If you’re like me and you chase that feeling where it’s like an author has just bitchslapped your brain with a brilliant idea, when you can feel your hair stand on end because you *just never thought of it that way before*, or when your whole world turns into a warm ball of goo because everything has been tilted on its axis and you barely know up from down anymore then here are six non-fiction books for you (fiction recommendations coming soon).
Here you’ll find books that challenge your thinking about the way things are. Books that cause you to think more broadly, to explore new angles to old problems. Books to remind you how vulnerable we are as a species, how insignificant we are in the universe, how impressive our little brains are. Books that ask the Big Questions and books that narrow in on very specific ones. Books to blow your mind, bend your ideas, twist your assumptions and turn your every thought on their head.
Enjoy (and hit me up if you wanna pint and a natter afterwards)!
1. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks
“Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives–we are each of us unique.”
It’s hard to choose one book by Oliver Sacks. Crack open any one of his texts and not only will you learn something new but you will be challenged to reconsider the foundations of your understanding about identity, personality, relationships and human ability. Arguably his most well-known and well-regarded book (closely followed by Awakenings and Musicophilia), in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Sacks’ primary subject is the duality of the mind and brain, the interplay between subjective perception and objective reality. A collection of “short narratives, essays, parables about patients,” the book offers a provocative and profound introduction to the brain and the interconnectedness of life.
Sacks’ gift is in his presentation: compassionate, curious, detailed, deep – he demands we readers confront what we take for granted but without becoming sensationalist.
Also just for some additional factoids: Awakenings not only inspired a Harold Pinter play, but it was turned into a film in which Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was directed as a play by Peter Brook and formed the basis of Michael Nyman’s opera of the same name. Also Richard Powers, the contemporary American novelist, wrote a less-than-favourable character based upon Oliver Sacks in the award-winning neuronovel, The Echo Maker.
Find it on Amazon from £6.99 > The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
2. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Dr Henry Marsh
“They call us heroes, and sometimes gods. Perhaps they never quite realised just how dangerous the operation had been and how lucky they were to have recovered so well. Whereas the surgeon, for a while, has known heaven, having come very close to hell.”
Cut by cut, chapter by chapter, Henry Marsh’s memoir is a disarming, candid, brutal piece of non-fiction that I cannot recommend strongly enough. Highlighting the fragility of human life, the delicacy of the human mind, the horror of human existence when there’s little-to-no-hope left, it’s also full of a surprising warmth and humour. If you’re prone to bouts of existential angst or a little squeamish, this book probably isn’t for you – it slices straight into the cortex of what it means to make life-changing decisions and doesn’t shy away from the grisly reality of surgeries gone wrong.
Read this book if you’ve ever had questions about what it means to face the mirror and be at peace with your life choices, Marsh’s unflinching prose confronts his own ego, his successes, his failures, his family and broken relationships. It’s an education in humanism, breaking down the barriers between patient and doctor.
Read this book because Marsh’s awe at the ‘fatty protein covered in blood vessels’, ‘the deep veins of the brain – the Internal Cerebral Veins and beyond the basal veins of Rosenthal and in the midline the Great Vein of Galen, dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscrope’ is such that it begs the questions: what does it mean to be alive and to be conscious and to be whole.
Read this book because it’s a snapshot of an incredible life and the many people who have shaped and been shaped by it in the singular passage of fate.
Find it on Amazon from £5.99 > Do No Harm: Stories on Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
3. God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams
“The target audience for God’s Debris is people who enjoy having their brains spun around inside their skulls”
Mind-twisty, thought-bending, ideas bursting into sharp, stinging moments of clarity that are quickly swept up and turned back into questions, questions, more questions – Scott Adams’ philosophical brain-teaser is part novella, part treatise, and I’m glad I ignored my initial skepticism of the recommendation.
Based on the idea of Occam’s Razor (the premise that the simplest explanation tends to be the best), God’s Debris is a deliberate challenge to the reader: “Try to figure out what’s wrong with the simplest explanations.”
Of all the texts on this list, this is probably the most overtly challenging. Adams, perhaps best known for the Dilbert comics, positions the novella as a mix of statements ‘consistent with what scientists believe to be true [ … and] creative baloney designed to sound true’. As the reader, we are therefore charged with seeing if we can tell the difference. It is readable – despite having a somewhat disjointed feel to begin (the tone is peak absurdism), the Socratic style makes the ideas easy enough to follow regardless of how complex they are. Adams’ voice is clear, witty, and concise. It’s a quick read too – only 144 pages.
Anyway if you get to the end of it, I’d very much like to hear from you because we really ought to go for a pint. I promise not to fall in love with you.
Find it on Amazon from £12.73 > God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams
4. Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough
“I have been brought here by imagination, and now I am stuck with the memories.”
Memory is a funny one – quirky, unreliable, selective, fragile and easily duped. We mix our memories with those we have been told, believe in memories that never happened, forget important conversations but remember the jingle of an irrelevant radio advert we heard once whilst driving through the bleak Dorset moors. Memories are malleable, dynamic. We rewrite ourselves constantly, reframing our experiences within new contexts. And as soon as anything happens to impact our memory or ability to store new ones, we can become disordered and confused.
Although the subtitle to Fernyhough’s book suggests otherwise, it’s not exactly new science. But it is a fresh voice on a fascinating subject – the reconstructive account of memory (ie. the act of remembering is influenced by various other cognitive processes and is subject to distortion).
Pieces of Light is one of the most enjoyable reads on this list – bright with personality and love for the subject. But it will leave you asking the the big questions about who you are, what you really know, and whether anything you believe is as accurate as you remember.
Find it on Amazon from £9.98 > Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, by Charles Fernyhough
5. The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott
“Where do our bodies begin and end in a networked world?… And crucially, what does it feel like for us and for others, as we move around in our digitised skin?”
Alright, alright, it’s a hell of a read this one – I consumed it in one night (last night to be exact) and it’s pretty brilliant. Shifting between creative and critic, Scott’s writing is one of the clearest on the rise of the fluffy cyborg – and trust me I’ve read a few given my interest in all things Extended Mind Theory.
Digital life is something many of us now take for granted – I’m just part of the generation that remembers dial-up modem with affection but not quite Scott’s nostalgia – but what is the internet doing to our sense of self? What anatomical questions does your answer raise? What ethical questions might emerge? Scott doesn’t answer them all, but with his observations and meanderings on behaviour, mind and personhood, he ensures such queries do not drift by unasked.
Scott’s attention to dichotomies is key: privacy and publicity, escapism and realism, anonymity and surveillance. The Four Dimensional Human is not just asking “what is happening to our minds,” it leaves you discomfited enough to consider your own virtual existance. No matter how much or how little time you spend connected to the world wide web, this book leaves you with a certain sense of the uncanny.
Find it on Amazon from £6.74 > The Four Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott
6. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
“The easiest way to increase happiness is to control your use of time. Can you find more time to do the things you enjoy doing?”
No list of books on thinking about thinking would be complete without a nod to the awesome Daniel Kahneman and this seminal text. Combining psychology, neurology, philosophy and some good old fashioned genius, Kahneman deftly takes you through the nuances of the way that we think and the limitations of our rationality. He uses the dual-process model of the brain to do this and the results are vibrant, profound, critical, crucial. It is heavy on the science but light across the page.
Having first come across this book at university during a seminar on metacognition (#nerdlife), I recently reread it as a non-student. The need to scribble in the margins, to make notes then call up my friends to discuss is testament to the power of Kahnman’s ideas and his literary style. More than any other book on this list, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a challenge to our everyday beliefs and ways of thinking. It is a book that explores our fallibilities and limitations, questions whether we are captives of biological determinism or masters of our own fate.
So if you think you’re smart and confident, if you believe you know your own mind, this is the book to make you doubt those things. It’s the book Ozymandias probably needed to read. It’s the book you probably need to read. So go, buy it, devour it, bask intellectual satisfaction as you feast on it. Also did you spot the gorilla?
Find it on Amazon from £6.99 > Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman