In his new book, Christopher M. Palmer, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, synthesizes decades of research relating to metabolic function and mental health to make the bold claim that metabolic health in general—and mitochondrial health in particular—could be the unifying theme in explaining the explosion of mental illness worldwide.
In Testosterone, Carol Hooven mixes personal narrative, zoology, and, most impressively, a compassionate take on some of today’s most contentious controversies, without sacrificing the science.
This extremely prescient book by Emily Bazelon is absolutely worth revisiting in 2022, especially for the distinction between bullying and “drama.” I reviewed it for the Huffington Post in 2013 and it’s more relevant than ever as some problematic ideas on how to stop bullying in K-12 increasingly bleed into higher education and the larger world.
William Deresiewicz’s essays cover so many aspects of the modern condition in ways that are often surprising and always creative. They will delight, anger, and enlighten you, but maybe not in that order.
A book I first recommended in the Huffington Post in 2015, Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener look into the positives of our so-called “negative emotions” — guilt can improve your moral behavior, anxiety can keep you paying attention, and anger can motivate you to right wrongs.
James Kirchick's Secret City covers decades of gay history in America, and especially our Nation's Capitol, casting a brand new light on my beloved city. Filled with riveting stories and entertaining factoids, it's a true joy to read and persuasively argues that free speech has been necessary to every advance of gay rights in America.
In this excellent book, Will Storr combines research with gripping vignettes, data, and insights from the best thinkers. Storr argues persuasively that any attempt to “cure" the problem with social media that doesn’t take seriously the never-ending jockeying for status inherent in human nature is predestined to fail.
This book by Mónica Guzmán has indispensable advice for talking across lines of difference at a political moment that is most interested in setting everyone at odds.
Todd Kashdan's book will change the way you think about institutions and progress. This book has excellent advice both for leaders on how to hear out fair critique, and for those who want to challenge the status quo on how to effectively do so.
An important, thorough, and eminently readable history of free speech by Jacob Mchangama with many lessons of history worth reflecting on in the modern day. There’s a reason all of us free speech nerds are so excited about this book!
This book by Cal Newport has effective strategies for dealing with distractions and devoting real attention to demanding tasks. I have found it extremely helpful, even if I can’t quite implement all his advice (would that I could quit social media…)
- December 2021 - Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon. One of the most pressing political problems of the decade is eroding trust in the ostensibly neutral institutions that we rely on for our shared facts (journalism and academe). Batya brings sharp insight and wit to bear on this important issue, and argues effectively that class underpins the culture war fight.
- November 2021 - The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Paul Bloom. Paul discusses the psychological underpinning for how certain kinds of pain and suffering can (sometimes) enhance pleasure and happiness. A lot to chew on the next time you order your Thai food extra spicy.
- October 2021 - Last Best Hope: America in Crisis & Renewal by George Packer. George Packer takes American society appropriately to task for our competing and false narratives about the nature of the country, and argues persuasively that the only way forward with any hope is to build a new, shared narrative.
- September 2021 - The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel. Virginia’s brilliance was to use the history of a product so ubiquitous in human society that its history is nearly the history of humanity. Packed to the brim with fascinating stories, a joy to read and re-read.
- August 2021 - Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. At once deadly serious and soothing, this book will make you think hard about what you do with your limited time on earth. “Cosmic insignificance therapy” has stuck with me — the wonderful relief of realizing how in the grand scheme of things you and everything you know are quite small and brief.
- July 2021 - A Glorious Liberty: Frederick Douglass and the Fight for an Antislavery Constitution by Damon Root. My only exception to the general rule that if you are interested in Frederick Douglass, read Frederick Douglass. Root chronicles how, over time, Douglass came to believe that the Constitution was, in fact, a key weapon in the battle against slavery, and as the title suggests, a “glorious liberty document.”
- June 2021 - The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch. The most important book of 2021, Rauch examines the complicated social systems we have developed to produce knowledge and understand the world as it is, and the crisis that those systems face today. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone reading this list.
- May 2021 - Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever by John McWhorter. In this book, John covers the history and myths of profanity. If you love words, you will love the “Nine Nasty” ones — and more — the author presents for examination. I especially recommend listening to the audiobook because hearing McWhorter explain it himself makes it that much more fun.
- April 2021 - The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t by Julia Galef. “The Scout Mindset” discusses not only the cognitive impediments to being more or less self-deceived, but the emotional impediments as well. Critically, the book discusses at length how we deal with one of the toughest self-deceptions: “motivated reasoning.”
- March 2021 - Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright. Much of “Why Buddhism is True” is dedicated to reconciling evolutionary psychology and Buddhism, which Wright does brilliantly — and, in my opinion, accurately. The book is profound in its conclusions while also managing to be funny, honest, and practical. It’s the kind of book I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.
- February 2021 - The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri. “The Revolt of the Public” explains that the shifts in media technologies that we believe accelerated American political polarization and played havoc with young people’s mental health were actually part of a much larger global transformation. Unfortunately, in its current state, this media revolution has only been able to tear things down; institutions, ideas, and yes, even people (a.k.a. cancel culture).
- January 2021 - The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich. Henrich picks up where Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” left off to answer the question: Why did Europe end up so much more prosperous and technologically advanced than other regions of Eurasia? What factors led to increased engagement with out-groups, lesser conformity with group norms, and ultimately, the European Enlightenment?
- December 2020 - Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Ritchie. “Science Fictions” is a call to arms for us to realize how much our current levels of research fall short of historical norms. It argues its case in crisp, clear language, and is a powerful reminder to people like me to triple-check social science research and be ready to update their thinking if it relies too much on any one particular experiment.
- November 2020 - Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas Christakis. Christakis’ book is full of important information, such as why many diseases tend to devastate us less over time. It also has delightful little bits of trivia, including that “quarantine” originally referred to the practice of isolating sailors in Italian ports for 40 days.
- October 2020 - Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria and How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices by Annie Duke. In “Ten Lessons,” Zakaria tries to figure out both what we’re doing wrong and, perhaps more importantly, what we’re doing right, or at least mostly right. It has a lot of good sense served with an appropriate cocktail of cynicism and optimism about where we are headed post-pandemic.
- “How to Decide” is a catalog of both the ways your decisions might be impaired (many of which are the kind of cognitive distortions we note in “Coddling”) and the techniques to work through those limitations. Duke shows how the wide range of possibilities for any given decision can, in many cases, be narrowed down to a handful of likely outcomes.
- September 2020 - Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation by David French and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. While the idea of the US breaking apart feels preposterous to me right now, French eloquently and creatively points out how this really could happen, and adds an additional important touch by saying what effect this would have on geopolitical stability. It’s a must-read from a very important thinker and friend from across the aisle.
- The reason why I love Marvel Comics: The Untold Story so much is because it tells a very personal story of the lives of many of my favorite comic book writers and artists, who stuck through some very nasty times, including a moral panic against comics in the early 1950s. I would love to see a sequel to this work.
- August 2020 - A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Specifically, a recommendation to read the section on ancient philosophy and the Greeks; it is beautifully written, surprisingly funny, and I learned a lot. Throughout, there are also moments of absolute gorgeousness and brilliance that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
- July 2020 - Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. A “greatest hits” of Ferriss’ podcast interviews with famous and/or extremely successful people, “Titans” offers everything from simple reminders for everyday life (e.g., to look at the sky when meditating) to insights into the problem with our current model of higher education.
- June 2020 - Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization by Scott Barry Kaufman. In this excellent, inspiring, and engaging read, Kaufman takes you through the life and accomplishments of Abraham Maslow, painting the picture of a more nuanced and important thinker than the man many of us are familiar with.
- May 2020 - Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought by Jonathan Rauch (also the recipient of the first Excessively Prestigious Award). Rauch argues that the West enjoyed an epistemological system that was so widespread and so successful that it didn’t even have a name; he calls it “liberal science.” It has two commandments: No one gets the final say, and no one has personal authority. Permitting conflicting ideas creates knowledge, and we can’t interfere with the former without sacrificing the latter.