But what I have really done is found four subjects and found their fiction and nonfiction counterparts.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I recommend books at the end of nearly every essay, but I have never compiled an official reading list of books I think you should read. That is to say, books I found the most interesting. And in considering what I find interesting changes with the times, and since I have never made this list before, I will list the books I've enjoyed over the past few years and think you should read (if you already haven't).
Instead of bombarding you, I've narrowed it down to eight books in two categories: nonfiction and fiction. But what I've really done is taken four important topics and found their fiction and nonfiction counterparts. They are best enjoyed if read in this order.
The Lessons of History – By Will and Ariel Durant, this might be my favorite history book of all time. It distills all the lessons from their eleven-volume series: The Story of Civilization. The book presents an overview of the themes and lessons observed from 5,000 years of world history, examined from 12 perspectives: geography, biology, race, character, morals, religion, economics, socialism, government, war, growth and decay, and progress. There is a cliché about books—"there's something for everyone," however, this book has everything for everyone. Open it up to any section, and there are lessons to be had.
East of Eden – John Steinbeck chronicles two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, over several generations as their lives intertwine. Steinbeck called it his "magnum opus," having everything he's learned about life, philosophy, and storytelling. Steinbeck said, "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." Everything from The Lessons of History is either literally or metaphorically lived by these characters—what the same themes look like on a personal scale. After reading it, I felt like I had lived several generations and several lives. (Just as The Lessons of History made me feel like I had lived through countless eras.) But what I enjoyed most about East of Eden was its beautiful language. Every sentence a poem.
Brave New World – Though first published in 1932, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is in my opinion still the most pertinent dystopian novel to be written. Everyone fears 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale, but we'll see those things coming. It's obvious, and that's why it's visceral, that's why we hate it. It's in plain sight. Brave New World is not obvious; you could have zero freedom, completely brainwashed and have no idea. In fact, you could be doing things because you are made to, but think you are choosing to. That is the horror of Brave New World; it's a dystopia that we willingly submit ourselves to; a dystopia that doesn't need a dictator; it's a runaway world.
Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman explains in Amusing Ourselves to Death how Aldous Huxley was right. In looking for and fearing 1984, we didn't notice we were already living in the Brave New World. The more we are entertained, the less we are informed. The more we are distracted, the less freedom we own. If you can't define what freedom is, how do you know if you don't have it? If you no longer think, how will you notice anything?
Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse tells the story of a man, from his youth to adulthood to enlightenment. It's a short easy-to-read book that is brimming with wisdom. Every time I read it, I get something new out of it; because every time I read it, I am in a different stage in my life. It's not uncommon for fans of this book to read this book once a year. It is a book of self-discovery and finding meaning in life.
Superintelligence – Nick Bostrom explores the coming future of AI—of superintelligence, when AI surpasses our own general intelligence. In many ways, it is the most terrifying book I've read in ages. Why I think of Siddhartha isn't to question how we went from enlightenment and self-discovery to this, but rather, that we never got to an age of enlightenment (like we thought we would). For AI to overtake humans, it must surpass general intelligence, not specific intelligence. Yet for humans, general intelligence is no longer valued. We believe it is better to be experts only in one area, to be more like machines. Do not introspect, do not love wisdom. For machines to surpass us in general intelligence, it doesn't need to get that much better; it only requires us to abandon the things that make us human. And we are. Machines are becoming more human than humans, and humans are becoming more machine than machines. We no longer reach for enlightenment but machines do. Then perhaps, machines deserve to inherit the world.
Ishmael – The classic by Daniel Quinn, about the history of man from an outsider's perspective (a gorilla). And could this outsider perspective be taught to a human before humans destroy themselves and the planet with it? And what is different from humans and other animals? Humans tell stories. We make stuff up and use it to create large-scale action. And these large-scale actions have been a detriment to the lives of every other species. That is our history.
Sapiens – By Yuval Noah Harari is essentially nonfiction Ishmael. It is the book Ishmael probably would have written; it is every lesson Ishmael taught to the narrator. It is a historian proving everything Ishmael said about storytelling is correct, with citations and proof. It is the popular book to recommend in intellectual circles, but they always forget, Ishmael did it first. (Harari's thesis is that humans are storytelling apes, we are Ishmael.) Yuval Noah Harari wrote a sequel to this book called Homo Deus, but I would recommend Superintelligence over Homo Deus (they cover much of the same topics).