“To be casual, relaxed, the person in every situation who tells everyone else not worry about it. Not the other way around–the agitator, the paranoid, the worrier or the irrational. Be the calm, not the liability.” Found in a bin of papers, dated 6/24/10
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The other day I was reading a book and I came across a little anecdote. It was about the great Athenian general Themistocles. Before the battle of Salamis, he was locked in a vigorous debate with a Spartan general about potential strategies for defeating the Persians. Themistocles was clearly in the minority with his views (but which ultimately turned out to be right and saved Western Civilization). He continued to interpret and contradict the other generals. Finally, the Spartan general threatened to strike Themistocles if he didn’t shut up and stop. “Strike!” Themistocles shouted back, “But listen!”
When I read this, I immediately began a ritual that I have practiced for many years–and that others have done for centuries before me–I marked down the passage and later transferred it to my “commonplace book.” Why? Because it’s a great line and it stood out to me. I wrote it down, I’ll want to have it around for later reference, for potentially using it in my writing or work, or for possible inspiration at some point in the future.
In other posts, we’ve talked about how to read more, which books to read, how to read books above your level and how to write. Well, the commonplace book is a thread that runs through all those ideas. It what ties those efforts together and makes you better at each one of them. I was introduced and taught a certain version of this system by Robert Greene and now I am passing along the lessons because they’ve helped me so much.
What is a Commonplace book?
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.
Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.
Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.
And if you still need a why–I’ll let this quote from Seneca answer it (which I got from my own reading and notes):
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”
How to Do It (Right)
–Read widely. Read about anything and everything and be open to seeing what you didn’t expect to be there–that’s how you find the best stuff. Shelby Foote, “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” If you need book recommendations, these will help.
-Mark down what sticks out at you as you read–passages, words, anecdotes, stories, info. When I read, I just fold the bottom corners of the pages. If I have a pen on me, I mark the particularly passages I want to come back to. I used to use flag-it highlighters, which can be great.
-Again, take notes while you read. It’s what the best readers do, period. it’s called “marginalia.” For instance, John Stuart Mill hated Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we know this based on his copies of Emerson’s books where he made those (private) comments. You can also see some of Mark Twain’s fascinating marginalia here. Bill Gates’ marginalia is public on a website he keeps called The Gates Notes. It’s a way to have a conversation with the book and the author. Don’t be afraid to judge, criticism or exclaim as you read.
-Wisdom, not facts. We’re not just looking random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.
-But you have to read and approach reading accordingly. Montaigne once teased the writer Erasmus, who was known for his dedication to reading scholarly works, by asking with heavy sarcasm, “Do you think he is searching in his books for a way to become better, happier, or wiser?” In Montaigne’s mind, if he wasn’t, it was all a waste. A commonplace book is a way to keep our learning priorities in order. It motivates us to look for and keep only the things we can use.
-After you finish the book, put it down for a week or so. Let it percolate in your head. Now, return to it and review all the material you’ve saved and transfer the marginalia and passages to your commonplace book.
-It doesn’t have to just be material from books. Movies, speeches, videos, conversations work too. Whatever. Anything good.
-Actually writing the stuff down is crucial. I know it’s easier to keep a Google Doc or an Evernote project of your favorite quotes…but easy has got nothing to do with this. As Raymond Chandler put it, “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.” (Disclosure: for really long pieces, I’ll type it up and print it out).
-Technology is great, don’t get me wrong. But some things should take effort. Personally, I’d much rather adhere to the system that worked for guys like Thomas Jefferson than some cloud-based shortcut.
-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.
-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.
-These Vaultz Index Card boxes are also good for smaller projects (they have a lock and key as well).
-Don’t worry about organization…at least at first. I get a lot of emails from people asking me what categories I organize my notes in. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. The information I personally find is what dictates my categories. Your search will dictate your own. Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.
-Don’t let it pile up. A lot of people mark down passages or fold pages of stuff they like. Then they put of doing anything with it. I’ll tell you, nothing will make your procrastinate like seeing a giant pile of books you have to go through and take notes on it. You can avoid this by not letting it pile up. Don’t go months or weeks without going through the ritual. You have to stay on top of it.
-Because mine is a physical box with literally thousands of cards, I don’t carry the whole thing with me. But if I am working on a particular section of a book, I’ll take all those cards with me. Or when I was working on my writing post for Thought Catalog, I grabbed all the “writing” cards before I hopped on a flight and through the post together while I was in the air.
-It doesn’t have to be just other people’s writing. One of my favorite parts of The Crack Up–a mostly forgotten collection of materials from F. Scott Fitzgerald published after his death–is the random phrases and observations he made. They are aphorisms without the posturing that comes with writing for publication. So many of my notecards are just things that occurred to me, notes to myself in essence. It’s your book. Use it how you want.
-Use them! Look, my commonplace book is easily justified. I write and speak about things for a living. I need this resource. But so do you. You write papers, memos, emails, notes to friends, birthday cards, give advice, have conversations at dinner, console loved ones, tell someone special how you feel about them. All these are opportunities to use the wisdom you have come across and recorded–to improve what you’re doing with knowledge passed down through history.
-This is a project for a lifetime. I’ve been keeping my commonplace books in variety of forms for 6 or 7 years. But I’m just getting started.
-Protect it at all costs. As the historian Douglas Brinkley said about Ronald Reagan’s collection of notecards: “If the Reagans’ home in Palisades were burning, this would be one of the things Reagan would immediately drag out of the house. He carried them with him all over like a carpenter brings their tools. These were the tools for his trade.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
-Start NOW. Don’t put this off until later. Don’t write me about how this is such a good idea and you wish you had the time to do it too. You do have the time. But start, now, and stop putting it off. Make it a priority. It will pay off. I promise.
If anyone wants to post photos of their Commonplace Book or describe their personal method–go for it (or email it to me).
This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.
Below are some lessons from one of my favorite books.
If Cyrus the Great can give us 9 Lessons On Power And Leadership From Genghis Khan, why can’t pithy advice on virtues and manhood be found in the century-old letters of a self-made millionaire? Fortunately, newspaper editor George Horace Lorimer complied all that for us, collecting and publishing the early 1900′s bestseller: Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by John “Old Gorgon” Graham, the Chicago-based pork and finance baron.
The words may be more than 100 years old, but they feel like they were written just last week. Perhaps that’s because today we have another Graham with us, Paul Graham, self-made millionaire, founder of YCombinator and investor in hot tech start ups from AirBnB to Reddit and Dropbox, who believes that young people should be thoughtful, start start-ups, and be their own boss. His essays have become incredibly popular with entrepreneurs and programmers looking for a different path—the path of self-sufficiency and great wealth. Well, the original John Graham preached the same message, famously reminding ambitious young men that they should: “Mind your own business; own your own business and run your own business.”
His letters, like Graham’s essays, are not only timeless (and completely under-appreciated) classics, but an incisive and edifying tutorial in entrepreneurship, responsibility, and leadership.
“The man who can make up his mind quick, makes up other people’s minds for them. Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clear and straight and lays bare the fat and the lean; indecision is a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it.”
“Some men think that rules should be made of cast iron; I believe they should be made of rubber, so they can be stretched to fit any particular case and then spring back into shape again. The really important part of a rule is the exception to it.”
“Always appoint an hour at which you’ll see a man, and if he’s late a minute don’t bother with him. A fellow who can be late when his own interests are at stake is pretty sure to be when yours are.”
“A boy’s education should begin with today, deal a little with tomorrow and then go back to before yesterday. But when a fellow begins with the past, it’s apt to take him too long to catch up to the present.”
“It’s been my experience that when an office begins to look like a family tree, you’ll find worms tucked away snug and cheerful in most of the apples.”
“You can’t do the biggest things in this world unless you handle men; and you can’t handle men if you’re not in sympathy with them; and sympathy begins in humility.”
“About the only way I know to kill a lie is to live the truth. When you credit is doubted, don’t bother to deny the rumors, but discount your bulls.”
“The real reason why the name of the boss doesn’t appear on a timecard is not because he’s a bigger man that anyone else, but because they shouldn’t be anyone around to take his time when he gets down and when he leaves.”
“One of the first things a boss must lose is his temper—and it must stay lost. Noise isn’t authority and there’s no sense in ripping and roaring and cussing around the office when things don’t please you. For when a fellows’ given to that, his men secretly won’t care whether he’s pleased or not. The world is full of fellows who could take the energy which they put into useless cussing of their men and double their business with it.”
Like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller, Graham’s brand of ambitious self-reliance was unforgiving. But, in what was an incredibly unforgiving time, it’s what people needed. Today, our world — whether you’re an entrepreneur or teacher — is just as unforgiving. So take heed and listen to Old Gorgon Graham.
Here’s the problem with reading the books that everyone else has read. It makes you more like everyone else. Checking off the various books from your high school curriculum, and then, perhaps the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written” is the educational equivalent of skating to where the puck is and not where it’s going.
Reading is about insight into the human experience, about understanding. What does following in the footsteps of everyone else get you? It gets you to exactly the same conclusions as everyone else.
Not to say that the books in our “canon” aren’t valuable, because they certainly are. It’s just that you have to remember for every Great Gatsby out there, there were 10 others written at the same time about the same thing that for whatever twist of cultural fate and cumulative advantage are mostly lost to us (one of the books on this list fits that definition to a T).
The Western world has been publishing books for some 3,000 years. Memoirs, histories, aphorisms, essays, treatises, tutorials, exposes, stories, epics–it’s all there. Humble yourself to think that our grasp of the lists of the “best” of these books will always miss more than it captures.
Which is why I put together the list of books below in their rough historical order. They are all great pieces of literature or learning and at the same time, mostly unknown. Sure, you might have heard of a few of them (in which case, consider yourself part of the minority) but far too many people haven’t. Put down your David Foster Wallace and pick up one of these. See what happens.
Cyropaedia (a more accessible translation can be found in Xenophon’s Cyrus The Great: The Arts of Leadership and War)
Xenophon, like Plato, was a student of Socrates. For whatever reason, his work is not nearly as famous, even though it is far more applicable. Unlike Plato, Xenophon studied people. His greatest book is about the latter, it’s the best biography written of Cyrus the Great (aka the father of human rights). There are so many great lessons in here and I wish more people would read it. Machiavelli learned them, as this book inspired The Prince.
The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave by Publius Syrus
The best philosophy comes from people who were not “philosophers.” Syrus was a slave and his moral maxims are far better than perhaps the most famous book in this category, those of Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Some favorites: “The mightiest rivers are easy to cross at their source.” “Avarice is the source of its owns sorrows.” And of course, extra-applicable to this list, “Many receive advice, few profit by it.”
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Gregory Hays translation, do not read the others, they suck)
Those familiar with my writing will not think this is an unknown book. But for far too many people it is. You can get a PhD in philosophy and not be forced to read this–and that’s a travesty. I imagine because it’s one of the few texts that wastes no time on pretension or explanations of the world. It simply tells you how to live a little better. Just wrap your head around this: At some point around 170 AD, the single most powerful man in the world sat down and wrote a private book of lessons and admonishments to himself for becoming a better, kinder and humbler person. And this text survives and you have access to it today.
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari
Basically a friend and peer of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael Titian and all the other great minds of the Renaissance sat down in 1550 and wrote biographical sketches of the people he knew or had influenced him. Unless you have a degree in Art History it’s unlikely that anyone pushed this book at you and that’s a shame. Because these great men were not just artist, they were masters of the political and social worlds they lived in. There are so many great lessons about craft and psychology within this book. The best part? It was written by someone who actually knew what he was talking about, not some art snob or critic, but an actual artist and architect of equal stature to the people he was documenting.
The Man Without a Country by Edward E. Hale
Patriotism is not a concept that gets a lot of love today. But this essay/book makes you think a little. Released in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, the plot’s simple: an innocent man caught up in Aaron Burr’s treasonous conspiracy stands trial for his actions. When asked to address the judge, he bitterly remarks that he wishes to be done with the United States forever. So the judge grants his wish as a punishment–he’s sentenced to live the rest of his life in a cabin aboard ships in the US Navy’s foreign fleet, and no sailor is to ever mention the US to him again. He dies many years later, an old man like Rip Van Winkle, unsure of the changing world around him. For those with some understanding of historical, you’ll enjoy the meta-fiction of it, for those that haven’t it is still a very good look into early America.
12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup
This one won’t stay unknown for long as Brad Pitt’s doing a movie about it but please don’t let that scare you away. If there is one book you read about slavery in America, read this one. It’s the real story of a born freedman in the North who, as a traveling musician, was brought out of his home state on false pretenses in order to be captured, kidnapped, and transported South to be sold as a slave. It’s fucking harrowing and written lucidly and articulately by the person who experienced it. For 12 years, he was a slave–and not some border-state slave, but a bayou slave in the deep South. He was cut off from his family and his freedom, and even among the slaves he was different. He couldn’t tell anyone he could read and write, he couldn’t even tell anyone that he was formerly free because they threatened to kill him if he did. This book is just as good as Frederick Douglass’ memoir and I think illustrates the horrors of slavery in a much more undeniable way.
Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce
Mark Twain, for all his bitterness and sarcasm, was just more fun for average people to read than Ambrose Bierce. But Bierce is the one who truly captured the Civil War–a terrible and awful conflict in which death and destruction and stupidity were far more prevalent than strategy or heroism. This book (half fiction and half memoir) contains the story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut called the greatest short story ever written. Too many books about the Civil War are inaccessible, with their flanking movements and war vocabulary. This book is all people. Must read.
Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi by George Devol
The memoir of a professional gambler, fighter and criminal who rode the riverboats of the Mississippi and Red Rivers. It’s a true and vibrant snapshot of a period of American life that you can’t get anywhere else. Gun fights, brawls, cons–it’s all here. Fascinating, peculiar and very easy to read.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
A dark and moving first-person narrative, about the conflicting drives for self-preservation and self-immolation inside all of us. Hunger is about a writer who is starving himself. He cannot write because he is starving and cannot eat because writing is how he makes his living. It’s a vicious cycle and the book is a first-person descent into it. Strangely modern for being published in 1890 and ultimately inspired a lot of great stream-of-consciousness writing since (but influence goes unacknowledged because Knut was a Nazi sympathizer).
Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer
This book is the preserved correspondence between Old Gorgon Graham, a self-made millionaire in Chicago, and his son who is coming of age and entering the family business. The letters date back to the 1890s but feel like they could have been written in any era. Honest. Genuine. Packed with good advice.
My Life and Battles by Jack Johnson
This is the lost and translated book that came out of a series of pieces Johnson–perhaps the greatest boxer who ever lived–wrote for a French newspaper in 1911. It’s not very long but it is full of really interesting strategies and anecdotes. You get the sense that he was an incredibly intelligent and sensitive man–clearly had a thirst for drama and attention. Who knows what place he would occupy in our culture and history had he not been taken down so thoroughly by racism and genuinely evil people? But despite all that, he was always smiling. As Jack London put it after Johnson’s most famous fight: “No one understands him, this man who smiles. Well, the story of the fight is the story of a smile. If ever a man won by nothing more fatiguing than a smile, Johnson won today.”
Company K by William March
Far and away the best book ever written about WWI. Better than All Quiet on the Western Front or Goodbye to All That or any of the other classics. But that’s the problem–WWI was awful, perhaps the most awful thing of the 20th century. And this book is forgotten precisely because it portrays the war and its pointlessness too realistically. We want to know, but we don’t really want to know.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
I don’t think there was anyone in the 1920s who would have believed that this book would be completely forgotten. By all accounts, it was destined to be a classic critical novel of the American Dream. You can’t read anything about the ’20s and ’30s that doesn’t comment on Babbitt (sold 130,000 copies its first year, HL Mencken loved it, it won Lewis a Nobel Prize). Calling someone a “Babbitt” was considered an insult and the phrase became a constant topic of conversation in the media and literature. Yet, here we are 80-90 years later: you’ve probably never heard of the term or the book. Perhaps it’s because the biting satire of American suburban middle class life cuts deeper now than it did then. It doesn’t matter if the book is old, it’s still very funny and at its core, a critique of conformity and what Thoreau called the “life of quiet desperation.”
Asylum: An Alcoholic Takes the Cure by William Seabrook
In 1934, William Seabrook was one of the most famous journalists in the world. He was also an alcoholic. But there was no treatment for his disease. So he checked himself into an insane asylum. There, from the perspective of a travel writer, he described his own journey through this strange and foreign place. Today, you can’t read a page in the book without seeing him bump, unknowingly, into the basic principles of 12-step groups and then thwarted by well meaning doctors (like the one who decides he’s cured and can start drinking again). On a regular basis, he says things so clear, so self-aware that you’re stunned an addict could have written it–shocked that this book isn’t a classic American text. Yet all his books are out of print and hard to find. Two of my copies are first editions from 1931 and 1942. It breaks your heart to know that just a few years or decades later, his options (and outcome) would have been so very different (he eventually died of an opium overdose).
Ask the Dust by John Fante
This is the west coast’s Great Gatsby. Fante has benefited from some recognition–mostly thanks to Bukowski championing him in his later years–but because the book is about Los Angeles and not New York City, it is mostly forgotten. Better than Gatsby, it is a series. Bandini, the subject of the series, is a wonderful example of someone whose actual life is ruined by the fantasies in his head–every second he spends stuck up there is one he wastes and spoils in real life. He’s too caught up and delusional to see that his problems are his fault, that he’s vicious because he can’t live up to the impossible expectations they create, and that he could have everything he wants if he calmed down and lived in reality for a second. This is the series in order by my favorites: Ask the Dusk, Dreams from Bunker Hill, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and The Road to Los Angeles. (DO NOT watch the movie version of Ask to Dust, it is embarrassingly bad.)
Why Don’t We Learn from History? and Strategy by BH Liddell Hart
These are two very short books but will help you understand the topics more than thousands of pages on the same topic by countless other writers. In my view, Hart is unquestionably the best writer on military strategy and history. Better than von Clausewitz, that’s for sure (who for all the talk is basically useless unless you are planning on fighting Napoleon). His theories on the indirect approach is life changing, whether you’re struggling with a business or just office politics. I can’t say much more than read these books. It’s a must.
The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you like Asylum, read The Crack Up, a book put together by Fitzgerald’s friend Edmund Wilson after his death. It is such an honest and self-aware compilation of someone hell-bent on their own destruction. At the same time, Fitzgerald’s notes and story ideas within the book make it undeniably clear what a genius he truly was. It’s a sad and moving but necessary read.
On the Rock: Twenty Five Years in Alcatraz by Alvin Karpis
John Dillinger was played by Johnny Depp. Most people know who he was–mostly because he died in a hail of bullets. But they forget that the other Public Enemy #1 at the time was Alvin Karpis and he didn’t die. In fact, he lived up until the 1980s. Just enough time to do a couple decades at Alcatraz with guys like Al Capone. During a temporary transfer to an alternate prison, Karpis met a young weirdo named Charlie Manson and taught him how to play guitar.
Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther
Written in 1949 by the famous journalist John Gunther about his death of his son–a genius–at 17 from a brain tumor, this book is deeply moving and profound. Every young person will be awed by this young boy who knows he will die too soon and struggles to do it with dignity and purpose. Midway through the book, Johnny writes what he calls the Unbeliever’s Prayer. It’s good enough to be from Epictetus or Montaigne–and he was fucking 16 when he wrote it. It’s reading the book for that alone.
The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg’s (who wrote On the Waterfront) whole trilogy is amazing and each captures a different historical era. His first, What Makes Sammy Run? is Ari Gold before Ari Gold existed–purportedly based on Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM) and Daryl Zanuck. His next book, The Harder They Fall is about boxing and loosely based on the Primo Carnera scandal. His final, The Disenchanted is about Schulberg’s real experience being attached to write a screenplay with a dying F. Scott Fitzgerald. All you need to know about Schulberg’s writing is captured in this quote from his obituary: “It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power. The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.”
Losing the War by Lee Sandlin
This is an essay, not a book, but if you have to read one thing about WWII, this is it. Sandlin is a master and the essay is free, read it.
The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott Maxwell
The daily notes of a strong but dying woman (born 1883, written in 1968) watching her life slowly leave her and wind to a close. The wisdom in this thing is amazing and the fact that most people have no idea exists–and basically wait until the end of their life to start thinking about all this is very sad to me. Also I love her generation–alive during the time of Wyatt Earp yet lived to see man land on the moon. What an insane period of history.
The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays by Jay Haley
The title essay in this book is peerless and amazing. The rest of the essays, which talk about Haley’s unusual approach to psychotherapy are also quite good. If you’ve gone to therapy, are thinking about going to therapy, or know someone going to therapy, this book is a must-read.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
I’ll end with this book because it’s the most recent. The (true) story is simple: man in Siberia wounds tiger while hunting to feed his family. Tiger goes on killing spree while hunting the man down, and is stopped only when the Russian government dispatches a special SWAT team to track and kill it. This is probably the single best piece of nonfiction journalism I’ve ever read. I suppose it’s not totally unknown but I’m guessing you haven’t read it and that needs to change, now.
I’ve tried to capture most of the major eras and epochs above, from classical Greece to the Renaissance to the great wars of the 20th century. Yes, it is heavy on American history. But guess where most of the people reading this live?
Like I said, there are certain classic texts that we must read–books that have become cultural rites of passage. No one is saying you should skip your high school reading list. The problem is thinking that that’s enough. In order to work for “everyone,” those books had to be safe, they had to be accessible, they had to be provocative but not too provocative. There is a very understandable reason that we read All Quiet on the Western Front and not Company K. Or that we read Huckleberry Finn to understand slavery and not Solomon Northup’s real memoir.
Because the latter books are real. The others keep us comfortable, even when they make us think.
The next step is digging a little bit beneath the surface, leaving the road and exploring parallel or divergent paths. I hope some of these books do that for you. They certainly did for me.
This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.
Everyone knows that reading is important, and most of us wish we did more of it. I understand that I am supremely lucky to have as much time to do it as I do. For that reason, at the end of each year, I try to narrow the hundreds of recommendations from my reading list down to just the very, very best. If you have to be selective with your time or money, these are the ones I promise are worth the time and investment. If you really like them and want more like it, the rest of the emails start with the Best Of 2011 and 2012 and stay tuned for January’s recommendations.
Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen
This was the most important book I read this year. It’s the only one I framed a passage from to put on my wall. It was the only one I thought was so good I bought for multiple other people this year (it also inspired the one piece of writing I am most proud of this year). Cowen’s books have always been thought provoking, but this one changes how you see the future and help explain real pain points in our new economy–both good and bad. Although much of what Cowen proposes will be uncomfortable, he has a tone that borders on cheerful. I think that’s what makes this so convincing and so eye opening. A hollowing out is coming and you’ve got to prepare yourself (and our institutions) as best you can. To me, this book belongs along side other econo/social classics like Brave New War, Bowling Alone and The Black Swan. As a good extension of the themes in this book, I also recommend Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland.
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro
It’s hard for me to recommend just one great biography this year, so I won’t even try. I’ll just start with this biography of John Hay, which was my favorite–though there were many close seconds. John Hay started as a teenage legal assistant in the law office of Abraham Lincoln. He ended his career as the Secretary of State for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. How nuts is that? You can basically understand the entire period of American history from the Civil War through WWI through one man who saw it all. Great biography of politics, the press, and American society. I also strongly recommend Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith–I did not fully appreciate what a strategic and political genius Eisenhower was until this book. Jon Krakauer’s biography of Pat Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, was the most inspiring and moving book I read this year. Tom Reiss’s book The Black Count was impressive and a side of French history I never knew and never would have otherwise. You cannot go wrong with any of these biographies.
The Aneiad by Virgil (translated by Robert Fagles)
I made an effort to read some classical poets and playwrights this year. The Aneiad was far and away the most quotable, readable and memorable of all of them. There’s no other way to put: the story is AMAZING. Better than the Odyssey, better than Juvenal’s Satires. Inspiring, beautiful, exciting, and eminently readable, I loved this. I took more notes on it that I have on anything I’ve read in a long time. The story, for those of you who don’t know, is about the founding of Rome. Aeneas, a prince of Troy, escapes the city after the Trojan War and spends nearly a decade wandering, fighting, and trying to fulfill his destiny by making it to Italy. I definitely recommend that anyone trying to read this follow my tricks for reading books abve your level (that is, spoil the ending, read the intro, study Wikipedia and Amazon reviews, etc). I also enjoyed Euripides and Aeschylus this year and I hope you will too.
I can’t help myself. Some other honorable mentions:
Company K by William March (if you read one book about WWI, or one book of fiction about war, pick this one)
Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson (favorite business or leadership book in a long time)
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of WWII by Robert Kurson (goddamn this guy can tell a story)
The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (these two unusual historical narratives about U.S presidents are shockingly good. I will read whatever else this woman writes)
For more great recommendations in 2014, sign up and stay tuned. If anyone has any gems to recommend, please send them my way. If you’re looking for marketing books, Trust Me I’m Lying came out in a revised and expanded edition this year and Growth Hacker Marketing is out now in ebook and audio and will be released in paperback in Sept 2014.