Sapiens: A Perspective on the Human Story
Welcome to our course on 100 Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read.
Over the next 10 days, we’re going to cover lots of ground as in each lesson we explore 10 titles from one of the 10 main nonfiction categories. By the end of this course, you won’t just have a great to-read list, but also a sense of the terrain of the vast nonfiction field.
Meet the teacher:
My name is John Robin. I have written twenty-one Highbrow courses on topics ranging from science, habits, sleep, diet, meditation, longevity, conversations—the list goes on! If you took every one of my courses, your inbox would be full with rich daily lessons for half a year.
My interest in writing this course on nonfiction books comes from what I do for work, since I treat my reading habit as part of my job as an editor.
How I Arrived at a Top-100 Nonfiction Book List
There are so many books to read—129 million of them, according to a recent Google estimate—so there is no way you can read them all. If you read 25 books a year, it would take over 5 million years to read all these. Put differently, if you devoted 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 50 years, to the task of skimming every book, you’d have to skim 589 books per hour—that’s nearly 10 per minute!
Your only hope is to have good lists to tell you which are the most important to read.
Yet, even when consulting lists, it’s hard to know which one is reliable. So many are subjective, or biased.
Over the last few years, as an effort to improve how I read with minimal bias, I have done a lot of research on the general field of nonfiction literature. I have conducted numerous surveys, of thousands of books, and consulted hundreds of lists, and over time compiled these with some analytical methods to try and make as “smart” a nonfiction priority list as possible.
Even selecting the winners for this course was difficult, because in truth, when considering best nonfiction books, a top 200 or top 300 would be better. In fact, a top 1000 to read in your lifetime would be easier to write.
But in this course, we only have 10 lessons and so for this reason I’ve pored over my notes and done my best not just to give personal favorites, but also, a well-balanced tour of nonfiction by way of its main categories. My goal is to equip you with knowledge on just what’s out there beyond “thousands of nonfiction books” so you have the starting point to do your own further research.
Let’s start with our first category, and my top pick for it!
Science, History, Textbooks
Top recommendation: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
One major part of nonfiction is the science, history, and textbook category. This includes other subgenres like computers and popular science.
This category is very much for the inquisitive “how the world works” people. Be it the nitty-gritty of scientific theories, or the marginalia of history, books in this category will equip you with hard facts.
Of the many great books in this category, by far my top recommendation is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. This book is a full-on tour of history from the Big Bang to the present. Harari uses simple language and explains with clear cause-and-effect how the task of tracking financial transactions led to language, how language led to our global society, and how our present world can be used to form an intelligent picture of what “progress” might look like.
Perhaps most impressive about this book is how meticulous Harari is in his research. His bibliography is more than 300 sources long, and in fact his research methods are what inspired my own efforts to organize nonfiction in a “top-down” approach.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest just one book to represent this whole category. So, these are also some favorites which I have also found great:
The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose is for the hard science buffs. At 1050 pages long, the book is loaded with mathematical formulae and physics diagrams on nearly every page, including some “homework” questions in the footnotes. Yet, without a doubt, it is the absolute best mainstream science book in existence, for those who want to have a sense of just what is Einstein’s theory of general relativity, what is quantum physics, what is the Big Bang, and how does this all work, exactly.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking might be a more familiar title, and a lighter read than Penrose. I’d recommend both books, as Hawking and Penrose were close collaborators for decades, so these two books are a window into the minds behind the science that has shaped our modern world.
Astrophysics for People in A Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson is also a great read, and a much more accessible book from the popular podcaster. The same can be said about A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is less about math and physics, and more about biology and geography, particularly exploring how human civilization has been shaped by the reality of pathogens and the natural latitude-specific limitations on migration.
There are, of course, many more great books in this category, so I’ve chosen 4 more to give you 10 top picks:
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, about the science supporting evolution theory
Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, about the aspects of symmetry that have inspired leading thinkers.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, about the history of gene editing.
The History of the Ancient World: from the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer, for a well-told account of ancient history.
Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll see what top 10 books await in the next category!
Hawking (2004), with Benedict Cumberbatch
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