There are plenty of books that make you think about life but these are a collection of some that have made me reconsider some of my core beliefs and made me realise things I didn’t know.
One of the best things about reading thought-provoking books is that they open up windows into new worlds and seed new ideas you might not have considered before.
My intention with this list of books to make you think is that they will make you think is to do all of the above and more. You’ll find books that discuss philosophy, intriguing novels and essays from ancient philosophers all of which will keep the cogs in your brain turning over.
Reading is one of the best ways to expand your horizons. I’ve lost track of the number of books that have stopped me in my tracks and made me reconsider my beliefs.
No other medium allows you to get to the heart of what some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our age and previous ones, felt they needed to share with the world.
Eleven might be a small number of these powerful books, but these are books that have had an effect on me when I read them. Hopefully, they give you plenty to think about as well!
Table of Contents
Books That Make You Think
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. I remember reading it for the first time and being blown away by what Nassim Taleb was explaining.
I could have included any of Taleb’s books on this list but as The Black Swan was the first one I read and the one that made the biggest impression, I decided to include it here.
The book focuses on events that are a surprise and have a major effect, which are then often rationalized with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on the European belief that black swans didn’t exist until the first European encounter with them.
An example of a Black Swan event was 9/11, which came out of the blue for almost everyone and had a massive effect on geopolitics which is still being felt today. Taleb’s writing style is brilliant and makes the book more enjoyable and his concepts easier to understand.
Straw Dogs by John Gray
Straw Dogs is a book by the philosopher John Gray that challenges a lot of the assumptions about what it means to be human.
Gray’s work is fascinating but his thoughts can be a bit uncomfortable if you’re unfamiliar with his writing. Straw Dogs is an attack on humanism and the negative effect Gray believes it’s had since it came into being.
The gist of his argument is that we humans have elevated ourselves in the grand scheme of things on the planet when, in reality, we are as much a part of the natural world as the animals we inhabit the Earth with.
It’s this belief that we are superior to all other beings that Gray is attacking and is what he sees as the root cause of the environmental destruction that’s ongoing. Straw Dogs is undoubtedly a book that will make you think and will leave you with plenty to ponder after you’ve finished.
Bullsh*t Jobs by David Graeber
David Graeber is one of my favourite thinkers. His books are always entertaining to read and offer a unique take on many parts of life that are mundane and often not thought of as interesting.
Bullsh*t Jobs is no different. The book looks at the rise of what Graber calls pointless jobs and how this phenomenon came about. His book is based on an article that went viral about the phenomenon.
Following the success of the article, he solicited emails from a wide variety of people who recounted their experiences working in these jobs. Graeber details in witty and devastating fashion the toll these jobs take on people and how they are essentially meaningless.
The core argument of Graeber’s book is that capitalism should be efficient and not create a multitude of jobs that serve no purpose. This was what happened in the communist system, yet we have the same thing happening today in the west.
Bullsh*t Jobs will have you scratching your chin and thinking long and hard about Graeber’s proposals, especially if you work in one of the jobs referenced in the book!
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Animal Farm by George Orwell
There are plenty of great George Orwell books out there but Animal Farm is one of my favourites for its simplicity and devastating message.
The book focuses on a farm of animals who overthrow their human farmer in the hope they can create a society where all animals are free and equal. It’s an allegorical tale and mimics the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the Bolsheviks come to power.
As the book progresses, we see that the initial promises aren’t fulfilled as the pigs gain tighter control of the farm. Conditions become just as bad as they were before and even worse towards the end.
If you want a brief overview of why Communism didn’t work in Russia, then Animal Farm will give you a good idea of why. It’s based on what happened there before 1945 and works brilliantly as a piece of political satire.
Humankind by Rutger Bregman
Humankind is a fascinating book by the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. It offers an alternative take on the view that humans are a violent species.
This is a fascinating read as it dispenses with many of the preconceptions you might have about humanity. Bregman’s thesis is that humans are nicer and kinder than we’re given credit for.
He uses the example of the Lord of the Flies, a famous novel by the author William Golding. In the novel, a group of boys stranded on a desert island slowly descend into violence. Bregman was able to able find a real-life version of Golding’s story where six boys found themselves stranded on an island near Tonga for 15 months.
Instead of tearing chunks out of each other, they co-existed peacefully and were all found alive. Whether Bregman is right about humanity or not, Humankind presents plenty of compelling evidence that we’re not as violent as we might think.
Numbers Don’t Lie by Vaclav Smil
Vaclav Smil is one of the most interesting thinkers today. Numbers Don’t Lie is his look at a variety of issues through the lens of data to try and present a clear picture of these topics.
He tackles a range of issues such as what is the most effective mode of transport with low emissions in mind, spoiler, it’s high-speed rail. He also looks at one of the most consequential decades for inventions and how much all the cows in the world weigh.
The great thing about Numbers Don’t Lie is that it’s easy to read. There are a lot of different topics and statistics that could go way over your head. But the book is broken up well into various sections which makes it easier to digest all of Smil’s thoughts.
There are plenty of books that make you think, but Numbers Don’t Lie is one of the very few that will have you pondering such a breadth of ideas and issues.
The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku is a fascinating physicist who you might be familiar with if you’ve watched any documentary on the subject or one about space.
The Future of Humanity is self-explanatory in that focuses on what our future as a species might look like. Kaku offers up a variety of plausible outcomes from deep space travel to colonies on the moon and Mars.
The sad thing is that much of what Kaku talks about will probably not happen in our lifetimes. Colonies on either the moon or Mars are a possibility but either would be a huge undertaking that we’re probably not ready for right now or within the next few decades.
Still, there’s no doubt that reading Kaku’s proposals in The Future of Humanity is exhilarating and makes you think about all the possibilities that are out there for us as a species!
Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and The Sun is a thought-provoking novel written by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It concerns a society in the not-too-distant future where personal robots for children are commonplace.
In the book, Klara is a solar-powered Artificial Friend, who is bought by the family of Josie to be her companion. Josie is a ‘lifted’ child, someone who has been genetically engineered to increase their academic ability.
The novel explores the relationship between Josie and Klara, a dynamic that changes as the novel progresses. It also looks at what constitutes intelligence and ponders a future where robots are commonplace but has a shelf life, with interesting philosophical concerns.
I read Klara and The Sun in a couple of days and couldn’t put it down. It’s a profound book that tackles several issues and will leave you with lots to chew over once you’ve finished reading.
Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
Civilization and Its Discontents is one of the most profound works by the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. In the book, he explores what he believes is one of the biggest clashes in societies around the world, which is the expectations of those societies and the desire for individuality.
Freud explores the tension between the individual who seeks freedom and to live their life as they please and society which is bound by a set of rules we all must adhere to. It’s this constant tension and tug of war that can occasionally engulf societies in collective madness.
Even though we live in a world more prosperous than our ancestors, this tension still exists today as it’s a fundamental condition of humanity. A restlessness that can never be cured. I found this out during a trip.
During my visit to the beautiful Dutch city of Leiden, as much as I enjoyed how nice it was, I couldn’t help but feel it was too nice. That it needed to be a bit grittier. No matter how well society is run, there will always be tension between the individual and the collective.
On Living and Dying Well by Cicero
Cicero is considered to be one of the greatest orators and essayists in Rome. On Living and Dying Well is one of his most interesting pieces of work that examines how to live your life.
This is certainly a book that will make you think. We tend to think about how we can live a good life but less thought is given to our inevitable end. It’s crazy that death is almost an afterthought in some ways, despite all of us suffering the same fate eventually.
This collection of essays looks at a variety of topics such as friendship, religion and death. On Living and Dying Well may have been written over two thousand years ago but the advice inside still rings true today.
No matter how much society has developed or how many scientific breakthroughs there have been since Cicero was alive, the same anxieties and worries that plagued the Romans still plague us today. Cicero’s advice is timeless and it’s wise to take it in and consider it.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The last book on the list is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. It’s one of the most famous short stories ever written and if you buy the Penguin Modern Classics version, you’ll find some of Kafka’s less well-known stories included too.
The titular story deals with a man called Gregor, who awakens to find he has turned into a huge insect. While he can still think like a human, his family are unable to understand him and the dynamic between him and his family worsens as the novel progresses.
Metamorphosis is a fascinating story. It’s a surreal tale but one that makes you pause on numerous occasions as you make your way through the book. Suddenly, Gregor’s family which has loved and cared for him comes to see him in a different light all because of the change.
While it’s unclear how Kafka intended his story to be interpreted, it does make you think about how we treat others who are different from us and whether our treatment is warranted or not.