The (Very) Best Books I Read In 2016
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.
They are books that I and the 70,000 readers on my reading list email have enjoyed and learned from. If they had been all that I had read over the last twelve months, I’d have considered 2016 a successful year of reading.
Anyway, let’s get to it. Read these books!
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 Volumes) by Robert A. Caro and The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill (3 Volumes) by William Manchester
In January, I picked up my first book in this Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson. It wasn’t until June that I finished my fourth, but I consider finishing all of them to be one of my proudest reading achievements. (FYI, I started with The Passage of Power, then read The Path to Power, then Means of Ascent and Master of the Senate. The order didn’t seem to matter.) It’s unquestionable to me that Caro is one of the greatest biographers to ever live. His intricate, complicated, sprawling investigation into Lyndon Johnson will change how you see power, ambition, politics, personality and justice. If there is one line that sums up the whole series it’s this: It’s that power doesn’t only corrupt. That’s too simple. What power does is reveal. It’s also easy to be disillusioned by politics right now but for me, getting lost in these Lyndon Johnson books has been a helpful and educational process. Because you learn two things 1) that things have always been complicated and confusing but they tend to turn out alright 2) that our system, whatever its flaws, can still produce good results from bad men.
After the Caro series, I started William Manchester’s equally epic three volume set on Winston Churchill (Visions of Glory, Alone, Defender of the Realm) which Robert Greene gave me as a wedding present last year. Like all truly great long reads, you learn not just about the subject but every intersecting one: the history of British peerage, the Victorian era, the British Empire, Colonialism, modern warfare, international relations, evil, the nature of genius, the effects of absent parents. The book is masterfully written about a masterful man—Churchill was a soldier, a writer, a politician, a statesman, a strategist and a true great man of history. Each book in the series is equally distinct and interesting. The first is Churchill as a young, ambitious man. The second is his time in the political wilderness, when his ego has driven him from power and into writing and thinking. The third is his time back on the world’s stage, in what was perhaps the finest hour of any empire in any era. The last book is probably the best. It features the famous bulldog version of Churchill: rescuing the troops at Dunkirk, persevering through the Blitz, vowing to fight on the landing grounds and the beaches and in the streets, whatever the cost may be. The sheer determination of this man, to take an entire country on your back and defy a horde which had overrun the European continent in a matter of months…it’s almost breathtaking to think about.
As I said, if you were to only read one thing in the next year, you could do a lot worse than either of these series. They contain dozens of books within them and will teach you about so much more than just the man they are ostensibly about. Please, please read them.
(Two bonus related recommendations: I also read Lincoln’s Virtues by William Lee Miller which was heart wrenching and amazing. I truly loved both books he wrote on Lincoln. I also wrote a paean on the joy of reading really really long books which you may enjoy)
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
As a general rule, most new memoirs are mediocre and most business memoirs are even worse. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight is an exception to that rule in every way and as a result, was one of my favorite books of the year and favorite business books ever. I started reading it while on the runway of a flight and figured I’d read a few pages before opening my laptop and working. Instead, my laptop stayed in my bag during the flight and I read almost the entire book in one extended sitting. Ostensibly the memoir of the founder of Nike, it’s really the story of a lost kid trying to find meaning in his life and it ends with him creating a multi-billion dollar company that changes sports forever. I’m not sure if Knight used a ghostwriter (the acknowledgements are unclear) but his personal touches are all over the book—and the book itself is deeply personal and authentic. The afterward is an incredibly moving reflection of a man looking back on his life. I loved this book. It ends just as Nike is starting to turn into the behemoth it would become, so I hold out hope that there may be more books to follow. In terms of other surprising memoirs, I found JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to be another well-written gem and despite its popularity, When Breath Becomes Air is actually underrated. It’s make-you-cry good.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I thought I’d read this book before but clearly they gave me some sort of children’s version. Because the one I’d read as a kid wasn’t a 1,200 page epic of some of the most brilliant, beautiful and complicated storytelling ever put to paper. What a book! When I typed out my notes (and quotes) after finishing this book, it ran some 3,000 words. I was riveted from cover to cover. I enjoyed all the stuff I missed as a kid: the Counts struggle with his faith in light of what was done to him, the Hundred Days of Napoleon’s return, his rants against technology, the criticism of newspapers, the influence of ancient philosophy, ultimately, a warning against being consumed by revenge. Please—if you’re going on a long trip or looking to check out of modern events for a while—get this book. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition.
Revenge books seemed to be a trend for me this year. I loved Michael Punke’s The Revenant, about a man who bravely challenged his fate in the wilderness just as Edmond Dantes did in prison. This year I also re-read Walker Percy’s Lancelot, a dark story of revenge and an attempt to go to the heart of evil. Less dark, but equally epic, I also loved (and raved about repeatedly) Aaron Thier’s new novel Mr. Eternity. If you read a lot of non-fiction, do yourself a favor this year and set aside some time for some serious fiction reading. You can learn just as much and be changed just as much by a truly great story as you can by any business or self-help book.
I loved Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck. There’s a reason this book is blowing up. It’s that good. Same goes for Cal Newport’s Deep Work—this book has changed my priorities and confirmed a lot of my life and work decisions. If you haven’t built up the ability to sit quietly and work with great focus to develop deep, creative insights—the next few decades are going to be very difficult for you. I really liked John Seabrook’s study of the future of music industry (and really, all creative businesses) in his book The Song Machine; Cass Sunstein’s book The World According to Star Wars is another interesting look at the economics of creative work. If you want to be scared about the next four years, pick up Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (because, well, it may have just happened here). To balance out that depressing book, I highly recommend David Brooks’ The Road To Character, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe and Chuck Klosterman’s What If We’re Wrong.
And of course, I’ve also got lists of my favorite books from 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011.
Enjoy and looking forward to reading with you in 2017!
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Ryan – I totally agree with you on Manchester’s trilogy on Churchill. I was so bummed when Manchester’s health did not let him finish the third volume, but was thrilled when his protoge completed it for him. The guy did a great job.
I think our tastes in history are very similar, and I have been meaning to drop you a note recommending Sherman and Grant’s personal memoirs. They gave a perspective on the men and the war that other books missed. My respect and admiration for both men increased after reading. Additionally they were actually very well written. (The books were free in Apple Ibooks)
Based on your reco I am going to check out Manson’s and Newport’s books. Totally agree with your take on still – quiet – focus. It is a concept I am heavily promoting with my High School students.
You might be interested in my review of Deep Work and my concept of ‘ultrapraxy’.
I always look forward to your book recommendations. Just picked up Shoe Dog and will be picking up at least a couple more of these.
As for my list — Ego is the Enemy is the number one book I’m recommending this year. It’s a book I wish I had read 5 years ago as I was starting my career. Keep up the great work, Ryan!
You say you typed your notes for The Count of Monte Cristo. Have you stopped with the index cards?
Thanks for the marvelous recommendations!
Got something to do in the holidays!
Forget the quote exactly but….Life is a storm my young friend. One day you will be basking in the sun, the next you will shattered on the rocks. What makes you a man is what you do when the storm comes. Epic quote and scene.
Also it’s the roads not taken and the fucks not given that make all the difference. – Manson
Happy to see Cal on here also.
Great List. Ego wasn’t too bad either 😉
I just finished Deep Work about an hour ago. It was fantastic and came at just the right time as I’m planning out my strategy for 2017.
I’ve heard of most of the books on your list but didn’t know much about them. I think I’ll check out Shoe Dogs next.
It was a good post and I enjoyed the list.
Great to see some Dumas here. I’ve recently read The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After. I’ll gladly read Monte Cristo! Thanks for sharing, Ryan.
Hi Ryan – I just finished reading your book Ego Is the Enemy. Fantastic job btw. I have a quick question, are there any books that you can recommend by female authors on how to be strategic in life for a female. “To answer the question, how do I accomplish what I need to accomplish? How do I find my way, deliberately, instead of being pulled in numerous directions, because of the myriad of responsibilities that females are faced with everyday – a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend, the career professional that must balance femininity and fierceness.”
I really like that you had a classic on here. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a fantastic work of literature and all people should make time to read it at some point in their life. Do you have any other books that you enjoyed, perhaps in years passed? I made a resolution to read more, and I want to be sure to stick to such a goal.
So looking forward to the Winston Churchill series! Thank you 🙂
Can’t wait to read Deep Work.
I read “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series last year and I have to agree with you that it is life changing. I am not from the United States, and was very reluctant to invest time and effort into 4 massive tomes about a relatively lesser known American President . I would’ve never read them if it weren’t for your recommendation of “The Power Broker”. I had Read Power Broker before this and was so impressed with Robert Caro that I decided to read everything he had ever written including his grocery list.
You’re right such biographies aren’t about the Man at all , the Man is a mere vantage point , a vessel to reflect and study his day and age. Loved it when Caro let loose and often went offtrail for as many as 60 pages about the Soil of Johnson family farm , teaching Mexican kids , the art of stealing elections , American senate, civil rights .
I will begin my second reading of YOLJ mid 2017. Thank you Ryan for introducing me to Robert Caro. If it weren’t for you I would’ve missed out on these masterpieces . Have a great 2017
So glad to see “The Road To Character” on this list. The chapter on Marshall might be the best chapter of any book I have ever read. I love that he was called and “Unnatural Genius”. Is there a higher compliment to pay someone.
Happy to see The Count of Monte Cristo on the list. By far one of the most thought-provoking, life questioning, and life-changing books I have ever read.