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5 Brainy Nonfiction Books, Reviewed

Source: Stencil

Ever since I read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond in 2015, I’ve been obsessed with its flavor of nonfiction: big ideas and complicated stories, told through the skill of narrative-driven authors.

All of the following short reviews originally appeared in my newsletter. If you’d like reviews of other nonfiction books, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Without any further ado, here are five wonderfully brainy books, reviewed in no particular order.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Sapiens during a trip to London. Reading the first few pages on the Underground, I quickly knew this was my kind of book.

I love books that dare to make sense of long stretches of human history. In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari wrestles with the purpose of early governments, the stories we collectively tell ourselves as a society (like the fact that we tell ourselves that a dollar carries value, which then gives it value), and much more. If you're a fan of grand history books, this is one of my personal favorites.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

In 2016 I discovered a National Geographic interview featuring the author David Quammen. I found the author fascinating and bought his book, Spillover, the next time I visited a bookstore. It has become one of the most frequently-recommended books ever.

In Spillover, Quammen takes on a highly-technical scientific phenomenon — zoonotic diseases — while making the reader feel like they’re reading a fast-paced detective novel. If you love narrative nonfiction as much as I do, Spillover is a must-read. (And of course: the haunting nature of this book is only magnified in light of COVID-19.)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet chronicles some of the ways in which our society favors, promotes, and encourages extroversion over introversion. To research her book, Susan Cain visited many of our society's most common institutions: churches, universities, elementary schools, and more. She investigated how these institutions rely on policies and norms that cater more to extroverts than introverts.

As an introvert, I related to many of the ideas, people, and problems posited throughout the book. Cain is an excellent writer and storyteller. I enjoyed learning more about my own introversion, as well as considering how elements of introversion / extroversion bleed into our culture. It's an enlightening and empowering read, particularly if you're quiet by nature.

Mastery by Robert Greene

I've realized in the last few months that one of my favorite reading genres can be described as books about craft and expertise. I'm inspired by the idea of being among the top performers in a particular field. Within the genre of expertise books, Mastery is easily the most in-depth book I've read on the subject.

Robert Greene tackles a challenging subject: How do masters come to achieve their high level of expertise?

In Mastery, Greene follows the career paths of many historic and contemporary experts, some famous, others lesser known. It's a comprehensive book full of great storytelling, compelling ideas, and precise prose. Don't pick up Mastery expecting a light how-to book. The delight of this book is in its depth and narrative angle.

The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry

I believe every book broadens the reader's perception of the world. But some books do that with more pronounced effect than others. For me, The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry changed the way I function in the world by opening my eyes to the importance of slow living, knowing where your food comes from, the meaning of true health, and what it means to invest deeply in your relationships and community.

I read this essay collection in 2015. I still think it contains more wisdom per page than almost anything I've read. And it's beautifully written.

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