CertMag’s holiday reading recommendations
It’s such a treat to get to write about different things now and then. Over the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s Day holiday break, I plan on catching up on some reading. I currently crank through between 50 and 75 books per year, and I think reading is an essential part of rounding oneself out.
With that in mind, I’m pleased to share with you a few of the books that I plan on cranking through over the holiday season:
First up — and I’m already part way through this one — is The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene. If you love learning about people and studying the way they interact with each other, then this is an excellent read for you, a real page turner.
This title is categorized into the “self-help” section of booksellers and I think that accurately describes the book. It will help you steer clear of personalities that everyone sees but few people notice. Understanding people’s drives and motivations is useful, even when they are not conscious of these things themselves.
We are social animals. Our very lives depend on our relationships with people. Knowing why people do what they do is perhaps the most important tool we can possess, without which our other talents can only take us so far.
Drawing from the ideas and examples of Pericles, Queen Elizabeth I, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others, Greene teaches us how to detach ourselves from our own emotions and master self-control. He also discusses how to develop the empathy that leads to insight, how to look behind people’s masks, and how to resist conformity to develop your singular sense of purpose.
The Laws of Human Nature offers brilliant tactics for success, self-improvement, and self-defense, whether applied at work, in your relationships with others, or in shaping the world around you.
My next selection is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I have read Bill before and all his books are incredible. He is a great traveler and writer with a keen wit. Whether explaining the time he to hike the Appalachian trail, or discussing all facets of Australia, his tales are amazing.
In this one, he starts at the beginning — and I mean the very beginning. Bryson describes graphically and in layperson’s terms the size of the universe and that of atoms and subatomic particles. He then explores the history of geology and biology and traces life from its first appearance to today’s modern humans, placing emphasis on the development of the modern Homo sapiens.
A Short History also discusses the possibility of the Earth being struck by a meteorite and reflects on human capabilities of spotting a meteor before it impacts the Earth, and the extensive damage that such an event would cause. Bryson also describes some of the most recent destructive disasters of volcanic origin in the history of our planet, including Krakatoa and Yellowstone National Park.
A large part of the book is devoted to relating humorous stories about the scientists behind the research and discoveries and their sometimes-eccentric behaviors. (This is another are where Bill shines in his storytelling.) Bryson also speaks about modern scientific views on human-caused climate change, which may or may not be an optimistic way to launch into 2021.
Next up on my list is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Who doesn’t love to hear stories of psychology and human nature? All of Gladwell’s books are truly amazing and really great reads; I burn through them pretty quick.
In Outliers, Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to success in human endeavors. To support his thesis, he examines why the majority of Canadian ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year; how Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates achieved his extreme wealth; how the Beatles became one of the most successful musical acts in human history, how Joseph Flom built Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom into one of the most successful law firms in the world, how cultural differences play a large part in perceived intelligence and rational decision making, and how two people with exceptional intelligence, Christopher Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, ended up following wildly divergent paths.
Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule,” claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours. I am really looking forward to this one.
If you need a “brain break,” then I recommend the latest Alex Delaware novel by Jonathan Kellerman. A detective novel is one of the best things that you can do for an overworked brain. Don’t try to figure out the mystery — let the characters sort things out and and just go along for the ride.
Kellerman has great writing technique and he puts out a new novel every year. I’m almost through them all. The most recent is The Museum of Desire. The synopsis, as always, is straightforward: Psychologist Alex Delaware and detective Milo Sturgis struggle to make sense of a quadruple murder committed on the premises of a deserted mansion in Bel Air. And that’s really all you need to know going in.
Stacked next to me right now is the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. A cross between the natural and social sciences, this covers quite a bit of ground. It was recommended to me by a friend, and she never picks up a bad book, so I put it on my list.
Reading through the synopsis, I believe I am really going to enjoy this book. Harari’s main argument is that humans came to dominate the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. He argues that prehistoric Sapiens were a key cause of the extinction of other human species such as the Neanderthals, along with numerous other megafauna.
He further argues that the ability of Sapiens to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money, and human rights. He argues further that these beliefs give rise to discrimination — whether racial, sexual, or political — and that it is potentially impossible to have a completely unbiased society.
Harari claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems — including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions — owe their emergence to Sapiens’ distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Accordingly, Harari regards money as a system of mutual trust and sees political and economic systems as more or less identical with religions.
Coming up after that, I’ve got The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I always enjoy delving into medicine and healing, and this seems like an interesting read. The book weaves together Mukherjee’s experiences as a hematology/oncology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the history of cancer treatment and research.
Mukherjee gives the history of cancer from its first identification 4,600 years ago by the Egyptian physician Imhotep. The Greeks had no understanding of cells, but they were familiar with hydraulics. Hippocrates thus considered illness to be an imbalance of four cardinal fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm.
Galen applied this idea to cancer, believing it to be an imbalance of black bile. In 440 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus recorded the first breast tumor excision, performed on Atossa, the queen of Persia and daughter of Cyrus, by a Greek slave named Democedes. The procedure was believed to have been successful temporarily. Having all of this come at me from a doctor make all of it that much more intriguing.
I’m also going to recommend Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I am not an introvert, but I don’t mind reading about them and, maybe, how acting like that could benefit me. From the synopsis, this looks like a book that I will pile through.
Quiet presents a history of how Western culture transformed from a culture of character to a culture of personality in which an “extrovert ideal” dominates and introversion is viewed as inferior or even pathological. Adopting scientific definitions of introversion and extroversion as preferences for different levels of stimulation, Quiet outlines the advantages and disadvantages of each temperament, emphasizing the myth of the extrovert ideal that has dominated in the West since the early 20th century.
Asserting that temperament is a core element of human identity, Cain cites research in biology, psychology, neuroscience and evolution to demonstrate that introversion is both common and normal, noting that many of humankind’s most creative individuals and distinguished leaders were introverts. Cain urges changes at the workplace, in schools, and in parenting; offers advice to introverts for functioning in an extrovert-dominated culture; and offers advice in communication, work, and relationships between people of differing temperament.
Finally, I think I’ll take some advice of some friends and read A Promised Land by Barack Obama. They say it’s really a great book. I have heard parts of read by our former president and it sounds amazing. Who can deny that this book will be well-crafted and well-written? I am looking forward to knocking it out.
No matter what you read or pick up this holiday season, I hope you are warm, safe, happy, and healthy. Happy reading everyone!