13 Emotionally and Intellectually Intense Books from 2015
Ideas for the best use of $100 in the months ahead.
Posted Dec 28, 2015
Whatever you attend to is what you will become. There are 3 things I kept track of this year in Evernote journals - my exercise routines, experiences with my kids to share in a decade, and my reading. This is the first year I set a reading goal - 52. Just once, I wanted to average one book per week. I ended up reading 104, which speaks to the benefits of goal-setting and tracking. With a larger bank of memories to sift through, I feel more confident this year that my recommendations are legit; of course, the Lake Wobegon effect is in full throttle.
Commit to life long learning this year. Be humble enough to know that your story is in some ways, not unique; possess the empathy to notice that other people's stories are.
You can purchase all 13 of the books below for the price of one bottle of Glenlivet 21. Ideally, buy both and keep a glass next to the reading chair. I decided to offer 10 non-fiction recommendations and afterwards, the 3 fictional books that held me the longest, rapt.
1. For encouraging us to rage against the machine
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
I'm begging everyone to read this book. As the father of 3 girls, the tragedies within these pages tore my heart into tiny pieces. The investigative journalism was exhaustive. There are relentless details on victims, perpetrators, lawyers, and obsessive college football fans. Every detail is essential, ensuring that there is no room for an agenda or political view to obscure the horrors. Set reminders or you will forget to breathe.
On another note, if you take pleasure in great writing, get ready to be blown away by Krakauer. After publishing a masterpiece, Into the Wild, he completely changed his writing style.
It will hurt but you need to read this, talk about this, and find someway to alter this perverted culture. I wish this made a bigger splash. Thankfully, there is no expiration date on enacting social change.
2. For unearthing wacky stories in the history of science
The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean
I am a huge fan of Sam Kean. The guy finds interesting anecdotes about each element in the periodic table, unearths the bizarre history of DNA discoveries, and then dozens of ways that the brain can go awry and the men and women that helped uncover these mysteries. It was hard to pick a favorite but the Violinist's Thumb mesmerized me. Why is the number of older biological brothers such a strong predictor of homosexuality? Learn why biologists gave the following names to fruit fly genes - Ken and Barbie, Cheapdate, Tinman, and Swisscheese.
If high school kids read this, we would have fewer lawyers and more scientists.
3. For refusing to mince words when educating the next generation
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
This is a thought-provoking read on higher education. He does not avoid the issues of race, gender, class, and privilege. Read this and then give it away to someone aged 16-17 who is considering whether to go to college, where, and most importantly, why. If you are a parent, expect an opinionated view that might motivate you to get off the high pressure, conveyor belt.
4. For detailing how to lead during difficult times
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
I read a large number of leadership books this year. None were better than this. Almost every book details strategies for leading during times of prosperity or peace. Ben Horowitz captures my beloved interest in psychological flexibility by mentioning how a leader must be willing to embrace less comfortable, less socially acceptable strategies during times of intense competition/strife/war. Very few leaders possess sufficient agility to be effective during war and peace. This is a primer to get there.
5. For appreciating what it means to be human
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
How one man synthesizes a vast body of work on evolution, biology, anthropology, sociology, political history, and psychology, boggles my mind. The book centers on the revolutions that humans went through, ending with the cognitive revolution. Empires. Religion. Money. The consciousness and communication abilities of non-human animals. The discovery of ignorance. The list goes on...
He ends with big questions about the future. If we develop the ability to resurrect species from extinction, should we? If we develop drugs that make people smarter, should we and could we regulate them? As we get more refined in creating artificial intelligence, how does this revise what it means to be human? Of all the books on this list, this is the one I will definitely be reading a second time.
6. For altering the time line of impact
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
A single poem by Lucretius called On The Nature of Things opens the portals to new perspectives on how to view humanity, god, science, and culture. It is the story of how a book buyer in the 1400's read the copy of a copy of a copy of a 1500 year old poem whose content influenced the Renaissance and in turn, the modern world. This single poem set off one of the larger battles in history between religion and science.
This story, which unfolds over centuries, sounds extremely tedious. I bought this book and it languished on my shelf for almost a year. And then I took a deep breath and said, why not, there must be something useful in here or else it wouldn't have been a National Book Award winner.
I suspect the same thing will happen to you. Buy it and when the timing is right, you will be astounded. Think about this - Lucretius wrote a poem, lived, died, and then 1000 years passed until his work influenced some of the greatest, courageous thinkers in history.
The writing is superb and for this tale, it had to be.
7. For offering a healthy dose of self-reflection
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The terror of being found out. For possessing a Ph.D. and still being insecure about your intelligence. For being invited to speak to 2000 people and doubting whether you have anything of value to say. For being a parent and wondering when somebody is going to give you the secret manual that explains what the hell you are supposed to do.
I don't want to ruin the experience by giving away any details about this book. Let me simply say this - if you ever experience the imposter syndrome, get this. If you ever felt concern about the rise in schadenfreude in modern culture, get this. Whether you've been bullied, a bully, or both, get this book. You won't be disappointed.
8. For sharing battle tested strategies for security, strength, and happiness
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
Let me save you a trip to Google. In the Urban Dictionary, here is the definition of stoic:
Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.
9. For reminding us to be stewards of the earth, taking care of animals that are as smart or smarter than us
Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove and Howard Chua-Eoan
You might have watched the documentary Blackfish. This is more powerful. Here is where you will be privy to the details of how cetaceans are mistreated by humans. This is a heartbreaking piece of work. Don't avoid this because of the sadness, anger, and anxiety evoked. Reading this, talking about this, and being conscious of how we contribute to the problem will motivate us to make the necessary behavioral changes. That being said, this is a smooth, enjoyable read.
10. For showing us that truth is stranger than fiction
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-year Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil
There are two distinct parts to this book. The first half revolves around an adult who recalls the torment he experienced at the hands of a bully in a boarding school. The second half is the search to find him. It is a crime drama with enough plot twists to raise questions on whether this is non-fiction. This was a hidden gem.
BONUS: here are 3 fiction books that will own your emotions long after the last page is completed
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - 720 pages that offer a poignant depiction of male friends over four decades. This is the most tragic book I have ever read. There were times I had to park my car and just sit there in isolation, marinating in my emotional reactions. This book has received a ton of accolades, and earned every one.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - Just as The Forever War is the literary companion to understanding the Vietnam War, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the literary companion to understanding the Iraq War. It is a brilliant satire of the absurdity of how we respond to, revere, and interfere with the lives of soldiers.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons - I am embarrassed to say that it is only now that I read this masterpiece. This is considered one of the top 100 books of the 20th century; the only one that happens to be a graphic comic book. Well-deserved. Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I refuse to lend out or give to anyone. By staring at the cover, I am reminded of the pleasures that creativity offer. Add it to your own arsenal.
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 to do so.
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 public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com