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Writers Read: Books to Stimulate Your Brain by Bob Sitze

I met Bob many years ago, when I was a graduate student. Over the years he has served as my mentor, friend, project manager, fellow author, and book recommender. Then as now, he never fails to surprise me with his unending curiosity about ideas. Bob’s here today to talk about the nonfiction books that will stimulate your brain. Comment on the blog by next Thursday for a chance to win a copy of one of his books!

BobWriters Read: Books to Stimulate Your Brain by Bob Sitze

As an avid reader, I cruise the NEW BOOKS section of my local public library. The purpose of this tactic is simple: I want to be surprised by writers who have explored subjects I may have never considered. The five volumes here grabbed my eyes as I wandered through the shelves during the past several months. What binds these books together is their common theme: Stuff that may be turn out to be important and happening when I wasn’t looking.

With Charity for All: Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give by Kenneth Stern. (New York: Doubleday, 2013).  The author, non-profit executive and former CEO of National Public Radio, wastes no time handing down seemingly deserved indictments of the charitable giving sector of the American economy. His scathing critique lays out chapter-and-verse anecdotes that yield a difficult conclusion: Many so-called charities are systemically (and perhaps willingly) ineffective. And other organizations may not be all that charitable! (Example: The enterprises that operate college football’s bowl games are classified as “non-profits”.) The book gradually morphs toward a more hopeful ending, suggesting that careful research and planning, honest evaluation and donor-centered approaches will in time redeem what otherwise is a failing enterprise in society.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).  An engaging read from start to finish, Contagious provides an insider’s look at social epidemics. (In the overwrought parlance of our times, we’re talking here about “going viral”.) The author, an assistant professor of marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, transcends the usual parameters of academic writing. He offers readers a compelling look at his general theory of social transmission as well as oodles of facts and anecdotes to illustrate his major points.  (Example: A feeling of awe is a powerful and dependable emotion at the heart of social contagion. Or this fact: Only 1/3 of 1% of YouTube videos get more than 1,000,000 views, and 50% of the videos have fewer than 500 views.) This is an extremely practical book for writers who want their work to capture widespread attention and regard.  (Secret summary: It’s all about word-of-mouth!)

Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner. (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2012).  Steiner surveys the seascape of contemporary life to show how algorithms—“lists of instructions that give a user (or computer) an information-based answer or basis for action”—have come to dominate the decision-making processes of business and industry. An engineer, technology writer, and entrepreneur, the author is also a consummate storyteller, detailing the history of algorithms from ancient times into today’s enterprises. (Example: Algorithmic thought originated in the Muslim world.  Another: Email is dependent on more than 100,000 operating algorithms.) The stories flow and accumulate in readers’ minds, allowing our slow realization that much of contemporary life is governed by sophisticated computer programs whose instantaneous actions can create wonderful solutions or convoluted problems. Even for the mathophobic among us, this book is a page-turner!

Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom. (New York: Crown Business, 2011). The author follows in the grand tradition of Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders and Buyology (Lindstrom’s best-selling first book) to offer readers a wealth of specific methods by which marketers work their wiles on consumers. A marketing-guru-turned-consumer-advocate, Lindstrom pulls no punches, and names names as he walks readers through familiar territory suddenly turned malevolent. Of greatest interest to this reviewer were his descriptions of how children’s (and parents’) minds are quietly manipulated toward purchasing what they don’t need. (Example: 92% of today’s children have a digital footprint by the age of two. Another fact: Walmart’s data-mining data base is larger than that of the Federal government.) The book classifies as an exposé, helping us to be more careful in our consumption of advertising and marketing techniques that beguile us into consumptive lifestyles.

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. (New York: W.W. Nelson & Company, Inc., 2011).  A renowned neuroscientist, experimenter, and writer, Ramachandran walks readers through the fascinating world of applied neuroscience. Writing like an experienced and appreciative guide, the author unapologetically explores his best hunches about matters such as autism, theory of mind, language development, brain difficulties and the neurobiological Holy Grail of consciousness. The book is full of sound theory as well as detailed stories of experimental rabbit trails. Of special interest are his musings on the growing importance of “mirror neurons” for human development. He both collects and connects the dots of neuroscience to offer readers of all stripes—including the non-science-minded among us—a hopeful look at human nature. This is a good first-book for anyone who wants to start learning about the neuroscientific elements of everyday existence.

Your turn: What’s your favorite idea book?

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About the author. Bob Sitze spends his days and nights in Wheaton, Illinois, where he works as a congregational consultant and writer. His newest e-book, Simple Enough: A Companion along the Way, was recently published by The Alban Institute. He’s currently engaged in research regarding the secular determinants of stewardship theology and practices in churches.

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