Books That Will Make You Smarter

Books and being smart have always seemed to go hand-in-hand. A symbol of learning, books offer a wealth of information for readers to consume. Reading fact-filled nonfiction books can increase your intelligence by boosting your vocabulary and expanding your mental arsenal of interesting facts and knowledge. And there’s several benefits to reading. Acquiring “book smarts” can also raise your emotional intelligence, fluid intelligence, and brain connectivity.

Emotional intelligence describes a person’s capacity for empathy and ability to understand the intentions and emotions of those around them. Reading—specifically reading works of fiction—has been shown to heighten emotional intelligence, which improves our relationships and interactions. A 2013 study published in Science revealed that reading literary fiction enhances a person’s Theory of Mind, or ability to understand another person’s mental state. Theory of Mind plays an important role in building complex and healthy relationships.

And there’s even more evidence of the benefits of reading fiction. A study by the University of Toronto showed that fiction readers have greater social ability than readers of only nonfiction. Luckily for lovers of enthralling fiction, a person’s level of engagement with the story impacts how much the book lifts their emotional intelligence. Readers who are emotionally transported into the story show greater increases in empathy than those who are not.

Books can also strengthen fluid intelligence, which is a person’s ability for problem-solving, reasoning, and detecting meaningful patterns. Fluid intelligence allows a person to understand situations and issues, regardless of what they have learned throughout their life. When readers engage with a story and track narratives and themes, they train and improve their fluid intelligence.

Brain connectivity similarly enhances a person’s ability to make sense of the world, and reading has been shown to elevate connections between language-related regions of the brain and regions that control movement and sensation. A 2013 study published in Brain Connectivity showed that reading can increase the resting-state connectivity of the brain, particularly in the sensory motor region. Reading about running can stimulate the parts of the brain that control physical motion, and reading about physical sensations can intensify activity in the regions that control real-life sensory experiences. This greater connectivity enhances participation in the world and may persist for several days after reading an enthralling book.

Whether you are a history buff, psychology devotee, or simply a curious thinker, you can find a multitude of engaging books that increase intelligence on this list. Choose a compelling memoir to expand your emotional intelligence or dive into the inner workings of the mind to improve your own critical thinking and reasoning. There’s no wrong choice: any book you choose to read can open your eyes to new worlds, ideas, and understanding.

Ready to get a little smarter? Try grabbing a good book and learn about new topics, expand your knowledge, or build your empathy. This list of smart books to read includes nonfiction works about history, humanity, culture, and the mind, as well as compelling memoirs and stories about critical topics such as race and gender. Use this list of twenty-four books to boost your “book smarts” and get started on your literary journey to new levels of intelligence. Your brain will thank you.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake by Steven Novella

In The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, Dr. Steven Novella—along with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein—tackles the modern issues of misinformation, biases, and deception in a world lacking ultimate authority and definitive answers. This all-encompassing guide offers practical advice for skeptical thinking in the modern world. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe debunks popular myths and conspiracy theories, like UFO sightings and anti-vaccine movements, while equipping readers with skills for sound reasoning, critical thinking, and judging the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought by Barbara Tversky

Following in the vein of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought offers a new understanding of human cognition. Barbara Tversky locates spatial thinking at the center of our perception by showing how we use it to draw meanings from our actions and bodies. Spatial thinking allows us to play chess, assemble furniture, navigate traffic, and create football plays. Our physical motions even help us understand the flow of ideas and shape how our language is structured and interpreted. Renowned psychologist Tversky offers a fresh look at human cognition that positions motion, instead of language, as the foundation.

The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey

Son of the renowned paleontologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, paleontologist, anthropologist, and conservationist Richard Leakey continues to expand our understanding of humanity in The Origin of Humankind. Presenting a new take on the history of the human species, Leakey posits that the evolution of modern humans was made possible—and perhaps even inevitable—when the first apes walked upright. Leaky connects this single development to all other evolutionary steps that defined the human race in mind and body. The Origin of Humankind examines the development of culture, social organization, language, art, and human consciousness from an early human society that was characterized by cooperation instead of conflict.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo

Svante Pääbo—a pioneer and founder in the field of paleogenetics—describes the journey of scientific triumphs and failures leading to the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 that fundamentally altered our understanding of human history. In Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Pääbo offers unique insight into the lives of our closest evolutionary relatives and how these discoveries can help us better understand the human species.

Art of War by Sun Tzu

One of the most famous studies of strategy ever written, this ancient military treatise describes the principles of warfare that have influenced powerful leaders throughout history, including Mao Tse-tung, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Isoroku Yamamoto, and Napoleon Bonaparte. First translated in the late 1700s by a French missionary, Art of War has played a major role in the history and development of warfare around the world. In more recent decades, Art of War has become popular among business people for its insight into conflict, competition, and human interactions of all kinds.

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie

Pearl, a Turing Award-winning computer scientist and statistician, explains causality, the study of cause and effect, and how we can know easy things, like whether it was rain or a sprinkler that made a sidewalk wet; and how to answer hard questions, like whether a drug cured an illness. Through his studies, Pearl’s clear and concise explanations in The Book of Why enable us to discover not just what did happen, but what might have been. It is essential reading for people looking for books that will make you smarter.

Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Using groundbreaking research, designer and TED star Ingrid Fetell Lee explains how making small changes to your surroundings can bring you incredible joy. Today, people are often told to look inside to find their peace, but Joyful argues that by using the small, even mundane things, that are all around you in your everyday life, you can create extraordinary happiness in your world. These easily accessible sources of joy will help people live fuller, more joyful lives. So stop and smell the roses, or look at cute animal pictures on the internet. It’s all good for your brain.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

If you’re living in the 21st century, there’s a good chance you’re also using the internet. Billions of people interact on social media sites every day, posting updates about their day, their families, their new purchases, their new clothes, etc. But did you know that what you read on other people’s feeds can affect you without you even knowing it? In Connected, the authors explain how emotions can be contagious, how reading about someone’s bad day can bring your day down, or how your subconscious jealousy at someone else’s good fortune could be affecting your mood. It’s a wildly intriguing examination of human behavior, and actions we make without even realizing it.

Out There: A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious) by Michael Wall

One of the marks of a healthy, smart brain is its openness to new ideas. Take aliens, for instance. You may not believe in them, but does that mean they don’t exist? In Out There, senior writer Dr. Michael Wall considers the possibility of alien life, and discusses what scientists know about it so far. Arranged in a simple question-and-answer format, he discusses such questions as: What would the first aliens we meet look like? Would they be found on a planet in our own solar system or orbiting a star far, far away? Would they intend to harm us, and if so, how might they do it? And might they already have visited? His answers will amaze you.

A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow by Joshua S. Goldstein , Staffan A. Qvist

A revolutionary, beautifully illustrated new book that explains a new proven, fast, inexpensive, practical way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help prevent catastrophic climate change. In A Bright Future, Goldstein and Qvist clearly and concisely explain how clean energy quickly replaced fossil fuels in such places as Sweden, France, South Korea, and Ontario, and how following their example is not only sustainable for the rest of the world, but hundreds of times safer.               

The Art of Logic in an Illogical World by Eugenia Cheng

In a world where fake news stories change election outcomes, has rationality become futile? In The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, Cheng reveals how both logical and emotional reasoning can help us live better in our post-truth world. As a mathematician, Cheng was taught to think logically – so why does she still sometimes do things based on emotion? Revealing the inner workings and limitations of logic, Cheng explains how we all think illogically sometimes, and offers insightful tips for anyone who wants to think more logically, making this a must-read for anyone who enjoys reading books that will make you wiser.

What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker

Who knew there could be gripping reads about physics? While most everyone has heard of quantum physics, not everyone can explain the theory behind them. And not even physicists can all agree on a theory. In What Is Real?, Becker details the history of the discovery of quantum mechanics, how for many years all other ideas surrounding them were dismissed, and how the road to new thinking has opened up discussion into the true meaning of quantum mechanics.

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives–and Our Lives Change Our Genes by Sharon Moalem MD PhD

Award-winning physician and New York Times bestselling author Sharon Moalem, MD, PhD, reveals how genetic breakthroughs are completely changing what we thought we knew about genetic destiny. While it has always been thought that parts of our physical lives were decided at birth, Inheritance shows how new discoveries have helped doctors learn more about their patients, such as why some people react differently to sugars, how insurance companies legally use your genetic data to make decisions affecting your offspring, and how people with rare genetic conditions hold the key to medical problems affecting millions. Moalem’s fascinating research will have you wondering about your own genes.

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett

Biologist Mark W. Moffett explores how human social groups evolved to become so much larger than those of other primates and bigger than scientists once believed was possible. Drawing on psychology, sociology, and anthropology, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall seeks to explain the social adaptations that allow humans to cooperate. Moffett describes humankind’s creation of complex civilizations and the balance of identity and anonymity that shapes their development, success, and failure.

The Ape and The Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections Of A Primatologist by Frans De Waal

In The Ape and The Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections Of A Primatologist, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal presents a provocative argument that humans are not the only creatures with a distinctive culture. Following his bestselling book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal explores how apes learn behavior from elders and transmit these behaviors within their society. The Ape and The Sushi Master blends clinical studies, fieldwork, anecdotes, and speculation to paint a fascinating picture of primate culture.

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy

Award-winning national bestseller Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II reveals the story of tens of thousands of American women who served as codebreakers during World War II. These women were recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy to be trained as codebreakers in Washington while men served in the war overseas. Their efforts saved countless lives and shortened the war, but their contribution was nearly erased from history by a strict vow of secrecy. New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy sheds light on the incredible story of these women through extensive research and interviews with surviving female codebreakers of World War II.

A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

A blend of history and fantasy, A Secret History of Witches follows a family of powerful witches from 1821 Brittany to World War II. This sweeping saga begins with Grand-mère Ursule, who sacrifices her life to save her family. Ursule’s magic seems to die with her, but her descendants continue to secretly practice her spells and rites, recognizing the family’s magic as both a great gift and a potential danger. When their youngest daughter comes of age, the family watches the magic come alive again. With World War II quickly approaching, the witches must consider how their magic may be able to change the entire course of history. A Secret History of Witches invites readers to engage with the painful and hopeful story of the Orchires family while learning a bit of history in the process.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

By exploring the creation and spread of racist thought, historian Ibram X. Kendi dispels the notion of a post-racial America, and reveals how racism has been deeply enshrined and cemented in American society. Through the stories of five influential minds—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis—Kendi shows how prominent intellectuals throughout American history have challenged or further solidified racist ideas. Backed by extensive research, the engaging narrative of Stamped from the Beginning encourages readers to consider the complex history of discrimination and racism in America and offers hope for exposing and dispelling modern racist thought in its sophisticated and insidious form. A New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Stamped from the Beginning was hailed as one of the best books of 2016 by the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Chicago Review of Books.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

A New York Times bestseller, So You Want to Talk About Race sheds light on the racial landscape in America by exploring modern issues like white privilege, micro-aggressions, police brutality, and systemic discrimination. Oluo tackles these complex racial issues head-on and asks sensitive and difficult questions. So You Want To Talk About Race aims to bridge the racial divide between people of color and white Americans by answering questions that many Americans do not understand but would not dare to ask. Through her passionate and straightforward writing, Oluo offers clarity for many divisive and hyper-charged racial issues in America.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This bestselling novel by Min Jin Lee tells the sweeping saga of a Korean family shamed and exiled from a homeland they never knew. Pachinko begins in the early 1900s with a young woman, Sunja, whose unplanned pregnancy drives her from her home and into marriage with a sickly minister. Now living in Japan, Sunja’s family faces discrimination, poverty, and catastrophe as they tackle the challenges that their new home presents. However, woven among these hardships are moments of great joy, passion, loyalty, and love. Lee’s graceful storytelling and moving language carry readers through the struggles and triumphs of a family wrestling with questions of identity and faith as they fight against the indifferent arc of history in 20th-century Japan.

Pachinko was a National Book Award finalist and New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year, as well as earning other awards, including the New York Times Notable Book of 2017. Pachinko also won a spot on several bestseller lists, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do about It by Kate Harding

Kate Harding tackles the issue of rape culture in America with a sharp voice and clear conviction in Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do about It. Drawing from a strong research base, Harding argues that American society effectively favors rapists over victims. Asking for It offers timely suggestions for how we can better address sexual assault, harassment, and violence while supporting the rights of the victim.

When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones

Winner of the 2017 Lambda Literary Award, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement tells the thrilling and touching story of Cleve Jones’ life and role in the gay rights movement. A young Jones was drawn to San Francisco—a city of sexual freedom and progressive ideas—where he found community in the city’s thriving gay culture. After the election of Harvey Milk, Jones entered the political scene alongside the most outspoken gay elected official in the country.However, Jones’ life shifted after Milk was assassinated and the AIDS epidemic began. He became a leader in the fight against AIDS, co-founding the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and spreading awareness through the AIDS Memorial Quilt. When We Rise chronicles these major events in Jones’ life as well as the funny, sexy, and tender moments in between. When We Rise offers a transformative experience for all readers.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

This brilliant and delightful book explores what makes successful people different—what sets high-achievers apart from the rest. Instead of focusing on what the best and brightest people are like, Gladwell describes how a person’s culture, family, experiences, and upbringing influence their success. From dissecting the greatness of the Beatles to revealing the secrets of software billionaires, Outliers: The Story of Success provides thrills and entertainment while enlightening readers on what it takes to be an outlier.

The Land of Steady Habits: A Novel by Ted Thompson

After decades of living sensibly in suburban Connecticut, Anders Hill retires to enjoy the good life he’s been promised. However, Anders finds he is still not satisfied and decides to abandon the sensible lifestyle he has always known. But after leaving the comforts of his past life, Anders realizes, once again, that he has not found the contentment he is looking for, and perhaps the life he abandoned may be the one he truly needs. The Land of Steady Habits recounts Anders’ attempt to reconcile his past and present through a humorous and heartbreaking journey. Thompson’s fresh and honest writing encourages readers to find compassion for these flawed characters, for it is their flaws that make them seem the most human.

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Award-winning food writer Bee Wilson explores the evolution of cooking and the tools we use to create and consume our food. Consider the Fork invites readers to reconsider common objects—like a fork or wooden spoon—by uncovering the unique history, science, and stories behind these culinary tools. Wilson illustrates how advances in cooking tools and techniques have allowed for innovative dishes and shaped food culture today. With witty language and entertaining anecdotes, Consider the Fork is sure to charm and inform.