“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution,” said Alain de Botton in his four-point perspective on the importance of reading. And while the Internet and other forms of entertainment offer renewed competition for books and literature, their place in our lives is as critical as ever.
Books give us the benefit of more wisdom and perspective than we’d ever be able to get on our own. They contribute to how we view the world and help us better understand our own thoughts. As the great poet and Brainpickings curator Maria Popova answered nine-year-old Ottilie on why we have books,
“Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.”
To this end, I started 2018 with the goal of reading one book each week, 52 on the year. And while it’s debatable whether I actually hit that mark (it depends on whether you count a few books I re-read), I did read more than in any year since I was a kid. Which is really the whole point anyways.
So to start off 2019, I wanted to suggest my favorite 20 from this batch. Whether it was helping me understand some new perspectives, develop some new ideas, or just become a little less dull, this list was a tremendous trigger for personal development over the past year. As a 20-year-old Frank Kafka wrote to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak,
“Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.”
Here’s 20 of the favorites I read last year. I hope you find them as helpful as I did. And may some of them be a key to your own unfamiliar rooms.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
A masterful book to better understand your own mind and why it occasionally seems to be working against you. I was expecting an extended research paper and was thrilled to discover an engaging conversation on why we can’t always trust our intuitions and how our own confidence masquerades as a treacherous form of false evidence. Kahneman offers a humbling antidote to our current self-righteous mindset, complete with methods to recognize and counteract the many biases and heuristics conspiring to limit our deliberate thinking. A necessity for anyone interested in self-improvement.
“The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harrari
A tremendous history of the world, but made truly unique by Harrari’s perspectives on the myths and humanist stories that pull everyone together. Harrari combines history and science to open our eyes to many of the “truths” that have defined us as a species. His vivid and convincing storytelling not only convinced me to become a vegetarian, but to better project history forward and more actively consider what stories I want to shape my future.
“Unlike physics or economics, history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown
While we all inherently know the dangers of falling into the busyness trap, it continues to be a struggle to remain present in the face of a procutivity-obsessed world. Essentialism offers a systematic solution for focusing on the critical and eliminating everything that isn’t. McKeown offers a toolkit full of actionable advice to maximize our contribution in the areas that matter and recognize the trade-offs that come with this commitment.
Broadly applicable to work and life. I think I highlighted more passages in this book than anything not written by Ed Catmull or Seth Godin.
“When we look back on our careers and our lives, would we rather see a long laundry list of “accomplishments” that don’t really matter or just a few major accomplishments that have real meaning and significance?”
A biographical masterwork, James provides over 100 different stories covering artists, intellectuals, and political leaders and offers an appreciative or condemning look into their lives based the choices they made in either championing liberal humanism or siding with totalitarianism of both the left and right. A timeless piece that continues to present lessons and wisdom that we could all learn from.
Additionally, reading James’s talented writing and unique storytelling can’t help but make you a better writer.
“If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.”
- Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, Eric Greitens
Written as a collection of letters to his friend and former SEAL comrade, Zach Walker, who’s struggling with finding his purpose upon returning home, Greitens offers invaluable thoughts on what it takes to build resilience into our lives. In a culture where too many people offer the advice to just be happy, Greitens offers wisdom from Stoic philosophers, our founding fathers, and today’s thinkers and heroes on how true resilience comes not through the events of our lives but in how we respond to them.
An incredibly powerful book full of reminders that ultimately our identity comes out of our actions. And we all get to choose our own actions.
“What happens to us becomes part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.”
- Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure, William Bolitho
Driven into huge demand and up to correspondingly inexorbitant prices by Elon Musk’s recommendation, I was thrilled to see this finally become available on Kindle. Bolitho tells the tales of twelve of history’s greatest adventurers – from Alexander the Great to Woodrow Wilson. In each instance, he shows how these makers of history have been driven by the same internal conflicts as the rest of us, but their greed for life ultimately tips the balance into their war with the unknown.
A great read – educational and entertaining – and written with the passion and skill of an author whose deeply committed to telling these stories. But primarily it serves as a reminder of the thrill of adventure that too often lies dormant in most of us. And an equal reminder that there’s still plenty of adventures out there waiting.
“And so, the adventurous life is our first choice. Any baby that can walk is a splendid and typical adventurer; if they had the power as they have the will, what exploits and crimes would they not commit! We are born adventurers, and the love of adventures never leaves us till we are very old; old, timid men, in whose interest it is that adventure should quite die out. This is why all the poets are on one side, and all the laws on the other; for laws are made by, and usually for, old men.”
- Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, L. David Marquet
Former Navy Captain Marquet’s story of improving the culture and operational ability of the USS Santa Fe offers simple and straight-forward suggestions for increasing engagement by driving decision-making responsibility to the lowest levels possible.
His structure of equipping people with competence and clarity in order to make quality decisions offers a model for anyone looking to drive change throughout an organization and not just lead people – but build more leaders. A critical book for anyone in a position of leadership. And like it or not, we’re all in a position of leadership.
“Don’t preach and hope for ownership; implement mechanisms that actually give ownership.”
Published shortly before Sagan’s death, this masterwork offers science as the ultimate tool of democracy. Sagan encourages us and gives us the means to confront the growing obsession with pseudoscience and superstition by remaining steadfast in science and reason.
In a topic that’s only become more critical in our post-truth, fake news world, Sagan reminds us that uninformed irrationality leads us down a path that threatens our most basic freedoms. A necessity for anyone who continues to worry over the path we seem intent on heading down.
“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.”
- On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder
An eye-opening history of how complacency and overconfidence allowed fascism to grow throughout the 20th century. Complete with practical advice on how to resist this change as it becomes readily more apparent with every passing day. A short, but all the more critical volume for everyone who looks toward 2020 with hope of change.
Snyder’s manifesto is one of those books I’ve added to my yearly re-reading cycle. His lessons and reminders – that were earned with the lives of 20th Century heroes – are too costly to forget.
“To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.”
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
While Orwell’s 1984 shows how fascism can control people through fear and violence, Huxley’s genius is to show how the same feat can be accomplished much more effectively through pleasure and short-term happiness. A classic science fiction book that gives us the picture of a future where everyone is happy all of the time and people are raised for the express purpose of appreciating the life they’re designed to have. And yet despite an abundance of seemingly happy people, they’ve sacrificed all real meaning and fulfillment.
It serves as a powerful message that true happiness is much more than having a positive ratio of pleasant to unpleasant moments.
“Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness.”
My favorite Ryan Holiday book to date. He tells the story of Gawker’s downfall in a format that makes it a compulsion to keep turning the pages. Before reading this, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to empathize with a conservative billionaire, a tabloid muckraker, or Hulk Hogan. Yet Holiday manages to accomplish all three, reminding us that people are much deeper and more complicated than the two dimensional images we typically see.
Through everything, it’s a study on power, strategy, and the determination of one man to do something he was repeatedly told could not be done. Highly entertaining.
“It is always revealing to see how a person responds to those situations where he’s told: ‘There’s nothing you can do about it. This is the way of the world.’ Peter Thiel’s friend, the mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a ‘high-agency person.’ How do you respond when told something is impossible? Is that the end of the conversation or the start of one? What’s the reaction to being told you can’t—that no one can? One type accepts it, wallows in it even. The other questions it, fights it, rejects it.”
A true manifesto. Full of practical advice on developing a start-up, building a team, or instilling change within any culture. Zero to One offers insight into the mind of one of today’s great intellectuals and gives thought-provoking discussions for favoring boldness over timidity. Thiel’s ideas for escaping the competition, moving your company into a new direction, and avoiding the trap of incrementalization are applicable and actionable at any level.
“Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better—to go from 0 to 1.”
- Oathbringer: Book Three of the Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson
I’m a fan of most of Brandon Sanderson’s work so when a new novel comes out, it’s quickly added to my reading list. In Oathbringer, he continues his elaborate Stormlight Archive plot and expands upon a world full of rich, divisive characters. With George R.R. Martin neglecting to continue his book series and Patrick Rothfuss taking an extended hiatus, Sanderson’s ability to reliably turn out high quality material is much appreciated.
It may not be the best investment for personal development, but I’ve found that reading authors who excel at weaving together storylines is a great way to improve your own storytelling ability. Plus, it’s too easy to get burned out with solely focusing on non-fiction.
“Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination. – Windrunner Ideal”
- Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen
Wow. A sweeping history of the steps leading from the founding of America until today, Andersen shows how our current fake news problems are just the latest in a series of embarrassments and tragedies spanning back 500 years. From the Salem Witch Trials and Puritan fanatics to Internet hucksters and conspiracy theorists, Andersen offers a voice of reason amidst a country that has fantasy embedded in its DNA.
An indispensable book for understanding today’s America and the seemingly insane choices that many people are committed to pursue. The most unfortunate part is that those who really should read this book – and open themselves up to a much needed sense of skepticism – won’t, for that very reason.
“If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”
- Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, Jocko Willink
Immediately actionable advice on leading a disciplined life from someone who has us all beat in that category. If you implement only a handful of suggestions from the book, you’ll be doing better than the large majority of people out there.
“Question yourself every day. Ask yourself: Who am I? What have I learned? What have I created? What forward progress have I made? Who have I helped? What am I doing to improve myself—today? To get better, faster, stronger, healthier, smarter?”
- Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A familiar phrase to most of us yet one that few have ever stopped to contemplate and apply to their own lives. Taleb demonstrates how skin in the game is a critical component of those we respect and value in our world.
The depth to which Taleb portrays multiple ideas and examples are somewhat diminished by his occasional glib and often unsubstantiated insults of notable peers, namely Steven Pinker and Richard Thaler. Worth a read regardless, as there’s many opportunities for thoughtful reflection and practical application, but it would be better if perhaps Nassim Taleb wasn’t such a big fan of Nassim Taleb.
“Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will benefit, and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them.”
- The Greatest Minds and Idea of All Time by Will Durant
Clear and concise writing. Will Durant walks us through the greatest ideas, thinkers, and books throughout history with a sense of optimism for the future. His descriptions of the people, ideas, and inventions that have shaped the course of history not only document but encourage others to do the same.
A short collection of our current heritage, written in a manner that held my interest much better than your traditional history book. For anyone who’s a fan of history, I also highly recommend both the short The Lessons of History and the eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, written by Durant with his wife Ariel.
“I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead.”
- 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, Scott O. Lilienfield, Steven Jay Lynn, and John Ruscio
An interesting read of the various psychological theories and assertions that we’ve heard so many times that we’ve begun to accept them without question. Using common misconceptions with regards to thinking, learning, emotions, and understanding our own selves, the authors provide a toolkit to help distinguish science from pseudoscience. Always useful and full of knowledge you can use to correct people who are still laboring under these misconceptions – just try not to preach too much, or be prepared to deal with the inevitable eye rolls.
“Everyday life isn’t easy, even for the best adjusted of us. Many of us struggle to find ways to lose weight, get enough sleep, perform well on exams, enjoy our jobs, and find a lifelong romantic partner. It’s hardly a surprise that we glom on to techniques that offer foolproof promises of rapid and painless behavior changes.”
The only constant is change – another idea that we all inherently know but too often fail to represent in our daily actions. Staats offers the principles behind becoming a dynamic learner and the outlines the framework to pursue this goal in our daily lives. Full of actionable ideas to help us reflect on how we’re embracing continuous growth – or more likely – how we’re not.
“It’s not just knowledge that’s necessary—it’s using that knowledge to build more knowledge.”
- Ready Player One: A Novel, Ernest Cline
An absolute blast to read. The 1980s pop culture trivia makes it all the better. Just don’t start it on a night when you need to be up early the next day.
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
As the great Carl Sagan discussed in his legendary Cosmos series, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of magic.”
I hope that this list can help deliver a small portion of this magic that it’s provided me over the course of the past year. And thanks, as always, for reading.