At the dawn of a bright new year, now is a great moment to add a few books to your reading list. And so, if you’re looking for a few good reads, let me suggest five of my favorites.
I’m not going to suggest any up-and-coming vampire novels nor am I going to encourage you to read the Hunger Games series again. No, the five books I have listed aren’t even new books and they aren’t necessarily easy to get through. But they are books that will push you, inspire you, and change the way you think about about science, communication, technology, psychology, and the world. (Now if that isn’t a loaded ambition, I don’t know what is!) Still, these are five books I think everyone should read. So why not read them in 2014?
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn
Listed as #54 on the 100 Most Influential Books of the 20th Century, Kuhn’s work essentially reveals the nature of scientific knowledge. While Western civilizations for centuries have placed their belief system in the systemic and predictable nature of the scientific method, Kuhn reveals a much more accurate (albeit somewhat disconcerting for scientists) way of interpreting scientific knowledge: as socially constructed and established over decades of bureaucratic and democratic shifts in shared understanding. The book is powerful because it encourages us all to critically reflect on the science that we trust and recognize that knowledge is only true insofar as the social and cultural paradigms in which we converse agree that it is true. Nothing, in other words, is as clear and concrete as we would like to believe.
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
At first, this book seems an incredibly odd choice for a must-read book. It is about comics after all, right? Actually, the title of the book is an unfortunate misnomer for a book that is actually a visual and theoretical masterpiece. Written by comic artist Scott McCloud in 1993, this book has been widely used by artists, professional communicators, rhetoricians, pedagogues, and information designers as a critically important work on evaluating how we perceive our world visually. If you take the time to reflect on the visuals (the entire book is written as a comic book) and the theoretical underpinnings that juxtapose the creative storytelling of the book, you’ll begin to understand communication and the visual world around you differently. You’ll suddenly recognize why colors, shapes, positions, and text have a powerful ability to make us internalize and emotionally respond to time, space, and culture.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
A book about Steve Jobs??? Yes, you need to read this book. Love him or hate him, Steve Jobs has to be considered one of the great creative geniuses of our day. An incredibly well-researched book, Isaacson’s book investigates, through the lens of Steve Jobs, the world of technology as we know it today. Did you know that Steve Jobs personally had a hand in the development of the first user interface graphics (like what we see on a Windows screen in stead of DOS, or a bunch of text and code), video game designs, computer animation, and laptop computers? Jobs was at the heart of feature-length animated films (he bought Pixar when it was about to die and inspired the creation of Toy Story), and he personally inspired companies like Atari, Xerox, and IBM to change the way they develop computers for human beings. Perhaps more than anything else, Jobs is known for his aesthetic eye, making sure that, no matter the cost, computers would be visually appealing–a concept that was entirely foreign in the 1970s and ’80s. Though Jobs was often considered unusual (he didn’t bathe often and he would wear wore muumuus to work) and cruel (he was relentless in firing people for silly things and would label just about anyone as stupid), his leadership style and creative awareness almost single-handedly affected the speed and progression of the personal computer to the touch-screen wireless devices in just two decades.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Probably one of the most cited books in psychology, Csikszentmihalyi’s (pronounced “chick-sent-mee-high”) work has significantly changed the way researchers, teachers, and designers approach learning, usability, and optimal experience. The author takes over thirty years of experiential data about what drives people to perform and stay content within any aspect of life–be it playing basketball, learning a new language, or performing a musical number. After reading this book, you’ll have a far better idea about how to create experiences for people that are meaningful, engaging, and all-around optimal. The principles derived from this book can make you a better manager, a better student, a better teacher, a better designer, and so forth because it clarifies the way people react psychologically to the world around them.
Simulation and Its Discontents, by Sherry Turkle
A brilliant (and surprisingly accessible) book, Turkle’s work explores the exhilaration we experience as we look forward to technology’s advances but investigates the conflict with our ability to understand the world that is created as a result of it. Turkle addresses the increasingly complex nature of a generational divide that puts into question whether or not technology is helping us, if it is improving science and research, or if it somehow blinds us from reality and cognition. Through wonderful storytelling about the conflicts between old and new scientists and students and their professors, Turkle shows how wonderfully expedient technology is yet how impossible it can be to understand (and how much, in turn, we must rely on other people and organizations who create the technologies in order to understand our world). Students don’t understand math and chemistry (because their computers do it for them), scientists don’t understand microbiology and research methods (because their complex microscopes and software interpret for them), and the brilliant minds of 30 years ago can’t contribute well to a technologically reliant society (because they resist the previous two problems). After reading this book, you’ll wonder just how much you really know and how much is superimposed by complex technology.