The (Very) Best Books I Read in 2015

December 16, 2015

Every year, I try to narrow down the hundred plus books I have recommended or read down to just the three or four best. I know that people are busy, and most of you don’t have time to read as much as you’d like. There’s absolutely no shame in that–what matters is that you make the time you can and that you pick the right books when you do. In 2015, I read a lot—though not as much as I have in years past. I was more disciplined this year and I’d like to think I tackled books that were more challenging, personally and intellectually. When I was 19 or 20, Tyler Cowen talked to me about the concept of “quake books”—books that shake you to your core. But he said something at the time that I didn’t quite understand. He said that as you get older, you experience that feeling less and less. I wasn’t sure I believed him then, but he was right.

Below are some books I absolutely loved and loved above the others. Did they turn my world upside down? No—but that’s a good thing. Because the books I read in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and long before that have set up a sturdy foundation.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

In 2014, I read The Education of a Coach, a book about Bill Belichick which influenced me immensely (coincidentally, the Patriots have also read my book and were influenced by it). Anyway, I have been chasing that high ever since. Bill Walsh’s book certainly met that high standard. Out of all the books I read this year, I marked this one up the most. Even if you’ve never watched a down of football, you’ll get something out of this book. Walsh took the 49ers from the worst team in football to the Super Bowl in less than 3 years. How? Not with a grand vision or pure ambition, but with what he called the Standard of Performance. That is: How to practice. How to dress. How to hold the ball. Where to be on a play down the very inch. Which skills mattered for each position. How much effort to give. By upholding these standards—whatever they happen to be for your chosen craft—success will take care of itself. A few other excellent coaching and leadership books I read this year: The Winner Within by Pat Riley and The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership by John Wooden (thanks to the friend who recommended all these). Also related to this, another inspiring coach recommended the book The Way To Love to me. It has nothing to do with sports, but was a highlight of my reading year.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

There’s no question this was the year’s best book about media and culture–maybe even the best of the decade. Not only is it provocative and insightful, but the idea—interviewing and focusing on people who have screwed up and found themselves in the midst of massive online controversies—is one I am genuinely jealous of. Ronson proceeds to write about it with such sensitivity, empathy, humor and insight that I was blown away. If you’ve at all appreciated any of my media criticism over the years, please read this book. It looks at all that’s wrong with the rage and glee with which we tear people down–often people who were never public figures to begin with. He is just a helluva writer. If you get a chance, watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk which is also surprisingly good and pairs well with the ideas in the book.

Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

For me, this year was filled with what one might called “cautionary biographies”—bios of people you don’t want to end up like—and Hughes is at the top of the list. The authors clearly respect what was great about Howard—his daring, his talent for flying, his sense for people and love of negotiation—but they also see clearly his many, crippling flaws. They are able to tell his story in a way that gives one real insight into the life of a tragic and tortured figure. I very much related to the stories in the book given my more recent experiences at American Apparel and I imagine anyone else who has dealt with powerful personalities and eccentric figures will too. Related and with equal weight, I want to recommend George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears (a biography of the talented but utterly delusional General George McClellan), Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (a biography of the brilliant but manic Stonewall Jackson) and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (an equally brilliant, more accomplished but equally tragic founding father). All these books made me angry, sad, and confused. But they also made me look inward and taught me quite a bit.


This year I want to make my Misc section (which usually exists because I can’t stick to just a few books) and dedicate it exclusively to fiction. I read a lot of it this year and got so much from the books I read. First, James Salter’s The Hunters: A Novel was a magnificent book which focuses on the burning fire of ambition—in this case, that of a young fighter pilot—and what it does to us. I read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe which looks at a different burning fire—that of young love—and how crazy it makes us. A beautifully written book that every person should read. Dr. Drew recommended Voltaire’s Candide, which I read on my wedding day, and found to be fantastic and educational. Equally allegorical, I read The Little Prince for the first time which for some reason I’d never been exposed to before. If you’re in the same boat, read it. It’s short but great. Finally, I’m not sure what compelled me to pick Fahrenheit 451 back up but I’m so glad I did because I was able to see the book in a very different context. Bradbury’s message (made explicit in his 50th Anniversary Afterword) is much less a warning against government control and much more about a road to hell paved by people attempting to rid the world of offensive speech and conflicting ideas. In a world of microaggressions and outrage porn, this is an important idea to see in such a timeless work of fiction.

Also, great news: my book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing & Advertising is discounted to $1.99 as an ebook this week. It’s just in time to give as a gift or if you’re looking to read something over the break. What started as a short 10,000 word experiment is now an expanded edition that’s sold more than 40,000 copies and is translation in close to a dozen language. Hope you like it.

Enjoy and looking forward to reading with you in 2016!

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.

12 responses to The (Very) Best Books I Read in 2015

  1. Your book recommendations are so consistently written by men, mostly white. I think this list totals at 100% white men? (I am not even bothering to check.) I unsubscribed from your book recommendation emails because I was sick of nothing but a list of books by men. I would be interested in a graph of every single book you’ve recommended and the percentage of books by females or anyone of color.

    • It’s a list of MY favorites. Sorry I didn’t change them to meet one person’s arbitrary criteria. Some of my favorite books ever were written by women or by minorities or published in far away lands many centuries ago. It just wasn’t the case for the top 5-10 in 2015. You’re welcome to read into that what you like…but you would probably do well to read my article on other people’s sensitives feelings because this is an unfortunate example of that.

      • Amen…Thank You Ryan for that response, shaming you for some arbitrary moral reason she has placed on others! So tired of this nonsense. I don’t agree with everything you say, or like everything you read, but who cares, this is still a great service you do for us. Many Thanks.

      • I understand where she is coming from (as a woman), however there are more books written by white men than women & minorities, so its not fair to accuse someone of only recommending books by white male authors. I organize a 300 person book club, and at one point, we unconsciously read only books by white men for 18 books straight. Then I realized that…. and made a conscious effort to look up new female and minority authors, and to read those in our book club also.

    • “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed and “Bird By Bird” by Anne Lamott were 2 of the 4 “Best Books” on Ryan’s list from 2014.


    • Do you think he’s racist and/or sexist? How many books are written by men compared to by women? And how many books by women are mostly for women? Stop trying to make everything about some social injustice.

  2. Hey Ryan,

    I just realized I’ve missed a lot of the articles you post here! I don’t check your blog very often. It would be great if you could notify us each time you post something new!

  3. Hi Ryan, if you liked “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, I’d suggest another great novel by Goethe, “Elective Affinities” (

    Personally I read a lot of fiction, and I get so much from fiction books. I do like non-fiction as well, such as essays, reportages, science books and such, and they are great to increase your specific knowledge/skills in specific areas. But there’s nothing for me like a good fiction book. Not only – when they’re beautifully written – for the great pleasure you experience reading them and immersing yourself in different world, times and characters, but especially for what you can learn about human beings, the way we are, think and act, and for the way great books are capable to forge you and become a part of you.

  4. >my face when all authors are white cisgendered males

  5. Thank you for drawing James Salter to my attention. Great read.

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