Whether you want to be smarter or simply to ponder on the deep questions of life, pick up one of these books that make you think.
What’s my place in the world? Why are things the way they are? How come I’m not as successful as others? What would I do if the entire US suddenly lost all power?
Life is full of questions, and one of my favorite places to turn for answers is into the pages of a book. Some books are purely entertaining fluff, great to curl up with when you just want something to enjoy. Yet, other books get you thinking about all the unanswered questions in life.
A few of these titles are books that make you smarter with discussions on astrophysics or neuroscience. Others are books that will make you think about worse case scenarios and what-if situations.
No matter the topic, books that make you think will stimulate that part of the brain often neglected with our modern habit of watching mindless hours of tv. So, if you want a thought-provoking read, pick up one of these books that will make you think and ponder away.
Nonfiction Books That Make You Smarter
What makes extremely successful people different from others? Is it talent, intelligence or hard work? Gladwell uses statistics and interesting real-life examples to show how closely success is tied to not only natural ability and hard work but also opportunity and timing. It’s one of those books that get you thinking about how much culture, upbringing, and just plain luck play into your life.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
I love how Neil deGrasse Tyson carefully labeled his book as for Astrophysics for People in a Hurry instead of “Astrophysics explained to the ignorant layman,” which is what I would have called it. Just so you are aware, even though this book is tiny, it is not a quick read. Although Tyson does an excellent job bringing the topic down to a beginner’s level, the concepts are so deep that it takes some thought to wrap your head around everything. A great primer on a fascinating subject, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of the best books that will make you smarter and a must-read for all the science lovers out there.
My sister’s husband recommended this book to me, and it’s one of those books that make you think about how the brain works. Though the title is basically the book equivalent of click-bait, the book itself was extremely interesting. The subtitle, “The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by Trauma, Madness, and Recovery,” would be more appropriate, though much less catchy. Sam Kean teaches about the various parts of the brain using compelling true stories that temper down the science-heavy segments to make the book more relatable for the general reader. He expertly weaves the storytelling while not skimping on the science, giving you a fairly in-depth basic primer on the science and history of neuroscience.
Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Why do some ideas stick – no matter how true – while others go in one ear and out the other? Chip and Dan Heath break down the elements that made ideas memorable and teach you how to create stickier messaging. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell or Charles Duhigg, the Heath brothers use interesting anecdotes to illustrate the concepts of stickiness in an informative and entertaining manner.
Neuroscientist Lisa Genova explains why we remember some things and why we forget others. Genova presents a basic primer of how memories work, what you can reasonably expect from your memory as you age, and how to help protect your memory. While extremely informative and easy to understand, Remember isn’t a particularly captivating book on intelligence. Genova does a great job explaining how memory works but I suggest that discussing the real-life implications of these topics with others will make this book stand out.
Fiction Books With Deeper Meaning
Some books that make you think show you a deeper meaning behind what is seemingly a simple story. On the surface, Animal Farm is just a straightforward tale of animals revolting against the cruel farmer to set up their own government. In reality, Animal Farm is the perfect parable for the danger of giving up our freedoms for the sake of security. If you’ve ever wondered how a dictatorship comes to be, this classic short novel will show you. To get the most of this short classic, you’ll want to pair it with my favorite book of all time, George Orwell’s 1984.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
If you are looking for books that will make you think without having a lot of time to read, my top recommendation is this classic tale. The Little Prince is a short illustrated story full of morals – if only you have eyes to see them. It’s one of those short classic books in which you can get out of it as much or as little as you want. This short allegory follows a young boy, the Little Prince, who decides to give up his pleasant life on his tiny planet to go discover the universe. Along the way, he encounters a strange place called Earth and learns about some of the absurdities of the adults.
Growing up, Piscine “Pi” Patel loves spending his time at the zoo his parents own. When his parents decide to move their zoo from India to Canada, he finds himself on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, never suspecting that a storm will leave him stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific struggling to survive for months at sea with a Bengal tiger as his only companion. As you near the end of this book, you’ll probably be wondering why I recommended it. Trust me, just push through to the end, for it’s the ending of this book that raises it above mediocrity. With just a few simple sentences, suddenly the author makes you pause and reevaluate everything you just read.
Nonfiction Books That Get You Thinking
Grant reminds us that just like we refresh our wardrobe from time to time, we need to routinely reexamine our beliefs and ways of thinking. Often our beliefs become habits, and Grant argues that being too attached to one identity and thought process can kill our creativity. Instead, we need to start spending as much time rethinking as we do thinking. Grant is an excellent writer and he does a superb job keeping you engaged as he discusses thought-provoking concepts.
Author Gretchen Rubin embarked on a year-long project to make her life happier. Every month, she examined a different aspect of her life – whether it be her marriage or her health – trying to improve herself and become happier through targeted action and research. To be frank, this book is not for everyone. A few years ago, I read this self-help book for my book club, and everyone else hated it (though I’m not sure how many actually read it). Be that as it may, if you look at this book objectively, reading her experience will make you think about how you could improve yourself to complain less and appreciate life more.
John Howard Griffin
If you are looking for books that make you think about race relations in the United States, Griffin’s nonfiction book is a great place to start. In October of 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin spent six weeks traveling across the Deep South with one major change: he medically darkened his skin to look like a black man. His journal of the experience is an incredible read discussing race relations in the United States. Though much has changed since then, you’ll find yourself pondering how much has unfortunately stayed the same.
J. D. Vance
First off, you need to understand that J. D. Vance’s memoir is not about life in rural Kentucky. Instead, it’s about his family life in Southwestern Ohio and how the Hillbilly culture and ethics his grandparents brought from rural Kentucky affected the lives and choices of his grandparents, parents and even himself. Having grown up in that same region of Ohio, I can say that many of his observations ring true. While you might not agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, he will certainly make you ponder how culture affects us and what heritage you will pass down to your children.
Did you know that intelligence is not a very accurate predictor of success? Psychologist Angela Duckworth puts forth an insightful new predictor for success: grit. That perseverance through obstacles and sheer determination to get ahead. With numerous studies and interesting anecdotes, Duckworth has written one of those books that make you think about where you fall on the scale. How gritty are you? And since grit isn’t fixed, you’ll find in yourself a desire not only to develop it in yourself but also to encourage it in your children. Among my favorite fascinating nonfiction books that will make you smarter, Grit will inspire you to be a better person than you were when you first picked it up.
Womens Empowerment Books
Caroline Criado Perez
Caroline Criado Perez shows that we live in a world designed for men that systemically discriminates against women. With overwhelming statistics, Perez exposes the prevalent gender-data gap in countless fields, including medicine, technology, and urban planning. The staggering evidence will blow your mind and make you rethink everything you thought you knew. If you have a chance, Perez’s audiobook narration is spectacular, catching every hint of sarcasm, disbelief, and anger in the author’s voice.
Lindsay Kite & Lexie Kite
Instead of making a goal to lose weight, why not focus on your body image issues? An eye-opening examination of how are beauty-obsessed world has failed generations of women. Although body positivity has helped some women, body image issues will not go away until we realize that you are not defined by your body. In one of the top life changing books for women, the Kite sisters show how deeply ingrained objectification of women is in our society and in our own minds and help you discover that you are more than a body.
Lauren Fleshman is one of the most-decorated distance runners in the United States. In Good for a Girl, Fleshman tells of how she fell in love with running as a girl and shares her own running journey. Yet, Good for a Girl isn’t just a memoir. It’s a powerful look at how competitive sports are designed for men and boys and routinely fail female athletes, leading to injuries, eating disorders, and mental health issues.
Inspired by her TED Talk, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, empowers women to be brave enough to embrace imperfection. From a young age, girls are conditioned to be nice – to be kind, considerate, and not offend. Yet, what works well in elementary doesn’t translate into real-life creating women who feel like they are never good enough. For readers in her target audience, Brave, Not Perfect is inspiring and relatable, though a little lacking in practical day-to-day advice.
A must-read for any woman embarking on her career, Sheryl Sandberg’s book will inspire you to fully lean in to your profession. Lean In is one of the books that will make you think of the realities of the workplace for women versus what it should be like. Sandberg gives great advice on how to combat bias against women in the workplace and manage a career, a marriage, and a family. Even as a stay-at-home mom, I was so impressed with this book. It has fully earned its spot on any list of books that will make you smarter.
Books That Change Your Worldview
When you think of castes, India’s strict caste system likely comes to mind. In Caste, Wilkerson argues that America has its own hidden caste system, a hierarchy that has influenced the United States both historically and currently. Using fascinating stories, Wilkerson points out that on top of race and class, our understanding of caste systems must also change if we are to better ourselves as a nation.
Yuval Noah Harari
Narrowing down the best books that make you think about science isn’t easy, and I might have chosen wrong. Yet there is something enduring about Harari’s look at the history of humans. How did our species survive so long and what does that mean for us today? Taking discoveries from numerous scientific fields, Harari has whittled down 100,000 years of human history into an insightful 500-page book.
After graduating from college, Suleika Jaouad was excited to enter “the real world” as a war correspondent in Paris. But an itch turned to exhaustion and a diagnosis of leukemia with only a 35% chance of survival. Jaouad spent the next four years in the hospital battling cancer and writing about it for The New York Times. Yet, once she was cured, she felt even more lost than ever. So she embarked on a road trip across the country to find herself in one of the best books that make you think differently about cancer.
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond tells the true stories of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. All of these families are barely scraping by, having had to spend almost all of their earnings on rent alone. Each is facing eviction and an unknown future. Based on years of fieldwork, Evicted takes an eye-opening look at extreme poverty and eviction in America today.
Technology reporter Sarah Frier gives an in-depth look at the social media giant Instagram. When creating Instagram, founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger wanted to blend art and technology. From its founding days to its explosive growth and purchase by Facebook, Frier shows how Instagram became an unlikely success story that has changed how we perceive social media. Frier raises some thought-provoking philosophical questions about how social media shapes our world but leaves it to the reader to consider what, if anything, can be done about them.
Raising questions about privacy, medical research, and ethics, Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching the history of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells. Just before her death of cervical cancer, Henrietta Lack’s cells were taken without her permission and scientists figured out how to keep them alive indefinitely. The created cell line was then used for countless medical research. Interspersing the history of Henrietta’s family with the medical use of her cells, Skloot has penned a memorable work.
Fiction Books That Make You Think
As a female politician, Emma knows it only takes one slip-up to ruin your reputation. Using her position as an MP, Emma is determined to fight for female victims and pass a law against revenge porn, even though it brings a slew of threats, both online and in person. When her teenage daughter lashes out at a high school bully, the consequences could be disastrous as Emma is put on trial for the death of a reporter who threatened to publish the story. Not only did Vaughan write a compelling narrative but also she managed to really hit home on her main themes, violence against women and how our reputation affects our actions.
Nonfiction books aren’t the only books that make you think. Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II novel is the perfect example. Written only six years after the end of the war, The Caine Mutiny has astounding detail most modern authors can never hope to achieve because the story is heavily based on the author’s own experiences during the war. The story details the life aboard the U.S.S. Caine and the moral complexities of wartime decisions, especially the hard choices that need to be made by a captain at sea.
Khaled Hosseini is a fabulous writer. I had to debate which work of his to choose for my list of books that make you think. In his third novel, Hosseini teaches how the choices we make can spread through time affecting so many others. To illustrate his theme, the main story centers on a poor family in a small Afghanistan village who gives their young daughter up for adoption to a wealthy family. Hosseini completely turns stereotypes on their head and makes you think about how much our actions reflect our intentions.
William R. Forstchen
Just imagine it: no electricity, no medicine and no food. In his eye-opening novel, William R. Forstchen warns of the all too real possibility of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) device detonating over the United States. In an instance, the electromagnetic wave destroys all technology, sending the US immediately back to the Dark Ages. Can one man save his small North Carolina mountain town from the fall of civilization? While Forstchen is far from the greatest novelist ever, with our outdated electrical grid and the reality of EMPs, he will make you wonder what you would do if the lights went out.
What Books Have Made You Think Differently?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my list of books that make you think? What are some books that will make you think that you recommend? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Nonfiction Books to Read: