10 Book Recommendations to Expand Your Worldview

Make it a resolution to acquire imagination, courage, and perspective.

Posted Dec 30, 2018

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. This list is a portion of the 55 books read since January. The title is a hyperlink to purchase each book, so you can initiate an emotional roller coaster or intellectual journey within seconds. The theme for this year's list is perspective taking. In an era of ideological minefields, where people cannot physically communicate or befriend neighbors and childhood friends, because they are not privately sharing identical viewpoints, what we all need is to look in a mirror and dissect our beloved worldviews. We need to be willing to learn about views that are different from our own. We need to be willing to be wrong. We need to be willing to have our ideas questioned. We need to get out of our self-curated bubbles, and disagree and debate (civilly!) in actual face-to-face conversations. Each of these books will assist you in being psychologically broader and stronger. With that said, these books are also enjoyable. I prefer being intellectually challenged while enjoying the ride. I suspect you will feel the same way after opening these book covers. I bet my reputation on these picks.

1. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

This book is listed at number one, because regardless of your interests and favorite genre, this is required reading. This is a treatise on how society has changed in the past 10 years, and not for the better. If you want to understand the current political landscape, without any mention of despised public figures, this is it. 

The book revolves around three problematic ideas that recently dominated the culture of the United States:

  • What doesn't kill us makes us weaker. (Humans are fragile and must feel emotionally safe, especially in debates, discussions, and disagreements.)
  • Always trust your feelings. (When you feel anxious, embarrassed, or uncomfortable without having basis in fact, this is sufficient evidence to say that whatever or whoever made you feel this way is wrong, harmful, bad, evil, etc. — a vast change from the days when "emotional reasoning" was considered a cognitive distortion.)
  • Life is a battle of good and evil people. (The world is a perpetual battle of your friends versus the "other groups.")

We now live in a world where adults file accusations of harm immediately, especially with social media, before initially doing an internal check. Just because we feel offended does not automatically mean the other person is an aggressor or bad person. And being on a hypervigilant search for harm ensures you will find it. Assuming innocence until proven otherwise is, unfortunately, becoming a relic in public discourse. 

Essentially, many of the principles for protecting people from dissenting viewpoints run counter to thousands of years of theory and practice, from stoic philosophy to cognitive-behavioral therapy. This book is timely. Regardless of how much you agree with the authors, it's time to have a serious conversation of whether the social progress pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and if so, what can be done. Do yourself a favor. Read the entire book. 

2. Faking it: The lies women tell about sex — and the truths they reveal by Lux Alptraum

My first reaction after reading this book was — how is this not an international bestseller? If you are a woman, you are going to be nodding your head from the first chapter onward. If you are a man, prepare to have your worldview torn asunder. Provocative stereotypes and common behaviors by women are introduced and then flipped around in each chapter. Good science. Good stories. Fantastic writing. Emotionally intense. This is probably the easiest book to read on this list. Just know that once you pick this up, you will not want to leave your reading chair until finished.

3. Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything by Randi Hutter Epstein

Again, how is this book not a bestseller? Many of the topics in this book are complicated. Sleep. The immune system. Sex. Violence. Maternal and paternal love. Puberty. But Epstein weaves a good yarn, and is really, really funny. Just the stories about medical charlatans alone are worth the price of admission. If you love science, and you want to question free will a bit, take this book for a ride. 

4. What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan.

There are few things worse than when people in your family and inner circle die out of order. This is a story about suicide. I know what you're thinking. I don't need to read a 320-page book about suicide. Yes, you do. We think we know more about the important people in our life than actuality. We simply do not know what happens behind closed doors. If you are a parent or have friends, read this to ramp up your skills a few percentage points. Social media offers an illusion that we are connecting with people, and are there for family and friends for the wins, strains, and stressors. This is about the pressure to succeed. This is about presenting yourself as something that you are not. This is about how we interpret people's insides from their outside appearance. This is about the stigma and insufficient treatment of mental health issues in society. If I am making this book sound too somber, do not be mistaken. You will probably want to cry, but this is because the story is relentlessly compelling. 

5. Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

You might not know the origin of this book. Auerbach posted snippets of a story on Redditor, an online forum for weird creative writing. He received a ton of followers who begged for more. Eventually, he basically wrote an entire book-length story for free online. Because of the hype and untraditional nature, a lot of readers trash this book. Ignore the haters. This was the creepiest book I read this year. My mom died when I was young, and I often have a hard time remembering whether my memories are accurate, or whether they are recreations from photograph albums and anecdotes told by relatives. This book pivots on the same theme — what do you really know about your past? What have you forgotten or misunderstood, because you were just a kid trying to make sense of the world? The book unfolds from the perspective of a kid who experiences a few bizarre events and only begins to understand the earlier events as he gets older. You, the reader, will learn the truth in the same sequential order of the narrator putting the pieces of his life narrative together. 

The hair on my arms is raised as I write this. I cannot express this strongly enough: This is creepy stuff. Expect to be haunted long after you're finished.

6. A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong

I cannot believe nobody told me about this book. I picked it up at the local library and didn't get up until 15 hours later. In 2016, the two authors won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of this unbelievable story. Unbelievable is the keyword. In short, an 18-year-old woman says she was raped at knifepoint, the police didn't believe her, the victim admitted to the investigators that she lied, she was charged with a misdemeanor for false reporting, and then the story really gets started. Did I mention that this is unbelievable? Except it isn't. Get ready for a reorientation about gender, trust, first-line responders, criminal investigations, and more. As a side note, there is a fantastic side story about what it's like to be a female police officer. I wish I bought this for a re-read. Don't make my mistake.

7. Levels of the Game by John McPhee

Listen to me very carefully, this book by this author is perhaps the greatest piece of writing I have ever witnessed. Forget The Great Gatsby, I am voting for Levels of the Game. How the hell can you write a 160-page book about a single tennis match in 1968 between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner and entrance me when I don't even care about tennis? How is this possible? McPhee, whom I refer to as the master wordsmith, bounces between more than three stories, and this will barely even register. He walks you through each point of the match while taking you through the backstory of what it's like to be a black man in America, and what it's like to be a good-looking man born to wealth and prestige with nary an opportunity to be your own man (woman). Read it because you like sports. Read it to learn about race and privilege without a hint of proselytizing. Read it to know how to write, really write. 

8. Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday

How utterly boring. Hulk Hogan, the steroid injecting fake wrestler who succumbed to the money-grubbing lore of reality television. Peter Thiel, the self-serving millionaire who shocked Silicon Valley as the lone Republican who stumped for Donald Trump from the beginning. Gawker, one of the crappiest online gossip rags on the interwebs. And yet, together, in the hands of Holiday, this story is captivating. Each of these characters offers a window into the psychological complexity of fear, honor, trust, betrayal, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and the terrible energy and money wasted by fragile egos. How utterly enthralling.

Let me share a favorite passage:

     "One of the most profound intellectual influences on Peter Thiel is a French thinker named René Girard, whom he met while at Stanford and whose funeral he would eventually speak at in 2015. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire holds that people have no idea what they want, or what they value, so are drawn to what other people want. They want what other people have. They covet. It’s this, Girard says, that is the source of almost all the conflict in the world."

Go against your instincts and read this book. Think of it as a philosophy book that teaches you ancient wisdom through one single, crazy-ass conflict.

9. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen

How many books have been written about Charles Darwin? Hundreds? With few exceptions, each spends the majority of the time on his immortal four-year voyage aboard The HMS Beagle, collecting specimens and making observations about the Galapagos Islands. Not this one. This infinitely readable story is about the much more interesting part of Darwin's life. A single question is the nucleus of the book: Why did Darwin wait 18 years to publish his landmark work on natural selection? You will never view Darwin in the same way. 

10. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova

Let me end with a book that I adored. How are con artists able to to be successful? How do you get someone to believe something that is not true? Access the mechanics of scams, and the sophisticated relationship that is formed and maintained between the "aristocrats of crime" and their victims. This is probably my favorite psychology book of the year. Konnikova provides great detail on different types of scams, explaining why they work, with plenty of case studies from the past few centuries. Yes, there is a bit of repetition, but I didn't mind, because I wanted to remember the insights. You might think you possess too much practical intelligence to be duped. We have pet theories about the type of people who fall prey to cons or scams. Expect to be impressed by the sophistication of evildoers. I can't help but be reminded by my favorite skit of Dave Chappelle's show on the difference between blue and white-collar criminals.

And as a bonus, 11. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This is the only set of short stories on the list. Buy it for four stories that will sink teeth deep into your psyche, "The Finkelstein 5," "Zimmer Land," "Friday Black," and "Through the Flash." I hesitate to give any details, but let me just say this about "Zimmer Land" — imagine a theme park in the future where patrons can pay to shoot an actor who plays Trayvon Martin. Now go one step further, and imagine what it would be like to be the black man hired to play Trayvon Martin for 8 hours per day, 5 days per week. It is a harrowing tale, and I cannot believe Adjei-Brenyah is a first-time author. Having read it, I really want to listen to it as an audiobook. There was no way I was leaving this book off the list....

As always, please leave comments about these books and offer your own recommendations. In case you missed the last 7 years of book recommendations, here are the links.

Here is the list of books to read from 2017

Here is the list of books to read from 2016

Here is the list of books to read from 2015

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

So many great minds to converse with, so little time.