Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

It is common knowledge that exercise is good for you, but how much? What kind? What about dieting? What about strength? What about weight? Lieberman addresses nearly every aspect of exercise and fitness with clarity and thoroughness. By asking deeper questions, he surprisingly comes to simpler answers. He takes us on a grand tour of human activity, dispels common myths, and distills it all to a simple prescription. Lieberman’s enthusiasm for this topic comes through clearly. It would be hard not to put this book down and go for a walk or a run if this book were not so hard to put down. From surviving pre-industrial peoples to disease and aging, Lieberman puts moving our bodies in context. It’s inspiring, informative, and just plain amazing.

If you have a body, this book is relevant to you. It is both liberating and imprisoning; exercise is not nearly as complicated as the people selling stuff say it is, but it is a very good idea.

Cover of Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

This is a tight volume describing and decrying some of the ways we misuse technology, specifically mathematical models. O’Neil has both the academic and industry experience to give us a clear picture of what’s going on and why it’s terrible. And it is terrible. She wastes no time explaining models and their misuse, where they are being misused, and what it is costing us. This is a concise and thorough account, and there’s little more to say. The only criticism I will raise is the title. Calling these misused models “Weapons of Math Destruction” or “WMDs” is obviously easily confused with the other kind of WMD, and it is a clumsy name in both cases. Naming things is hard, but writing books is harder, and O’Neil can be forgiven the awkward name for she has written an important book.

Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

The breadth of this topic is monumental; from anatomy and archaeology to medicine to sports to spiritualism. This is a project that cuts through our collective amnesia and starts documenting what we’ve known on and off for generations. And this is not niche, specialist material; this is practical truth for everyone everyday with huge implications for health. And by now, your skepticism alarms should be going off and rightly so. The subject matter experts for this topic are often not academics or scientists. This is a subject that, while universal, has been neglected by the modern scientific machine. Some of what we do have is truly ancient knowledge, passed down the old-fashioned way, but Nestor does not fetishize the wisdom of the past. He merely documents it, tests it, and tells us about his experiences. This is gonzo science-journalism.

And this is where the skepticism alarms quiet down. Nestor is not making fanciful claims himself. He is collecting others’ claims and research and, as best as he is able, subjecting them to analysis and experimentation. Individually, they are fascinating and thought-provoking. Together, they form an immensely compelling picture; there is, it appears, something going on that not many people are talking about. Nestor’s research points out some of the failings of modern medicine and academia. This is not a critique of those institutions, merely an illustration of their being works-in-progress. This book is part of that progress. Bringing popular attention to something is an effective way to further our collective understanding of it. This is not a replacement for rigorous, academic research; it is what motivates such research.

In addition to giving us perspective on what we know and what we have known, this is also a practical book. Nestor has compiled the basics of several techniques. He does not make grandiose claims about them, he gives you some context, he tells you his experience, and then gives you what you need to try it for yourself.

While his writing does occasionally stray a little too far into superlatives and sensationalism for my taste, there is a healthy collection of references at the back of the book. While much of the most compelling content is anecdotal or from small samples at best, this is simply how limited our knowledge is in this field. We have some guidance from past human experience, but we have yet to evaluate this guidance scientifically. If those in a position to contribute are paying attention, we have but to wait… In the meantime, breathe through your nose.