13 Books to Captivate You During Winter Quarantine

My favorite reads from this past year.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

In the strangest year, I thought that being trapped inside my house for months would lead to an influx of reading. Alas, my usual hyperfocused attention took a beating with daily blustering about COVID-19 and the bizarre antics by extremists of both political parties. Each of us is stuck at home avoiding airborne transmissions with nothing but time on our hands. Books are my salvation. They transport me into other people’s lives, offering perspectives that few conversations reach. As the hours of natural light shrink, there has never been a better time in the modern era to read.

As usual, I do not provide a list of books published this year. Newness is a poor indicator of high quality thinking and writing. Instead, I focus on whatever books I attempted to read over the past 12 months. I sifted through a surprisingly large number of duds to find works that are insightful and interesting enough to bet my reputation on. Read the short descriptions and find yourself a few brilliant supernovas. Here are 13 books that will offer psychological rewards that exceed anything you can watch on a screen and almost any face-to-face companion. Click on the titles for more information.

1. Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

If your mind has been wandering quite a bit in 2020, this compilation of 11 short stories might be your best bet to absorb a stunning work of art. For fans of Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone, these stories are an intersection of technology and the weird nature of human behavior. The first story, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a mind-blowing fable about how our choices infect our present, past, and future selves. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a meditation on the struggle to keep something or someone alive when everyone else seems to have moved on.  If I failed to sell this book sufficiently, know that the story Exhalation is what inspired the killer movie Arrival with Amy Adams. Know this: the last story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is worth the price of the entire book. I will resist telling you anything about it and just give you a single throw away paragraph from the middle of the tale:

For a hypothetical time traveler who wanted to prevent Hitler’s rise to power, the minimal intervention wasn’t smothering the baby Adolf in his crib; all that was needed was to time travel a month before his conception and disturb an oxygen molecule. Not only would this replace Adolf with a sibling, it would replace everyone his age or younger. By 1920 that would have composed half of the world’s population.

2.  The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray

Aim for the most controversial book on this list. Douglas Murray is a polarizing figure, which is neither insult nor compliment, rather a factual description of someone willing to ask the questions and point out the obvious that elicits fear in other scholars, thinkers, and adults trained and paid to aim for accuracy and truth instead of political convenience. Chapter 1 is "Gay" which separates fact, fiction, and lingering questions about sexual orientation. One of the most valuable points is on the presence of at least two camps in this population. A subset who seek integration and only want to be respected and treated as no different than any other seeking psychological needs such as love and connection and another subset that seeks special status, and want to emphasize differences and how these differences are to be emphasized, even exaggerated. It is an interesting sociological exploration into territory often ignored and neglected by mainstream conversations. Chapter 2 is "Women" with substantial attention to whether or not the obvious is true: some manifestations of psychology are due to innate differences. Murray adds additional layers to the argument laid out in one of my favorite books of all-time, Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. You will not agree with everything he says but you would be remiss to deny the questions and hypotheses posed. And too many scholars are afraid to do so despite being trained to seek accuracy and truth and paid (often with taxpayer dollars) to ask questions, consider alternative hypotheses, and conduct fair and reasonable tests of them. Consider just one of many areas broached:

Historical old white man power is not the only source. Are there not, after all, some powers which only women can wield. 'Like what?' someone asks. At which point, having waded in this far it only makes sense to wade further. Among other types of power that women wield almost exclusively, the most obvious is this...

For more, read the book. Chapter 3 on "Race" and Chapter 4 on "Trans" continue this trend of diving beneath the surface of emotionally challenging topics. You will disagree with several things in this book. The goal is not to agree. The goal is to think. Let us wonder why certain questions are  unacceptable despite the high probability of value in the asking. Right now, in the midst of a conversation about equality and inequity, this book is required reading. Our conversations are too superficial. Our universities and business organizations are implementing mandated policies without serious discussion and debate of what are the contributing factors that exist beyond sexism, racism, homophobia, and other -isms. This book offers a brave exploration into waters prematurely ruled out because the ideas, the data, and the answers run contrary to predictions. We must reconcile how society is becoming demonstrably less sexist, racist, and homophobic while the perception is that the world is getting worse. Similar to Murray, I believe we will find workable solutions to entrenched social problems if we are willing to consider the litany of underlying reasons. Very few problems have singular explanations and yet, we treat complicated, long-standing societal problems as if there is a single explanatory variable that accounts for the bulk of variation between groups: hatred/discrimination. Challenge yourself to read this treatise. Find a few points that question your own entrenched worldview.

3. Virtue Signaling by Geoffrey Miller

In the midst of finding new ways to dodge a conversation and aim for a superficial insult, virtue signaling appeared. A two-word sequence that claims someone is being disingenuous about what they say publicly and what they believe privately. Expect to view virtue signaling in a new light through these seven essays. Jump into the fray of controversial content. How about an essay on the consequences of pretending men and women are close to identical in temperament, personality and interests ("The Google Memo"). How about an essay detailing how virtues emerge from the search for sexual partners ("Sexual Selection for Moral Virtues"). How about arguments for why the existence of low thresholds for offensive speech discriminate against people diagnosed on the autism spectrum ("The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech") and people immigrating from other countries ("The Cultural Diversity Case for Free Speech"). Everyone should read this book. We often pay too little attention to the invisible groups of people who are harmed by well-meaning intentions. We often pay too little attention to the difference between proximal and distal influences on why we choose certain interests, careers, friends, and romantic partners. Use this book to help you think more precisely in a world that pulls for overly simplistic, unnuanced discussion.

4. Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Take to heart Haruki Murakami who said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” In the current civil rights redux, everyone started to add the same three books as part of their anti-racism education: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi, and anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Instead of reviewing these works, let me offer an alternative. Let me recommend the best book on racism. The most emotionally moving, painful book on the nature of being Black in America. These eight essays are intense. You will feel compelled to reach out to someone and talk about what you read. “In the Name of Beauty” is a tortuous exploration of what it’s like to be a Black girl who doubts the sincerity and meaningfulness of childhood friendships, and on how the prism of mainstream view of beauty warp the identity of Black girls and women. Cottom’s commentary on white feminists reminded me of Jordan Peele’s expose of the moral hypocrisy of white progressive liberals in his cinematic masterpiece, Get Out. This essay alone is worth the price of admission, complemented by a similar theme in “Know Your Whites.” But just wait. You will require deep breathing exercises in order to make it through the essay “Dying to be Competent.” It is an autobiography of how instead of being a compliment, the stereotype of the strong, stoic Black female warrior is a barrier to receive serious, compassionate treatment by professionals, especially in medical settings. You will never forget the main story arc. Ever! As if wasn’t enough, you read “The Price of Fabulousness” which captures the missing piece of the story in society’s feeble, misguided attempts to address diversity and inclusion: socioeconomic status. Conservatives and liberals alike judge those who make materialistic purchases when they can barely afford healthy meals and school supplies for their children (the only difference is conservatives judge publicly, loudly, and try to create constricting public policies to control what they can and cannot spend money on — which is ironic since they are supposed to be for small government). Well, read this chapter for an alternative explanation for why impoverished adults spend money on seemingly vain merchandise. You will never forget the lesson learned. Withhold judgment until you spend a day trying to navigate the tough decisions in the shoes of another man or woman. I am dumbfounded — this should be the most widely read book on race and racism in America. The final essay, “Girl 6” is the beginning of a call-to-arms for improving opportunities for people of all races. You will not be reading a sermon. You will be hearing a previously foreign compelling explanation. We could use fewer preachers. We could use less public shaming. We could use less condemnation. What we could use is more listening and understanding as the foundation for an authentic motivation to make societal changes. This is the book. Read it. Talk about it. Let it breed into your bones, shredding the boundaries between your in-group and the rest of humanity.

5. The Farewell Chronicles: How We Really Respond to Death by Anneli Rufus

I lost my father-in-law to COVID-19, one of the most important people in my life. My model of how to be a father and a man. I started reading several books about death, dying, and grieving and none of them held my attention except this one. This is the most unusual book on the list. Expose yourself to a series of strange stories about how people die and the wide range of emotional reactions in the aftermath. Chapters are organized by reaction: evasion, regret, greed, isolation, guilt, apathy, disgust, foreboding, relief, horror, irreverence, self-absorption, judgment, mordancy, rejoicing, and uncertainty.  Interspersed in the stories are deep psychological examinations of what our reactions say about us. There is no judgment, which is one of the strengths of the book. I adored the focus on non-traditional pleasures in the aftermath of someone’s demise. Rufus is a raconteur and you will appreciate both the stories and lessons.  This is for everyone, as none of us make it out alive. Arm yourself.

6. Paingod and Other Delusions by Harlan Ellison

You’ve heard of the science fiction giants, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, but you may have missed Harlan Ellison. He is more disagreeable and cantankerous than the rest. This series of short stories offers ample evidence for the value of cognitive diversity. Why surround yourself by people who think and act the same? You might feel validated but you won’t grow. Buy this book for three stories. No matter how many psychedelics you ingest, you will never reach the creative brilliance of “Paingod.” If you have a lot of money, please purchase the rights to transform “Paingod” into a movie. I don’t know how to describe this story only to say it’s an experiment that plays off the philosophical adage that the only way to truly gain appreciation and happiness is to understand what it feels like to suffer. As for what Ellison does with this concept, prepare for an alternative universe. Then there is the mundane, colloquial titled story, “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” Again, I don’t know how to describe this story only to say it’s a treatise on our lack of respect for time. We procrastinate. We fritter away valuable moments by ruminating or scrolling through social media. We show a lack of rigor in taking control of our lives. Well, if someone stole our right to manage time, we would be much more discerning. It’s a beautiful treatise on the essential power of rebellion. As for the third story that rocked my world, check out “The Crackpots” which is a beautiful, entertaining tome on creativity. Be warned, your enjoyment of this book will not hinge on whether science fiction is your jam. This is for deep thinkers.

7. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

This is a genre-bending, provocative commentary on race. I know, I know, you are tired of the American obsession with demographic categories, especially race. Me too. Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we organize our identity in a way that does not involve clashes based on race, sex, gender, religion, or citizenship? Can’t we form coalitions around values, interests, personalities, vulnerabilities, strengths, and/or aspirations? I hear you. But we must reckon with a reality: our background shapes how we experience the world. The criminal justice system. The educational system. What justice, happiness, freedom, or progress looks like. Citizen offers a perspective unlike your own through essay, poetry, images, and provocative analysis.  Often there is no more than a single story on a page. Read it and wince. There is one story where a close friend, a best friend, calls out to the author but instead of calling her Claudia she calls her by the name of the black housekeeper. They have known each other for years! The chilling ending to the essay wonders, “Do you feel hurt because it’s the ‘all black people look the same’ moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?” Haunting. Powerful. Read it.

8. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk

I try repeatedly to get into Chuck Palahniuk and while I love his evocative imagery there are so many times where he fails to deliver. I found brilliance in Survivor and Invisible Monsters but barely finished Choke, Rant, Adjustment Day, Diary, or Beautiful You. Which leads up to my main point: you do not have to like Palahniuk’s work to learn from his wisdom on writing well. This is a freaking masterpiece. Better than Stephen King’s On Writing and better than Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Just take this single bit of advice among hundreds:

If you were my student, I'd make you create a list of all the quick wordless gestures you use every day. The thumbs-up. The thumb-and-index finger "okay" sign. Knocking your fist lightly on your forehead to "recall" something. Clutching your heart. The hitchhiker's thumb, which implies "get lost." The index finger held vertically against the lips for "hush up." The hooked "come here" finger. I'd make you list at least fifty hand signals. That way you'd always, always be aware of the variety of gestures you can insert into dialogue.

If you want to improve as a writer, and being an exceptional writer is a non-negotiable skill, then read this book. It will also help in your observation skills, which will improve your detection of social shifts in friendships and enemies, which will improve your persuasion skills. All essential skills that should be taught in school over trigonometry and the dissection of frogs.

9. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

In one single manifesto, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about sleep. I know what you’re thinking. It sounds boring. I know I should sleep 8 hours per day and construct a regular schedule. I know that eating taquitos with tequila at 1am is a problem. I am here to tell you that this book is fascinating and you know less than you think. If you use a smartphone or are a parent, this book is a goldmine. If you need some hardcore scientific evidence for why schools should start later in the morning, look no further. Pay attention to Chapters 15-16 where he outlines how early wake ups on school days interfere with intellectual functioning. Requiring early sleep time is akin to principals and their teachers deducting 15 IQ points from kids during class. The book goes into exquisite detail about how the brains of adolescents changes such that their circadian rhythm modifies and they go to sleep later (on average) and wake up later. Parents often cannot stand these facts but our preferred bed times for youth cannot override biology. Teenagers require extra sleep as synaptic connections go through a Cambrian explosion in trying to grasp the complexities of their new social environment with peers and adults. Yet, schools push for earlier start times as they move from elementary to middle to high school. School are doing exactly the opposite of what scientists uncovered.  If none of this sells you on the book, get it for just the opening story of how a professor and his graduate student uncovered

a striking scientific finding that would define our biological rhythm as being approximately one day (circadian), and not precisely one day. 

Again, it sounds boring until you learn about the 32 days the two of them spent in complete darkness in the depths of a cave. Science! Don’t me mistaken, this is a very, very practical book that will add years to your lifespan.

10.  Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage by Dan Crenshaw

If you are a fan of stoic philosophy, disturbed by the modern culture wars of Trumpism and the religion of Woke-ism, and seek practical wisdom, this is your book. Here are just a few of the hundreds of useful tidbits inside:

Passion successfully overrides reason and accomplishment. Who gets more attention? The public figure who calmly sees both sides of an argument or a perceived grievance and tries to mediate? Or the activist who angrily marches down the street proclaiming their righteousness? Who gets more traction on social media: a think tank spending millions of dollars on careful research, or a kid making memes on Instagram? You don’t get likes on Twitter with nuanced disagreement, you get likes on Twitter by “owning” the other side. This phenomenon creates incentives for seemingly normal people to engage in hysterical behavior.

One thing I hear a lot is, “Well, that’s just what I believe, and it’s my opinion, so you can’t really argue with that.” Well, I can, actually. An opinion is valuable only insofar as it can be backed up by some element of reason and facts…Dropping weapons-grade accusations, like that of racism, Nazism, sexism, homophobia, without cause or evidence is a sign of weakness, not strength.

When describing the importance of duty, this is one of my favorite phrases, “If not me, then who?” It isn’t just applicable to joining the military; it applies to everyday life. If you won’t help that homeless person get a meal, who will? Why is it someone else’s job? If you care, if you really care, then why not take action?...Is someone else going to stay late at the office and put the finishing touches on that big quarterly presentation, or are you? Big things and small things alike are driven forward by a sense of duty.

As someone who studies purpose in life and emotional agility, this book resonates. I suspect it will resonate with you as well. And once again, you will not agree with everything he says. You should never agree with everything someone says.

Let me offer three additional recommendations. For the most surreal story that nobody is talking about,  how about: 11. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael FinkelGet detailed insights into a perfectly abnormal man who did not speak to a human being for 27 years. I found this particularly interesting because there is a genetic strain of hermits in my family but none of them would approximate Christopher Knight as the ultimate dinner party companion. You will leave with so many questions.

For the most interesting psychological experiment, how about 12. Black Like Me by John Howard GriffinWritten in 1961, this classic is as relevant today as ever. The author goes through painstaking chemical treatments to appear as a Black man on the surface and offers autobiographical insights of what it was like to travel through the South as a white man versus a black man. An easy, quick, haunting read. If you are inept in conversations, read this book and you will entertain guests at fire pits for weeks.

Instead of mind-altering drugs, how about 13. Recursion by Blake CrouchYou are going to pull your hair out, pace frenetically in your room, and repeat the words, "what the f$#@ was that?" over and over. I don't want to give away the plot but think about this book as a journey through a series of philosophical questions. What if you can't trust your memories? What if the memories that make you, you, keep getting replaced by other memories but there are faint recollections of who you think you were (or are)? Trippy shit. The writing is superb and you can easily imagine every character and scene. In lesser hands, the plot of this book would never work.

As always, please leave comments about 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.