While editing a photography book, I came in contact with this interesting term that food photographers use to refer to the food that they ultimately choose to feature in their photographs. They call this food the “hero food.” I love the term, and I think it’s apt given the things photographers do just to find the best-looking food for their work.
For this post, which I hope to be writing every year, I’m borrowing the idea of the “hero food” to create a new term, the “hero book.” As a reader, I also feel like I always put an unusual amount of effort in finding the best books on subjects that I’m interested in. Luckily, sometimes, the books find me.
This year was another great reading year for me. I found a few great hero books that changed the way I see the world. While I may read less books that most readers, I see to it that I make the most use of my books. I have a reading system, which I will share in a future post. This system always involves me creating a book summary of the book I read.
In this post, I’m sharing with you four of my hero books for 2018. I’m also including a few runner ups, which you might want to check out.
Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge | Steve Patterson
Early this year (or perhaps it was December last year, I’m not quite sure), I made a serendipitous find that changed the way I see the world forever.
I was doing a personal research about independent scholarship, and because I have always been a heavy podcast listener, I was listening to this podcast episode by Tom Woods. In that episode, he was talking to this person who was claiming to be “a philosopher who works outside of academia.” He talked about the challenges he face as an independent scholar, including some beef he had with an academic who ridiculed his work on social media.
Because it’s pretty rare to find an independent scholar courageously doing his work outside the comforts of the university, and getting bullied at the same time, I dug into this man’s work. I started listening to Steve Patterson’s podcasts. I read many of his articles. And, of course, I read his best book so far, Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge.
This book was written not for academics but for every honest human being interested about how to think better about the world. It destroys the wall “professional” philosophers have built around their field. The book was shorter than most philosophy books, it got straight to the point, and reading it prepared me to think better.
The book inspired me to dive into philosophy and, more importantly, to reflect on my own beliefs about the world. You won’t see the world the same way after reading this book. I highly recommend it.
Read my summary of Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge.
What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy | Thomas Nagel
Square One lead me to seriously consider studying philosophy. But philosophy books are too many and too diverse that someone starting out can easily be overwhelmed. I Googled for advice on where to start, and one book was constantly mentioned: What Does It All Mean? by Thomas Nagel.
Steve Patterson’s writing was clearer and more succinct, but Thomas Nagel’s writing was pretty simple too. He writes better than most academics who tend to ramble around jargons.
The book introduces the reader to nine major problems in philosophy. What I like best about this book is written in the Introduction. There, Thomas Nagel talked about his philosophy (pun not intended) on how philosophy should be taught or learned.
In his own words:
Before learning a lot of philosophical theories it is better to get puzzled about the philosophical questions which those theories try to answer. And the best way to do that is to look at some possible solutions and see what is wrong with them.
I like this approach. It encourages me to rely on my own thinking first before relying on others. So, I haven’t read a lot of philosophy books since this one. What I do is to journal my own answers to the questions based on my own analysis and reflection. This is very much unlike how most would do it in the university. My professors at the university would pour every reading they fancy into us, thinking that the more we read about something, the more we understand it. But philosophy is not really about how much books you’ve read. It’s about how much you’ve practiced philosophizing using your own mental abilities.
Read my summary of What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy.
Beyond Morality | Richard Garner
This is easily the most difficult book I read this year. But I read it anyway because I know of no other book that talks about the same subject.
The reason why I dove into philosophy this year was because I feel like I have been perplexed by the same old question my whole life: How should I live? After doing some reading in philosophy, I immediately realized that the question that was bothering me was the main question asked in one of philosophy’s major branches: ethics.
In ethics, the reasons behind our actions are explored, and the prevailing way of thinking in this field is that our actions are either “bad” or “good.” We act out actions because they are “good.” We avoid certain ones because they are “bad.”
Surprisingly, there is a way of thinking that completely rejects this dominant perspective. Moral or ethical nihilists believe that there are no absolute and objective moral standards. Things are not “good” or “bad.” They’re just what they are.
It’s a difficult position to wrap one’s head around. But after I examined their arguments, they made perfect sense. Beyond Morality extends the arguments of moral nihilism to and admonition to abandon all forms of moral language. According to Garner, this position, which he calls “moral abolitionism,” is not only logically sound; it might just be the missing solution to a world that has gone “immoral.”
He closed the book through these words:
If we can give up moralist language as well as moralist beliefs, if we can learn to operate beyond morality and beyond duplicity about morality, we will find ourselves in a position to be more honest and straightforward with ourselves and others. This is bound to result in a better understanding of what is happening—all around. Then, if our wider and deeper knowledge unlocks our compassion, as I predict it will, we will have transcended any need for the illusions of morality, and we and others can be comfortable with our spontaneity and with the conventions that give a familiar and comfortable structure to our lives.
Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones | James Clear
Another great quote from Richard Garner’s Beyond Morality is the following:
We are not going to get peace and happiness by arguing that war is morally wrong and happiness a human right. Peace and happiness will come only when we develop habits and institutions that generate and nourish them - habits of cooperation and consideration, habits of generosity and of yielding for the sake of harmony.
I am citing this here because it relates with perhaps the most useful book I read this year, Atomic Habits by James Clear. This is his first book. He released it in October and instantly became a New York Times bestseller.
While the first three books in this list shaped the way I see the world, it is James Clear’s book which just might put all those philosophizing into practical application. Like Richard Garner said in the quote above, it is through habits that we achieve the things that we long for. These include both personal goals and societal goals.
I am quite proud to say that I believed on James Clear’s work even before he became a bestselling author. He’s a big influence in the work that I do. Read this book to know what I mean.
Read my summary of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
- Amy Webb, Data, A Love Story
- John W. James and Frank Cherry, The Grief Recovery Handbook: A Step-by-Step Program for Moving Beyond Loss
- Henry David Thoreau, Walking
And that’s it! My hero books for 2018. Here’s for a new year of great books!
I stole the idea for this post from the great Austin Kleon.