10 Book Recommendations for Scintillating Brain Food

There is a rule in my household. If anyone wants to read a book, for any reason, I will buy it. Society have this false belief that education ends after receiving a formal, professional degree. It is absurd. There is no endpoint for mastering the human psyche. You don’t get public recognition for understanding why you screamed at someone questioning your morals. You don’t get a cake for untangling a knot in a friendship, only to cherish and enjoy each other’s company again. Maybe you should.

Books, and talking about them, is one of the best ways to continually increase your intelligence and wisdom. If these lofty goals are uninteresting, just lose yourself in a state of flow for hours. Recharge your batteries. Appreciate exotic landscapes. Fall in love with characters and safely wrestle with their foreign perspectives.

Contrary to notable magazines and newspapers, I do not provide an end-of-the-year list of books published this year. I take recommendations too seriously to care about publication dates. I will detail the best books I read over the past 12 months. This list is a portion of my 60+ books read. The title is a hyperlink to purchase each book, so you can immediately initiate an emotional roller coaster or intellectual journey. I bet my reputation on these picks. Enjoy!

1. Other People’s Love Affairs by D. Wystan Owen

For those that can appreciate melancholy. Not sadness, not depression, but melancholy. The state of being when just like every human being, some desirable features of life are out of reach. A friendship that no longer fits. Nostalgia for the silly conversations of youth. Being forgiven for a cruel act that only serves as a reminder of a shadow side you’d rather forget. And this is painful. And yet, beautiful. In melancholy, your senses are finely attuned. You are alive. This is a short collection of 10 stories that capture the full depth of trying, failing, succeeding in relationships, only to repeat the cycle anew. I hesitate to give the story line of any of them. But here are a few passages that I underlined:

He made his hands into fists and pressed them under his eyes, the way Joey Makepeace had said you could do. You put your fists on the tops of your cheeks and you pressed there. It was a way to be brave.

What he had been offered was a place on the periphery, a chance to play at something that was not quite his: like a plain, unmarried girl asked to hold the train of her younger sister’s wedding gown…the thought of such a role had always saddened him, but as he turned for home it seemed that perhaps it would be enough, that he might manage eventually to supplement his solitary pleasures with new vicarious and borrowed ones…

If you want to feel, really feel, pick up this series.

2. The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

You do not sufficiently understand why you behave the way you do. Why you take joy in seeing someone ostracized at a party, thankful that it’s not you. Why you cannot handle long silences at meals. Why you are too eager about any sexual opportunity. Why you feel compelled to make jokes in group situations when deeper conversations would be more satisfying. And you know even less about other people and their aggression, obsessions, envy, micromanaging, and desire to look like a saint (despite resisting an overflowing reservoir of cravings and lusts). This is a 586 page treatise that looks beneath the facade of what people try to be and into the deep, often dark role playing games being played. I cannot say this enough — the insights are worth the effort. Here is one of many dog-eared passages:

Remember: behind any vehement hatred is often a secret and very unpalatable envy of the hated person or persons. It is only through such hate that it can be released from the unconscious in some form.

One criticism I have is that it is unclear which elements are based on scientific evidence. Regardless, you should not be agreeing with every point by an author. If a book makes you think. If a book motivates you to refine arguments. If a book makes you consider alternative explanations for extreme behavior then it is a success. With this metric, The Laws of Human Nature will stand the test of time. I strongly encourage you to buy the hardcover so it is easy to re-read passages.

3. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

What we seemingly know from scientific research is only as valuable as the methods used. If the only perspective adopted is that of men, if there is an assumption that only studying men is sufficient, then certain areas of inquiry will be half-baked. This book is a scathing expose into how women have been rendered invisible through must of the history of science. Consider that the oldest scientific institution, The Royal Society of London, did not elect a woman to full membership until 1945. Consider that of the 10 prescription drugs deemed unfit for public consumption by the United States Food and Drug Administration, women had more adverse effects than men for 8 of them. One reason they made it to market was that the scientists only studied the effects on men. One reason the Food and Drug Administration failed is that these all-male clinical trials were deemed perfectly suitable for allowing prescriptions to women. One part of this book is about the invisibility of women. Another is the over reliance of stereotypes to understand women. Consider the large bodies of research, still discussed in textbooks today, suggesting that female brains are hard wired such that empathy is easier and more frequently experienced whereas male brains are hard wired for analytical and mechanical reasoning. Read this book for a summary of the shoddy scientific data that these stereotypes are based on. Here is one of my many underlined segments that details the pressing need for this book:

A phenomenon known as the “Nordic Paradox” shows that equality under the law doesn’t always guarantee women will be treated better. Iceland has among the highest levels of female participation in the labor market anywhere in the world, with heavily subsidized child care and equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. In Norway, since 2006, the law has required that at least 40 percent of listed company board members are women. Yet a report in May 2016 published in Social Science and Medicine reveals that Nordic countries have a disproportionately high rate of intimate partner violence against women. One theory to explain the paradox is that Nordic countries may be experiencing a backlash effect as traditional ideas of manhood and womanhood are challenged…This is why science matters for every one of us. The job ahead for researchers is to keep cleaning the window until we see ourselves as we truly are…

Whether you disagree or agree with each argument, read this review if only to have more sophisticated, data driven conversations about when demographics matter and when they don’t.

4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Regardless of your political preferences, you would have to contort facts to believe that the justice and corrections system in the United States is working well. Sift through the stories in this book and know that if someone is found guilty by a court of law by no means is this sufficient evidence that they engaged in wrongdoing. Of my 10 recommendations, this book had the strongest emotional effect on me — sadness, anger, resignation, and hope. This is a timely indictment on the lack of due process in the United States justice system. This book needs to be read broadly. There are too many cognitive biases in our justice system:

Confirmation bias — we are drawn to information that fits our existing beliefs and theories about someone.

Group bias — we are more helpful to people interpreted to be part of our group/tribe.

Bias blind spot — we notice flaws more easily in others than we do in our own thinking.

Conformity bias — we tend to self-edit our thinking to match the members of group members we want as friends.

False causality bias — when events occur in a sequence, we tend to view the earlier events as explanations for the latter events.

Anchoring bias — we are heavily influenced by information that is already known or shown first, and do a poor job of properly re-calibrating beliefs based on new, inconsistent information.

The list goes on and on for how we render fatal judgments on people’s character too quickly. The justice system is no different than office gossip. Don’t be convinced by me, read the poignant stories in this book. There are too few protections to prevent perverted decisions. Read this book and join me in the cause to fight back against malfunctioning systems run by biased people that are unfairly ruining lives.

5. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

Here’s the thing about Klosterman, he delivers deep insights about culture by dissecting low-brow entertainment. How low brow? He has a chapter on the crappy 90’s show Saved by the Bell to illustrate the mismatch between our memories of adolescence and what really happened, and whether this is a good thing. Here are a few references you will not find in any other philosophy book: Guns N’ Roses, MTV’s The Real World, Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, Jose Canseco, Jeff Buckley, Donnie Darko, My So-Called Life, SimCity, and KISS. This is the most entertaining book of my 10 recommendations. Here’s one of my underlined passages:

A mind-numbing percentage of pro athletes are obsessed with God…some studies suggest that as many as 40 percent of NFL players consider themselves “born again.” This trend continues to baffle me, especially since it seems like an equal number of pro football players spend the entire off-season snorting coke off the thighs of Cuban prostitutes and murdering their ex-girlfriends.

Argue with his thesis. Enjoy the memories of what grabbed your fancy in the 1990's.

6. Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright

I think this is the third year of book recommendations where Lawrence Wright earned an entry (see the links to prior years at the bottom of this post). Today’s witch hunt is a call-out culture where there is constant surveillance against people who say something that disagrees with extreme liberal or conservative worldviews. In the 1980’s, the witch hunt was a wave of accusations about satanic ritual child abuse. It was a strange time chronicled by Wright’s extensive research. You will not believe this happened. You will not comprehend how rumors can ruin lives until you read this book. I read this quicker than any book on this list. I could not put this page-turner down. This is yet another book on the absurdity that pervades the justice system in the United States (see #4 for the other). Here is a telling excerpt of how freaking weird humans can get when emboldened by a witch hunt:

As a result of information provided by a prison official in Utah, word circulated in the police workshops that satanic cults were sacrificing between fifty and sixty thousand people every year in the United States, although the annual national total of homicides averaged less than twenty-five thousand.

Workshops were being sanctioned in police precincts despite the fact that it was statistically impossible to be as large of a problem as thought and to this day, there is yet to be documented evidence of a single satanic ritual murder. Before you start judging characters from the 1980’s, ask yourself about the quality of available evidence today to support the broad dissemination of mandatory unconscious bias workshops in the same police precincts. This book is a reminder to resist the emotional contagion of fast moving societal trends. Be willing to stand out with caution and skepticism. History repeats itself so read a fascinating story from the not-so-distant past.

7. Rejection Proof: 100 Days of Rejection, or How to Ask Anything of Anyone at Anytime by Jia Jiang

Who among us is content with how rejection is handled? You could read a book on stoicism or you can read the entertaining 100 day of adventures by Jia Jiang. You are going to love this guy. A reserved, neurotic guy who took it upon himself to change his personality. The things he does to conquer a fear of rejection are amazing. The stories are better than the descriptions of lessons learned. But don’t let this detract you. Jia can spin quite a yarn. Breezy, entertaining, life affirming read.

8. The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories by Simon Rich

I’m not going to lie, I love Simon Rich’s books. He is the master of short stories from the lens of strange narrators. Spoiled Brats has a fantastic story from the perspective of a hamster dealing with the delinquent kids in a Kindergarten classroom. Ant Farm has an equally witty tale titled, “what goes through my mind when i’m home alone (from my mom’s perspective)” which I read aloud to my kids and we all cried from laughing so hard. And yet, The Last Girlfriend on Earth is in my opinion the strangest and funniest collection. You might have heard of the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes and his myth of the missing half. In short, humans were born as circles and Zeus split them in half causing a crisis as everyone circling the earth yearning for their other half to form a perfect shape again. Well, check out Simon Rich’s version:

ACCORDING TO ARISTOPHANES, there were originally three sexes: the Children of the Moon (who were half male and half female), the Children of the Sun (who were fully male), and the Children of the Earth (who were fully female). Everyone had four legs, four arms, and two heads and spent their days in blissful contentment. Zeus became jealous of the humans’ joy, so he decided to split them all in two. Aristophanes called this punishment the Origin of Love. Because ever since, the Children of the Earth, Moon, and Sun have been searching the globe in a desperate bid to find their other halves. Aristophanes’s story, though, is incomplete. Because there was also a fourth sex: the Children of the Dirt. Unlike the other three sexes, the Children of the Dirt consisted of just one half. Some were male and some were female and each had just two arms, two legs, and one head. The Children of the Dirt found the Children of the Earth, Moon, and Sun to be completely insufferable. Whenever they saw a two-headed creature walking by, talking to itself in baby-talk voices, it made them want to vomit. They hated going to parties and when there was no way to get out of one they sat in the corner, too bitter and depressed to talk to anybody. The Children of the Dirt were so miserable that they invented wine and art to dull their pain. It helped a little, but not really. When Zeus went on his rampage, he decided to leave the Children of the Dirt alone. “They’re already fucked,” he explained. Happy gay couples descend from the Children of the Sun, happy lesbian couples descend from the Children of the Earth, and happy straight couples descend from the Children of the Moon. But the vast majority of humans are descendants of the Children of the Dirt. And no matter how long they search the Earth, they’ll never find what they’re looking for. Because there’s nobody for them, not anybody in the world.

If you can appreciate a bit of vulgarity and dark humor, this is going to be a treat. If you are easily offended, move on to the next recommendation.

9. Creativity 101 by James Kaufman

The title and online description is misleading. While this has been sold as an academic textbook, James is such a playful, thoughtful author that this is essentially the best book available on the topic of creativity. Many books have been written on creativity in the past few years including The Myths of Creativity, Originals: How Non-conformists move the world, Wired to Create, The Accidental Creative, Creativity Inc., and just plain ol’ Creativity. I read them all. Many of them are excellent books but none of them are as good as Creativity 101. Simple. James Kaufman is one of the leading creativity researchers and he did his homework for you. Walk away knowing everything you want to know about this wonderful psychological strength and powerful human process. Of the books mentioned, Creativity 101 has received the least marketing and hype. Be a rebel, read the best volume on the topic not the most widely sold.

10. Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson

This might be the most popular book on this year’s list. Neil is the paragon of scientists educating the public about science. He is the ideal successor to Carl Sagan. The premise of this short book is that Neil publishes letters received from fans and his answers. The letter writers range from men in prison to small children. The exchanges made me smile and reminded me of the importance of really engaging with another person on sophisticated topics. Spend a few hours on this book and be inspired to mentor someone regularly.

As always, please leave comments after reading the books above and offer your own recommendations. In case you missed the last 8 years of book recommendations, here are the links.

Here is the list of books to read from 2018

Here is the list of books to read from 2017

Here is the list of books to read from 2016

Here is the list of books to read from 2015

Here is the list of books to read from 2014

Here is the list of books to read from 2013

Here is the list of books to read from 2012

Here is the list of books to read from 2011

Here is the list of books to read from 2010

So many great minds to converse with, so little time.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self — not just your “good” self — drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit: toddkashdan.com

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