Two things make a book truly important to read. First is urgency. Does it contain information that could immediately protect you from harm? That’s pretty important. Second, could this book change the whole way you look at the world, and maybe even revolutionize the way you live? These books have that potential. Check them out:
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017. So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it. 9.5/10
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), by Jane Mayer (ebook & print). I’ve read a lot of depressing books in my day, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or King Leopold’s Ghost, or the one right above about how everything is going to die. But somehow those tales of mass slaughter were not nearly as big a downer as Dark Money. David and Charles Koch are the billionaires at the center of the concerted effort to purchase American democracy to do the bidding of the ultra-rich. Them and other characters who consistently lack decency, like Richard Mellon Scaife and the DeVos family create front companies and multilayered shell entities to pass the Citizens United verdict, and create the Tea Party, and fund it to the tune of hundreds of millions. The detailed account of their successful experiment in South Carolina is particularly chilling. Not fun to read, but fascinating nonetheless, and utterly crucial. 9/10
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.
Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving true to oneself in Russia. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime (e.g. exile, incarceration and murder — y’know, the yoozh). The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truthtelling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay academic Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.
Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history through the lives of the protagonists. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”
And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has an internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”
And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?
One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in “1984”, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.
This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians seem to have been put through for over a century. And yet, there are still people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.
And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of fake news, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.
And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me Continue reading “The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017”