Updated: Jun 21, 2020
The secret to understanding current events is the ability to understand human nature.
In other words, what is in the realm of possibility for humans and what is not? For example, it’s more likely that you’ll fall in love at some point in your life than turn into a were-wolf.
In order to predict what’s going to happen next, we need to be able to understand human nature.
Usually I preach empathy at the personal level. It’s important to be empathetic. But just for today, let’s forget that. Just for today, let’s treat humans like they’re a bunch of ants being studied in a laboratory.
Treating humans like a bunch of ants once in a while is important for two reasons:
1) It allows us to identify human characteristics we tend to complicate in our day to day lives. By treating humans like a bunch of ants, we can pinpoint how specific personality traits pop up again and again throughout history and why all social movements follow the same basic guidelines. (It also explains why we don’t live solitary lifestyles like bald eagles or swim in large groups like tuna fish).
2) It allows us to simplify the causes behind many of the issues we face today. Yes, understanding the complex causes of any event is important, but if we don’t simplify the causes down to its most distilled form, then we can never truly find a solution!
Today, we’ll be looking at a list of books and podcasts that examine humanity from afar, like a bunch of ants in a laboratory.
I've also included a rating system so that you know how accessible each book/podcast is. The rating system is as follows:
These books (and podcasts) hold a special place in my heart as they have all shaped the way I view our world. I hope they do the same for you.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari
Rating: Entry Level
Our first book is also the most broad book on the list. You should not pick this book up if you want specific details on our modern world. But if you want an overarching summary, then check it out.
Author Yuval Noah Harari approaches 21 Lessons with a deep and surprisingly warm understanding of the human condition. And he sure as hell captures what it means to be human. Harari takes on these 21 lessons from a distance (like the scientist studying ants, as mentioned earlier).
By keeping his distance, Harari is able to identify the broad ways in which humans think and how they approach their world. Even from this distance, Harari approaches his ant-farm with love. It’s obvious he cares deeply about humanity and he wants humanity to not only survive, but to thrive.
Where Harari really shines, however, is in the solutions he proposes for humanity’s 21 biggest issues. By identifying human traits through this scientific lens, Harari clearly pinpoints which human traits will work in our future and which human traits will not. He identifies each solution with an ease that seems to says, "this is the only logical answer".
Harari’s final message is one of hope. He believes humanity has the potential to overcome our many issues. I believe we can too.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind
Yuval Noah Harari
Rating: Entry Level
Another book by Yuval Noah Harari!
Sapiens is a more concrete book than 21 Lessons. Where 21 Lessons is definitely about our modern world, Sapiens is about the entire history of humanity.
Harari describes our species through a clear timeline and traces the progress of man from a disparate group of tribes to a global culture united by trade, commerce, and belief systems.
Again, Harari takes the viewpoint of a scientist conducting a study. He connects the dots of human activity through the ages and simplifies things we tend to complicate in our modern age. He identifies specific personality traits that were helpful to humans as they hunted prey across the African Safari. He then continues to identify these traits over and over again throughout history's biggest events.
Harari’s thesis is that humans have not become more complex as a species. We are the same animals that sat around a fire 50,000 years ago, telling tales and watching for predators in the night. Harari shows us that the same personality traits that helped us survive so long ago also direct everything we do today.
By the end of Sapiens you’ll realize that for all of human history, we have followed a narrow path developed by personality millions of years ago.
Harari comes awfully close to boiling humans down to an algebraic equation. Simply plug in the variables and you’ll have your output, whatever it may be: Capitalism, Christianity, technological progress, you name it.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
SPQR is a history of Rome through and through, so don’t go in expecting comparisons between Rome and the modern day. But as Yuval Noah Harari pointed out in 21 Lessons and Sapiens, humans haven’t changed very much. And what better way to prove this point than to study the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire?
Author Mary Beard has clearly studied this subject her entire life, and she has clearly thought about it from a unique viewpoint. What places SPQR apart from other books on Rome is Beard’s focus on gender, race, and income (and yes, these were all issues back then too).
By reading SPQR, you will realize how LITTLE humankind has changed in the 2,000 years since the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the Roman Empire. Hell, we still struggle with emerging dictatorships today, so we DEFINITELY haven’t changed very much.
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
If 21 Lessons and Sapiens are sweeping summaries of our world, and SPQR is a glance at a specific, 1,000 year period, then The Looming Tower is a microscopic study by comparison. In The Looming Tower author Lawrence Wright examines the specific people and events that led to that disastrous event on September 11th, 2001.
The Looming Tower is a feat of detail and research and Lawrence Wright should be commended for what he’s put together here. I would consider the Middle East as the most complex issue of our modern era. It’s so complex because it’s not a single issue but a set of separate issues all caused by the same events (if you're interested in reading up on these causes, check out my posts on the Middle East here and here).
And if you’re worried about a man named Lawrence Wright writing about a subject as touchy as Islam and the Middle East, don’t be. Lawrence Wright understands the subject completely, and he is careful to describe the Islamic religion and the Middle East with care.
If you want to understand just what the hell is going on in the Middle East, then read this book. Not only will you come away with more knowledge than you ever wanted on the subject, but you will also (probably) become the source of knowledge on the Middle East among your friend group (unless your friend group is Middle Eastern, of course).
These Truths: A History of the United States
In my opinion These Truths is the quintessential book on the history of the United States. If you only read one book on the United States, it should be this one. Author Jill Lepore clearly knows her subject matter. She even states in the acknowledgments that "every book takes an author a life to write". Well, it definitely seems true here.
Lepore just understands the United States. I don’t know how else to describe it. She understands how social movements spread. She understands how political arguments morph and grow with each generation. She understands how one’s personal views are a product of the time in which they live. She understands that everything boils down to influence (and remember, the loudest people in the room have the most influence)!
Lepore captures the evolution of a nation. She examines the minuscule movements of each era: the fight over the federal government and state government in the late 1700s, the emergence of populism of democracy in the early 1800s, and the growth federal government in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
And just as Mary Beard did in SPQR, Lepore also approaches her book through the lens of gender, race, and inequality. By doing so she shows all of us just how much gender, race, and inequality have driven a nation (ironically) established on the principle of freedom.
The Daily from The New York Times
Narrated by Michael Barbaro