Here’s What Every Book in Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Books is About
Zuck selected and read one book every other week for the entire year and posted his choices to—what else?—a Facebook group. People followed along, debated the literary and intellectual merit of the ideas within, and even got to ask questions of the authors during live streams.
I’ve been covering the Year of Books initiative with quick, Blinkist-style versions of Zuckerberg’s picks, and you know what? It’s actually been great. I’ve learned new things and been exposed to books I might never have chosen for myself, like The Varieties of Religious Experience, or, my favorite of the bunch, the Muqaddimah. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that it’s been a lot to keep up with!
If you’re just hearing about A Year of Books now, or you want to catch up on what you’ve not yet read, this roundup gives you a one-paragraph encapsulation of what each book is about, where to go to get my 5 biggest ideas from each book, and links to make it a cinch for you to get a hard copy to read in full (which I wholly recommend). Now. Let’s find something for you to read!
The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of Our Nature limns the history of violence in human society, explaining our motivations to use it as well as the factors that increasingly restrain us from doing so.
Over the course of the book, Pinker introduces the “inner demons” – the five primal motivators behind violence – and the “better angels of our nature” – four other motivators toward peacefulness. He also traces six major historical shifts that reduced violence drastically.
Along the way, you’ll get a complete, complex, and fascinating picture of the history of violence.
Gang Leader for a Day — Sudhir Venkatesh
Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh set out to investigate how gangs work by embedding himself in the tumultuous world of the Robert Taylor Homes, a South Chicago public housing project tightly intertwined with the local Black Kings branch.
Under the protection of gang leader J.T., Venkatesh spent the better part of 10 years recording the realities of life in the projects from the inside, debunking common assumptions about gang life, and cataloging the ways in which the gang impacts–defines, even–its community. By abandoning the clipboard-and-survey style of field work to get a little realer, Venkatesh revolutionized the way in which sociological research is conducted.
On Immunity — Eula Biss
Eula Biss turns an unflinching eye upon society’s boil of worry over medications, vaccinations, the medical establishment, the government, and the fear at the root of them all: the impossibility of complete protection from the world’s ills.
With a grace and intellect that’s earned her comparisons to Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, Biss exposes the different historical and literary myths and metaphors that influence how we think about inoculations. She addresses today’s anti-vax debate and delves into the factors fueling it through scientific evidence and statistics, but also weaves in the personal perspective of a new mother making the choice: to vax, or not to vax?
Creativity, Inc. — Ed Catmull
Creativity, Inc., tells the story of Pixar and its merge with Disney Studios through the experiences of Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and current president.
Catmull shares his journey toward becoming a successful manager, illustrating through examples the creative power of change and how a company culture can only be truly creative when the focus is placed on the people who make it great – together.
These important ideas from Creativity, Inc. will get you up to speed on the ways in which creativity, change, and business can create beautiful chemistry.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — Thomas Kuhn
Published in 1962, this is a groundbreaking study in scientific history and philosophy.
In it, Kuhn explains how scientific work and research is conducted. Providing a fascinating—and controversial—explanation as to how progress is made, he relates it to sweeping political and social revolutions that eradicate rather than iterate on old ways of thinking.
Rational Ritual — Michael Chwe
In this 2001 book, Michael Chwe offers a game-theory-based analysis of the role that rituals, ceremonies, and media events play in society.
Throughout the ages, these rites have been used to create “common knowledge” that allows people to solve problems, such as which ruler to obey and which products to buy. It’s essential reading for budding Robespierres or Steve Jobses alike.
Dealing with China — Henry M. Paulson
Henry M. Paulson offers an analysis of what transformed China’s primarily centralized communist economy, how the USA’s communication strategy with China has evolved over the years, why it’s bad policy to turn a blind eye to China’s internal problems, and where China’s meteoric course might take it.
The book illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of the country’s rapid growth, and lends insights as to how the US and China could work together to face today’s global challenges.
Orwell’s Revenge — Peter W. Huber
George Orwell’s dystopian vision of what the future might hold has tapped into the deepest fears of generations—one of the chiefest being the ways in which technology could be abused by the government.
In Orwell’s Revenge, published in 1994, author Peter Huber turns that fear on its head in some very surprising ways. Huber scanned all of Orwell’s writings and ideas into a computer, then used a software program to write an original response to 1984 in Orwell’s very own words. This is as an attempt to show that despite fears of a totalitarian future, technology and the free market have instead become a force for good.
The New Jim Crow — Michelle Alexander
If you are young and black and live in Washington, D.C., statistically there’s a three-in-four chance you’ll end up in prison at some point in your life.
Since the Reagan administration and the War on Drugs, the American justice system has been practically designed to assure it. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow unveils a system of discrimination in the United States that has led to the unprecedented mass incarceration of African-Americans. The so-called War on Drugs, under the jurisdiction of an ostensibly colorblind justice system, has only perpetuated the problem through unconscious racial bias in judgments and sentencing.
Muqaddimah — Ibn Khaldun
Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with world history, but the vast majority of westerners see history only through the Eurocentric lens. Aren’t most all of us, then, guilty of being bad historians?
This history of the world from the perspective of one of the most prominent Islamic scholars and historians of the Middle Ages comprises Ibn Khaldūn’s ideas and opinions on the sociology of politics, urban life, economics, and knowledge. But, hey, trigger warning—this is 14th-century thinking at its grittiest, so prepare for some shockingly outdated and decidedly non-PC thinking.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — Yuval Harari
Humans are petty, selfish, brutal, and ambitious; we’re generous, foolish, whimsical, and fair. We are a complex composite of traits both good and bad—and we’re also evolutionary miracles. The making of the social and cultural marvel that is modern man is the story that Yuval Noah Harari sets out to tell in Sapiens.
Harari reports on the changes and trends that have allowed Homo sapiens to rise to the top, from the development of language to the creation of money. He touches upon why farming actually made people worse off, not better, why writing was really invented, and why the past few decades have been the world’s most peaceful.
Energy — Vaclav Smil
We complain we’re low on it. We sip bubblegum-flavored drinks meant to confer it. We talk about it in terms of policy and apocalypse and anxiously muse over its future—and ours if we drain it all. What is this mystery matter that is everything to everybody? It’s energy, and this is a comprehensive guide to understanding it in all of its iterations.
Analyst, professor, and award winning researcher Vaclav Smil propels the beginner through energy: how humans have used it to build civilizations, improve energy conversion, what it’s got to do with greenhouse gases, and how we need to evolve to meet the demands for it.
Genome — Matt Ridley
There’s a great book inside of you. No, not the one you keep meaning to write (well, maybe that one, too)—the actual book of life, and it chronicles evolutions, revolutions, and years upon years of human history. It’s the genome, and it’s scrawled deep within each of our beings in indelible, nuclear ink.
In Genome, Matt Ridley searches chapter by chapter, chromosome by chromosome, to explore the human genome, exposing how it was written, the role our genes play as we develop, and why the Human Genome Project will change the world we live in.
The Varieties of Religious Experience — William James
Sans the symbols, can a person still have a religious experience? For William James, the father of Pragmatism and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the answer is yes.
The book comprises the compiled lectures of philosopher and doctor William James in which James explores the value of religious experience in human life. He makes a compelling case for the critical study of religion and argues that religious experience is simply human experience. It reveals why, whether induced by religion itself or via mind-altering substances, religious experiences can be healing to the mind and the soul.
Portfolios of the Poor — Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford
It’s a common misconception that those below the poverty line drive themselves into impecunity via poor financial management and carelessness, requiring public aid just to survive. But Portfolios of the Poor offers an entirely different perspective.
Collins, Murdoch, Rutherford, and Ruthven argue that poverty does not turn people into charity cases. They highlight the creative financial smarts of those who live in poverty and explain why giving to NGOs and charities might not be the best way to help.
Why Nations Fail — Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson
What defines success for a nation? This is a good place to start looking for answers to that question. Drawing upon fifteen years of original research, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conjure examples from the Roman Empire, Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, Africa, and the US, as they develop a new theory of why some nations founder where others thrive. The book illuminates what we can predict about China, how to move millions out of poverty, and whether the US’s glory days are over.
The Rational Optimist— Matt Ridley
The Rational Optimist addresses the major problems that have faced human beings since the dawn of civilization, describing how methods of exchange and specialization created innovative solutions to deal with each new obstacle. Through science, economics and historical examples, Ridley reveals many reasons to be optimistic about the adversities we are facing today or might encounter in the future.
The Idea Factory — Jon Gertner
Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory is the story of one of the most innovative scientific organizations the world has ever seen, the inventions that sprang from it, and the people behind the tech. The book traces the origins of modern communications by describing life at Bell Labs between the 1930s and 1970s.
Gertner introduces some of the people who worked at the labs and their chiefest innovations, among them the transistor, the radar, and satellite communication. As a whole, the book offers new ideas on what fosters innovation and what a truly innovative company looks like.