A 21st Century Thinker’s Reading List for 2014
Read these twelve books to elevate your brain and body in 2014
Posted Jan 20, 2014
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
The late Carl Sagan was an accomplished scientist involved in several significant projects in the late 20th century. But his greatest achievement was getting millions of others excited about science. He wrote several good books but this one may be the most important. Give it a try even if you don’t normally read science books. It’s friendly, low-tech, and potentially life-changing. Sagan doesn’t try to teach you what to think; he shows you how to think. If you haven’t read it, make it your first book for 2014. If you have read it, consider reading it again. It’s that good.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz
My book 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think are True includes a chapter about end-of-the-world beliefs and fears. In it I survey baseless doomsday claims that have haunted the minds of weak skeptics for centuries. I also explore evidence-based events that really could happen (asteroid strike, virus pandemic, supervolcano eruptions, nuclear war). While this might seem like a depressing subject, I loved researching and writing about our demise. More than once I felt the urge/need to write a book solely about the end of us. Thanks to Annalee Newitz, however, I don’t have to. Her brilliant book is a fun and memorable run through the horrifying ways we may one day crash and burn as a species. It’s also a fascinating history lesson about past near-misses. Most surprisingly, it’s likely to leave readers feeling optimistic about the future—though with a few concerns. Newitz makes the case that we are probably tough enough, smart enough and creative enough to endure. Don’t trek any deeper into the 21st century without this excellent book tucked under your arm.
The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer, by Gretchen Reynolds
If you want to look good, feel good—and have a brain and body that work well—then physical activity is required. That’s easy to say, of course, but often hard to do. This book delivers some very good news: you don’t have to find hours of exercise time or push yourself to the limit out on the roads or in the gym to achieve a decent level of fitness. It’s about training smart and consistently. Not having enough time or energy are the go-to excuses for not working out. No more. Science has eliminated those dodges. You only need to carve out about twenty minutes per day for exercise to be on your way to a healthier brain and body. This is not a book with a gimmick or a bunch of rah-rah nonsense. Based on scientific research, it’s uncomplicated, convincing, and practical. Read this book and get busy.
The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, by Claire Nouvian
While teaching science and history at a small school in the Caribbean I always knew that boredom and distraction were my rivals. If my students’ thoughts wandered to video games or their gaze drifted to the beautiful sea just outside the classroom windows they would not remember anything I said. So I had to be ruthless in capturing them and making them prisoners to the inherent excitement of the day’s topic. My secret weapons were tangible objects, things they could see, touch and pass around. I held nothing back, bringing in my personal treasures: everything from a Spartan sword to a Homo erectus skull (replicas, of course), all in hopes of widening their eyes and keeping their heart rates up.
It may have been a book, however, that sparked the most excitement. The day I was to talk about what we do and do not know about the deep oceans I had nothing. No stuffed angler fish, no gulper eel skeleton, so I brought in my favorite book about sea life. The Deep, with its large color photos of bizarre deep-sea life, stunned my students. So much so, that I had to repeatedly reassure them that these were in fact real species alive today and not photoshopped fantasies. The photographs led us into deep discussions about Earth’s biodiversity, the challenges of marine science, and even the possibilities of life on other worlds. It was a lecture I won’t ever forget. I’m pretty sure most of the students won’t forget it either, all because of this remarkable book.
It is remarkable that something as important to all of us as the brain is not better understood and appreciated. There is so much about it that everyone should be aware of, from how to stimulate and keep it healthy to how it actually goes about thinking, remembering, and processing input. Medina’s book is a wonderful easy-to-absorb introduction to brain science. I think we should all be on our way to becoming amateur brain scientists and this book is the perfect starting place. Don’t worry, it’s not some dry academic work that will feel like a chore to read. This is a practical user’s manual that is fun to read and sure to change the way you feel about your brain forever.
Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer
Who are we and how did we get here? Ask those two fundamental questions to random people on the street and it’s very unlikely that you will hear many sound, evidence-based summaries of human prehistory. Sadly, our story is a virtual blank to most people but you can at least make sure that you are up to speed. Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer does a wonderful job of reviewing our amazing story and discussing how we know what we know about it. So put down your stone hand axe, sit by the campfire, and read this excellent book.
When it comes to talent, we either have it or we don’t, right? Not so fast, as this book shows, many popular and traditional ideas about innate ability and potential are not supported by modern science. We have been overvaluing genes as a kind of rigid destiny while underappreciating environmental influences. This is crucial news for both the individual and society. Shenk argues that the whole nature vs. nurture debate was wrong from the start and should be ejected from our thoughts. The reality is that genes and environment unite in an intimate tangle that can’t be undone. This book will enlighten for sure, but it also may keep you from selling short you or your children when it comes to potential.
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, by Richard Dawkins
This stylishly illustrated book presents easy-to-understand information about our universe, our world, and ourselves in a way that will excite anyone with a pulse. It’s also an inspirational kick in the rear that may motivate you to think more clearly in everyday life. This book is a sure hit with young readers but don’t think it’s just for them. It’s for everyone, regardless of age.
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
The argument against spending money on space exploration naturally resonates with people who care about problems on Earth. But it’s an argument that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and Tyson explains why with crystal clear language. This collection of essays is an excellent crash course on scientific exploration as a necessity and not a luxury. He lays out the facts about how much is actually spent and what we get in return. He also makes clear what the cost is when we shrink from exploration and research. If you have ever questioned the wisdom of investing in space then read this book. If you already understand why space matters but would like to do a better job of explaining it to critics then read this book.
This book will open your eyes to a reality most others are not fully aware of. You are an ecosystem, a rainforest with legs, a coral reef community in shoes. The amount of non-human life that is on and inside of us is staggering. We are outnumbered ten to one in our own bodies! It seems reasonable to me that we should know something about the viruses, fungi, bacteria and various other critters that help, hurt, or simply tag along for the ride with us. If you are curious about what’s going on and who’s included in your personal ecosystem then read this book.
Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author of many excellent books. In this one he neatly summarizes what’s wrong with us when it comes to falling for crazy claims and bogus beliefs. Our brains, Shermer explains, are belief engines that constantly try to find patterns and make sense of the things our senses detect. Unfortunately human brains can find patterns that aren’t really there and often work overtime to make sense out of the senseless. The good news, however, is that we have the scientific process that is very good at separating reality from fantasy–but it only works if we use it.
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
After reading the previous eleven books maybe you will be ready to put your new-found awareness and awesomeness to work. One of the greatest joys and sources of satisfaction is creative work. Do something new and different. Produce something the world has never seen before. Sculpt a giant virus out of clay. Take up micro or space photography. Go to a faith healing event and write about it from the skeptic’s perspective. Sketch an Australopithecus. Whatever you do doesn’t have to be the best ever or some radical new invention. Creative work is anything you produce that has your personal flavor within it.Recognize that you can and should create. But how do you get going and keep going when the inspiration isn’t always there? If you need a nudge—and you will—to get stay on track with the creative process and overcome the endless list of reasons why you can’t paint, sculpt, compose, write or build, then Steven Pressfield’s War of Art can help. It’s short and respects the reader’s intelligence, the perfect inspirational self-help book for people who don’t like inspirational self-help books.