Most of my friends know me as a reader. It’s true that I like to read, and it’s usually this time of year that a few people start coming around to ask me for book recommendations. With the start of the new year, people are inspired and reinvigorated to pursue new and old goals alike. For many, myself included, their goal is to read more. I am honored that someone is willing to entrust their time and mental bandwidth to a book that I deem worthy, but I am also terrified of wasting their time, giving the wrong recommendation and contributing to a premature end to their decision.
I am also not the most well-read, so I don’t have a plethora of solid choices from different genres and authors to give me the best chance to suggest the perfect book for every taste and tendency out there. I like to read what I like to read, but that might not match up with the interests of others. Recently, I’ve realized that when it comes to recommendations, I’ve been playing it safe by sticking to the same short list of books for the past couple of years. They are three of my favorite books and covers about as much spread across the genres as I could manage. Each book is something different, something I found to be interesting or unique in its genre, but more importantly, each book is written by an author that I think has more to offer than just one book. Each author’s extended works offer more excellent reading. So, if someone ends up liking my recommendation, there is more similar reading they can easily find to keep that resolution alive and continue to grow a reading habit.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
2022 marked the 30th year since the publication of “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, whose influence on the science fiction genre and the literary world still persists. It was in this book that the term “metaverse” as well as “avatar” (in the context of a person’s representation in a virtual world) were coined. After 30 years, its originality and readability still remain. The book has a contagious energy to it that starts with the first page (with what I believe is the best hook or opening to any book I’ve ever read) and explodes across the rest.
The book follows its hero and protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (aptly named to say the least), in a fractured, highly militarized United States ruled by capitalist overlords. In this world, most people have traded their preference for reality for the much more attractive virtual metaverse (which Hiro co-created). Yet, soon, Hiro realizes his creation is at risk from a new “virtual drug,” a viral, executable file called Snow Crash that puts not only the metaverse but also physical reality in grave danger. What unfolds is an exciting, frantic and action-packed story with the right amount of unseriousness and originality for a fun and imaginative page-turner.
Other works by Neal Stephenson include but are not limited to: “Cryptonomicon” (1999), “Anathem” (2008), “Seveneves” (2015) and “Termination Shock” (2021).
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
I think it’s fair to say that nonfiction isn’t usually what people are pulled to when looking for a book to read or to start a reading habit. Nonfiction books are often long and full of jargon and, if you’re like me, I never seem to remember more than a few fun facts and curiosities from the nonfiction I read. Nonetheless, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” by Michael Pollan is a book I will always recommend.
Part history, part social science and part “mental travelogue,” the book covers the turbulent journey of the re-emergence of contemporary psychedelic research. Psychedelics have long been taboo, a part of the counterculture in the US, but as Pollan explains, there has been new research in recent years into their ability to help treat a myriad of mental illnesses, from depression and addiction to the existential qualms of being a human being. Pollan writes with dedication, thoroughness and care in such an accessible style that it turns a hefty nonfiction book into a page-turner. The book offers just what the title suggests — a way to change your mind through a complete perspective shift on a ubiquitous cultural taboo, and an insight into a growing and exciting field of scientific research that carries a powerful existential and spiritual potential.
Other works by Michael Pollan include but are not limited to: “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World” (2001), “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” (2006) and “This is Your Mind On Plants” (2021).
“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
With its undying wisdom, inspiration and spiritual direction, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho is a bonafide classic. Short and sweet, a quick read like this will get you cover to cover in no time. With its simple prose and dreamy feel, this enchanting story of powerful simplicity delivers great depth and meaning with intertwined themes of destiny, spirituality, love, kindness and personal growth.
This story is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago and his journey to find a lost treasure. What begins as a quest for material goods transforms into a search for the treasure that lies within. “The Alchemist” puts the big picture in mind and offers a clear message that, regardless of its religious undertones, will differ based on your beliefs, values and upbringing — a quality that lends useful to nearly 40 years of relevance. Evocative and profoundly humane, regardless of who you are or where you are in life, “The Alchemist” will speak to you in its own special way.
Other works by Paulo Coehlo include but are not limited to: “Eleven Minutes” (2003), “Veronika Decides to Die” (2006) and “By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept” (2006).
Daily Arts Writer Noah Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.