Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant neurobiologist and primatologist, reverse engineers human behavior—from our immediate physiological responses, to our upbringing and anthropological foundations, through our genetic and evolutionary roots—and weaves together a captivating explanation of why we, human beings, do the things we do. (Hint: the answers aren’t as simple or clear-cut as many of us think they are.) This book will enlighten you on the inner-workings of our minds and bodies and, hopefully, humble you as an individual—it certainly did so for me.
Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit. Chris Matthews paints an effulgent portrait of one of the most inspiring yet tragically unfulfilled lives of the twentieth century. From his tenure as attorney general in his brother’s administration, up until his heart-rending run for president, Robert Kennedy lived a life of constant growth and service to his fellow man. Idealistic yet pragmatic, he galvanized Americans from all walks of life to set their differences aside and unite toward a common hope in perhaps one of the most tumultuous periods in our country’s history—there is a great deal we can learn by studying his example. (Even if you don’t read the book, at least take a look at this speech he gave to a black audience in Detroit just moments after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—it’s an incredibly powerful display of the kind of empathic leadership our country desperately needs, now more than ever.)
Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond. Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times and former correspondent for the Economist. In this book, he documents the power-shift that is currently taking place from West to East and how it is shaping geopolitical and economic climates around the world. I recommend this one to anybody wanting an accurate perspective of the many, and highly, complicated dynamics shaping the foreign policies of some of the most powerful countries on Earth.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Throughout every economic shift we’ve made since the world became modern, there have inevitably been 3 kinds of people: those that have prospered from these changes, those that haven’t—and the demagogues that have attempted to exploit the latter for their own personal gain. Pankaj Mishra explores the rise of national populism throughout history and examines how our present pursuits of extreme individualism and wealth, emphasized by the effects of technology and the internet, are exacerbating our divisions and resulting in the tense sociopolitical environments we are witnessing today all around the world.
World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. The title says it all. This book is an eye-opening account of modern society and the consequences we face for seceding our privacy to the big four data monopolists—Google; Facebook; Apple; and Amazon. Franklin Foer makes the strong case that perhaps the price we pay for all of this convenience is the slow degradation of the very ideal that liberal western democracies all around the world are founded on: liberty. It’s not yet too late, however, and he concludes with some advice and policy prescriptions on what we can do, individually and collectively, to take back our freedom and ensure it for future generations.
Ali: A Life. I’ve written before on why Cassius Clay, a.k.a Muhammad Ali, is one of my favorite human beings of all time. This beautiful biography sheds some new light on his amazing life and documents the complexity, genius, and compassion of a man that was not only “the greatest” inside the ring, but, more importantly, one of the best outside as well. He truly “shook up the world,” and while he may have made some mistakes in the process, his example as a leader was truly exceptional and deserves your attention, respect, and emulation.
The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Very few others had a more intimate and multifaceted experience within the Obama administration as Ben Rhodes. Serving first as a speechwriter, then as national security advisor, and, finally, as a close aide and confidant, Rhodes was, in many ways, directly involved in some of the most consequential policy decisions of an era—the bin Laden raid; the Arab Spring response; the normalization of relations with Cuba; the Paris climate agreement; and the Iran nuclear deal. His first-hand account from inside the depths of the government is vividly brought to life by his amazing talent as a writer, and he sheds some perspective on not only the political climate and hardships of those eight years, but also on the man he worked for and eventually befriended, Barack Obama.
Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It. This is the second book I’ve read by Steve Brill. In the first, America’s Bitter Pill, he performs an in-depth examination of our broken healthcare system and prescribes some common sense solutions toward improving both the quality and access of care, while simultaneously reducing the cost on our population. In his latest book, he attempts to figure out why our country is failing to provide real and equal opportunity to most of its citizens. In the last fifty years, the national debt has risen drastically; our country’s infrastructure has fallen behind the rest of the advanced world; workers’ wages have stagnated; income inequality continues to grow wider; healthcare costs have ballooned out of control; and a college education, the one thing that might serve to provide those at the bottom of our society access into the middle class, has become wildly unaffordable for the very people who need it most. Brill comes equipped with the journalistic acuity he’s known for and provides a keen insight into why this may be happening—and what we can do, as well as those already trying, to fix it.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In this extremely poignant and important book, distinguished historian and academic, Richard Rothstein, spotlights the largely untold history of how the United States government—federal, state and local—explicitly orchestrated the segregation of America. It’s a meticulously well-researched work and one that I feel every American, regardless of race, creed, or gender, should pick up and read diligently. It is only by studying our past that we can better understand our present; and it’s not until we understand our present that we can truly begin the work required to create a society that actually provides an equal opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for all of its citizens.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. America has overcome many trying times and fierce battles in its almost 250 year history. This book, the third I’ve read by one one of my favorite historians, Jon Meacham, is a testament to the founding ideals of this country and the many leaders—from citizen-activists to presidents—that have called on “the better angels of our nature” to unite us and triumph over the forces within our midst working to promote disunity. From post-Civil War Reconstruction to the birth of the Lost Cause and Ku Klux Klan; to the progressive era and the fight for workers’ rights and women’s political equality; through the nativist policies and isolationist rhetoric that reached a fever-pitch in the early twentieth century; to the McCarthy witch-hunts for Communist sympathizers and the trials of the Civil Rights Movement—our history is littered with blatant contradictions between our supposed values and our actions. But, through all of it—the hate, the pain, the despair—we as a society have overcome and in the end been made better for it. This is the point that Meacham communicates so exquisitely, and one that I hope will resonate with all of us as we face a new set of adversities in our own era.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. One of the great ironies of our time is that even though we are living in the most prosperous and safest period in human history, many of us don’t know it—in fact, many of us believe the exact opposite: that the world is getting worse. In this amazing little book, the late Hans Rosling, former professor of International Health and world-renowned public speaker, explains why this is so and how we can recalibrate our perspectives, so that instead of viewing the world through a lens of preconceived biases, we learn to use our objective reasoning to see things as they really are. For instance, do you know how much of the earth’s population has electricity? Or how about the average years of education that women around the world have compared to men? What is the percentage of people globally living in poverty? Chances are your answers to these questions are wildly incorrect. If you’re at all curious about these topics, or just someone that constantly talks about how bad everything is, I highly recommend giving this one a shot. It will give you a positive—and, more importantly, accurate— shift in outlook about the state of human civilization.
Why Liberalism Failed. This book is about liberalism with a lower case ‘L’—the enlightenment philosophy that emerged triumphant in the twentieth century over communism and fascism. Patrick Deneen, a political science and constitutional studies professor at the University of Notre Dame, points out the flaws inherent within the ideology that have inevitably lead to the many disparities we are currently witnessing in western democracies all around the world. I didn’t agree with all of his points, but he does provide an interesting analysis of the current political climate and many of the hypocrisies between our professed idealistic standards and reality. Whether you agree with all or none of his assertions, this book will, at the very least, challenge your points-of-view about our system and challenge you to think differently about some of our most sacred values.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. This is one of the most riveting economics books I’ve ever read. ( I know: ‘riveting’ and ‘economics’ aren’t usually used in the same sentence.) Daron Acemoglu, a professor at MIT, and James Robinson, a political scientist and economist, set out to answer the fundamental question, “Why are some countries rich and others poor?” Their joint thesis draws upon examples plucked from the historical spectrum of human civilization and boldly concludes that the difference lies largely in the types of institutions that emerged within each. Those nation-states that were able to create “inclusive” institutions—sustained property rights; political equality; respect for the rule of law; an independent judiciary; government funded public works and services—vastly outpaced those that didn’t. It sounds like a rather simple interpretation but, taking into account the various twists and turns littered throughout the complex and chaotic history of our species, it’s one that is much harder to accomplish that one might think. If you’d like to kill two birds with one stone and simultaneously brush up on your economic and historical knowledge, this is the book for you.
The Lessons of History. Will and Ariel Durant (husband and wife) were two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians. This little 100 page pamphlet was the culmination of a lifetime of work and sums up the greatest ideas and movements that shaped world history. I wrote earlier that the reason you study history is to understand the present; well, this book is one of the most sound investments you could make in doing just that—especially if you’re pressed for time (I read it in one sitting). Pick it up and drastically increase your ability to discern the world around you in just a few hours.
Gorbachev: His Life and Times. One of the things I try to do as an American is read about other great people from around the world. When learning about the Cold War, especially in the United States, most of the credit for the fall of communism is given to our intelligence agencies; military personnel and officials; and presidents. While I agree that they all played an extensive role in securing the downfall of the Soviet Union; I also acknowledge that it wouldn’t have happened, at least as quickly as it did, without the bravery and determination of leaders and dissidents from within the Iron Curtain. And, if we’re talking about leadership in any sense of the word, there are few more courageous than Mikhail Gorbachev. Author William Taubman provides us with the definitive account of how a peasant boy born into poverty and soviet collectivization managed to rise to the top of his country’s government and, against impossible odds and fierce resistance, attempt to reform the system for the good of mankind.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century. If you haven’t read Yuval Noah Harari’s first two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, you are missing out on some of the most mesmerizing and insightful commentary on the human experience ever written—and his latest picks up right where those leave off. Building on the themes of his previous works, he sets out to ask, and answer, 21 questions about topics that we should all be contemplating in the coming years—from nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence to climate change. The three of these books have fundamentally changed my life and the way I think about just about everything. I can’t recommend them enough and guarantee that you will be grateful (and much wiser) if you decide to add them to your collection.
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. 13.8 billion years in about 300 pages. Historian and founder of The Big History Project, David Christian, does a remarkable job explaining the origins of the universe—along with the physics, chemistry, and biology that elucidate the dawn of the stars and planets; the rise of the first single celled organisms and plants on earth; the age of the dinosaurs; and the emergence of a pesky group of primates that eventually emerged at the top of the evolutionary food chain. If you want a crash course in the sciences that not only educates but entertains, pick this one up and ensure your mind does like the universe—and continues expanding.
The Laws of Human Nature. I was first introduced to Robert Greene through his amazing book, Mastery; reading it was a profound experience for me. From there, I moved on to The 48 Laws of Power—another masterpiece. In his latest work, he continues with the same template used in his previous projects—the use of historical figures and their examples—to illustrate the various social dynamics and situations we all face on a regular basis, and how to navigate them rationally, without getting caught up in the many diversions that keep most people from success and self-actualization. If you want the tools to keep a cool head in the most trying of circumstances, or amongst the most difficult of people, this is the book for you.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times. This is the third book I’ve read by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals; The Bully Pulpit). As far as I’m concerned, she might as well be a national treasure at this point. I owe a great deal to her books for instilling the deep love and appreciation I have for my country and its history. In Leadership, she documents the lives of the four presidents she has studied most closely—Abraham Lincoln; Theodore Roosevelt; Franklin Roosevelt; and Lyndon Johnson—and highlights the qualities they forged throughout their widely differing lives that determined the character traits that helped them meet the demands of the hardest job in the world—in some of the most troubling periods in United States history. This book is a masterclass in the skill that is leadership and can help you discern not only what you should strive for within yourself, but also in what it is you should be looking for in those asking for the privilege to serve in our country’s highest office.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born enslaved in America sometime around the year 1818. By the time of his death in 1895, he had become the most famous man in America—the fervent abolitionist; prolific writer; gifted orator; and prophetic leader. His story is the quintessential tale of perseverance, courage, devotion, and a genius matched by very few throughout history. He was a patriot in every sense of the word and should be—without a doubt—included amongst the pantheon of that second wave of Founding Fathers that nudged our country just a little bit closer toward those lofty ideals inscribed in our Constitution. Don’t believe me? Read this book.
Educated: A Memoir. Tara Westover was seventeen years old the first time she ever stepped in a classroom. Born to survivalist Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains and experiencing a childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse, she decided she wanted more for herself. After months of private and vigorous study, she secretly enrolled in school, doing well enough in placement exams and coursework to receive her high school diploma and get into college. The rest, as they say, is history—Tara is now in her mid thirties with a PhD from Oxford; and she’s a visiting fellow at Harvard. Her memoir is a testament to the incredible power of an education and it will bring you to tears as she reflects on family, hardship, and the ability for individuals to change their realities.
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. What a better way to end this list than with one of the greatest autobiographies ever written—I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book. There are few people in history that have left a mark as profound as Nelson Mandela. His sacrifice, grace, eloquence, and magnanimity transformed a country and inspired the world. When I think about leadership, when I ruminate over the kind of vision and moral fortitude required to do great things, I draw from the standard set by this man and his extraordinary life. Along with the likes of some of the other great human beings I’ve talked about in this post, he exemplified the ideal that each and every one of us should strive for. However far from perfect, he always learned from his mistakes and, despite the passionate hatred he faced all around him, led with his heart. We need more of that today. Read his story and apply his model to everything you do.