1. The Courage to Write Ralph Keyes
While Ralph Keyes’ conversational guide is an invaluable tool for those of us who aspire to a profession in writing, it is equally eye-opening for those who simply enjoy reading the fruits of their labor. Keyes’ insight comes from over three decades of teaching writing, and is engaging for writers of all levels.
Comments from successful authors are sprinkled throughout, illustrating how they overcame roadblocks in their creative processes. Originally published in 1995, The Courage To Write has become a standard volume for aspiring writers and is a fascinating read for anyone.
2. A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Author Bill Bryson made his name with colorful first-person accounts of stays in some pretty challenging environments, like the Appalachian Trail and the Australian Outback. With A Short History of Everything, Bryson challenges himself- and the reader- to comprehend the works of some of science’s greatest minds, in an effort to understand… well, everything.
From the Big Bang to the advent of civilization to our modern day, Bryson’s work is entertaining, informative and meditative in equal measure- a trek through the history of the world through the eyes a someone very much like us.
3. At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bill Bryson
A more recent work by Bryson, At Home takes us along as the author contemplates the history of all of our comforts. Room by room, he delves into the origins of all of the “modern artifacts” that we take for granted, in his signature style- witty, entertaining and informative. He also covers a topic that is rarely seen these days: the origins of domestic gardens.
This 2011 work has, on the surface, a narrower focus but becomes just as involved and in-depth as the previous entry. Bryson is the only repeat author on our list for good reason; his work will engage you, and show you new frames of reference for the commonplace.
This book is hands-down the single best book I have read in years. If you only buy one book on this list, this is the one. Since I first read it, I have bought extra copies every year to give away as gifts.
4. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Jared M. Diamond
Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work is an examination of the expansion of civilization and culture- not through ingenuity and bravery, but through opportunity and necessity. Diamond’s theories convincingly illustrate how each facet of our modern civilization fell into place, painting a picture of human achievement that differs significantly from the popular one.
The book won the 1998 Pulitzer for General Nonfiction, among other awards, and has received excellent academic reviews as well. It’s a worldview-challenging work that deserves a read.
5. Cosmos Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan’s seminal 1980 work is a companion piece to the PBS series, also aired in 1980, with each illustrated chapter corresponding to an episode. The stated purpose of the book and series- to explain complex scientific concepts to anyone interested in learning them- helped to make this exploration of the nature of the Universe immediately engaging in a way that few science publications before had been able to achieve.
15 billion years of cosmic evolution are covered in a light, inclusive tone that makes Cosmos as easy to read as it is intellectually stimulating. It became the best selling nonfiction science book of all time upon publication, and is responsible for the higher visibility of science-based publication and programming that continues to this day.
6. Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely’s 2010 New York Times bestseller is a fascinating examination of human nature. As its title indicates, Ariely posits that human beings are eminently predictable- just not in the ways that we might think.
The basic concept- that we make completely irrational choices a great deal of the time, yet do so in ways that are easy to predict- is elaborated on in ways that will make you question the very motives behind the choices you make, from the trivial to the life-altering. A provocative and stimulating read.
7. The Holographic Universe Michael Talbot
Michael Talbot’s seminal work of quantum physics and speculative science incorporates David Bohm and Karl Pribram’s theories of the Implicate (enfolded) and Explicate (unfolded) orders of consciousness to ask whether all that we see and experience could be essentially a projection of our collective consciousness- the mother of all holograms.
An impressive amount of science supports Talbot’s theory, which touches on everything from deja vu and “meaningful coincidences” to the holographic nature of dreams. It’s a cohesive theory, convincingly and thoroughly explained, that will give you a different view of the world around you- perhaps a radically different one.
8. Contrary Notions Michael Parenti
Political analyst Michael Parenti has a long history of calling into question the established histories and conventions that drive our society. This collection of short works is perhaps the purest distillation of his revolutionary worldview, and the most varied of all his works.
Touching on a wide array of topics from class and wealth to technology and the environment to race, sex and ethnicity, Parenti’s lucid and authoritative style is a pleasure to read and has a way of making complex subjects easy to process. While any of his works are recommended, this is perhaps his most accessible.
9. A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn’s landmark tome, first published in 1980, has undergone multiple revisions and editions, and the newest version features a recap of the history of the book itself, which is an absolutely invaluable examination of the history of the US told not from the point of view of those with power, but those with none- the factory workers, the poor, the immigrants, the women and minorities upon whose backs the US was built.
Zinn’s remarkably cohesive, conversational and controversial work is as vital as when it was published, and offers a historical perspective on America that many of us have never considered.
10. Tao of Jeet Kune Do Bruce Lee
Published posthumously, Tao of Jeet Kune Do was assembled from various notes and essays by the great Bruce Lee. Far from simply a martial arts book, it illustrates that Jeet Kune Do- the system which Lee invented- is as much a system of mindfulness and an approach to life as it is a way of combat.
The most reflective and abstract entry on this list, Tao of Jeet Kune Do is a fascinating and stimulating read for literally anyone, the thoughts and meditations of one of the great humanist minds of our time.