Every December, instead of a Reading List Email of more
books, we take the time to look at absolute MUST read books that I came across in the last year. I’m lucky enough that I get to read as part of my job. Whereas a lot of people wish they had more time to read or to explore different topics, I have
to do that. The result is a lot of strange books on strange topics. But each year a few standout–books that change my life, that take me in new directions, books that I ended up relying on heavily for my own writing. Those are the books I am recommending in this month’s email. I always try to keep my recommendations to three books, but as you’ll see, I didn’t even come close. If you only have time to pick up a few books over the holiday’s or if you are planning out your reading for the next year, I beg you to consider picking some of these up. 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 the serious stuff. Read these books!
In January, I picked up my first book in this Caron’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
andMaster of the Senate
. The order didn’t seem to matter). and 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 it’s 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 and 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 paen on the joy of reading really really long books
which you may enjoy)
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 Alexander 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.
Some more great reads from this year:
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
. I’m a big proponent of letting time (and other people) do filtering for us. If you’re busy and you can’t afford to just pick up a random book and *hope* it’s good, then one of these selected lists should help. I’ve gotten emails throughout the year from people who have loved these books as I’ve recommended them and of course, for years heard about the books in my other best of lists. I hope you give some of them a crack.
Otherwise, let’s make 2017 a grand year for reading. Go on a news diet
. Stop obsessing about what’s on television or the chatter on Twitter. Go deeper. Go back through history. Focus, as Jeff Bezos has said, on the things that don’t change. Study the great men and women of history–don’t obsess over the incremental actions of the mediocre leaders of today. Be inspired by the people who truly changed the world for the better, and learn lessons from the writers and thinkers who have deeply studied the topics and personalities and problems of the past.
Enjoy and talk to you in January!