One of my favorite things to do on the internet is read other people’s book lists. I love being reminded how many interesting things there are yet to explore, to get lost in and inspired by. I revere those mystical moments when two seemingly unrelated ideas somehow hook up and connect, enabling me to see and engage the world in a new way. There’s been a lot of books this year that helped me do that, so, I made a list of my favorites.
It was a pretty good reading year for me. According to my Goodreads account, I finished 63 books. In a mostly failed attempt to narrow down this list I limited myself to five books per category. I value applied knowledge so within each category I ranked the books based on how influential they’ve been, #1 being the most influential. For each book I limited myself to one quote and one sentence summing up why I think it’s worth reading. I’ve linked to a full summary for each book if you want to find out more.
For me, book lists are at their best as exploratory tools, shining a light on what else might be worth reading, so when you see a footnote next to a book1 you’ll find other books that explore similar themes, with the theme they share in parenthesis. I’ve highlighted the 10 most influential books I read this year in bold.
This is my second book list. Here’s a list I wrote last year of 12 pivotal books I recommend everyone read.
One last thing: I love book recommendations. If you know a book you think I’d like and you’ve read it yourself (my only requirement) please drop me a line.
If you’d like to skip to a particular category click the link below:
“What is it you’re looking for in this endless quest? Tranquillity. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there’ll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.”
A fast-paced story laced with stoic teachings about a real estate developer facing bankruptcy in 1998 Atlanta.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Written in 1931, Huxley’s dystopian vision is disturbingly relevant today.
A poignant story with beautiful drawings for kids and grown up kids alike.
“You are too young to know how the world changes everyday,’ said Mrs Creakle, ‘and how the people in it pass away. But we all have to learn it, David; some of us when we are young, some of us when we are old, some of us at all times in our lives.’”
The story of a boy’s difficult childhood and his journey to becoming a successful author, believed to have been based on Dickens’ own life and his favorite of his own novels.
“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step”
If you liked The Alchemist, you’ll enjoy this read.
“The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively but it also did something more. Since large scale human cooperation is based on myths the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths, by telling different stories.”
A thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human and the powerful role story and imagination play in creating the world we live in.
“Your bliss can guide you to that transcendent mystery, because bliss is the welling up of the energy of the transcendent wisdom within you. So when the bliss cuts off, you know that you’ve cut off the welling up; try to find it again. And that will be your Hermes guide, the dog that can follow the invisible trail for you. And that’s the way it is. One works out one’s own myth that way.”
Two collections of lectures from one of our best modern thinkers on the relevance of myth in modern times and the role myth plays in helping us navigate our own lives.
“If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
An exploration into the origins of debt (and money) and how it has influenced our relationships, ideas and lives over the last 5,000 years.
“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
Elizabeth’s short lecture series on the Iliad made my first attempt at the Iliad much more interesting, relevant and rewarding (I recommend listening to this one on audible.)
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Three things really struck me when I read Darwin in the original: how incredible the natural world is, how little we really know and how relentlessly Darwin worked to show us both.
“What barrier is there that love cannot break?”
I found Ghandi’s dedication to truth profound, his insights practical and relevant and his experimental approach to life inspiring (I’ve shared some of my favorite quotes here.)
“We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.”
Tim shares what I believe is one of the most important stories of our generation: the emergence and expansion of an industry which feeds on human attention (I wrote about this book here: Tim Wu on Reclaiming Our Consciousness.)
“In very powerful ways, we are shrouded and entrapped within the paradigms that we accept—and this acceptance is often an unconscious act … To change one’s paradigm is perhaps the most difficult of challenges, because it often requires turning one’s world inside out. People have killed other people over challenged paradigms.”
A powerful examination of the myth that progress depends on a growing economy and the three foundational scientific laws it contradicts.
“No one reaches out to you for compassion or empathy so you can teach them how to behave better. They reach out to us because they believe in our capacity to know our darkness well enough to sit in the dark with them.”
A series of informative talks (which could easily pass for stand up comedy) discussing Brene’s data-driven conclusion that vulnerability is the foundation of a wholehearted life and how it can be cultivated (Brene is at her best when speaking which is why I recommend listening to this one on audible.)
“When trouble seems intractable, sometimes the best thing to do is go somewhere else and see how other people work the problem … In my case, fate brought me to a tiny Central American country often ignored by the rest of the world. I watched as the forces of global capitalism and international environmentalism battled for six years over the survival of the last scarlet macaws in Belize. At the center of it all was a woman who ran a charming little zoo.”
A riveting, endearing and eye-opening story about one woman’s stand against a multi-national corporation to save Belize’s beloved bird.
“Adding other people’s memories to one’s own memories transforms one’s ideas of a what is possible to do in a lifetime. A new vision of the past makes possible a new vision of the future. History is not a coffin with no escape. On the contrary, it is liberation, a bunch of keys that open doors to places one never knew existed.”
A mix of philosophy and history, Zeldin‘s story of a search for a new art of living is stimulating, invigorating and truly unique.
“In fact, it may be discovered that the true veins of wealth are purple—and not in Rock, but in Flesh—perhaps even that the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures. Our modern wealth, I think, has rather a tendency the other way;—most political economists appearing to consider multitudes of human creatures not conducive to wealth, or at best conducive to it only by remaining in a dim-eyed and narrow-chested state of being.”
A four part essay on economy which explores what’s truly worth giving life for (it had a great influence on Gandhi); I read it twice this year (I wrote about this book here: John Ruskin on What it Means to Be Wealthy.)
“New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.”
This book changed the way I think about language and how we experience the world.
“To go out of your mind once a day is tremendously important, because by going out of your mind you come to your senses. And if you stay in your mind all of the time, you are over rational, in other words you are like a very rigid bridge which because it has no give; no craziness in it, is going to be blown down by the first hurricane.”
A self-proclaimed “spiritual entertainer,” I constantly find myself returning to Watts’ charismatic and enlightening teachings (Watts is a phenomenal speaker which is why I recommend listening to this one on audible.)
“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”
An interesting, philosophical exploration of what it means to travel and why we travel based on de Botton’s own travels as well as the travels of others throughout history.
“That is all that life is, to learn the unknown, and to adapt our actions to this new knowledge.”
A radical and moving re-interpretation of the teachings of Christ, especially focused around Christ’s teaching of non-violence (I wrote about this book here: Leo Tolstoy on the Teachings of Christ.)
“This is a dangerous book.”
Equal parts disturbing and illuminating, Scott Peck argues that if we are to heal, we must shine a light on human evil (I wrote about this book here: Scott Peck on Changing an Attitude.)
“Just knowing the process of transformation on an intellectual level, without having done the work, won’t help at all. On the other hand, doing the work without the understanding makes the work that much harder. Understanding what we’re doing is often de-emphasized in Zen practice. But for the mind that prefers to operate on more than faith alone, having this knowledge of meditation as a transformative process is not only useful, it’s essential.”
Ezra lays out a clear and intensely practical approach for living a genuine life (I wrote about this book here: Ezra Bayda on the 5 Aspects of Meditation as a Transformative Process.)
“Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns…We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”
Both a psychologist and a Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach is one of my favorite spiritual mentors—her book oozes with experience-based, down-to-earth wisdom.
“The only way to experience truth directly is to look within, to observe oneself. All our lives we have been accustomed to look outward. We have always been interested in what is happening outside, what others are doing. We have rarely, if ever, tried to examine ourselves, our own mental and physical structure, our own actions, our own reality. Therefore we remain unknown to ourselves. We do not realize how harmful this ignorance is, how much we remain the slaves of forces within ourselves of which we are unaware.”
Hart’s overview of S.N. Goenka’s teachings is a great refresher for anyone who has attended one of Goenka’s Vipassana retreats.
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”
A collection of great travel writing (his and others) from one of our most prolific travel writers—part anecdotal, part philosophy, part travel grab bag, this book will be a good friend, especially so for seasoned travelers.
“The particulars of new places grabbed me and held me, the sweep of new coasts, cold, lovely, dawns. The world was incomprehensibly large, and there was still so much to see. Yes, I got sick sometimes of being an expatriate, always ignorant, on the outside of things, but I didn’t feel ready for domestic life, for seeing the same people, the same places, thinking more or less the same thoughts, each day. I liked surrendering to the onrush, the uncertainty, the serendipity of the road.”
An amusing, erudite memoir of a surf-addict chasing the dragon around the world.
“The rapidity with which one can completely change one’s ideas . . . and accommodate ourselves to a state of barbarism is wonderful.”
The most insane journey I have ever read about.
“’The ordinary traveler, who never goes off the beaten route and who on this beaten route is carried by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package,’ Roosevelt sneered.”
The second most insane journey I have ever read about.
“Mr. Franz, I think careers are a 20th century invention and I don’t want one.”
A thought-provoking story about a young, idealistic boy who abandoned his car, burned all his cash and disappeared into the wild.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
If you are a writer or aspire to be, consider this required reading.
“A calling is not some carefully crafted plan. It’s what’s left when the plan goes horribly wrong.”
I burnt out on business books a few years back but Jeff Goins’ take on discovering our life’s work was fresh, insightful and well worth the read—very Seth Godinish.
“Stories (not ideas, not features, not benefits) are what spread from person to person.”
Seth Godin tells it as only Seth Godin can, always challenging and always inspiring.
“To the artist, all problems of art appear uniquely personal. Well, that’s understandable enough, given that not many other activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question.”
A cathartic read for creatives (read: everyone).
- Like this one.
- Enchiridion, Epictetus (stoicism); Letters From a Stoic, Seneca (stoicism); Meditations, Aurelius (stoicism); A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Irvine (stoicism)
- The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Wu (attention); 1984, Orwell (dystopia)
- Guns Germs and Steel, Diamond (evolution, big history); Myths to Live By, Campbell (myth, story); Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber (big history)
- The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell (the Hero’s Journey); The Power of Myth, Moyers & Campbell (myth); Man’s Cry for Myth, May (myth in the West); The Myth of Progress, Wessels (myth in the West, myth in global economics); Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber (myth and debt); Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Harrari (myths of history, the power of story); Out of Your Mind, Watts (Eastern spirituality and philosophy); You’re It, Watts (Eastern spirituality and philosophy)
- The Kingdom Of God is Within You, Tolstoy (nonviolence); Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Harrari (anthropology, big history, myths in history); Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond (big history, anthropology)
- Myths to Live By, Cambell (myth); The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell (the Hero’s Journey); Man’s Cry for Myth, May (myth in the West)
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Harrari (evolution); Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond (evolution); The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird, Barcott (environmental conservation); The Myth of Progress, Wessels (sustainability)
- Unto This Last, Ruskin (sustainable/simple living); The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy (nonviolence, simple living); A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy (nonviolence); An Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda (India, spirituality)
- A Brave New World, Huxley (dystopia); The Myth of Progress, Wessels (economic progress); The Organization Man, Whyte (organizations and individuals);
- The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird, Barcott (environmental conservation); Unto This Last, Ruskin (sustainability, economics); The Cry for Myth, May (myth in the West); Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harrari (economic myths in history); Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber (economic myths in history); The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Taleb (risk); The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Perkins (global economics); Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, Rickards (global economics)
- Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha, Brach (wholehearted living, breaking free from our personal stories); Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality, Chödrön (breaking free of personal stories); Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life, Bayda (breaking free of personal stories); At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace Within Everyday Chaos, Bayda (breaking free of personal stories)
- Unto This Last, Ruskin (sustainability); The Myth of Progress, Wessels (sustainability)
- Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett (wisdom)
- The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, Wessels (sustainable economics); The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi (sustainable living); The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird, Barcott (sustainability)
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Pirsig (East meets West, philosophy); Out of Your Mind, Watts (metaphor, East meets West, philosophy); You’re It, Watts (metaphor, East meets West, philosophy)
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Pirsig (East meets West, philosophy); You’re It, Watts (curated lectures by Alan Watts)
- Travels, Crichton (travel anecdotes); The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road, Theroux (travel philosophy); A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Solnit (travel stories, travel history, travel philosophy); Wanderlust: A History of Walking (travel stories, travel history, travel philosophy)
- The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Gandhi (nonviolence); Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber (violence in history); A Letter to a Hindu, Tolstoy (nonviolence); People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Peck (Christianity, evil); The Road Less Traveled, Peck (Christianity)
- The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy (evil, christianity)
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki (mindfulness); Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Nhất Hạnh (mindfulness); Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life, Bayda (mindfulness); Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality, Chödrön (mindfulness); Roar of the Tigress: The Oral Teachings of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennet: Western Woman and Zen Master, Kennett (mindfulness); Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life; Kabat-Zinn, (mindfulness); Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha, Brach (mindfulness)
- The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by S.N. Goenka, Hart (Vipassana); Siddartha, Hesse (Buddha); The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connections and Courage, Brown (breaking free of personal stories, wholehearted living); Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality, Chödrön (breaking free of personal stories); Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life, Bayda (breaking free of personal stories); At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace Within Everyday Chaos, Bayda (breaking free of personal stories)
- The Art of Travel, de Botton (travel philosophy); Travels, Crichton (travel anecdotes)
- The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, Millard (insane journeys);Travels on My Elephant, Shand (insane journeys); Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer (insane journeys)
- Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Lansing (insane journeys); Travels on My Elephant, Shand (insane journeys); Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer (insane journeys)
- Walden, Thoreau (simple living, solitude); Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes: A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness (simple living, solitude); The Razor’s Edge, Somerset (wayward travel); Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed (wayward travel, solitude); AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, Miller (wayward travel, solitude)
- Bird By Bird, Lamott (artist’s life, art making); The War of Art, Pressfield (art making, writing); Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, van Gogh (artist’s life, art making)
- Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Artmaking, Bayles (art making); The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?, Godin (art making); Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Palmer (finding our calling); The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield (art making); The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Robinson (finding our calling)
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harrari (power of stories)
- The Writing Life, Dillard (art making); The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?, Godin (art making); Bird By Bird, Lamott (art making); The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield (art making); Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, van Gogh (challenges of art making); The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, Sterner (process)