Non-fiction books tend to fall into two categories. The first consists of books that increase your understanding of a subject matter by building upon what you already know. All business books fit neatly into this category.

The second category consists of those rare books that force you to rethink and reevaluate the very premises upon which your knowledge is based. The following seven books (all published in the past few years) are intellectual earthquakes.

Read them and you’ll never be the same.

1. Sapiens

Subtitle: A Brief History of Humankind

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Why it Rocks

This book explains why everything we’ve learned in school about human evolution, the growth of civilization, and the development of economies is either off base or dead wrong.

Best Quote

What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

2. The Believing Brain

Subtitle: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

Author: Michael Shermer

Why it Rocks

Almost everybody assumes that their beliefs and decisions result from the observation and analysis of facts. This book explains that the opposite is the case—the brain automatically creates beliefs and then arranges the facts to suit those beliefs.

Best Quote

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time.

3. The Shallows

Subtitle: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Author: Nicholas Carr

Why it Rocks

Most people regard the internet as something that is (or should be) under our individual control. This book explains that because of neuroplasticity (see No. 7 below), the internet is actively modifying the physical composition of our brains, literally changing the way that we think, without any conscious decision on our part.

Best Quote

The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its bounties and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.

4. Collapse

Subtitle: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition

Author: Jared Diamond

Why it Rocks

People tend to discuss the future in terms of climate change with deniers claiming nothing is happening and believers summoning up visions of submerged cities. This book transcends that discussion by illustrating how our use and abuse of natural resources will probably result in a lower standard of living and diminished expectations for the next two generations.

Best Quote

Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be ‘just’ a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of diseases or else of wars, triggered ultimately by scarcity of environmental resources. If this reasoning is correct, then our efforts today will determine the state of the world in which the current generation of children and young adults lives out their middle and late years.

5. Free Ride

Subtitle: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

Author: Robert Levine

Why it Rocks

Many people believe that content piracy isn’t stealing because it costs nothing to reproduce digital content and that pirated content functions as “free advertising.” This book explains exactly how accessing and downloading pirated content enriches parasites (some of which are huge businesses) at the expense of the people who originally created and marketed the content.

Best Quote

The easy, illegal availability of all kinds of content has undermined the legal market for it, in a way that affects the entire media business. Sites that use pirated material to draw an audience drag down the price of online advertising to the point where companies that produce new material have trouble competing. Media companies that sell products online have to lower prices in order to compete with pirated version of those same products sold by companies that bear none of the production costs. By making it essentially optional to pay for content, piracy has set the price of digital goods at zero. The result is a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts—first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality.

6. The New Jim Crow

Subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Author: Michelle Alexander

Why it Rocks

Many people believe that because the U.S. has a black president we are now in a post-racial society and that there’s now a level playing field and therefore anyone who complains is just “playing the race card.” What this book shows is that a selectively-enforced “war on drugs” and resulting mass incarceration of black men simply replaced Jim Crow laws as a means of social control, making upward mobility nearly impossible.

Best Quote

What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so... Like Jim Crow (and slavery) mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.

7. The Brain That Changes Itself

Subtitle: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science

Author: Norman Doidge

Why it Rocks

Most people think of a brain as a machine or computer that records events, makes calculations, and directs actions. In fact thinking, perceiving, remembering, and taking action literally changes the structure of the brain, which means that you can purposefully alter your brain to become more effective and efficient, and to overcome limitations.

Best Quote

Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped—including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining—changes the brain as well as the mind. Cultural ideas are no exception. Our brains are modified by the cultural activities that we do—be they reading, studying music, or learning new languages. We all have what might be called a culturally modified brain, and as cultures evolve, they continually lead to new changes in the brain.

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Photo of world in hands courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020