10 Books to Blow Your Mind

It’s a good reading season, this six-more-weeks-of-winter-at-least time of year. So since I’m in the middle of book that makes me repeatedly collar whoever is in the room with me to share the insights it’s making, I started to think about other books that fall in that category for me.

Here’s the criteria: Nonfiction books that make me feel like my world both is bigger and makes more sense. They answer questions I didn’t even know I had, draw connections that are mind-blowing and important somehow. I talk about them constantly while reading them, and refer back to them repeatedly.

A book that merely makes a really compelling argument for something I already believed or suspected does not make this list. Often they challenge assumptions I’ve long held. These are not the books I want to foist on people who disagree with me about something important. These are the books I want to foist on everyone.

  1. War and the Soul, by Ed Tick. Ever more important now, sadly, than when I first read it. As suicide and PTSD among veterans skyrockets, this account of the difference between the historical experience of a warrior and today’s warfare is kind and deep and will change how you think, whatever your attitude toward military solutions to conflict.
  2. In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness, by Chris Mercogliano. Counterintuitive given today’s overprotective approaches to parenting. Challenging even if you find yourself agreeing. Draws unexpected connections about kids and work, risk, praise.
  3. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson. Hierarchies are not the only way to organize complex systems. A really important and utterly fascinating account for anyone who wants to change complex systems.
  4. Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, by Mindy Fullilove. You can’t understand urban America or its racial geography and politics today without this book. Can’t do it.
  5. Poverty & Power: The Problem of Structural Inequality, by Edward Royce. The only book from my career as a freelance copyeditor that I requested a copy of for myself. Really useful for blowing apart unsubstantiated ideas about how poverty works that well-meaning liberals tend to slip into without realizing it.
  6. The Same Ax Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, by Howard Mansfeld. More essay-like than the others on this list, and not at all the kind of paean to thrift and eco-reuse that the title suggests. This book will make you think hard on your relationship to the past and give you new insights on everything from civil war reenactments to historic house museums to flight.
  7. The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention, by Guy Deustcher. Where language and its structure comes from, how and why it changes and will keep changing. Wild examples that provide meta revelations on the “how do they figure this stuff out?” front. If you ever wanted to feel situated in the big picture, connected in a direct line to your earliest ancestors, this book will do it.
  8. Econned, by Yves Smith. While this does end up reinforcing some of the gut feelings I had about the field of economics, it went so much farther than I would have imagined, and startled me at every turn, so it definitely counts. A must for anyone who wants to understand the recent financial crisis. Even deeper is Debunking Economics by Aussie economics professor Steve Keen, but you have to be a real nerd to slog through that one (I haven’t made it all the way yet, though the first few chapters are worth the price of admission all on their own).
  9. 1491, by Charles Mann. An incredible account of what we know or suspect about the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, and a very different lens on the first interactions with Europeans than those we usually get from any political persuasion. If I had to pick one off this list to make required reading in U.S. high schools, it would be this one.
  10. 1493, by Charles Mann. An account of how the “Columbian Exchange”—or the biological globalization set off by Columbus and his ilk—shaped everything around us, from the slave trade to agriculture. (Right after I read Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond I would have put it here; I would still recommend reading GGS, but not without reading 1491 and 1493 right afterward.)

I don’t actually spend as much time reading these days as many of my intellectually curious compatriots, so I’m quite sure that there are tons more books that would belong on this list that I haven’t encountered. I’d love to hear your recommendations.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Feb 7, 2013.)


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