Read These Books for an Instant Dose of Perspective
Over the past year, we’ve all been tested. Many of us have failed.
The pandemic made some of us callous. It infected others with conspiracy theories. Too many of us gave into apathy and chaos, losing all sense of structure (and spending who knows how many hours watching Netflix). Now, with the pandemic in the home stretch, but still with us, we have to get serious. We have to get serious about the tried and tested way to wisdom: reading.
Books are an investment in yourself — one that can come in many forms: novels, nonfiction, how-to, poetry, classics, biographies. Reading is the way to gain easily what others have gained by difficult experience. Why wouldn’t you avail yourself of this wisdom?
With that in mind, here are 18 books — some new, some old — that will help you live better and be better, no matter the time or circumstance.
Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual by Jocko Willink
Maybe right now, you’re stuck at home, or you’re not working, or your kids are still going to school on Zoom. Your normal way of doing things has been significantly altered. Well, it’s when things are chaotic and crazy, when the world feels like it’s falling apart, that we need to create structure, better habits, limits, and order. But you can’t create any of those things without discipline.
Why Don’t We Learn from History? by B. H. Liddell Hart
One of the best ways to become an informed citizen in the present is not to watch the news, but to read history. As Bismarck said, “Fools say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others’ experience.” Hart’s book is very short, but it will help you understand human history better than if you’d read thousands of pages on the same topic by countless other writers. In my view, he’s the best writer on history and strategy. Another important book about history and this moment is The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, which might have saved the U.S. from the horrific second wave of the virus if more people had read it.
Nobody knows more about suffering and finding meaning in suffering than Viktor Frankl. From his experiences in the Holocaust, we got Man’s Search For Meaning. I was stunned to find that a new (lost!) book from him was published this year, with a beautiful title worthy of a daily mantra: Say yes to life.
Edith Eger was also sent to Auschwitz. She also not only endured unimaginable suffering, but found meaning in it. Eger went on to become a psychologist. She met Frankl and studied under him, and survives to this day, still seeing patients and helping people overcome trauma. While this book is partly about the darkness of the human race, it is also about the uncrushable spirit that allows us to survive and triumph over it. Incredibly, this book only came out in 2017. It’s sure to be a classic.
That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic by Musonius Rufus
Musonius Rufus was exiled at least three, possibly four times, so he knew about being shut out. He knew what it was like to lose freedom. He knew that all a philosopher could do was respond well — bravely, boldly, patiently — to what life threw at them. That’s what we should be doing now. Rufus compared the way we should endure challenging times to the way acrobats “face without concern their difficult tasks” — we should be ready to welcome, even seek out, wisdom, “for the sake of complete happiness.”
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks
Chasing personal success is the first mountain. But what happens when you find out, as many of us do, “Oh wait… this is not nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be. It did not magically solve all my problems and unhappiness?” That’s when we begin to look for what David Brooks calls the Second Mountain. No, it’s not just a taller version of the first one. This is the one where we start thinking less about ourselves and more about other people. As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself at the height of his power and fame, “True good fortune is good character, good intentions, and good actions.” True good fortune is doing stuff for other people. For your community. For your country. For the world. This book won’t just make you think about your life — it will make you question everything in your life.
How to Be a Leader by Plutarch
This is one of the best leadership books I’ve ever read. There’s a reason Plutarch has been a favorite of thinkers and doers since the days of ancient Rome. He’s insightful. He’s funny. He’s a great storyteller. He wasn’t just a writer, but, like the best historians and philosophers, a practitioner of what he talked about. This book will help you relax, it will help you ratchet down the noise, and it will hopefully inspire you to make your own mark. Plutarch, I might also add, was the inspiration and a main source of my latest book: Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.
Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield
When times are good, you can be soft and lazy. But what about when the going gets tough? This past year separated the amateurs from the pros. A follow-up to his bestseller The War of Art, this book is so good and so perfect for the moment, whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, a parent or a movie producer.
Florence Nightingale by Cecil Woodham-Smith
Decades ago, biographers actually admired their subjects and didn’t get bogged down in endless amounts of facts. I got a lot out of this biography, first published in 1950. When you think Florence Nightingale, you might not think “hero’s journey,” but her life story was pretty dramatic. Also, as further proof that history provides perspective, the intense bureaucracy and institutional stupidity she fought against maps well to what we’ve seen with the fight against Covid-19.
Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
There’s a story that occurs constantly in the biographies of brilliant people. As a kid, they would have a question — maybe about how car engines work or what Antarctica is like. Their mom or dad would say, “I don’t know, but let’s go figure it out!” So they’d go to the library or the computer until they found the answer. And they’d learn an essential lesson, one that’s well-expressed in the title of Marie Forleo’s book: Everything is figureoutable. Problems can be solved. Answers can be tracked down. The unknown can be made familiar. This is figureoutable. Everything is.
A Poem for Every Night of the Year (edited by Esiri Allie)
We’ve been reading this together every night as a family. The poems are all well-chosen and just short enough to keep my kids interested. It also serves as a nightly reminder of something I wrote about in Lives of Stoics. Cleanthes — the founder of Stoicism’s successor — believed we are like half-completed poems, and our job in life is to work to make a complete and beautiful poem. We may face terrible circumstances and obstacles along the way, Cleanthes wrote, but it’s no different than how the constraints and “fettering rules” of poetry give the art its beauty.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy
“Daily study,” Tolstoy wrote in 1884, is “necessary for all people.” He set out to create 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.” That book, in English, is called A Calendar of Wisdom. As Tolstoy 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.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I joked that I was deliberately not going to reread this post-apocalyptic novel, which imagines a future in which no hope remains, at any time during the pandemic. But I did. On the night I finished it, all I could do was walk quietly into my son’s room and sob while he slept. I really think The Road is just one of the most beautiful and profound depictions of struggle and sacrifice and love ever put down on the page.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This is an absolutely incredible book — a study of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. It is so clearly the culmination of a lifetime of research, yet somehow not overwhelming or boring. Even stuff I already knew about those figures, 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. Or as I wrote in this piece about leadership during the plague in ancient Rome: When things break down, good leaders have to stand up.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
The future belongs to those with the ability to focus, be creative, and think at a high level — in other words, to do deep work. This is a book that explains how to cultivate and protect that skill.
The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
The reality is, humans have aggressive, violent, contradictory, emotional, and irrational impulses. And we have to understand them if we want to rise above them. Greene’s pieces on internet trolls, on passive-aggressive arguers, on identity politics, and this monologue on irrationality are good previews of lessons we’d all be better for understanding this year.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Reading this book, first published in 1952, in light of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, was terribly sad. How little has changed. How callous and awful people are to each other. How crushing it must be to live in a world that strips you of your dignity, that uses you, that subjects you to violence and unfairness. There are many “anti-racist” reading lists floating around, but I’d suggest doing yourself a favor and read this as well. It’s not going anywhere because it is timeless and sadly, very timely.
Montaigne 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. This biography by Stefan Zweig is a brilliant, urgent, and important example of the latter. It is what I would call a moral biography — that is, a book that teaches you how to live through the story of another person. If you’ve been struggling with the onslaught of negative news and political turmoil, read this book. It’s the biography of a 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 2020, no question.
As I have published different versions of this piece over the last couple of years (2018, 2019, 2020), I made one final recommendation worth repeating: Pick three or four 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.