It’s that time of the year when we take stock of how the year that is about to fade away has been. For me, books are a large part of the process of processing information and synthesizing insights. Here are six books that have helped advance my thinking this year.
1. Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari: The book is an anthropologist’s view of how human history has progressed over many millenniums. Its first great insight is that the core differentiating factor between our human species versus others is the power we have for story telling. “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.” Religions are stories. Nations are stories. Corporations are stories. And all these stories have served as organizing principles to enable humankind to collaborate in large numbers and make spectacular progress. Today, we’re entering a phase in human history where these stories we’ve been telling are insufficient to continue to empower large-scale cooperation. Cracks are opening up in the organizing principles of the world. Extremely thought provoking in today’s context.
2. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari: This is the sequel to Sapiens and looks ahead at the world we’re marching towards. Advances in science and technology are about to create a different species altogether, Home Deus, through genetic manipulation, AI, etc. I wrote an entire series on my blog on the topic after reading these two books under the title Man and Superman.
3. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Workby Steven Kotler, Jamie Wheal: This book explores the aggressive experiments parts of our society are performing in search of transcendence. It is well-known, especially from Eastern spirituality (Zen, Tantra, Vedanta), that the mind CAN be hacked and optimized for superior performance (concentration, synthesis, clarity) through meditation. Other means towards the same end of getting out of the head so to speak are drugs and sex. There have always been experimentation in these fields. Now, these efforts have accelerated. For me, Eastern philosophy has always been an integral part of life. But for transcendence, my main sources tend to be Nature and Art (painting, dance, literature, music, cooking). Learning is also a very big source of transcendence for me, and whatever mechanisms facilitate that process (travel, smartphone apps for language learning, reading, podcasts) are all welcome. In the Vedantic Hindu doctrine, this is called Gyana Yoga.
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Nobel Laureate for Economics, Kahneman explains the mind and the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, emotional, and often irrational; System 2 is slower, more deliberate, and more logical. The vast majority of people are incapable of the latter, and operate solely on the basis of the former. This explains much of the irrationality that we observe in the world around us (Trump, Brexit, etc.). This year, Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for his proactive highlighting of the role irrationality plays in human behavior, paving the way for behavioral economics to make great strides. Personally, I have always struggled to interface with irrational minds. That struggle continues. However, this book has given me a better understanding of what is going on under the surface.
5. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar: This is a brilliant fictionalized memoir of a brilliant Roman emperor by a brilliant thinker/writer. Belgian-born French writer Yourcenar took historical fiction to another league by getting into the head of Hadrian and offers profound insights into what it takes to govern a state of any kind. In the afterword to the book she quotes Flaubert: “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”
6. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius: In a world that explained all things inexplicable with the concept of divine intervention, Lucretius tried to understand Physics and the natural phenomena in first century BC. De Rerum Natura was written in Latin and in verse. Can you imagine? This man was trying to explain early physics in verse. It was a singularly fascinating experience to read the book. This is also the same period when Western man stood alone, before Christ, as the pagan Gods lost their hold. In the East, of course, the Gods still ruled. The only major challenge to their dominion was posed by Buddha about 400 years before Lucretius came around. Religion is currently playing havoc with our world, but an alternate story has not emerged yet that can meet the need of human beings to explain the inexplicable on a broad scale.
If you’ve read one or more of these, I would be delighted to dialog further.