At all times, I am reading at least one fiction book and one nonfiction book. The nonfiction subjects vary: science, history, philosophy, psychology, and writing. There’s so much I want to learn about the world and so little time to do it. The nonfiction books I read often inspire and influence the fiction I write, though really I’m just hoping to learn something new from each book I read, and I learned a lot from those I read this past year.
1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)
Harari’s Sapiens (about the history of humanity) was my #1 nonfiction book last year (and of all time), so I had high expectations for his second book (about the future of humanity) and it did not disappoint. Sapiens and Homo Deus now rank 1a and 1b for me. Harari’s vast knowledge of history allows him to see where humanity and technology are headed in the future and the role artificial intelligence will play in it all. Homo Deus is a truly mind-blowing vision of the future. After writing about the past and future, Harari’s third book is naturally about the present (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) which I plan to read next. Harari may have my vote for the wisest human alive. Anything he writes is must-read material.
2. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
Taleb is a unique character and original thinker. He’s part mathematician, part philosopher, part financial trader, and often contrarian in his views. This book is about how certain “black swan” events like 9/11 or the stock market collapse are unpredictable yet they are guaranteed to happen. He explains how and why the future is so difficult to predict, though the book is about much more than that. It’s hard to summarize because it covers such a vast array of topics, but Taleb is a brilliant thinker and writer and is quite funny at times, especially when insulting people he deems intellectual inferiors (of which there are many).
3. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (2004)
Almost everyone in the world suffers from status anxiety (or anxiety about one’s status in society), it simply manifests in different ways for different people. For some, it’s shyness—afraid to say or do something that will affect your status in society. For others, it may be hatred, racism, and bigotry towards others, fearing they will overtake your status in society. For others still, it may be narcissism—being so insecure about your status that you must constantly over-inflate it. So much of what everyone does in life is to increase their status. Social anxiety is really a form of status anxiety, or fear of saying or doing something that would hurt your social status (or others’ opinion of you). Happiness comes from ceasing to chase social status. Be content with who you are, regardless of what others think of you. Only then will your status anxiety (and social anxiety) go away.
4. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond (1991)
This book was similar to (and an influence for) Sapiens, covering the history of the human species and how we evolved from apes living in the wild to people living in civilizations. Also, how certain civilizations evolved differently from others, based on biology and geography.
5. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton (2000)
Another book from philosopher Alain de Botton, who ranks up there with Yuval Noah Harari as one of the wisest people alive today. In addition to his books, he runs the School of Life, including their fantastic YouTube channel, which is a true public service. In this book, he summarizes and modernizes the work of six of history’s greatest philosophers: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche.
6. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (2000)
This book’s been on my to-read list for a while, as it’d been routinely recommended by writers as the best book on writing. Having read it now, I agree. I haven’t read many of King’s fiction books, but you need not have to appreciate his memoir on writing.
7. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (2011)
Kaku is another repeat author from last year’s list. He’s one of the best futurists out there, and being a physicist, he actually knows what he’s talking about. His books serve as great references for me, a futurist science fiction writer trying to get the science as accurate as possible.
8. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy by Viktor E. Frankl (1946)
This is a part memoir about Frankl’s time spent in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and a part self-help book in which he (a psychiatrist) explains “logotherapy,” or the practices he used to stay mentally strong and survive his time in the concentration camp.
9. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt (2005)
Haidt is another wise human (and repeat author from last year), and this book reveals how he attained his wisdom. Much of it is from ancient figures like Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Jesus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. It amazes me how people so long ago (thousands of years) faced many of the same problems we do today, and they figured out the solutions back then, yet so many people today either ignore the advice or fail to learn it in the first place. Two of the keys to happiness that Haidt highlights are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and meditation, both of which I’ve written about before and can personally attest to their usefulness.
What is the common link between the ultra-wise Harari, Haidt, and de Botton? They are all thoroughly versed in the history of philosophy, which should be taught at all schools.
10. Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction by Damon Knight (1981)
This book on writing is nowhere near as well-known as Stephen King’s, but it should be. I wouldn’t have ever heard of it myself if I hadn’t randomly stumbled upon it at a used book sale. Whereas King’s book is more of a memoir on writing, this book is more technical, getting into the nuts and bolts of the craft. Knight also gets philosophical in his examination of writing and storytelling. While the title indicates short fiction, the advice really applies to fiction of any length. I would recommend this book to storytellers of any kind, whether you’re writing a short story, novel, screenplay, comic book, or video game.
Honorable Mentions: (These second ten were all just as good as the first. It was tough narrowing it down.)
- Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon (2014)
- Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2016)
- Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss (2017)
- The Natural Mind by Andrew Weil (1972)
- Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (2012)
- Lying by Sam Harris (2011)
- The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge by Matt Ridley (2015)
- Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe by Lisa Randall (2015)
- From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett (2017)
- What the Future Looks Like by Jim Al-Khalili (2018)