Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2019

nonfiction2019

1. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil (1998)

Kurzweil is an inventor and futurist famous for his optimistic predictions for technology in the future, particularly the idea of the singularity—when humans will be able to upload their minds to computers and potentially live forever—which he predicts will happen by the year 2045. Kurzweil has his doubters, but it’s hard to dismiss his track record of predictions when you look at how many have already come true in this book written over thirty years ago.

2. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (2010)

Jaron Lanier is a truly unique individual, an early pioneer of the internet and virtual reality. He is also a technological philosopher, exploring the relationship between humans and technology—in some sense an anti-Kurzweil, more humanist than transhuman. Lanier is not anti-technology, but wants to empower humans to use technology and not let it use them.

3. Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar…: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (2006)

The title basically explains the contents of this book which is equal parts funny and profound. For example:

joke-drinking

4. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer (2013)

This might be the best, most in-depth book on writing fiction that I’ve read so far. It’s specifically geared toward writing science fiction and fantasy, covering topics unique to those genres (and their various sub-genres). It’s written by Jeff VanderMeer, a top sci-fi/fantasy writer working today, plus features guest chapters from other authors in the field. As the title implies, there are also creative images to accompany the text. “Nothing is more essential to a writer than sustaining an inquisitive nature—being actively interested in the world and the people in it. Truly curious people try to see everything as freshly as a child with an adult’s mind.”

5. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (2018)

Robin Hanson is a really smart economist, and in this book, he and his co-author explain how almost everything humans do in all areas of life—including art, education, career, charity, medicine, politics, and religion—have hidden motives. Meaning the reasons we claim to do these things are not the true reasons we do them, which most of the time most people are not even aware of. Usually, the hidden motive is driven by evolutionary psychology to signal our social status to peers and potential mates.

6. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997)

Diamond details the history of human civilizations and explains how people in certain areas of the world developed technology while others did not. Essentially, it has more to do with geography and the domesticable plants and animals available in the region than it has to do with the people themselves. For example, Europeans were able to build advanced civilizations and dominate in warfare because of their use of horses, but Africa’s version of the horse (the zebra) is undomesticable—the same for North America.

7. The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek (1944)

Friedrich Hayek could have written this book today. His criticism of Nazism and socialism in Europe applies aptly to the rise of “democratic socialism” in America. I was sympathetic to Bernie Sanders and his movement a few years ago until I started studying more about history, political philosophy, and Austrian economics. In this book, Hayek explains why planned economies (a.k.a. socialist governments) are doomed to fail, or in his words “lead to serfdom.” It sounds nice in theory to take from the ultra-rich and give to the poor to make everyone rich, but in practice it makes everyone poor—except those with government power. As noble as many socialists’ intentions may be, the system does not produce the positive results they desire. Or as Hayek said, “We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected.” An economy is extraordinarily complex and best left to the spontaneous order of individuals acting on personal incentives in a free market. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

8. Free Will by Sam Harris (2012)

This is a short but thought-provoking book about free will, which Harris claims we do not have. “A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny and the reader might observe that he no more authors the next thought he thinks than the next thought I write.” Initially upon reading this book and listening to Harris’ podcasts on the topic, I found his argument compelling. More recently, however, I have shifted more toward Daniel Dennett’s idea of “degrees of freedom.” Though I’m still not sure about the question of free will, and perhaps never will be (if I even have a choice in the matter at all), I continue to find the topic fascinating and have incorporated it into a lot of my fiction.

9. The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles S. Cockell (2018)

I’ve thought a lot about the Fermi Paradox, or why we haven’t found signs of intelligent life in our galaxy. If we did find aliens, what would they look like? Science fiction is full of aliens far different than any life forms on earth, but this book makes the case that actual alien life may turn out to be more earth-like than you’d imagine. Life on earth evolved due to the laws of physics, and those same laws of physics apply to every other planet in the universe. If life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, physics will inevitably force it to evolve in a somewhat similar way.

10. Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick (1974)

Though a bit of a dry and dense read, Nozick gives a thorough defense of the political philosophy of libertarianism by laying out the ethics and morals of the state and its role on society, coming to the conclusion that a minimal state that solely protects against “force, fraud, theft, and administering courts of law” while maximizing individual freedom both socially and economically is the most ethical system of governance. The more I’ve learned about history, economics, and political philosophy (the latter two subjects I’ve studied extensively the past three years after ignoring most of my life), the more libertarian I have become. People are vastly different and in a society of millions, they will never all agree on what the rules of government should be. So why try to force one governmental system composed of the same rules on everyone? Instead, create a system with the smallest government possible and the least number of rules (essentially, the non-aggression principle: don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff), then inside that system, individuals can form private communities where they decide their own rules—and others are free to join or leave those groups as they please. If some want to form a socialist commune, they’d be free to do that—but they could not force other people to join (or fund it) nor prevent them from leaving. As Nozick said, “Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.” Much of politics is people attempting to use state power to coercively force their idea of “the good life” on everyone else. Why not live and let live?

Honorable Mentions: (alphabetical by author)


More Best Nonfiction Book Lists:

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