Reading was never something easy or favorable to me. I had a difficult time reading books since I first attended school. Truth be told, I only read about 3–5 books from start to finish throughout my pre-collegiate academic career. I unfortunately completed my reading through SparkNotes. I wish I had not picked up this harmful habit of shortchanging myself the value that comes from reading. The tables would soon turn before what I believe is too late.
The reading bug fortunately bit me midway through college where I read a few nonacademic books. From there, I read about 5–7 books a year up until 2019 where things changed. I read about 10 books in 2019 that included Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari which helped me realize how little I actually knew about the world and how much information there is to be found in books. I knew from that point on that frequent reading would become a habit for life.
Fast forward to 2020 (a year unlike any other) and I changed my approach. For myself, I was living alone in Israel completing my MA degree at Tel Aviv University. With the increased isolation and downtime came the awareness that I have time on my hands to invest in strengthening the outcome of my studies as well as tackling my goal of reading 26+ books in one year. I am happy to report that my goal of reading 26 books has been achieved while aiming to knock out one or two more.
What follows are the 7 books that I read out of the 26 that expanded my perception of the world and ultimately lead me to becoming more empathetic with myself and others. I highly recommend all of these books!
1 → Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg
To start off is the book I ended up reading twice within a few months just because it was so applicable to what not only I was studying at the time (Conflict Resolution & Mediation) but also a skill that everyone needs and uses in there daily lives. Dr. Rosenberg presents a format for how to communicate with others in a nonviolent way that anyone who can listen and puts in the effort is able to utilize. His 4-step method to Observe, Feel, Need, and Request is fundamental in addressing conflict and communicating clearly to help all parties be better off. Gone are the days that we need to believe in a zero-sum game and winner-take-all mentality and present are the days where all parties can be better off when given the proper tools needed to create that reality.
Main takeaway: To live well in today’s world where communication skills are diminishing requires the ability to communicate with empathy and to do so in a way that is collaborative, authentic, and free from preconceived notions of the other and findings ways to create common ground.
2 → Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
Few books have the same lingering affect of leaving you confused, enlightened, and provoked as does the science-fiction series Black Mirror. Yuval manages to talk about how Homo Sapiens will evolve into something far more complex than what we are now and the lasting implications of how we will get there. As he says often, his work is neither prophetic nor deterministic but rather thought provoking. It is important to understand that the current technological/automation revolution is accelerating at a rate faster than the agricultural revolution, cognitive revolution, and industrial revolution with far more implications that few can comprehend nor grasp. Yuval breaks down how we got here and where we are potentially heading with the unprecedented advancements we are experiencing today.
Main takeaway: The technology we have been able to develop today far exceeds the influence and implications of all the other technologies and resulting revolutions that accompanied them and we must take the necessary action in order to prevent an even more dystopian society that could potentially expand the already somewhat unbridgeable gap between the super rich and all that is not.
3 → Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Utopia has become somewhat of a dirty word in today’s lexicon. What were “utopian” visions in the past lead to brutal dictatorships, genocide, and corruption around the world. As well, the utopian ideas of the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and democracy all came to fruition through those who dreamed of more. Rutger dives deep into the notions we have of a freedom dividend (universal basic income) and disproves the logical fallacies entailed with the resistance against it. Not only does he prove the economic and societal benefits far outweigh the costs, he also lays out a roadmap as to how we can get there from touching on previous historical examples and analyzing the political climate of the world.
Main takeaway: The wealth and prosperity of a nation should not be measured solely by GDP but by a number of other factors that include well being and low societal problems that could be achieved faster with a freedom dividend as opposed to the current laissez-faire capitalist system we have in the world today.
4 → Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is multifaceted, complex, and often confusing for those well versed and also not so well versed in the conflict. Yossi manages to put the conflict in layman’s terms in this shorter than usual book about the conflict. He includes his narrative as an Israeli as well as the narratives proposed by Palestinians. He tackles the history of Zionism, the Jews, and the events that lead up to the modern conflict. He proposes that both people have a fair claim to the land and must find a way to view the other as a neighbor and not merely an occupier, terrorist, traitor, or threat. His inclusion of the Palestinian responses speaks to his effort of implementing a nuanced version of the contact theory in trying to get opposing parties together to eliminate the distance between one another and build a bridge of effective and meaningful communication.
Main takeaway: There are multiple narratives of what has happened, will happen, and should happen but the people who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made are the people on the ground working on a way to live together while finding ways to justify the wrongs they believe were committed against them while battling external influences who seem to only be perpetuating the conflict against those who feel the brunt of it all.
5 → The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity — and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race by Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD and Michael E. Long
A multitude of incentives drive animals to behave one way or the other. The Molecule of More discusses that the main chemical driving our actions is dopamine. This chemical is responsible for what we desire, our behavioral tendencies, and our more often than not irrational behaviors. With this chemical is the drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Not only does it govern our decisions on the micro level but more so on the macro level of the fields we decide to get into, the futures we seek, and the ideas we neglect. Beyond dopamine and its effects are the sociopolitical effects of the desire to again seek pleasure and avoid pain that involves our choices of where we live, who we vote for, and how we invest in relationships in the short and long term.
Main takeaway: The chemical of dopamine has had thousands of years to gradually adjust to new inventions and innovations in society but not at a rate as it is today and as a result results in a sort of lag with how to adequately and consciously adjust to the rapid pace of progress in the 21st century.
6 → How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson
Stoicism has seen a revival in the past few decades for a variety of reasons but none more than the authors who are at the forefront of revamping a philosophy that is over 2,300 years old. Donald dives into the life of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161–180, and his tenure as a true Stoic sage and what Plato would consider a “Philosopher King”. Donald’s upbringing and discovery as well as his work as a psychotherapist gives him the proper framework and understanding of Stoicism and it’s practicalities. The basic tenet of Stoicism is to essentially be aware of what you can and cannot control and attempt to act in ways that are most virtuous. This book dissects this timeless philosophy and finds the perfect way to implement its teachings into todays chaotic and everchanging world.
Main takeaway: Stoic wisdom is truly timeless and the application of that wisdom that was achieved by Marcus Aurelius who had to endure some of the most troubling times as emperor of the Roman Empire whilst managing to not abuse his unmatchable power as the most powerful man in the world should be replicated in today’s world.
7 → Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
What would happen if people were not actually as cynical and conniving as we have been told to believe? What if it was our friendliness rather than our viciousness that lead to us being the prosperous species we are today? What would the proper factualization of iconic psychological and sociological studies, stories, and experiments mean if they were put into proper context? Rutger is on this list twice in one year due to his work of not merely being optimistic but more so hopeful about humanity and our history. The stories we were told about the savagery of wars, The Lord of the Flies, the Stanley Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment, the Murder of Kitty Genovese, and other defining events of the human experience are not as factual and contextual as they should be in creating a hopeful narrative for humans. The stories we were told about the need for a Leviathan in a society per Thomas Hobbes leads to the notion that we can not live in harmony with one another. What if Hobbes was off the mark and Rousseau was spot on?
Main takeaway: The way we treat each others is highly influenced by the stories that we are told to believe in and the structure of our societies based on misleading details about the need to compensate for the brash selfish humans that we all are or that at least we have been convinced that we all are when in reality our greatest strength is that we humans have actually prospered because of our compassion for another.