Most Interesting Books I Read in 2021
Rise & Fall of civilizations, psychedelic experience, mysterious of the brain, and more.
I read books in a non-linear fashion. I don’t start one, finish it, then move to the next. At any given moment, I’m likely to be part way through 5-10 different books, some of which I power through in 2-3 weeks and others I’ve been chipping away at for months or years. There’s also a good mix of work by contemporary authors and those who have been dead for many years. Most of it is nonfiction and I frequently jump from one book to another.
Why do I read this way? It’s mostly just my personality. But I also like to think it facilitates lateral thinking, helping me connect dots and see patterns linking different authors’ ideas. I often stumble on an idea in one book that reminds me of what I just read in another. I’m always on the lookout for books that pair well together, like a good wine matched to an entrée.
Below are short descriptions of some of the books I finished this year, why I liked them, and another book they pair well with, presented in no particular order.
Book: War and Peace and War by Peter Turchin
What I liked & learned: Turchin is an unusual kind of academic, one who receives training and achieves success in one field before moving to a seemingly unrelated field. Fresh perspectives can shake up entrenched thinking. He used to be a quantitative ecologist but now focuses on applying quantitative methods to history. Can we use data and quantitive analysis to transform history from a purely descriptive field to one that is predictive, like a science? Turchin thinks we can.
To be sure, the historical record is very incomplete, so history can never be an exact science in the way that physics is. Nonetheless, Turchin believes there is enough data to chew on that we can observe some reliable, if coarse-grained, patterns in history. He calls this discipline cliodynamics. You can read more about it at his website.
Turchin got onto my radar when I read that he had predicted, in the early 2000s, that the 2020s would be a decade of great political turmoil for the US, possibly even culminating in civil war. Impressed by what I read in some of his online essays, I bought War and Peace and War.
This was probably my favorite read of 2021. Published in 2007, it often felt like he was describing today. What causes social-political turmoil and the inevitable collapse of civilizations? According to Turchin, one of the major driving forces is what he calls, “elite overproduction.” This happens when, over time, a prosperous society produces more people with elite credentials than there are high status positions to accommodate them. This breeds frustration and resentment, as people who feel entitled to elite positions fail to achieve elite levels of influence. As this surplus builds, it’s like a social pressure cooker. New coalitions of elites and aspiring elites form, each vying for increasingly scarce positions of power. The pressure builds to a boiling point. Social upheaval results.
Think about the sheer number of university degrees that are issued in the United States today, together with the ballooning costs of obtaining them. While the number of degree holders grows by the millions, the number of high status positions requiring these credentials grows much more slowly. To take just one example, there are only 100 US senate seats today, the same number that existed in 1776. The cost of obtaining credentials has grown wildly while the payoff for holding them has stagnated.
To build and maintain a society, a population must have a high level of collective solidarity. This should be intuitive—building stuff is hard. Cooperation is needed. The natural tendency of the universe is towards disorder (entropy). Therefore, if the collective solidarity that allowed a people to forge society erodes, chaos is the natural result. As elite overproduction intensifies competition for high status positions, new identity groups splinter and form as they vie for power. Eventually, this triggers collapse.
This general observation about the role that collective solidarity plays in making and breaking societies is not new. Turchin traces it back to Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Arab polymath. His term for it was asabiya.
Groups with high asabiya build civilizations. Civilizations with low asabiya break down. History is cyclical, not progressive.
Ask yourself: is our present civilization’s asabiya weak or strong?
Pair with: Scale by Geoffrey West. West is a physicist who has spent many years studying the general scaling principles that govern how complex systems—organisms, companies, and cities—grow. I spoke with Dr. West on M&M episode #12, which is a good introduction to his work. “Scale” goes into a fair amount of quantitative detail about why, for example, both animals and startups grow, stagnate, and inevitably die. There are many dots connecting the work of West and Turchin.
Book: The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary
What I liked & learned: Many criticisms can and have been leveled at at Timothy Leary, but the guy was good with words. This short book is one of the best written descriptions of what high-dose psychedelic experiences are like and why they are evocative of death and the dying process.
I’ve written about this book and its general subject in more detail elsewhere. In this clip from M&M episode #1, I discussed how psychedelic drug experiences, especially with 5-MeO-DMT, may mimic the brain states encountered during the final moments of life.
Pair with: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. The title of Huxley’s famous essay, describing his first experience with mescaline, is taken from a William Blake poem: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to [us] as it is, infinite.”
Book: The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku
What I liked & learned: A story so engrossing I made it the subject of M&M episode #1, it’s written like a good mystery novel. This was one of the few books I finished within a couple sittings. Wielding fluency in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, Brian revivifies and builds an evidence-based foundation for the tantalizing notion that the ritual use of psychedelic substances was crucial for the origins of Western civilization as we know it.
The book opens with a mysterious phrase, written in ancient Greek: “If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die.”
Brian describes the emerging archeochemical evidence that ancient peoples were mixing together psychedelic concoctions and having experiences that may have shaped the trajectories of whole civilizations. In a sense, the present-day fascination with psychedelic medicine may be a re-discovery of something we’ve lost, rather than the emergence of something brand new.
Pair With: Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience (see above).
Book: Projections by Karl Deisseroth
What I liked & learned: Karl Deisseroth is both a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist, meaning he runs a basic research lab and sees patients suffering from psychiatric conditions. In Projections, he shares what his research is unraveling about how the circuits in the brain work and how their dysfunction can lead to mental illness. By telling stories through the eyes of his patients’ mental illness, he illuminates how the emotions that color of experience arise from the workings of the brain. It deserves high marks for its prose as much as what it teaches us about the biological basis of subjective experience.
I spoke to Karl at length about different topics covered in the book, ranging from major depression to autism and dissociative states. Listen here: [Audio] [Video]
Pair With: Being You by Anil Seth. While Projections tells stories through the lens of human patients suffering from mental illness, Being You explores what we’re learning about the neurobiological basis underpinning our normal sense of selfhood and consciousness. I spoke to Anil on episode #44. Between these two books, you’ll gain a new appreciation for just what modern neuroscience tells us about the mind, as well as what mysteries remain.
Book: A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Heather Heying & Bret Weinstein
What I liked & learned: E.O. Wilson once wrote:
The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.
A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide is a book-length dissection of this problem. By understanding humanity through an evolutionary lens, we better understand how we got here.
In many ways, our bodies and minds are mismatched to the conditions of modernity. Sugar is abundant, but our bodies are built on the assumption of its scarcity. Artificial light beams into our skulls at all hours, but our brains expect the rhythms and intensities of sun and moon. Minor aches and pains can be dulled with drugs, but those feelings evolved as powerful teaching signals which we ignore at our peril.
Most our present-day problems, which often seem weird and inexplicable, begin to make sense once we understand ourselves as products of evolution—a species living in a hyper-novel environment, changing faster than we can adapt. When we understand the evolutionary roots of the problems we face, solutions start to come into focus.
Pair With: War and Peace and War by Peter Turchin (see above). Turchin’s book teaches us about the macro-historical patterns associated with the rise and fall of civilizations. Heying & Weinstein teach us how to ground our view of where society is, and where it might be going, in an evolutionary understanding of the human species and how it got here.
Book: Viral by Alina Chan & Matt Ridley
What I liked & learned: If you want to understand exactly what we know, and don’t know, about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID), this is the book to read.
Alina and Matt meticulously document all of the relevant facts. Who? What? Where? When? This book is not preachy or ideological, coming to no firm conclusion about whether the virus hopped to humans from another species (zoonotic origin) or was the byproduct of laboratory experiments (lab leak).
Pair With: Whatever you have already been exposed to, through any medium, about the origins of COVID-19. For an overview of what Viral covers, see M&M episode #45: [Audio] [Video]
Book: The Machiavellians by James Burnham
What I liked & learned: Niccolò Machiavelli gets a bad rap. His name is synonymous with amoral, psychopathic behavior. If someone is described as Machiavellian, that’s bad. As Burnham’s book makes clear, this is a misleading view of Niccolò Machiavelli himself, as well other thinkers in the so-called Italian school of political science.
Machiavelli was interested in understanding politics, the study of human power dynamics. How do princes and other political elites actually obtain their positions? How do they maintain these positions and wield political power? In order to understand these questions, one must dispassionately analyze the behavior of powerful people, separating out your moralistic feelings about how things should be in order to rigorously study how and why things are as they are.
Machiavelli was not building a philosophy telling us that we should behave as amoral, opportunistic power seeker. He was simply analyzing how the people who come to hold power actually operate, analyzing politics as a scientist would analyze any object of empirical study. It just so happens that powerful people, at least in 15th century Italy, tend to be conniving and opportunistic.
Maybe some things never change.
Pair With: War and Peace and War by Peter Turchin (see above). While Turchin’s book is about the secular cycles defining the rise and fall of civilizations, The Machiavellians is an analysis of the power dynamics by which political elites obtain and wield political power.