The best books on individualism

6 authors have picked their favorite books about individualism and why they recommend each book.

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The Upswing

By Robert D. Putnam,

Book cover of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett provide an analysis of the past 125 years of American history that makes a significant contribution to the growing movement to reform American Society. They carefully analyze trends in American life in a way that delineates the tangle of problems we are currently experiencing while at the same time offering hope that we can overcome them. The essence of their analysis is that across a wide variety of societal indicators, the past century and a quarter has involved an upswing in prosocial or communitarian norms and practices, beginning in the progressive era of the early twentieth century. That was followed by a reversal toward less communitarian and more individualistic and self-centered norms and practices.

Who am I?

I have spent my career studying how we can make our world more nurturing for every person. We can build a society that ensures that every child has the skills, interests, values, and health habits they need to lead a productive life in caring relationships with others. I created Values to Action to make this a reality in communities around the world. We have more than 200 members across the country who are working together to reform our society so that it has less poverty, economic inequality, discrimination, and many more happy and thriving families. 

I wrote...

Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone

By Anthony Biglan,

Book cover of Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone

What is my book about?

This book explains how and why the US became the country with the highest level of child poverty and inequality and what we can do about it. It offers a vision and a road map for how we can create a society in which every person is respected.

Habits of the Heart

By Robert N. Bellah,

Book cover of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

The idea of citizenship is vague and can be complicated. Sometimes it refers to a person recognized as a natural-born or naturalized denizen of a nation, sometimes the right to cast a ballot, sometimes law-abiding behavior, sometimes civic engagement, and, too seldom, engaging in public work. Bellah and his associates conducted a series of interviews with ordinary citizens across the US to ascertain their understanding and values with respect to private and public (citizenly) life.

Overwhelmingly, those interviewed (mostly white, middle-class Americans) attached great value to their private lives, while acknowledging the importance of civic participation. They commonly expressed a belief that they should be publicly involved. However, when they discussed public life, they had a limited range of ideas about what that participation might look like, especially compared to the rich descriptions they offered for private life and why they valued it so. 

Among others, Habits raises the question…

Who am I?

I am the grandson of a political refugee. My grandfather was a gunrunner in the Greek resistance to Turkish occupation of Chios prior to the 1st Balkan War. His guerilla activity placed his life in danger. He fled pursuit by the Turks, which led to his eventual emigration to the United States. From childhood my family experience was of lively discussions that were inflected by my grandfather’s experience of resistance and US citizenship. They sparked my fascination with the role of citizen voices in a democracy. That was a main focus of my academic career, teaching rhetoric for more than 40 years at Penn State University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

I wrote...

Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres

By Gerard A. Hauser,

Book cover of Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres

What is my book about?

Contemporary pundits and news media give greater publicity to views expressed in official forums than in lay arenas, equate public opinion with what opinion polls measure, and critique the discourse of citizen voices in political public spheres on a narrow view of rationality. I wrote Vernacular Voices as a challenge to this nearly exclusive focus on institutional forums and the voices of those with power when describing the politics of a liberal democracy. Ordinary citizens may not have access to official forums, but they have means beyond opinion polls to express their views and contest those of others.

By moving back and forth between theoretical issues and case studies, Vernacular Voices seeks insight into the form and function of publics, public spheres, and public opinion.

The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand,

Book cover of The Fountainhead

This classic’s background is integrity, while its foreground is architecture.

Howard Roark is an innovative architect who always follows his own ideas over what other people think, even when everyone turns against him.

Reading this story never fails to motivate me. Achievement, striving for perfection, and determination are qualities I love. There’s a powerful message here for any individual who prizes these values and an exciting demonstration of how human thought, like the form of a building, must always follow function.

Who am I?

I love these books because they hold thinking as the highest virtue, and they value the rights of the individual. I like to challenge the norm. These stories seek to preserve and enhance human life through art and science.

I wrote...

Loss Of Reason

By Miles A. Maxwell,

Book cover of Loss Of Reason

What is my book about?

Distant for many years, Franklin out of Pennsylvania and his step-brother Everon out of Nevada are connected by a single link: Their sister Cynthia. Enter The Nightmare—A nuclear bomb is detonated in New York. Banker, wife, mother, Cynthia lives in New York.

The military has quarantined the city, its bridges and tunnels destroyed or blocked. Easterly winds have forced the bomb's radiation cloud out over Long Island. But the wind is about to change. Franklin climbs mountains and truly understands people. Everon can fly anything. And Cynthia's brothers are determined to find her. If it were your sister, what would you do?

The Machinery of Freedom

By David Friedman,

Book cover of The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism

A key insight of economics is the power of markets to organize human affairs. The Machinery of Freedom takes that insight to the limit. How might society work if even governmental functions were organized using markets? Friedman’s answer will surprise and challenge you. And whether you come away convinced or not, you will come away with a better understanding of markets.

Who am I?

Peter T. Leeson is the author of the award-winning The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates and Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better than You Think. He is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. Big Think counted Peter among “Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists.”

I wrote...

WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

By Peter T. Leeson,

Book cover of WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

What is my book about?

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

From one exhibit to the next, you’ll overhear Leeson’s riotous exchanges with the patrons and learn how to use economic thinking to reveal the hidden sense behind seemingly senseless human behavior—including your own. Leeson shows that far from “irrational” or “accidents of history,” humanity’s most outlandish rituals are ingenious solutions to pressing problems—developed by clever people, driven by incentives, and tailor-made for their time and place. 

Decoding the New Consumer Mind

By Kit Yarrow,

Book cover of Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy

Marketing psychologist Kit Yarrow explains how technology has rewired our brains, making us more individualistic, isolated, emotional, and distrustful. This is not a pessimistic book—it’s a practical guide to addressing customers’ desires and insecurities in a time of deep cultural shifts. Not only has she done her homework, but she also presents the results with lightness and clarity.

Who am I?

In my younger days I was a graphic designer and copywriter, approaching brands largely from a creative viewpoint. Over the years I’ve discovered that creative work is much more powerful when harnessed to business strategy, and business strategy is much more powerful when combined with exceptional creative work. I’ve characterized the gulf between strategy and creativity as the “brand gap,” which has led to eight books on branding and a school for professional mastery called Level C.

I wrote...

The Brand Gap

By Marty Neumeier,

Book cover of The Brand Gap

What is my book about?

My goal was to write a book that busy professionals could finish on a short plane ride, but still go deeper with every re-read. I used the visual language of the boardroom—charts, diagrams, illustrations, and the fewest number of words—to present the first unified theory of brand. Here you’ll learn the five critical disciplines for bridging the gap between business strategy and customer experience. Over 25 million people have read the book so far, and it’s now the basis of a popular certificate program called Level C.

The Once and Future Liberal

By Mark Lilla,

Book cover of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

Lilla’s goal in this book is to show how identity politics threatens the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party. He argues that the party has thrown citizenship—the “we” in political conversation—out the window in favor of “personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender,” and that this will be electorally disastrous for the Democrats. But Lilla’s arguments show that it is disastrous for our national conversation as well. When we give personal identity weight in an argument (Lilla is superb at eviscerating the shopworn phrase “speaking as an X”) we turn the intellectual clock back to premodern times when arguments were settled by power and force.

Who am I?

I’m an emeritus professor living in Portland, Oregon, officially retired, but still writing articles and books. Although I am a lifelong US citizen, I spent the heart of my career as the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. Most of my books are about aspects of rationality, especially cognitive biases. I have also worked on tools for measuring individual differences in rationality. Lately, I have focused on ways to reduce political polarization by taming the myside bias that plagues all human thought, and by reforming institutions (especially universities) that are currently failing in their role as knowledge adjudicators. 

I wrote...

The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

What is my book about?

Myside bias is the tendency to evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our own beliefs. When studying the cognitive biases that indicate poor thinking, my research group discovered that myside bias was the strangest of all the cognitive biases. Unlike virtually all the other biases, the avoidance of myside bias is not correlated with high intelligence, education, or knowledge. It is just as prevalent among the cognitive elites of society as it is among nonelites.

Faculty in universities don’t recognize their own biases, and this has contributed to declining public trust in university research. It is also a factor in fueling our current ideologically polarized politics. 

People of Paradox

By Michael Kammen,

Book cover of People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization

For starters an absolutely brilliant book title: beautifully capturing the complexities of American culture, at once compelled by soaring social aspirations while tending to act out of pure individualism often with disdain for social impact. The narrative abounds in identifying seemingly contradictory national impulses – imported vs. Indigenous traditions, socialism vs. libertarianism, utopian vs. prosaic undertakings, the welcoming of and resisting of others – with the author arguing that through the interaction of such opposite impulses over time the particular genius of American society evolved. Kammen delights in reminding Americans of our “unstable pluralism,” and supports William James’ conclusion that “Americanism” continues to be a “volatile mixture of hopeful good and curable bad.”  Overall impressive scholarship and a delightful read.   

Who am I?

My interest in the topic of these books has grown across four decades of teaching about cities and urban planning at Harvard, and in active practice as an architect and urban designer. At any moment a city’s very physicality reflects both a culture’s aspirations and the limitations of that culture to achieve those aspirations. Cities are, in a way, compromises in time: among efforts to preserve a past, overcome the challenges of the present, and pursuit of plans for the future. My book focuses on the role of American ideals especially in city and community building, while the five I recommend offer crucial counterpoints about the difficulties and setbacks encountered in reaching for national ideals.  

I wrote...

City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

By Alex Krieger,

Book cover of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

What is my book about?

The book portrays the American inclination to experiment with forms of settlement, evident in both utopian and pragmatic efforts at reconceiving how and in what shape our towns, cities, and urban regions should grow. Such aspirational approaches to community and city-building have served as a parallel to the political efforts to establish a republic dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As post-revolutionary America expanded the frontiers of social and political institutions, the reevaluation of old-world institutions and traditions also extended to pondering how better to gather spatially in communities. 

Each of the chapters explores an effort, cultural trend, or belief about what makes a good neighborhood, a better town, a more humane city, and about some of the consequences of proceeding to build such places. 

A Girl's Story

By Annie Ernaux, Alison L. Strayer (translator),

Book cover of A Girl's Story

In A Girl’s Story Annie Ernaux – the author of many memoirs about her parents, her lower-class background, and her sexual life – revisits the summer when she was 18 and a summer camp counselor. For the first time away from home, she was so eager for love that she ended up pursuing a man who dumped and humiliated her. Ernaux has a unique way to find lost time again. She scrutinizes the past with such a precise scalpel that it allows us to identify with the lost young girl and to share her confusion and shame. 

Who am I?

I am a French novelist, the author of fifteen novels, many of which are memoirs, so I am considered a specialist of "autofiction" in France, of fiction written about oneself. But I also love writing about others, as you can see in my novel on David Hockney. Beauvoir, Sarraute and Ernaux were my models, Laurens and Appanah are my colleagues. Three of the books I picked would be called memoirs in the States, and the other two novels. In France, they are in the same category. All these women write beautifully about childhood and womanhood. I love their writing because it is both intimate and universal, full of emotion, but in a very sober and precise style. 

I wrote...

Life of David Hockney

By Catherine Cusset, Teresa Fagan (translator),

Book cover of Life of David Hockney

What is my book about?

A biography written like a novel, Life of David Hockney offers an insightful overview of a painter whose art is as accessible as it is compelling. Born in 1937 in the North of England, Hockney had to fight to become an artist and moved to the States in the sixties. A figurative painter when abstract art was in fashion, he became very successful before the age of 40 but continued experimenting with new forms, including technology. Even during the AIDS epidemic years, his passion to create was never deterred by heartbreak, illness, or loss. This meticulously researched novel draws an intimate, moving portrait of the most famous British painter alive.

Imaginary Homelands

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

A series of essays and observations by one of literature’s most incendiary writers, written during the decade of his greatest creativity which ended in a life-changing fatwa. Rushdie takes aim at diverse subjects such as racism in Britain, religious fanaticism and literature, the cult of individualism, writers conferences, and trivia about other writers. He holds a candle for the colonial writer who infused the English language with a multitude of thoughts, words, and phrases, and claims that the novel should be subversive, not representative. He also punches back at accusers and justifies his most vilified novel, The Satanic Verses, as a work of dissent not of abuse or insult, and explains its imagery and symbols.

Who am I?

I have been a writer for more than twenty years and have favored pursuing “truth in fiction” rather than “money in formula.” As author Edward St. Aubyn quotes: “Money has value because it can be exchanged for something else. Art only has value because it can’t.” I find books about writers are closer to my lived experience and connect me intimately with both the characters and their author.

I wrote...

Circles in the Spiral

By Shane Joseph,

Book cover of Circles in the Spiral

What is my book about?

A psychological thriller, a black comedy, a libidinous romp, a tortured past coming full circle, a writer dealing with looming irrelevance and the dreaded “block” – what is this book really about? Circles in the Spiral threads all these spiraling themes into a tale of redemption set during a fake news campaign to sabotage the Canadian Federal Election of 2019.  

Most importantly, it is a novel about second chances, a theme that plays out consistently in the author’s work.

Age of Ambition

By Evan Osnos,

Book cover of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

I first heard about this book when it won the 2014 National Book Award in nonfiction. After reading it, it became clear to me this was one of the best books written about China. Evan Osnos, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has delivered a coup de force that unravels the social dynamics of Chinese society. In recent memory, no serious book has attempted to do the same. You will learn about the clash of individualism vs. plutocracy in present-day China and how that manifests on the street. You will also understand the economic ailments that afflict modern China. It is beautifully written.

Who am I?

Hawkes (MD, BScN, MGA) is a novelist, YouTuber, and former analyst for the NATO Association of Canada. His writings have appeared in Heater, The Raven Chronicles, ArabLit, and many other magazines and publications. His recent espionage novel, The Haze, is set in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

I wrote...

The Haze

By Burnaby Hawkes,

Book cover of The Haze

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of a CIA operation in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, The Haze follows CIA agent Hector Kane as he finds his career and marriage at stake when he receives a phone call from a Saudi prince who claims that Hector’s wife is a Chinese spy.

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