If you’re a human and you have a brain, then you probably like using your brain. And if you like using your brain, then you love having those epiphany moments where your hair blows back and you go “Whoa” like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix when he learns Kung Fu from a USB drive in his neck.
I know it’s not what the cool kids like to do, but I like to read non-fiction. Lots of non-fiction. And my favorite moments reading non-fiction are when a book bitchslaps my brain and reconfigures my entire understanding of reality and my place within it.
I love that. It’s like a mind orgasm.
I get a lot of emails asking me for book recommendations. I never know what the hell to say because so many of the books that have influenced me have done so not because they’re so good or brilliant, but mostly because they addressed the issues I was going through at the time I was reading them.
So instead of divulging what my favorite books are, I’ll leave you with something better: seven of the most mind-fucking, reality-reshaping, Keanu Reeves “Whoa” inspiring books that I’ve ever read.
In no particular order…
Stumbling on Happiness
by Daniel Gilbert
What It’s About: Stumbling on Happiness is like the red-headed stepchild of happiness books. It doesn’t fit in with the rest because it basically tries to convince you that you don’t even know what the hell makes you happy in the first place, so why stress out about it?
Gilbert is a famous Harvard psychologist who has a knack for coming up with zany experiments that show just how flawed and biased the human mind is. In the book, he shows you time and again that as humans, we inaccurately judge, among other things, what made us happy in the past, what will make us happy in the future, and even what is making us happy right at this moment.
In fact, decades of Gilbert’s research on happiness all points to the same unsettling fact: happiness has little to do with what happens to us in our lives, and more to do with how we end up choosing to see things.
Gilbert’s theory is that we each have a “psychological immune system,” basically a bullshit generator where our minds explain away our past experiences, our future projections and our current situations in such a way that we always maintain a baseline level of mild happiness.1 And it’s when this “immune system” fails that we fall into prolonged depression and/or existential crises.
“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy… But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.”
“Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.”
Bonus Points For: Being perhaps the wittiest and best-written psychology book you’ll ever read.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: A dog named “Humanity” endlessly chasing its own tail with a big slobbery smile on its face.
Read This Book If…
…you enjoy Harvard professors who reference The Beatles in every chapter and make jokes about quadriplegics.
…you are interested in behavioral economics and irrational decision-making.
…you’ve always had a hunch that you are completely full of shit but would like 400 pages of psychological research to confirm it for you.
…you want to read a book that explains happiness without mythologizing it or worshipping it.
On The Genealogy of Morals
by Friedrich Nietzsche
What It’s About: Hidden beneath the bombastic prose, the angry rhetoric, the shameless blasphemy and a mustache the size of a small child’s leg, Nietzsche wrote with a cold and stark logic. On The Genealogy of Morals, perhaps his shortest and most influential work, was starkest of all. In three essays totaling around 100 pages, he lays out the following:
- In any population, you are going to have a group of people who are more talented/gifted/intelligent than average. Let’s call them The Strong. You are also going to have a group of people who are less talented/gifted/intelligent than average. Let’s call them The Weak.2
- The Strong will naturally accrue the power in society for no other reason than they are more capable and talented than the others.
- Because The Strong won their greater power and influence through outsmarting or outperforming others, they will come to adopt ethical beliefs that justify their position: that might makes right, that they are entitled to their privileged position, that they earned what is theirs. Nietzsche calls this “Master Morality.”
- Because The Weak lost their power and influence by being outsmarted and outperformed, they will come to adopt ethical beliefs that justify their position: that people deserve aid and charity, that one should give away one’s possessions to the less fortunate, that you should live for others and not yourself. Nietzsche calls this “Slave Morality.”
- Master/Slave Moralities have been in a kind of tension in every society for all of recorded history. Many political/social conflicts are side effects of the struggle between Master and Slave Moralities.
- Nietzsche believed that the ideas of guilt, punishment and a “bad conscience” are all culturally constructed and used by The Weak to chip away at the dominance and power of The Strong. He also believed that Slave Morality is just as capable of corrupting and oppressing a society as Master Morality. He used Christianity as his primary example of this.
- Nietzsche believed that Slave Morality stifled man’s greatest characteristics: creativity, innovation, ambition, and even happiness itself.
“Above all, there is no exception to this rule: that the idea of political superiority always resolves itself into the idea of psychological superiority.”
“Without cruelty, there is no festival.”3
Bonus Points For: Claiming that the weak people had to invent God so that they could believe their suffering actually meant something. Nietzsche was a pretty hardcore dude.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: BDSM porn involving a guy with a really, really bushy mustache… and syphilis.4
Read This Book If…
…you’re the kind of sicko like me who finds obtuse 19th-century German philosophy to be excellent beach reading.
…you won’t be offended if some angry German dude rhetorically punches Jesus Christ in the vagina and calls your God a sissy over and over again.
…you like mustaches.
Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
by Nassim Taleb
What It’s About: Before I explain a few of the brilliant ideas in this book, I need to get something off my chest: Taleb sounds like a pompous dick. If he’s trolling the world with his writing style, he’s doing a good job, because some passages are almost impossible to get through without either rolling your eyes at him or shoving the book through a paper shredder. If he really is this arrogant, well, then let’s just say he won’t be invited to any of my playdates anytime soon.
Taleb has a handful of amazing ideas. I’m talking potentially life-changing, world-affecting ideas. These ideas can be explained well in about 50 pages. The other 450 pages are mostly him trying to prove how cool and cultured he is while explaining how much smarter he is than the following groups of people: academics, politicians, Nobel Prize winners, Wall Street analysts, economists, journalists, statisticians, historians, soccer moms, teachers, anybody who uses the bell curve, anybody in the social sciences, and anyone who disagrees with him.
So what are his handful of earth-shattering ideas in Antifragile? Well, here’s the starting point:
- Often the most influential events in history are, by definition, the least anticipated. These are called “Black Swan” events.5
- As humans, we are inherently biased against noticing both the number of random events in our lives and the impact these random events have on us.
- That due to the exponential scaling of technology, Black Swan events are becoming more common and influential than ever before.
- Therefore, we should build up systems (and ourselves) to be “antifragile,” that is, to construct our lives and our societies in such a way as to benefit from major unanticipated events.
If that tweaks your nipples and you don’t mind putting up with pages upon pages of pretentious meandering, then go nuts, Taleb is for you.
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
“The irony of the process of thought control: the more energy you put into trying to control your ideas and what you think about, the more your ideas end up controlling you.”
“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.”
Bonus Points For: Being a totally insufferable asshole. And wrong about tons of his analogies and examples. But still brilliant somehow, despite himself.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: Some fat, rich bald guy boring you to death over cappuccinos with inane stories about living in France and smoking skinny cigarettes with Umberto Eco while you stab yourself in the face with a sugar spoon repeatedly trying to make it all stop.
Read This Book If…
…you like feeling like you’re smarter than everybody even though you’re not.
…you want to have your conception of “success” and “progress” completely flipped on its head.
…you want to read a book that while consisting of maybe 60% bullshit, will have you still thinking about the ideas years later.
The True Believer
by Eric Hoffer
The book is perhaps the most to-the-point and non-bullshitty philosophical work I’ve ever read. And the power of Hoffer’s short sentences can take your breath away. See below.
“The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.”
“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”
“Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure.”
Bonus Points For: It was apparently one of President Eisenhower’s favorite books.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: An open hand, heading straight for the side of your face.
Read This Book If…
…you want to know why people give up their identities for some insane cause.
…you wonder how war and revolutions are even possible.
…you want to read something smart but don’t want to wade through hundreds of pages of gibberish and academic jargon to understand it.
Civilization and Its Discontents
by Sigmund Freud
What It’s About: Freud was an academic sensation at the beginning of the 20th century. He had invented psychoanalysis, brought the science of psychology to the mainstream, and was highly regarded in intellectual circles around Europe. Then World War I broke out, and destroyed, well, just about everything. Freud was deeply moved by the devastation and fell into a deep depression and secluded himself for much of the 1920s. Civilization and Its Discontents was the result of this depression.
The book makes one simple argument: that humans have deep, animalistic instincts to eat, kill, or fuck everything. Freud argued that civilization could only arise when enough humans learned to repress these deeper and baser urges, to push them into the unconscious where (according to his model) they would fester and ultimately generate all sorts of neuroses.
Freud basically came to the conclusion that as humans, we had one of two shitty options in life: 1) repress all of our basic instincts to maintain some semblance of a safe and cooperative civilization, thus making ourselves miserable and neurotic or 2) to let them all out and let shit hit the fan.
To Freud, Hitler and World War II just proved his point a few years later. And as an Austrian Jew, he ran for the hills. The hills being London, of course. He lived out the last years of his life in a city being bombed into oblivion.
“It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct.”
“A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object.”
Bonus Points For: Basically arguing that we’re all fucked and there’s no hope for any of us. And doing it convincingly.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: The Eye of Sauron overlooking hordes of his minions advancing on the kingdom of Gondor as the darkness consumes the — oh wait, wrong book.
Read This Book If…
…you like the explanation that the only problem any of us have is that we want to fuck and/or kill everybody in sight, yet we’re not allowed to.
…you basically hate humans and think they’re a bunch of rape-hungry assholes waiting to stab each other over a sandwich.
…Hitler makes you sad.
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil
What It’s About: In the beginning of The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil shows that the processing power of computers and technology has increased exponentially through history and is likely to continue doing so.
He then argues that because of this, in the year 2046 all of our brains are going to be digitally encrypted and uploaded to the cloud where we will all form a single, immortal consciousness that will control all computing power on the planet.
And the fucked up part is that some of his explanation of how this is going to happen makes sense. I mean, it’s probably not going to happen. And the book reads like it was written by a middle-aged engineer who took too much acid and now desperately needs to speak with a therapist. Kurzweil claims, among other things, that baby boomers are the first generation that will conquer aging and death, and that he wants to digitally transcribe his dead father’s brain into computer software so he can like, you know, Skype chat with good ol’ dad again.
Couch is over there, Ray. Why don’t you lay down and tell us how you’re feeling?
I poke fun at Ray, but the technological possibilities presented in this book are truly mind-boggling. And we will undoubtedly see a significant percentage of them in our lifetime. Medical nanobots that live in the bloodstream that we wireless upload vaccines to. Genetic programming for newborns so parents can choose not only the physical characteristics of their children but their talents as well. Uploading and downloading consciousness onto the internet, so that you could download somebody else’s life experiences as your own the same way you downloaded the last season of Breaking Bad.
As Neo once said:
The whole immortality, one-computerized-world-consciousness thing? I’ll believe it when I see it. But if you can trudge through hundreds of pages of technical explanations of genetic engineering, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence to see the implications of some of what we’re likely to experience in the next 50 years — well, get ready son: shit’s going to get wild.
“One cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.”
“Can the pace of technological progress continue to speed up indefinitely? Isn’t there a point at which humans are unable to think fast enough to keep up? For unenhanced humans, clearly so. But what would 1,000 scientists, each 1,000 times more intelligent than human scientists today, and each operating 1,000 times faster than contemporary humans (because the information processing in their primarily non-biological brains is faster) accomplish? One chronological year would be like a millennium for them. What would they come up with?”
Bonus Points For: Delusional optimism to the point where you kind of feel bad for the guy and how scared he is of dying.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: A holographic robot orgy that’s not actually happening, but the nanocomputers embedded into the synapses in your brain just make you think it’s happening. 6
Read This Book If…
…you are a geek, plain and simple.
…you want to see why the internet and smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming in our lifetimes.
…you are an aging boomer who refuses to see a therapist and needs something to look forward to.
The Denial of Death
by Ernest Becker
What It’s About: Speaking of being afraid of dying… Here’s The Denial of Death in a nutshell:
Because man is the only animal capable of conceptualizing his own existence — thinking about his life, questioning it, imagining future possibilities — man is therefore also the only animal capable of conceptualizing his own non-existence, i.e., his own death.
In other words, humans were given the gift of being able to imagine the future and who we want to be, but the price we pay for this gift is the realization that we will one day die. A dog doesn’t realize she’s going to die. Neither does a fish. Or a roach. But we do.
This knowledge of our own inevitable death leads to a kind of ever-present “terror” that underlies everything we do. Becker argues that this terror inspires us all to take on what he calls a “hero project,” where we attempt to immortalize ourselves through our deeds and actions, to create something bigger than ourselves that will live beyond our own lives.
It’s when people’s hero projects contradict one another that we get conflict, violence, bigotry, and evil. It’s when hero projects fail that we fall into deep despair and depression because we’re once again confronted with the inevitability of our own death and meaninglessness of our lives.7
“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
“What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such a complex and fancy worm food?”
Bonus Points For: Making you contemplate your own non-existence and kind of making you feel okay about it.
If This Book Could Be Summarized in An Image, That Image Would Be: The grim reaper silently laughing to himself watching you build an elaborate Lego set called “Life,” and you turning around and saying, “Stop laughing, this is important!”
Read This Book If…
…you plan on dying one day.
…you think you take life a little bit too seriously sometimes and need to chill.
…you want to read a convincing argument for why we should embrace our pain and our fear rather than avoid it.
Looking for more books to read?
- I say “mild happiness” because the psychological immune system works both ways. Too unhappy? Your brain will come up with explanations to make you feel OK again. Too happy? Your brain will start to feel entitled and unsatisfied again. Sucks, huh?↵
- “The Strong” and “The Weak” are my terms, not Nietzsche’s.↵
- In the 20th century, Nietzsche’s ideas became erroneously linked with the rise of fascism in Germany. Although Nietzsche’s views could often be scathing and unforgiving, he likely would have not liked the worship of the state in Nazi Germany any more than he liked the worship of God.↵
- Rumor was that Nietzsche was a total whore monger and eventually died of complications due to syphilis. Although this too was probably untrue.↵
- Some examples of Black Swan events: 9/11, the Great Depression, the French Revolution, the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, the invention of Facebook, Britney Spears shaving her head in 2004. Taleb says that one of the defining facets of a Black Swan event is that they are easily explainable in hindsight, but they’re nearly impossible to imagine beforehand.↵
- Of course, you jerk off anyway.↵
- For all three of you who were wondering, this is my favorite non-fiction book of all-time. My favorite fiction book is War and Peace by Tolstoy… which is, ironically, basically a 1,230-page exposition on how people’s hero projects form the fabric of society and history.↵