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Top 16 Best Books that Make You Smarter [A 2021 Guide]

a brain getting stronger by lifting books

I like getting smarter. I assume most of you do. I also love to read, which if you’re a reader of mine, you probably like that too.

So I thought I’d combine these two interests into one post: what books to read to get smarter.

How, of course, just reading a book won’t make you smarter. You’ve got to apply what you learn. But I can pretty much guarantee that if you do that with these books, it will be hard for you to not get smarter.

So let’s dive in!

Here’s a quick list of everything before we dive deep into each option.

1. This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking edited John Brockman

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What better book to start out with than one that literally says in the title “This Will Make You Smarter”?

This is actually a book written by several people, with John Brockman serving as the main editor for the era’s greatest thinkers.

The idea behind this book is that you take some of the world’s most influential thinkers and get their thoughts on how to get smarter in various ways, though improving focus, well-being, conquering fear of the unknown, etc.

I love this one because it’s a kind of smorgasbord of information, all of which is relevant to getting smarter, and from some of the top minds on the planet. It really examines “getting smarter” from every possible angle.

2. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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I feel like just about all of us need to spend some time with a good history book. In fact, some of my favorite books of all time were those huge coffee-table books from DK that go over history. More on that later.

But with Bill Bryson’s book, you get a lot more than just a big history of everything. This book is also asking questions, things like why do we exist in the first place? How did we get from nothing to something? From no history, to human history.

I love questions like these, even those they make my brain hurt, but hey, that’s to be expected with books that make you smarter, right? It’s like exercise. This is how we build out cognitive skills.

Anyway, give it a read, it’s definitely worth it. Bryson’s style is also really fun.

3. The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod

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The Miracle Morning is one of those books that I picked up after hearing the author on a podcast interview, and then I couldn’t put it down the moment I started reading.

Bestselling author, Hal Elrod puts success into very simple terms. If you want to be smart, successful, wealthy, then you should do the things that smart, successful, and wealthy people do. And he structures it into the perfect morning routine.

The routine basically goes over some of the biggest habits that successful people have, and builds a way of doing all those things together, things like meditating, repeating affirmations, visualizing, journaling, exercising, and reading.

All things that will definitely make you smarter in the long run. Highly recommend.

4. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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If you really want to look smart at a party, bust out some Marcus Aurelius, and you won’t be disappointed.

In all seriousness, this is a fantastic work of philosophy and introspection. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was a Roman emperor who succeeded his father in 161 A.D. His writings are remarkably insightful, and he is lauded not just for being an Emperor, but for being a truly wise man.

All in all, this is definitely one I would look up if you want to expande your philosophical toolkit.

5. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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Speaking of ancient writers, this classic by Sun Tzu is one of the most widely-read classics of today, thanks in part to the fact that it is, perhaps worryingly, relevant in modern business.

This book goes over military tactics and strategy from a broad perspective, one that can be applied into many different areas of our lives.

So while I hope none of us are waging war on anyone else anytime soon, I think a lot can be learned from just learning some strategy in our lives, and applying that to how we act.

A book like the Art of War allows us to have a more fluid intelligence, one that shapes and grows because we learn how to adapt, and that’s what I love about reading this book.

6. What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

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Okay guys, here’s a book that I absolutely LOVE!

It’s called What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, and it is the most entertaining read I’ve had in a long time.

How does it mark you smarter? By walking you through some crazy use of a scientific concept for some really “out there” questions.

For example, what if you were to swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool? Or could you make a jetpack from using machine guns pointed downward and firing repeatedly?

Or slightly more relevant to today: could you cure the common cold if everyone in the world was completely isolated for the length of its incubation period.

It’s a really great book.

7. Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

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Pixar is known for being a pinnacle of creative success, and for good reason. The way the company was structured and run is unlike many other companies.

So if you’re looking to imitate this in your own personal life, you might be pleased to know that the co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull, has put all his knowledge and secrets into this book.

The basic idea behind this book is that you can incorporate principles of creativity into business and leadership, and that those things will thrive because of it. Which makes sense to me, as a self-published author who loves both the business and creative sides of things.

So yeah, this is one book you should definitely be reading. Especially if you have even a small creative bone in your body.

8. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

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I’ve heard it said that the best way to be successful, is to study what successful people do, then do that.

Well there’s no better book for that process, than Outliers, which is a comprehensive look at different successful people, from Bill Gates to the Beatles.

The book takes a look at each of these “outliers” and analyzes what sets them apart, then brakes it down for the rest of us. What do we have to do to be smarter? Financially successful? Loved?

And what’s interesting, is that a lot of these principles are universal, from a software giant to a great soccer player.

9. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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I’m sure just about everyone on this list has tried to lose weight, kick a bad habit, exercise more, or something along those lines.

I know I have.

But you know what might help with that? A book all about the power of our habits, and why they’re so hard to break bad habits, or start good ones.

The best part is, it also teaches you how to improve, using habit as your method of structuring things.

I read this book several years ago, and it still resonates with me. I always list it as one of my top favorite books for creating change in your life.

So definitely give it a read.

10. How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger, MD

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So I know this is a list about becoming smarter, so what does a book on food and dieting have to do with that?

Well, think of it this way. Your body and your mind are actually the same thing, and it’s therefore going to be very hard to have a healthy/smart mind, if you’re killing off brain cells with an unhealthy diet.

I used to live a pretty poor diet, and it showed. I always had brain fog, and I had to deal with a number of medical bills as a result. So I made an effort to turn my diet around to fix that.

And you know what, it actually started making me smarter. This was an unforeseen side effect, but in addition to more energy and just feeling better overall, it led to a lot more mental clarity and the ability to retain more information.

So I had to pick at least one health book to put on here, and Dr. Greger has one of the more rigorous scientific looks at the subject, so I put his book on here.

11. The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes

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If you’re a writer like me, you’re probably looking for a good book that will, specifically, make you smarter.

And that’s what I’ve got with The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. It’s the perfect motivational speech to get you writing.

And if you’re not a writer, maybe reconsider it, because people who write well are generally considered smarter than those who don’t, and it’s a handy skill to have in general.

So get reading, and then get writing.

12. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

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In order to really become smarter, in my opinion, we have to learn how to understand others, and one key to doing that is understanding our own blindspots.

That’s the subject of this book, which I recommend to everyone. I literally convinced my boss at work to allow us to read this together as professional development credit. It’s that important.

This book helps us understand that we all have biases that we aren’t even aware of, and that’s okay in itself, but that we should also be working to uncover those blindspots and correct ourselves and improve.

So not only does following the advice in this book help us relate more with other people, but it also helps us grow emotionally, and gain empathy for others.

13. Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

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Speaking of blindspots, I never knew I had so many until I read this book: Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad.

I will admit, this book triggered me a little bit, but it also made me so much more aware of what I was doing wrong, and ways in which I could do better, when it comes to race relations.

I’m still working on this (and I honestly thought I was “that good white person” before I read this book), so this book has put me in my place, and raised a lot of emotion. That said, I think it is a phenomenally important read, and one we should all take a look at.

Understanding people is at the core of broadening our cognitive ability, and there’s no topic more likely to forcibly help with that, than that of white supremacy.

14. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman

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I’ve now touched on two books that deal with empathy and understanding others. Let me add one more.

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman is a fantastic look at a factor that hasn’t been considered until recently, showing that people with a high emotional intelligence tend to perform well in life, even if their IQ is lower or average.

Conversely, people with high IQs and low emotional intelligence is less likely to succeed in life.

All this goes to show that we are emotional creatures by habit, and learning to embrace that is a key part of success and doing good in life.

All in all, a really great book. I highly recommend it.

15. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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We’ve spent most of this list talking about nonfiction books. But I’d like to spend some time highlighting one that is not only a fiction book, but falls into that realm of fiction that makes some scholars squirm….comic books.


Okay, so let’s make one thing clear before we move on. Comic books are not bad. They are simply another medium, and some authors have created some truly breathtaking works of art in the medium.

Art Spiegelman is one of these, and his masterpiece, Maus, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic. That’s right, it won a Pulitzer.

The story is about the author’s father, a Jew during the Holocaust, and it paints a grim depiction of his experience, but does so in a way that is accessible and moving.

I read this in college, and it stuck out to me. It’s now my go-to work to point to whenever anyone schoffs at comic books. It’s really an amazing and moving piece of literary fiction.

15. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

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And of course, I couldn’t end this list without taking a look at one of the self help books that have most shaped our modern culture.

Seven Habits is probably one that you’ve heard of, but it will absolutely make you a smarter person.

There are, wouldn’t you know it, seven habits listed in this book, patterns of behavior that we can use to make ourselves more successful and happier in life.

I, for one, have tried to implement several. Being “proactive rather than reactive” is the one I’ve had the most success in, I think, and it’s led to some pretty great success, as well as steered me away from wasting time doing things like complaining or worrying about what other people think.

It’s a foundational book for anyone who wants to start on their own self-improvement journey. Give it a read!

Bonus: The “Book” series from DK

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So most of the books I listed above talk about certain topics about how to become smarter, but I just wanted to give you my recommendation for one of my favorite ways to learn about a new topic that I know little about.

It’s the “Book” series from DK.

This is a series of different books about a WIDE variety of topics. It covers everything from history, to biology, to movies, to Shakespeare. And there’s a lot of them.

I love these because they’re visually engaging, and they break things down into bite-sized chunks that are easily understood, while still managing to cover a wide variety of different topics.

I highly enjoy them, so I had to make sure to add them to the list, even though they are a little different than anything else I listed. They will still make you smart, or at the very least, give you more knowledge.

Final Thoughts

And that’s it! Those are my top picks for the best books to make you smarter. I guarantee that if you read these books, you will come out of them with new insights that will lead you down a road of self-improvement.

And if you internalize these books, then there will be no stopping you.



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