Some books have the power to change the way we think about the world.
- The Meaning of Human Existence by E.O. Wilson
One would imagine a book titled The Meaning of Human Existence to be a multi-volume monster, yet the brilliant evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has managed to elegantly distill this ancient question into less than two hundred pages. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book reminds us that our purpose is, and has always been, survival. It’s impossible to read these pages and not be in complete awe of the evolution of our consciousness, and all the while be reminded that just as we have evolved, so have the challenges facing us as a species.
“What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies.”
2. The Creative Explosion by John E. Pfeiffer
It may have been written in 1982, but The Creative Explosion is a timeless anthropological thriller detailing the mysterious period of immense human creativity that simultaneously flourished across multiple global locations. It’s as if cave paintings appeared all over the world, out of nowhere, at the same time. How did this happen? Pfeiffer’s fascinating perspective of the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to the beginnings of modern-day cities forces the reader to rethink contemporary symbols of status, social hierarchies, and humanity’s ancient, crucial relationship with art. Above all, it instills a sense of gratitude by contrasting our relative, modern complacency with the hardships faced by our ancestors.
“The odds are that gifted artists, then as now, made up only a small fraction of the population. They were probably specialists, among the first if not the first specialists in the human record. Then as now, they were probably sensitive and responsive to prehistoric winds of change, not in any remote sense as observers above the struggle, but actively involved in the accomplishments and uncertainties and tensions of their times. What moved them also moved their contemporaries. What they did in the beginning, what they ultimately called upon to do, was all part of an effort to adapt to situations of unprecedented complexity.”
3. Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Hararri
There’s a reason why this masterpiece is on the must-read list for big thinkers like Bill Gates: it’s mind-blowing. This is not light reading, but if you’re seeking a trip down the rabbit hole, look no further. Hararri takes us through our wild and random past, makes astonishing connections to the present, and predicts thoroughly researched scenarios of our future. It’s an overwhelming amount of seemingly disconnected data that magically gels for frequent moments of epiphany. At times as terrifying as it is enlightening, Homo Deus consolidates the greatest threats and accomplishments of the human race into a dense, mind-bending narrative that offers both a much-needed reality check and pragmatic solution to the contemporary human condition.
“We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savored, and out of that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I’m going.”
4. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
With all the political squabbling, falsely dramatized reality TV, and a popular culture built on instant gratification, it’s easy to forget that we actually live on a sphere of space dust flying through a solar system fueled by a giant ball of gas. Elizabeth Kolbert is here to wake us from our closed-minded slumber and provide some much-needed perspective on the fragile nature of our existence. Our planet has had five major extinction events throughout its history (that we know of), and Kolbert makes a persuasive argument that we are in the midst of the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaur. How has this not made its way into common knowledge? Maybe it’s the same reason why it’s happening.
“Any event that has occurred just five times since the first animal with a backbone appeared, some five hundred million years ago, must qualify as exceedingly rare. The notion that a sixth such event would be taking place right now, more or less, in front of our eyes, struck me as, to use the technical term, mind-boggling. Surely this story, too — the bigger, darker, far more consequential one — deserved telling. If Wake and Vredenburg were correct, then those of us alive today not only are witnessing one of the rarest events in life’s history, we are also causing it.”
5. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
There are few writers or filmmakers unfamiliar with the work of Joseph Campbell, a man who dedicated his life to finding patterns in the stories humans have told each other throughout human history. Without Campbell’s illustrious insight, it’s unlikely we would have Star Wars or any of the epic, myth-inspired films that so prominently define this period of storytelling. Why do the same stories connect with us century after century? The Hero with a Thousand Faces taps into the primal urge to understand ourselves through the hero’s journey. In the process, it awakens the realization that we are connected to all of those who lived and died before us.
“It is not difficult for the modern intellectual to concede that the symbolism of mythology has a psychological significance. Particularly after the work of the psychoanalysts, there can be little doubt, either that myths are of the nature of dream, or that dreams are symptomatic of the dynamics of the psyche; Freud, June, Stekel, Rank, Abraham, Roheim, and many others have within the past few decades developed a vastly documented modern lore of dream and myth interpretation; and though the doctors differ among themselves, they are united into one great modern movement by a considerable body of common principles. With their discovery that the patterns and logic of fairy tale and myth correspond to those of dream, the long-discredited chimeras of archaic man have returned dramatically to the foreground of modern consciousness.”