12 Book Recommendations to Blow Your Freaking Mind Open

There is no better way to spend money than on books.

Posted Dec 08, 2017

New does not mean better for high-quality thinking and writing. Instead of describing notable books published this year, I detail what you will enjoy. I bet my reputation on these picks.This list is a portion of the 65 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 you can initiate an emotional roller coaster or intellectual journey within seconds. 

1. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

With shades of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and the Black Mirror series on Netflix, it is time for you to read this before Atwood receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (my prediction is within the next 3 years). Without giving away the plot, this is a story about the price of analytical intelligence without emotional intelligence, unrequited love, and a dark look at futuristic technology. Consider this quote about the pursuit of eternal, physical youth:

Maybe this is the reason that these women arouse in Snowman not even the faintest stirrings of lust. It was the thumbprints of human imperfection that used to move him, the flaws in the design: the lopsided smile, the wart next to the navel, the mole, the bruise. There were the places he'd single out, putting his mouth of them. Was it consolation he'd had in mind, kissing the wound to make it better? There was always an element of melancholy involved in sex.

Don't you want to leave your computer right now and carefully trace the unique contours of a lover's body right now? Passages with this level of depth are spread throughout the novel, seemingly irrelevant to the larger topic. Learn how to think and write. Learn why I adore Margaret Atwood. 

As a bonus: read the other two books of the trilogy in order: The Year of the Flood followed by the finale, MaddAddam

2. The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Yeah, yeah, you might have enjoyed Christopher Nolan's movie based on the book and relished exceptional performances by two of my favorite actors (Christian Bale and Michael Caine). It was a good movie but alas the book is a deep dive into the psychological depths of envy and revenge. And if by chance you idolize Tesla as I do, pick this up for his character development alone. Let me offer a single quote that captures Priest's appreciation of the art of curiosity:

My error, at first, was to assume that the sheer brilliance of the effect would be enough to dazzle my audiences. What I was neglecting was one of the oldest axioms of magic, that the miracle of the trick must be made clear by the presentation. Audiences are not easily misled, so the magician must provoke their interest, hold it, then confound every expectation by performing the apparently impossible.

Honestly, this is one of my favorite fictional books and Priest is one of my favorite writers. His books are a testament to my belief that reading fiction is an ideal strategy to develop divergent thinking, perspective taking, and wisdom. So many of my colleagues believe fiction is a waste of time when there is much to learn about psychology, history, economics, and politics. To them I say, fuck you. Humans are storytellers. Persuasion is about storytelling. Without storytelling, communication is nothing more than a collection of words. Good fiction is the jam.

As a bonus: read his two other books for a lesson on innovative thinking: The Inverted World and The Affirmation. Let me state that again: Read these books if you want to enter a landscape that is so foreign that you will wonder how you became such a linear, non-creative thinker in comparison. Both are profound but imperfect. If I had to recommend one it would beThe Affirmation. The entire novel revolves around one question: Imagine you received an offer of immortality but the price was the loss of all your memories, would you do it? You are in for a treat. 

3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

He won the Nobel Prize in literature this year, primarily because of this book. I am embarrassed to admit that I never read it until scoring a $2 used copy in a hidden store called Books and Other Found Things. It just seems so damn boring - the life of a butler. But oh how I was mistaken. This short treatise is about a man who must contend with his employer's link to Nazis. To bring this to life is what separates a Nobel Prize winner from the rest of us. Forget the narrative arc. This story is about deciding whether to express emotions or not, whether to speak up or not, and the internal suffering from trying to remain neutral in a chaotic world. Pay close attention to his exquisite choice of words as a lesson on exceptional writing. 

4. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

How does mother handle a relationship with a daughter who finds another family to be more desirable than her own? How does a town deal with a free spirit, a renegade thinker who encourages people to be themselves? I suspect this book would do wonders as a mandatory reading in high school English classes. Let me share my favorite paragraph:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she’d set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there was something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

Need I say more? This is a cautionary tale about the fluidity of relationships, small-town thinking, conformity, and the roadblocks in accepting change.

5. Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein

Having read this before the influx of sexual harassment and abuse scandals, the relevance is only increasing in value. I realize that this book has been pitched to women. Pink binding. Girls & Sex in 72 font on the front. Men need to read this, especially dads (read my letter to Dads of Daughters).  Peggy interviewed hundreds of girls and describes the trends and outliers of what its like to be a sexual being in a male-dominated world. pleasures. fears. intimacy. pain and suffering. This is a well-researched book as demonstrated by her exploration of cultural differences in the Netherlands compared to the United States:

What’s their secret? The Dutch girls said that teachers and doctors had talked candidly to them about sex, pleasure, and the importance of a loving relationship. More than that, though, there was a stark difference in how their parents approached those topics. The American moms had focused on the potential risks and dangers of sex, while their dads, if they said anything at all, stuck to lame jokes. Dutch parents, by contrast, had talked to their daughters from an early age about both the joys and responsibilities of intimacy. As a result, one Dutch girl said she told her mother immediately after her first intercourse, “because we talk very open[ly] about this. My friend’s mother also asked me how it was, if I had an orgasm and if he had one.”

You might be asking, so what, does it matter? The answer appears to be yes.

By 2005, four out of five Dutch youth said that their first sexual experiences were well timed, within their control, and fun. Eighty-six percent of girls and 93 percent of boys agreed that “We both were equally eager to have it.” Compare that to the United States, where two-thirds of sexually experienced teenagers say they wish they had waited longer to have intercourse for the first time.

Be prepared to have 4 highlighters ready. You will be a better man for reading this book. Get this for the girls in your life, to let them know they are not alone in this confusing landscape. We are all ignorant bastards and the best thing we can do is educate ourselves and stop assuming we know what we don't know.

6. Popular by Mitch Prinstein

There's a reason you need to buy this book: You will be exposed to a solid body of scientific research that will change the way you think about yourself. That sounds lofty and untrustworthy.

Far too many popular psychology books rehash the same studies (gritty West Point cadets get better grades, kids that resist eating a marshmallow for a few minutes are less likely to get divorced later in life, adults ironically experience a greater sense of flow when they are "in the zone" at work than in their free time, etc.). Prinstein will expose you to research that has never been shared outside of academia. And here's what you will appreciate: the research is embedded into the narrative, easy to digest, and requires minimal knowledge about psychological science.

The fact is, Prinstein is a great storyteller. He weaves together meaningful studies, interesting stories, and important questions to ask yourself. The highlights:

  • In Chapter 2 he provides a fantastic framework of the 5 types of kids/adolescents/adults in terms of their likability. I will resist sharing the details.
  • In Chapter 3 he discusses how we are wired to follow crowds with a discussion of 4 problems with popularity. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book
  • In Chapter 6 he discusses how our sense of popularity is built-into our sense of self (for better or worse) and more importantly, why.
  • In Chapter 8 he dives into parents who possess their own popularity concerns that can be toxic to raising kids who successfully manage their own friendships and foes. A thought-provoking chapter with sexy science.

In some ways, we are frozen in adolescence. The world remains a junior high school lunchroom where you stroll to find the table you wanted to sit at, the table you avoided, and the table you sat at. Frozen in the past, many of us are unable to escape the behavioral patterns during that time period and fail to outgrow what worked then to fit in that might be obsolete.

This is an important book with beautiful prose. I hope it gets into more people's hands.

7. I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

A hot trend in science is the microbiome. Deepak Chopra claims that our gut microbiome listens to our thoughts and if you think positively, say goodbye to irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and other physical health maladies. Other writers, theorists, and scientists argue that our microbiome helps explain autism, anxiety and depression, reactions to traumatic events, and the progression from HIV to AIDS. I bring this up to point out the difference between Young's book and much of what I have read on this topic. I Contain Multitudes does not go beyond the data. The science is astounding and Young tells awe-inspiring stories about the history of this field, oddities in the animal kingdom, and exquisite descriptions of where there hopes and myths exceed existing evidence.

Young provided one of the most compelling answers to this question:

When a human mother breastfeeds her child, she isn’t just feeding it; she is also feeding the child its first microbes, and ensuring that the right pioneers settle inside its gut. Knight wonders if the same applies to meerkats. Do the abandoned pups start their lives with the wrong microbes because they don’t get mother’s milk? Do those early changes affect their health in later life?

Read the book to uncover fodder for the debate on whether a formula can match the biopsychosocial benefits of breastfeeding. I will admit that this is a tough read because of the density of interesting content. But don't let this deter your curiosity...enjoy the work in small bites.

8. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrota

I confess I love books that address meaningful life transitions. I have a particular fondness for lives unlike my own. All this is to say Mrs. Fletcher hit me because it's about how mothers manage life once their children are fully grown. Few people discuss the loneliness, for mothers and fathers. Perrota captures it beautifully:

She was lonely and looking for new friends, and it broke her heart a little every time she showered and changed without exchanging a single pleasant word or sympathetic look with anyone.

All the freedom she’d experienced in the fall, that giddy sense of new horizons, all that was gone...She was just plain old Mom, chopping onions, feeling neglected, cleaning lint from the filter. Her life felt shrunken and constricted, as if the world had shoved her back into an all-too-familiar box that was no longer large enough to contain her. 

You can read this in two days. Yes, some of the sexual threads are over the top and some of the characters are underdeveloped but the entertainment value is worth the price. 

9. The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

Here is the problem with most writers: They don't ask whether the world needs them to write a book. The world needs this book. War metaphors can be tiresome but Robert Greene is not your typical writer. He conducts years of meticulous research on how wars are won and lost over the past 3,000 years of history. Somehow he distills lessons learned into 33 principles. You will remember them because Greene knows how to tell stories. Exhibit A: THE ONE-UPMANSHIP STRATEGY:

The Academie Francaise, founded by Cardinal
Richelieu in 1635, is a highly select body of France's
forty most learned scholars, whose task it is to
oversee the purity of the French language. It was
customary in the early years of the academy that when
a seat became empty, potential members would
petition to fill it, but on the occasion of a vacant seat in
1694, King Louis XIV decided to go against protocol
and nominated the bishop of Noyon. Louis's
nomination certainly made sense. The bishop was a
learned man, well respected, an excellent orator, and
a fine writer.

The bishop, however, had another quality as well:
an incredible sense of self-importance. Louis was
amused by this failing, but most in the court found it
downright insufferable: the bishop had a way of
making almost everyone feel inferior, in piety,
erudition, family pedigree--whatever they had.
Because of his rank, for instance, the bishop was
accorded the rare privilege of being able to have his
coach drive up to the front door of the royal residence,
while most others had to get out and walk from the
entrance doors of the driveway. One time the
archbishop of Paris was walking along the driveway
when the bishop of Noyon passed. From his carriage
the bishop waved and signaled for the archbishop to
approach him. The archbishop expected him to alight
and accompany him to the palace on foot. Instead
Noyon had the carriage slow down and continued his
drive to the front door, leading the archbishop through
the window by the arm, as if he were a dog on a
leash, meanwhile chatting away superciliously. Then,
once the bishop did get out of the carriage and the
two men started up the grand staircase, Noyon
dropped the archbishop as if he were nobody. Almost
everyone in the court had a story like this one to tell,
and they all nursed secret grudges against the
bishop.

With Louis's approval, however, it was impossible
to not vote Noyon into the academy. The king further
insisted that his courtiers attend the inauguration of
the bishop, since this was his first nominee to the
illustrious institution. At the inauguration, customarily,
the nominee would deliver a speech, which would be
answered by the academy's director--who at the time
was a bold and witty man called the abbe de
Caumartin. The abbe could not stand the bishop but
particularly disliked his florid style of writing. De
Caumartin conceived the idea of subtly mocking
Noyon: he would compose his response in perfect
imitation of the bishop, full of elaborate metaphors
and gushing praise for the newest academician. To
make sure he could not get into trouble for this, he
would show his speech to the bishop beforehand.
Noyon was delighted, read the text with great interest,
and even went so far as to supplement it with more
effusive words of praise and high-flying rhetoric.

On the day of the inauguration, the hall of the
academy was packed with the most eminent
members of French society. (None dared incur the
king's displeasure by not attending.) The bishop
appeared before them, monstrously pleased to
command this prestigious audience. The speech he
delivered had a flowery pomposity exceeding any he
had given previously; it was tiresome in the extreme.
Then came the abbe's response. It started slowly, and
many listeners began to squirm. But then it gradually
took off, as everyone realized that it was an elaborate
yet subtle parody of the bishop's style. De
Caumartin's bold satire captivated everyone, and
when it was over, the audience applauded, loudly and
gratefully. But the bishop--intoxicated by the event and
the attention--thought that the applause was genuine
and that in applauding the abbe's praise of him, the
audience was really applauding him. He left with his
vanity inflated beyond all proportion.

Soon Noyon was talking about the event to one and
all, boring everyone to tears. Finally he had the
misfortune to brag about it to the archbishop of Paris,
who had never gotten over the carriage incident. The
archbishop could not resist: he told Noyon that the
abbe's speech was a joke on him and that everyone
in the court was laughing at the bishop's expense.
Noyon could not believe this, so he visited his friend
and confessor Pere La Chaise, who confirmed that it
was true.

Now the bishop's former delight turned to the most
bitter rage. He complained to the king and asked him
to punish the abbe. The king tried to defuse the
problem, but he valued peace and quiet, and Noyon's
almost insane anger got on his nerves. Finally the
bishop, wounded to the core, left the court and
returned to his diocese, where he remained for a long
time, humiliated and humbled.

Interpretation
The bishop of Noyon was not a harmless man. His
conceit had made him think his power had no limits.
He was grossly unaware of the offense he had given
to so many people, but no one could confront him or
bring his behavior to his attention. The abbe hit upon
the only real way to bring such a man down. Had his
parody been too obvious, it would not have been very
entertaining, and the bishop, its poor victim, would
have won sympathy. By making it devilishly subtle,
and making the bishop complicit in it as well, de
Caumartin both entertained the court (always
important) and let Noyon dig his own grave with his
reaction--from the heights of vanity to the depths of
humiliation and rage.

Winner of the most dog-eared pages of any book read this year. Enjoy a classic. Practical as well as entertaining, you will add tools to dealing with other people.

10. The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett

If you want to know what lies beneath the surface of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, read on. If you are curious about what people do with bitcoins, discover the activities that your neighbors intentionally leave out when asked "so, what have you been up to?" Trolls. Pornography. Hardcore drugs. Racists. Terrorists. Read this and then find me a pub so we can talk about the details. 

Do not skip over the haunting Chapter 4—three clicks.

#11. bonus time.

I want to offer another book written by a writer in my neighborhood—Wishes, Sins, and the Wissahickon Creek by PJ Devlin. For only $3.25, you can get this set of 10 short stories. The first one, I Wish It Every Day, blew me away. It is a beautiful tale about the transience and often illusory nature of friendships from the perspective of two high school girls. This one story is worth it. But I suspect you will fall for the 9th story, Pogo's Bridge about the torturous life of two brothers, one being a dwarf. Do me a favor - pick this hidden gem up.  

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.