My Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books this year.

To celebrate the end of the year, here are 17 of my favorites from 2017.

Two rules for this list:

  1. The list contains only non-fiction books.
  2. The books are organized (roughly) by general interest — the most esoteric books are at the bottom.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life

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Gould is my kind of writer. Brilliant, curious, bold and terrifyingly well-read. This volume takes the some of Gould’s best work from 10 years of monthly essays (published in 10 volumes) that Gould wrote for the Natural History magazine.

Jeremy Dean, Making Habits, Breaking Habits

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The most comprehensive yet practical book on building & changing habits I’ve read to date. Dean dissolves some of the silly myths (21 days, really?) about habit-building and replaces them with carefully researched, practical insights.

Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man

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Sutherland is the Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Advertising. He’s also hilarious. And brilliant. The interviews and essays here are a entertaining blend of wit and insights behavioral economics. I finished the whole thing in an afternoon.

John Armstrong, How to Worry Less About Money

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I’ve long suspected that peoples’ money problems are often not about money itself but our perception. John Armstrong gives a practical, but philosophical, take on disentangling money problems from money worries.

Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

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A father-son conversation between Revel, who was one of France’s leading philosophers and intellectuals and Ricard, an elite molecular geneticist who quit his job to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

The only way to understand, really, how people in the West think is to try and understand people different from us see the world. I learned a lot from this book.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

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This removed most of what little remaining desire I had to become rich. A great introduction to the dark side of affluence, globalization, and unending connectivity.

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious

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I wrote all over this one. Watts, a sociologist, gets at of my favorite themes: why common sense fails in complex systems, why we fail to predict history, why smart people with good intentions end up doing terrible things, and much more.

John Kay, Obliquity

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Complex goals -happiness, business success, love, etc. -are often best achieved indirectly. Kay gets at what I see as a flaw in a lot of “self-help” advice (and policy advice) out there: in their obsession with promising easy answers, these people guarantee that they will help little with the complex problems that real life in the real world entails.

Alan Jacobs, How to Think

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Thinking never happens alone. Clear thinking means going outside of your own mind and also examining the cultures, groups, institutions and belief systems that, whether you know it or not, shape your thinking in myriad and invisible ways.

I scribbled notes all over this one. Then, when digging through the references, I got enough new reading material to last me through all of next year.

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity

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Zeldin is optimistic but not naive. He takes the reader on an eye-opening tour of how we humans live, have lived, and dream of living.

Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon

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These essays will make you laugh and, at the same time, they’ll change how you see everyday life.

Johnathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

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I’ve long been puzzled by the confidence people both on the Left and the Right have in their beliefs about the world. If both sides have smart, lucid and passionate thinkers, how is it that they equally believe that the other side is wrong?

This is a life-changing exploration of how evolutionary biology and human nature shape belief, action, meaning and morality.

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness

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A collection of the essays from Simon Leys (the pen name of the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans). Leys was a polymath, and it shows in his writing. Essays range from literary commentary on Don Quixote to the culture and art of China to the love of reading itself. So good that I read it twice this year: and it was better the second time.

G. K. Chesterton, In Defense of Sanity

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One of the greatest essayists ever to live, Chesterton wrote five thousand essays over his lifetime. This book collects some of his best essays in a single volume.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

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Intelligence and good intentions do not always mean you go on to do good things. Scott’s book is a grand survey of how people with big plans and mission to “change the world” often end up changing the world in very different, and ugly ways, from what they intended.

Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

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I read two of Berlin’s books this year: this one and The Roots of Romanticism, and I’m fairly certain that, over the next few years, I’ll be reading every single book that he’s published.

John Gray, Gray’s Anatomy

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John Gray -the philosopher, not the self-help author -is the author I’ve spent the most time reading this year. His work takes some background in political philosophy to understand, but his work changed my understanding of how myth and belief continue to shape our lives. [A good place to start with Gray’s work is his The Silence of Animals, which is meant for a general audience.]

A few more I liked:

Turn off your phone and computer and always carry a couple books with you. You’ll be surprised by how much you can read in a year.

For more recommended reading and my thoughts on books, join The Open Circle.