The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year – 2020

Another year, another round of “best of” book lists. Each year, I strive to branch out in the topics I read about and diversify my knowledge. This year was filled with a particular emphasis on higher education books (comprising about 23% of my books) given that I began my post-PhD career in higher education research. I also, predictably, spent most of my time in the sciences and behavioral (social) sciences. This year was also big for memoirs, which have been a newfound favorite since 2019.

Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. (Check out my 2019 list here). Each of these was certainly a favorite, but my primary criteria for inclusion was that they were interesting – that they caused me to learn something fundamentally new or look at something common from a fresh perspective. Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2021 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial

The Adventurer’s Son was hands down my favorite book that I read this year, and a constant recommendation to literally anyone who will listen. This was one of those rare finds at the bookstore (which, incidentally, is how I found my 2019 favorite book, too!) shortly after the spring lockdown was lifted. I was browsing through the nature and wildlife section when my eye caught the cover of this book. I initially picked it up because I couldn’t believe that a paragraph of text was put on the cover of a book! But someone in marketing knew what they were doing because I didn’t hesitate to buy it after reading.

This memoir is one for your heartstrings. An Alaskan adventurer to some of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet, Professor Roman Dial reared his son to be an adventurer, too. A truly envious childhood yielded an independent and adventurous son, who eventually embarked on a solo South American wilderness trip with no predetermined end date. When communication with his son suddenly stopped, Roman hoped for the best, but was prepared for the worst. Documenting his search for his son over the ensuing years will keep you turning the pages. It’s the perfect weekend read.

Buy it here.

2. The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp

I am quixotic about the potential of higher education and its role in society. This year I have been pouring over books and research in an effort to develop actionable solutions to some of higher education’s most pressing problems as I embark in my new career. The College Dropout Scandal was the perfect mix of blunt reality combined with the encouraging documentation of universities that have truly witnessed profound improvements in their institutions to drastically improve student academic outcomes.

(Too) Many professors I know are cynical about higher education and their role as educators to help their students reach their potential. And, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. Too many young adults are pushed into higher education with no clear plan, too many of them fail upon arrival, it costs way too much, and most of our universities have morphed into behemoth businesses where the customer is always right. Even so, I truly believe that we educators have an obligation to do our very best work in the classroom, and strive to re-focus our universities on providing the very best education we possibly can to each of our students. Kirp’s book will give you a boost of optimism and motivation that are desperately needed right now in higher education.

Buy it here.

3. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, by Thomas Chatterton Williams

2020 has been a significant year for so many reasons, but the resurgence of race relations at the center of cultural discussions has perhaps been the most profound. I read Self Portrait in Black and White in February as I was gathering various perspectives on race to help formulate my own thoughts pertaining to the academic debate of whether race is a social construct or biological following the publication of Human Diversity by Charles Murray.

The most enduring part of his story that has stuck with me is his experience of being “Black” in America, yet simply “American” when in France (where he currently lives). His perspective shows how central Black-white (and other) race categories are in the US, especially in our current hyper-racialized culture; but, when he travels elsewhere he is first regarded as “American” rather than “Black.” Reading Chatterton Williams’ book was refreshing, and a key book that should be included in this year’s concerted effort to amplify (diverse) Black voices in current cultural discussions.

Buy it here.

4. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life is absolutely a book that can be judged by its beautiful cover! It’s as intellectually warping as it is beautiful, and Sheldrake will certainly teach you something new. Sheldrake takes you on a fantastically fungally journey through the myriad ways that fungi form the foundation of our world.

I was truly astonished to learn how complex – and, dare I say – intelligent fungi are. Without anything that would remotely resemble what human and animal scientists would consider a functional “brain”, fungi behave in ways that cannot be easily understood in current conceptual frameworks of “intelligence”. A true intellectual trip (pun obviously intended), Entangled Life will blow you away at each new insight.

Buy it here.

5. The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, by Jonathan Zimmerman

College teaching: the thing so obviously central to our universities, yet underpaid and undervalued. I have a lot to say about college teaching, but it can be mostly summed up to: (1) it matters, and (2) it needs to be taken far more seriously than it currently is at our nations leading universities. The Amateur Hour demonstrates just how not seriously teaching has been taken since the 18th century in American Universities. As Zimmerman states, “college teaching has probably seen less change than almost any other American institutional practice” and “has languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition.”

Tradition. That word that is so prohibitive to systematic change in teaching practices, most notoriously at our research-intensive universities. Why do we bore students to death with lectures? Why not lecture! It’s how teaching has always been done, critics of reform will retort. And although those critics would not be fully wrong, they would also be ignoring mountains of research on how people learn and what constitutes effective pedagogy. The Amateur Hour is a true classic in the making showing, without uncertainty, how poor the incentive structure for teaching is at our major universities — doing not only a disservice to our students, but also to scholars that put in the work to ensure their courses are evidence-based. A required reading for anyone who is allowed in our university classrooms.

Buy it here.

Keep up with what I’m reading throughout the year by following me on Goodreads.

No, Maslow Didn’t Create the Famous Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

Humanistic psychology, the perspective that humans are inherently good and strive to be better, is ubiquitously associated with Abraham Maslow and his famous pyramid of needs culminating in self-actualization. Introductory psychology students around the world learn about this foundational perspective of psychology usually in the first section of their course. It is often, however, regulated to the historical perspectives of psychology section of lectures (as in my own) and introductory texts, with little more thought paid to Maslow and his pyramid of needs after a couple brief slides.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s latest book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, brings Maslow out of history and into the present state of psychology research. Kaufman presents a refreshingly modern take on humanistic psychology, situated in the contemporary research. I’ll be honest, until I read Transcend, I had firmly relegated Maslow to the history bin of psychology with little interest in pursuing the area further. Kaufman, however, convinced me that I was wrong, and that Maslow’s theory is a serious psychological perspective worth reading about.

Transcend successfully balances two broad arcs throughout its 300+ packed pages. The first – and my favorite – being a history of humanistic psychology. I have fallen in love with the history of science genre the last couple of years, and Kaufman demonstrates precisely why historical knowledge is so important. Did you know Maslow did not create the famous pyramid visualization? I certainly did not. And our introductory psychology textbooks never even hinted that a random management consultant actually created the famous visualization! (This is one of only many problems introductory psychology textbooks face regarding content accuracy.) A lack of science history can distort contemporary knowledge and, for me at least, I was none the wiser when it came to humanistic psychology. I appreciate the rich historical knowledge Transcend provided me.

The second arc of Transcend focuses on is the individual components of Maslow’s theory itself, as Kaufman moves from the foundations of security and safety to transcendence. What I appreciate most about his book is the breadth of research incorporated at every stage – a truly impressive feat. Transcend introduces the reader to myriad research areas within the discipline of psychology. I have little doubt that Transcend will contain a section that connects with any psychologist’s research area. My personal favorites were the beginning chapters comprising Part 1 of the book with their rich connections to evolutionary perspectives on human behavior.

If I ever return to university teaching, my introductory psychology slides will be worthy of a serious update, with Kaufman’s book receiving a spotlight feature on my recommended reading slide for students interested in humanistic psychology. If your knowledge of Maslow and humanistic psychology, like mine, is limited to what your introductory psychology course offered you Transcend is a must read to bring your knowledge of the area into the 21st century.

Photo by Gabriel Lamza on Unsplash

Brief Book Review: The Education of an Idealist

Memoirs are a new genre I’ve been exploring recently, The Education of an Idealist being my third over the past few months, preceded by Educated: A Memoir and Becoming (Michelle Obama needs no subtitle). The common thread throughout each has been the personal education journey of the subject, despite the actual journeys of Tara, Michelle, and Samantha being exceptionally different.

Samantha’s journey began in Ireland and followed her to America when she was a young girl. She ferociously absorbed American culture throughout her childhood becoming intensely passionate about baseball – a sport which I could never quite grasp the interest of. The aspect of her story which I liked most was that her path wandered, beginning in sports journalism, and ending as the United States Ambassador at the United Nations. The stories of many successful individuals, in contrast, tend to look linear in hindsight: a determined person with a clear goal since adolescence. A story that is true of only a select few.

Samantha was humble throughout her story, intimately sharing her deepest insecurities, uncertainties, and fears with the reader. She acknowledged when serendipitous events, like meeting Barack Obama, were pivotal moments in her life course, as they so often are. But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.

The part of her story that was most interesting to me was her role as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans during the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. There she learned of suffering, geopolitics, risk, and reporting. I had never before read from the perspective of a foreign correspondent, especially not during a tumultuous time in Balkan history. It was a particularly engrossing part of the book, perhaps because of the salience of being in a war zone and perhaps because I was too young at the time of the events to know of their occurrence.

But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.

Because of Samantha’s roles – as a foreign correspondent, as an aid for then Senator Obama, and finally as UN ambassador – her book not only served as story worthy of sharing, but also as an interesting history and political lesson. A substantial portion of her book focused on Balkan history, but an equally substantial portion of her book focused on UN international relations, particularly with Russia. She plainly portrayed the difficult position the United States is in when human rights issues intersect with geopolitical ones, such as the recognition of genocide on the world stage, and action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Samantha’s story showcases the contrasting reality of geopolitics with idealistic goals – goals from which she admirably never wavered on. Her educational journey throughout her story is evident – in her career and personal life. Learning about her story, and those of Tara Westover and Michelle Obama, demonstrates how deeply personal education really is, the true essence of which is too often lost in current educational institutions.

Brief Book Review: Mind in Motion

A goal of mine for 2020 is to write more — a goal many academics commit to each year. This year, however, as I have stepped away from the ivory tower, I am going to make a concerted effort to write more public essays and blog posts now that I am far less tied to the necessity of formal academic publishing. As part of this goal, I am introducing a new series, Brief Book Reviews, where I will do exactly as the title suggests: I’ll offer brief reviews of (hopefully) all the books I read this year. I hope to provide readers with at least a couple of interesting recommendations. (To see my 2019 book recommendations, see here)

First up for 2020 was Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, by Barbara Tversky. I first heard of this book on Sam Harris’ podcast where he discussed Tversky’s interesting thesis that action and motion are the basis of abstract though. The thesis was phenomenally interesting as, evolutionarily speaking, we (and other animals) evolved diverse means of communication previous to the evolution of our remarkable and complex language systems. Her thesis is doubly interesting in that one hypothesis for the ultimate function of the brain (or, centralized nervous system) that I find enchanting is that the brain ultimately evolved to facilitate locomotion — all animals must move; and, those that do not, typically don’t need a brain. Take, as a favorite example of mine, the sea squirt (and other related species) which, upon locomoting to a suitable permanent location to attach to, it promptly digests its own brain — it is no longer needed.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 22 January 2020.

The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year — 2019

This year has been filled with many wonderful books. Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. These five books are diverse, each covering a different knowledge area, which I think is reflective of my effort to branch out (I even read a novel this year — a first in many, many years). Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2020 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter by Paul J. Steinhardt

The Second Kind of Impossiblewas an experience from start to finish. For the last year I had been searching for history of science books (my current favorite genre) and I stumbled upon this book on a display table at my local Barnes and Noble on a Saturday night book run. The reason I bought it? It was on sale. I had never heard of the book, despite it just being published a few months prior. It sounded interesting enough, and physics is my second favorite science subject next to evolution. The book sat on my “to read” pile until July when I cracked it open over the holiday weekend.

This book is the embodiment of a scientific journey. Pual Steinhardt recounts his 35-year journey to discover a new form of matter, “quasicrystals”. Through improbable set backs, inspiring insights, and far-flung journeys to the tundra, this is a journey that you just can’t wait to see how it ends. Part of what made this book so fascinating and exhilarating to read was that I had no prior knowledge of any aspect of the book. I didn’t know what a quasicrystal was, I did not know who Paul Steinhardt was, and I hadn’t read even a word about the final discovery. I have yet to read another science discovery book that was as enveloping as this one. Even if physics is not your topic of choice, the book is focused on the journey rather than dense scientific details, and is absolutely worth a spot on your “to read” pile.

Buy it here.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 1 December 2019.