I love a “best books” list as much as the next person, but one of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is that there is no objective best book.
Everyone is at a different point in their lives and brings their own culture, family, life experience and reading background. The books that make you think today may not even make sense to me (or vice versa).
Though there is no objective best book or most-thought provoking book, I do think there is a best book for you, right now.
The best rule of thumb to discover these books is to find people with similar reading tastes to you, and then ask them for the best books they read when they were in a spot in their lives similar to what you’re currently going through.
I’ll assume, since you clicked on an article called “12 books that made me think,” you are asking which books impacted me. 🙂
In that vein, below are a compilation of the books that made me smarter at different points in my life. I’ve listed listed them in the order I read them (from earliest in my life to most recently).
I don’t agree with all the points made in these books and often the book forced me to do the valuable work of understanding and articulating why I disagreed.
My hope is if you’ve read one on the list and liked it, you might find the next few on the list after it are right up your alley.
If you haven’t read any of them, then I think starting with whichever book seems most interesting is the best way to go.
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Books That Make You Think
This was the first big history book I’ve ever read and it made me fall in love with the genre. Big history tries to answer the big questions in life (why are we here? Why is the world the way it is?) but in an empirical and smart way.
I read this book after I spent a year living in a developing country and was asking myself why my life, growing up in the United States, had been so different. Diamond argues that the world is the way it is because of, well, guns, germs and steel.
Drawing heavily on his biology background, Diamond argues that European culture came to dominate the world because of environmental differences rather than any intellectual, moral, or genetic superiority. In doing so, it gave me a new frame for understanding the differences between nations.
Ernst Mayr was one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the 20th century and author of more than a dozen works on the subject. What Evolution Iscondenses a lifetime of study into an accessible book that gave me an understanding of biological evolution.
Almost all of the smartest people I know are fascinated by evolution and have studied it deeply. I think this is because it is such a powerful metaphor for understanding nearly every facet of human live. Relationships evolve, jobs evolve, companies evolve, markets evolve, and people evolve. Understanding evolution is, in this sense, a deeply practical pursuit for understanding the forces shaping our lives.
The Selfish Gene takes the idea of evolution and applies it to human culture. Rather than looking at humans as having genes, Dawkins thinks about it as genes having humans.Humans don’t pass on their genes, genes construct humans as a way to pass on themselves.
The book also coined the term “meme” as the idea that pieces of human culture respond to evolutionary processes just like biology. A pop culture meme is just like a successful gene because it successfully convinces people to spread it.
This book opened the floodgates for me in thinking about evolution as a metaphor for other parts of the world and my life.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
When we know an impactful event is coming, we can prepare for it. Y2K was averted not because there was no danger, but because many companies saw it coming and investedbillions of dollars preparing for and preventing it.
The events which most impact the world are blacks swans: events that are considered improbable but has massive consequences. The most impactful events, from World War I to 9/11 to the 2008 financial crises, are always black swans.
Reading The Black Swan just after the 2008–9 global financial crisis convinced me that the talking heads on TV and in newspapers really didn’t have any idea what they were talking about and it was up to me to build my own models for understanding how the world worked.
Frankl survived four years in Nazi Death camps and used that experience to write Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl observed during his time in Auschwitz that the prisoners who were able to survive years of inhuman treatment were those which had some greater purpose — be it a project to complete or a family member to see.
Frankl argues that even in “normal” life, we cannot avoid suffering. But, if we are able to find meaning in it, we can persevere and move forward with renewed purpose. Lest this sound like tired advice to “follow your passion,” Frankl takes a much more nuanced view of meaning and how individuals can find it.
This book inspired me to look beyond what seemed pragmatic or “the smart thing to do” at that time in my career and prioritize finding work which made my life feel meaningful.
This book probably rocked my understanding of life, the universe, and everything more than any book I’ve read.
Nietzsche argues that we deeply misunderstand words such as “good,” “bad,” and “evil,” and that morality is not an eternal truth, but man-made.
Nietzsche challenged many truths that were so deeply enmeshed in my Judeo-Christian cultural upbringing that I thought they were laws of the Universe. In doing so, he made me wonder what else I assumed was true that might not be.
James P. Carse
“There are at least two kinds of games,” states Carse as he begins the book, “One could be called finite; the other infinite.” Finite games are played to be won and to show our domination over other players.
Infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing to play and inviting others to join us.
Carse finds new ways of understanding everything from acting, to sex, to evil, to science, to wealth and social status.
This book changed the way I related to the world in a profound way, from how I approach relationships to how I approach my work. I reread it nearly every year.
An encyclopedia of information on what it means to be successful, written by a funny and extremely well read 90-ish year old billionaire.
Poor Charlie’s Almanack is a collection of speeches given by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s mostly silent business partner. Warren has credited Charlie as one of the sharpest and best thinkers he’s ever known and this book distills down Charlie’s thinking.
This book got me interested in mental models and examining not just what I thought, but how I thought. It also made me laugh. 🙂
A delightful introduction to Buddhist concepts from a self-proclaimed “spiritual entertainer.”
Watts shows how to break through the limits of the rational mind and expand your awareness and appreciation for the great game unfolding all around us.
Out of Your Mind helped me see that nothing is as good or bad as it may, at first, appear.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
Lakoff and Johnson shows thatwe understand abstract concepts entirely through metaphors by relating them to physical events.By changing our metaphors, we change the entire way we relate to the world.
The authors’ tell a charming story of an Iranian chemistry student who thought “solution of your life’s problems” was a metaphor meaning that all of our problems are like a chemical solution which might change as we add or take away different things from them, but never disappears entirely, so we shouldn’t be worried that we have problems.
It helped me understand that by changing my own metaphors, I could change my life.
Yuval Noah Harari
An exploration following a simple prompt: If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, what would they think of this homo sapien experiment?
Harari’s answer, told through the story of homo sapien life over the last 70,000 years, is hilarious, insightful, and original.
This book made me reconsider the role of homo sapiens in history and my own role in society and the universe as a homo sapien.
James C Scott
Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition usually go tragically awry?
Looking at compulsory collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, and agricultural “modernization,” Scott creates a new framework to explain why the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions.
This book made me wary of much of what is labeled “progress” by people in power who are trying to push their own, seemingly well-meaning, agendas.
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Last Updated on February 17, 2023 by Taylor Pearson