9 Books That Explain How the World Works

The proliferation of content in the internet age has turned our attention into a rare commodity. Every day, every hour, every minute, we are bombarded with information. This is not doing us any good.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article exhorting us to reclaim our attention, to take back control, to choose better sources of information and not be enslaved to the internet.

One of my recommendations in the article was to ditch short-form content like social media and bite-sized news, and instead opt for longer-form content like books and podcasts—anything that takes a long time to consume.

After that article was published, a number of you emailed to ask what books to read. Honestly, any book is better than mindlessly scrolling through your social media feed. But here are nine in particular that will not only help you reclaim your attention, but also teach you about the world in the process.

You’re welcome.

Why Information Grows

Why Information Grows by César HidalgoI saw Why Information Grows referenced in Harari’s Homo Deus (discussed below) as a good explanation of what Harari calls “Data-ism:” a new quasi-religion arising around big data and global connectivity.

Hidalgo starts with a fascinating question: in a universe dictated by entropy, how does order arise and maintain itself, much less increase exponentially? One could look at life itself as merely the emergence of a self-directing order in a vast sea of inanimate, random matter. So where does this order come from?

Hidalgo, early on, makes the point that the Earth is the only place in the known universe where information both thrives and expands at rapid rates. That we are the equivalent of a black hole of order—a rare phenomenon where information approaches infinity and order expands seemingly endlessly.

The second half of the book then looks at calculating information and processing power across the world and attempts to explain global economic dynamics based on the amount of information present in various societies. It’s quite ambitious. And while it doesn’t always hold up, it’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth KolbertOne of the last books I read this year is also one of the most startling. I bought The Sixth Extinction because I wanted to learn more about the details and effects of climate change. That and the book won a Pulitzer Prize, so it should be good. What I got was actually a deeper insight into the history of our understanding of life, and our place as humans in that history.

Throughout the history of Earth, there have been five “mass extinctions.” These mass extinctions have caused the death of anywhere from 50% to 90% of all species on the planet in a short amount of time. The most famous mass extinction is the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs (and almost everything else).

The book leans into the idea that humanity, when looked at on a geological time scale, is arguably the sixth mass extinction—the first time any single species has had the honor of causing such calamity.

There’s a lot more than climate change involved, too. Apparently, the global transport of species, bacteria, and fungus wreaks havoc on local habitats and ecosystems. The effects we’re having on the ocean are likely just as disastrous, if not more, than the rising temperature or disappearing forests.

But most importantly, the book gave me a greater appreciation for the diversity of life. I’ve always known there’s a lot of plants and animals out there. But it’s always been this abstract concept, like, “Oh yeah, there’s lots of life and stuff.” But the degree of biodiversity that exists on the planet is just as staggering (and therefore, arguably, as special) as the size of the universe or the complexity of the atom. I slept through most of my biology classes in school, so this was a nice slap in the face for why I should care about these sorts of things.

I don’t know if this book has changed my habits or behaviors yet. But it has gotten me seriously thinking. Seeing life not as some magical thing but rather an incredibly rare form of complexity that must be taken care of, I feel like I’m slowly building a new ethic for myself that will eventually trickle down into new lifestyle habits and behaviors.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen GreenblattThe Swerve started a bit slow and it was hard to see where it was going, but it turned out to be incredible. I won’t spoil the specifics, but let’s just say that a handful of highly educated transcribers in Medieval Italy with a passion for ancient Roman philosophical texts are the only reason the Renaissance (and therefore, arguably, modernity) ever happened.

The book focuses primarily on the hunt for the text On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher who lived around 50 BC. The fact that this text survived 1,500 years is a marvel in and of itself, as the Catholic Church had banned it during the Roman Empire and burned all known copies of the text (or so they thought). What’s in the text is just as spectacular as the fact that anyone found it. Let’s just say that Lucretius called pretty much everything we take for granted as obvious and true today (atoms, evolution, earth being round, etc.) way back in 50 BC.

What was most shocking about The Swerve though, aside from how incredible the story is, is the realization of how intellectually and economically punishing the fall of the Roman Empire really was. I had always assumed that Christianity had more or less worked out as a net positive for humanity. Now, I’m not so sure. They call it “The Dark Ages” for a reason. The leading thinkers and scholars of antiquity were almost entirely lost. The western world became less educated and more violent. European civilization would require another 1,500 years to catch up to where it was before.

One lesson here is that history is not a straight line. Things don’t always improve. In fact, they can easily fall apart and get worse. We take for granted that things will simply always get better because that’s all we’ve known the past few centuries. But western civilization already took one detour that lasted 1.5 millennium, there’s nothing saying it can’t happen again.

This last point is actually the “big” realization that holds this and the next three books together in my mind, and why they were so impactful for me. While I tend to be skeptical of people who think something like Trump or North Korea is going to cause a civilizational collapse (collapses happen over the course of centuries, not years), it has reoriented my understanding of the incredible progress the world has made the past few centuries, and how fragile it may be.

Escape From Evil

Escape From Evil by Ernest BeckerBecker is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, The Denial of Death. Escape From Evil was a half-completed follow-up before he died of cancer. His wife gathered his notes and had it published shortly after.

The Denial of Death was profound in that it argued all personal motivation, meaning and purpose stems from the avoidance of the reality of our own death. We are terrified of our own mortality and so we erect “immortality projects” to temporarily convince ourselves that our identity will last forever. (This is the same concept I reference in the last chapter of The Subtle Art.)

Escape From Evil takes this same realization and applies it to cultures at large. Much of what we consider culture and religion, are merely socially-agreed upon practices that help us all escape the reality of our own meaningless lives.

If it sounds bleak it’s because it fucking is. Becker argues that wars, mass violence, prejudice, bigotry, etc. all become rational when you consider that people are literally fighting for their own psychological sense of immortality.

The Retreat of Western Liberalism

The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward LuceI saw The Retreat of Western Liberalism discussed on Vice’s website this summer and it sounded like another part of the “Trump is the end of the world” hysteria, which I generally try not to take part in. But then I saw it pop up in a few more places and mentioned as a serious historical critique of liberalism and some of our assumptions about it.

Luce essentially picks up where Becker left off with concrete historical examples. He demonstrates that democracy and western liberal values (free speech, etc.) are almost non-existent in human history. And that while we often take for granted that all human progress will naturally follow the liberating progress of Western European culture, there’s nothing guaranteeing that. For all we know, the past 200-300 years could have been an anomalous blip of human history (much in the same way Greek and Roman democracy was).

Luce points out that, in the 21st century, we’ve seen an abandonment of the adoption of democratic values across the world, as well as seeing those values recede here at home. It’s a deeply depressing, yet important book.

Homo Deus: The History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: The History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah HarariI thought Homo Deus was much weaker than Harari’s previous book Sapiens. I’ve heard that Sapiens took him almost ten years to write, so the fact Homo Deus showed up a mere two years later suggests either he rushed through it, or that it contains a lot of extra stuff that never made it into Sapiens.

But I digress, there was one section in here that really made the whole book worthwhile. Harari’s whole thing is that human society is constructed around myths. And not just religious myths, but money is a myth, government is a myth, corporations are a myth, legal systems are a myth. They’re myths we all believe in because they help organize larger groupings of society. This “myth” thing was the big mindblower in Sapiens.

The mindblower in Homo Deus, for me, was not all the futurism stuff, which is what I think other people get excited about. None of the futurism stuff was new to me.

What was new to me was his criticism of humanism.

To Harari, humanism is just another myth—a form of “secular religion”—based on the ideals of providing as much freedom and as little suffering as possible, to the most people possible.

Harari points out that with all of the amazing progress humanist values have granted the world, they also bring with them flaws and problems that the old religions never had. One is the existential anxiety that comes with believing you’re responsible for everything that happens in your life. Another is the overestimation of individualism, the idea that acting on our own behalf is always better. Another is the implicit belief that greater freedom equals greater happiness.

Harari also points out that the most destructive wars in human history emerged through the conflict of different denominations of humanism: communism, capitalism, and fascism.

The big takeaway here, as with all of these four books, is that a) the great western philosophical success of the past 400+ years is a brittle anomaly in the grand scheme of human civilization, and b) that we may actually end up being on the losing side of history here. It got me thinking about what the blind spots in our own humanistic religion may be. And what a more effective religion may look like.

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan HolidayRyan’s a bud of mine. I’ve read all of his books and I know our fan bases overlap quite a bit. He’s mostly known for his stoicism stuff, but Conspiracy is my favorite book of his. And it’s notable for a number of reasons.

For one, I think it’s his best-written work. Ryan’s always been a good writer. But Conspiracy is a page-turner. I crushed it in two days. I couldn’t put it down. It was absolutely riveting from beginning to end.

But another reason I think this book is notable is that there are a lot of subtle undercurrents going on here that are not immediately obvious. What is free speech? What makes a legal case fair? Do celebrities deserve to be treated differently by law? Do media companies? Do billionaires? Are conspiracies always bad or wrong? Is the fact that they are done without the public’s knowledge necessarily evil?

There are a lot of threads to pull on from this book, and I was surprised by how few of them were after the book was released.

In a strange irony, Conspiracy received far more media attention than any of Ryan’s other books, yet I’m pretty sure it’s one of his lesser-selling books to date (I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s the impression I’ve gotten from conversations with him). Regardless, it goes to show, just like the book shows, that media success is not the same as real success. That depth is not the same as popularity. And what is ethically right may not always be what is popular. It’s a book and story that I find myself thinking about at random times. And I wonder (also hope) that one day it gets its intellectual due.

The Revolt of the Public

The Revolt of the Public by Martin GurriAt this point, I’ve read maybe a dozen books about the effects of social media on society and this is probably the best one I’ve read.

Instead of the usual hysterics about mental health and fake news, Gurri takes a much broader and deeper historical view. Social media has done more than simply change how we communicate—it has changed the informal structures of society itself. It has changed what we view as credible. It has challenged hierarchies of authority. And while these might sound like a good thing, Gurri points out the many ways these changes are socially and politically destabilizing.

Starting with the Arab Spring in 2011, Gurri traces the rise of protest and populist movements of the 2010s, demonstrating a new political order of “the fringe” vs “the center.” Gurri’s chief concern is that social media appears to drive a streak of political nihilism through society. It generates social movements that are excellent at tearing down and completely uninterested in building up. What’s fascinating is that this has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics. It has everything to do with anti-establishment and establishment.

An important book for anyone concerned about our political institutions and how they’re being affected by new technology.

The Information

The Information by James GleickGleick may be the best science writer out there. This is the third book I have read by him and all three of them were excellent (check out his biography of Isaac Newton for a real page-turner).

This book is about the history of information theory and the technologies of information science—all the way from the drum signals of prehistoric Africa up to the internet and cell phones of today. While Einstein is the scientific celebrity of the 20th century, it’s really Claude Shannon’s information theory that has completely reshaped the world from the ground up. Information has become the water that we swim in—it’s so ubiquitous that we no longer even realize it’s there.

If you like scientific history and if you’d like to know more about how our world became the way it is from a technological point of view, this is a great book to pick up.

Looking for More Books to Read?

I’ve put together a list of over 200 “best books” organized by genre, as well as my all-time recommended reading list that includes the book(s) I’m reading each month. Check them out.

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