Over recent years, researchers have discovered that one of the best ways to manage anxiety, boredom, and a myriad of other mental illness-related symptoms is curiosity. And I don’t think there’s any better way to build curiosity than through reading. Books allow us to explore worlds, expand vocabulary, develop intelligence, and grow morally in ways that few other forms of interaction with someone can. Learning is motivating. It’s exciting. It’s an impediment to anxiety or depression!
Besides, there’s an old saying that we become like the people we spend the most time with. In terms of being with amazing people, being in their books is like an accelerated and amplified counseling session with the best minds in the world. Spending 15 hours reading a book that an incredible thinker spent between 2 and 10 years researching, planning, and agonising over is the best bang-for-buck way to “pick their brain”, see inside their mind, and develop understanding of how to be better.
Each year I try to spend time with the very best minds in the world. Since I can’t afford to hire them and I haven’t developed friendships with many of them (actually with any of them), I listen to their podcasts, their interviews, and I read their books. And each year I share my list of favourite books so you can have the same benefit that I enjoy as a result of reading their words.
This year (here comes the brag…) I’ve read 42 books. Many have been phenomenally enlightening. And as I’ve done for the past few years (links to my 2019 and 2020 lists here), I’m sharing the ones that have impacted me the most this year. As always:
- It is irrelevant when they were written. I’m sharing books that have impact, regardless of whether they’re new or not. I read them this year, so I’m sharing them this year.
- It’s just an opinion. And just because I loved it doesn’t mean I agreed with everything in it. If it provoked deeper thinking and improved living, it gets a guernsey. The people who wrote these books thought deeply - more deeply than I’ve probably ever thought - and have remarkable insights that are worth understanding, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Sometimes I give 5 stars for breathtaking writing. Sometimes the writing is average but the science is elegant. Sometimes it’s just a cracking story that deserves 5 stars despite any number of flaws. I’ll list the flaws but still explain why it gets the 5 stars. Then it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the $20-$30. In every case, the books on this list are worth it.
This year, reading these books will change you for the better. Here we go with my 5-star recommendations from 2021.
I picked up “The Final Edition” on its release, having heard about the first edition some years ago and having listened to multiple podcasts with Thaler over the years as he has talked about nudging. Knowing the science behind the book, I didn’t expect to get much out of it. But this book blew my mind.
Superbly written, incredibly well consolidated around the science, and delightfully entertaining, this book is a life-changer. Applicable from the individual right up to the international relations policy level, the book shows us how to adjust our environment to increase the likelihood that we’ll make better decisions. It’s about how to respect people’s agency while making it easier for them to “choose” (whether passively or actively) actions that operate in their best interest.
I could go on and on about this book. Instead, I’m simply going to say: read it. Life changing.
Buy it here: Nudge [Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein]
These two women have written some of the best parenting books in history. I learned (and was reminded of) so many brilliant parenting ideas in Siblings without Rivalry. I loved it and will read and re-read this book. Superb.
This is one of the best books of the year. Adam Grant is a savvy thinker who knows how to make an argument, support it with excellent research, and create opportunities for insights and epiphanies.
Our world is one where people are more fixed in their views, more closed to what others might believe, and more antagonistic towards those who see things differently than ever before. We cancel people who see the world differently because we “don’t feel safe” due to their “ideas”.
Grant argues that we can have productive, open conversations. We can learn to tolerate differing viewpoints. And that we can become better and stronger, not through silence, but by being open, thinking again, and potentially even revising our opinions. It’s a powerful manifesto that our society would benefit from just about now.
Buy it here: Think Again [Adam Grant]
Simple. Accessible. Delightful.
Key message: ask for what you want. Don’t decide what people will say to your requests. Be brave enough to risk rejection. Let the person you’re engaged with make the decision as to whether they’ll reject you or accept you. But... be smart about who you ask and why and when and how.
The stories were fabulous, entertaining, and funny. Asking Krispy Kreme for Olympic Ring donuts and getting national media because of it. Asking a random stranger to let you play soccer in their backyard. Asking Southwest Airlines to let you do the safety briefing on the plane (rejected, but allowed to do the welcome message instead!), and so many more wonderful stories.
I really felt glad I started the year with this book. Not brilliantly written and seems superficial in the science - but English is not his first language, psychology is not his specialty, and it's still absolutely good enough to get the job done, inspire the reader, and leave a memorable imprint. A genuinely joyous, optimistic book.
Buy it here: Rejection Proof [Jia Jiang]
Over recent years I've read two other books by Fidler, one about Iceland and the other about Constantinople. Each of them made my top books of the year list so this was always going to be one I grabbed. It's a pop history of one of the most complex European cities. It was fun, delightfully written, but a little short in parts and overly long in other parts. Took a long time to get into it and it’s written in a completely different way to the first two. Nevertheless, I read it the entire tome in a couple of days and was delighted to have invested the time and effort. I knew nothing about Prague and now I want to visit! Fidler delivered again.
As I read this book in bed beside Kylie, she reminded me, "It's not a colouring book you know!"
It is no exaggeration to say that this may be one of the most dog-eared, coloured-in books I have ever read. Shrier is an investigative journalist who looks into 'the transgender craze seducing our daughters'. Being transgender affected less than .01 of the population a little over a decade ago. Today, particularly among young females, something has changed. This book calls it a political agenda that has overrun science, psychology, medicine, and education to encourage and then positively affirm adolescents who question their birth gender, and then to medicalise the lives of girls who identify mixed feelings by pushing them into testosterone, medical surgeries, and life-altering, lifelong challenges - all of which make most of them more unhappy.
Opponents have called the book hate speech. This is a mischaracterisation.
This book looks at teen girls and the momentous decisions they are often encouraged into by people with an agenda. It highlights the psychological and medical establishment's complete ignoring of psychological development at a sensitive time. An example: when kids who think they may be transgender are given gentle therapy with a wait and see approach, 70% resume "normal" sexual and psychological development. When they are “affirmed”, most go on testosterone and nearly 100% transition. Statistically they can't all actually be transgender based on the wait and see statistics. The systemic affirmative approach is doing this - and while limited research exists, the outcomes are more negative than positive for many of these girls. This book is a gripping expose built on thoughtful research with psychologists, educators, trans adults, parents, and many others. It took Shrier remarkable courage to write it up. And while there were many elements of the book I was challenged by and even questioned, it is an exceptional book about a lightning rod topic. Be prepared to be challenged.
Buy it here: Irreversible Damage [Abigail Shrier]
This book came via Todd Kashdan's recommended readings review. And I'm glad I picked it up. As an Aussie, I've never heard of NDT, even though it seems he is one of America's best known scientists. But I like him. A lot.
This book is a collection of letters received and replied to by NDT, and it's a masterclass in concise, witty, compassionate, patient human relations. Tyson covers politics, religion, space, time, being a poo-poo head for downgrading Pluto from planet-status, ethics and morality, and so much more. And he does so while responding to people who are at times impolite and regularly ignorant. He deals with someone who is convinced they've developed a perpetual motion machine. Others are certain of bigfoot and UFO's! Many, though, are genuinely seeking understanding, and as a scientist with a public education mission, he does a delightful work in sharing his insights, elevating spirits, and building knowledge.
Perhaps my favourite letter (with my absolutely favourite response) was this one:
"Dear Neil, I want my boy to be like you, so I will have to pretend I don't like you. A weak astronomy student, Doug F."
NDT replied pithily, "Dear Doug, Whatever it takes. NDT."
Buy it here: Letters from an Astrophysicist [Neil deGrasse Tyson]
This is Such. A. Good. Book!
Let's start with the premise: over-specialisation leads to a narrow focus, an early success peak, and a lack of capacity later in life in so many areas... but we keep pushing our children into anything that will give them a head start on everyone else. But LIFE IS NOT A RACE! Why do we treat it like one?
Epstein spends a couple of chapters looking at what our push for early success is doing to our kids, and he makes a compelling argument. The book then takes a broad and meandering tour through creativity ideas around outsiders vs insiders, the downside of tunnel vision from too much expertise, and the joy that comes from the love of learning. Immensely readable - though overlong (12 chapters at about 6000 words each), and occasionally deviating a little too far from the topic. Nevertheless, highly recommended. If the thought of reading such a long book isn't appealing, watch his TED talks and other online content. The summaries are compelling and provide enough food for thought. But for me - I'll take the detail every time, even if I'm going to complain about it now and then.
Buy it here: Range [David Epstein]
A book of ideas, hypotheticals, and conversations to have with children to teach them the power of conversations, listening, having facts, and making wise decisions. I love the entire premise of this book, and the incredible thought that's gone into it.
Heavily philosophically oriented, but full of accessible discussions and ideas. Talks about problems with the way most people approach conversations, philosophical imperatives for edifying discussion (like thinking things through), big thinkers like Kant, Hobbes, Bentham etc. Discusses the trolley dilemma in delightful ways. I love this book from a school principal with a Master’s degree in philosophy who wants to help kids learn to love thinking about things.
The life story of a tennis brat turned mature, thoughtful tennis legend. This story was amazing. I knew little of Agassi before I read this book, but I devoured all 386 pages in two days. From an overpowering menace of a father (we seem to see a lot of that in tennis) to mental breakdowns, relationship failures, poor choices, and ultimate hard-won life lessons, this book is an incredible yarn about a remarkable life lived publicly, despite so little being known about the guy. A beautifully written book by a guy who grew up in front of us and became a man among men. Brilliant autobiography.
Buy it here: Open [Andre Agassi]
Murray is a gay, conservative thinker who riffs for 270 fine-print pages on Gender, Race, Trans issues and Identity. These are critical topics of our day and he runs at them with conviction, courage, and a head full of facts (and steam). He points out that "homosexuality has been morally accepted for too short a time in too few places to draw many long-term conclusions about it, let alone base any moral theory around it... so the zeitgeist appears to have settled on the 'Born this way' theory, while avoiding any glances at the destabilising fact that the science is still not very much use in helping to back up Lady Gaga's theory."
Obviously not anti-gay (because he is gay), he asks important questions and creates conversation around our society's decisions on homosexuality, race, trans, and identity politics where conversation has previously been stifled. He asks, "if we have decided what the answers cannot be - or what answers we could not cope with - then there seems little point, beyond a fondness for truth, in asking the questions."
His chapter on Trans is explosive, and I could quote all day from this work on "women". Suffice to say this book, while I didn't agree with many things, is not afraid to ask hard questions of big topics. And we need more of this thinking so we can actually have conversations about these things. Endorsed by some of the biggest “thinkers” in the world on both the left and right sides of political polemics, this book is designed to make you think, regardless of your politics, so that perhaps we can get to real answers and science rather than posturing and rhetoric. Unpacks identity politics and demands we explore issues with an open mind. From time to time it lacked the evidence base that I was looking for and sometimes his arguments were, frankly, weak. But it asks critical questions of us and demands that we do a much better job in learning about things before we form opinions of them, particularly on topics like these.
Buy it here: The Madness of Crowds [Douglas Murray]
A productivity and time-management guru has written a nihilistic philosophical treatise about our short 4000 weeks on the planet that left me feeling hopeful and certain that I can use my time better. He says things that leave the reader completely despondent: “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”
And yet, there is hope in his careful reframing that we therefore must savour the moment and stop getting lost here and now in our focus on a better future: “our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son—a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty—there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed there’s a sense in which every moment of life is a “last time.” It arrives; you’ll never get it again—and once it’s passed, your remaining supply of moments will be one smaller than before. To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.”
There is wisdom in his suggestions that to make the most of our 4000 weeks we savour, cultivate relationships over other success measures, set predetermined boundaries around work to allow time for the things that matter most, decide in advance what to fail at, and practice doing nothing. Based on his book, I have a lot of progress to make yet... but I am better for reading it.
Buy it here: Four Thousand Weeks [Oliver Burkeman]
This book is kind of old and the science of ADHD has moved on well past what Mate has to say here. And I felt as though a lot of what was shared related more to parenting than the actual realities of ADHD. But.. as a book of wisdom, insights, and ideas, I was transfixed.
Is it great for what it purports to be? I’m not entirely convinced that this book will help all parents of ADHD kids.
Is it great for parents who want to be better, regardless of whether their child has ADHD or not? I believe it is brilliant. For example, Mate describes how it is a myth that a child causes a parent to be angry. He says "the child is chastised not for what she has done but for the unpleasant feelings experienced by the parent. In reality, the child cannot cause the parent's rage... the uncooperative behaviour may belong to the child, but the rage belongs to the parent."
Truth bombs like this are dropped on page after page and I loved it. It's long. It's wordy. It's boring at times. But the value in the insights makes it a 5/5 book regardless.
Buy it here: Scattered Minds [Gabor Mate]
I love to read with my kids. This year, among others, we’ve read a series called “The Keepers” by an Aussie author named Liann Tanner. Ideal for kids aged 7-14, these books kept my kids completely immersed in a dystopian world where kids are tied to their parents to keep them safe, and where “caring” paternalistic leaders make authoritarian decisions on behalf of their communities because they know best. When things get upended though, it’s up to two children, Goldie Roth and Toadspit, to save “The Museum” and the entire city. Fun, adventurous, and a real treat. My kids loved these stories and I think your will too.
Buy it here: The Keepers Trilogy [Liann Tanner]
This year, these are the books that rocked my world. They left me with something. They’ve stuck with me. I hope they can do the same for you.