In one of my Culture and Conflict Resolution classes, we were asked to talk about how art and literature has affected our lives. I mentioned that I have a list of books that have changed the way I think. It turns out that my friends do as well—with Malorie Blackman’s “Noughts & Crosses” series being a prominent fixture on many of their lists. I’d never read or heard of the series, and I’m pretty jealous that they got to read something of that depth and actually gain something from it at such a young age. Hearing about their reading experiences has made me want to share some of mine. So, here is a part of my list: five books that have changed the way I think and some of the lessons that were drawn from them. They aren’t necessarily my favourite books—although some of them are—but after I finished reading them, I looked at the world in a different way than when I started.
Myers, D. Psychology. (8th Edition) New York, Worth Publishers, 2007.
Yes, it’s a high school textbook. Call me a nerd, but I really did find this book fascinating—and the writer’s sense of humour certainly helped make it an easy read (for example, using the word floccinaucinihilipilification just for the hell of it). This is where I learned for the first time that correlation doesn’t mean causation—and I’ve never looked at a newspaper article about scientific research the same way again (why do so many journalists not understand this?). It was also my first encounter with the famous ethically-challenged, but fascinating social psychology studies of the 1970s: Milgram’s obedience experiments, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Robbers Cave Experiment among others. Once I learned about cognitive biases like the fundamental attribution error, hindsight bias, and confirmation bias, I began seeing them everywhere including in my own thinking (of course, that in itself could be an example of the confirmation bias). Many of these concepts continually crop up in all aspects of my life including in the next book.
Taleb, N.N. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York, Random House, 2007.
When I first heard that there was a popular mind-blowing film called “Black Swan,” I felt a mixture of happiness that so many people were discovering the ideas that had so radically affected my thinking and confusion about how the hell they turned a philosophical economics book into a movie. Turns out the movie has nothing to do with the book (I think… I haven’t actually seen the movie). The main premise of the book is that people have a huge tendency to underestimate the possibility of rare and unpredictable events (and later rationalise it with huge hindsight biases).The numerous fallacies that grow out of this simple tendency can be disastrous. It shows how important it is to recognise as best as we can the limits of our knowledge and our ability to fully understand the consequence of our actions. It’s why I like how some of my Muslim and/or Arabic-speaking friends and family say “Insha’Allah” (God Willing) all the time—whether you believe in God or not shouldn’t stop you from recognising that not everything, in fact almost nothing, is under your control. I love this book so much that I re-read it before starting my dissertation to try to make sure I don’t fall into the traps that Taleb describes.
Arendt, H. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. (2nd Edition) New York, The Viking Press, 1964.
“‘Nobody,’ he repeated, ‘came to me and reproached me for anything in the performance of my duties. Not even Pastor Grüber claims to have done so.’ He then added: ‘He came to me and sought alleviation of suffering, but did not actually object to the very performance of my duties as such.’” p. 131
Eichmann in Jerusalem really emphasised for me the importance of speaking up. The horrific description of the events punches you in the gut as the book constantly seems to question if you’d be one of the people to allow it to happen. What I later learned is termed “pluralistic ignorance”—where almost all the members of a group privately reject group norms but act on them publicly because they believe that virtually everybody else accepts them—is frightening, but at the same time shows the individual agency and responsibility inherent within social explanations of behaviour. There are better, more historically accurate books about the Holocaust (like Yehuda Bauer’s Rethinking the Holocaust), Eichmann (like David Cesarani’s Eichmann: His Life and Crimes) and even the social causes of atrocities during the Holocaust (like Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men), but ever since reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’ve consciously tried to force myself to speak out when in oppressive situations. It’s not easy, and still quite often, I embarrassingly keep my mouth shut, but it is still an improvement in trying to override my conflict avoiding tendencies.
hooks, b. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London, Pluto Press, 1972.
I think that of all the ridiculously stupid things that I’ve said in my lifetime, “Think about it, feminism used to be about equality, but now it’s about female supremacy,” (circa 2007, when I was fifteen) most likely tops the list. The friend, to whom I said those shameful words, to his credit, said exactly what he should have said, “I don’t know enough about it; I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Funny, I didn’t know anything about it either, but I felt knowledgeable enough to run my mouth off. A couple years later, I took a Social Justice course—a course which has recently become quite infamous in Vancouver, but that’s the subject of another blogpost—and the Women’s Studies unit opened my eyes to ideas about objectification and gender inequality. However, while I suddenly considered myself a “feminist,” I made the same crucial mistake: I thought I knew what “feminism” was. First year of University rolled around and with it came Gender Day, my Gender Day report and an essay on “the feminist criticism of realist international relations.” The only reason why none of the books I read about gender and feminism aren’t on this list is because it’s impossible to pick just one that shaped my thinking over the rest. What is clear is that that year showed how there was so much more to feminism than the limited version which was taught in high school Social Justice. Enter second year of University and bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman. BOOM! Mind blown again (in a good way). You’d hope that by now, I’d stop arrogantly squeezing huge diversities of thought into my limited understandings of single terms, but as the next book shows, I clearly haven’t.
Bissoondath, N. Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. (2nd Edition) Toronto, Penguin Books, 2002.
“As my publisher remarked after reading the manuscript, ‘I sat there thinking; yes, but… yes, but…’ Exactly.” p. xvii
Reading Bissoondath’s book, I had very much the same reaction as his publisher. “Yes, but…. yes, but…” If Bissoondath’s goal was as he claims “to introduce doubt to certainty,” then he succeeded with me. While there is much in his book that I disagree with and I’ve read, in my opinion, far better books about multiculturalism since (Gerd Baumann’s The Multicultural Riddle and Richard J.F. Day’s Multiculturalism and the History of Canadian Diversity being two of my favourites), Bissoondath’s book was what first really hit home for me that multiculturalism wasn’t as unproblematic as I thought it was; in fact, a lot of people seem to understand the word differently than I do. Considering the fact that I’m now writing an entire undergraduate dissertation on the discourses surrounding multiculturalism, I think I owe Mr. Bissoondath a thank you.
Now it’s your turn: Which books have changed the way you think? How?