Top Four Books of the Year — 2016

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future." ~ Eric Hoffer, philosopher

by Matt Hart

The CEO's of fortune 500 companies read on average a book a week. Tony Robbins writes about his attempt to read a book a day, and how in failing to do so still managed to get through more than 700 books in seven years. Warren Buffett says he spends 80 percent of his day reading.

I've never heard of a good writer who isn't obsessively consuming words... and therefore thinking, empathizing, and considering new concepts constantly. It's quite literally the fodder for your mind to use when conceiving new ideas.

For 2016 I set a goal of reading at least a book a week. For an admitted slow reader this was a Herculean feat. I was forced to adopt a number of new tactics to make this happen, from listening to audiobooks while I was running or skiing, to being sure that I got at least 12 pages read each morning before I opened my computer or left for a run. I am probably incapable of reading fast enough to get through 365 books in a year, but Robbins's 100 books in a single trip around the sun could be my next aspirational goal.

I did, however, get through 61 books, some long, some short, some terrible, and some wonderful.

Here are the four best books I read last year:
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I can't explain how much this book moved me and motivated me to create, so I'll just quote directly from the source. Elizabeth Gilbert has done something special here.

"If I want creativity in my life I will have to make space for fear too."

"If anything I think that my genius spent a lot of time waiting around for me. Waiting to see if I'm truly serious about this line of work."

"I sent more and more work out and was rejected, rejected, rejected. I disliked the rejection letters, who wouldn’t, but I took the long view. My intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing, period."

"So, yeah—here’s a trick: Stop complaining. There are so many good reasons to stop complaining if you want to live a more creative life. First of all, it's annoying. Every Artist complains, so its a dead and boring topic. Second, of course it's difficult to create things; if it wasn't difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn't be special or interesting. Third, nobody ever really listens to anybody else's complaints, anyhow, because we're all too focused on our own holy struggle, so basically you're just talking to a brick wall. Forth, and most important, you're scaring away inspiration. Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended."

"Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not old-timey freaky voodoo style big magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer that's how it gets done."
I love this.
Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich

Some storks and vultures cool themselves by shitting down their legs when it's hot out. "The blood in the bird’s legs is cooled by the evaporation, which reduces overall body temperature by as much as 2 degrees celsius."

In this seminal work by Bernd Heinrich, he weaves a tale of human and animal endurance running that is broad enough to fascinate even the non-athletes. His deep knowledge of biology and the natural world allows him to compare us, as Homo sapiens sapiens, to other species in a way that elucidates how we are able to run farther than any other mammal.

"We are, deep down, still runners, whether or not we declare it by our actions.” Bernd Heinrich
The original title goes a long way to properly describing the book, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Ourselves.” Driven by a basic curiosity to explain the world and the long-distance runners in it, this one is on par with Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir," with more science intermixed. Okay, admittedly it doesn't hurt that Heinrich was an ultrarunner and I am personally obsessed with learning about evolution, but I think this is a true classic either way, and something to aspire to.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have." — Albert Einstein (1879-1955). This quote represents the exact point Carl Sagan so elegantly drives home in his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World.

Science is our best tool of discovery. It allows us to shine a light on the dark corners of the unknown. Where religions claims knowledge based on a book that a man wrote of some God's revealed truths, science, instead takes a hypothesis based on observation. Even more important, the scientific method compels the brightest minds in the field to then go about trying to disprove each other's ideas. This helps flush out what might be wrong and allows the process to eventually get us closer to the truth.

"63% of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before humans arose."
Throughout, Sagan skillfully dismantles such non-sense as alien abductions, faith healing, mysticism, alternative medicine, and other such pitfalls of magical thinking. In a strikingly prescient section Sagan even warns us to watch out for the timeless and Trumpian political tactic of scapegoating "the other." The most important chapter however might be where Sagan lays his groundwork for the "Bullshit Detection Kit"—a set of itellectual tools that, especially now, we need more than ever.

Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The Financial Times called Sapiens, "a riveting, myth-busting book," that "cannot be summarized," so I won't try to do that here. Harari's ambitious tomb walks us through the history of mankind after all.

One of the ideas I hadn't conceptualized yet, and that lingered in my brain after reading it was this: "The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago the world was home, at one in the same time, to several human species." Imagine being out gathering in the forest and running into another species of our homo genus. A creature that looks like you, but is actually as different as a wolf is to a dog. Shockingly similar anatomically, but with varying levels of intelligence. So, we shared the earth with other Homos before we became the only one to not go extinct. Mind. Blown.

Although I can't agree with everything Harari puts forward in this book, if any of this piques your interest, this one is worth spending time with. A book at its best should challenge our basic narrative of the world, and Sapiens does that more than any other book I read this year.

Some other titles to explore that very nearly landed on this list:

Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel: A history of The New Yorker's humble beginnings and it's peculiar founder. Did you know the magazine was more focused on humor before Hiroshima?

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams: We evolved outside, amongst it. So, is spending most of our lives inside with our screens damaging to human health? Williams looks at what the science says.

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar: A wonderful magazine style narrative about the fastest runners on earth. Add to this the fact that one of them was either pushed or jumped off a balcony to his death and you have quite the dramatic story.