We’re about to wrap up another year and, for me, that means the culmination of yet another successful stretch of reading, learning, and growing as a human being.
It’s safe to say that we are living in a truly extraordinary time.
While we have access to more information than at any other period in human history, the advent of the internet, social media, and a vastly growing 24 hour news cycle has also made it easier than ever before for us to remain in our own bubbles of like-minded people, ideas, and world views.
In my humble opinion, this can be pretty dangerous to society—because if you look at the long arc of human history, and the incredible journey that got us to where we are now as a civilization, progress has always been made when different groups of people have shared ideas, dissolved the superficial prejudices that divided them, and united to chart a path forward.
Most of the time, however, you wouldn’t know this— especially if you’ve been tuning in to your favorite cable news pundit, flipping through your social media feed, or listening to some of our elected officials.
In the last few years no single activity has opened my heart and mind up more than reading has done.
I managed to get through 41 amazing books in 2017, and while they were all pretty worthwhile, I realize that most people aren’t going to read that many books in a year—therefore, I decided I’d list my top ten with a link and brief description for each one.
I hope you’ll take the time to read through the list and, even better, purchase some copies for yourself in an effort to become a better, more well-rounded and enlightened individual.
1. Capital In The 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty is a professor at the Paris School of Economics and one of the leading experts on global wealth inequality. He cites over a decade of research using data compiled from 6 countries—France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States—since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This book has helped mold my thinking on economics and, considering our Congress just passed a tax bill that will have tremendous ramifications on our country’s economy, I feel it is an important read for anyone who seriously wants to understand global economics, the dynamics of wealth inequality, and the steps that national governments can take to ensure a more just and equitable future for generations to come.
2. The Hacking Of The American Mind: The Science Behind The Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies And Brains, by Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL
Dopamine and Serotonin: two powerful neurotransmitters responsible for the feelings of pleasure and happiness. While dopamine is vital to our survival and evolution as a species, too much can lead to addiction. And while serotonin is extremely important in generating the feelings of contentment in our brains, too little can lead to depression. Dr. Robert Lustig explains in great detail how, over the course of the last forty years, the corporate consumption complex has transformed us from individuals into consumers. This metamorphosis has led us into a vicious cycle of high stress and dependence on substances (food, drugs) and behaviors (shopping, gambling, web surfing) that have wreaked havoc on our limbic system and, in turn, our health and well-being as a society.
3. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
To put it as bluntly as possible: this is a book that every white person should read—especially if they believe that racism isn’t still a major factor in today’s society, or that the systemic effects of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration don’t still affect class stratification in today’s United States. Ta-Nehisi Coates is quickly becoming America’s premier contemporary voice on race and race relations. This book contains a collection of 8 essays he wrote for each year of the Obama presidency. It is truly an eye-opening account of the black experience in America and why, even though we have made significant progress and come a long way in the last 150 years, we still have a long way to go if we truly want to live in a country where everyone is given an equal and unbiased opportunity at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
4. Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
This book affected me in a profound way. Sebastian Junger is an author, documentarian, and war correspondent. After spending years in Afghanistan he set out to answer one question: Why is it that the rates of PTSD are higher in the United States than in any other country? The result was this treatise. Blending psychology, anthropology, and history, he explains how modern society has fundamentally disconnected us from our evolutionary roots and our tribal past. Humans thrive when we struggle together; our modern lifestyle is not only free of any real hardship, but it has become increasingly solitary for many of us—we are connected as ever before but incredibly lonely at the same time. Tribe is a book about all of us and how we are stronger together rather than individually, and how we can become more aware of the societal factors contributing to the decline of our mental and emotional health as a group.
5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Harari is an Oxford educated history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Sapiens is his #1 international best-seller and is quite possibly one of the greatest, most fascinating books I have ever read. He brilliantly weaves together biology, anthropology, and history to tell the human story like no one before him. He begins 70,000 years ago with the dawn of modern cognition and takes you through an incredible journey from the agricultural to the scientific revolutions. This book rewrites our understanding of what it means to be a Homo Sapiens and is guaranteed to challenge any and every deeply held notion you have on society, culture, and religion.
6. Grant, by Ron Chernow
Ulysses S. Grant is quite possibly the single most underrated president in American history. Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life, does a remarkable job of setting the record straight and shedding light on this exceptional man and his amazing life. At 39 years old, Ulysses Grant was considered a failure by everyone that knew him—years earlier he was forced to resign from the military amid accusations of drunkenness, he had failed multiple times in various business ventures, and was living off a paltry salary as a store clerk and the generosity of friends and family. By the age of 55, he had served as lieutenant-general of the Union Army, leading the North to victory over the Confederacy, and had served two terms as the 18th president of the United States of America. As president, he presided over the creation of the Secret Service and the Justice Department; the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments; he appointed the most minorities in history at the time to federal positions in the government; and he successfully facilitated an arbitration—the first of its kind—between the U.S and the U.K., in which the latter agreed to pay the former 15.5 million in damages for violating neutrality and providing the Confederate army with warships during the Civil War. Grant was also a vigorous crusader for civil rights and battled relentlessly against the Ku Klux Klan and southern opposition to Reconstruction throughout his eight years as president. He signed the first Civil Rights Bill in our nation’s history in 1875 (The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1883). If you consider yourself a student of history, or if you have any illusions as to what the Civil War was ultimately about—or if you just want to read an amazing true story about an incredible human being and the indelible service he provided to our nation, you should definitely make this book a part of your collection.
7. Thinking Fast And Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning psychologist who has spent his life studying and experimenting in the field of behavioral economics. This book documents his life work with fellow psychologist and friend Amos Tversky, and explains how our brains make intuitive decisions based on preconceived heuristics and biases. Their findings make an impressive (and controversial) case that human beings are not as rational as they think they are; and that only by understanding the many ways in which the mind can mislead us in the short-term can we better shape public policy and discourse to serve our collective long-term interests.
8. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, And The Golden Age Of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
At a time when the most crucial role of a free and independent press is being questioned and attacked by our leaders, a book like this one and the information contained within its pages is of vital importance to anyone who truly wants to understand our history, improve our country, or work towards a more prosperous future for all of its citizens. Doris Kearns Goodwin—through her fascinating account of the “Golden Age” of journalism and the “Muckraking” investigative reporters of McClure’s magazine—documents a tremendously important era in US history and the social and political climates that led to the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the birth of the Progressive movement in American politics. This is a thoroughly entertaining read—so much so that DreamWorks purchased the film rights and is working on bringing it to the big screen.
I decided to make these three books a single pick because they all tackle the same subject—the ancient but still very relevant philosophy of Stoicism. Seneca was a Roman statesman and philosopher, Epictetus was born a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D. Although they lived vastly different lives, they made it through their own individual challenges by trying their best to adhere to the basic tenets of Stoicism: accepting their particular life circumstances, not allowing themselves to be controlled by their emotions, detaching themselves from material possessions, trying to understand nature and their surroundings logically, and trying their best to treat others equitably. The best part is that they wrote all of it down for us to digest, contemplate, and, hopefully, practice in our own lives. The information distilled in these books is truly timeless and I highly recommend adding them to your collection.
10. Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Noah Yuval Harari
In Sapiens, Noah Harari takes us on a voyage from the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago to our present circumstance as a species. In Homo Deus, he lets us in on what the future has in store. Up until the 21st century, humans spent all their time and energy trying to subdue the effects of plague, famine, and war. Now that we have, for the most part, successfully vanquished these foes, we are looking ahead to our next conquests: the eternal elixirs for immortality, bliss, and divinity. If you liked what you read about in Sapiens, this book picks up right where the other left off and takes you on an expedition thousands of years into the future to what may be the dawn of a new human species—Home Deus.