The 10 Most Captivating Books Worth Reading From 2021
Each year I provide a list of the highest quality books that I attempted over the past 12 months. Here are 10 books (plus 5 extras) offering mental and emotional rewards that exceed even the best of conversations. Never deprive yourself of valued insights in a book over a few dollars. I do not offer these recommendations lightly. These are the best of the best.
Intelligence is hard to change. According to a study of over 600,000 students in longitudinal studies, formal education helps.
Gathering alternative perspectives of the world requires substantial effort. Embedding yourself in other cultures for lengthy periods helps.
Unfortunately, attending college classes and traveling abroad is neither convenient nor cheap. This is where books come in. Reading books. Discussing and debating books. In my view, there is no simpler strategy to become more intelligent and creative, while combating bad ideas, erroneous stereotypes, and mental biases. If that sounds too heavy, books are exceptional triggers of the pleasurable state of flow. A state where we are fully concentrating with a sense of ease, control, devoid of self-consciousness for several hours per sitting. Recharge. Enter exotic landscapes. Experience the aesthetic chills. Feel intense, deep emotions.
I do not provide end-of-the-year lists. Newness provides zero indication of quality. I detail the best books I read over the past 12 months. This list is a portion of my 60+ books read. The title is a hyperlink for an impulsive purchase. When an author spends years researching and writing on a topic, there is no better deal to spend $20. I bet my reputation on these picks. Make sure to see the links at the bottom for my previous year recommendations. Be a curious explorer. Choose focused energy over sporadic experiences. Read more books starting today!
Fortunately I received an early copy of this gem. Of all the documentaries, podcasts, and books I’ve digested over the years none have been as persuasive as The Power of Fun to wean me from my smartphone screen (and convince others to do the same). But don’t be mislead. This is not an authoritarian creed on the evils of smartphones. What this book addresses is the next seemingly obvious question – if you detox from screens, what’s the plan for entertaining yourself? You probably don’t have a great answer and neither did I. This is one reason kids refuse to leave their screens. This is at the core of why adults are often worse than kids with their screen addictions. People just don’t know what to do with their free time.
Consider this quote from the late Dr. Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi, author of Flow:
In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied.
In general, adults have a hard time having fun. Being silly. Being rebellious. Laughing uproariously without a hint of self-consciousness. Entering into a playful mindset and diving headfirst into activities.
This book is going to change people’s lives. It is a manifesto on how to live with more playfulness and exuberance. I really hope this gets into the hands of people I bump into at future bars and parties. I don’t just want to inject more fun into my life, I want to be surrounded and infected by other people enjoying themselves.
I do want to add a bonus reason to read this book – you will adore the author. She is $#@! hilarious. The way she experiments on herself. The way she details the intimate connections and arguments with her partner. She is witty. She is intelligent. And she has a masterful way of relying on research but keeping it in the background. Her playful writing style makes this book infinitely readable and relatable. You are going to want to contact her with hopes of being her friend. I have read hundreds of books. The only other author who I wanted to befriend as quickly as Catherine Price is Mary Roach. Kind, hilarious, witty, intellectuals with a desire to improve other people’s lives.
Honestly, this is one of my favorite reads and will certainly be on my end of year recommendation list.
- Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt
There are many books about racial biases and discrimination. Several of the biggest sellers are atrocious. Proselytizing with only a minimal attempt to collect evidence. Of the evidence provided, it’s clear the studies were cherry picked with a blatant dismissal of contradictory evidence or interpretative caveats. Out of respect for those authors and their well-intentioned missions to make the world a better place, I will not mention the titles. I bring this up for one reason.
Biased is the most comprehensive, well-informed, critical evaluation of what we know and do not know about racial biases from the annals of science. I believe that merely reading this book with an open-mind would be an effective intervention to change people’s minds about the nature of racial biases and discrimination in America. Pick this up, hold your preconceptions at bay, and tell me how you can override the evidence in this book. At the minimum, you will concede learning something new about deeply ingrained, automated beliefs. Consider that,
“…simply seeing a black person can automatically bring to mind a host of associations that we have picked up from our society: this person is a good athlete, this person doesn’t do well in school, this person is poor, this person dances well, this person lives in a black neighborhood, this person should be feared. The process of making these connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds. These associations can take hold of us no matter our values, no matter our conscious beliefs, no matter what kind of person we wish to be in the world.”
I know what some of you are thinking. I read several books about racism. It’s mentioned daily in the news. I’m good. I had enough. Trust me, I understand. But this book is different. It is about the state of evidence. The author is very precise about the strength of each study. One other selling point — the writing is crisp. For such a harrowing topic, this is a surprisingly smooth, enjoyable read. You will be reckoning with interesting studies and ideas. Your guide is one of the leading researchers on racial biases. And if you have questions, concerns, skepticism, fantastic! You should never read a 368-page book without a few beefs. Reckon with the flaws in humanity. Walk away with a sense of hopefulness. Because the author is not trying to induce guilt or shame, she is trying to inform us. She is trying to provoke a shift in thinking and behavior. What you do with this information is up to you.
Take a risk. Get uncomfortable. Wrestle with some demons. Contribute to a better world for yourself and subsequent generations. I promise the insights are worth the small price of admission.
Understand why we have freedom of speech rights. When students and workers demand protection from speech perceived as offensive, they are not just ending the conversation. They are taking away the agency of other people to listen and converse. Avoidance does not improve the quality of ideas. Suppressing dissent does not improve the quality of ideas. Quite the opposite. We need a large pool of ideas that through productive conflict, allow for the emergence of useful knowledge. The best way to defeat bad ideas is better ideas.
Media coverage is biased. Social media algorithms ensure people saying things around us are limited to validation. What the world requires are direct interactions among well-intentioned actors who disagree. Remove offending material from the public square. Guess what happens? Nothing is disposed of. In small, private meetings, people still share and discuss offensive material. Except now, there is no counter point. It is hard to get rid of bad ideas. Free speech and discussion allows for intellectual transparency and honesty. Free speech does not mean defending the actual words. As Andrew Doyle wisely points out,
“Free speech is the marrow of democracy. Without it, no other liberties exist. It is detested by tyrants because it empowers their captive subjects. It is mistrusted by puritans because it is the wellspring of subversion. Unless we are able to speak our minds, we cannot innovate, or even begin to make sense of the world.”
Protecting people who agree with you and suppressing the thoughts of those who disagree is a dangerous precedent. Allow for the free exchange of ideas as nobody can be sure what blasphemous thoughts today will become the canon of knowledge tomorrow. For mere words, the Church imprisoned Galileo, and the government imprisoned Martin Luther King, Jr. As Andrew Doyle wisely points out,
“Racism would not magically disappear if society were to suppress all forms of racist speech. Instead, it would preclude the possibility of any form of public counter-argument.”
Read this work for an impassioned argument for why free speech is not a dog whistle for racism, it is the foundation of an enlightened society. Read this as a companion with Biased.
It is a mistake to believe memories are accurately recorded in the brain. Experiences are neither recorded with calibrated audio or visual imagery. Each time we recall an event, memories are disturbed. We don’t replicate experiences. We re-create experiences. Distortion is the rule, not the exception. Understand the frailty of memory to better understand who you are and how you can edit life narratives. Also, be more cognizant of the masks other people wear and their attempts to tell particular stories. Get a handle on the daunting task of truly understanding another person. This masterpiece is for anyone interested in improving self-awareness and discovery. This is for anyone interested in criminal justice. This is for anyone who wants to understand the problems of relying on flawed interpretation instead of evidence. Schacter brings these ideas to fruition with thought experiments,
We’re all capable of distorting our pasts. Think back to your first year in high school and try to answer the following questions: Did your parents encourage you to be active in sports? Was religion helpful to you? Did you receive physical punishment as discipline? The Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer and his collaborators put these and related questions to sixty-seven men in their late forties. Their answers are especially interesting because Offer had asked the same men the same questions during freshman year in high school, thirty-four years earlier. The men’s memories of their adolescent lives bore little relationship to what they had reported as high school freshmen. Fewer than 40 percent of the men recalled parental encouragement to be active in sports; some 60 percent had reported such encouragement as adolescents. Barely one-quarter recalled that religion was helpful, but nearly 70 percent had said that it was when they were adolescents. And though only one-third of the adults recalled receiving physical punishment decades earlier, as adolescents nearly 90 percent had answered the question affirmatively.
Can you distinguish between true and false memories?
How can you tell whether someone is telling the truth or not?
The seven sins of memory should be taught to every citizen.
- Transience – Over time, our memories weaken and details are increasingly lost or distorted.
- Absent-mindedness – We fail to pay sufficient attention to recreate accurate memories.
- Blocking – Often it is hard to remember what we actually know.
- Misattribution – We are often wrong about the characters and sources in our stories.
- Suggestibility – Over time, comments, questions, and suggestions by other people produce inaccuracies.
- Bias – Our present beliefs and preferences change memories of the past. Think about how a relationship is misremembered in the aftermath of a friendship dissolution or romantic breakup.
- Persistence – It is hard to get rid of memories that we want to forget.
This book will change your view of the self, other people, and the world. I kept thinking about the lyrics for Testify by Rage Against the Machine:
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?
Do you want the greatest book ever written on habit change? Buy this. The writing is immaculate. Concrete takeaways exist in every chapter. Buy a paperback or hardcover version. You will highlight, dog-ear, and write all over the pages. Nothing else needs to be said.
Tackle the most satisfying short stories on close relationships. This book fares well against the greatest relationship tales I’ve heard in my lifetime. You will smile often, by yourself. You will feel compelled to call someone on the phone and read short passages. You will wonder how someone could possess such insight about your own supposedly original experiences. Consider a few samplings from the exquisitely thoughtful musings inside.
From the story, Lies We Told Each Other (a partial list):
- I just feel like we get each other in a way most couples don’t.
- I also feel that way, exactly.
- I was listening.
- I didn’t even notice her.
- Just a guy I work with.
- You’re reading too much into things.
- He’s like a brother!
- It would just be weird.
- I’ve never thought of her in that way.
- Well, that’s really wonderful.
- No, I’m not being passive aggressive.
- I really think it’s wonderful.
The list is long and you will nod your head at many of them. You said them. You’ve had them said to you. And you will keep on lying…
From the story, The Average of All Possible Things:
When Lucinda got text messages from numbers she didn’t recognize, she liked to prolong the conversation for as long as possible without asking who it was, to see if she could figure it out. This is a very normal thing unexceptional people do, because their lives aren’t exciting enough in other ways so they have to create little mysteries for themselves, and since Lucinda was so unexceptional, it was quite appropriate that she did this.
Fictional writers are the keenest observers of strangers. Make sure you read my favorite story, which is worth the price of the entire book: Missed Connection—m4w. I can’t stop thinking about it.
You would think there is nothing left to be said about someone as famous as Bruce Lee. Prepare to have misconceptions of the legend exposed. Do not read this if you want him to remain bigger than life. Bruce Lee is an incredible innovator. What this biography does is capture the frail defects in his character that others buried. He was an outcast. He has weaknesses and emotional triggers just like the rest of us. I find this inspiring. You and me? We can accomplish great feats just like Bruce Lee. I wish all biographies capture the full humanity of their subject as well as Matthew Polly. And by no means does Polly avert from racism Bruce faced:
“Do you want him buried with his kind?” the funeral director asked. “What does that mean?” The funeral director took a deep breath and looked left to right, right to left before whispering, “We have a Chinese section.” “Oh really? Show me.” The Chinese cemetery was a small isolated area next to the equipment shed. The Caucasian cemetery was, Morgan says, “as big as Arlington.” Andre opted for the latter, picking out a location under big trees with a nice view of the mountain. “I bought two plots, side by side.
And then there is Bruce’s progressive views, not for public appearance but because they were his credo.
Jesse Glover. As an African American growing up in 1950s Seattle, Glover became obsessed with the martial arts but had difficulty finding anyone willing to teach a black student. Bruce was the first kung fu teacher in America to accept students regardless of race or ethnicity. For years, Jesse and Bruce had been as close as brothers.
Bruce tailored his instruction to the specific strengths of each student. “Bruce showed me some moves that were not taught to the majority of the class and he told me to keep them to myself,” says George Lee. “He felt that since no one person was the same each individual needed different teaching.”
Bruce Lee was ahead of his time in a vast number of ways. Enjoy comparing this compilation of biographical details to existing accounts. Somebody is very, very wrong. Which is why you must read the Seven Sins of Memory listed at #4.
Satire is a powerful weapon. This is a terrifying, hilarious, fictional account of Big Tech. How are people not talking about this skewering of Amazon? Worth the cost if the only thing you read are the 2-3 page fake future commercial advertisements for bizarre technology products (scattered throughout). This will be either a Black Mirror episode or mini-series. Add this to your pile of dystopian fun fiction.
Anyone that can open a book with a story about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and still entertain is an exceptional storyteller. Ron Friedman is exactly that. Consider this the recommendation for anyone interested in being more creative in daily life. Crisp writing. An ideal ratio of stories to concrete strategies. And unlike many academics who write non-fiction, his stories aid rather than detract from the content. I use his concept of reverse outlining regularly. I embraced his detailed analysis of how Malcolm Gladwell writes effectively. I appreciated his detailed set of questions for asking advice from people with greater expertise.
Get it for the laundry list of strategies to import into your arsenal. Stay for the intriguing accounts of high performance individuals.
This might be the darkest book on this year’s list. Several children escape an abusive “house of horrors.” A powerful portrayal of the multiple layers in childhood trauma. Each child copes differently. As an adult, you experience lingering scars. Some are subtle. Others continuously bleed for decades. Complicated relationships. Career successes and failings. Mental and physical health.
The narration is from the vantage point of Girl A, the first to escape. It is a deep psychological study of the various definitions of survival. You might cry. You will definitely feel something undesirable. Any book that elicits such intense emotions is worth reading.
What I most appreciate is the author’s respect for readers. She conducts a deep dive into her characters. Consider a few of my favorite foreboding excerpts.
I was such a serious child. Even my games had required absolute commitment. I tried to imagine joining the children around the flower beds and accepting the roles I was assigned. It seemed inconceivable. They would see through me and cut me from the cast.
His mind usually teased him with disembodied memories, which would come into view days—sometimes weeks—later. An impromptu disclosure to a stranger…
The body is notoriously efficient at forgetting pain, I said. Is it any great surprise—with a little encouragement—that the mind can do the same thing? Or just: because you gave me the chance. In the destitution of those early hospital days, you offered me a lie, and I staggered inside it and closed the door behind me. By the time you told me the truth, I was already living there. I had unpacked and changed the locks.
I’m telling you, dark, powerful stuff. The timeline oscillates from past to present. She sets up the eerie days leading up to the abuse. She lets each character unravel in their own way. There is nothing gratuitous to fear. It’s just ominous. If you want to understand the darkest experiences unimaginable, that happen too frequently, read this book. We can’t fix what we can’t explore.
As a bonus, be sure to read my exuberant online reviews of other reads this year including Tracking Wonder by Jeffrey Davis, Thrive by Jeff Froh, You Have More Influence than You Think by Vanessa Bohns, and The Power of Us by Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer. Each author is a unique, new voice for anyone interested in mastering psychology.
As always, please leave comments after reading the books above and offer your own recommendations. In case you missed my prior book recommendations, here are the links.
So many great minds to converse with, so little time.
Your brain is a product of consumption. Be intentional. Read diversely and think unlike other people. Let this list guide you with wise choices.
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Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.