Since publishing “On the Importance of Reading”, I have received many inquiries for book recommendations. Below I have listed the most impactful books I have read (in no particular order), but this advice comes with one great caveat.
These books worked for me. That does not mean they will work for you.
Remember the teachings of Heraclitus:
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
The same holds true for books and their readers. Each of these books, though I believe objectively good, are meaningful to me because of my combination of life experiences, education and the time at which I read them. There is a common motif in ancient fairy tales of the hero returning from the forbidden forest with treasure, but as he crosses the threshold to the ordinary world his treasure turns to ashes. There is no substitute for direct experience, and wisdom can only be found for one’s self.
So, I hope you find the treasure for yourself. From my limited perspective, the following may be some forests worth exploring.
#1- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Published in 1854, Thoreau recounts his experiences and insights from living in a cabin on Walden pond for just over two years. He teaches the simplicity with which one can live, practicing self-reliance while communing with nature free of societal influence. Arguably the greatest work of Transcendentalism, Thoreau communicates the restlessness of a soul confined to obligation, prescribing quiet reflection amid nature as its remedy.
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
#2 Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
A fictional tale about a boy named Siddhartha (Sanskrit for “one who has achieved an aim”) who leaves home in search of himself. Through vast experiences including meeting the Buddha, falling in love, and achieving great wealth, Siddhartha learns to navigate his mind in the throngs of human experience. A crash course in Buddhism (without every really talking about Buddhism), Siddhartha is a story of suffering and its transcendence.
“They knew a tremendous number of things — But was it worthwhile knowing all these things if they did not know the one important thing, the only important thing?”
I have read Walden and Siddhartha more than any other book. This list is really two: Walden and Siddhartha, and everything else.
#3- Republic by Plato
The works of Plato are the dialogues of Socrates, and this is their quintessence. A treatise concerning the creation of the ideal state, defining justice and the philosopher while discussing the merit of various forms of government. This is a paragon of analytical thinking, and the means by which knowledge is sought are far more valuable than the conclusions made. The greatest work comes from Book VII featuring the Allegory of the Cave, a lucid metaphor describing man’s relationship to culture and the need to transcend fetters of the mind which prevent us from seeing reality as it truly is.
“Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light.”
#4- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Written from 161 to 180 AD, Meditations is the journal of the philosopher-king taken from his time on military campaigns, and was most likely never meant for publication. He wrote as a means of self-accountability and guidance, and the wisdom conveyed has made this a benchmark of Stoic teachings. Discussing acquisition of virtue and removal of vice, abstinence from excess and pursuit of the common good, Aurelius warns against fame and life’s fleeting pleasures.
“He was a man who looked at what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s acts.”
#5- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Taoism’s equivalent to The Bible, the Tao Te Ching is a short text consisting of 81 poems discussing the natural laws of the universe and how one can coexist with them. Concerning knowledge, emptiness, humility and the union of opposites, this book is a blueprint for using eastern thinking to combat the perils of modern living. Written in China sometime between the 4th and 6th century BCE, one cannot help but view this as the foundation upon which much modern spirituality is built.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.”
#6- The Dhammapada
One of the foundational texts of Buddhism, the Dhammapada is a collection of 423 verses of the Buddha’s teachings. Derived from India nearly 2,500 years ago, this is essentially the first self-help book ever written. The Buddha was a psychologist before psychology existed, focusing his efforts on removing suffering through proper understanding of the world. An instruction manual on navigating the thinking mind, the opening line reads, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”
“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.”
#7- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
A collection of 124 letters written by the prolific Stoic in the first century AD. Tutor to the emperor Nero, and then banished into exile in his later years, Seneca writes on all things Stoicism: acceptance of death, exercising of virtue, living frugally and controlling one’s passions while living according to nature’s dictates. A rare combination of brilliant philosophy and enjoyable prose shows why his wisdom was so valuable to the Roman empire.
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.”
#8- Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
The shortest work on this list, the aptly named essay stresses the importance of avoiding the pressures of society while living according to one’s own desires. Emerson implores the reader to recognize that each of us has a unique genius, and the great men of the past trusted their own opinion above that of the masses.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.”
#9- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s final major work published in his lifetime, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and contributing to his 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the tale of an old fisherman in an epic struggle against a great marlin. As only Hemingway can, the utmost simplicity of his prose paints a vivid picture of the strength of the human spirit.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
#10- Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
My parents gave me this book the day I graduated high school, and has since become my consummate gift to all newborns. The last book published in his lifetime and last on this list, Dr. Seuss takes the reader on a visual and poetic adventure distilling life’s greatest lessons along the way. Simple and concise, this children’s book has had a greater influence on my philosophy than Nietzsche or Kant every could.
“It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.”
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes The New Testament (exclusively the Canonical Gospels) The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus Joshua by Joseph Girzone Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky Brave New World by Aldous Huxley Think and Grow Rich by Napolean Hill 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey As a Man Thinketh by James Allen The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts