A great book is a bit like peering into the author’s brain. It’s as though you’ve spent an afternoon, every day for a year, absorbing the most intimate and considered thoughts of a brilliant mind.
It’s also a vessel for time travel to the future — one in which you are a better, more capable, and purer version of yourself. And in every book is the potential to change your life irrevocably.
Here are ten books which have changed my life. Perhaps they will change yours as well.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Saunder’s voice is his own — humorous, ironic, inappropriate, and always unique. His stories are fun and engaging, and incredibly weird, and will give you a new appreciation for what is possible in fiction. The highlight in this book though is the Author’s Note where he shares his personal journey. It’s a fascinating look into his life, and in particular his struggle — both against himself and his circumstances — to realize his potential.
After many failed attempts at writing what he thought the world expected him to write, he discovers instead what he was meant to write:
Suddenly it was as if I’d been getting my ass kicked in an alley somewhere and realized I’d had one arm behind my back. All of my natural abilities, I saw, had been placed, by me, behind a sort of scrim. Among these were: humor, speed, the scatological, irreverence, compression, naughtiness. All I had to do was tear down the scrim and allow those abilities to come to the table.
He also describes how writing managed to get him through the days when he was struggling to support his family and his writing life with a soul-sucking career as a technical writer:
Mostly I was using whatever story I happened to have going at the time to get me through the day and give me some minimal sense of control and mastery. They were a secret source of sustenance. If I got a few good lines in the morning, that made the whole rest of the day better.
And then there is this fascinating exchange about the nature of dreams, and what it means to fulfill them (or not):
When I was in my twenties I had this plan to go to El Salvador and write about the experience. I had no money, didn’t speak Spanish, but this was “my dream.” I stopped by one day to see a friend of mine but found only his father home. I’d never spoken to this man before, not really. He was a truck driver, a father of eight, always went around in a white T-shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. But this day, we talked. I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”
“Yes,” I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”
“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”
I did know.
“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”
A Brief History of Time by Steven Hawking
Not only did this book give me a greater understanding of the universe, but it ignited a passion for astrophysics and cosmology (no, not cosmetology) that continues to this day. It also gave me a deep appreciation and respect for people who face down the worst in life and defy the odds.
Hawking by all accounts should have died long ago (and when he was first diagnosed with ALS at 21, he was not expected to live past 25). Instead, he wrote this magnificent and significant book. Today, at the age of 76, he is as sharp as ever, and still writing books.
And in case you were ever in doubt, it’s turtles, all the way down.
Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis
Archy is a poet, reincarnated as a cockroach, and Mehitabel claims to have been Cleopatra in a past life. That alone is reason enough to read this wonderful collection of stories and poetry by Mr. Marquis.
Archy, even as a cockroach, continues his calling as a poet by throwing himself onto the keys of a typewriter, one at a time, painstakingly (and painfully) meting out his verse, letter by letter, line by line.
expression is the need of my soul
His poetry is at once silly and deep, and incredibly engaging once you get lost in the stream-of-consciousness flow of it all. And it is always and forever in lowercase due to his unique inability to reach the shift key.
But most of all, the story of Archy is a story of persistence, of finding a way to express yourself regardless of your circumstance or lot in life.
A bit like Hawking, I suppose. Except with cockroaches.
Awaken The Giant Within by Tony Robbins
Reading this book is like cracking open Tony Robbins’ brain and extracting an entire decade of knowledge. Considering that Robbins is the most famous self-help guru on the entire planet, this is no small thing.
Think what you will about Robbins — perhaps even compare him to a ridiculously over the top Tom Cruise in Magnolia — but this man has something important to say, and you should probably listen. If only because a shit ton of other people have.
Ultimately this is a book about self-mastery. Robbins helps us get there with very specific, actionable advice. For example, he teaches us that much of life is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In order to achieve our goals, it makes all the difference if we lash the things which are getting in the way of our goals to pain, and associate the steps toward our goals to pleasure.
But this is just one of many insights. Among other things he says:
I believe most people fail in life simply because they major in minor things.
What a simple but powerful statement! When you realize how much of your life has been spent on inconsequential things, it really forces you to take an accounting, and focus on the things that matter.
This is a long book, but well worth it. If you’re not affected by it, then perhaps you’re not reading it at the right time of your life. But I’m certain that it if you give it the chance, it will inspire you to grow.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
This is a book which transcends its purpose. Certainly, it is a book which aims to teach Taoism, and in this regard, it is an incredibly well written, concise, and clear lesson on the basic tenets Taoist philosophy.
Above all, though, it is a book about simplicity, calm, and acceptance. Many difficult situations can be solved if we look at them from a simple point of view (note that I did not say ‘basic’) and in a calm and contemplative way.
In Taoism, there is a concept called wu wei, which can be translated as the action of non-action. Achieving wu wei means that your actions are effortless because they are in alignment with the ebb of and flow of the world. Many times, when we are struggling, we feel like we are going against the tide, instead of with it. Yet often our reaction is to push harder. But if you think of the times in your life when everything seems to be going well, it often feels effortless. And if you examine it I bet you’ll find that you’re not just bobbing helplessly to and fro with the tide, but rather your movements are in perfect synchronization with it.
And that is also a perfect description of Pooh, in all his Pooh-ness.
The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
First of all, the title of this book is a lie (not unlike how the cake is a lie). While Ferriss claims that for a time, he did, in fact, work 4 hours a week, I can guarantee you that he works harder than most people. And there is just no way that he could have attained his level of success — let alone maintain it — by only working 4 hours a week.
In reality, this is not a book about how to work as little as possible. Instead, it is a book about how to apply leverage in your life in order to increase your productivity (and yes, perhaps also get back some free time, although that time can be just as well used for work as for play). Once you realize this and get over any literal interpretation of the title, the book opens up a world of possibilities and ideas which will change your views on how to get things done and how to make a living on your own terms. While other books by Ferriss have more tactics and practical tips, this is the one that really sparked me to look at my world from a different point of view.
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
This book is both an introduction to Stoicism as well as a clear and unwavering treatise on how fate rules our lives. Holiday shows us that we can either accept this fact and grow stronger, or be weakened and tortured by it.
There are many phrases designed to remind us of the impermanence of time and the callousness of life. This too shall pass. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. C’est la vie. It is God’s will. And on and on.
These are all useful phrases, and we could do worse than to employ them daily. But these words are used most often in the context of framing our struggles as facts of life or of things to endure. We use them to remind ourselves that it’s not so bad — or that it could be worse.
Holiday’s book, however, reframes struggle as an opportunity, and he teaches us to embrace it. Instead of ‘this is not so bad’ it becomes ‘I can make this good’. Along the way, he solidifies his insights by relating them to inspiring stories of people who faced a wall and either climbed it or went around it. And at the end of the day, he has created a framework which enables us to embrace our own personal obstacles and rise above them.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This is a beautiful story about dreams, faith, and the journey of life. It is probably no surprise then that Coelho’s masterpiece is one of the most read books in the world.
Perhaps most touching is the forward, where Coelho recounts his struggle to publish his book:
I never lost faith in the book or ever wavered in my vision. Why? Because it was me in there, all of me, heart and soul. I was living my own metaphor. A man sets out on a journey, dreaming of a beautiful or magical place, in pursuit of some unknown treasure. At the end of his journey, the man realizes the treasure was with him the entire time. I was following my Personal Legend, and my treasure was my capacity to write. And I wanted to share this treasure with the world.
If you haven’t started your personal journey yet — or you are on your way, but perhaps lost or uncertain — then this book will inspire and orient you.
The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
The premise of this book is simple: just focus on what is most important. And while I have read many books, blog posts, and articles on this exact topic, none have inspired me as much as Keller’s book.
The thing is: focus is hard. Choosing one thing, especially in today’s world of endless possibilities and responsibilities, seems impossible. What this book makes us realize though is that our lack of focus is the root of the problem, not a symptom. And that true focus is not as hard as you think — if you embrace how crucial it is to succeeding in life, and if you make it part of your every day.
One of the key principles in Keller’s book is that you can’t exclusively rely on self-discipline to help you focus. Instead, you have to turn it into habit, so that it is practically automatic. The best way to do this is to get up every morning and focus on the one thing that is the most important thing for the day. For some of us, this might mean doing it before work or before the kids wake up. Do this enough and the effect builds on itself.
Keller shows us that it’s quite simple to succeed at your hardest tasks and achieve your dreams. But only if you focus on the one thing.
On Writing by Stephen King
If you only read one ‘how to write’ book, this is the one to get. And if you’re a fan of King, but have no interest in writing, then read it anyway for a fascinating peek into his life.
Don’t expect a writing workshop though. For that matter, don’t expect much in the way of practical tips, save for a section where King takes us through writing and revising a short story. Instead, what I found inspiring was the simplicity and truth of his writing advice.
For example, he says:
The scariest moment is always just before you start.
Just remember that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
Let me say it again: You must not come lightly to the blank page.
Some might read this and say “well, that’s obvious” or “what useless, unspecific advice!” But these are all reminders of the hardest things about writing, which, if you are to be a good writer, you must face down every day. And coming from King — someone who has reached the pinnacle of his craft — this is no small thing.
- Getting started is often the hardest part of a project.
- There is no muse or magic potion — there is just you.
- You must work, and work hard, at both reading and writing.
- When you sit in front of the page or the screen to write your words, take it as seriously as anything else worthy of being taken seriously. Which means: focus, and give it your all.
Writing is so personal and so difficult that we do ourselves a disservice if we seek advice that portends to give us a formula or an ‘easy way’. King reminds us that there are no formulas and no easy way — there is just you, and the page.
What’s on your reading list this year? Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.
Also published on Medium.