The best books to show that you only think you know who you are

James Hider Author Of Ripe
By James Hider

Who am I?

As a long-time foreign correspondent, I have found myself in some strange situations: watching thousands of people beat themselves bloody with flails at a religious festival in Iraq that was then attacked by suicide bombers, hanging out with fanatical Israeli settlers on the hilltops of the West Bank, meeting Indigenous tribes in Brazil fighting off cattle ranchers or exploring a feudal commune that lived on a landfill on the edge of Mexico City. The myths that we tell ourselves about who we are feed into all these strange tales and have led me to read widely to try to understand where they might come from. 

I wrote...


By James Hider,

Book cover of Ripe

What is my book about?

Since the beginning of time, people have struggled to find the meaning of their lives, and why we are here on Earth – to serve the gods, engrave our names in history, raise ours kids well, or just be a faithful partner. But when alien ships appear out of the sky and vacuum up 50,000 people before disappearing into the blue again, they serve up an entirely different interpretation of what our true purpose might really be.

Ripe is a fast-paced science-fiction thriller, but is born out of a lifelong fascination about what people think they are, and why they believe that. 

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The books I picked & why

The Denial of Death

By Ernest Becker,

Book cover of The Denial of Death

Why did I love this book?

I first read this Pulitzer Prize winner in my early twenties, and it blew my mind, almost literally: I was in a bar in post-revolutionary Prague describing to a friend the book’s central idea – that human character, and the culture it lives in,  are both effectively an illusionary construct that we build around ourselves as a means of denying that we are all doomed to vanish.

As I explained it, the idea suddenly made perfect sense to me and I felt my entire personality briefly dissolve.

Years later, covering wars in the Middle East, it struck me as ironic that we are so afraid of dying that we build gods and afterlives to comfort ourselves, but then end up dying for those imaginary comforts.

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 Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology

Why did I love this book?

Having met with terrorists, kidnappers, land-grabbers, soldiers, and several outright psychopaths in my career, I have often wondered what makes people tick.

Neuropsychologist Paul Broks’ eloquent and philosophical book delves into the question of what makes you “you.” The physicality of the self is often striking – one of Broks’ patients had a fall and damaged the left side of his brain and became an indifferent, emotionless automaton: another injured the opposite side of his brain and became so effusively emotional and empathetic that his wife had to stop him giving his coat to homeless people whenever he left the house.

By Paul Broks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Into the Silent Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

The Invention of the Jewish People

By Shlomo Sand, Yael Lotan (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of the Jewish People

Why did I love this book?

There’s an old cliche that the victor always get to write the history, yet probably the most enduring story in the world was written by a group of people who pretty much lost every war they fought throughout their long history – the Jewish people.

They lost wars to the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who carted them off to settle in their far-flung empires, were enslaved by the Egyptians, then lost a revolt against the Roman occupiers and were – allegedly -- driven out of their homeland for thousands of years before a Biblical return to the promised land.

Shlomo Sand unearths some fascinating variations on this foundational story, giving a whole new perspective on Israel, the Bible, and the endless conflict in the Middle East.  

By Shlomo Sand, Yael Lotan (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of the Jewish People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A historical tour de force, The Invention of the Jewish People offers a groundbreaking account of Jewish and Israeli history. Exploding the myth that there was a forced Jewish exile in the first century at the hands of the Romans, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argues that most modern Jews descend from converts, whose native lands were scattered across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
In this iconoclastic work, which spent nineteen weeks on the Israeli bestseller list and won the coveted Aujourd'hui Award in France, Sand provides the intellectual foundations for a new vision of Israel's future.

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Why did I love this book?

Forget everything you’ve been told about “prehistory:” the tales of small bands of hunter gatherers living isolated lives as noble savages.

This huge book up-ends everything you thought you knew about the 200,000-odd years when our ancestors were believed to have been wandering around living in either a garden of Eden or a savage hellscape pitting man against nature.

The authors say it’s impossible they all lived exactly the same way for so long a time, and dig up evidence that they had in a vast and fascinating variety of societies, building monumental structures and often actively rejecting farming because they’d seen what a drag it was.

They claim the modern democracy that emerged from the Enlightenment was less to do with ancient Greece and more to do with Europeans interacting with egalitarian Native American nations.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…

Book cover of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Why did I love this book?

Before the 1960s drug scene and Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie culture, magic mushrooms, and LSD were being hailed as the cure for everything from alcoholism and depression to the fear of death among the terminally ill.

Tests were run at prestigious universities, intellectuals like Aldous Huxley were knocking back psychedelics and LSD was touted on the cover of Time magazine. Then drugs became the centerpiece of the counter-culture in the midst of the Vietnam War, scaring the establishment into declaring a war on drugs.

What was being vaunted as a revolution in consciousness and spiritualism was forced underground like a covert religion, which is now re-emerging among people interested in other states of consciousness. I’ve always been scared of drugs, but it made me want to try – in a very controlled environment – magic mushrooms.

By Michael Pollan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How to Change Your Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now on Netflix as a 4-part documentary series!

"Pollan keeps you turning the pages . . . cleareyed and assured." -New York Times

A #1 New York Times Bestseller, New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018, and New York Times Notable Book

A brilliant and brave investigation into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs--and the spellbinding story of his own life-changing psychedelic experiences

When Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such…

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