Mind Growing Book Ideas
November 14, 2017 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I have been sending books I find interesting and thought provoking to my brother in law, who has been devouring them at a fantastic rate. I'm looking for more book ideas to send his way!

He's a thoughtful progressive 22 year old who has a lot of free time on his hands and the number of books he's allowed to have is limited, so longer books are preferred. He's in a rough situation right now and so I'm focusing on books that are all-encompassing, the kind that take your mind away from your circumstances. He loves fantasy, but so far I've only sent him the Kingkiller Chronicles because I'm trying to limit the fantasy to best-of-the-best stuff. He also loves math and computers and other nerdy type stuff, but I'd love suggestions from across the knowledge spectrum.

So far, he's devoured Godel, Escher, and Bach, You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, the aforementioned Kingkiller Chronicles, and some lighter stuff like Calvin and Hobbes and some graphic novels like Watchmen. I'd love more suggestions in the vein of Godel, Escher, and Bach, weirdo type books can change how you look at the world, but if you know of a mindblowing fiction series, I'm all ears. I don't think self-help or romance books are his thing, and I'm trying to avoid actual textbooks as they are a hair too dry, but other than that, any books you've read that have changed your life or outlook in some way are game!
posted by zug to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and he loves all things China (he speaks Mandarin), so interesting books on that are super appreciated.
posted by zug at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: I like fantasy, and engaging ancient history books press that button for me while taking a while to read. Two I particularly like are SPQR by Mary Beard and China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty by Mark Lewis. The latter is part of a series which I think is well regarded? But that's the only one I've personally read.
posted by quaking fajita at 11:30 AM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: It's not longer, but it falls under the category of feminist fiction, "all things China"
posted by aniola at 11:36 AM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: IMO Ursula Le Guin is the best-of-the-best, when it comes to fantasy: for a progressive 22 year old, I think The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness would be mind-expanding and all-encompassing in the right kind of way. Both rocked my world in that way when I was around that age.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:40 AM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard!

If you get Three By Annie Dillard instead, it costs the same but with two extra bonus books for maximum book-having.
posted by augustimagination at 11:45 AM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: 1491, by Charles Mann. Thoroughly gripping and engaging. It contextualizes the history of the Americas in a way that reshaped my whole world view.

If he likes it, there's a sequel, 1493, that goes into Americas history after Europeans started poking their noses (and everything else) in.
posted by current resident at 11:50 AM on November 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Aubrey–Maturin series is a sequence of 20 nautical historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, set around the Napoleonic Wars and centering on the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, a physician, natural philosopher, and (we eventually discover) intelligence agent. They are brilliant and thought-provoking, and, though fictitious, contain much of historical interest.
posted by ubiquity at 12:11 PM on November 14, 2017

It's not super long, but he might really enjoy What If?
posted by Mchelly at 12:27 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Man who Loved Only Numbers
posted by bookworm4125 at 12:57 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

What Do You Care What Othe People Think by Richard Feynman
Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Children by David Halbertstram
I remember at his age I read a book about Karl Marx’s ideas and the labor movement and it blew my mind. No specific recccomendation though.
posted by SyraCarol at 1:11 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Book of Joy is excellent. Readable, lots of cause for smiling. Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu get together and talk about happiness for a week and a third person writes a book about it.

I remember reading a book in a hostel in my early 20s, it was a transcription of someone interviewing Noam Chomsky, but I don't know the title. It was basically like, "hey look, America does Imperialism" and it blew my mind and I went on to get a history degree.

I haven't read anything by bell hooks yet (it's on my reading list!) but I've heard good things.

I don't think of Toni Morrison's books as all apples and sunshine, but definitely recommend.
posted by aniola at 1:25 PM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: The Broom of the System
To Mock a Mockingbird
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
posted by at at 2:08 PM on November 14, 2017

a couple of short works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie...
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
We Should All Be Feminists
(they're so good and valuable even though they are short)

seconding the suggestion above for Ursula K. Le Guin - all of the Hainish books and short stories (which include The Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed have been published in two volumes so that's a handy chunk of thought-provoking reading right there)
posted by kokaku at 2:10 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Books that have changed me somehow:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Meditation on grief)
Love's Executioner by Irvin Yalom (Case studies in existential psychotherapy)
A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes (A very Barthes-y look at limerance and "being in love")
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (How we live, what is life?)

Passage by Connie Willis (An experience, not just a book)
Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman (An imagining of the dreams Einstein had in the month before he finished the Theory of Relativity, beautiful prose)
posted by fairlynearlyready at 2:23 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read.

So is the aforementioned Pale Fire, which blows my mind six ways to Sunday.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:09 PM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is witty & mind-expanding!

A History of God by Karen Armstrong is an enlightening overview of Religions and Philosophies in the world.
posted by ovvl at 3:51 PM on November 14, 2017

Best answer: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind " by Yuval Noah Harari is a biography of the human race, and its myths. It's eye-opening, and likes to keep its fire going by adding a sacred cow to the flames a few times per chapter.

"You Are Not So Smart" by David McRaney is the book form of long blog articles about the science of human self-delusion and what we've done with what we've learned, like behavior economics. There's a sequel called "You Are Now Less Dumb."
posted by Sunburnt at 4:14 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Beak of the Finch. For that matter, The Voyage of the Beagle has a fair amount of adventure in it (the bolas!) and long Victorian sentences might be OK, in context.

i found Imperial China surprisingly readable -- there's a through-theme and dry humor and plenty of event. Note that reviews start off with "massive tome", etc.

Polya's How to Solve It.

For math, The Flaw of Averages, which is like How to Lie with Statistics but solider. Possibly Weyl's Symmetry. Almost anything popular by Chaitin -- I was going to recommend Exploring Randomness, but it's really expensive on Amazon right now; Meta Math!, then.
posted by clew at 5:16 PM on November 14, 2017

If he’s interested in Chinese history, Wild Swans is wonderful.
posted by FencingGal at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2017

I was blown away by Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson, which is essentially a generalized theory of how to master skills. Ericsson is the scientist who is credited with discovering the 10,000 hours rule-- although as the book explains, his research is actually more complicated, and it's not enough to just spend 10,000 hours doing something. My one hesitation is that it sounds like your nephew might be restricted in what activities he can do at the moment. Depending on his situation, I could see Peak inspiring him to use the time he has on his hands to master a new skill -- or I could see it making him frustrated that he can't accomplish what he wants to. I'm sure you have a better sense of which it is.

How Not To Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg, is a fantastic and very accessible guide to using mathematical principles in your everyday thinking.

Both those books are medium length. If you're looking for something really big, check out just about anything by Daniel J Boorstin (the late Librarian of Congress). He wrote long, highly readable, and utterly fascinating history books that made me feel like I had new insights into how the world fits together. I'd particularly recommend The Discoverers and his 3-volume workThe Americans.

And in terms of fantasy... I'm sure you know about it, but just in case you somehow overlooked it, George RR Martin's "A Song Of Ice And Fire" (beginning with Game of Thrones) really is all it's cracked up to be.
posted by yankeefog at 1:28 AM on November 15, 2017

The Hundredth Monkey by Ken Keyes.
posted by chocolatetiara at 5:25 AM on November 15, 2017

Consider any book by multiple award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer. Quantum Night is his most recent. I think if he liked Godel, Escher, and Bach he'd like Sawyer.

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert J. Pirsig comes to mind as well.
posted by Amy NM at 5:33 AM on November 15, 2017

Primate's Memoir, Robert Sapolsky
posted by theora55 at 6:35 AM on November 15, 2017

Non-fiction: I utterly loved Black Hole Blues, which is about the decades-long creation of LIGO. It's a fascinating subject, and it's beautifully written.

Similarly, pretty much anything by John McPhee can take me out of my everyday perspective and give me a lot of interesting new things to think about.

For fiction, the Discworld books are terrific and funny and surprisingly thoughtful; Kim Stanley Robinson books (especially the Mars trilogy) are less funny but also terrific and thoughtful. I also loved The Last Samurai, which is different from pretty much anything else I've ever read.
posted by kristi at 10:22 AM on November 17, 2017

Just about everything Simon Winchester writes is readable and interesting, but your brother in law might be especially interested in the biography The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:33 AM on November 21, 2017

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