Timeless Wisdom and Intrigue from Nine Books of 2012
Hidden universes that you need to traverse in 2013.
Posted January 2, 2013
Each year I offer a list of books that altered my worldview. Some hit bookshelves in 2012, others kept their distance for years before landing in my lap. Some are bestsellers, most are from the cemetery of neglected brilliance. My hope is that you find something here so when we meet, a mystical landscape will unite us before the first sip of bourbon. You'll find a bit of persuasion and amazon links to impulsively buy one and refine those neuroconnections.
1. Shantaram. On a flight to Vancouver, the floppy blond-haired surfer next to me was holding this 900-plus page paperback. I asked him if it was worth the investment and he gushed, "only if you cherish storytelling and epiphanies." Some things only appear in the shadows and this is a story of how to live exceptionally in a world where darkness oscillates with light. Expect your entire life to be put on hold as soon as you reach page 20. I'll know you're reading this if you wear the same shirt to the gym for three straight weeks.
2. Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Relish the stories of geniuses who provided the building blocks leading up to Darwin. Each historical figure confronted cultural, social, and economic barriers that prevented them from fully understanding evolution. Learn about Darwin's egomaniacal mentor. Learn about scientists bending over backwards to reconcile their findings with religious beliefs. Learn how Alfred Wallace got shafted because of his childish curiosity (and unwillingness to consider how big of a di#k Darwin could be). If I was a high school teacher, this would be mandatory reading. Anyone who loves science, history, or biographies is in for a treat. If you're a creationist, don't skip to No. 3, just imagine each scientific icon writing their thoughts in a little black book with their poems in while riding a pet Brontosaurus. Whatever sentiments you held of Darwin, expect them to be rewired.
3. Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Sudhir is now an intellectual hero of mine. A graduate student in sociology is embarrassed that his fellow sociologists hand out surveys and write books about inner city life from the safety of carefully manicured acres of weeping Pagoda trees. If you want to understand someone unlike yourself, you must gain their trust, observe them, talk to them, and let preconceived notions be shred apart. Sudhir spends months living inside a crack using, prostitute selling gang. By doing so, he gains insight into a life of violence and family that is foreign to most of us. Need some motivation to be bolder? This is it.
4. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. Everyone tries to be different like all of the other different people. Get a tattoo, ride a harley davidson, wear tattered t-shirts or jeans. This brief treatise introduces you to the road to medicrocity that nearly every business, author, scientist, public speaker, and consultant tends to travel on. Why? Because it pays just enough to afford 1.38 kids and 2.7 weeks of vacation. Profound contributions to humanity are lost because people fear straying from the herd. In the authors' own words, "stop emulating and start innovating." This is not a book for sycophants who can't handle criticism and want to feel comfortable. This is a book for people that want to start taking real risks and do something special with the only life they have.
5. Blueprints of the Afterlife. First of two apocalyptic books. A glacier wipes out the bulk of North America and a secret organization plans to rebuild New York City in Puget Sound (a perfect geographical fit?). Citizens accept government aid and in return, take part in an organ transplant program where you are forced to gorge incessantly to accumulate bigger body parts. This science fiction novel is what emerges when you watch and re-watch Memento by Christopher Nolan, crave the untold stories by David Foster Wallace, and prefer philosophical meanderings on the meaning of life to be dressed up with world champion dishwashers, cloning, and an underground collection of childhood geniuses.
6. The Windup Girl. Second of two apocalyptic books. Travel to a futuristic Thailand, where wars are fought over precious seeds of extinct food. There is an almost love story between a man and a creature bio-engineered to be one step beyond humans on the evolutionary ladder. There are characters scarred by violence, debauchery, and scarcity. How far can we tinker with mother nature? When we play God with mother nature, what do we feel compelled to reject as unnatural? Be cautious if you happen to be predisposed to panic attacks. This is a bleak story and expect to breath in short, rapid bursts of oxygen even though you're alone on a leather reading chair. The oldest profession becomes even seedier. You will be exposed to an invented language for food and technology that only exists in the future. If you cherish authors that refuse to spoonfeed information and instead merely allow entry into another dimension, then we might have a match. Those who can tolerate a bit of discomfort will be amply rewarded.
7. A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Let's be clear, your life is uninteresting compared to Robert Sapolsky. This is a wonderfully written book by a funny, brilliant storyteller who loves animals and wants to protect them from corruption. By the end, you will have no doubt of our genetic connection to baboons. Learn what its like to live for 20+ years in a community of baboons. You will laugh (a lot). You will get depressed. You will feel righteous indignation. And for me, I was reminded of how many times people told me, "you work too hard, why don't you do something fun?" I can only imagine how many times Saplosky heard this trite comment. Learn about what it means to have a calling, where you can't distinguish who you are from what you do. Where work is an adventure and thus indistinguishable from play. Loathe that high school guidance counselor who convinced you to be an investment banker, physician, real estate agent, or life insurance salesperson, but failed to mention that you could be a primatologist.
Finally, there are two bestsellers that require mention, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Each earned the proper dose of accolades and popularity. Get over your pseudo-pretenious self and read what everyone else is reading.
Between the covers of books lie boundless ideas that await discovery. Ignore this list at your own peril. And as always, please share your own list in the comments so that I can begin the next round of explorations.
***And enjoy my ~17 minute TEDx Talk on "Becoming a Mad Scientist with Your Life"*****