Best Book Recommendations of 2013

December 20, 2013

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.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

19 responses to Best Book Recommendations of 2013

  1. Ryan,

    Thanks for the list, I love a good book list from a smart person. I’m currently reading Growth Hacker Marketing and am fascinated by building awareness through the network effect.

    My shortlist of great reads this year is Dan Pink’s “To Sell is Human”, Will Schwalbe “The End of Your Life Book Club” and Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter”.

    Keep up the book recs, you’ve turned me on to some great reads this year.

    • Goerge, what did you find most interesting about Daniel Pink’s “To sell is human”?

      I want to buy this book but I have heard some negative feedback about it, that it’s not worth. What’s your opinion?

      What about you Ryan? Have you read it?

      Thanks! Chris.

  2. As always, thanks for your recommendations Ryan. Over the past few years you have been a large motivator and resource for my self-learning.

    As I said thank you, and keep it up. May we all wish to read as much as you.

  3. How about some recommendations on books you found to be more insubstantial than you hoped?

    Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (treads stoic, Buddhist, business psychology ground) rescued me from regular contemplation of suicide this year.

  4. Wow, “…better than the Odyssey” is a pretty bold statement, but now I am curious. I read the Illiad and Odyssey this year though I was steered away from the Fagles translation and toward the Lattimore and Fitzgerald translations. Lattimore for accuracy and Fitzgerald for flow.
    I will have to take you up on the other books as well since I also value The Black Swan. In fact, my reading of the Illiad and Odyssey was somewhat influenced by Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder and the Lindy Effect as a guide to select books to read.

  5. I was just wondering if anybody here knew any good books about Hannibal Barca of Carthage or Alexander the Great, as these are two people who kind of fascinate me but I have no idea where to start.
    And thanks for the list Ryan! I’ve only just gotten started with reading “lots”, so hopefully I’ll manage to keep it up . . .

    • Yes:

      Arrian’s classic book on Alexander is quite good, along with Plutarch’s essays.
      Steven Pressfield also has a fiction book on Alexander the Great which I recommend. It is called Virtues of War

      • Thanks for the recommendations!

      • Mary Renault wrote a very good fiction series on Alexandre the Great –
        Fire from Heaven , The Persian Boy, The Praise Singer, The Funeral Games

        non-fiction – The nature of Alexandre

    • I recommend two books by the same author: Alexander of Macedon and Hannibal: One Man Against Rome. Both books are by Harold Lamb. They are well read on

  6. It’s Candace MILLARD. Not Miller.

  7. Just finished reading the last book in The Killer trilogy by Jack Elgos. Really good stories and the ending – wow. Recommended stuff for action thriller lovers.

  8. Thanks for the recommendations, Ryan! Btw, it’s Aeneid 😉

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