Whether you've set a reading goal for 2023, or you are looking to challenge assumptions, or just learn something new, these are my top five non-fiction books that I read in 2022. They cover physics, cognition, political and religious history, relationships, psychology, health, and philosophy and they changed not only how I see the world, but also how I live my daily life.
The Case Against Reality
This book stood out to me because it blends two of my fascinations into a common thread: physics and consciousness. Somewhat controversially, Hoffman argues that reality has no intrinsic properties and could be said to not exist. But upon further reading and reflection, what Hoffman actually conveys is that reality exists but existence is not a property of reality itself. Reality is maleable.
Although this book sounds very heady and abstract, it's filled with useful metaphors and examples. One of my favorites, which convey's the both the utility and uselessnes of reality, is the metaphor of a phone or computer "desk top":
The purpose of a desktop interface is not to show you the “truth” of the computer—where “truth,” in this metaphor, refers to circuits, voltages, and layers of software. Rather, the purpose of an interface is to hide the “truth” and to show simple graphics that help you perform useful tasks such as crafting emails and editing photos. If you had to toggle voltages to craft an email, your friends would never hear from you.
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality
We do have have capability to notice certain properties about reality, but many things we are aware of are not real. Length, colour, texture, taste smell, sound don't actually exist. Humans create those properties. Vision is particles of light interpreted by the brain, sound is air pressure over time as perceived by us. The particles exist and the pressure exists, but without a subject to percieve them "sight" and "sound" don't exist in and of themselves. As the saying goes "if a tree falls in the forrest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
[Evolution] has endowed us with senses that hide the truth and display the simple icons we need to survive long enough to raise offspring. Space, as you perceive it when you look around, is just your desktop—a 3D desktop. Apples, snakes, and other physical objects are simply icons in your 3D desktop. These icons are useful, in part, because they hide the complex truth about objective reality. Your senses have evolved to give you what you need. You may want truth, but you don’t need truth. Perceiving truth would drive our species extinct. You need simple icons that show you how to act to stay alive. Perception is not a window on objective reality. It is an interface that hides objective reality behind a veil of helpful icons.
– Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality
I loved this book for completely upending how I see the world and challenging what I assume is "real" and "true". As the world gets more and more complicated, having a less-rigid framework for what is real and what is not will make life easier for all of us as we face rapid changes to the way we communicate, govern, and interact with technology in the coming decades.
The Civil War As A Theological Crisis
Although the American Civil War was not a war of religion, there was signficiant religious conflict in the years leading up to and through the war in the public and intellectual spheres. Having grown up in a religious household, I personally found this book insightful for navigating today's political landscape, but I recommend it especially for non-religious readers who want to better understand the politics of Evangelical and Catholic Christians in America today.
Religion during the Civil War period was unique in American history. Churches exerted an unusual impact on public life that was not seen before the Civil War, or since. Churches exploded in the years leading up to the Civil War. In 1790 there were approximately 2,300 Protestant churches and by 1860 there were over 40,000. The religious institutions of evangelical churches gave Americans direction, purpose, meaning and stability. This position of the Church in American life permanently altered the political landscape and I see it reflected today, just not quite so powerfully.
One key point of the book was that (just like today), evangelical churches and institutions shaped the politics of their time by creating an homogeneous blend between the religious and the political. Like today, influential figures were abandonding the notion that the bible was an all-sufficient authority and solution for scientific, legal, literary, business and governmental problems. Similar to the modern divide between churches that support LGBT and abortion rights and those that consider it a sin, slavery was the tip of the theological spear that divided religious groups in the political and social spheres of daily life.
Debates over Scripture and slavery, which combined passionate moral reasoning, careful attention to the particulars of exegesis, and intense argument about the general meaning of the Bible, pointed toward a twofold theological crisis. The first-order crisis was manifest: a wide range of Protestants were discovering that the Bible they had relied on for building up America’s republican civilization was not nearly as univocal, not nearly as easy to interpret, not nearly as inherently unifying for an overwhelmingly Christian people, as they once had thought. But the second-order crisis, which was not as obvious, was even worse: although legions of faithful believers struggled long and hard to discern what the Bible said about slavery, far fewer turned seriously to Scripture to find an authoritative message concerning race or the transformation of the American economy, even though race and economic transformation had become the most pressing dangers threatening America’s biblical civilization.
– Mark Noll, The Civil War As A Theological Crisis
I feel that this book is a must-read for any individual who finds the American Evangelical hold on United States Politics to be confusing, complicated, or absurd. The Civil War as A Theological Crisis provides an in-depth and well-balanced look at the multiple layers of conflict between religious and non-religious members of American society as they struggle for power over their governments in ways that almost no other secular or religious countries in the world do.
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
Whether you're 15 or 50, you may want to hide this book when you're not reading it so that your parents don't find it. This book is for adults who struggle to connect with their parents. When parents lack emotional responsiveness necessary to meet their adult or developing emotional child's needs, the resulting emotional neglect can be as severe as physical abuse in extreme cases, and incredible loneliness, pain and confusion in milder cases.
This book is separated into two parts. In the first part it focuses on the parent. It explains how emotionally immature parents affect their children's lives, how to recognize an emotionally immature parent, what it feels like to have a relationship with an emotionally immature parent, and four categories of emotionally immature parents.
In the second part, the book focuses on the adult child. It explains how different children react to emotionally immature parenting, what it like to be an internalizer versus an externalizer (and why internalizers may have it worse), and how to wake up and begin to heal from the effects of immature parenting, and lastly how to identify emotionally mature people in both friendships and romantic partners.
When you forge a compromise with an emotionally mature person, you won’t feel like you’re giving anything up; instead, both of you will feel satisfied. Because collaborative, mature people don’t have an agenda to win at all costs, you won’t feel like you’re being taken advantage of. Compromise doesn’t mean mutual sacrifice; it means a mutual balancing of desires. In a good compromise, both people feel that they got enough of what they wanted. In contrast, emotionally immature people tend to pressure others into concessions that aren’t in their best interest, often pushing a solution that doesn’t feel fair.
– Lindsay C. Gibson, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
While plenty of parents do emotionally mature as they age, not all parents do. This book is helpful for navigating the lasting effects of past or present immaturity. I recommend this book to everyone no matter what their age is or how painful (or not painful) their childhood was.
Four Thousand Weeks
Productivity is a trap. Four Thousand Weeks begins by acknowledging that it is yet another book about making the best use of time. But unlike other books, such as Extreme Productivy or The 4-Hour Workweek, Oliver Burkeman argues that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by a set of ideas about how to use our limited time. And strikingly, Burkeman insists that these methods are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse.
The book is divided into two parts, "Choosing to Choose" and "Beyond Control". I appreciated the first half for convincing me that I was thinking about time management wrong and that it was stressing me out more than I realized. It encouraged me to embrace limits whether inherent or self-imposed.
The second part of the book, gets more philosphical and points out that we don't really have the time we think we do--a project will run longer than it should, a life-event (good or bad) will derail our project or career plans, and it reminds us that our focus on the future robs us of a fulfulling present. It celebrates intentional rest, reminds us that our pleasure in life will decrease the more we strive to achieve, and it laments the loss of lesiure and ecourages us to experience not just down-time and rest but the enjoymeent of freedom provided by the cessation of activities.
As society accelerates, something shifts. In more and more contexts, patience becomes a form of power. In a world geared for hurry, the capacity to resist the urge to hurry—to allow things to take the time they take—is a way to gain purchase on the world, to do the work that counts, and to derive satisfaction from the doing itself, instead of deferring all your fulfillment to the future.
-- Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
I personally found the section on embracing radical incrementalism extremely helpful (intentionally doing less at one time than what is possible). The chapter on Cosmic Insignificance Therapy (or "a modestly meanginful life") forced me to realize that in the grand scheme of things, nothing I do in my life will really impact the future in any significant way. And that's ok!
The Myth of Normal
Similar to Four Thousand Weeks above, The Myth Of Normal looks at what our society tells us to think and how to behave, and challenges readers to re-evaluate whether "normal" means "right". I've read several books on trauma and sociology in the past, but never one so striking as The Myth of Normal.
This is a rather long book as it is quite holistic. It introduces concepts of trauma on both the personal and the sociopolitical level, criticizes modern child-rearing practices, and proves a link between the mind and physical ailments. I was surprised to learn about the collective American exhaustion and the feeling have everything being "too much". This feeling affects nearly everyone in our society today, including numerous people I know personally, and it frequently manifests itself in the forms of auto-immune diseases, cancer, and substance abuse.
At a fundamental level, this book challenges our assumptions of what it means to be a human in the 21st century. The core premise of the book is that our responses to trauma are not normal and western nations (in particular) lack the social and institutional frameworks for addressing trauma on a sociologic level. It ends on a positive note, with sociopolitical suggestions and actionable individual behaviors that, if employed, can heal our current generations and prevent harm to future ones.
We have become “species-atypical,” a sobering idea when you think about it: no other species has ever had the ability to be untrue to itself, to forsake its own needs, never mind to convince itself that such is the way things ought to be.”
– Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal
Of the 24 non-fiction books I read in 2022, these five benefitted me the most. Some changed my thinking, some helped me see an alternative perspective on life, and others helped me understand the world better. If you enjoyed this list, please share it with others. May your curiosity never be satisfied in 2023, and may you continue to share in the love of learning!
Links of Interest
The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman (Book, affiliate link)
Professor Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality, Beyond Spacetime, Rethinking Death, Panpsychism, QBism, and More (#585) (Podcast interview) (Transcript)
Donald Hoffman: Do we see reality as it is? (Video, TED Talk)
The Civil War As A Theological Crisis by Mark Noll (Book, affiliate link)
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson (Book, affiliate link)
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (Book, affiliate link)
The Liberation of Cosmic Insignificance Therapy (Podcast)
The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture by Gabor Maté and Daniel Maté (Book, affiliate link)
Dr. Gabor Maté — The Myth of Normal, Metabolizing Anger, Processing Trauma, and Finding the Still Voice Within (#620) (Podcast interview, covers key subjects of the book) (Transcript)