If You Only Read A Few Books In 2023, Read These
It’d be wonderful if a new year magically marked a new beginning. But 2022, like all years, reminded 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.”
2023 stands before us promising nothing but the same difficulties and opportunities that last year and every year before it promised. Maybe even new and worse ones. 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 12 books—some new, some old—that will help you meet the goals that matter for 2023, that will help you live better and be better.
Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants To Be by Steven Pressfield
Before I start any book project, I take a few hours and re-read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, maybe the greatest book ever written on the creative process. Well, on this book I just started, I changed it up a little because I got an early copy of Pressfield’s new book, Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be. I love the title so much because it’s the perfect advice for nearly every difficult thing. If you want to get in shape, put your ass in the gym. If you want to have a great relationship with your kids, get your ass down on the floor where they’re playing. If you want to write a book, put your ass in the chair. Even when you’re tired. Even when you don’t want to. Even when you don’t see the point. That’s what it’s about. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to show up. (In a word, he’s also talking about discipline). I was very glad to have him out to interview about the book too, (which you can listen to here).
Range by David Epstein
David was one of my few author friends who did not discourage me from opening a bookstore. He was consistent in encouraging me to extend my range! I loved this book when it came out, and have often told people I think it’s a parenting book in disguise. It opens with the contrasting careers of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, one a specialist from an early age, the other a generalist (who seemed to have a much more pleasant childhood and life), but both became great. I have always seen myself as a multi-hyphenate and believe my books have benefited from the experiences, interests, and occupations I’ve had. Having range also makes you more resilient in a recession. Those who are relying exclusively on one industry or company or job are the most vulnerable. I recommend pairing this book with Robert Greene’s Mastery… both are classics in my eyes.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
For this piece last year, I recommended this new annotated edition by Robin Waterfield. I’m a champion of the Gregory Hays translation but 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. Marcus, like Heraclitus, believed we never step in the same river twice. More recently, I had a similar experience. Since my 16-year-old (nearly) completely marked-up copy was starting to get a little worse for wear, I created a premium edition designed to stand the test of time, just like the content inside. That’s the amazing thing about reading Marcus—whichever translation you go with—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). If you haven’t read Marcus Aurelius or if you have…you should read this book and then read it again.
The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger
I told Dr. Edith Eger I felt guilty about someone I had lost touch with and only recently reconnected with. She cut me off and told me she could give me a gift that would solve that guilt right now. “I give you a sentence,” she said, “One sentence—if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” That’s the end of that, she said. “Guilt is in the past, and the one thing you cannot change is the past.” Dr. 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 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’ve had the incredible honor of interviewing Dr. Eger twice (here and here) and the joy and energy of this woman, this 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, is just incredible.
The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel
This year began with a booming economy, and is ending in recession. Crypto has crashed. The real estate market is not so hot. If you’re looking to navigate the whipsawing, unpredictable nature of the global economy as an individual who hopes to plan (and be secure) for the future, I think this book is a great one. It’s filled with great stories–like the kind I try to tell in my books–that teach big lessons. There’s no better way to learn in my eyes…I had a great conversation with Morgan on the podcast, which you might also like. But speaking of podcasts and financial advice, I have LOVED–like LOVED–Ramit Sethi’s podcast this year which focuses on couples and their financial issues. It’s riveting and super educational. I’ve learned a ton. Here’s my interview with Ramit in that regard.
The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer
The past few years have proved that many people miss this about the philosophy, but Stoicism isn’t just an individualistic philosophy. It’s a collective philosophy. The Stoics tells us to think not just about how our actions impact other people, but what we owe other people and how we can orient our actions and our lives around that. Peter Singer is pioneer of the “effective altruism” movement and just a wonderful example of someone who has oriented everything he does around other people. Sam Bankman-Fried put EA in the news but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. EA has guided a lot of good—more than most philosophies—to people all over the world.
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.
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.
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.
Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther
Written in 1949 by the famous journalist John Gunther about the death of his genius son Johnny at 17 from a brain tumor, this book is deeply moving and profound. It’s impossible to not be awed by this young boy who knows he will die too soon and struggles to do it with dignity and purpose. Midway through the book, Johnny writes what he calls the Unbeliever’s Prayer. It’s good enough to be from Epictetus or Montaigne—and he was just 16 when he wrote it. It’s worth reading the book for that alone.
Buddha by Karen Armstrong
It’s scholarly without being pedantic, inspiring without being mystical. Armstrong is actually a former Catholic nun (who teaches at a college of Judaism), so I loved the diverse and unique perspective of the author. And Armstrong never misses the point of a good biography: to teach the reader how to live through the life of an interesting, complicated but important person.
Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I always associated Charles Lindbergh with Hawaii because when I was a kid, I visited his grave at the end of the road to Hana in Maui. I was totally surprised to find this book at one of my favorite bookstores, Sundog Books, in one of my favorite places in the world, 30A in Florida. It’s a beautiful philosophical book about rest and relaxation. For each chapter, Lindbergh takes a shell from the beach as the starting point for a meditation on topics like solitude, love, happiness, contentment, and so on. For a 67-year-old book, it feels surprisingly modern–especially, I would think, for women. The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that I didn’t read it when I was writing Stillness is the Key as I almost certainly would have quoted it many times.
As I have published different versions of this piece over the last couple of years (2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022), 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!