The best books for understanding the world we live in

Who am I?

I want to make the world a better place. After many failed attempts to achieve this goal, I realized that I didn’t understand the world well enough to make a positive impact. Serendipitously, I started working with Farnam Street, a company that is dedicated to mastering the best of what other people have figured out. One of our most significant projects is The Great Mental Models book series, which consists of four volumes of fundamentals about the world. Learning and using the models to co-write this book series is how I found all the books on this list. I plan to give a set to each of my children to give them a jump start on living effectively. 

I wrote...

The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts

By Rhiannon Beaubien, Shane Parrish,

Book cover of The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts

What is my book about?

The Great Mental Models project is the clearest way to change the way you see the world, avoid problems before they happen, and make better decisions. The series consists of four volumes that cover the core, timeless, ideas that you should have learned in school and applies them to real life. This instant Wall Street Journal bestseller is the breakthrough guide you need to improve your thinking.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Thinking in Systems: International Bestseller

By Donella Meadows,

Book cover of Thinking in Systems: International Bestseller

Why this book?

Systems are everywhere. They are an inescapable part of life. One of the best things we can do to improve ourselves and the world is develop our understanding of them.

Thinking in Systems is my go-to start point for everything systems. The writing is clear, and the stories are meaningful. Donella Meadows does an amazing job of breaking down systems, exposing their connections, and building them back up to show us how we can solve the problems that are important to us.

This book opened my eyes in so many ways, by showing me connections between what I do and the results I get that I never knew existed. If you’ve ever looked around and wondered why the world is the way it is, this book will give you the tools to find answers.

On Dialogue

By David Bohm,

Book cover of On Dialogue

Why this book?

I often think that so many problems in the world could be solved with better communication. More and more we stick with people who think like us, because the challenge of bridging ideological gaps seems too great.

So, how to talk to people who have values that are in opposition to yours? How can you connect with people whose experiences have given them a life that you can’t relate to? In On Dialogue, David Bohm gives us a way to tear apart the fear and hesitation of the no-man’s land between ourselves and people we don’t understand.

There are always people with whom we don’t know how to communicate. We can’t let that stop us from trying. Bohm’s book will give you the tools to do just that.

Holistic Wealth: 32 Life Lessons to Help You Find Purpose, Prosperity, and Happiness

By Keisha Blair,

Book cover of Holistic Wealth: 32 Life Lessons to Help You Find Purpose, Prosperity, and Happiness

Why this book?

We are all going to lose someone we love. We are all going to go through the pain of people we care about dying. We are all going to contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder if what we’re doing has much of a point, if we could do better, and if we could make life a little less painful somehow.

Keisha Blair lost her husband when they were both in their thirties, when their son was 8 weeks old. She shares what she learned about building from that wreckage in Holistic Wealth. The book puts the pain of loss front and center, and then offers insights from stories and interviews on how to take care of our money, our relationships, and our spirituality, and thus ourselves.

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life

By Emily Nagoski,

Book cover of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life

Why this book?

Emily Nagoski’s overall message is that we’re all built differently—physically and mentally—and we can all carve out a path that works for us.

So knowing how you’re built is useful for making choices in love and sex that work for you. Nagoski looks through a range of lenses at everything from basic anatomy, to all the wonderful, satisfying ways we can love and be loved as sexual beings. There’s no one way to do it, any of it, and thus the good news is there are lots of ways we can enjoy being in our bodies. While no one book could ever capture the diversity and complexity of human sexuality, Come As You Are helped me to better understand the world I live in. I learned more about my body after reading this book than I did from nearly forty years living in it.

The Country of First Boys: And Other Essays

By Amartya Sen,

Book cover of The Country of First Boys: And Other Essays

Why this book?

Most people, I think, when they start to understand the world better, they start to see the endless ways that it could be improved. Some of us though, we get stuck in the ideas of improvement, and never figure out how to just get on with it.

Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize and has other thought-provoking books. But I like this one. The Country of First Boys is a series of essays that are technically about various issues in India, but which are easily extrapolated to depressingly common situations in most other countries. Central to the essays is the theme of not letting the idea of a perfectly just society get in the way of the business of reducing injustice. We can debate utopia until we take our last breath, but in the meantime, Sen inspires us that there is much we can do now to improve the world we live in.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in health, sustainable development, and India?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about health, sustainable development, and India.

Health Explore 60 books about health
Sustainable Development Explore 10 books about sustainable development
India Explore 239 books about India

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like You Are the One: A Bold Adventure in Finding Purpose, Discovering the Real You, and Loving Fully, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, and How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job if you like this list.