This is the fourth time I've published my reading list with a recommendation of my favorites from the past year. For a number of reasons, I had a strange year in terms of reading. I am an Audible subscriber and listen to at least two audio books per month, but with my family's move to a core neighborhood in Brainerd, my commuting time — prime audio book listening time — has been cut by hours each week. In addition, some of the other things I used to do while listening to audio books such as mowing the lawn and snow blowing the driveway are now tasks that take minutes, not hours. This has changed my life to the positive in many ways, but it has cut out a lot of wasted time that I had made productive with audio books.
Along those lines, this year both of our Samoyeds passed away from old age. These two dogs that were barely satisfied with three and four miles walks each day were struggling to get around the block by the end. We would often take them for a slow walk up the block and back, drop them off at home and then take a longer walk as a family just to have the exercise. So instead of long walks with an audio book, I am taking more walks with my wife and kids. Again, no complaints.
I've also been working on a long term writing project and found my reading habits shifting as a result. I rediscovered my local library, which is a short mile walk from the house, and have been binging on some fiction books. I've read a lot of fiction this year, very few which I remembered to put on the list below. (I used to buy or download nearly every book I read so I always had a list. But I've not bothered to spend the time remembering these fiction books; they were just for fun.) Fiction is a good way to allow my mind to stay focused on my work yet fulfill my daily reading habit.
Despite this, I did get through some spectacular books this year — so many that this list will be a little more expanded than in prior years. If you have a recommendation, please leave it in the comments section below and, as always, I try and document every book I read in my Pinterest account if you are interested in seeing a complete list since 2014.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt
I came across Jonathan Haidt last year during the election and have absolutely devoured all of his writings and utterances since. He provides the most coherent explanation of our current discourse that I've come across, explaining conservative thinking in a way that is familiar to me while helping me to better understand — and genuinely appreciate — the viewpoints and motivations of progressives. I think The Righteous Mind has made me a better person; it's certainly made me more patient and reflective.
Haidt's research into the foundations of morality crosses many disciplines, from psychology and sociology to history and anthropology. He makes a compelling case that the old "nature versus nurture" framework is simplistic at best. According to Haidt, the human mind comes with a first draft of morality — basic predispositions that we all seem to share — which is then rewritten over the course of our lives by our experiences. This has fascinating implications for culture, religion and politics.
I found the book to be inspiring and empowering and have tried really hard to take his core recommendation — not to demonize the intentions of others but to assume the most positive of motivations possible — to heart. It's not easy, especially in a society where we're constantly bombarded with models of doing the opposite, but I think it's critical if we, as Strong Towns advocates, are going to be successful in stitching our communities back together.
People often tell me that Strong Towns explains for them things they have long suspected but were never able to enunciate themselves. I've always thought this but was not able to say it in the clear and concise way that you have. That is the feeling I had when reading Catastrophic Care. Goldhill provides the most thoughtful and reasoned assessment of what is not working in our health care system and how that came to be. He also offers the best plan I've ever heard for addressing these shortcomings and creating a universal health care system in line with American values and affluence.
His approach is pro-market and patient oriented; he assumes people have the capacity to make decisions for themselves, which is a refreshingly novel concept. But he also insists on universality and a robust government backstop as central components. I think his recommended approach would make the American health care system the envy of the world but, ironically, would also be reflexively opposed by virtually everyone — providers, insurers, patients and politicians — used to the current system. Sound familiar, Strong Towns advocates?
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
I heard Sam Quinones interviewed on EconTalk and it enticed me to read this book. For reasons I won't go into (it would be unfair to others), the narrative hit close to home and explained a lot of things I see happening in the world around me. Chronic pain is such a difficult condition to manage. Our health care finance system is an abomination full of perverse and destructive incentives. Put these together with the drug war, immigration policy and the physical decline of parts of America not typically highlighted in your standard City Lab article, and you have an epidemic of drug use and despair too great to ignore.
The cry of foul from social justice advocates that Americans should have woken up to these problems long before it started to impact the white middle class is not lost on me, yet instead of getting stuck on indignation, this seems to be one of those issues that could be used to demonstrate our common humanity. Our national dialogue on drug use is shifting in ways I'm not totally comfortable with, yet in ways that could open us up on many fronts. This is a depressing book on a tragic topic with glimmers of hope for what could come of it all.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari
It's hard to describe how profound this book is. As a follow up to Harari's previous work Sapiens — one of the more profound books I've ever read, and now re-read after Homo Deus — this book was as expansive as it was deep. Most books that promise to tell us something about the future might project one trend or another to a conclusion that, of course, we all know won't come to pass. Homo Deus fits into this genre but in a way that is difficult to describe. Neither utopian nor dystopian, it describes in wholly plausible ways how (a select portion of) humans may use technology and scientific advancement to essentially evolve into a new species, with mind boggling consequences.
It explores these ideas not with college dorm room predictive banter but with deep and respectful knowledge of human history (see Sapiens) and the trajectory we've been on for thousands of years. The analysis seems far less like speculation and more like an overview of potential destinations, all of them somewhat mind-blowing. I haven't decided whether I long for this future or am terrified of it, but it has definitely prepared me for the notion that, so long as the pace of change continues to accelerate, the future is going to less and less resemble the past, to the point where our descendants may no longer even think of themselves as human.
Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment by Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander
People often ask me what urban planning related books I'm reading and I shock them by saying I've not read one of note for the past decade (that might be an exaggeration, but few come to mind). That being said, this year I read a fantastic one that I must add to my list of favorites. After reading a fascinating article by the author, I shared it on our social feed and some of you flipped out. I then wrote a follow up article reacting to this and more of you flipped out. Wow! Must be something there.
And there was. I've been spending a good part of the past two years trying to understand human psychology and, in particular, how the brain works to make us the people that we are, both as individuals and as groups. I feel this understanding is essential to grasping the open questions I still have on the Suburban Experiment. Cognitive Architecture is going to cost you way more than it should and it's insights are — if you're not thoughtful — going to underwhelm (people prefer to walk near walls???) but I found it deeply profound.
If this topic interests you, this year I also read or re-read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Behave by Robert Sapolsky and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. I would highly recommend all of them.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver
I'm making a fiction addition to my list this year. I read a lot of it in 2017, but The Mandibles stood out as wickedly well-written (beautiful prose) and presented a Homo Deus kind of look into the future. It takes all the misgivings I have about our social and political dysfunction and merges it with continued techno/corporate expansion to provide a different spin on Jim Kunstler's World Made by Hand. I couldn't put it down.
I'm also going to note two other books I found especially informative and worthwhile this year. I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson after a recommendation by my high school history teacher (and neighbor). The parallels between the tolerated and even state-encouraged group violence in 1930's Germany and some of the undercurrents of today's society were not lost on me.
I also recommend After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Summi Split in Islam by Lesley Hazleton. It is both an easy read and, if you are as ignorant on the topic as I was, a satisfyingly informative explanation of something I should have been more curious about.
You can find my entire reading list for 2014 through 2017 here. And here are my favorite books from previous years: 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Finally, if you're looking for one last great book to round out your year, you might check out our newest book: Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Volume III.
(Top photo source: Jessica Ruscello)