The 5 Books That Changed My Life (or Mind) in 2018

5-Star Books on Goodreads, taken by Renee C.

5-Star Books on Goodreads, taken by Renee C.

I’m sort of an all-over-the-place kind of gal. That goes for books, too. In 2016, I started choosing books over liquor and both my body and brain have been thanking me since. I wasn’t an avid reader growing up. In fact, my parents used to lock me in my room for an hour every day trying to force the encyclopedia (the most boring thing in the world to me at the time) onto me, and at the end of the hour, I’d have to regurgitate five new facts before they’d allow me to go out and play with the neighborhood kids. I spent most of that hour staring into space rather than reading, and in the final five minutes, I’d flip around and find a handful of silly tidbits such as, “Did you guys know, daddy long-legs are one of the most poisonous spiders out there but they can’t bite so they’re harmless?!”

The only books I’d read up until high school were from The Babysitters Club series, a couple of Chicken Soups and a few Goosebumps. When high school came, I somehow hacked the system and got into Honors English, and eventually AP English. I passed my classes (and tests) with decent scores even though all I ever did was read Sparknotes. I think the only books I read in full were The Giver, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Heart of Darkness, not even The Great Gatsby.

I regret that now. I wish I would’ve actually taken advantage of those hours when I was locked in my room and read. I wish I would’ve taken my “Summer Reading Lists” more seriously. Knowledge compounds, and I often wonder how much it would have compounded had I been a wiser and more disciplined child. Instead, I spent the majority of my teenage and early adulthood years prioritizing fun over learning, short-term pleasures over long-term gains. ¡No mas!

Fortunately, when it comes to growth and learning, there’s no such thing as too late to start. Last year, I challenged myself to read 20 books (I’m a slow reader, okay?), which I tracked via Goodreads (my all-time favorite social networking site). I ended up finishing 23 (or 25 if you count The Three Body Problem trilogy as three books rather than one), and I thought I’d share the five books that left the strongest and most lasting impressions on me.

To make it into my “Top 5”, each book has to check off all of the following:

  1. Be different from anything I’ve read before, whether in concept, style or prose.

  2. It must teach me something new or change/challenge the way I currently think about something.

  3. It should spark discussion (as in I find myself wanting to discuss it with a partner or friend) or I often refer to the book when talking with friends.

  4. I’ve recommended it to more than one person.

  5. Its content or teachings are evergreen.

  6. It must be a book that I would read a second, or even third time.


3 Body.jpg

Wins the award for “Most Recommended”

I realize this might be cheating, as it’s technically three books rather than one, but I feel strongly that these three books cannot be read in isolation. The first book, The Three Body Problem, sets the stage for the story; The Dark Forest is where the story begins and rolls, and Death’s End is where a final resolution is reached.

This was my first serious foray into the realm of science fiction (outside of Ender’s Game and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I’d first heard (or rather read) about this trilogy in an Atlantic article called “What Happens If China Makes First Contact?” (a worthwhile read but contains spoilers for the book), which talks about the world’s largest radio dish that had just been completed in the Chinese countryside in 2017. The article discusses at length perspectives and theories from the The Three Body Problem, and the author, Liu Cixin, is a central figure. The book and author piqued my interest for a couple of reasons: 1) it broached a topic in which I have great interest―the existence of aliens (the Fermi paradox), outer space and what this might mean for the future of humanity, and 2) the author, who is Chinese, had received global recognition from influential people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. Jeff, my partner, ended up finishing the series well before I’d even started―his constant raving and referencing of it finally spurred me to read it. Once I started, there was simply no stopping.

Without giving too much away, the trilogy spans not hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of years, but billions and trillions of years. Sure, it is a book of science fiction, but it dips heavily into the realms of philosophy and psychology, too, which makes it an even more compelling read. It’s the first time I’d read anything by a mainland Chinese author, and while I wish I could have read it in its native language, the English translations (I think) did it justice. The books uprooted how I’d previously thought about earthly life, time, space and extra-terrestrials, and provided a completely new and mind-boggling way to think about the Fermi paradox. It made me feel more connected to China and Chinese culture, proud of it even—feelings I hadn’t experienced before from reading. But more than any other book I’ve read, I (and Jeff, too) find ourselves frequently referring to this trilogy when chatting with friends, and have since recommended it to at least a dozen people. Many-a-nightly pillow talk sessions were dedicated to discussing, at length, the ideas and concepts raised in the trilogy.

Long after the day when aliens finally find their way to us, or vice versa, The Three Body Problem trilogy will remain relevant and thought-provoking. I cannot recommend these books enough.


THE COURSE OF LOVE BY ALAIN DE BOTTON

 
 

Wins the award for “Most Referred to in Conversations”

Anything by Alain de Botton is worth a read (imho―in my humble opinion). Philosopher, author and founder of The School of Life in London, de Botton believes in the importance of teaching and prioritizing emotional intelligence. I first became acquainted with his work through one of his TED talks and his name has been appearing with increasing frequency ever since. His book The Art of Travel was my first of his written work, and I’ve since grown quite attached to his subdued British properness, vocabulary, syntax and prose. de Botton is a truth-seeker, and he has a knack for revealing the sometimes painful yet profound truths that we, as humans, often bury or ignore.

In The Course of Love, one of Alain’s rare fiction-inspired novels, we follow a couple, Rabih and Kirsten, through the evolution of their romantic relationship from pre-marriage to post-marriage. The book is suffused with reflective, philosophical insights from de Botton himself, on topics ranging from society’s idealistic views of romanticism, to why we sulk, how and why sex evolves, what children teaches us about love, lust and infatuation, adultery and what it means for one to be truly “ready” for marriage. He shares perspectives similar to a handful of other well-known authors and speakers on the subjects of love, relationships and sex (i.e - Esther Perel, Helen Fisher, etc.), but he demonstrates them in a way that is immediately and deeply personal―through the telling of Rabih’s and Kirsten’s story. Rather than sprinkling the book with grand statements, de Botton asks questions, presents theories, while leaving space for the reader to form his/her own opinions. The format of the book is similar to David Brook’s The Social Animal (see below), both leverage a fictional story to convey insights, studies and theories, but where Brooks attempts to be more clinical, de Botton is more theoretical (as philosophers tend to be).

While some of de Botton’s observations are reiterations of concepts I’d heard before, he goes one layer deeper by suggesting why we may experience certain sentiments the way we do. On the subject of why we sulk, he writes:

Sulking pays homage to a beautiful, dangerous ideal that can be traced back to our earliest childhoods: the promise of wordless understanding. In the womb, we never had to explain. Our every requirement was catered to. The right sort of comfort simply happened. Some of this idyll continue in our first years. We didn’t have to make our every requirement known: large, kind people guessed for us. They saw past our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations for discomforts which we lacked the ability to verbalize. That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.

I had many “aha” moments while reading this book, and have quoted and read many passages directly from The Course of Love to friends. I’ve recommended the book to many who were/are struggling to find common ground in their relationships, or having issues with intimacy. The hope is they find solace and perspective in de Botton’s wisdom, jus as I did.

For as long as we continue to exist, we shall continue to love, and as long as we continue to love, The Course of Love will have something to teach us.


WOMANCODE BY ALISA VITTI

 
Womancode.jpg
 

Wins the award for “Most Informative & Educational”

This book is a bit of a deviation from the two above; it’s non-fiction and focused on women’s health, which I realize, may not seem relevant to half of you. But that would be an unfair assumption. The book’s title and perhaps bright pink-purple cover may deter many-a-men from picking it up, but if you have a sister, mother, girlfriend, fiancée, wife or friend that you care deeply about, then it’s worth the gander.

I was initially put off by the “get it, girl” feminine empowerment type of language, but if you stick it out and get past that (just ignore it!), you’ll be greeted by the many treasures hiding within the pages of Vitti’s book. This was my first book on women’s health but it will not be my last. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I cannot thank her enough for opening my eyes (and mind) to the mysterious and vibrant universe of a woman’s body and the menstrual cycle. Yes, that’s right, you read that correctly.

The complete title of the book is WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. Vitti provides a good introduction to our body’s endocrine system and how essential it is to radiant health, but avoids getting too technical, which is great for those seeking an approachable, applicable and more rudimentary entry into women’s health. It is through this foundational understanding of our endocrine system that she makes a case for how far we’ve strayed from a healthy, balanced system, (no) thanks to our modern diet, habits and the biggest culprit of them all―birth control. Vitti provides a five-step protocol, which she calls the WomanCode protocol, to help you (or the woman in your life) reset and get back to a healthful reproductive state.

The book is full of practical and applicable tips relating to diet, movement, lifestyle, etc., and demonstrates how blood sugar stabilization, adrenal support, organs support and proper elimination of toxins, hormonal synchronization and mind/body synergy all rely on and fortify each other in a healthy, functioning endocrine system. One of the biggest value-adds I got from the book is a better understanding of each phase of my menstrual cycle—what’s happening in my body physically and how best to support it through simple lifestyle choices. The concept of “cycle-syncing” my life blew my mind, so much so that each phase of my cycle is now entered as a recurring event on my Google Calendar, so I can be more mindful of where I am, when I am, how I am, and control for what I can. 

The book isn’t perfect. The information provided is simplified to make for a lighter reading experience, so if you’re looking for science-backed data and studies, and want to deep dive into the biology of the female body, you’ll want to look through her citations and commit to further reading. The last section of WomanCode touches on the new-age, abstract concept of masculine and feminine energy. Vitti theorizes how modern society’s partiality for one (masculine energy) may in turn be impacting women’s health. I found her hypothesis unique and worth exploring, though tough to formulate a valid and reliable test around, but still, it served as good food for thought. Since finishing the book in Fall 2018, Jeff and I have collectively gifted half a dozen copies to our female friends who are experiencing irregular periods and/or trying to get pregnant. We have referred even more friends to it.

We are amongst the first generation of women to truly experience the long-term effects of birth control and the “modern diet and lifestyle” on our reproductive system. Most of us are aware of the advantages of these modern “amenities,” but what’s even more important is being aware of the potential repercussions, and that, for whatever reason, isn’t talked about nearly as much. WomanCode is a step in that direction.


THE SOCIAL ANIMAL BY DAVID BROOKS

 
The Social Animal.jpg
 

Wins the award for “Most Different”

I read The Social Animal prior to The Course of Love, and the format was what struck me most as I hadn’t read anything that combined the best parts of fiction and non-fiction before. Brooks takes on the challenge of writing a fictional book with non-fiction elements, or perhaps it’s a non-fiction book with fictional elements, and succeeds. Unlike The Course of Love, which focuses solely on Rabih and Kirsten’s romantic and familial relationship, Brooks’s story follows Harold and Erica, a modern American couple, from infancy to late adulthood, and explores their individual (and collective) successes and failures as it relates to their respective upbringing and societal norms. 

Brooks uses Harold’s and Erica’s parallel yet contrastive formative years to examine a breadth of psychological (particularly in cognitive science) and sociological phenomena, including the evolution of IQ and the unconscious mind, love, lust and attachment theories, culture and poverty, metrics for success, rationalism, individualism, and more. This is a book of breadth rather than depth―it does a good job at introducing psychological concepts and lays down some foundation for them, but if you want more context, more studies and in-depth analyses, then you may be better off reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow, Carol Dwek’s Mindset, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, Amir Levine’s Attached, and/or Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, to name a few.

If you’re up-to-date on the latest in cognitive science, or are well-read in psychological and sociological theories, then Brooks’s book may fall short. He does have a tendency towards making sweeping generalizations from a handful of studies that have yet to be proved as causality or conclusive. But that is not necessarily Brooks’s fault, rather, it shows the difficulty (and lack) of conducting valid and reliable psychological experiments. I found The Social Animal to be a light and refreshing read. While some of Brooks’s concepts are not new or particularly profound, I found them more recognizable and relatable as told through the “real life” scenarios and perspectives of his fictional characters. The Social Animal straddles the border of fiction and non-fiction, to compare it to works of either genre is unfair. If Brooks’s goal is to arouse mass market interest in cognitive science, psychology and sociology, and to lay a foundational understanding of the latest research in those fields, then I think he has achieved that with The Social Animal.

The most esoteric concept I got from Brooks, which was not previously a part of my “toolkit for thinking” is the idea of emergence―in systems and in thinking. In its most basic form, emergence is the condition of an entity having properties its singular parts do not have, because of the interactions that occur among the parts. Using poverty as an example, we often try to “solve” the complex issue of poverty through a singular part, i.e. education, but that isn’t enough because poverty has many parts that cannot be distilled down to education alone. There are many singular parts, of which education is but one, our political setup is another, economics another, so on and so forth. To “solve” for poverty, we need to examine it as a sum of all of its parts. A good metaphor for emergent thinking is, to borrow a line from Karl Popper, an Austrian-British philosopher, who once said: “All problems are either clouds or clocks.” To understand a clock, you can take it apart, study each piece and understand how a clock works. But you can’t dissect a cloud. A cloud is a dynamic system; to understand it, you must study it as it is, as a whole.

There are many gems, like the idea of “emergence,” to be found in The Social Animal if one stays open-minded and curious. For me, this book was an excellent launching pad into the realms of cognitive science and psychology.


Deep Work.jpg

Wins the award for “Most Relevant & Evergreen”

I wrote a pretty comprehensive and extensive post about Deep Work here, so I’ll keep this review short and sweet. This book led me to a complete 180-degree shift in how I was approaching my career and life. 

The concept of deep work—

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

—is fairly simple to grasp, though it’s much harder to apply and commit to in life. Newport does a phenomenal job at explaining why deep work will only become more valuable at the same time it becomes more rare, because society tends to mistaken “busyness as a proxy for productivity.” He believes a fulfilling and satisfying life comes from one’s ability to go deep in order to produce work of real value. Newport offers clear, bite-size steps and practices for how to effectively re-train and strengthen the “muscles” in your brain, allowing you to focus and concentrate for longer, as well as how to incorporate deep work into your life and work, assuming it’s important to you and something you aspire to integrate into your day. 

I’ve read many self-help, how-to-achieve-success, habit and productivity related books in the past, but Deep Work evinced what truly separates the successful from the unsuccessful, beyond blind luck and grit. This book led me to make the (scary) decision to pursue writing rather than continuing on my career path of management―which after a few years of working for various startups and companies, I felt deeply dissatisfied by precisely because it felt as though it was more important to give off the perception of being busy rather than producing truly meaningful work. I didn’t want my daily output to be distilled down to a half dozen calls, meetings, paper shuffling and playing telephone between my superiors and my direct reports, which was what it had become. This is a necessary part of many modern jobs, but it became clear to me how my lack of a concrete hard skill (i.e - engineering, design, fluency in Excel, etc.) put me at a disadvantage to truly add value in this line of work.

One thing to be aware of when reading this book is Newport’s cynical attitude towards social media and networking tools. He doesn’t pretend otherwise and calls himself a curmudgeon for it, but it can, at times, feel overdone and slightly dogmatic. Still, Deep Work is worth a read in its entirety in spite of its straightforward thesis—the most valuable parts being Newport’s practical tips and practices (which build upon each other) and understanding which type of deep work “structure” best suits you.

This book, along with WomanCode (above), were highly influential and brought about the most significant behavioral changes in my life last year.


And there you have it, my top five life-changing, mind-altering books from 2018. I love rummaging through other people’s bookshelves and am eager to know which books changed your mind or life in 2018, as well as which books you are most excited about consuming in 2019?

Curious about what’s on my bookshelf for 2019? Follow me on Goodreads.