5 Fascinating Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

NOTE: I already did a post of the books published in 2017 that had the most profound effect on me. That post can be seen here. This one is about books I read in 2017, most of which weren’t published this year. The hyperlinks go to my GoodReads review of the respective book.

 

5.) Narconomics by Tom Wainwright: This is a look at how drug cartels have been drawing from the playbooks of successful multinational corporations to make their operations more efficient and profitable. It contains gripping journalism and–for an economics wonk such as myself–it hits the spot with regards to scholarly curiosity as well.

 

4.) The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: Neuroscience has been converging on a conclusion drawn by Buddhists long ago (though not necessarily sharing identical explanations /mechanisms) that the self is an illusion. Ananthaswamy considers the neuroscience of self by examining how nervous system ailments and injuries have challenged common explanations about what the self is based on what it feels to be a self. (e.g. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with electrodes. Some people deeply feel they are dead, or that they either have limbs that aren’t present or that limbs that are don’t belong to them.)

 

3.) The Way of the Iceman  by Wim Hof and Koen De Jong: Any book that can get one to start taking cold showers has to be pretty persuasive. Wim Hof is known for his cold endurance “stunts,” but his argument in this book is that anyone can do it and that there are health benefits to doing so. The authors report on the science of said benefits as well as offering a program to start one’s way on such a program.

 

2.) Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland: Slingerland brings a fresh look at the ancient Chinese concept of wu-wei (apparently pronounced “ooo-way.”) Wu-wei is variously translated as “actionless action” or “to do without doing,” and–while that may sound like meaningless bumper-sticker wisdom–it reflects a state of effortless action that requires an elusive but powerful state of mind.  Slingerland presents varied Taoist and Confucian approaches to the subject, but also relates the idea to modern ideas such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow.”

 

1.) How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman: A neuroscientist and a positive psychologist team up to explain the common routes to the enlightened states of mind described in both Eastern religious / spiritual traditions and the mystic branches of Western religions (i.e. Jewish Kabbalah, mystic Christian sects, and Sufi Islam,) as well as their scientific underpinnings.

BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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