What I Learned from a Year of Reading

Last New Year’s Eve I made a resolution to read 52 books—one for every week of the year. I am glad—and proud—that I kept this resolution, despite the necessity of cramming the last nine books into the past twelve days. The different writing styles I was exposed to helped me find my own voice; a useful thing for a college freshman writing for The Old Gold & Black, Wake Forest’s student-run newspaper. The books I chose ranged in subject matter from cell biology and quantum mechanics to Norse mythology and objectivism. Collectively they have fueled my intellectual curiosity and exposed me to information, opinions and ideas that have profoundly influenced me, and what I plan to do with my life. Thanks to this resolution, I now have ideas and tools with which I can improve my life, and try to help others.

The ten books I found most impactful are:

  1. The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel, which sparked a passion for studying biology and taught me the importance of eating healthily and getting enough sleep.

The Telomere Effect is a fascinating, informative book about the discovery of telomeres, which are the protective sheaths on the ends of chromosomes responsible for cellular aging. Nobel Laureate Blackburn, who essentially developed telomere science, along with her esteemed colleague Epel, brilliantly weave together hundreds of studies in telomere science to provide the reader with detailed, yet easily understandable, explanations for the molecular mechanisms behind aging. The end result is a fascinating narrative about how to live “younger, healthier, and longer.”

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which opened my eyes to ways collaborative effort can foster progress.

Sapiens is Harari’s magnum opus. It is an unbelievably detailed and engaging book about the history of mankind. Some of the most notable parts are the narrative of our species’ evolutionary history (I found the cognitive development aspect particularly interesting) and the three main factors that contributed to our modern-day society: “commerce [the development of money, especially], empires, and universal religions…brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today.”

  1. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, which helped me remember my shopping list without writing it down.

I first heard of this book during my course How The Brain Learns, and am really glad I read it. Moonwalking with Einstein is—to an extent—an inspirational tale. It chronicles the author’s journey from being a reporter who covered the U.S. Memory Championship to (spoiler alert) being the U.S. Memory Champion. A personal and relatable story that emphasizes the everyday faults of memory turns into a research project that discusses the art and science behind improving your own memory (see Cicero’s memory palace technique for a memory-boost idea). From there, Foer chronicles his own journey as he trains for the U.S. Memory Championship—and wins.

  1. The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance by Nessa Carey, which helped prepare me for an incredible internship and further reinforced my interest in biology.

I read this book to prepare for a summer internship in a lab at the University of Pennsylvania that studied, among other things, epigenetic phenomena. I chose well; this book was an amazing introduction to epigenetics. The root word “epi” is Latin for ‘upon’, thus epigenetics studies additional modifications to a person’s genes (genetics). In this book, Carey discussed how our understanding of epigenetics came to be by highlighting important experiments and, like The Telomere Effect, providing detailed and understandable explanations for the molecular mechanisms of epigenetics (such as DNA methylation or histone acetylation—i.e. repressing or expressing a gene). An example Carey uses to illustrate her point is how identical twins—who have the exact same DNA or genes—aren’t 100% alike because of epigenetic modifications to their genes.

  1. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis, which helped me better appreciate my friends.

In 2016, I read and enjoyed Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and was intrigued to discover a book about him and his friend Amos Tversky, who was mentioned in Kahneman’s book. Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist (and Nobel laureate). For those who read Thinking Fast and Slow, this is a great refresher of the ideas Kahneman conveyed. It’s also an incredibly powerful story about two socially awkward individuals who formed a close friendship and together pioneered a school of thought—behavioral psychology.

  1. Split Infinity by Piers Anthony, which helped me recognize the benefits of staying true to myself.

      Split Infinity is the first book in the Adept series by my favorite author in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, Piers Anthony. His books are absolutely incredible. This one follows the protagonist who is split between two dimensions—one of science, the other of magic. Like all of Anthony’s books, Split Infinity has a beautiful and intricate plot with dynamic and relatable characters. For pure enjoyment, this book (and the others in the Adept series) tops my list.

  1. “Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton, which helped me realize that I want to live an adventurous life.

This book was recommended and loaned to me by the principal investigator (head of the lab) during my internship at Penn, Professor Brad Johnson. It is a personal narrative of the exciting life of Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate in Physics. He talks about how his curiosity was developed, his time at Los Alamos (a key laboratory involved with the Manhattan project), being a Caltech professor, and more. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Feynman had a lot of fun, and got in a little too much trouble at times—though everything worked out. Reading this book made me realize that I want to have cool stories to share with others and need to move out of my comfort zone and try new things (like getting my scuba diving certification which I hope to accomplish in 2018!).

  1. Originals: How non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, which helped me understand how to properly gauge the merits of certain ideas.

      This book is a refreshing look at the power of influencers, and the qualities that signify leadership, entrepreneurship, and the ability to influence others. Replete with studies from various academic disciplines, Wharton Professor Adam Grant uses well-placed anecdotes to make a powerful case for how anyone can think differently and change the world. Originals has helped me see things from others’ perspectives and keep my emotions out of evaluating the merits of ideas—something especially helpful right now while I am drafting proposals for conducting neuroscience research at my school.

  1. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and The Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, which taught me a lot about the science behind gene editing and further fueled my interest in studying biology.

Of all the books I read this year, A Crack in Creation challenged my mind the most; it forced me to think about our collective future. It is about the development of the CRISPR method, which is a tool that will allow us to target and edit specific genes in organisms’ DNA. Jennifer Doudna, one of the scientists who pioneered this method, writes about the history of gene editing, how CRISPR was developed, and what makes it special. Doudna and Sternberg share their philosophical concerns about gene editing—especially as it relates to eugenics. For Doudna, she hopes that CRISPR will lead to cures for diseases caused by gene mutations such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. The question becomes, if we can correct these mutations in living people should we change their genomes so their children have no chance of inheriting these debilitating diseases? And if so, should we stop there? What about changing people’s genomes so they are stronger or taller? Less likely to contract HIV? These are some of the questions posed in the book, and the discussion is absolutely fascinating.

  1. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which taught me how to evaluate a situation with the goal of promoting the best outcome for others.

Nudge is a great read that introduces a concept discussed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. As humans, we are susceptible to different influences. In Nudge, Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler and Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein use psychological research as the basis for their concept of libertarian paternalism, which is the idea that it’s okay to influence people’s behavior for the better as long as you respect freedom of choice and their ability to behave in other manners. Thaler and Sunstein suggest ways to be a positive influence in peoples’ lives by nudging people in the right direction.

Reading 52 books this year stimulated my interests in different fields, and helped me learn and grow in a variety of ways. Taking a cue from Thaler and Sunstein, allow me to nudge you to expand your horizons by making a New Year’s resolution to embrace some form of learning—such as literature, music, or philosophy—that pushes you to be the best version of yourself possible.

Complete Book List

In chronological order, these are the 52 books I read:

  1. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong by Laurence J. Peter
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  3. The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
  4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  5. Anthem by Ayn Rand
  6. Linchpin by Seth Godin
  7. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan
  8. Think Like a Freak by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt
  9. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
  10. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
  11. Reality is Not What it Seems: A Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
  12. Freakonomics—Revised and Expanded Edition by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt
  13. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  14. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  15. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  16. Life’s Golden Ticket by Brendon Burchard
  17. This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society by Kathleen McAuliffe
  18. The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan
  19. The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan
  20. Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik
  21. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  22. On The Beach by Nevil Shute
  23. The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance by Nessa Carey
  24. Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up by William Poundstone
  25. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Noah Yuval Harari
  26. The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett
  27. Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Bob Berman and Robert Lanza
  28. The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health by John Durant
  29. Split Infinity by Piers Anthony
  30. The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick
  31. “Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton
  32. The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It by Scott Patterson
  33. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
  34. Blue Adept by Piers Anthony
  35. Juxtaposition by Piers Anthony
  36. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
  37. In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time by Dan Falk
  38. A Beginner’s Guide to Discourse Analysis by Sean Sutherland
  39. Ten Myths About Israel by Ilan Pappe
  40. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan
  41. Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time by Marc Wittmann
  42. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  43. The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer
  44. Originals: How non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant
  45. Adversaries into Allies: Master the Art of Ultimate Influence by Bob Burg
  46. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  47. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols
  48. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  49. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and The Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
  50. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  51. Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins
  52. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

1 thought on “What I Learned from a Year of Reading”

  1. Jonathan – This is voice from the past… just had to let you know how MUCH I enjoyed and will benefit from reading this blog entry… While I won’t be able to commit to one a week, I definitely have a wonderful new “To Read” list. Thanks for this insight! All the best… Cindy Groom-Harry,

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