It’d be wonderful if a new year magically marked a new beginning. But 2021, like all years, reminds us that the same things keep happening, that world events continue on in their own unpredictable way and that in the end, we control very little but our own actions and opinions.
One of my favorite quotes—enough that I have it inscribed on the wall across the back of my bookstore—comes from the novelist Walter Mosley. “I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world,” he said. “I’m saying it helps.”
2022 stands before us promising nothing but the same difficulties and opportunities that last year and every year before it promised. What are you going to do about it? Will you be ready for it? Can you handle it?
Books are an investment in yourself—investments that come in many forms: novels, nonfiction, how-to, poetry, classics, biographies. They help you think more clearly, be kinder, see the bigger picture, and improve at the things that matter to you. Books are a tradition that stretches back thousands of years and stretches forward to today, where people are still publishing distillations of countless hours of hard thinking on hard topics. Why wouldn’t you avail yourself of this wisdom?
With that in mind, here are 16 books—some new, some old—that will help you meet the goals that matter for 2022, that will help you live better and be better.
The Daily Laws: 366 Meditations on Power, Seduction, Mastery, Strategy, and Human Nature by Robert Greene
I’ve always loved the “daily read” format, I’ve recommended some of my favorites here before, I’ve been lucky enough to publish one of my own, and now I feel even luckier to have been able to help Robert bring this book into existence. People ask me all the time, Where should I start with Robert Greene? What book should I read first? It’s been impossible to answer, so I suggested he do a book that was a kind of greatest hits album, a book that captures the totality of his brilliant, life-changing thinking. And now that book exists! Even though I’ve read and reread all of Robert’s books, this book has not left my desk since I got my copy. Here’s my hour long video with Robert, filmed in LA.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Cal is not just one of my favorite thinkers, not just one of my favorite authors, but also one of my favorite people to talk to. I think Cal holds the record for most appearances on the Daily Stoic podcast (you can listen to our conversations here, here, here, and here). But anyone doing knowledge work in the 21st century has to be familiar with Cal’s concept of deep work. This is a book that explains how to cultivate and protect that skill—the ability to focus, be creative, and think at a high level.
Meditations: The Annotated Edition by Marcus Aurelius (translation by Robin Waterfield)
I first read Meditations more than fifteen years ago. I’m a champion of the Gregory Hays translation but it was a treat (and an eye-opening experience) to read this new annotated edition by Robin Waterfield. Marcus, like Heraclitus, believed we never step in the same river twice. Reading a new translation of a book you’ve read (or love) is a great way to see the same ideas from a new angle…or find new ideas you missed on the previous go-arounds. The annotations (presented as footnotes) here also provide great context. If you haven’t read Marcus Aurelius or if you have…you should read this book and then read it again. I also did a two-hour interview with Robin, which you can listen to on the Daily Stoic podcast (Part 1, Part 2). But whichever translation you go with, the amazing thing about reading Marcus is, year after year, he feels both incredibly timely and incredibly timeless. There’s a reason this book has endured now for almost twenty centuries.(Here are some lessons from me having read Meditations more than 100 times).
Atomic Habits by James Clear
It’s when things are chaotic and crazy, when the world feels like it’s falling apart, that we most need to develop good habits. I think about James Clear’s concept of atomic habits on a regular basis. To me, this is a sign of a great book—that even just thinking about the title has an impact on you. I love the double meaning of the word atomic—not just meaning explosive habits, but also focusing on the smallest possible size of habit, the tiniest step you can take to start the chain reaction that can in fact lead to explosive results.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer is almost truer now for the millennial (or generational) experience than it was in the 1960s when it was published. Any reader will relate to the rather ageless angst of the next generation trying to find its meaning and purpose in the world. It is exactly the novel that every one stuck in their own head needs to read. The main character, on what he calls “the search,” is so in love with the artificiality of movies that he has trouble living his actual life in the real world.
Letters to a Young Athlete by Chris Bosh
I was lucky enough to help Chris bring this book into existence. Obviously, I am biased, but I think this is a book that very much needs to exist and Chris is a wonderful thinker and philosopher about sports, craft, the drive to win and responding to adversity. You can listen to my interview with him (recorded at the front table at the bookstore) here, but do read the book. He’s great. I think this is a future classic.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
As I’ve said before, I carry this memento mori coin in my pocket to remind me: You can leave life at any minute. Let that determine what you do and say and think. (I also have a piece of a tombstone on my bathroom counter). Oliver Burkeman’s new book illustrates the same point well–we have roughly four thousand weeks on this planet. How will we spend them? How should we think about them? And don’t be deceived by medical advancements. As I said in my monuments talk, I got to know a guy who lived to be 112. That’s still ‘only’ like 5,800 weeks. You can listen to my conversation with Oliver as well.
The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eger
Dr. Edith Eger is a complete hero of mine. At 16-years-old, she’s sent to Auschwitz. And how does this not break a person? How do they survive? How do they endure the unendurable? And how do they emerge from this, not just not broken, but cheerful and happy and of service to other people? The last thing Dr. Eger’s mother said to her before she was sent to the gas chambers was that very Stoic idea: even when we find ourselves in horrendous situations, we can always choose how we respond to them, who we’re going to be inside of them, what we’re going to hold onto inside of them. Dr. Eger quotes the one and only Dr. Viktor Frankl, who she later studied under, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It was this idea that allowed Dr. Eger to not only endure unimaginable suffering, but to find meaning in it. She went on to become a psychologist and survives to this day, still seeing patients and helping people overcome trauma. I had the incredible honor of interviewing Dr. Eger and the joy and energy of this woman, this 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, was incredible.
The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot
The “inner citadel” is a concept that comes to us from Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics believed you’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to your existence. So the inner citadel is the fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down. An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.
Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield
This book is so good and so perfect for the moment, whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, a parent or a movie producer. Because the early 2020s have been separating the amateurs from the pros. When times are good, you can be soft and lazy. But when the going gets tough? I hope this book can be an investment in yourself this year. As Steven writes, “I wrote in The War of Art that I could divide my life neatly into two parts: before turning pro and after. After is better.”
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
The book is spectacular. It was a bestseller in the UK and was featured in a 6 part series in The Guardian. The format of the book 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 he did, and we can do the same.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This is an absolutely incredible book. I think I marked up nearly every page. The book 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 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 stuff I already knew, I benefited from Goodwin’s perspective. This is the perfect book to read right now—a timely reminder that leadership matters. Or as the Stoics say: character is fate. Or as I wrote about in this piece about leadership during the plague in ancient Rome: when things break down, good leaders have to stand up.
America in the King Years by Taylor Branch (Vol.1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3)
I’ve raved about some of my favorite epic biographies before: Robert Caro’s LBJ and William Manchester’s Churchill, among others. Well, add another to the list: Taylor Branch’s definitive series on Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways to become an informed citizen in the present is not to watch the news, but to read history. The actor Hugh Jackman said in an interview that he gets his news by keeping his eye on the big picture—going through the Ken Burns catalog and reading books like Meditations. “That’s the way you should understand events and humanity,” he said, “with that sort of 30,000-foot view.” If you want to be informed, get off Twitter and read these books.
Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When Your World Goes Dark by Julia Baird
I LOVED Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria and have raved about it many times. When I heard she was writing a follow up, I assumed it would be another biography. I did not expect this powerful, inspiring book about resilience and powering through. Through some dark times, Julia said what sustained her was “yielding a more simple phosphorescence—being luminous at temperatures below incandescence, having stored light for later use, quietly glowing without combusting. Staying alive, remaining upright, even when lashed by doubt.” She’s basically talking about Stoicism…without talking about Stoicism (though she does that too). I found myself marking dozens of pages in this one and just continually smiling throughout. It’s a great little book and, among other things, reminds me why I need to get back into swimming. I had a great conversation with Julia on the podcast, which you can listen to here.
As I have published different versions of this piece over the last couple of years (2018, 2019, 2020, 2021), I made one final recommendation worth repeating: Pick 3-4 titles that have had a big impact on you in the past and commit to reading them again. Seneca talked about how you need to “linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.”
We never read the same book twice. Because we’ve changed. The perceptions about the book have changed. What we’re going through in this very moment is new and different. So this year, go reread The Great Gatsby. Give The Odyssey another chance. Sit with a few chapters from The 48 Laws of Power. See how these books have stood the test of time and see how you’ve changed since you’ve read them last.
It can be some of the best time you spend with a book this year. Happy reading!