The Best Books About Innovation of 2016

If you have a lover of big ideas on your holiday shopping list, consider these thought-provoking titles published this year

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smithsonian.com

As one year draws to a close and another begins, it's a time to be reflective, and also freshly inspired. These eight books strike the perfect balance, with authors ruminating on the history of invention and how our times will be studied centuries from now, making predictions about where technology is taking us, and telling stirring stories of dreamers accomplishing great things.

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

If necessity is the mother of invention, then play is its father, argues Steven Johnson in his latest book. The bestselling author looks at innovations in six areas—fashion, music, taste, illusions, games and public space—that were considered mere play things in their time, but turned out to be precursors to serious inventions, calling them “artifacts of the future.” You’ve probably never thought of music boxes as a herald for the dawn of computers. (See Smithsonian.com’s Q&A with Johnson.)

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

What would the present day look like if we were viewing it from a few centuries in the future? That’s the question Chuck Klosterman asks in his latest philosophical tome. The American pop culture magnate speculates that we are mistaken on many things, as we think and feel about them now. Time might reveal the Melvilles, Kafkas and Van Goghs of today, whose brilliance will only be recognized posthumously, and surprising truths about everything from physics to democracy to sports. Klosterman invites scintillating characters—David Byrne, Junot Díaz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, among others—to muse with him.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly is optimistic about the next 30 years. From “screening,” “accessing” and “sharing” to “filtering,” “tracking,” “remixing” and “interacting,” he takes a look at 12 powerful trends in our use of technology. “I want people to embrace the general direction while deciding and choosing the specifics,” he told Smithsonian.com. (See this Q&A with Kelly.)

 The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley

When artists, inventors and entrepreneurs spring up in the same location, we think there must be something in the water. But that fluffy line isn’t enough for travel writer Eric Weiner. For his latest book, he tramps across place and time—from ancient Athens to Renaissance Florence, and turn-of-the-19th-century Calcutta to today’s Silicon Valley—to better understand how certain localities become hotspots for ingenuity.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

As The New York Times put it in a review, Virginia Heffernan gives readers of her latest book a tour through an imagined Smithsonian Natural Museum of Internet History. She critically assesses the internet as an art form, celebrating the magic of it—online messaging boards connecting strangers and YouTube—and mourning the technologies and experiences it’s trampled in its rise. (See Smithsonian.com’s Q&A with Heffernan.)

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

The story of globalization is often told through industries and political policies, but Yale economic historian Jeffrey E. Garten has a different take: people. Garten, who held senior positions in four presidential administrations, identifies ten military leaders, businessmen and politicians—from Genghis Khan to Margaret Thatcher—that, in their actions in the past 1,000 years, connected the wide world in ways that made it feel just a little bit smaller.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

To use author Angela Duckworth’s definition, “grit” is “the combination of perseverance and passion for especially long-term and meaningful goals.” And the trait, she says, is more indicative of success than talent or IQ. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist has interviewed high profile CEOs and coaches, and studied various subcultures, from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee finalists, and found that the gritty prevail. So how gritty are you? Take Duckworth’s quiz to find out. (See Smithsonian.com’s Q&A with Duckworth.)

How To Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Space Flight

San Francisco journalist Julian Guthrie has penned a book for dreamers. With XPRIZE Foundation founder Peter Diamandis as her protagonist, she tells the thrilling story of the entrepreneurs, engineers and aviators competing for the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million booty promised to the first private company to propel a spaceship past the Karman line, or the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

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