There are books that leave a before/after dividing line in your life: after having read them, you just can’t see the world the same way. Some of these titles are spiritually oriented; others, like Traffic or Genghis Khan, will give you a religion of a different kind. Either way, you’re in for a serious a-ha!. Note that if a book from the “Useful” category is especially good, it gets listed here, too.
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print). Got anything against joy? Of course not. How about the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu? They’re the most lovable guys in the world. And what’s more, they’re buddies! In April 2015, Tutu travels to Dharamsala to hang out with the Dalai Lama for his 80th birthday. In that time, they have a dialogue addressing the perennial question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? These two being professionally wise men (and also wise guys, as it turns out), they come up with some deep and humorous answers to that question. The DL says, “We should have wise selfishness rather than foolish selfishness. Foolish selfishness means you just think about yourself… In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. So that is what I call wise selfishness.”
The book is a potent counterbalance to the sometimes toxic obsession with ambition and materialism in Western societies: “The paradox is that although the drive behind excessive self-focus is to seek greater happiness for yourself, it ends up doing exactly the opposite. When you focus too much on yourself, you become disconnected and alienated from others. In the end, you also become alienated from yourself, since the need for connection with others is such a fundamental part of who we are as human beings.”
The ghostwriter Doug Abrams, a great writer and spiritual teacher in his own right, augments the dialogue of the two great men with discursions into positive psychology and the science of happiness. In the process, he has created a fantastic reference manual for living a life of meaning and joy. They even find the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Rated a stratospheric 4.8/5 by Amazon readers, this is one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read. 10/10
Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up “Altruism” at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab.
This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it’s has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”
A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. 9.5/10
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. Ressler is a superb instructor who has the gift of explaining everything with instantly graspable lucidity. His handcrafted demonstrations bring the concepts to life and burn them in your visual memory. How do they build dams? How is electrical power generated, transported and distributed? How does your POTS (plain old telephone service) work, and why is it so damn indestructibly reliable?
This was my long-overdue education in how the modern world functions — the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, to water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. For me, this was a massive unraveling of the mysteries of the built environment, and feel as if I understand the world much better. I watched it at 2x speed on my iPad (the desktop interface won’t let you change speeds), making it a supremely worthwhile 9-hour investment. 10/10
Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy (2017) by Sadhguru (ebook & print). “The moment I realized that human desire was not for any particular thing, but just to expand illimitably, a certain clarity rose within me… My whole aim since then has been to somehow rub this experience off on other people, to awaken them to the fact that this state of joy, of freedom, of limitlessness cannot be denied to them unless they stand in the way of the natural effervescence of life.” Most Westerners have not heard of Sadhguru, but maybe they should. Think of him as an Indian version of the Dalai Lama who teaches yoga (the original stuff, not downward dog) instead of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a profundity and simplicity to this book that can only come from someone who has lived its precepts. Personally not down with some of the supernatural bits (e.g. beware of stone deities at home!) and pseudoscience dietary advice, but otherwise one of the best books I’ve read on the practical spirituality of living a joyous, fulfilled life. 9/10
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook, print & audio). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to question how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot! I have a much better understanding of the complexities of the urban environment. Although I may not have any less road rage than before, it feels nice to know where it comes from 🙂 8.5/10
The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print). This is a classic by a guy who should be far more widely read in this country. Heck, if I was King of the Universe, I’d make it mandatory reading for every high school kid. This guy drops truth bomb like Kissinger on Cambodia: surreptitiously but in abundance. Here’s one: “It is hardly necessary to stress the fact that the ability to love as an act of giving depends on the character development of the person. It presupposes the attainment of a predominantly productive orientation; in this orientation the person has overcome dependency, narcissistic omnipotence, the wish to exploit others, or to hoard, and has acquired faith in his own human powers, courage to rely on his powers in the attainment of his goals. To the degree that these qualities are lacking, he is afraid of giving himself—hence of loving.” Damn! 80 highlights in 104 pages = most highlights per page of any book I’ve ever read. Insanely prescient; everything he said 50 years ago rings true today. No one should get married before reading and internalizing this first. 10/10
The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight by Lorin Roche (ebook & print). “Love calls our attention and engages us. When we give love our tender attention, we are in the realm of tantra. Life is a mysterious, self-renewing process. The techniques of meditation are ways of allowing the ecstasy of the life-force at play to renew our bodies and souls. Ask your body to teach you and to take you on adventures into intimacy with your own essence. This is the yoga of wonder and delight.” Roche is an old-school scholar of Eastern wisdom, and a thoroughly lovely chap. This book is a call to true meditation and the deepening of your heart. 9.5/10
The Lessons of History (1975) by Will & Ariel Durant (ebook & print). I came to this via Ray Dalio’s Principles (also reviewed) in which he mentioned this as one of his favorite books. “War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.” Say what? Or: “Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” If you spend 40 years of your life writing an 11-volume history of all civilization, you too may be able to come up with mind-blowing nuggets like that. In the meantime, we can read the Durants’ 128-page condensation of their masterpiece. 9/10
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005) by Jack Weatherford (ebook, print & audio). Seasoned historian Weatherford is Genghis Khan Fan #1, and his revisionist history painstakingly reconstructs Genghis’s milieu, upbringing, motives, conquests, and reign. Still keeping in mind that Genghis Khan was responsible for the biggest slaughter in world history — between 20 and 40 million people, depending on who’s counting — he did pioneer many advances during his rule: meritocracy over nepotism; religious tolerance; citizenship for conquered peoples instead of captivity or oppression; patronizing the arts and sciences; and crazy effective leadership. The impact of the man on world history was cataclysmic, and this eminently readable book brings you up to speed on him. I read it in both audiobook and ebook forms. Many big-name CEOs and entrepreneurs swear by this one. 8.5/10
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10
The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained by Prof Michael Wysession (Great Courses). How is power generated from coal, hydro, natural gas, fracking, tar sands, solar, wind? How is that power then stored and distributed? How does the smart grid work? Wysession explains everything with great clarity, laying out the tradeoffs each form of energy creates, and the solutions humans have come up with. I listened to the audio version; the video version is probably richer. 9.5/10
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did. Marine, Harvard Law grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal.
Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection (2017) Stephen Cope (ebook & print). Cope’s last book, The Great Work of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorites, which I buy in stacks to give away to friends. So I was eager to read his newest creation. The Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Kripalu Center for over 25 years, Cope turns his learned, wise and compassionate mind towards the topic of deep friendship. He shares stories about friendships and mentorships of his own, as well as historical accounts from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria. In a world that seems to be too busy for authentic connection, Cope reminds us of the urgency and transformative power of deep friendship. So good. 9/10
Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.
Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.
But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-bending book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.
The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was the soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. Amongst their collaborations, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This upends the whole idea of Homo economicus which is the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because you may have noted that Danny is not an economist, yo.
Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10