5 Books That Will Blow Your Mind (And Change The Way You Think)
It isn’t always easy to find a book that will blow your mind. Books that really change the way you think are obviously not very common, and the ones that do are often so well known that their once profound wisdom can start to sound a little trite. That said, there are some classic mind-blowing books that are always worth a read. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey are some pretty revelatory experiences to name just a few. If you haven’t read any of them then feel free to pause what you’re doing and go get one of them now. But if you’d like some really compelling books that are a little less talked about, yet still have the potential to make you reevaluate how you look at the world, I can think of a couple that you should consider alongside them too.
Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti
One book that’s found a whole new level of relevance in the age of social media is Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti. Or least, it seems relevant to me, though I haven’t actually heard it talked about in a long time.
With Crowds and Power, Canetti basically tries to explain the dynamics that make large groups of people follow particular trends of behaviour. Everything from general politics to violent mob uprisings are explored, but the book doesn’t do so in any kind of academic manner. Rather, Canetti creates this kind of universal writing style by utilising some of the oldest metaphors we can all identify with. For example, at the beginning of the book he describes how in ancient times, a fire would have attracted groups of people because it kept them warm. As things progressed the fire became something they could cook over, dance around, hold religious ceremonies at and of course, attract more people to or banish people from. As the book goes on the metaphors get more and more layered so you can gain insight on some modern social issues through a very primal mode of thought.
The book was written in the 1960s and supposedly gained much of its reputation by explaining what was at work behind the civil unrest in Eastern Europe at the time. I don’t know much about all that, but ninety per cent of everything I read in the book didn’t seem limited to a specific era. Because it’s written in such a detached, poetic manner, you kind of feel like it’s a guide book that could be handed to an alien species to help them understand why the heck we do the things we’re doing. What makes it so mind-blowing is that you kind of start feeling like one of these alien observers when you finish reading it. Whether you’re standing in line for a political rally or diving into a mosh pit at a concert, you really start to feel the invisible forces that have everybody moving a certain way. On a cynical level, I’d say it’s a must-read for any marketing executives, entrepreneurs, or political candidates. But there’s some really fascinating stuff about human nature in it that you’d probably miss out on if you limited the book to such a utilitarian point of view.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
So the reason I mention marketing executives and entrepreneurs is actually because when I was doing some keyword research to figure out what video to make next, I discovered that most people looking for so-called mind-blowing books seem to be just that: marketing executives and entrepreneurs. Which again, on a cynical level, it felt kind of depressing to think that the only people interested in some genuinely revelatory ideas are the ones who just want to package and sell them. But, to give them the benefit of the doubt, within the business world, there is a lot of interest in self-help and general self-improvement, so there’s a good chance they’d be open to the same kind paradigm shift Mark Kurlansky’s book provoked for me.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World goes all the way back to when the fish in question was first being hunted by cultures around the world and explains how it became an invaluable food stock for survival. It highlights Vikings and secretive groups of Spanish sailors who may, in fact, have travelled as far as the New World in order to catch the fish, long before Columbus and his cronies got there and progresses all the way up to present times to highlight how our dependency on it has shaped the policies, politics, and global economy we know today. Most popular history books seem to focus on conflict as the driving force behind our lives, but Cod gives you the strong sense that the resources themselves are the linchpin of social change. Summarised like this you might think that it is actually the perfect book for a budding businessman and of little interest in any other regard. But what it talks about has much more profound implications, at least for me.
There’s a section of the book where it describes a small rock sticking out of the Atlantic ocean, no bigger than a house, from what I can remember. But it’s become a contested piece of real estate among the likes of Ireland, the UK and Iceland, since whoever claims ownership of it has the right to fish millions of dollars worth of fish in the area. Once again, this might sound like something only of interest to economists, but if I’m to borrow a line from Margaret Atwood for a moment, I think it’s the perfect example of, ‘Context is all.’ That stupid rock was just sitting there for a million years before it gained any importance. And in all likelihood, it’ll become immaterial to humanity when the fish is hunted to extinction in a couple more years’ time. Really, if the rock could have any thoughts on the matter, it would probably say that our relationship with it is just a fleeting moment. After all, when both cod and humanity are gone the rock will probably still be there. This isn’t exactly an overt line of narrative in Kurlansky’s book, but it’s certainly in tone with the overarching message that humanities growth has occurred on a timescale we don’t always appreciate, which is a point I come back to often when I put my own life in context to the grand scheme of things.
Sayonara Bar by Susan Barker
Of course, while some of the most mind-blowing books I’ve read are non-fiction, fiction is still my first love. Like I said already, there’s a ton of novels that can change your mindset in lots of different ways, it’s just that most of them are already kind of well known. Not so in the case of Susan Barker’s first novel.
Sayonara Bar brings together the story of three people in Osaka, Japan whose lives begin to intertwine; These include an english hostess whose job it is to entertain men that have a taste for leggy blondes, an introverted salaryman who’s haunted by the death of his wife, and a young eccentric who believes he’s transcended mere human understanding of the universe and has developed the ability to comprehend the world on a fourth dimension. The first two characters are well executed in their own right, but what makes the book mind-blowing is this third one’s perception of reality.
I’ve seen a lot of sci fi that explores characters who’ve achieved a whole new understanding of the universe. Sometimes these stories dance around what exactly the character is seeing, while others attempt to demonstrate how intelligent the character has become by having them do something impossible, like hack into a super-secure government network. Sayonara Bar doesn’t go there, and really, implies that the character in question is just dealing with a mental illness of sorts. Nonetheless, Barker does a fantastic job of describing what it could be like to truly comprehend the multidimensional nature of our existence which I think is more than enough to crack open the head of any reader. There’s one point where the character in question describes what it was like to be struck by transformation for the first time, standing in a grocery story, seeing the people around him burst open like Picasso paintings, circulatory systems and organs splayed out in such a manner that he can see every aspect of their biology at work as they go about shopping amongst the shelves. Overall, I’d say the book is a pretty cool take on omniscience and it does it in such an entertaining way that it’s a strong contender for being one of the best page-turner novels I’ve read.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
There’s an old Arthur C. Clarke quote in which he says sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. With Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny takes this idea to its ultimate extreme.
Set on another planet, Lord of Light is a story in which humans have developed the ability to essentially make themselves gods. They’re able to fly, live with untold wealth and even be reborn when they die. What’s more, they’ve gone so far as to model themselves after the Hindu pantheon of gods and subjugated the rest of the people on the planet to second class positions. It’s hardly an ideal state of affairs for those at the bottom of the pyramid, but luckily enough, along comes a character who decides to model himself after Buddha and begins a religious revolution that threatens the old status quo.
Lord of Light is hardly the only story to showcase an advanced race of people playing the part of gods. Everything from the Wizard of Oz to Stargate has played with the subject. But Lord of Light stands apart from the crowd by refusing to describe the technology behind all the advances and making you stand knee-deep in the mythology of the religions it appropriates from. Essentially, this means that the technology seen throughout is rarely described as such, so that a flying machine is more likely to be described as a magic carpet and laser blasters become, ‘a force-like magic that can fall upon those against whom they were turned.’
The work is such a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy that you practically feel like you’re walking through a fever dream more than a novel. All of this makes it for a mind-blowing read in and of itself, but when you link it back to our own world and wonder how a modern Buddha might threaten the political and religious establishments of today, it takes on a whole other meaning.
No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War by Hiroo Onoda
Last but not least, if we delve back into the world of nonfiction for a moment, there’s Hiroo Onoda’s memoir, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, the story of how he refused to believe that Japan had surrendered at the end of the Second World War and kept on fighting from the jungle bush of the Philippines. Though at first Onoda committed to this with three other soldiers, by the end of the thirty-year span, his companions had either died or wandered off, leaving him alone to continue the struggle, mostly by committing guerrilla attacks on local people, thirty of whom were killed in their hunt for the man over many decades.
I’ve seen reactions to Onoda’s memoir that both condemn and forgive what he did. How Japan acted in the build-up to and course of World War II easily compare with the crimes of other axis states, so the soldier’s misguided actions have become a bit of an extension of that – You know, the berserk foot soldier from an empire that committed no small acts of evil in a time that wasn’t short on competition. Personally though, I think the main takeaway, besides the absurdity of Onoda’s task, is that to a lesser or greater extent what happened to him was a trap any of us could have fallen into. By all accounts, he wasn’t a particularly bloodthirsty soldier, just a loyal one, brainwashed by the wartime propaganda of a country that insisted it’s emperor was a god. It’s crazy to me what people can put themselves through for an idea, empowering to know that you too have the potential to dedicate yourself to such a monumental task, and a sobering reminder to examine whether your goals are noble or woefully misguided. From Onoda’s hunkered down position in the jungle it certainly wasn’t possible for him to get a clear picture of reality. Though maybe he would have been able to come home a little sooner if he’d taken the chance to talk to some of the Phillipine population he’d demonised for so long.