Every year, I try to narrow down the hundred plus books I have recommended and read down to just a handful of the best. The kind of books where if they were the only books I’d read that year, I’d have still have felt like I made a big leap in my education.
I know that people are busy, and we don’t always have time to read as much as we like. Nothing wrong with that (though if you want to read more—don’t look for shortcuts—make more time!). What matters is that when you do read, you pick the right books.
My reading list email is now nearly 90,000 people, and I can tell pretty quickly when a recommendation has landed well. I promise you—you can’t go wrong with any of these. (Also as an accidental confirmation of what I wrote in Perennial Seller, the newest book in this list is 5 years old and the oldest is 79 years old.)
Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story of D-Day Vol I & Vol II by Anthony Cave Brown and The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader by Fred I. Greenstein
I have recommended a lot of books on strategy over the years but these two books are two of the best. And I’d never even heard of them before this year. Bodyguard of Lies is in a sense about D-Day but it’s more fully the history of almost every special, covert operation of the Second World War (in fact, Vol I focuses so much on prehistory that it ends with D-Day starting). The premise here is that the Americans believed that the war could be won by overwhelming force. The British—Churchill especially—knew better. They knew how bad their position really was, how far behind they were. Thus the Churchill quote: “In war the truth is so precious it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.” The result was a strategic campaign of misinformation, deception, and intelligence designed to disorient and confuse the Germans and Japanese. The Allies had broken Enigma, they could read the German’s communications, but how could they act on it without giving their access away? How could the Allies hope to land in Europe without being met with overwhelming resistance? Well, they needed to keep as many German troops as possible occupied in different theaters, they needed to spread their defenses out as far as possible, they needed to make the obvious intended landing spot too obvious so that they would assume an attack would come elsewhere. And don’t even get me started about the covert agents they had working inside Germany and the conspirators working against Hitler from the inside. Anthony Brown doesn’t just tell you all this happened, he shows you how it happened, explained why it happens and makes you understand how expertly done it all was. The book is a masterclass in the art of strategy. (No wonder it was one of John Boyd’s favorites).
The Hidden-Hand which I read around the same time is equally a masterclass in leadership. It will give you not just a new appreciation of Eisenhower, but teach you how real leaders get things done: it’s not through talking, it’s not through looking tough, it’s through organization, delegation and through behind the scenes influence. I had no idea how Machiavellian Eisenhower was—and while that might seem like an insult, it isn’t. The perception of Eisenhower was that he was a sweet old guy who didn’t keep up on the day-to-day goings of politics but this was all a brilliant act. He wanted to be seen as above politics, when in reality, he knew exactly how to make hard decisions and steer the country in the direction it needed to go. For instance, people think Eisenhower didn’t do enough to take down Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower is the one who took McCarthy down—he just didn’t think the president should be seen doing such a thing (His rule was: Never engage in personalities). Eisenhower was what a leader was supposed to be—both an an impressive and inspiring figurehead as well as an effective executive. Our leaders today could take a lesson from that.
I’ve already raved about both these books to a number of politicians, CEOs, and writers I know. I am also using them as a source in my next book, Conspiracy. Please read them.
Montaigne & Magellan 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. These two biographies by Stefan Zweig are brilliant, urgent and important examples of the latter. They are what I would call moral biographies—that is, books that teach you how to live through the story of another person. If you’ve been struggling with the onslaught of negative news and political turmoil, start with Montaigne. Why? It’s the biography of 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 2017, no question.
Now if you’re looking for some inspiration and excitement, Magellan is the book for you. What makes a man an explorer? What made Magellan so he could find a passage he had no reason to be certain he could find? And how thankless a job! This man fights multiple wars for his country, is wounded in battle, does more than duty and then, when he has an idea for an exploration of his own, is insolently rejected by his King. So he switches countries and finds backing for that same exploration, convinced he possesses a secret that will allow him passage to the Indies. He is completely wrong. He suffers mutiny, starvation, complete demoralization. He has been misinformed and yet, he finds a passage anyway, not just to the Indies but to an entire new world—becoming the first to circumnavigate the world…and yet he dies before he can enjoy the fame he so justly deserved. Where does this determination come from? Where does this sense for leading and solving unsolvable situations come from? How did he do it? There are some books where you feel like everything the writer did led up to this masterpiece they were born to create: that might be what this book is. It’s just perfect in every sense. Cannot recommend highly enough.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler & Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey
In chaotic times, novels are a way to find peace and keep that flicker of vulnerability alive and nurtured. My favorite fiction book this year was recommended to me by the wonderful Vanessa Van Edwards (Captivate). I’ve always loved strange books about animals (list here) and nothing could be stranger than a novel about a 1970’s family who raised a chimp like it was a human. The story is funny, heartbreaking—like literally will make you cry heartbreaking, especially if you have children—and beautifully written. The same goes for Bright Shiny Morning which I loved just as much. Like stayed up until very late at night loved it. New Orleans is my first favorite city to read about, Los Angeles is the second (here’s a whole list of books to read about LA). Frey’s characters are tragic, complicated, hopeful, ambitious, naive, gorgeous, selfish, wonderful. They are, in their composite form, Los Angeles embodied. The book is also cleverly arranged—broken up in a sort of meta play on the novel. Ask the Dust is still my favorite LA novel (probably my favorite novel of all time) but Frey does the genre a great service. But what about all the controversy surrounding him? I never cared about it, but this book makes it all irrelevant. I wish I had read it when it came out in 2008, so please don’t make my mistake by waiting.
Ok, I couldn’t stop there. This year I loved Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War and A Stillness at Appomattox. If you want to understand the Civil War and you want to see one of the greatest non-fiction writing ever, read Catton. The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen who is not only one of my favorite authors, he is a personal hero. After I read this book (in two days), I ended up writing up a piece about all the ways he has influenced me over the years. I’ve never really been a science fiction fan but The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke was beautiful and moving. I also loved Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It by Charlamagne Tha God, and I wish more celebrity memoirs bothered to do what he did with this book: You know, actually teach people stuff in the form of concrete lessons instead of just talking about their lives. I read The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey because I have a son, but it’s worth reading for anyone, parent or not. Written by a middle school teacher and education expert, the book is an exploration of how one raises self-sufficient children who are responsible for themselves. I read this book not long after reading Senator Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult and found it to be a great companion. We forget that homework doesn’t matter, grades don’t matter—only what the process they represent matters. Children are not a reflection of their parents, they depend on their parents to raise them into adults who can be reflections of who they uniquely are.
Want signed copies of my books for Christmas gifts? BookPeople.com has them here. I also hope you’ll add journaling and notecard-taking to your 2018 reading routine. I also did a new and updated edition of Trust Me, I’m Lying you might like (with analysis of the 2016 election, Russian media manipulation and everything else that’s happened since the release five years ago). And if you want to see the coin I carry in my pocket everyday, here it is.