10 Books That Will Stretch Your Mind And Make You Think

Tom Stevenson
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Reading has many benefits. It opens us up to new ideas, it can transport us to faraway worlds and help us to see the world through the eyes of someone else. But one of the best things about reading is that can challenge the perceptions many of us hold.

How many times have you read a book and had your mind blown? I’ve experienced this a lot and many of these books have changed the way I see the world as a result.

The best thing about reading is that we get direct access to the thoughts of so many wonderful and inspiring thinkers. We shouldn’t take this for granted. That we can read the thoughts of ancient philosophers and the smartest contemporary thinkers is a gift.

Knowledge is timeless. Although some of the books in my list are thousands of years old and some were written only a few years ago, they all encourage you to challenge what you believe.

For thousands of years, humans have read books to help them to understand the world. To learn new ideas and open their minds to the realities of the world we inhabit.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Plenty of other books will cause you to pause and think, but these books have affected my thinking in some way or another. I believe that they will have the same effect on you and sharpen your understanding of a wide range of issues.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I remember reading it for the first time and being blown away at what I found inside. The concepts Taleb describes made complete sense yet I had never contemplated them before.

The book centres around ‘black swan’ events, those which are rare and unpredictable but cause severe shocks when they hit. The 9/11 terrorist attack or a stock market crash such as the Wall Street Crash in 1929 are examples.

The term originates from the idea that black swans didn’t exist. That was until the first European encountered them in Australia in the seventeenth century. When they were discovered, the ideas that people once held were shattered and they had to reevaluate their beliefs.

What struck me most about The Black Swan was how much are lives our impacted by these type of events. The Coronavirus, although not strictly a Black Swan as a pandemic had been predicted to occur at some point this century, shows how much our lives can change from one event.

Taleb instructs us to consider what a Black Swan is, what happens when they hit and how we can insure ourselves against them. It’s a long and challenging book, but if you get to the end of it, you’ll see the world in a different light.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

It’s become a slight cliche to include Meditations in a list of books of this nature, but there’s a reason it continues to be included in these articles. The book is jam-packed full of valuable insights.

The remarkable thing about Meditations is that it was never intended for public consumption. The writings by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were for his eyes only. They were words he wrote to himself to encourage and remind him of the necessity to lead a good life.

That we can read the writings of a man, who was the most powerful in the world while he was alive, is a blessing. They are better than any autobiography from contemporary leaders you will find today because they are unfiltered and pure.

The wisdom contained in Marcus’ words might be two thousand years old but it remains timeless. Reading his thoughts will make you realise that the anxieties and troubles we face today were the same ones our predecessors faced too.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow was a book that blew my mind in 2020. It was one of the most fascinating I’ve ever read!

The human mind is a curious thing. Far from being the rational tool that many economists lead us to believe it is, the reality is that it can be led astray rather easily. Kahneman shows this time and time again.

We are controlled by biases and heuristics that many of us fail to recognise. The root of this is the idea that our brains are controlled by two modes of thought, which Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast and instinctive, whereas System 2 is slow and deliberate. It’s the conflict between these two systems that cause us to have unfounded confidence in our ability to makes judgements.

Thinking, Fast and Slow will challenge many of the preconceptions you hold about the mind and show that even the smartest among us can fall prey to the biases that populate our mind.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange is one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read. The book revolves around the actions of Alex and his three friends who are known as ‘droogs.’

We follow them as they terrorise society, committing heinous crimes until they go too far and Alex is arrested. The rest of the book deals with Alex’s imprisonment and his subsequent experience as he is subjected to a new type of rehabilitation, designed to stop him from committing further crimes.

At its core, A Clockwork Orange asks the question whether it’s better to be immoral than to be coerced into being moral. It’s a philosophical question that the book tries to answer and one which leaves you pondering the answer yourself long after you’ve put the book down.

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History is a short book at just over 100 pages, but it packs a lot into those pages. The book looks at various themes throughout history and the lessons they teach us.

This is different from many history books you will have read. The focus of the book is more sweeping with a long-term angle than books which focus on a particular event.

But this is what makes the book such an enlightening read. The nature of the book forces us to consider history from a long-term view rather than look at events in isolation. By doing this, we can see how, although history doesn’t repeat, it does rhyme.

As a history graduate, I enjoyed reading The Lessons of History because it forced me to reconsider my viewpoints on many issues. Any book that does this is worth reading.

Brief Answers To The Big Questions by Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous physicists of modern times and his last book before his death, Brief Answers To The Big Questions, is a brilliant read.

As the title suggests, Hawking grapples with some of the biggest questions of our time. These include the consequences of climate change, whether we will come into contact with aliens and the potential consequences of artificial intelligence.

Some of his answers are more concerning than others, particularly in regards to aliens and artificial intelligence. Hawking is clear both have the potential to result in long-lasting harm to humanity if we are not careful.

The benefit of reading this book is that you get a window into one of the great minds of recent years and his thoughts on some fascinating topics. His thoughts will give you a lot to think about and may make you question some of your previously held views.

The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the best philosophy books you’ll ever read. Similar to Meditations, it’s over two thousand years old but still relevant to us today.

What struck me the most when I read the book was just how relevant Aristotle's words are. They apply to many of the issues we face today and stand as a useful reminder on how to lead a good and moral life.

The purpose of the ethics is to emphasise that doing good is essential for the soul and for society to function for the benefit of everyone. Moderating our excesses and striving to be better is not just for our own benefit but for all of society.

In a world that is obsessed with new and exciting things, where our attention is constantly on the immediate, it’s important to take a step back and consider our place in the world. Reading The Nicomachean Ethics, a timeless book written by one of the most influential thinkers to have lived, is a brilliant way to do just this.

The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku is one of my favourite thinkers and his book The Future of Humanity is a fascinating read. If you want to get an idea of what life could look like for our species in the immediate and distant future, this is the book you need to read.

Kaku considers whether we will colonise the Moon, Mars and distant planets. He also looks at the physics behind all of this and whether we can travel beyond our solar system in the style of the Hollywood blockbuster, Interstellar.

From a young age, I’ve always been fascinated with outer space and physics. Reading Kaku’s book, I was enraptured by his thoughts on our place in the cosmos and how it might change. He has a brilliant way of making complicated topics easy to understand.

One thing’s for sure, life for humans will not be the same 50 years from now, never mind 100. Kaku’s book is not a definitive answer to what will happen, but it gives us an indication of what might.

Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fooled By Randomness is the first book in Nassim Taleb’s Incerto series of five books that deal with the role uncertainty and chance play in our lives.

The book is considered to be one of the 75 smartest books ever written according to Fortune Magazine. Similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow it looks at the fallibility of human knowledge and how this impacts us in different ways.

If you’re looking to learn more about Taleb’s ideas, this is an ideal book to begin with. As it’s the first one in his Incerto series, it sets the scene for his later books and sets the scene for his later books. I read The Black Swan before I read this and after reading Fooled By Randomness, it made much more sense.

Every book and article of Taleb’s that I’ve read has made me question the way I see the world and this book is no different. Taleb has a unique way of introducing concepts you may not have heard of, but which keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

21 Lessons For The 21st Century is an interesting book to read if you want to get a handle on some of the pressing issues of our time. It’s similar to Hawking’s book above, but with less emphasis on science and space. Harari focuses more on socio-economic and political issues.

Harari is another writer that has a gift of making any idea accessible to the layperson. He can explain and summarise the issues we face as a species, what we can do tackle them, and the consequences if we don’t in an easy to understand way.

The challenges we face in the 21st century are unlike any we’ve ever faced before. Automation, the rise of artificial intelligence and climate change just to name a few, are all serious matters that could have wide-reaching implications in the years to come.

Harari doesn’t claim to have all the answers on what will happen, but he presents each issue in a way that makes you appreciate how serious they are. If you want to know what the rest of this century could look like, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century is a good place to start.

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