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Books, books, books. We’re surrounded by them. On our shelves. On our tables. On our chairs, couches, and stools. Even on our floors. Books accumulate like no other, and once read, they tend to follow us for the rest of our lives. Many of us just can’t bring ourselves to ever discard a book. They attach themselves to us in a physical, emotional, and mystical way.
And there’s always more. The United States alone publishes anywhere from 300,000 to 1,000,000 new titles each year. Virtually every language on the planet is represented, and the best books are translated into many other languages so as to reach as many people as possible.
But that’s part of the problem. You’re spoiled for choice. If you love to read, you’re probably familiar with the agony that comes with choosing your next book. There are so many titles on your wish list – with more added all the time – that it’s practically impossible to pick the next one. So many books, so little time.
That’s where we come in. The Book Squad. Your literary scouts. The written word watchdogs. We can help.
Some books are great for unwinding. Others to learn something, or entertain, or frighten. And then there are books that change you in some way. They increase your knowledge and understanding, and make you consider something in ways you never anticipated.
Here, then, are the top ten books that will expand your mind.
How the Mind Works
What better way to expand your mind than by understanding more about it? How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker is a book about just that. Pinker is an experimental psychologist, linguist, cognitive scientist, and author. He’s forgotten more about our minds – how we think and learn – and language than most of us will ever know, but he explains it in a way that most of us can easily understand. This book looks not just at how the mind works, but tackles specific questions like why and how do we fall in love, why – as rational beings – we’re so often irrational, and how our brain allows us to see in three dimensions. If you have a question about your mind, the answer is probably here.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a bit of a behemoth. Its author, Daniel Kahneman, won a Nobel Prize for behavioural economics in 2002. As a psychologist, he deals primarily with the psychology of judgment and decision-making. With those kinds of credentials, you know he’s going to delve into some complicated ideas. And he does. The book can be a bit of a slog for the average reader, but if you push through, you emerge better for it on the other side. Kahneman divides out thinking into System 1 and System 2, the fast and slow from the book’s title, and how they work together…and sometimes at odds with each other. He systematically examines intuition, risk taking, biases, and decision making, among many other subjects. If will change the way you think about thinking, and likely even how you live your life.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is very well-known, and deservedly so. Not everyone can claim to have launched a respected and popular theory, but Taleb – a statistician and risk analyst – did just that with this book. In the theory, a black swan event is improbable but causes huge consequences. They’re unpredictable, have massive influence, and are explained away in some manner after the fact (humans tend not to like random events and circumstances). Taleb explores many black swans – the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the success of Google – and offers guidance on how to bounce back from negative ones, and capitalize on positive ones. According to Taleb, by their very definition, you can’t predict a black swan. You can only react.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho packs a powerful punch in a small package. You could probably read the entire thing, cover to cover, in less than two hours. But don’t let that fool you. The book – translated into over 80 languages – has a massive following the world over. The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a shepherd boy from Spain, and his travels to Egypt in search of a secret treasure. Along the way, he meets a cast of characters that all teach him some valuable lesson. The allegory shows us to listen to our hearts and follow our “personal legend” in all things. It’s a delightfully simplistic mix of magic, wisdom, mysticism, and common sense. And we could all use a little more of those things.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceEver been in the “zone”. Ever had time fly by in an instant while doing something that you love? If so, then you’ve experienced the flow already. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that three times fast) provides the tools you need to perform your best. You can learn to control this “flow”, willing it into existence rather than waiting for it to appear, and experience greater happiness, enjoyment, and creativity in all that you do. A timeless work for everyone.
Cosmos and A Brief History of Time
This is a two-for-one bonus. Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, both tackle nothing less than the universe and our place in it. A colossal undertaking, but handled with aplomb by both authors. Sagan – an astronomer, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist – and Hawking – one of history’s leading theoretical physicists – explain our world and beyond in a way no one has done since or before. Cosmos explores 14 billion years of existence, mixing science, philosophy, and speculation in an easy to digest package. A Brief History of Time attempts to explain such complicated topics as black holes, time travel, and the big bang itself.
This Will Make You Smarter
This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, edited by John Brockman, covers a wide range of topics from some of the leading minds in the world today. Brockman started with one simple question: what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? Jonah Lehrer writes about willpower, Daniel Kahneman (of Thinking, Fast and Slow fame) introduces the focusing illusion, and Charles Seife tackles randomness in the universe. And there are dozens more. The title literally promises to make you smarter. That’s the very definition of expanding your mind. Winning!
Uncommon Sense: The Strangest Ideas from the Smartest Philosophers by Andrew Pessin is a collection of ideas from some of history’s greatest philosophers. It’s a fast-track exploration, starting with the Greeks Plato and Aristotle, and culminating with Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers. Pessin includes most of the thinkers you’ve at least heard of, and boils their complicated thoughts down to their essence. More specifically, he examines their strange ideas, the ones that appear somewhat crazy or odd upon first glance, but can’t be dismissed outright when examined under the microscope.
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris offers a look at removing organized religion from spiritual fulfilment. Is it possible? Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher (how’s that for a combo?!), says absolutely. Through meditation, rational practice, and an understanding of neuroscience and psychology, Harris provides a roadmap for anyone looking to remain spiritual in an increasingly secular world.
Yet another two-for-one for your consideration. Alan Watts was a tremendously influential philosopher and writer, and he was instrumental in bringing Eastern thought to a Western audience. Two of his best works are The Book: On the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are and The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.
The Book deals with our place in the big picture. Our belief that we are isolated and separate from the universe is the root of the hostility and maliciousness we see in the world. Watts provides a framework for being human in this popular title, outlining the folly of our thinking, and how to adapt it.
In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Watts tackles our human need and desire for security in a strange and frightening universe. With his usual gusto and flair for explaining complicated philosophical ideology, he highlights the fact that the only security comes from knowing we have no way to save ourselves. That may sound horrible, but as Watts explains it, it’s actually incredibly liberating.
Expand your mind. Expand your thinking. Expand your horizons. As human beings, our duty lies in trying to understand ourselves and our surroundings as much as possible. These ten (well, 12 really) books will most certainly set you down the right path.
This list could have been hundreds, or thousands, of titles long. There are many other worthy entries that were omitted this time, but may make an appearance in a subsequent list.
What books would you include? What title, or author, has most expanded your mind? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.