, more clearly than others have been able to, and perhaps even better than we do ourselves, the chaotic, embarrassing, and shameful parts of us. That someone else gets who we are and both sympathizes with us and forgives us for what they see underpins our whole capacity to trust and to give. Love is a dividend of gratitude for our lovers' insight into our own confused and troubled psyche.
Rather than some notional idea or perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the right person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn't be its precondition.
Damn! Now imagine reading over 200 pages of insights and beautiful prose on what it means to have a life partner. Vulnerability. Parenting. Sex. Intimacy. Adultery. Happiness. Insecurity. Misunderstandings. Empathy. Read this slowly to learn more about love than any self-help book or seminar. I wrote more notes from this novel than anything I read this year.
3. For clarifying the serpentine road to greatness
Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio
Where else are you going to find the origins of Darwin's thinking about evolution, Fred Hoyle's thinking about the origin of the universe, Lord Kelvin's thinking about the age of the earth, Linus Pauling's thinking about the structure of life, and Einstein's thinking about the nature of space and time. You have a history book on the progression of science. You have several biographies that separate men from myth. You have a treatise on biology, chemistry, and physics. And you have a deep investigation into the essential importance of mistakes and failures in achieving innovative breakthroughs.
I will be honest. It took me five months to read this book. I would read two chapters and wait a month before picking it up again. This is not an easy read but worth the effort. No book did a better job of exposing my ignorance. Humbled, I loved this book and wonder why nobody is talking about it.
4. For offering new insights into improving society
The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose
In our one-size-fits-all culture, schools miss the potential of kids whose talents lie outside of sitting in a chair for 6 hours answering math problems. The medical industry makes erroneous assumptions about treatments by examining how the average rating of one group compares to the average rating of another.
This is a dangerous book. It is time to stop designing the world to fit the "average" human. The greatest opportunities lie in viewing people as individuals with a set of jagged features or a profile that differs from any other person based on their life experiences, strengths, skills, knowledge, interests, goals, and narrative.
It is not that the average is never useful. Averages have their place. If you’re comparing two different groups of people, like comparing the performance of Chilean pilots with French pilots—as opposed to comparing two individuals from each of those groups—then the average can be useful. But the moment you need a pilot, or a plumber, or a doctor, the moment you need to teach this child or decide whether to hire that employee—the moment you need to make a decision about any individual—the average is useless. Worse than useless, in fact, because it creates the illusion of knowledge, when in fact the average disguises what is most important about an individual.
Everyone who spends time with more than one person on a regular basis needs to read this book. Education. Business. Politics. Science. Leadership. This book offers a new worldview that can change industries.
5. For sharing the secrets of mastering the mind
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
At 24 years old, the author won the United States memory championship. The story of how this happened is the backdrop to an adventure into human possibilities. As a kid, I memorized the phone numbers of my 30 closest friends. I knew the directions to any record shop, baseball card store, and ice cream parlor within a 30-mile radius. In an era of mobile gadgetry, these abilities are gone. With GPS, I have no idea how to roam through my own city. With a smartphone, I know only one other phone number other than my own. With google on demand, I have forgotten the nearly 100 rivers in Africa that I memorized for my world geography final in college.
My brain is no longer used for storage. I have outsourced this to my online files and folders. This is a shame. This book offers a portal to a different mind. A mind that can remember nearly anything. With great storytelling and great science, you will enjoy the journey.
6. For exposing the truth of a scary religion
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
This is my second year in a row of nominating a book by Krakauer (please read Missoula). If you want to really learn about Mormonism, go see the Book of Mormon and relish the 80-year old women in fur coats laughing at a song about sodomy and then read this unbiased, unflinching book. In the United States, where senators and congressman oppose rights for people who are lesbian or gay, it is amazing how little attention is given to the misogyny, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse in Mormon fundamentalist communities in Utah and Arizona.
The historical record of this religion is fully available as it has been in existence for only 186 years. Thus, all of the unusual, absurd, and atrocious elements are completely transparent to fact checkers.
7. For detailing the secrets and lies in psychiatry
This book is good. You will be dazzled by statistics and research findings that have been buried for too long. The author reveals the adverse consequences of the most commonly used medications to treat mental illness. If you are receiving pharmacological treatments for anxiety or depression or ADHD, please read this book. Learn about several faulty assumptions behind the use of these treatments. Learn about the long-term effects of using these drugs on the brain. Studies of the short-term effectiveness of psychiatric drugs fail to tell the story.
Whitaker offers a modern historical account of psychological disorders in the United States. A story that diverges from what you have been taught in undergraduate psychology classes. You will experience extreme righteous indignation. Do not do anything to feel better. This anger is a precursor to taking a stand.
8. For fighting against the mainstream
A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell
This book had me at the title. You learned about Ben Franklin, George Washington, Lewis and Clark, and Thomas Edison. Now it's time to meet the most influential figures in American history that adult figures were afraid to mention. Each chapter shares thought-provoking tales of a different group of renegades who refused to follow the law. There is one underlying thread throughout—many of the historical figures in the limelight such as the founding fathers, civil rights leaders, feminists, and abolitionists got in the way of the true reformers.
Meet the degenerates and renegades who made the United States great.
You won't agree with everything in the text. I suspect Russell would be pissed off if you did.
9. For helping struggling creatives
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
A short treatise on the problem and the solution for being creative. You will benefit from knowing there is a word for what you are dealing with - the resistance.
BONUS: here are 4 fiction books that you will never forget.
1. A Short Stay in Hell by Steven Peck
The greatest fictional book I read this year. You will never think of the afterlife in the same way. Rastafarianism baby!
2. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
I am afraid that if I describe this book you won't read it. A book about religious faith. A book about alien contact and miscommunication. A book about a husband and wife who become emotionally adrift as they literally explore separate worlds. None of these descriptors do justice to the work. Read it. You will not be disappointed.
If you want to read a similarly themed book that is just as good, click here for a treat.
3. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
You are unlikely to find anything with this level of raw intensity. Stay away if you prefer PG over NC-17 movies.
4. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
You might have guessed that I prefer to travel off-road, exploring unfettered emotional and intellectual terrain. Some authors are too good to ignore. Groff is one of them. Having read all of her books, this is by far the best. One relationship told from the perspective of the husband. Until the halfway point when the entire course of events unravels from the wife's perspective. So good it hurts.
As always, please leave comments about what you thought of these books and offer your own recommendations. In case you missed my prior recommendations, here are the links. So many great minds to converse with, so little time.
here is the list of books to read from 2015
here is the list of books to read from 2014
here is the list of books to read from 2013
here is the list of books to read from 2012
here is the list of books to read from 2011
here is the list of books to read from 2010
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His most recent book is The Upside of Your Dark Side. For speaking engagements or workshops: http://toddkashdan.com