It was a rough year.
All of us were tested. Many of us failed.
Those failures were big and small. 2020 made some of us callous. It infected others with conspiracy theories. Others gave into apathy and chaos, losing all sense of routine and structure. Some of us spent hours watching Netflix. Others far too many hours glued to the news and twitter.
Now, with a new year in front of us—one that has already revealed that challenges don’t simply stop or reset when the calendar turns over—we have to get serious. We have to get serious about reading, the tried and tested way to wisdom, so that we might gain easily what others have gained by difficult experience.
“I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world,” the great novelist Walter Mosley reminds us. “I’m saying it helps.”
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, to be provoked less, to be kinder, to see the bigger picture, and to 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 18 books—some new, some old—that will help you meet the goals that matter for 2021, that will help you live better and be better.
Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual by Jocko Willink
Maybe right now you’re stuck at home, maybe you’re not working. Your kids might be home with you. Certainly the normal way of doing things has been significantly altered. Well, it’s when things are chaotic and crazy, when the world feels like it’s falling apart, that we need to create structure, better habits, limits and order. But you can’t create any of those things without discipline.
Why Don’t We Learn from History? by B. H. Liddell Hart
I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways to become an informed citizen in the present, to understand what’s happening in the world right now, is not to watch the news, but to read history. As Bismarck said, “Fools say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others’ experience.” This book is very short, but will help you understand the history more than thousands of pages on the same topic by countless other writers. In my view, Hart is unquestionably the best writer on history and strategy. Another important book to read re: history and this moment is The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which if more people had read it, even as late as this spring, might have saved the US this horrific second wave of the virus we experienced (if you don’t learn your history, you’re doomed to repeat it).
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything by Viktor E. Frankl and The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger
Nobody knows more about suffering and finding meaning in suffering than Viktor Frankl. From his experiences in the Holocaust, we got Man’s Search For Meaning. I was stunned to find that a new (lost) book from him was published this year, with a beautiful title worthy of a daily mantra: Say yes to life. Dr. Edith Eger was also sent to Auschwitz. She also not only endured unimaginable suffering, but found meaning in it. Dr. Eger went on to become a psychologist. She met and studied under Frankl, and survives to this day, still seeing patients and helping people overcome trauma. On the one hand, this is a book about the darkness of the human race… and on the other about the uncrushable spirit that allows us to survive and triumph over it. Incredibly, this book only came out in 2017. It’s sure to be a classic.
That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic by Musonius Rufus
Musonius was exiled at least three, possibly four times, so he knew about being locked down. He knew about losing your freedom. He knew that all a philosopher could do was respond well—bravely, boldly, patiently—to what life threw at them. That’s what we should be doing now. Musonius compared it to the way acrobats “face without concern their difficult tasks”—we don’t actually disdain hardships, we welcome hardship, even seek it out, “ready to endure hardship for the sake of complete happiness.”
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks
Chasing personal success is the first mountain. But what happens when you find out, as many of us do, “Oh wait… this is not nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be. It did not magically solve all my problems and unhappiness”? That’s when we begin to look for what David Brooks calls the Second Mountain… and no, it’s not just a taller version of the first one. This is the one where we start thinking less about ourselves and more about other people. “True good fortune is,” as Marcus Aurelius reminded himself at the height of his power and fame, at the summit of his first mountain, “good character, good intentions and good actions.” True good fortune is you doing stuff for other people. For your community. For your country. For the world. This book won’t just make you think about your life, it will make you question everything in your life.
How to Be a Leader by Plutarch
One of the best leadership books I’ve read in a very long time—and not surprisingly, it was written a very long time ago. There’s a reason Plutarch has been a favorite of thinkers and doers since the days of Ancient Rome. He’s insightful. He’s funny. He’s a great storyteller. He wasn’t just a writer either, but like the best historians and philosophers, a practitioner of what he talked about. Highly recommend. And it will help you relax, it will help you ratchet down the noise, and hopefully inspire you to make your own mark. Plutarch, I might also add, was the inspiration and a main source of my latest book: Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.
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 2020 was a year that separated 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.”
Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith
Robert Greene told me a lot time ago to err on the side of age for biographies and it’s usually a pretty good rule. Biographers used to try to teach their readers things; they actually admired their subjects and didn’t get bogged down in endless amounts of facts. In any case, I got a lot out of this biography. When you think Florence Nightingale, you don’t think “hero’s journey,” but her life maps pretty perfectly on it. Also re: history providing perspective, the intense bureaucracy and institutional stupidity she fought against maps well to what we’re seeing today with the fight against COVID-19.
Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
There’s a story that occurs constantly in the biographies of brilliant people. As a kid they had a question—maybe about how car engines work, or what Antarctica is like. Their mom or dad had the same response, “I don’t know, but let’s go figure it out!” So they went to the library or the computer until they found the answer. And they learned an essential lesson—one that we should all teach our kids—well-expressed in the title of Marie Forleo’s book: Everything is Figureoutable. Problems can be solved. Answers can be tracked down. The unknown can be made familiar. This is figureoutable. Everything is.
A Poem for Every Night of the Year (edited by Esiri Allie)
We’ve been reading this together every night as a family. The poems are all well-chosen and just short enough to keep my kids interested. It also serves as a nightly reminder of something I wrote about in Lives. Cleanthes—the founder of Stoicism’s successor—believed we are like half-completed poems, and our job in life is to work to make a complete and beautiful poem. We may face terrible circumstances and obstacles along the way, Cleanthes wrote, but it’s no different than how the constraints and “fettering rules” of poetry give the art its beauty.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy believed his most essential work was not his novels but his daily read, A Calendar of Wisdom. As Tolstoy wrote in his diary, the continual study of one text, reading one page at the start of each day, was critical to personal growth. “Daily study,” Tolstoy wrote in 1884, is “necessary for all people.” So Tolstoy dreamed of creating a book composed of “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people… Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal.” As he wrote to his assistant, “I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers… They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue.” As you can imagine, I am a big fan of daily devotionals. Check out DailyStoic.com and DailyDad.com for the free daily email versions I do.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I joked in February that I was deliberately not going to read this book because of the pandemic. In truth, I got it down from my shelf and sat on my bedside table while I worked up the courage to read it again. My feelings were well-founded, because on the night I finished, all I could do was walk quietly into my son’s room and sob while he slept. The Road is just one of the most beautiful and profound depictions of struggle and sacrifice and love ever put down on the page. Worth reading again!
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This is an absolutely incredible book—a study of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Lyndon Johnson. It is so clearly the culmination of a lifetime of research… yet somehow not overwhelming or boring. Distillation at its best! Even stuff I already knew about those figures, 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.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
The future belongs to those with the ability to focus, be creative, and think at a high level. This is a book that explains how to cultivate and protect that skill—the ability to do deep work. The type of intense concentration and cognitive focus where real progress is made — on whatever it is that we happen to do, be it writing or thinking or designing or creating. Elite work takes deep work.
The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
“If I had to say what the primary law of human nature is,” Greene has said, “the primary law of human nature is to deny that we have human nature, to deny that we are subject to these forces.” The reality is, humans do have aggressive, violent, contradictory, emotional, irrational impulses. And we have to understand them if we want to rise about them. Greene’s pieces on internet trolls, on passive aggressive arguers, on identity politics, and this monologue on irrationality are good previews of lessons that we’d all be better for understanding this year.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Reading this book, first published in 1952, in light of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was terribly sad. How little has changed. How callous and awful people are to each other. How crushing it must be to live in a world that strips you of your dignity, that uses you, that subjects you to violence and unfairness. There are many “anti-racist” reading lists floating around, but how many of the books on those lists will still be readable in 70 years? Do yourself a favor and read this. It’s not going anywhere because it is timeless and sadly, very timely.
Montaigne by Stefan Zweig
There are two kinds of biographies: Long ones which tell you every fact about the person’s life, and short ones which capture the person’s essence and the lessons of their life. This biography by Stefan Zweig is a brilliant, urgent and important example of the latter. It is what I would call a moral biography—that is, a book that teaches you how to live through the story of another person. If you’ve been struggling with the onslaught of negative news and political turmoil, read this book. 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. Yet it also gives us a solution: Turn inward. Master yourself. Montaigne is one of humanity’s greatest treasures—a wise and insightful thinker who never takes himself too seriously. This book helped me get through 2020, no question.
As I have published different versions of this piece over the last couple of years (2018, 2019, 2020), 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!