A few weeks back, I asked a friend of mine—a card-carrying libertarian of a fairly hardcore variety, and a reader of ever-interesting things—to tell me a few of the best books that he read in 2020.
Without delay, he told me he was reading a book by Mariana Mazzucato (an economist who I know has very different views regarding the role of the State than this friend of mine…)
But this friend (let’s call him Max) told me that the book by Mazzucato ranked near the top. And he said it with a straight face. He felt no need to qualify the statement or explain himself to me.
I know that by one of the “best books” Max does not mean “the book that I was most aligned ideologically with”—or even the book that was the most well-written and well-argued—but the book that was best for him to read. To expand his mind, to broaden his reason, to engage with different strains of thought.
I should add that Max is known among our circle of friends for giving completely unexpected answers to questions. He does so after about 20 seconds of umming and awwing and contorting his face into odd shapes—as if he is actually thinking about the question rather than responding with the first thing that comes to mind.
So asking questions of Max is actually fun. At the very least, it’s thought-provoking. In fifteen years of friendship, I don’t think I’ve ever successfully predicted one of his answers.
I also appreciate that when he gives the answers, he just gives them. He doesn’t care how anyone else might hastily judge him for his answers. He’s happy to give his rationale, if asked. But he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that none of his answers seem shaped and packaged to appeal to any particular sensibility of his interlocuters.
I like nothing more than a person who keeps me on my toes—who says and reads unexpected things, who confounds the Amazon algorithms and throws wrenches in conversations in which everyone else is self-satisfied or presumptuous.
Hey, it’s no fun knowing where someone stands on every issue after taking a 10-second look at their bookshelf. That’s what I call a thin shelf—a shelf close enough to the surface that it produces a little Snell’s window, a tiny window of refracted light in which a person swims.
I know Max well enough to know that he regularly reads books by people who don’t share his worldview—and that he frequently enjoys them even more than books written by people who do.
Which makes sense. After all: how much real learning and enjoyment can you get consuming regurgitated red meat?
Yet Max is rare.
I’d like to introduce the concept of the “Deep Bookshelf”—something I’ve been working on building in my own home for roughly the past 10 years.
The Default Setting
I’ve noticed that almost everyone answers the question “What was your favorite book of the year?” as if the question were a different one instead:
What book did you agree with the most?
What book is most in line with your worldview?
What book makes the best case against your enemies?
What book made you the least uncomfortable?
It’s like asking someone to tell you about the best decision they made over the past year. They will invariably tell you about a decision they made that worked out well—a stock they invested in which skyrocketed; a good vacation; a work presentation that received a huge round of applause.
But they are confusing outcomes with decisions.
It’s entirely possible that the best decision a person made in the past year was something that didn’t turn out well. There are plenty of hands that I have played in poker and lost—yet I know that playing them was the best decision at the time based on the situation I was in.
What about books?
People answer the question “What’s your favorite book?” by confusing agreement or likeability with impact or growth.
I think it would be wise and healthy to move from a mental model in which our “favorite” books are not simply the books that we “enjoyed reading” the most to a model in which we see good books as those which help us to be more emphatic, understanding, humble people—people who have the freedom to override their natural default setting and connect with the humanity of others who, like us, are seeking creatures.
And that is often accomplished easier by a book that we don’t like than by a book that we do.
A Deeper Magic
Empathy is one of the most anti-mimetic skills we can develop in life. It means being able to enter into the mind—or desires—of another, but without necessarily sharing them (without succumbing to total mimetic identification).
Empathy is the ability to maintain one’s self-possession while casting out into the deep of another person’s experience—without getting lost in it.
I’m a firm believer that Republicans should be reading books by Democrats; Democrats should be reading books by Republicans; atheists or agnostics should read Ratzinger; Christians should read Dawkins; Talebians should dabble in Pinker.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the past millennium, is famous for beginning his arguments (especially in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica) by articulating carefully thought-out “objections” to his points. He summarizes the writing of his opponents in an extremely astute way because he had deeply engaged with their thought. He didn’t view their work as a threat but as a path on the road toward truth.
I’m not suggesting that we read indiscriminately. I am suggesting that maybe it’s a good thing to have at least 10% of our diet come from foods (read: books) that we don’t normally eat.
Failure to do so leads to fragility.
When the Second Vatican Council was getting underway in 1962, the Cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła—the future Pope John Paul II from 1978-2005—came to Rome with only one book under his arm, which he read and meditated on during his off-time: Das Kapital, by Karl Marx.
When some of his fellow bishops were scandalized by the sight of it (shouldn’t he be reading something spiritual?) he simply shrugged and told them that it was the most important book he could be reading in order to understand the world from a different perspective. Isn’t that why they were gathered there—to bring the church into greater dialogue with the culture?
We can learn from this.
I remember all-too-vividly in 2016-2017—after the mimesis had percolated its way through the culture sufficiently—when that ambitious piece of infotainment called “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari began to be a fashionable thing for people to say they’ve read (and possibly even read) at cocktail parties and lower east side cafes.
I gleaned fairly quickly (without having read it, admittedly) that it fit a certain narrative. This became apparent based on 1) the people who told me that I ‘had’ to read it (kind of like how I ‘had’ to watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”) and 2) the reasons that gave me for why they liked it.
Almost always, the reasons given made it seem as if the book confirmed certain biases. It made a cocktail of scientism mixed with transhumanism that felt intoxicating.
Nothing wrong with reading Sapiens. But something is a bit off when there is no critical engagement with the text and everyone starts propagating the same memes (pitching the same angles, using the same adjectives, summarizing it the same way).
By the time mimetic desire gives birth to memes, the desire for genuine curiosity and dialogue has already gone somewhere to die.
With that said, here’s my list of Books That Went Thump in the Night in 2020—the books that I read not because I thought I’d like them but because I thought that I probably wouldn’t.
And that is exactly the point.
These books by thinkers who challenge some of my views and rattle my ladder of inference (which I try to make it a habit to read continually) help me gain perspective and understand where other people are coming from. They make it easier for me to dialogue with them about issues that are important.
Each year, 1-2 of these books makes my list of my books that genuinely contribute the most to my growth.
These books make up what I call my “Deep Bookshelf”—books that challenge my own mental models, make me somewhat uncomfortable, and add layers of complexity to topics that are far too easily waxed poetic.
Call it my Anti-Booklist.
Here it is:
The Cornel West Reader by Cornel West
The Order of Things by Michel Foucault (and a bit of his History of Sexuality)
The Lies That Bind by Kwame Anthony Appiah
Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene
War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan
Triumph of the City by Edward Glazer
Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World by Brian J. Robertson
If Then by Jill Lepore
The Ages of Globalization by Jeffrey D. Sachs
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
The dust never has time to gather on my Deep Bookshelf.
And, oh, yeah: I did read Sapiens.
I still don’t like it. But what does that matter? There’s a time for reading what we want to read; and there’s a time for reading what others want to read. In the end, I think we’ll find that our desires were dancing in the same measure and time.