- A reading list for becoming a better citizen and person
To me, the answer is obvious: by turning to wisdom. That means turning away from the news, turning away from whatever trend or controversy is boiling nearby, and looking instead to books—really great books that have stood, or will stand, the test of time.
Books are medicine for the soul, and investments in yourself: novels, nonfiction, how-to, poetry, classics, biographies. Below is a list of 15 books that will help lead you to a better, stronger, happier 2019.
‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport
The unassuming Georgetown computer science professor has become one of this generation’s leading voices on how we can all work more wisely and more deeply. With media consumption continuing to go way up (which, for most of us, means happiness and productivity continue to go way down) and the world becoming noisier every day, this book is an urgent call to action for anyone serious about being in command of their own life. The minimalism movement successfully led millions to opt out of the many possessions we’re told we’re supposed to crave and focus instead on the small number of things that bring the most meaning and value to our lives. The same ideology applies to our online lives. Digital clutter is stressful. We don’t need the constant connectivity, the pages and pages of apps, the incessant scrolling and clicking. New technologies can improve our lives if we know how to best leverage them. This book already helped me break my Facebook addiction—and the first month of the year has been a big improvement for me because of that.
‘Montaigne’ by Stefan Zweig and ‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell
If you’ve been struggling with the onslaught of negative news and political turmoil, start with Montaigne. It’s the biography of a man who retreated from the chaos of 16th century France to study himself, written by a man fleeing the chaos of 20th century Europe. It’s hard to be a thinking person and not see alarming warning signs about today’s world while reading this book. Yet it also gives us a solution: Turn inward. Master yourself. Montaigne is one of humanity’s greatest treasures—a wise and insightful thinker who never takes himself too seriously. If you’ve not read any of his essays, start with Sarah Bakewell’s magnificent book, How To Live. It’s a readable introduction to all things Montaigne.
‘The Moviegoer’ by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer is almost truer now for the millennial (or generational) experience than it was in the 1960s when it was published. Any reader will relate to the rather ageless angst of the next generation trying to find its meaning and purpose in the world. It is exactly the novel that every young kid stuck in their own head needs to read. The main character, on what he calls “the search,” is so in love with the artificiality of movies that he has trouble living his actual life in the real world.
‘The Laws of Human Nature’ by Robert Greene
For decades, Robert Greene has been observing, studying, and writing about people and power. He has produced a canon of bestselling books that explain why people do what they do, how these patterns affect and shape the world, and of course, how we can develop strategies to protect ourselves and thrive in this often irrational world. All of that work has culminated in The Laws of Human Nature, the masterwork from the master of human behavior. “If I had to say what the primary law of human nature is,” Greene has said, “the primary law of human nature is to deny that we have human nature, to deny that we are subject to these forces.” The reality is, humans do have aggressive, violent, contradictory, emotional, irrational impulses. And we have to understand them if we want to rise about them. Greene’s recent pieces on internet trolls, on passive aggressive arguers, and on identity politics are good previews of lessons that we’d all be better for understanding this year.
‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’ by Josef Pieper
Pieper wrote this book in Germany right after WWII—arguably the most important and deadly event of the 20th century, if not all of history—and it is even more crucial today than when it first appeared more than 70 years ago. In our purpose-oriented, productivity-obsessed culture full of noise and distraction, we’ve become terrified of leisure: emptiness, stillness, nothing. We constantly feel like we are supposed to be doing and doing and doing, but sometimes, you’re supposed to just be. We think that action is the end-all be-all, so we often end up doing action just for the sake of doing action. But leisure and stillness is where great insights come from. This is where happiness comes from. It’s hard to be happy and appreciative and feel gratitude when you’re moving all the time. Pieper shows that “Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture.” Try to be instead of do. Try doing nothing at all. See what happens. You might be surprised.
‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson
This book has only become more important and more true in the few years since it came out. Ronson’s interviews with and focus on people who have screwed up and found themselves in the midst of massive online controversies—“shame storms,” a recent article calls them—are equally provocative and insightful. He writes with such sensitivity, empathy, humor, and insight about all that’s wrong with the rage and glee of tearing down other people—often people who were never public figures to begin with. It reveals what human nature and digital tools can do to a crowd. It creates a mob. And it makes a select handful of media and technology entrepreneurs wealthy while their goons feel important and at liberty to pretend they don’t have their own flaws. This is not how we solve things. It’s not how the world is improved. The world requires more forgiveness and empathy from all of us—and this book is a good place to start.
‘The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca’ by Emily Wilson
Perhaps there is no historical figure more appropriate for today’s times than Seneca. In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist, or simply endure the political rulers of their time. Seneca’s political life mirrors much of the chaos of the Trump administration. He was a philosopher drawn into politics; he wanted to make a difference in the real world and then found himself in the court of Nero, trying to contain a wildly insecure, inexperienced leader who some thought was deranged and others thought was brilliant (sound familiar?). Seneca loved nothing more than quiet, reflective time alone… yet he also needed and wanted fame, fortune, and impact. And it was these competing desires—the wrenching conflict between power and principle—that created an incredible life and an incredible set of lessons captured in Emily Wilson’s biography. Her translations of Seneca are excellent and her insights are provocative. It’s a must-read for any student of history or philosophy.
‘Lincoln’s Virtues’ by William Lee Miller
Our generation needs to remember that over 100 years before us, people stood right where we were and felt similar things, struggling with the same issues. Abraham Lincoln’s life was defined by enduring and transcending great difficulty. This book is a heart-wrenching and amazing story of Lincoln’s uniquely moral rise to power. We bend over backward to deny or pretend that Lincoln wasn’t a politician (as though that profession somehow corrupts him), which is really counterproductive. Lincoln was a career politician—and when he wasn’t a politician, he was a lawyer. Those were his jobs. He just also happened to be an ethical human being who believed in what he believed in. If you want some reassurance amid today’s tumultuous political climate, this book is it. Politics doesn’t have to be dirty and disgusting and awful. In fact, pragmatism and purpose can coalesce with each other and it’s exceptions like Lincoln that should urge all of us to a higher standard.
‘Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics’ by Stephen Greenblatt
It’s hard to do much better than John Lithgow’s blurb from this book’s back cover: “Tyrant is a striking literary feat. At the outset, the book notes how Shakespeare craftily commented on his own times by telling tales of tyrants from centuries before. In an act of scholarly daring, Greenblatt then proceeds to do exactly the same thing.” Tyrant, like all of Greenblatt’s books, is an excellent introduction to the classics and indisputable proof that the best way to understand what’s happening in the world is not reading or watching the news, but studying great writing from the past. (You might also enjoy this interview I did with Greenblatt, which dives into how he works and what inspires him).
‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
According to this book, Tiger Woods’ parents trained him to be an assassin. To feel nothing. To regret nothing. To stop at nothing. That winning was all that mattered. Combine that upbringing with his personal habits and you have one of the most complicated, misunderstood figures, certainly of our time, maybe even in all of sports. This is not to excuse the cheating (on his wife or allegedly in the game of golf), but it does explain it and humanize it. It explains what happens to people who are skilled but are or become spiritually and ethically bankrupt. Lot of good cautionary lessons here.
‘Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill’ by Sonia Purnell
For all the productivity and success advice out there, I’ve never really seen someone come out and say: “Find yourself a spouse who complements and supports you and makes you better.” The myth today is of the lone creative entrepreneur battling the world without an ally in sight. A defiant combination of Atlas and Sisyphus and David, wrestling a Goliath-sized mass of doubters and demons. Churchill is often portrayed in that way. But Churchill said the best decision he ever made in his life was marrying Clementine, and Sonia Purnell’s examination of Winston’s better half was truly revelatory of just how many times she saved his ass.
‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ and ‘Blue Ocean Shift’ by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Too many people gravitate toward competition, pointlessly entering contests where the outcome is dependent on forces beyond their control. They want to be better than other people, richer than somebody else, sell more copies than some record-breaking predecessor. Even if they are incredibly talented or brilliant, this is a loseable contest. The question we must ask ourselves when we are setting out on some new endeavor—building a business, producing a creative project—is whether we’re pursuing something that delivers value in a way no one else can. Instead of battling numerous competitors in a contested “red ocean,” it’s far better to to seek fresh, uncontested “blue” water. If Blue Ocean Strategy is the what behind the theory of creating new markets rather than competing in crowded ones, then Blue Ocean Shift is the how and the mindset required to do so. Lots of good examples in this book, including a bunch that are not from business (“blue ocean” thinking also applies to government, NGOs, leadership, etc.).
‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank and ‘Anne Frank: The Biography’ by Melissa Müller
In Anne Frank’s diary, we hear of the timeless plight of the refugee, we are reminded of the humanity of every individual (and how societies lose sight of this), and we are inspired—even shamed—to see the cheerful perseverance of a child amidst circumstances far worse than any of us could ever know. Paired with Melissa Müller’s biography and our chaotic international world, the wisdom, the tragedy, and the profound inspiration of Anne Frank will penetrate fully and deeply. The concluding note from Miep Gies in Müller’s biography reminds us that Anne Frank is not the representative of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust; she is one of the millions of people—all of whom had their own hopes, dreams, and lives snuffed out by the cruelty of man, surviving to us only on paper, and in some cases, not even there. “Paper is more patient than people,” Anne Frank wrote. It is also far less cruel than our world, which unlike the diary, snuffed out the life of this young prodigy. (You might also like this short essay about Anne Frank and the obligation we have to stand up to evil.)
‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar
There’s the great line from Bismarck: “Any fool can learn from experience. It’s better to learn from the experience of others.” This book may be the closest thing to a literal representation of that. Written from the (fictional) perspective of Hadrian—one of the great rulers of the ancient world—the book takes the form of a long letter of advice to a young Marcus Aurelius, who would eventually succeed him as emperor. It’s somber, but practical, filled with beautiful and moving passages from a man nearing death and looking back to share everything he’s learned to prepare someone for one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
‘How to Be Free’ by Epictetus
Epictetus was born a slave. Quite literally, his name means, in Greek, “acquired.” Ultimately, he came to be the property of a man named Epaphroditus, who kept Epictetus chained up long enough that he became disabled from it and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. But Epictetus retained freedom in one important sense: People could do whatever they wanted to his body, but his mind always remained his to control. It was this, A.A. Long writes in his short new edition of How to Be Free, that is really the core of what Epictetus’s teachings would later revolve around: “You can be externally free and internally a slave… conversely you could be externally obstructed or even in literal bondage but internally free from frustration and disharmony.” It’s really a remarkable insight and one we must think of always. Yes, every person is entitled to physical freedom. And yet plenty of us are not truly free, not nearly as free as Epictetus was when he was still in chains.
‘Essentialism’ by Greg McKeown
To me, practical philosophy has always been about knowing what to—and what not to—expend your time and energy on. Happiness and success come from cultivating indifference to things that don’t matter. Be careful, as Marcus Aurelius warned, not to give the little things more time and thought than they deserve. This book focuses you and makes you question many of the projects and commitments and assumptions you’ve said yes to over the years, to finally cut out the crap, focus on the truly important thing (or couple things). Though the book is about applying design-style thinking to your life, it is really just a solid book of philosophy, stories, and anecdotes that make you reconsider your priorities. If looking back reveals how much effort you’ve frittered away worrying about the trivial, let yourself begin to only devote energy to things that truly matter—get the important things right by ignoring the insignificant.
‘Up From Slavery’ by Booker T. Washington
Not every conversation about race has to be terrible. Booker T. Washington, like all great people, sought common ground, solutions, and love over distrust and anger. “Great men cultivate love,” he wrote, “only little men cherish a spirit of hatred.” And this from a man who had been born in the final days of slavery, who faced incredible racism and adversity. A man who walked nearly 500 miles to apply for college, and when he wasn’t accepted, quietly cleaned the waiting room of the admissions office until they let him in. A man who instead of talking about the needs for better schools and opportunities went out and created the Tuskegee Institute, helping change the lives of generations of African Americans (and, by extension, millions of others). In other words, a man who proved two principles: character is fate and deeds not words. He also happens to be a font of wisdom — on personal responsibility, on hard work, on race, on fairness, on advancing an agenda, on building an institution, and on working with other people.
‘Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal’ by Ben Sasse
It wouldn’t surprise Robert Greene that tribalism still tempts us. In Them, Sen. Ben Sasse talks about how the massive technological and sociological changes we are going through on this planet encourage toxic impulses. We feel threatened, we feel insecure, so we retreat into (or descend into) tribalism. We want to blame other people for our problems, we want to create enemies, we want to focus on what they are doing wrong and not the urgent (and resolvable) issues in our own lives. And, of course, what this blame-shifting tribalism keeps us ignorant of is how much we all have in common, how 99 percent of us are just doing the best we can, and how, in the end, most everyone wants the same things. To the Stoics, the idea of “sympatheia” was a bulwark against this temptation to make someone an other. Forget tribes, Marcus Aurelius said, “We are citizens of the world. We were made for each other and to serve a common good.” The idea of “they” or “them” is driven by fear. Not reason. It’s not rational. It’s emotional, and it’s destructive. Each of us needs to work on rising above it. For the sake of ourselves, our countries, and our world.
All these books will serve you well. But if I had one final recommendation for reading this year, it would be this: Pick three or four books you’ve already read, that had a big impact on you, and read them again. We all spend too much time chasing what’s new and not enough time really digesting those heady, important, mind-blowing books we’ve already read. Reread To Kill A Mockingbird. Give The Odyssey another chance. Sit with a few chapters from Good to Great. See how these books have stood the test of time and see how you’ve changed since you’ve read them last.
It can be some of the best time you spend with a book this year. Happy reading!