Books & Beers Top 10 of 2020
It wouldn't be the end of the year without trying to somehow corral all of the incredible books we read down into a simple list. With so much extra time spent at home, it sure felt like I had more time to pick up a book, and my Goodreads list shows! It's not about numbers though, it's always about quality! So let's get to the list.
I've kept the finance and spirituality books out of it so I can include a few more ... A couple of those would have made the list. I also kept re-reads off the list but Viktor Frankl's Man Search for Meaning and James Clear's Atomic Habits would easily be on the list as well.
Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death
“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
A book about the meaning of our short existence here on this planet. Becker walks us through the state of mind that many of us have, both consciously and subconsciously, when it comes to death. A powerful book that explains why much of what we do is geared towards finding meaning for our lives. Without the search, what do we have?
The ultimate question then, "Why are we here?" bubbles beneath the surface of all of us. The certainty of death conflicts with and yet somehow drives all that we as a species, society, and culture have built. This immortality project has become human's answer to justify our meaning even though at times it doesn't seem like it. We as a species, culture, tribe, family, individual are trying to layer on our mark before we ultimately pass from this Earth.
Bessel Van Der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
The Body Keeps the Score is an exceptional book. It moves beyond the simple ideas of talking through our problems to the recognition that our bodies store, or are imprinted, with trauma.
It was fascinating to read about the neuroscience being uncovered about how trauma re-wires the brain and can even be physically stored in the way the body reacts. Childhood trauma fundamentally re-wires the brain at an early age and manifests itself throughout the rest of our lives unless specifically dealt with. PTSD seems to shut off parts of the brain permanently resulting in numbness/blank spots that never depart unless treated.
Comprehensive in its look at our bodies' responses, the latter half of this book uncovers many of the ways people are beginning to treat trauma. It was at this point where I found parallels with Johann Hari's book Lost Connections. Moving past the idea that everything can be solved with medication, this book discusses innovative ways through movement, physical interaction, rapid eye movement (yes, it sounds crazy!), and yoga.
An excellent book all around. Recommended for anyone interested in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience. If trauma is connected to your life in some fashion I'd also recommend this. It may help understanding but also find new ways to treat it.
Benjamin Hardy's Personality Isn't Permanent
"A fundamental problem with traditional views of a fixed and innate personality is that people feel entitled to do only the things that feel natural or easy to them."
Part psychology, part self-development, this book really does an excellent job of explaining who our personality isn't permanent but rather built upon events in our lives and the stories we tell ourselves. Personality types are explained and then dismantled. It's fun to believe we are a set personality but the reality is it's far more dangerous to believe those personality tests than to truly understand where we are today and that we can in fact change.
This is the type of book you want to read in January as you set down your goals on paper and recognize that who you think you are doesn't have to be the set in stone case. A great book for those looking to make changes in their lives or who have the feeling that they are stuck.
“There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”
Wow! Where do I begin with this one?
Hans Roling's book Factfulness is simply outstanding. We are inundated with messages about how awful the world is and if you are like me it can begin to skew your perspective. If everyone is yelling that it's so bad, some of it must be true.
This book takes that notion and flips the table, beer and all. Through simplicity, the careful analysis of statistics, and a language that is designed to teach, this book covers 10 key reasons why we are wrong about the world. Much like Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, this book points out why our understandings may be wrong based on how we view the world. I consider this book, The Righteous Mind, and Thinking Fast and Slow a triumvirate for understanding the way we think and all of the bias' that exist we may not even realize.
Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe
"Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence. They consider human existence different from the kind of being other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free."
Welcome to the world of existentialism and some degree phenomenology, both covered brilliantly in Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe. This book brings many of the key figures to light while also placing them in a historical context to get a better sense of what and who influenced each of them. The favourites are all here: Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Aron all being influenced by others such as Camus, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.
I'd previously encountered existentialism but this was the first time I also saw how the idea came to be through its basis on phenomenology. The notion that we should be examining life through how it is lived and the person's experience was fascinating to read about. How these ideas were ultimately influenced and transformed in a period of great upheaval following World War I, into the Great Depression and ultimately into World War II.
An excellent and approachable book for anyone looking to understand the history of Existentialism and the key people involved.
“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”
What a biography! Phil Knight's Shoe Dog is one of the rawest biographies I've read coming from the founder of one of the most famous companies in the world.
Phil's early tales of going out and searching for what he wanted to be doing shows the power of burning desire and ultimate confidence in what you are doing and yourself. That's not to say he didn't face adversity or want to quit. This book lays out all of the adversity Nike faced in the early years and many reasons why he wanted to quit but didn't.
What is inspiring within these pages for me is there is always a sense of keep going. The roadblocks are continuously popping up and yet the Company never stopped believing fundamentally in what they were doing. I think a lot of us are afraid to take those big leaps or are held back at certain points because of the fear of the unknown. We question our why and it leads us to pull back on the reigns instead of putting our heads down and driving forward.
I felt a sense of inspiration throughout this book as though I was being pulled along throughout the journey. This speaks to the writing style and candour that Phil brings to the book. His search through history books, philosophy and travel made me connect on a deeper level recognizing that search for meaning within myself.
"Liberal democratic freedom is collective and depends on self-restraint. A society in which everyone feels free to do what they want is not a free society. It is not a society at all. It is anarchy."
From Sacks' take on freedom and restraint to where do we look for moral guidance in a space where anything seems to go. We see where politics is going with this type of freedom and lack of restraint.
Perhaps the biggest wrench in my own thought process is the idea behind the community. Books like Bowling Alone, Lost Connections, and Alone Together all point to the fact that we have never been so connected and yet far apart. Sacks, echoing one of the messages from Bowling Alone, points to religion as one of the biggest drivers of community in our past. Say what you will about organized religion, he has a point. Even Sam Harris, someone who disdains religion, acknowledges the lack of these fundamental societal strengthening tools in secularism. He brings this up in Making Sense. Where do we turn in a secular world for guidance?
This book isn't about religion so don't be fooled but it is referenced throughout which makes sense given Rabbi Sacks' background. Sacks points out the dangers of a society that sees morality failing and we seem to witness that today.
A great book I highly recommend for anyone interested in the idea of morality and ethics. I'd say Sacks falls more center-right making it a good opportunity for anyone to read. Put this one on your list!
"No biological law says there is a limit to how long we can live."
David Sinclair's book, Lifespan: Why We Age - and Why We Don't Have To, dives into the science and research currently underway that turns our ideas of aging on their head. Sinclair himself is at the forefront of this research and if you listen to him speak you can see the passion. He has some great podcasts with Joe Rogan worth checking out.
This book has all of the science so I'm not going to poorly try and explain anything here. What I did take away, however, was a different perspective on aging. We often think of it as this inevitable process but science has pushed forward to try and understand what is going on and why. This subtle classification has prevented the same type of research that has been put towards heart disease and cancer and yet in many instances, aging is the disease behind the scenes.
Sinclair is clear that the goal isn't just to extend life so that we can all just live longer. The goal is to extend the quality of life beyond what we expect. To prevent the last 10-15 years of our lives from being a struggle and a lot of the science they are doing will ultimately have impacts in many other health-related fields.
This isn't just about supplements and chemicals either. Sinclair lays out a few things we can all do now to help. Periods of fasting (reduced calories) over time have indicated signs of hormesis (think safe stress we put our bodies through to grow stronger). Look up intermittent fasting for an easy to implement form. Exercise absolutely but other things such as exposure to heat and cold (think saunas and ice baths); again hormesis.
A great book for anyone who is interested in human longevity and what they can do to improve their own futures selves today.
"It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners." - Alberta Camus
With those prescient words, we dive into the book Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll. We often see Albert Camus through the lens of the Nobel Prize-winning existentialist; unfoldings ideas of the absurd into stories while we struggle to believe that Sisyphus could be happy. What can get overlooked is his life as editor-in-chief of Combat magazine during the darkest days of Nazi occupation in France. Sean B. Carroll has brought this story vividly to life while also bringing famed biologist Jacques Monod's tale (Nobel laureate, resistance fighter, and friend of Camus) to light.
These two equally brilliant friends made their choice. Despite their personal success, they made their choice to risk everything fighting against the occupation forces and puppet Military Administration in France. It was a choice of life and death as Caroll suspensefully weaves the tale of close friends caught and executed. I wasn't expecting to enjoy the narrative as much as I did. At times it pulls you right into the fight as it jumps between these two individuals, piecing in stories of the government's capitulation, people in the streets, and de Gaulle and Churchill's struggle to maintain optimism.
Jumping forward we learn of Camus' tragic fate, a life truly cut short, while Monod goes on to become one of the most creative minds that biology has ever seen. His discoveries regarding gene expression are at the forefront of modern biology as scientists work to understand how genes operate and impact our lives.
These two individuals, and this book, is philosophy, science, and history wrapped into one. It's a tale of resistance and fighting for what you believe; a story that we are perhaps seeing unfold today. Highly recommended.
Brian Greene's Until the End of Time
"How can a collection of mindless, thoughtless, emotionless particles come together and yield inner sensations of color or sound, of elation or wonder, of confusion or surprise?"
A book that starts out bringing the science of the cosmos to humanity through the ideas of entropy and bridging down to life through the ideas of evolution. It is fascinating from page one to the end.
As we have learned more about the fundamental laws of the universe, we have begun to understand how life can form in this environment despite how unbelievable it may seem. From those first cells to complex life forms through to today (all within a blink of an eye on the time scale of the universe).
As the book progresses we are treated to a mix of philosophical thought combined with scientific analysis making for a powerful experience. The above quote on the idea of consciousness is perhaps one of my favourites to think about. We can recognize the fundamental nature of neurons and yet still have no idea how consciousness can spring forth when a collection of neurons come together in the form of a human brain.
Ultimately the book grapples with the notion of progress, storytelling, language, and religion. Centred around the idea that our search for meaning, a result of consciousness, has driven us to where we stand today. Death is certain, and yet humans are consciously aware of our mortality. Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death, is referenced and one of the reasons I've decided to pick it up in May. The universe has developed to this point with the result that humans can question why.
The science early on can get a bit deep into the ideas of entropy but the payoff as you make your way through the universe forming is worth it. A great book and a great thought exercise overall.
There you have it! My Top 10 Reads of 2020. Do you see any that you may want to read? Consider supporting Books & Beers by using the affiliate links above but either way I hope you find a book that might help improve your life and allow you to learn something new.