Note: Books That Matter is Tracking Wonder’s interview series that showcases influential thinkers’ and authors’ relationships with books that matter to them.
Some men chase money and power. Dacher Keltner pursues compassion and power. The faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, Dacher has shared the stage with the Dalai Lama, counseled Pixar for depicting emotions for the film Inside Out, and has advised Facebook on the use of emoticons. When I spoke with and interviewed Dacher a few years ago on his pursuit of wonder and awe, it became clear that Dacher lives according to the interests he pursues and studies – compassion, awe, power for the greater good. His latest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain & Lose Influence (Penguin Press 2016) challenges the old story that power corrupts. From the book description: “Power isn’t the capacity to act in cruel and uncaring ways; it is the ability to do good for others, expressed in daily life, and itself is a good thing.”
In this Books That Matter feature, Dacher shares the book that changed something profound in him, the little known book he champions, and the book that offers timeless, paradoxical wisdom that he most often re-reads.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Dacher: The book that most recently blew my mind and stirred my soul was Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It was a mind-altering revelation about poverty, inequality, and the deep humanity in the slums of India, which, in more staid versions, is what we document in our science of social class –that the poor have such deep, altruistic, sharing tendencies. Plus, Boo’s prose was unlike anything I have read in the past 10 to 15 years in terms of beauty, grace, and narrative power. A transcendent book.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
The descriptions of the physical conditions of life in the small shacks people lived in in the slums near the airport.
What book have you imagined living inside?
Charles Darwin’s Expression of The Emotion in Man and Animals. This book is the most brilliant, detailed, nearly psychedelic account of how mammals express emotions, and is what I try to approximate in the science we carry out on emotion, and how I hope to see the social world in its infinite, fleeting detail.
What character do you imagine being friends with?
Aloysha Karamazov from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, because he was the first embodiment of selflessness I encountered in fiction.
What one book have you most often re-read? Why?
Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, because it offers timeless, paradoxical wisdom about being in the world.
What kinds of books are you seeking these days?
Biographies of people who’ve led movements that led to social change (e.g,. Ella Baker)
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read?
On the Origin of Species, Darwin (I’ve skimmed much of it)
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Which book would you want everyone to read? Why?
Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.
Because it reveals how our emotional lives resemble those of our mammalian relatives, such a compelling lesson in extending empathy to other species.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
Stronger and more democratic, as long as we embrace online writing.
What little-known book do you most relish and champion?
I know this is well known in philosophical circles, but it is just a mind-opening examination of awe and beauty.
What book are you most embarrassed to say you have never read?
Karl Marx, Das Kapital
If you had the time, talent, grit, and support, what book would you write?
Boys of Fun. A novel about my life with my brother as kids in the wild late 1960s in Laurel Canyon.
What is one thing that you hope readers of your book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, will come away with?
To feel empowered to use their power to serve the greater good.
DACHER KELTNER is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. A renowned expert in the biological and evolutionary origins of human emotion, Dr. Keltner studies the science of compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and how emotions shape our moral intuition. His research interests also span issues of power, status, inequality, and social class. He is the author of the best-selling book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and of The Compassionate Instinct (W.W.Norton & Co, 2009) and The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (Penguin Press, 2016).