10 Essential Books for Thought-Provoking Summer Reading

Everything from cutting-edge scientific ideas to a new philosophy of learning to art that honors living in the moment

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Memorial Day weekend has come, which means summer has officially begun. And what's summer without a good summer reading list? So here it is--a cross-disciplinary selection of the 10 most essential cognitive fertilizers for a season of creative and intellectual growth. (Want more? Don't hesitate to revisit last year's list, full of timeless gems to catch up on.)

1. THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD

The future of information is something I'm deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, by iconic science writer James Gleick, is easily the most ambitious, compelling, insert-word-of-intellectual-awe-here book to read this year, illustrating the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity's infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

"We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground," he writes. "But it has always been there." ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling to me is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Full review here.

2. AN OPTIMIST'S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians, and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today's culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist's Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer "What's Next?" -- an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise, and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

"This is a book that won't tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you're feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn't be the case -- it could be a Renaissance." ~ Mark Stevenson

An Optimist's Tour of the Future comes as an auspicious yet grounded vision for what we've previously explored in discussing the future of the Internet and what the Web is doing to our brains.

Full review here.

3. LIVE NOW

Keeping with the theme of optimism -- because, really, who wants to dampen sunshine and the summer wind with another dystopian downer? -- here's a lovely project born, just like Stevenson's, out of a stark confrontation with mortality. When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing -- an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold in the vein of Everything Is Going To Be OK, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of what we all semi-secretly want to believe but the cynics in us all too often discount.

'Live Humbly' by Mikey Burton

'Break Your Routine' by Mikey Burton

'Overflowing Optimism' by Chad Kouri

"Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me -- the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life." ~ Eric Smith

Kirstin Butler's full review, with more images, here.

4. THE INTERNET OF ELSEWHERE

Barely halfway though, 2011 has already been one of the most tumultuous years for global politics and civic unrest in modern history. And the most dramatic changes have taken place in societies where emerging technology is disrupting how citizen relate to their government and one another. While countries like Libya and Egypt have been the eye of the media storm, some of the most fascinating effects of these shifts have been in countries still off the mainstream radar. In The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World, California-born, Germany-based technology journalist Cyrus Farivar explores the role of the internet as a social, political and economic catalyst through compelling case studies from four unexpected countries: Iran, Estonia, South Korea, and Senegal.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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