When I was a music critic, the end of the year was a banner time. I spent Decembers making lists of favorite albums and mixes of favorite songs. It got so deep I even made a top ten list about top ten lists.
So what’s meaningful to “list” at this moment in life? For me, ideas and books. Here are nine that impacted me this year.
1. Sapiens by Yoval Harari
2. The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs
Sapiens is a mind-expanding history of the human race. Harari is our species' Tocqueville, writing with a startling distance about the history of humans. It’s like reading Mars’ greatest historian analyze our planet. It’s no exaggeration to say it changes how you see the world.
John Higgs’ kinda-bio of the ‘90s electronic group The KLF creates a similar eureka about ideas and art. A good friend gifted it to me, describing it conspiratorially as “the little yellow book.” He was right. Alan Moore’s concept of the Ideaspace, which I learned about here, is something I became an instant believer in.
Sapiens and The KLF establish that ideas are more powerful than anything. Ideas uniquely change how we relate to one another, how we craft our physical environment, pretty much everything. These books helped me better understand their power. They filled me with optimism — even in 2017.
3. Generation X by Douglas Coupland
I knew the name (which this book introduced) but until this year I never read this 1991 novel. It’s a series of conversations between three formerly status-oriented people who dropped out and moved to Palm Springs to work in jobs “beneath” them. The writing is crisp and the ideas challenge three decades later. Short, funny, and very alive.
4. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
5. The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
I’m two books into the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a series by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. The story is unlike anything I’ve read. If you have interest in sci-fi, read these. So far the series has changed the way I think about contacting non-Earth life, the potential of indirect forms of communication, and the living soul at the heart of true fiction. These books visited me in my dreams and still do.
6. Beatles 1966 by Steve Turner
A monthly diary of the year the Beatles released Rubber Soul; wrote, recorded, and released Revolver; and wrote and recorded a chunk of Sgt Pepper’s. The greatest single-year artistic leap in modern times.
How did it happen? Read this and you get a feel. The anecdotes are tremendous. John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Dylan and the Stones in a hotel suite shortly after recording it. When it ends, Dylan says to them with a sneer, “Oh I get it — you don’t want to be cute anymore.”
Paul’s first vacation as a Beatle is another. Paul changed his appearance before driving across Spain and parts of Africa to be incognito. Upon returning, he told the other Beatles they needed to change their identities before getting back into the studio. Making another Beatles record would be too hard. They needed the freedom of being someone else. This is where Sgt Pepper's came from.
It will inspire you to open your antennae up wide.
7. Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rogers
8. Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs
Age of Fracture recounts the academic and social battles that drove the rise of feminism, individualism, racial identity, and other seismic social changes. The POV is unique: both broadly historical and a closely tracked blow-by-blow of ideas and counter-ideas. No book created a bigger or more meaningful reading list.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine is the second John Higgs entry on this list (he also wrote the KLF book). It details the emergent ideas of the 20th century that transformed the Victorian world into the industrialized, democratized, and way more confusing universe we live in now. Everything from physics to the avant-garde to sex.
Both titles come to a similar conclusion: the theme of the 20th century is relativity. A growing realization that the values and ideas many assumed were universally “true” were anything but. Some may say these are aberrations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These books counter that the universality of certain beliefs in the past was the aberration, and that we should expect more of this in the years to come. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
9. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Reis and Al Trout
A wise and useful book from the ‘90s about putting things into the world. Each “law” is a short chapter in clipped, seasoned prose. You can smell the chainsmoke through the page.
Three laws that stayed with me: The law of line extension (when launching a new product don’t reuse your existing brand). The law of sacrifice (if you’re asking people to do something new, you must first make a sacrifice of your own). And the law of fads and trends (a trend is a fad with unsatisfied demand; when experiencing success keep them wanting more).
I’d love to hear what you read and learned this year. What books moved you?