In no particular order - some of the books I most enjoyed reading, and learned the most from, in 2015. I've linked to notes I made on some of these books where I have them (some may be clearer and more concise than others!)
I'm looking for book recommendations for 2016, so would love to hear what others' favourite books of 2015 were!
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind -- Yuval Harari (notes)
For me reading this book was so densely packed with "oh, that's a really interesting idea/hypothesis/explanation, I should think about that more" moments, more so than any other book I’ve read in a long time. Some of the ideas feel a bit speculative, but are incredibly thought-provoking all the same. I feel like I need to reread it at least another 5 times to even begin to get the most out of it.
The Power of Less -- Leo Babauta (notes)
A very clear and concise guide to simplifying your life and your commitments, with lots of actionable advice, by the author of the Zen Habits blog. I ended up using a lot of this and finding it incredibly helpful when I was trying to cut down and simplify things in my life this time next year, and I look back at my notes on it every time I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed or overcommitted.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything -- Joshua Foer (notes)
Written by a journalist who took on the challenge of becoming a memory grandmaster in just a year. This book really convinced me that improving your memory isn’t about just being able to memorise obscure facts - it actually has the potential to improve your life in very profound ways - making the things you’ve learned and experienced more easily accessible and easier to draw connections between. (This was also one of those books I found got the perfect balance between telling me facts/making its point clear, and using good stories and analogies to illustrate these points. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for good nonfiction writing - often I feel like stories and analogies are just there as padding, and I want to skip them and get to the point - but a few really skillful writers, like Foer, manage to use these illustrations to much more clearly drill in the point they’re making.)
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking -- Oliver Burkeman
I really enjoy Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column - he seems to manage to do popular psychology in a way that’s engaging without being overly sensationalised, which isn't always easy. This book - about embracing negative emotions, failure, uncertainty, and even death - solidified for me a lot of ideas I’d been thinking about previously about happiness. I got that satisfying feeling reading it of someone else expressing my own thoughts more clearly than I could have done myself.
On The Move: A Life -- Oliver Sacks
I was incredibly sad and moved when I read the famous neurologist and author’s NYT column earlier in the year, sharing that he’d been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. I’ve really enjoyed some of his other writings - a unique combination of sharing scientific insights through personal stories and case studies - and found this memoir engagingly written, thought-provoking and inspiring.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery -- Henry Marsh
An incredibly compelling account of what it’s like to be a brain surgeon. Probably the most “un-put-down-able” book I read this year. It’s difficult to read at times, but in a good way - I felt like I really got some, albeit small, insight into the extreme pressure, stresses, and emotions involved in neurosurgery. Thanks Killian Czuba for this recommendation, I loved this book, but probably would have never found it or picked it up myself.
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End -- Atul Gawande
A really great, if somewhat depressing, discussion of the problematic way in which the medical profession tends to deal with old age - so obsessed with ‘treatment’ and extending life without enough focus on how to maximise quality of life in the final years.
How to Think About Exercise -- Damon Young
As someone who spends most of her time in “thinking” mode, but who also gets a lot of pleasure out of exercise, I really enjoyed this discussion of the ways in which exercise relates to various intellectual ‘virtues’. In parts I felt the book went into more discussion of specific historical philosophers than I personally cared for, but the overriding themes and insights helped me to think more about why I exercise and how I can use exercise to become a better person, beyond simply staying in shape.
The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code Breaking -- Simon Singh
I read Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem years ago - before I started university - and absolutely loved it. I’d been meaning to read this - another very popular book of his about cryptography - for years, and finally got round to it this year. I found it similarly fascinating, though I much preferred the later chapters of the book, which get into explaining some of the more recent and complex cryptography methods like public key encryption and quantum cryptography (the chapter on the latter inspired a brief fascination with quantum physics - but even after reading a couple of popular books on the topic I admit I’m still basically clueless.)
The Obstacle is The Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage -- Ryan Holiday
I was unsure whether to include this book in my 'favourites' list, because I didn’t actually finish it - I felt it got a bit repetitive after a while, and I’d sort of got most of what I needed out of it after a few chapters. But I found the core message - the Stoic idea that inside every difficult emotion and challenging situation there is an amazing opportunity to learn and improve - so useful to internalise, I still felt I wanted to recommend this book. Reminding myself of this idea is the single thing that most consistently helps me deal with tough situations and emotions.