In a book that changed my life, Marcus Aurelius thanks his mentor for introducing him to the book that changed his life.
One person passing along brilliant writing to another: it’s a tradition as old as time. You may even already be a part of that tradition. You may have been introduced to a life-changing book by a friend or a family member.
But do you actively seek out more of these experiences? When was the last time you asked someone you admired for a book recommendation—or more specifically, for the book that changed their life? You hear smart people talking about books they’re reading or thinking about all the time, but do you make the effort to read them too? Or do they just sit on your mental to-do list or your Amazon “save for later” list, never to be read?
Imagine if Marcus just let that book sit on his desk. Imagine if he kept saving it for later. His whole life would have turned out differently. The history of the Western world may have been altered. Don’t let a version of that happen to you. Read these books. They will change your life.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
To me, this is the greatest book ever written. I’ve read it a couple hundred times and have a large passage that I printed out and posted above my desk to look at before I start each day. For me, it was what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book”—shaking everything I thought I knew about the world. 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 Gregory Hays translation. If you want a preview of Marcus, here are five of his best quotes in a video I did.
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
If you want to live life on your terms, climb as high as you know you’re capable, and avoid being controlled by others—you need to read this book. Robert is an amazing researcher and storyteller. He has a profound ability to explain timeless truths through story and example. You can read the classics and not always understand the lessons. But if you read The 48 Laws of Power, I promise you will leave not just with actionable lessons but an indelible sense of what to do in many trying and confusing situations. Is there a darkness to this book? Yes. But there is a darkness to life, too. You have to understand it, be able to defend against it, and know how to know what you’re not willing to do. Here is my podcast with Robert about this book and others.
In 1946, Malcolm Little went to jail. Looking at a decade behind bars, he faced what Robert Greene calls an “Alive Time or Dead Time” scenario. He could have served his time simply counting the days. Instead, he started reading. He literally copied the dictionary word for word. Every minute he wasn’t in his bunk, he was in the library. That was how Malcolm Little was transformed into Malcolm X, one of the great civil rights leaders of the 20th century. There’s a lot to learn from his life and his choices. Two other timelessly relevant books these days are Invisible Man and My Bondage and My Freedom.
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
Montaigne is one of humanity’s greatest treasures—a wise and insightful thinker who never takes himself too seriously. This book is spectacular. The format is a bit unusual—instead of chapters, it is made up of 20 Montaigne-style essays that discuss the man from a variety of different perspectives. Montaigne was a man obsessed with figuring himself out: why he thought the way he did, how he could find happiness, his fetishes, his near-death experiences. He lived in tumultuous times too, and he coped by looking inward. We’re lucky that he did, and we can do the same. (You might also like this piece I wrote almost a decade ago for Tim Ferriss’ blog, The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne.) This year I also re-read Stefan Zweig’s book about Montaigne, which is incredible. 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. When I say it’s timely, I mean that it’s hard to be a thinking person and not see alarming warning signs about today’s world while reading this book.
History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
“There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides,” as John Adams wrote to his son in 1777. “You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.” Indeed, people in the State Department right now are reading Thucydides to better understand the rising threat of China. Countless millions—including many of the Stoics—have read it over the last 2000 years to understand the ethical dilemmas inherent in leadership, in war, in politics, and in life. Because Thucydides was so smart, so timeless, he is able to teach lessons to us even now. And because the countries and the events are so distant and impersonal to us, we can actually hear them, learn them, and apply them to the political situations we face today.
The structure and style of my next book—Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius—was inspired by Plutarch, the master of one of my favorite categories of books to recommend—moral biographies. That is, short biographical sketches about great men and women, written with an eye towards practical application and advice. As Plutarch prefaced his portrait of Alexander the Great, “I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man’s character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall.” That’s why Shakespeare based many of his plays on the stories of Plutarch; not only are they well-written and exciting, but they exhibit everything that is good and bad about the human condition. Greed, love, pain, hate, success, selflessness, leadership, stupidity—it’s all there.
What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg
This was one of the first books I read when I started working in Hollywood, and it had a powerful impact on me at 19. Some 10 years later, I pulled the book from my shelf while finishing the first draft of Ego Is the Enemy and rediscovered three handwritten pages of notes I folded and stuck in the back. Those notes expressed many of the painful lessons I wanted to share in Ego, so I adapted them into the epilogue that made it to publication. What Makes Sammy Run? is a novel that reminds us that even when egotists “win,” they lose. My favorite quote: “What a tremendous burning and blinding light ambition can be where there is something behind it, and what a puny flickering sparkler when there isn’t.” It’s also a fascinating look at the entertainment industry and what makes hustlers and strivers do the things they do.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
A man is sent to a concentration camp and finds some way for good to come of it. He finds some way to turn it into the ultimate metaphor for life: that we have little control over our circumstances, but complete control over our attitude and the ability to make meaning out of the things which happen to us. In Frankl’s case, we are lucky that he was a brilliant psychologist and writer and managed to turn all this into one of the most important books of the 20th century. I constantly think of his line about the man who asks, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer is that you don’t get to ask the question. Life is the one who asks and we must reply with our actions.
There is nobody who has exposed me to more books and ideas than Tyler Cowen. Tyler is a polymath, a diverse and contrarian thinker who has incredible taste in ideas, ways of thinking, and modern and classical wisdom. In terms of business/economics, Average Is Over is one of the more important books I’ve ever read. For a long time, I even kept a framed passage from it on my wall (it also inspired a piece of writing I am proud of). 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.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This is an absolutely incredible book. It is a study of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Lyndon Johnson, and it is so clearly the culmination of a lifetime of research… and yet, somehow, it is not overwhelming or boring. Distillation at its best! I have read extensively on each of those figures and I got a ton out of it. Even with things I already knew, I benefited from Goodwin’s perspective. This is the perfect book to read right now.
Now, the most important part. “To read attentively,” as Marcus put it, “not to be satisfied with ‘just getting the gist of.’” Go to the library. Pull up Amazon and buy the cheapest used copy you can find. “Borrow it” from a friend. Whatever it takes—read. It will change your life!