Like I’ve said before, I devour books. How many books that’s added up to over the years, I have no idea, but some certainly stand out more than others. I thought I’d put together a list of the most important books that have have greatly influenced me. I’d recommend starting with these and then following my chain-method, which is to read as your next book, one that is cited by the book you’re currently reading. And don’t forget to sign up for my Reading List Email which recommends a new set of life changing books each month.
Books to Base Your Life On
The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I would call this the greatest book ever written. I’ve read it countless times and have a large passage that I printed out and posted above my desk to look at before I start each day. It is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization and strength. If you read it and aren’t profoundly changed by it, it’s probably because as Aurelius says “what doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” You HAVE to read the Hay’s translation. If you end up loving Marcus, go get The Inner Citadel and Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot that studies the man (and men) behind the work.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
After Marcus Aurelius, this is one of my favorite books. While Marcus wrote mainly for himself, Seneca had no trouble advising and aiding others. In fact, that was his job–he was Nero’s tutor, tasked with reducing the terrible impulses of a terrible man. His advice on grief, on wealth, on power, on religion, and on life are some of the best ever written. Seneca’s letters are the best place to start, but the essays in On the Shortness of Life are excellent as well. You can draw a pretty straight line from Seneca to the essays of Montaigne (also read: How To Live, a biography of Montaigne) to the modern day writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (read: The Black Swan, Fooled By Randomness and The Bed of Procrustes).
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Frankl is one of the most profound modern thinkers on meaning and purpose. His contribution was to change the question from the vague philosophy of “What is the meaning of life?” to man being asked and forced to answer with his actions. He looks at how we find purpose by dedicating ourselves to a cause, learning to love and finding a meaning to our suffering. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning is also extremely powerful.
48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
It is impossible to describe this book and do it justice. But if you plan on living life on your terms, climbing as high as you’d like to go, and avoid being controlled by others, then you need to read this book. If you want a simpler entry point, start with The 50th Law, which I was the researcher for.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I’m amazed how many young people haven’t read this book. Truly life-changing. This is the classic of my generation; it is the book that defines our age and ultimately, how to find meaning in it. In terms of other transformative fiction, I cannot speak highly enough of What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals Saul D. Alinsky
This is the 48 Laws of Power written in more of an idealist, activist tone. Alinksy was the liaison for many civil rights, union and student causes in the late 50’s and 60’s. He teaches how to take implement your radical agenda without using radical tactics, how to disarm with words and media as opposed to arms and Utopian rhetoric.
Boyd: The Fighter Pilot who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
Boyd was probably the greatest post-WWII military strategist; he developed the F-15 and F-16, revolutionized ground tactics in war and covertly designed the US battle plans for the Gulf War. He shunned wealth, fame, and power all to accomplish what he felt needed to be accomplished. Coram captures his essence in a way that no other author has touched.
Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by BH Liddell Hart
Along with Boyd, I think William T. Sherman is one of the greatest strategists who ever lived. He understood that the Civil War needed to be won spiritually as well as militarily and its the reason that when ended in 1865, it ended. Aside from that, this is a beautifully written book. I’ll let this passage speak for it:
“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable–those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
This is probably the definitive beginner text on evolutionary psychology and one of the easiest to get into. It’s a little depressing at first, realizing how ruthless many of our so called “good” feelings are. But then you realize that truth is better than ignorance, and you emerge seeing the world as it truly is for the first time. Also, a similar read is Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, which is more of a Q&A approach to the subject and has contemporary edge.
Sex on the Brain by Deborah Blum
One of the better books on evolutionary biology that focuses almost entirely on the biological and psychological differences between men and women. It’s written by a journalist (who cites scientists) so it’s easy to read if you’re not studied in the field. If you want to get into evolutionary psychology–which you totally should–this is a good starting point because it covers all the basics. Essentially, it discusses how men and women have benefited evolutionarily through different behaviors and strengths so it would only make sense that they would have developed into two very different entities.
Sperm Wars by Robin Baker
This book shatters any illusions you may have had about the sanctity of sex in our lives. The premise is that sexual intercourse is based on sperm competition–the majority of our sperm is designed to kill another man’s sperm, the penis is designed to remove semen from the seminal pool, women’s menstrual cycles are hidden to gain control. It also analyzes the causes of homosexuality, adultery and illegitimate children.
I would also recommend: The Game by Neil Strauss, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The Evolution of Desire by David Buss, Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student (if you’re in college) and the The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley which asserts that we had morality before religion, trade before capitalism and cooperation before government.
Instead of giving descriptions for these, I’m just going to list titles. You need to read ALL of them. Especially the ones marked with an *, as they are the ones the illustrate the darker side of the web.
-Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations — Clay Shirky
-Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization* — John Robb
-The Pirates Dilemma–Matt Mason
-You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto* — Jaron Lanier
-The New New Thing–Michael Lewis
-The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom* — Evgeny Morozov
-Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age–Paul Graham (or you can read his essays here)
-Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything–Don Tapscott
-The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source–Eric S Raymond
Health (Mental and Physical)
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer / The 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss
It was the combination of these two books that changed how I thought about health and diet. From Foer, I faced what I’d long put off examining: where my meat comes from and why. From Tim, I examined what changes the body responds to and why. Combining their wisdom, I switched to a combination of the paleo and slow carb diet, mixed with heavy but varied exercise (explained further in this post I did on Tim’s site). I’m now in the best shape of my life and I feel comfortable and confident in the ethics behind what I eat.
I’ve always been a big biography/memoir fan, so I thought I’d throw together a few that influenced me.
– My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two of the most inspiring men of the last 150 years. (also in this vein, My Life and Battles by Jack Johnson)
– The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. Dr. Drew recommended this book to me, it is spectacular. He’s my favorite president.
– Wouldn’t it Be Nice by Brian Wilson. I used this book to write a big research paper a few years back. He defined how I understood the 1950’s and 1960’s in America.
-The memoirs of the 1920’s journalist and addict William Seabrook, Asylum: An Alcoholic Takes the Cure and No Hiding Place are indescribably good. So good that a dying Fitzgerald wrote of how he related to them in his book The Crack Up.
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