My favourite 10 books in 2021
Here is the list of the ten books I read last year that I liked the most, ordered by publication year.
- Caribbean, Sea of the New World, by Germán Arciniegas (1945). A sublimely written account of the four centuries that followed the arrival of the Spanish to the Caribbean Sea. This book is more than a history book; it is a symphony about the feats and exploits of Europeans in America. I had never read a book like this. Thanks to María del Pilar López for this recommendation.
- The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998). An account of Kapuściński’s travels through a dozen African countries while covering the continent as a journalist.
- Entropy Demystified, by Arieh Ben-Naim (2008). An excellent popularization book that manages to distil the second law of thermodynamics and entropy to the point of making them perfectly obvious.
- Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford (2011). Novel set in the 1950s-60s in the Soviet Union when for a moment socialism seemed that it was about to surpass the capitalist economies, achieving the dream of abundance for all.
- Connected, by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler (2011). We live immersed in a social network made up of our immediate contacts, themselves connected with people we don’t know. The configuration of this network (its topology) and our location on it determine many aspects of our lives, including our health and happiness. Thanks to David Gelves for this recommendation.
- The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Heinrich (2015). Culture is more important than the innate intelligence of individuals, and it is the explanation of why the human species has dominated the planet. Thanks to Hugo Díaz for this recommendation.
- Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler (2016). Economic models that assume the rationality of the individual produce only a first approximation of the phenomena they study. To get closer to reality, it is necessary to incorporate the psychology and emotions behind personal decisions in what is known as Behavioral Economics.
- Altered Traits, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson (2017). Scientific research has found solid evidence that meditation can generate profound physiological and psychological transformations.
- Apropos About Nothing, by Woody Allen (2020). The other autobiography I considered for this Top 10 was Obama’s. But Woody Allen wins hands down in this hilarious book that traces his life in detail without sidestepping any of the thorny controversies in which he has been embroiled.
- The Tyranny of Merit, by Michael Sandel (2021). In the Middle Ages, your misfortunes were due to the will of God; now, they are due to your own stupidity: There is something strange about aligning society to the ideals of meritocracy.
The following are three special mentions.
A book recommended to any reader: The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998).
Kapuściński is not an intellectual, he is a journalist and adventurer. He risks his life in the war in Angola or a revolt in Zanzibar, all just to get a story for the Polska Agencja Prasowa, the Polish press agency for which he works. But his observations of society are insightful, modern, and compassionate. Then he goes and writes them in books like this one, with immaculate prose, which, when you read them, make you realize that both his life and his writings are both works of art.
I have three reasons to believe that this is a book that any reader will enjoy:
- It is easier to like a collection of short stories such as The Shadow of the Sun than a long novel or a scholarly treatise on a specific topic.
- Since the mid-1950s, Kapuściński lived for long periods in Africa, covering the troubled years in which many countries in this region pursued their dreams of independence. Nothing more attractive than a book that recounts real experiences, especially when they tell exciting adventures in remote places.
- Although Kapuściński is a reporter, he writes his stories with a superb style, in the tradition of the best novelists. His prose is addictive, as soon as you finish a story, you want to jump to see what happens in the next one immediately.
Kapuściński is part of that long and illustrious line of journalists-writers, perhaps the best writers of all. And I wonder: Who are the Ernest Heminway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Truman Capote and Ryszard Kapuściński of our times? I imagine there must be many, but I am ignorant on the matter.
For now, I have a purpose for 2022: Read everything I can from Kapuściński.
A book that changed a personal conviction: The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Heinrich (2015)
The Secret of our Success profoundly changed my way of conceiving intelligence. Specifically, it made me realize that the following three preconceptions I had were wrong:
- That humans are the most intelligent species on this planet.
- That this intelligence is the definitive characteristic to have become the most transformative force on this planet.
- That our cultural evolution is disconnected from our biological evolution.
In cognitive tests comparing the performance of human infants and chimpanzees of comparable age, it has been shown that the former are not exceptionally better than the latter. Even in several of these tests, the chimpanzees can memorize or find patterns more quickly and with greater accuracy.
This is a tremendous revelation. I thought there was a gigantic and insurmountable chasm between the cognitive abilities of humans and those of other animals. But if instead we are just slightly positioned toward one end of a continuum, what is it that has made humans the dominant species on the planet?
The answer is culture. Our ability to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next gives us an extra edge when it comes to surviving and expanding our domain. After two million years of doing this exercise, the accumulation effect that we have achieved is phenomenal.
And perhaps most impressive is learning that our cultural evolution has impacted our own biology. By transmitting knowledge, we have transformed our environment, and our bodies adapt to make the whole process more efficient. I thought it took hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, to see these biological transformations. But for example, there is evidence of modifications that have occurred even at the genetic level produced by the agricultural revolution only 12 thousand years ago.
The Secret of our Success is one of the most influential books I have ever read, and I thank my friend Hugo Díaz for this recommendation. The book is not difficult to read, but it may be a bit technical for some people or a bit boring for those who do not find compelling anthropological descriptions of Eskimo tribes. However, it is a wonderful book to be discussed, one that opens up endless questions about the essence of intelligence and ourselves.
A book that had a direct impact on my life: Altered Traits, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson (2017)
One of the habits I have tried to cultivate over the last few years is meditation. But as I wrote a little over a year ago, there was always a roadblock that collapsed all my efforts to maintain that routine, resulting in inconsistent meditation practice. Everything changed almost five months ago when I finally read Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.
Read my post about my struggle keeping habits: The Avalanche that Collapses your Habits.
The practice of meditation is part of our traditional knowledge, that is, that knowledge that local communities have collected over thousands of years and precedes the scientific revolution. In the case of meditation, some archaeologists have suggested that it has been practised for more than 7 thousand years in various parts of Asia.
Read my post about traditional knowledge vs scientific knowledge: Indigenes vs Scientists.
However, since the late 1970s, meditation has been the subject of scientific study by a growing group of neurologists and psychologists, who have found solid evidence of the benefits of this practice. Altered Straits brings together scientific research findings on meditation obtained with studies conducted with the highest standards. Its benefits are collected in four groups:
- Meditation reduce stress levels
- It increases the ability to concentrate
- Decreases the self-referential state of mind
- Strengthen our empathy and compassion
The degree to which these benefits manifest themselves is determined by the number of hours spent in the practice. Sure, “professional meditators” like Tibetan yogis, who can have 20,000 hours or more of training, manage to exhibit physiological changes in their brains and differentiated profiles of stress, concentration, and even pain tolerance. However, what transformed my perception of meditation was learning that even amateur meditators like myself can already reap some of these benefits with a couple of hundred hours of practice.
Finding this connection between meditation and its empirical benefits, validated by the scientific method, turned my practice upside down. I am now clear about the importance of extending the hours I dedicate to meditating and the benefits that I want to integrate into my life. Inspired by the book, I now find myself modifying my meditation sessions, making them longer, deeper, and more sustainable.
Although this book has been so influential to me, I recognize that it is not one that I would recommend to every person interested in meditation. I know that not all people will find studies published in peer-reviewed journals fascinating, and their motivation to meditate will come better elsewhere. But for those like me who need a bit of scientific evidence to decide to do something, Altered Traits is an excellent reference, one that can surely change their lives.