I read 100 books in 2017. Here are my Top 4 recommendations.

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

 

I read 100 books in 2017, which is more than double the 46 books I read in 2016. My breakdown was 90% non-fiction, 10% fiction in 2017 vs 100% non-fiction, 0% fiction in 2016. If you're curious, you can view them all HERE.

The two factors that helped to double my reading volume were: 1) I started a podcast that combines books, booze, and interesting conversations and 2) I began using Goodreads, which I highly recommend because it enables you to easily track books you've already read and books you want to read in the future.

Here are the 4 books I recommend everyone should check out:

1) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari

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Of the 288 books I’ve logged over the past 6-7 years…THIS is the best book I’ve read. Sapiens is a mind-blowing, ambitious, and deep reflection on the past, present, and future of Homo Sapiens. I am literally going to force my family and friends to read this book.

The book breaks human history into 4 parts: 1) The Cognitive Revolution, 2) The Agricultural Revolution, 3) The Unification of Humankind and 4) The Scientific Revolution. From our humble beginnings as insignificant primates to our takeover of planet earth, Yuval Noah Harari takes you on a mind bending journey that explores human evolution, inter-subjective realities, expanded definitions of religion (including referring to human rights and money as religions), and sapiens unquenchable desire to innovate and conquer. Harari masterfully weaves it all together into one of the most remarkable single volumes of history ever produced.

Harari is not shy about confronting some of the big questions and dark realities of our human nature including genocide, environmental destruction, and the fact that, despite incredible innovations and global domination…sapiens STILL don’t seem to be any happier than they were in previous points in history

He ends the book by musing on his predictions for the future of humanity, which includes sapiens turning themselves into gods via AI, genetic engineering, and nanotech. Technology resulting in a “useless class” of people, the collapse of liberalism, humanism, and capitalism, and the rise of religions that worship technology.

He ends this masterpiece with an incredible quote that sums up humanities future:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
 

2) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

by Sebastian Junger

This short, thought-provoking work focuses on community. What is community? How do groups of humans typically interact, both historically, and today? 

Junger argues that human community is more or less defined as a small band (approx 50-150) of humans who, in the face of existential threats (war, famine, natural disaster) depend on each other for their collective survival. Tribes are "the people you would share the last of your food with." Imagine a tight-knit band of hunter-gathers killing a saber-toothed tiger to protect their tribe. That image, per Junger, is essentially how humans evolved to interact with each other. This is why so many humans find deep meaning and sense of purpose fighting for and defending their tribe or community against dangers and disasters. 

During times of crisis, like 9/11 or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people are at their VERY BEST. In times of crisis, suicide rates, crime rates, and substance abuse rates drop dramatically, and feelings of unity, community, and self-esteem reach otherwise unheard of levels.

The thing is, according to Junger, humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society, however, has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary.

In today's affluent, safe, stable Western nations, much of society has been liberated from the common day-to-day dangers that our ancestors faced, such as extreme violence, famine, and disease. While all these advances are great achievements, it's also true that we pay something of a price for our affluence and safety - namely - that you no longer DEPEND on the people around you for your day-to-day survival. Without that dependence true community essentially vanishes. What we end up with is a hyper-individualized society with increased anxiety, alienation, and depression. 

If Junger's thesis is even partially true, this may help explain why Western countries seem less happy than less developed countries. It may help explain why many veterans consider their experience in war zones to be highlight of their lives. 

We should not, of course, forget that tribalism, in-group-out-group bias, and dehumanization of the "other," are root causes of some of the most vile human atrocities. Nor should we forget that individualist thinking has liberated billions from the shackles of monarchy, state religion, and collective punishment. We should, however, acknowledge that with our modern society we experience very real trade-offs between: individualism and community, between solidarity and alienation, and between affluence/safety and meaning. 

Junger, admittedly, doesn't have an easy solution to the negatives of this apparent trade-off between the liberation of the individual vs the destruction of community, and between the precious gifts of affluence, abundance, and safety vs the truest of human bonds that can only be formed when people truly depend on each other for their day-to-day survival. Perhaps the best we can do is, carefully, try to create small "tribe-like" special interest communities like running clubs, professional organizations, or Ben Franklin-style Juntos that include as much of the positive aspects of the tribal community, and as little of the group-think and out-group bias as we can.

3) War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

by Chris Hedges

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An amazing, powerful book on how humans are seemingly drawn to the narcotic of war and the horror that results. Everyone should read this book.

The central idea that war is a very potent drug – the biggest high you can get – often peddled by historians, reporters, and other myth makers as exciting, glorious, and heroic. In reality, war exposes the evil that lurks not far below the surface in all of us. Despite its horrors, humans seem to find great meaning and purpose in war, and of killing the evil “other” for the “greater good.” Humans are very often seduced by the power to destroy lives.

Self-worshipping national/cultural myths that cast “us” as the victim, and “them” as the evil aggressor, tend to suspend critical thought, lead to dehumanization of “the other,” and violence naturally follows.

However, once the war actually arrives, those who experience the terror of battle and death firsthand realize how awful and regrettable it is. They realize that our national myths are almost always false or exaggerated, and the pain of killing others and/or losing friends/relatives never heals.

In war, morality turns upside down: indiscriminate slaughter becomes a virtue, and honest inquiry becomes vice. The chaos of war almost always leads to the executing of women and children, rape and torture, and people displaying other people they’ve killed as trophies. You are often forced to commit atrocities or risk having your allegiance questionedwhich could possibly put your own life at risk.

Hedges tries to recommend compassion, humility, communication, and love as the possible solutions, however it must be acknowledged that while humans have little problem being compassionate, humble, loving, and communicating with those they view as part of their "tribe", humans are remarkably UNSUCCESSFUL at maintaining those virtues around "other" people/groups that they disagree with or have labeled as the enemy. Until that changes, it is doubtful that we can eliminate war and violence from the human experience.

4) Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference

by William MacAskill

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For much more drunken jabbering on this book and the topic of effective altruism, check out the podcast episode on it that I did with my good friend Billy Ray Taylor HERE.

If there's a common thread between Tribe, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and Doing Good Better, it is this: human happiness, well-being, meaning in life - or whatever you want to call it - comes almost exclusively from contributing to a group or cause that is bigger than yourself. 

The big, perhaps controversial, idea of Doing Good Better is effective altruism, a philosophy and movement that advocates using science & data to analyze the effectiveness of charitable organizations, emphasizes cause neutrality, and recommends ONLY donating to the most effective charities in the world. As a corollary, you should NOT, as most people tend to do, donate to organizations based on your emotional connections or personal attachments. Your no local church? NO WAY! Your local food bank? NEVER! Your alma mater? SCREW THAT! Most of the data suggests that causes like intestinal deworming, malarial bed nets, vitamin supplementation, and direct cash transfers in the poorest parts of Africa and India are 10-100x more effective per $ donated than whatever local charity you're emotionally attached to. Given such a stark difference in effectiveness, many effective altruists would consider knowingly allocating your charity dollars to ineffective charities instead of uber-effective charities morally unconscionable. Some would argue you even have a moral obligation to choose to donate to the more effective charities over less effective alternatives, even if they make you feel less "warm and fuzzy" inside.

What makes this whole ideology both awesome and daunting is the extreme difficulty in objectively quantifying  "good" or "well-being." Measurements like Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) are probably the best we have right now, but our ability to collect and interpret the data is constantly improving. Despite the difficulty, it is absolutely possible to approximately compare and contrast the effectiveness of various charitable causes. I think we, as a society, need to invest serious time and energy into improving our ability to quantify the effectiveness of charitable organizations and quantifying human suffering in general. 

After much research, my wife and I (married just over a year) made our first annual effective altruism donation in December 2017. It made us feel REALLY good that for the rough equivalent of one month's mortgage payment, approximately 1,900 children in Africa and India won't get intestinal worms in 2018. NINETEEN-HUNDRED!!! That fact alone gives my life added meaning and added motivation to excel in my career and to be frugal so that suffering that would have otherwise happened will never occur. 

You don't have to go far down the Effective Altruism rabbit hole before things start to get pretty crazy and philosophical. Layering additional, potentially effective causes, such as social justice, animal suffering, and controlling future artificial intelligence, to the effective altruism framework can be seriously overwhelming and mentally frustrating. However, there is certainly an intellectual joy that comes from undertaking the challenge of attempting to quantify "doing good", and a deep satisfaction in going to bed each night knowing that you've given some of your hard-earned money to the most effective charities in the world. That hundreds or even thousands of children per year, may live better and suffer less, because you have existed, and to translate your otherwise unremarkable career, your unremarkable talents, your unremarkable life, into a truly remarkable amount of good, is truly the opportunity of a lifetime. If that's not something worth living for, then what the hell is?  

- john

p.s. Special thanks to Ron McIntire for doing a quick proofread of my first blog post. His expertise prevented me from committing what could only be described as an "atrocity against commas" of biblical propotions. Also thanks to Elliott Killian for inspiring me to start my own personal website. 

If you want to listen to, essentially, an audio version of this blog post, which includes my 2 least favorite books of the year, check out the podcast episode below: