This is a list of some of the most important books in my life and intellectual and spiritual development. I hope you find something intriguing and I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the below.
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
I am still a little at a loss at how to describe this book. It’s powerful. With all the discussions of social and racial unrest in the U.S., I tended to feel like there was still something I was missing. Wilkerson showed me what I was missing. I will never look at my whiteness and our country the same. This was by far the most important and fantastic book I read in 2020.
The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes by David Robson.
A book demonstrating that “high intelligence” does not equate with “effective, truth-finding thinker.” Robson goes through several of the ways that smart people and successful organizations tend to go wrong in their thinking and strategy, and how we can overcome (by first being aware of) those tendencies. Since most people tend to think of themselves as smarter than the majority of the population (Dunning-Kruger, anyone?), and since that means they think they are not prone to the same critical gaps as the not-so-smart people, I think this book is an important corrective and provides a healthy dose of humility, if taken seriously.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.
Wow. This book is powerful. It is less a “how to” than an exhortation to mindful, conscious living and to taking back our power of being the ultimate arbiter of who gets (and thus deserves) our precious, limited attention. Odell provides a stunningly-written, incredibly wise set of essays reminding us that what matters is the living world around us, and that what really matters is what we choose to make matter through our attention. Otherwise the technology companies would not work so hard to make their gadgets addicting. I was so glad to see her tackling the effort of technological minimalism without demanding we have to withdraw from the world; rather, she argues for a much more positive solution of simply being dedicated to being intentional about what we focus on in the world.
Space by James Michener
OMG I INCLUDED A NOVEL. Wild, yeah? While at times slow, I was nonetheless profoundly moved by Michener’s prose. Space is a sprawling novel about the development of the space industry in America, but only as a way of exploring the intellectual climate of our 20th century. The entire build-up, slow as it was, and how it culminated kind of took my breath away. I actually teared up at the last 10 pages (which were concerned with an academic conference, so you KNOW Michener is the master if he can make that emotionally compelling). He spends much of the novel presenting the differences between the ills and harms of abused and abusive religion and the scientific community, suggesting he might end with a panegyric to science and a condemnation of religion as a whole. Surprisingly, he does not. While the tone switch at the end was a little surprising, it’s a beautiful novel about the possibilities and power of the human imagination, whether directed towards religion or directed towards scientific progress and discovery.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Are extinction events the most fascinating bits of our natural history?! I’m inclined to think so. This book was a page-turner even though incredibly depressing. We’re screwed.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment [or Abandonment to Divine Providence] by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
I love this book, a short book of talks and letters by Jean-Pierre about living in the present moment and releasing anxieties and worries about the future. It is very Christian, so keep that in mind, but it has beautiful and valuable insight for people of all faiths. I love this book so much I want to write a book about it. Too much? NOPE, NEVER ENOUGH JEAN-PIERRE.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron
When I read Quiet by Susan Cain, it resonated with me, but didn’t feel quite as liberating and “true” to my experience as I had hoped. Aron’s book nailed it for me. I now try to read this book every other year or so, as a reminder of who I am, of how I process the world, and for the wonderful, compassionate guidance Aron provides for how to live a healthier inner and relational life as a highly-sensitive person.
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
I love this novel. It was, in many ways, the inspiration for my book, and was the book I talked about when I was a guest on Diane’s podcast. It’s a story of authenticity and love that is beautiful and holy precisely because it celebrates the shabbiness of having given ourselves wholly to love. I cry every time I read it, and most times when I talk about it. The longing of the rabbit when he sees the flesh-and-blood bunnies… oof.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
An incredible book of bite-sized, accessible insights into the irrationality of the human brain. The insights summarize decades of the fruitful research from Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman (much of that in partnership with the late Amos Tversky) and highlights the fallibility of our rational capabilities and how non-intuitive statistical thinking can be for us. It was quite unsettling at first, making me wonder how much of our thinking we can ever really trust, but ultimately it led me to think more graciously of my fellow human beings and to go slower in my own process of forming opinions to account for snap judgments and assumptions that may very well be completely off-base.
Toward a Psychology of Being by Abraham H. Maslow
In Toward a Psychology of Being, Maslow addresses two gaps he saw in the behaviorist and psychoanalytic psychologies of his time, thus creating the field of humanistic or positive psychology. He claims psychoanalytic thought erroneously assumes neuroses to be fundamental to humanity, rather than existential “illnesses” to be cure, and that behaviorism erroneously assumes humans are too much of a blank slate, not allowing for a real, unique, persistent concept of the self. He presents an alternative theory of the authentic self and how we can move towards greater authenticity.
Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In this fairly radical (for Christian ethics) book, Bonhoeffer argues that Christians have embraced a rigid system of behavioral rules that fails to allow for truly ethical behavior. Instead, he argues for a religious situationism, an ethical system that is dynamic, requiring responses appropriate to and fully immersed in each individual, unique situation. Christian situationism has one hard-and-fast rule and one only – maintain intimacy at all times with Jesus Christ. In that intimacy, Bonhoeffer says, we receive the wisdom and guidance particular not only to each of us, but to the action that is appropriate and right for our immediate circumstances.
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
Shermer provides a comprehensive overview of the science behind what we believe and why. It is an eye-opening book for anyone devoted to a particular worldview (aka, everyone) and shows just how tenuous our grasp on reality is compared to how strongly we assert our opinions. The brain is a delicate, murky, opaque thing and we do well to acknowledge its limitations and continually search for truth, even in instances where we think we’ve already found it. (I also recommend Believing by Michael McGuire for more on this topic.)