3 Books to Help You Make Sense of Life Right Now
Ryan Holiday’s recommendations for a better understanding of the year ahead
I will say this about 2020: It provided plenty of inspiration to read more. Every month, it seemed, there was a new or deepening crisis in a subject that became vital to learn more about: leadership, pandemics, civil rights, elections. It was one of those years that sent you to, well, I would say “the bookstore,” but you know.
Actually doing the reading, of course, was a different story. I read a lot in 2020. But I know a lot of people who couldn’t, who found their focus too shot and their mental energy too drained to actually make it through more than a few pages. But now that we’re a month into a new year, with a new administration and vaccines a reality, many of us are looking to get back into the reading habits we lost. And if that sounds like you, I have a few suggestions for where to start.
Every year, I try to narrow down all the books I have recommended and read to just a handful of the best — the kind of books where, if they were the only ones I’d read that year, I’d still feel like it was an awesome year of reading. (You can check out the “best of” lists I did in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.) About 250,000 people subscribe to my reading list, which means I hear pretty quickly when a recommendation has landed well. I promise you — you can’t go wrong with any of these.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
There is something surreal about reading a book published 15 years ago about an event 100 years ago that just happens to nail exactly what’s happening in this moment. Barry’s haunting book covers, in definitive, gripping detail the Spanish flu: a pandemic that ripped through nations and cities and confounded the brightest medical minds of the time. “It’s only the influenza,” confident officials repeated. “It’ll be over soon.” And then the president of the United States caught it. (I’m talking about Woodrow Wilson, of course).
Anyway, reading this book at the beginning of the pandemic was not only educational, but it has helped shape my responses to the crisis, both with my family and with my business. Barry writes of the relief people felt when the flu seemed to be winding down but was really just in a dip before the next wave: “For the virus had not disappeared. It had only gone underground, like a forest fire left burning in the roots, swarming and mutating, adapting, honing itself, watching and waiting, waiting to burst into flame.” In other words: You cannot relax yet. You cannot drop your shield, as the Spartans would say. History is warning us to continue to protect the line. The health of our neighbors depends on it.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I think I marked up nearly every page of this book. It’s a study of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson; it’s clearly the culmination of a lifetime of research; and, despite its sprawling subject matter, it’s not overwhelming or boring. It’s distillation at its best. I have read extensively on each of those figures, and I still got a ton out of Goodwin’s perspective.
I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways to become an informed citizen in the present is not to watch the news but to read history. Actor Hugh Jackman said in an interview a few months ago that he’s been getting his news by keeping his eye on the big picture — going through the Ken Burns catalog and reading books like Meditations. “That’s the way you should understand events and humanity,” he said, “with that sort of 30,000-foot view.”
After Goodwin, I picked up Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History by Andrew Roberts, who I find to be funny, insightful, and quite good at capturing the essence of unique historical figures. I also recommend Roberts’ biographies of Churchill and Napoleon. (You can also listen to my interview with Roberts.) All are timely reminders of just how much leadership matters. 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.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 by Taylor Branch
I’ve raved about some of my favorite epic biographies before: Robert Caro’s LBJ, William Manchester’s Churchill, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. This one is the latest addition to the list. Branch’s definitive series on Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement is riveting, eye-opening, and the perfect vehicle to help you understand more deeply our current movement for racial justice. I finished Parting the Waters and immediately picked up the second volume, Pillar of Fire.
My study of the history of race in the U.S. is ongoing, but Branch’s books provided a powerful education, as did others: I reread Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, first published in 1952, following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. I also learned so much from Edward Ball’s Life of a Klansman (and when I interviewed him) and just as much from Albion W. Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand (Albion was one of the legal advisors in Plessy v. Ferguson).
A few more…
I really can’t leave it at just those books. I loved Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Florence Nightingale and The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. I loved Julian Jackson’s biography of Charles de Gaulle and David McCollough’s biography of Truman. I loved even more Wright Thompson’s The Cost of These Dreams. The best thing I read about writing was John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel. The best two bits of philosophy I read were Plutarch’s How to Be a Leader and Carlin Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones, a primer on the Stoics.
My kids and I read The Scarecrow together many times. Every night we read A Poem for Every Night of the Year (edited by Esiri Allie). We’ve also done several tours through the stories in Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin.
Finally, I spent a lot of time with Marcus Aurelius during the pandemic because he himself lived through one. The big thing I took away from 2020 was this line of his: “You can commit injustice by doing nothing” — a common thread through so many of the titles mentioned above.
With that, I hope that you’ll get around to reading whichever of these books catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. If you know of a good book on a related topic, please share it in the responses. And if one of these books comes to mean something to you, please recommend it to someone else.