Wissensdurst is a German word meaning curiosity: literally, "thirst for knowledge." And as you'll heard from our conversation on Cognitive Revolution, if anyone has that thirst it is Dr Julia Shaw. Her mind is huge; I seriously don't know how she puts it all in there. You can tell that's engaged in understanding the human experience not just through scientific means but a full spectrum of methods for capturing who we are and why it matters. I had never heard of the three fictions books that kick off the list, and they got bumped up to the top of my list. I'm sure after hearing Julia's talk about them you'll feel the same.
"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid
Julia described it as "a book about 'magical doors' -- is a bad summary of the book, but it doesn't give as much away." The book details the experience of refugees: "It is mostly about the human experience of isolation and separation, and to want a better life and see where that takes you." She continues, "the reality of refugees is that you don't know where your doors are going to go." While all of this no doubt hits home in a profound way, Julia also notes that it's a really "nice book, unlike some that are too pandemicky." If you're ready to engage with the furthest depths of the human experience through the lens of a beautiful narrative, I don't know what you're waiting for -- pick up this book!
"The Glass Bead Game" by Hermann Hesse
Julia can describe the book better than I can: "Herman Hesse won a Nobel prize in literature, and this was his last book. He writes about the world of academics, and how it interacts with the outside world. I think this is especially going to be of interest to people who come from some sort of ivory tower environment -- so whether they've been to a university environment, whether they've been to something else that's like a privileged school, whether they've been anywhere you feel like you're in a bubble... He just writes in a really unusual way. It's like you're having a really, really long and really interesting conversation with a really wise person, who is giving you all kinds of life advice."
The Three Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin
Julia reads a ton of science fiction (gee, can you tell??) but she says this one is on an entirely different plane. "It's written by an astrophysicist, and it's based on entirely accurate physical principles... So you're learning, but you're learning about the universe, and time, and wormholes, and dimensionality, and all these things -- but in an incredibly beautifully written way... And so for me, I can't think of any other series that has so profoundly changed how I look at the reality around us." She summarizes, "If you make through these however many thousands of pages -- which is totally worth it; do it! -- you'll come out the other end and you'll never have appreciated so much being three dimensional." And if that doesn't totally sell you on this series, then I don't know what else to tell you.
"Nausea" by Jean-Paul Sartre
For Julia, reading this book was one of those it's experiences where it's like, "Wow, this author totally gets me." She explains, "nausea for Sartre is the perception that the world around you makes you nauseous -- in the sense that he has these sort attacks in the book, where the walls melt, and he basically has panic attacks... Then he has an existential crisis, and he calls it nausea." Julia described her resonance with Sartre that gave her an outlet for thinking that there were other people who also felt like the world sometimes goes into disarray and the foundations of reality begin to shake.
"Beyond Good and Evil" by Friedrich Nietzsche
This rec probably comes as no surprise given that Julia is a philosophically-minded, German-speaking psychologist who has written a book on evil. It's totally on brand. Nietzsche, it clear, has earned a special place in her soul of souls -- "even though he was an absolute raging sexist," as Julia explains on the pod (she almost threw his book down in the aisle of a plane). But I guess that, of all people, it is perhaps not surprising that Friedrich "God is Dead" Nietzsche had a dark side. This is a classic classic classic, and it's made a big impact on Julia's thinking.
Honorable Mention: The "Sailor Moon" Television Series
We discovered a shared love for the show. I grew up watching the cartoons and playing with the dolls. Julia adopted a cat named Luna, and immediately associated the name with Sailor Moon's cat. She recently revisited the show and was amazed by how well it has aged. Julia describes Moon as a "true feminist icon." Apparently she's on board with getting your parents to carpool and raising awareness about abusive relationships and all sorts of things which matter a great deal to us in 2020, but, uh, let's just say aren't values that are always present in entertainment from eras gone by.
"The Memory Illusion" by Julia Shaw
This was Julia first book, which was based primarily off the work she did in her PhD. It looks at memory and the ways in which it can built up illusions about what happened -- hence, you know, the book's title. I could tell you more about it, but you're better off watching the cool animations on Julia's website.
"Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side" by Julia Shaw
Nietzsche went beyond evil. Julia Shaw made it. Er, something like that. What I really appreciate about Julia's approach to evil is that she takes into account the full spectrum of human experience. Whereas many scientists are cut off from things in the real world that are messy or challenging to deal with, Julia Shaw faces them head on. This is certainly true of evil. She doesn't just say "let's remove it" because that's unrealistic. Instead, she contextualizes it within the broader themes of human existence. Put this one on the shelf next to Nietzsche.
"American Gods" by Neil Gaiman
This is my pick to go along with Julia's selection of mind-exploding fiction. This is Neil Gaiman's biggest work -- in terms of its length, its themes, and its impact. And it's a helluva drug. Gaiman creates a world in which every god (in the most general conception of the term) has come to America as an immigrant along with the people who believe in him (her), often taking some odd and unexpected form. It's got everything: religion, culture, love story, drama, murder mystery, literally all of it. It's a huge book, and I can't recommend it to you enough.
"How to Change Your Mind" by Michael Pollan
I also want to add this one in as a non-fiction addition to the theme of mind expansion. It details journal Michael Pollan's foray into psychedelic drugs (for the first time) later in life. It's one of the most brilliant books I've ever read by a journalist, and gives you a lot to think on about the nature of reality, our perception, and how fragile that whole dance is. If you're interested in all that sort of stuff, you're gonna love this book.