In 2016, I learnt a lot about myself and the world. Mostly, I learnt about how much I've yet to learn. True learning comes from experience and relationships and deep personal reflection, buuuuut since I can't transmit that through the internet, here's a belated Top X Books of 20XX Listicle instead.
Note: most of these books didn't come out in 2016, I just read them that year. Of course, books alone can't change your life, but they may nudge you in a direction that – only if you put in the time and effort – can change your life.
And so, without further ah-doo, here are the best 18 books I read in 2016, that moved my life in a more meaningful direction.
BEST SOCIAL SCIENCE
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam
This. book. explains. EVERYTHING.
Or, in any case, explains lots of important, relevant things. Bowling Alone, written in 2001, describes several disturbing decades-long trends – the rise of political polarization, the fall of civic engagement, the rise of loneliness and depression, the fall of trust in institutions and each other, and so on. The cause of all these trends is something sweetly and sadly human: we're making fewer friends.
Or, in more scientific terms, we're experiencing a decline in "social capital" – both "bonding social capital" (friendships within a group) and "bridging social capital" (friendships between groups). Our increasing isolation not only worsens our personal and psychological health, but also worsens the health of our entire democracy.
2016 is just the latest data point in this depressing decades-long trend. But if that bums you out, keep in mind a more hopeful centuries-long trend...
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
After 2016, you may ask, why oh why is everything going to heck? And the answer is...
...it isn't. From a longer-term perspective, anyway.
Despite the news & social media's feeding frenzy on any drop of blood spilled anywhere in the world, in the last several centuries, violence in all categories has been plummeting. Torture is still done in secret, but it used to be public entertainment. Slavery still exists in underground markets, but it used to be an international market. Wars still kill people today, but the deaths-per-capita is orders of magnitude less than Hitler or Mao or Napoleon or Genghis Khan or any other capital-A Atrocity in centuries past.
As Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We may not be in a peaceful era, but we are in the most peaceful era so far.
Better Angels dives deeper into the statistics, and also makes a few guesses at what's been causing our trend towards peace. (I summarize this book + two others in a blog post I wrote during 2016's violent summer) And speaking of books that challenged my pre-conceptions, last year, I also read...
The Conservative Heart by Arthur Brooks
My social circle is mostly liberals (with a smattering of libertarians) but I didn't really have many openly conservative friends. I was in a bubble. But I knew I was in a bubble, and I wanted to learn about the conservative worldview – no caricatures, no strawmen, I wanted to learn about the best possible version of conservatism.
This book, written by the President of the American Enterprise Institute, was it.
First off, this book was written completely not at all like other conservative texts. There's interviews with a Hindu swami and The Dalai Lama. There's a chapter speaking out against materialism. There's even a call for conservatives to take up social justice, for Burke's sake!
(other books I read in previous years that helped me understand conservatism: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and Black Rednecks & White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Last summer, I also made a short comic about understanding others on the left-right spectrum)
Whether you're on the left or right, I highly recommend reading this book, at least to learn how we can unify the left and right, and combine each side's strengths, to best bring prosperity to America and the world.
. . .
Now, social science can tell us the overall statistics, but behind each data point is a deeply rich, complex, and human story. Which brings me to my next collection of books...
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Oh hey, a book I read in 2016 that actually came out in 2016! And you know what? I'd say, hands down, this is THE book of 2016. (that came out in 2016)
This is another book that burst me out of my bubble. Half heartbreaking memoir, half sociological case study, this book is J.D.'s story of his life growing up in rural Middletown, Ohio. A town stricken with poverty. A town that the elites left behind. A town where J.D. lived with his drug addict mother, an endless cycle of stepdads, and the crushing atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness.
But, thanks to the determination of his Mamaw (grandmother), the help of the Marine Corp, and the love of his to-be-wife, J.D. beats the odds, leaves town, and graduates from Yale Law School. Now, having been on both sides of the urban/rural divide, he reflects on how it feels – and what can be done.
(I write more about this book & the urban/rural divide in my post-mortem for We Become What We Behold, for whatever reason)
...but, to be totally honest, the reason this book's gotten so much attention last year is because Trump. The book's not about Trump, but it gives insight into the swing rural counties who elected Trump. Maybe one day we'll actually care about the pain, poverty, and broken families in small towns without it being related to Trump – but for now, there's this book.
But enough non-fiction, let's look at my favorite novels I read last year:
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
"It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people."
This one quote, from this one book, is now – essentially – my life philosophy. Also c'mon, it's Terry Pratchett, of course this book's gonna be uproariously funny yet deeply poignant.
And speaking of funny-yet-poignant novels...
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
There's a chapter in this novel that's a PowerPoint presentation. If you ain't already sold, well, I don't know what to tell you.
But seriously, I think this is one of the most interesting experiments in a novel's "form" since, I dunno, Breakfast of Champions? Every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, in a different period, even in a different style. And with each chapter being a standalone thread, all together, they weave cleverly into a complex tapestry. (I've geeked out more about Goon Squad before on this blog)
I just love the format of this novel so much, because it reminds me that my story is but a single thread, in the quilt of the world.
This book's got a bunch of dirty jokes, too.
. . .
Social science tells us about the aggregate trends, the "macro". Stories tell us about the individual human experience, the "micro". But is there a way to combine the micro and the macro? That's the question in my next collection...
BEST COMPLEXITY SCIENCE
(NOTE: "Complexity Science" is the study of things where the whole is not the sum of its parts, the whole is completely different from the sum of its parts. In other words, "complexity" is when micro ≠ macro. Just needed to clear this up because, yeah, "complexity" is an incredibly vague word and scientists are bad at naming things)
Cultural Evolution by Alex Mesoudi
This. book. also explains. EVERYTHING.
Well, an attempt to "synthesize" everything in the humanities, anyway – from "micro" fields like psychology and human biology, to "macro" fields like sociology, economics, and anthropology. One big problem in the humanities is that there's no way for different disciplines to learn from each other. This means a lot of blind spots: economists ignore psychology, psychologists ignore culture, and cultural anthropologists don't want to make any general theories whatsoever, coz, you know, post-modernism?
The life sciences used to have this problem too. Naturalists, paleontologists, experimentalists, and modelers – they all had different theoretical assumptions and ways of doing things. There was no way for different fields to learn from each other, to fill in their blind spots, to build on each others' strengths... until an idea came along that could "synthesize" the life sciences: evolution.
Suddenly, the "micro" fields could talk with the "macro" fields. With Darwin's new theory, the life scientists could see how small "micro" changes could accumulate into large "macro" evolution.
Alex Mesoudi's idea in this book is to do the same with the human sciences! There's many parallels between biological evolution & cultural evolution – instead of genes spreading through reproduction, it's ideas/behaviors spreading through learning. (You may have heard of this being called "memes", but the problem with meme theory is 1) ideas/behaviors aren't discrete like genes are, and 2) gawd, i can't say "meme" with a straight face anymore)
This book only outlines the idea of cultural evolution, but doesn't go into details. Peeps are still fleshing the theory out. But in the meantime, there is a classic 1984 book, on the cultural evolution of human cooperation...
The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod
Suddenly, in the middle of a war, peace breaks out.
During the trench warfare of World War I, the generals had a problem: their soldiers would not stop cooperating with the enemy. Again and again, an informal "live and let live" system would spontaneously arise. Soldiers on both sides would not shoot. And when they were ordered to shoot, they'd deliberately miss. Why did cooperation keep popping up again and again, despite officially being enemies, despite direct orders to kill, despite often not even speaking the same language?
In this book, Robert Axelrod uses game theory & mathematical simulations to show how cooperation can "evolve", even in the unlikeliest of scenarios – and sadly, how cooperation can break down, despite people's best intentions.
How do you get people's "micro" motives to translate to the right "macro" behavior? Well, to get cooperation to evolve, here's what you need:
long-term, repeated interactions.
That's it. And that's why cooperation kept popping up in trench warfare – the two sides weren't going anywhere for a long time, and so, an implicit "you don't bother me, i don't bother you" kind of cooperation could spontaneously evolve. (World War II didn't have much trench warfare, and so, didn't have this "problem")
Makes you think about the political polarization we've seen in 2016. With each side in their own social bubbles, separated by class and occupation and even geography, there's little long-term repeated interactions – hence, maybe that's why there's little cooperation.
That's why, 30+ years later, this book is still a must-read today.
[contrived segue], but what about complexity in pure math!
Nonlinear Dynamics & Chaos by Steven Strogatz
So, I felt guilty that even though I was learning a lot about game theory, chaos theory, and complexity theory... I have very little "rigorous" math background. This book helped me fill in the gaps.
But here's the thing, this ain't your normal math textbook. It's written in a simple, conversational – and sometimes funny – tone of voice. But most importantly, it doesn't force you to memorize a bunch of random symbols and formulas. No, above all, it stresses intuition and thinking with pictures.
Why think in qualitative pictures? Well, 1) for most nonlinear systems, quantitatively predicting it is literally impossible. A simple "micro" leads to a chaotic "macro".
For example, the double pendulum...
...which is impossible to predict, because the smallest difference will lead to the biggest change. Micro → Macro. However, if you let go of specific quantitative prediction, and just plot variables onto a graph like Bob Ross splots paint on canvas, you can get a beautiful (and useful) qualitative picture, like the famous Lorenz Butterfly:
But the other reason to think in pictures is, 2) it's the ideas that are important, not the arcane greek symbols and dark magic formulae. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand equations.
. . .
All these books, despite being about complex, chaotic, evolutionary systems – stuff that's at the "edge" of what traditional mathematics can do – all these books were pretty accessible yet thorough! They made the complex simple. As someone who's dedicated to teaching things through my games, talks, and writing, that's a skill I deeply admire.
So that's why I've got this next collection, full of authors accessibly and engagingly explaining things I knew nothing about before, opening my eyes to new beauty I never knew was there...
BEST POP SCIENCE
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
Oh hey, another book I read in 2016 that actually came out in 2016!
This book is about microbes, and the hidden beauty of microbes. Though we tend to think of "germs" as unimportant at best or dangerous at worst, in reality, we couldn't live without microbes. They help us digest our food. They help develop our bodies. They're a crucial part of our ecosystem. And in the future, we may be able to engineer them to create new materials and save human lives.
The micro shapes the macro.
I just love these kinds of books, which show you beauty in what's invisible. But there's also beauty in the things that are too visible, hidden in plain sight:
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
Glass is just sand, rearranged. Paper is just tree, rearranged. Diamonds, pencil lead, and rope for future space elevators are all just carbon atoms, very differently and precisely arranged.
The whole is completely different from the sum of its parts.
This book wasn't just a fun look into the physics of materials, it also revealed the psychology of materials. A plastic cup seems childish, but a glass wine cup seems classy. We have a utilitarian stainless steel sink for our kitchens, but a bright, white porcelain sink for our bathrooms. Materials isn't just stuff, it's how we project our internal psychological world into the external physical world.
[contrived segue], so what about our internal psychological world?
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
The problem with "reductionist" science is that it can't get at the things that matter most deeply to us – but the problem with "holistic" wisdom is that it's way too easy to spout off some profound-sounding bullpoop. See: almost the entire self-help genre. (almost all of that genre. My final collection in this blog post will be self-help books!)
In this book, Jonathan Haidt brilliantly and beautifully marries both modern science and ancient wisdom, to come up with a tentative answer to an age-old question: how can I be happy?
The first step is to – as Plato said – know thyself. We all have a "divided" mind: subconscious vs conscious, automatic vs controlled, emotion vs reason. In Jonathan's main metaphor, our emotions are an elephant, and our reason is its rider. The elephant has a mind of its own – that's why it sometimes seems your emotions are out of your control – but you, the rider, can train your elephant to help you do amazing things. You just need skill, and time.
You can train your elephant by developing habits – so that way, you don't have to strain your willpower to do things, you'll just automatically do them! When you create habits at the deepest level of your self, that's called building character, building moral virtues. (This "character-first" way of looking at morality is far more humane – and far more practical – than the cold calculations of Kant's categorical imperative & Bentham's utilitarianism.)
And what kind of virtues should one build, to maximize the likelihood you'll find happiness? They should be virtues that strengthen your body, your mind, your emotions, your relationships, your work, and your connection to something greater than yourself – be that God, The Universe, humanity, a cause, or a community.
...yeeeah easier said than done. more details are in the book.
. . .
These authors were able to teach me – a layperson – about deep, complex subjects I previously knew nothing about. That's a skill I deeply admire, and a skill I need to learn for the work I do! So, for my next collection, books that can teach you about teaching, that help you learn about learning:
Mindstorms by Seymour Papert
This book on education was published in 1980, and yet, it's still revolutionary even today. I don't know if that's a sign of how forward-looking this book was, or how obsolete our education system still is.
In this book, Seymour lays out his theory of constructionism, or in less jargon-y terms, learning by doing/learning by making. Take for example his most famous creation, LOGO, a programmable "turtle" that can crawl around with a pen.
Normally, if you wanted to teach a kid about geometry, the standard curriculum is to drill a bunch of formula into their heads, ignoring their protests of "when will I ever need this crap". But with the LOGO turtle, a student could tell the turtle to put its pen to paper, walk forward 5 steps, turn right 120 degrees, walk forward 5 steps, turn right 120 degrees, walk forward 5 steps, take its pen off the paper, and voilá – the turtle has drawn an equilateral triangle!
Geometry is no longer some abstract plug-and-chug list of formulas – it's a toolbox for artistic expression.
(To see more examples of tools and toys to help people learn by doing/making, check out Explorable Explanations)
But of course, "learning by doing" isn't the only way to learn, and in many cases it's not the best way to learn. You're (hopefully) learning from this blog post, but you're not "doing" this post. So no, there must be something more fundamental to how our brains learn. And maybe, one fundamental is... the metaphor.
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson
METAPHOR: DISCUSSION = COMBAT
“She won the argument”
“He attacked my point of view”
“I'm defending my political position”
METAPHOR: RELATIONSHIPS = SPACE
“They're a close friend”
“We've grown distant over the years”
“Whose side are you on?!”
METAPHOR: TIME = MONEY
“I love spending time with you”
“Distract 'em. Buy us some time.”
“Writing this 4,500+ word blog post stopped being a good investment of my time a very long while ago”
Metaphors aren't just for fancy-pants poets. According to George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, they're how we understand the world. A metaphor helps you understand X in terms of Y. When we try to teach someone a new thing, we tell 'em, well, it's like this other thing. Just as you brain makes neural connections, your mind makes conceptual connections – and that's called a metaphor.
(NOTE: sometimes the metaphors we've internalized, aren't the best ones to live by. Too many people think "discussion = combat", and that's one of many reasons why we've seen all the political polarization and turmoil we did in 2016. A better metaphor might be "discussion = collaboration", or something)
As you saw in the above examples, there are many ways of expressing the exact same metaphor. So how do you pick the specific words to convey a general metaphor? How do you tie the "micro" to the "macro"? For that, I needed this next book...
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Yup, the same Steven Pinker who wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature. Steven was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize twice, by the way. If you get nominated for a Pulitzer twice, I figure you must know something about writing well. And, as luck would have it, Steven wrote a book to spill his secrets on how he writes – with style.
No, this book is not a boring list of rigid rules and Grammar Nazism a lá Strunk & White. This book is all about turning macro-level ideas into micro-level words.
For example, say I want to convey two ideas, but also convey the idea that there's a similarity between two ideas. So what I could do is use similar words to explain those similar ideas. Just like I did in that last sentence. BOOM. SO META
A book full of such tips & tricks would be useful, but Steven goes even deeper. He provides the cognitive science behind each of his suggestions. Fundamentally, building up ideas is like building a spider web. You connect A to B, connect B to C, connect A+B to C, connect B+C to A, connect A+B+C to D, etc... and you build these connections with metaphors, or similar phrases, or subject-object-verb ordering, or [contrived segues], or connecting words like "but", "therefore", "for example", "although", and "and" – although you'll sometimes need to disconnect with a "by the way".
By the way, I lied. Steven did indulge in a bit of Grammar Nazism in the very final chapter, just for funzies. The final chapter is explicitly an extra add-on just for kicks, that you can skip. I skipped it.
. . .
These three books helped me teach meaningful things to others. But for my final section, here's the three books that helped me teach meaningful things to myself.
I know, I know. "Self-help" get a bad reputation, because it's full of bullcrap copy-cats, but the following books are who those copy-cats copied. These are the Grand Masters, the ones with real wisdom, and they are...
Feeling Good by David Burns
Good therapy is a therapist fixing you. Great therapy is giving you the tools to fix yourself.
This is the book that popularized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – the most evidence-backed psychotherapy we know of, and it's as effective as drugs (or more effective than drugs) in treating depression, anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a whole list of other mental probs. And CBT is so effective, because it's not a one-time fix – it's a set of tools, techniques, and habits that help you get better every day.
Getting a therapist is expensive. Getting this book is, like, $6 for a paperback.
For most of my life, I've had mild-to-moderate depression & anxiety. But after reading and practicing the tools of CBT, I've made huge improvements! My change is still recent enough that I'm in awe how much I've changed this past year alone, and it's in part, thanks to this book.
(To learn more about my struggle with anxiety, and the thought-tools from CBT which most helped me, read this blog post I wrote last spring)
However, CBT can only help you fix what's wrong. You'll need something else to help you find what's right. Something like...
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
So. The author's a freakin' Holocaust survivor, okay? He went to Auschwitz. And yet, even in those most harrowing of circumstances, he found... meaning. A reason to keep on keeping on. This book details his experiences in the concentration camps, and then explains the techniques he developed – while in those camps – to find meaning to one's life, no matter the circumstances.
Fundamentally, the problem is that we ask Life what its meaning is. But it's the other way around. It's not us who should be questioning Life, it's Life who is questioning us – and it is we who have to answer for ourselves.
Asking “what's THE meaning of life” is like asking “what's THE best chess move” – there isn't one, but that doesn't mean all chess moves are equally useless. The meaning of your life, like the best chess move, depends from moment to moment, from circumstance to circumstance.
And if your circumstance is one of suffering, then you can find meaning in two ways. 1) if it's avoidable suffering, then the meaning of your life in that moment is to get the heck out. If you stay, that's masochism, not meaning-making. Which brings us to – 2) if it's unavoidable suffering, like being stuck in Auschwitz, then the meaning of your life – what Life is asking you to do – is to suffer bravely, with dignity. It becomes your cross to bear.
And if Victor Frankl could find meaning in the worst of places, so can you. At least, you can after you read his book. Go read his book.
And finally, last but not least...
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for this book. Just look at that gross book cover! Also this is the book that coined the phrase "synergy", the mother of all meaningless buzzwords.
But, on a whim, I decided to finally check out this old classic self-help guide, the book that launched a thousand copycats, and it was... actually really deep and meaningful!
This book won my trust in its first few pages alone: it opens, by viciously criticizing the self-help books that only give shallow tips and tricks. (The kind of book that, ironically, 7 Habits would inspire thousands of.) Those kinds of self-help books focus on surface-level "fixes", like positive mantras, or the power pose, or parrotting what the other person says to "win" their "trust". In contrast, this book – and the two other books in this collection – focus on much, much, much deeper aspects of the human being: their worldview, their relationships, their principles and virtues.
It's "personality" versus "character". 7 Habits focuses on character.
C.S. Lewis once said that humanity is like an orchestra. Each individual should be in tune with themselves, and in tune with each other. That is – each person should be independent but also interdependent. Those are the character-building habits that this book teaches.
The first half of 7 Habits focuses on making you psychologically independent: principles, self-efficacy, and not basing your self-worth on external things like fame or money or admiration.
The second half of 7 Habits focuses on making you socially inter-dependent: going for Win/Win, deeply understanding others, and letting go of total control, to allow for a creative and chaotic evolution of cooperation. (similar to Complexity/Cultural Evolution theory?) I think if everyone read & internalized the second half of this book – understanding others, going for Win/Win – a good chunk of the political polarization and conflict we saw in 2016... just maybe, could be solved in 2017.
Buckminster Fuller has a lovely gravestone. It reads:
A trimtab is a mini-rudder on the end of a bigger rudder. A meta-rudder, if you will. For very big ships, even turning the main rudder would take a lot of energy. But by putting a rudder on the rudder, with very little effort, you can turn the main rudder, and thus, turn the entire ship.
Now that is a metaphor to live by.
The "micro" stories of our day-to-day lives can influence the "macro" social science and cultural evolution of our world. By learning the things you don't know, and teaching the things you do know, you can boost your independence and inter-dependence.
Like I said at the beginning, books can't change your life. Not directly, anyway. They're a trimtab. They're a seed that you plant in the garden of your mind. Or maybe it's the manure in the garden of your mind, I don't know. Either way, give it time and love, and the most beautiful flowers and most delicious fruits will grow.
May these books – the trimtab – steer your life towards a more meaningful direction. And in turn, may you and I – the main rudder – steer the world towards a more peaceful place.
~ Nicky Case