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The 9 Mind-Bending Books of 2013

The books that will supercharge your beach vacation and 3 a.m. bouts of insomnia

Each year I offer a list of books that are to be blamed for insomnia, social isolation, and slothdom. Some hit bookshelves in 2013, others kept their distance for years before landing in my lap. Some were bestsellers, some will only be found in a dingy, greenwich village used bookstore. My hope is that something on this list pulls you away from trite, contrived, and appalling boring conversations about mutual funds and the Washington Redskins quarterback controversy to feed your need for mind-bending stimulation and playfulness.

Thinking about the hours spent reading books on my leather reading chair with accompanying brookstone shiatsu foot massager, I am reminded of conversations with adults over the past 5 or so years. I mention a killer TV show such as Breaking Bad or Arrested Development and their response, "Yeah, I don't watch TV or read fiction, its a waste of time." My response is usually along the lines of, "Yep, stories, ideas, interesting people, so incredibly beneath those of us with ivy league degrees, too uncool for me as well." Moments later, a quiet voice responds, "actually, there are some shows I like, such as...." Adding to this, today I heard of the first person who boycotts TED talks because they aren't up to snuff with the intellctualism of books.

Far too many people think its cool to be against popular culture. This is absurd. There is nothing cooler than being passionate about whatever is you are passionate about with reckless abandon. As for me, I love a good superhero movie. I will watch a great UFC bout. I read comic books with my kids. Every once in awhile I joyously chow down a bag of bugles. I love splatterpunk novels, films, and music. With this said, only one book deserves to start this list...

1. 11/22/63. 2013 is the year I discovered how awesome Stephen King is as a writer. For far too long I have listened to friends tell me that his 800 page novels are not worth the effort. Trolls are fond of pointing out that King writes at a 5th grade level and his best-selling work is not literature. I say he's brilliant for capturing imagery with simple words. Literary snobs should return to their maxim, "omit needless words" and consider an addition, "if influence is the goal, use simple, enjoyable language." An ambitious, addictive 880 paged time-travel adventure. Do you prevent the assasination of JFK even if means ruining your own life and several others? I am jealous of those of you that will lose a week of your life to this tome.

2. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. I found this inside a book sale at a local church for one dollar. This is one of those books you don't share because it is biblical in scope. Consider Rule #3- every brain is wired differently. A single 22-page book chapter that will teach you to be a better consumer of neuroscience research than a Ph.D. Rule #4 will help you become a better story teller. Rule #7 about sleep is the most interesting description of sleep studies that you will ever read. You well-being hinges on reading this.

3. The Dog Stars. If we haven't met, you don't know that I suffer from euthymic disorder where I am naturally energetic and vibrant to the point of annoying other people. To treat this condition, I subject myself to a daily dose of post-apocalyptic, depressing novels and music. By doing so, I can feel the full range of human emotions. This book will give you the goose bumps. Love. Death. Embarrassment. Terror. Awe. Nothing that I read this year has the emotional sting of this one. Break the numbness and read this when everyone in your household is fast asleep.

4. This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works. What if you grabbed today's leading intellectual heavyweights, asked them one question, and collated their answers into a single book? This is what John Brockman did. He asked 200 big thinkers, "what is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? 150 of them ended up in this book. Yes, quite a few picked evolution but you will be blown away by some of the others. Some of my favorites were Jonathan Gottschall talking about a disproven theory about why left-handed people had a evolutionary advantage, and Clary Shirky spending 4 pages on Dan Sperber's wonderful explanation of culture (sounds boring but trust me, you will finally be able to explain it). Then there is Robert Sapolsky talking about the beauty of ant colonies for 3 pages and Daniel Dennett talking about why sea turtles migrate across the atlantic ocean for 2 pages. You will stop after every short chapter and feel compelled to share new wisdom with strangers, Siri, anything that will listen.

5. Middle Men: Stories. I've always held a fondness for writers who could turn loneliness, emptiness, and failure into something beautiful. All 7 stories in this book were amazing. I felt compelled to finish this in one day, squeezing in 30 pages anytime I could. I don't want to give away spoilers. Lets just say this is a fantastic author debut. The characters are well-developed and you will see yourself, at some point in your life, in many of them. Once again, you will experience joy from dark thoughts and feelings (is there a word for this?).

6. Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. You probably already know about this Malcom Gladwell-ish book about what qualities distinguish champions. You are ambitious. You want to do well in life. You want your friends and family to succeed. Thus, you would benefit from knowing the science. This is the book.

7. The Imperfectionists. I cannot believe that this is the author's first novel. I cannot believe that I was entertained by stories about the obituary writer, paris correspondent, corrections editor, business reporter, and executive of an international newspaper situated in Rome. But this book owned me as I sat in my leather reading chair for 6 straight hours and only stood up because I felt the one-day onset of spinal degenerative disc disease. Worth the spinal surgery risk.

8. The Antagonist. This is hidden Canadian gem. A masterful story that centers on a friend writing a book that steals and mocks his roommates life story; an act of betrayal. The story is told through a series of one-sided emails by the friend betrayed. It sounds like a corny device and the first 3 pages are difficult to read but don't give up. After those first three pages the emails become puzzle pieces and the story takes a number of mysterious turns.

This is a book about how fathers mistreat their sons, how boys become men before they're ready, how social class and pretentiousness prevent real friendship, how violence simmers beneath the surface in everyday interactions, and how difficult it is to understand another persons perspective. Sex, violence, drugs, religion, meaning in life, failure, and rejection. This book has it all.

Rank, the main character, is a 40-year old man reflecting on the difficult life he led.
Nearly impossible to put down until its finished. This is one of those sad, tragic tales that is engrossing until the last page. Did I mention that I suffer from euthymic disorder?

9. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. I saved the best for last. This book does not even hit stores until February 2014 but I was lucky that the author sent me a galley copy. Let me share what I wrote for the book jacket:

"It's rare to come across new ideas on the nature of emotion. Drawing on his own groundbreaking research and the best science available, Rottenberg unravels some of the mysteries of depression. Why is it so common? Why is it so resistant to treatment? How does a normal bout of sadness transform into deep depression? This beautifully written book offers wisdom and hope."

I should be even blunter - in my humble opinion, this is the best book ever written on depression. And if you think about how many people suffer or will suffer from this disorder, it is my hope this becomes a bestseller. Jon, the author, is not only one of the most important depression researchers, he went through his own bout. This gives him insights that few authors have on understanding and teaching the rest of us. Proud to call him a colleague.

Enjoy this year's selections and as always, contact me to let me now what you thought of them. And share your own recommendations of what I need to get my hands around.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. His new book, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology was published in 2013. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, see the contact information at

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