The 13 Most Insanely Great Books I Read Last Year (including the best one I’ve ever read)

How great are these books? Well, let me tell you. See, my 1-10 rating system not really linear but logarithmic. Meaning the difference between an 8 and a 9 is huge, and that between a 9 and a 10 is even huger. A rating of 10/10 is earned only by the most extraordinary of books, and all of these but one are 10s.

These titles turn out to be about 10% of the books I read last year (13/132). Four of these I consumed in audiobook format (Born a Crime, American Prometheus, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, King Leopold’s Ghost). One of them is technically not a book but a video/audio course from The Great Courses which takes as much time as a long book. Super worthwhile, that one.

Some of these are Herculean works that took a decade or more to write. That we get to hold them and read the monumental effort of these scholars for just a few bucks (or free, if from a library) is an insane privilege. The first 12 are in no particular order. The last two are The Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read. Not just last year, but ever. Seriously.

And if you choose to acquire these books for your reading pleasure, purchasing via the provided Amazon affiliate links deposits several shiny pennies in my account towards supporting this blog and my reading habit. Dig in:

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah didn’t fully belong either the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.

It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about our everyday problems, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select the next candidate that’s better than all you’ve seen so far. That’s from optimal stopping theory. There are more: “Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our offices. Caching theory tells us how to fill our closets. Scheduling theory tells us how to fill our time.” I feel like this book initiated me into a secret society that knows a lot more than me about the inner workings of the world. 10/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 10/10

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio). One day last year, while  I was traveling in Australia, I thought to myself: “Y’know, self, you’ve led a fairly charmed life. You should read about some pain.” Thus started my Heartbreak Project, in which I took on books about the awful things humans have done to one another. This is definitely one of those books.

The plundering of the Congo and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of the Congolese happened on a scale that beggars the imagination, especially compared to how little Westerners know about it. 6-10 million Congolese perished. King Leopold had turned a country half the size of Europe into his own personal colony so he could fund his palaces and teenage whore-mistresses. If you go to Brussels today — Joseph Conrad’s “sepulchral city” from Heart of Darkness — pretty much every old building you see was built with Leopold’s Congo money.

There are legions of despicable characters in this story, amongst them Henry M. Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for finding Victoria Falls and Dr Livingstone. But Leopold’s crimes were exposed only because of the insane bravery of a few true heroes. Englishman Edmund Dene Morel, and black Americans George Washington Williams and Wiliam Sheppard risked assassination and fatal tropical disease to expose the atrocities of the Congo and turn international sentiment against it. 

This is holocaust-level stuff that very few people have heard about. The story will break your heart dozens of times, and also redeem and enlarge it. 10/10

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, tiger physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you are there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017) by Eric Barker (ebook & print). This book is so chock-full of useful information that I highlighted it over 200 times.

What do I like about it? First, it’s full of great stories that stay with you. There’s James Waters with his mental strategies that got him through Navy SEAL training, a Harvard MBA, and a White House job. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the illegal Mexican migrant worker boy who became a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. There’s Spencer Glendon with the debilitating ulcerative colitis who became a world-class money manager anyway. Dozens of vivid, funny, inspiring stories of ingenuity, grit, and optimism here.

Second, Barker amply supports all recommendations with research findings. So you will learn fascinating, counterintuitive concepts from social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology. It reminds me of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, another great book that’s full of ingenious mindhacks.

Third, it’s full of usable unconventional wisdom. Were pirates the progressives of their day? Why do so few valedictorians become millionaires? Why do jerks succeed? (Hint: they ask for what they want and self-promote to their bosses.) No one book will turn you into an overnight success, but this one has a lot of signposts for living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’d be wise to read and share it. 9.5/10

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 were King of the Universe, I’d make it mandatory reading for every high school kid. Fromm drops truth bomb like Kissinger drops napalm 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 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? Heck, 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? 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

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure:

1) Invade Native American (aka Indian) territory by making trails, building railroads, staking land claims, stealing livestock, or just attacking them without warning.
2) Provoked Native American tribes fight back to reclaim their hunting grounds, get back their livestock or their captives, or take revenge for the murders white people committed.
3) Settlers complain to the US Government, which now sends overwhelming force to attack the tribe.
4) Even though massively outnumbered and only possessing primitive weapons, the tribes inflict huge casualties on the US Military or outright defeat them.
5) The US Government makes a treaty with the tribes, granting them rights to a diminished, marginally livable territory, supposedly in perpetuity, and forbidding trespassing upon Indian hunting grounds and pastures. In the meantime, they forcibly march the Indians on foot to their new territory hundreds of miles away. Many Natives perish in the marches.
6) The Native Americans do not read or write English, so with each treaty, the US routinely swindles Natives out of vast swathes of their territories. Many are confined to restrictive, barely habitable reservations. Their government-issued food rations are meager, or stolen, or of inedible quality provided by profiteers. Widespread disease and death ensues.
7) Within 1-5 years, the treaty is violated by white settlers who want to mine gold, raise cattle, build railroads or make trails through the supposedly sacrosanct Native American territory. The US Government fails to enforce its own treaties. The tribes have no choice but to undertake the defense of their lands.
8) Completely ignoring their own treaties, the US Army takes this as justification to exterminate the Native Americans. Their usual modus operandi is to attack unarmed villages without notice, moving down everyone, including women and children. They all fervently believed in Gen. Sheridan’s maxim, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
9) The few surviving Native Americans are confined to unlivable reservations far away from their homelands. Most die of disease, malnutrition, or broken hearts.
10) Repeat cycle for any remaining tribes until all are exterminated or confined to reservations.

The pattern of genocide is similar to how the Nazis exterminated Jews. First, Native Americans were declared subhuman, and therefore worthy of slaughter. This was completely accepted public opinion amongst white Americans.

Second, the Americans controlled all the means of creating and disseminating information, which they used to create outright lies and propaganda to further demonize Natives.

Third, once the tribes were overpowered and captured, they were confined to reservations, which functioned just like concentration camps.

Fourth, whites used manufactured, quasi-religious doctrine such as “Manifest Destiny” to justify breaking the treaties they themselves had written up, then invade more territory. America’s destiny was to go from sea to shining sea. The Natives just had bad luck to be in the way, and had to be removed.

Before reading the book, I knew that non-Indo-European place names in the US were of Native American origin. Twenty-six of US States have Indian names, as do hundreds of cities, counties, lakes, mountains and rivers. And you know what? 99.9% of the owners of those names were murdered by the US Government.

If everyone knew about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, seeing these names – like Nantucket, Seminole, Tuskegee, Massachusetts, Algonquin, Alabama, Tennessee – would have the same emotional valence as signs saying “Auschwitz”, “Buchenwald” and “Treblinka.”

But most people don’t know, because history is written by the victors. And when I was a kid, we watched Westerns and played Cowboys and Indians, and everyone knew that the Indians were the bad guys.

Except that we were wrong. The Indians were the good guys. They were peaceful animists with venerable cultures who had figured out how to live in balance with their environment for 40,000 years. They had a real sense of honor and right and wrong. They were tremendously brave, in a way that astonished their white assailants. They were not afraid of death. And every white person who got to know them well became convinced of their nobility of spirit.

If it weren’t for the Indians teaching the Mayflower pilgrims how to hunt, build homes and farm, all those white people would have died in their first winter, and there would be no Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, the white people grew in number, overtook and massacred the peaceful Indians who just wanted to be left free to live like they had for the 40,000 years prior. The Native American culture was a humanistic, just and ecologically sound one, and the Western world is impoverished for having destroyed it.
Most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Dee Brown’s detective work to find these stories told from the Indian side, dig up government archives, and come up with a cohesive narrative, is nothing short of Herculean. The details of the battles, the marches and councils are alive — and heartbreaking. Americans may want to think about how reflexively proud they want to be of a military that has been a force for genocide and imperialism whose last just war was WWII. 10/10

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 — understanding the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. 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

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more that I haven’t even gotten to yet.

Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure.  

Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, its characters, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. 10/10

And the two greatest books I’ve ever read:

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Along with Robert Greenberg, Sapolsky is The Greatest Lecturer Alive. Not only is he a straight-up genius pioneer in both neuroscience and primatology, but he’s also brilliant at explaining things in a way that is exciting, humorous, and accessible.

The core of this book is the answer to this question: Why did you do what you just did? Sapolsky goes back to the second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months before, and centuries and millennia before the behavior happened, examining what happened at the level of molecules, genes, cells, organs, organisms, societies and nations.

If that sounds like everything there is to know about being human, you would be correct. Neurotransmitters, hormones, dominance hierarchies, infancy, brain development, childhood, behavior, obedience, morality, metaphors, justice, war —  it’s all in there.

At 800 pages, this is a substantial book that took me a month to get through. Even though Sapolsky’s writing is fluid and fun, I still had to read paragraphs several times to understand what was going on. Using the brain to understand the brain is pretty trippy if you think about it.

As one of the leading neuroscientists of our day, Sapolsky is in a position to debunk many popular misconceptions. Evolution doesn’t have to be slow; it can happen quickly. Testosterone does not cause aggression; it merely intensifies our predisposed behaviors. Oxytocin only makes you more warm and cuddly towards Us; it actually makes us more ethnocentric and xenophobic versus Them.

The richness of this book — the multiplicity of a-ha! moments, the wit, the fun factlets (re-feralized subway-riding Moscow dogs! ), the explanatory power — you just have to experience on your own. It’s a tour de force wrapped in a magnum opus of a masterpiece. Simply, the greatest book I’ve ever read. Get it to get you, human. 10/10

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to have liked it, too. It’s really more magic trick than book. It was not enough to write mini-biographies of 30+ towering figures — Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, Teller, Rutherford, Leslie Groves, Roosevelt — and that’s just in the first quarter of the book. It was not enough to track down all the letters they wrote to one another, and the declassified records of confidential conversations and surveillance. It was not enough to explain the rise of modern physics — quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, radiation — in lucid prose accessible to the layman and accurate for the scientists. It was not enough to chronicle the advent of WW I, Hitler, anti-semitism, Fascism, and WW II, and place them all in their historical context.

Rhodes’ magic trick is to put you at the very edge of history, when the likes of Niels Bohr and Erwin Schroedinger are trying to explain the unexplainable by creating a whole new field of science, bizarre and counterintuitive, as if you’re there, and it’s all new — like being at the world premier of Beethoven’s 9th. As a former physics student who studied this stuff in textbooks that long took the science for granted, I felt like Rhodes gave me access to that primal mind searching in the dark for answers to the mysteries the universe. Exhilarating stuff.

The story of humans cracking the atom and harnessing nuclear energy is arguably The Greatest Story Ever Told, and nobody tells it better than Richard Rhodes. Tuck in for a fun, mind-expanding ride. 10/10