As I have already mentioned one of my great joys in life is reading, especially since I learned how to read faster. Despite my love of books I am embarrassed to admit I rarely big up the books I have read and almost never leave reviews on them. As an author myself and somebody who is working on a book as we speak, this is a pretty inexcusable example for me to set. Especially because having studied our book sales metrics quite meticulously, word of mouth seems to trump every other form of book marketing there is.
So I might do a few of these posts.
I used to read a lot of self-help books and that is fine for a while, but reading self-help on its own is quite an insular experience, because it causes you to think about yourself only. Since I stopped reading exclusively self-help books a few years ago I discovered that some of the most beneficial life lessons you can learn, and apply to your own life, come from reading broader books about other people. Today I wanted to share five books which are truly fascinating in and of themselves, but I would argue also teach you more about psychology and how to live a good life than 99% of self-help ever could.
Probably the best book I read last year in part because it covers the flip side of something I find fascinating. If you have followed this blog previously you’ll know I constantly make the argument that the biggest problem we have in Western society is too much material comfort.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is all about people who reject material comforts and more advanced societies in favour of simpler, more tribal ways of living. Sebastian Junger gives the example of how English settlers would defect to join tribes of Native Americans (but never the other way around) and we are seeing the same phenomenon in modern times with young people living in comfort leaving their country to fight for, and against, ISIS.
There are some startling revelations in the book, most notably the fact that overall mental health improved during the Blitz, 9/11 and the troubles in Northern Island. Junger also often cites the fact that the more peace and prosperity we have, the more suicides go up. Why? Because we are essentially a tribal animal and while technology has come on in leaps and bounds, we have not evolved at the same rate. People living in relative luxury today are missing a vital component of group belonging that we crave so desperately. As somebody who works from home, this really hit a nerve for me.
If Tribe was the best book I read last year, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was the most interesting. It’s a very dense book which charts how Homo Sapiens went from just another pack mammal to getting to the stage where we are trying to get to Mars. It talks about how we developed agriculture, political systems, languages, religions and much more. It really ticks so many boxes for so many people, especially if you like reading about religion, history, economics and politics.
If you could imagine a David Attenborough series which followed humans instead of animals throughout history, this is it in book form. It is also very eloquently written, despite being huge and data heavy, and it is particularly easy to read.
As much as I am a political news junky, what I really find the most interesting thing about politics is what makes somebody a conservative or a liberal. I’m more interested in why some people want bigger government or smaller government, rather than which of the two systems works the best. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion does a brilliant job of explaining just that.
Jonathan Haidt has developed The Moral Foundations Theory which is six metrics that determines a person’s values: Care, Fairness (or proportionality), Liberty, Loyalty, Authority and Purity. Conservatives largely equally weight all six attributes, Libertarians tend to put the most importance on Liberty and Proportionality and Liberals put the most emphasis on Fairness and Care.
If you immediately judged one of the groups unfavourably after reading that, the book probably isn’t for you. There isn’t a right or wrong way to weight morality, and the reason why political debates are so polarising is precisely because we all judge each other on our own metrics and do not consider the other person’s values.
If you are really far to the left or right you probably will hate this book, but if you somewhere in-between (like most people) this really provides a lot of clarity and context for understanding everyone on the political spectrum.
In The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, Jonathan Gottschall is an academic who decided to step into an MMA Octagon for the first time in his 40s. That a very interesting story on its own, but the real strength of the book is the vast research he put into understanding our complicated relationship with violence. It is actually one of the better Evolutionary Psychology books I have ever read and also a brilliant insight into the history of duelling.
I was lucky enough to interview Gottschall about this book on Jared Tendler’s podcast if you want a better idea of what to expect.
I bought this book for the sole reason that I had previously enjoyed the author’s other book The Smartest Kids in the World, so I had no expectation other than it would be well written. The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes and Why turned out to be possibly the best book I’ve ever read.
It’s a brilliant insight into how we act in major life threatening catastrophes. Most of us will probably be lucky enough never to find ourselves in tragic situations like 9/11, mass shootings, natural disasters and fires, but we all wonder how he would react. I for one am a bit of a worrier, so I tend to over prepare for things in life, and that is probably why the book hit home for me.
The book covers why some people panic and others become heroes in disastrous situations, as well as tips for how to react if it happens to us. I must admit the most fascinating thing for me, however, was what appears to be a common reaction to disasters and that is to do nothing at all. We always talk about ‘fight or flight’, but some people just stand still in adverse situations. Remarkably when the first plane hit the twin towers on 9/11, there were people who would wait for their computers to power down before fleeing the World Trade Center. It seems bizarre but I see mini versions of this all the time (most notably when I am driving and people just walk out into the middle of the road in front of me) and if we are to go back to my hypothesis that we have too much comfort these days, this could literally be a manifestation of us not understanding what constitutes real danger anymore.
If Ripley ever did a new version of the book, no doubt it would include a section about people whose instinct is to film a disaster on their smartphone rather than act in their own best interest.
If you are interested in the psychology of why we are so easily offended these days, I’m writing a book about it. You can get a free copy of an early draft chapter by joining the mailing list below: