The best books about how culture makes us do crazy self-destructive things (that seem like good ideas at the time)

Why am I passionate about this?

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up expecting to spend that day – and the rest of my academic career – leisurely studying the interplay of culture and individual temperament in second language acquisition. As the rest of that terrible day unfolded, however, my research up to that point suddenly seemed very small and almost decadently privileged. Recruiting the rudimentary cultural anthropology toolbox I had already amassed, I took a deep breath and plunged into the rabbit hole of studying the role of culture in human conflict. Twenty-two years later, using my Japan base and relevant language skills, my research has focused on the Japanese experience in World War II.


I wrote...

Blossoms In The Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze

By Mordecai George Sheftall,

Book cover of Blossoms In The Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze

What is my book about?

Drawing on firsthand, intimate interviews with the few remaining survivors of Japan's kamikaze corps, a thought-provoking study offers a revealing glimpse into the lives, attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets of former kamikaze pilots who never completed their suicidal missions.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Denial of Death

Mordecai George Sheftall Why did I love this book?

Have you ever read a book that literally changed your life? I have, and that book is The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974.

Becker’s basic thesis is that the institution of “culture” has evolved not so much to facilitate our physical survival (the orthodox viewpoint), but rather, as an elaborate symbolic framework that psychologically protects us from our species’ unique awareness of our own inevitable mortality, both individually and collectively.

Becker basically blew the top of my head off when I first read him during my PhD work in the mid-Oughts, and he remains a major influence on my teaching and research to this day.

By Ernest Becker,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Denial of Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life's work,The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker's brilliant and impassioned answer to the "why" of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie -- man's refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.


Book cover of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

Mordecai George Sheftall Why did I love this book?

Solomon et al experienced eureka moments similar to my own when they read Ernest Becker as young social psychologists in the 1980s.

Combining their research efforts, they set out to provide “hard” empirical evidence that would support Becker’s cultural thesis. In the process, they developed what eventually became known as “Terror Management Theory” (TMT).

This went on to become one of the biggest influences on social psychology since Leon Festinger’s 1950s work on cognitive dissonance, enjoying perhaps its greatest notoriety in the first few years after 9/11.

The Worm at the Core is an excellent “one-stop shopping” choice as a primer for basic TMT. Once you add Solomon et al’s ideas to your mental toolbox, you will never look at the world the same way again.

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Worm at the Core as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Proof of a ground-breaking psychological theory: that the fear of death is the hidden motive behind almost everything we do.

'A joy ... The Worm at the Core asks how humans can learn to live happily while being intelligently aware of our impending doom, how knowledge of death affects the decisions we make every day, and how we can stop fear and anxiety overwhelming us' Charlotte Runcie, Daily Telegraph

'Provocative, lucid and fascinating' Financial Times

'An important, superbly readable and potentially life-changing book . . . suggests one should confront mortality in order to live an authentic life' Tim Lott,…


Book cover of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Mordecai George Sheftall Why did I love this book?

Go to any park or public square in any city in the world and you are likely to see statues of people so venerated because they fought/died in some war. Why do we mythologize war, our species’ most destructive collective behavior?

In this 2002 book, written in the second years of the Global War on Terror, American journalist Chris Hedges gives a chilling explanation that, for me, dovetailed perfectly with my readings of Becker and TMT: “Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in society to achieve meaning.”

By Chris Hedges,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living."Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows…


Book cover of Collapse

Mordecai George Sheftall Why did I love this book?

Have you ever encountered an idea in a book that made such a lasting impression on you that, almost like the “flashbulb” memory of a life – or world-changing event, you can remember the exact circumstances of where you were when you first read it?

Jared Diamond’s Collapse – which I picked up at an airport bookshop as “light reading” for a long flight – ended up providing me with just such an experience. The book holds that culture can fatally inure us, like so many slowly (and initially comfortably) boiling frogs, to the existential threat of environmental destruction, particularly in the context of the overexploitation of natural resources.

Diamond’s account of the last days of Easter Island civilization is particularly harrowing, and has haunted me ever since.

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Collapse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive is a visionary study of the mysterious downfall of past civilizations.

Now in a revised edition with a new afterword, Jared Diamond's Collapse uncovers the secret behind why some societies flourish, while others founder - and what this means for our future.

What happened to the people who made the forlorn long-abandoned statues of Easter Island?
What happened to the architects of the crumbling Maya pyramids?
Will we go the same way, our skyscrapers one day standing derelict and overgrown like the…


Book cover of The Meme Machine

Mordecai George Sheftall Why did I love this book?

In his seminal The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggested that humans (and all other living organisms) exist to further the evolutionary fitness of the self-replicating information packets (“genes”) carried in our DNA – not the other way around.

In the closing section of his book, Dawkins theorized that a similar dynamic might hold true in cultural evolution, playing out through another type of self-replicating information packet, which he termed “memes”.

Some twenty years later, as the dawn of the Internet Age was giving new relevance to this idea, scholar Susan Blackmore took it up and ran with it, essentially singlehandedly creating the new academic field of “memetics” with the publication of The Meme Machine in 1999.

By Susan Blackmore,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Meme Machine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans are extraordinary creatures, with the unique ability among animals to imitate and so copy from one another ideas, habits, skills, behaviours, inventions, songs, and stories. These are all memes, a term first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. Memes, like genes, are replicators, and this enthralling book is an investigation of whether this link between genes and memes can lead to important discoveries about the nature of
the inner self. Confronting the deepest questions about our inner selves, with all our emotions, memories, beliefs, and decisions, Susan Blackmore makes a compelling case for…


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Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

By Lisa McCourt,

Book cover of Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

Lisa McCourt Author Of Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I wasn’t always a joyful person. But today I’m freaking sunshine, and full-out committed to being an effective member of the team that’s elevating the level of love and joy in the world! My positions on that team have included writing dozens of mega-selling books (my own, and as a ghostwriter), founding my online Joy School at LisaMcCourt.com, hosting my Do Joy! podcast, and collaborating on projects with many other popular teachers of consciousness and joyful living. My books have sold over 9 million copies, earned 7 publishing industry awards, and garnered over 9,000 glowing Amazon reviews. Joy is my jam. I know a joyful book when I read one! 

Lisa's book list on igniting joy despite all the crap in your life

What is my book about?

We all want peace. We all want a life of joy and meaning. We want to feel blissfully comfortable in our own skin, moving through the world with grace and ease. But how many of us are actively taking the steps to create such a life? 

In Free Your Joy, millions-selling author and podcaster Lisa McCourt takes readers through the life-altering principles of vibration elevation that she has taught for 20 years through her online Joy School, sharing her unique formula for raising your “joy setpoint” to cultivate authentic, lasting peace and fulfillment in your daily life. Joy is…

Free Your Joy: The Twelve Keys to Sustainable Happiness

By Lisa McCourt,

What is this book about?

Bestselling author and creator of Joy School Lisa McCourt outlines her unique formula for sustainable happiness, offering a year's worth of activities, prompts, and techniques that raise your "joy setpoint" so you can cultivate authentic, lasting peace and fulfillment in your daily life.

Unprecedented global events have left many of us feeling depleted, depressed, isolated, and disconnected from many of the things that made us happy. Lisa McCourt, host of the Do Joy! podcast and founder of Joy School, helps people raise their joy setpoints regardless of what is happening around them.

Learning about joy is one thing, but it's…


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Interested in death, military history, and civilization?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about death, military history, and civilization.

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