Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Charles W Eliot
I’ve probably read 50 books this year. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only about one a week. I wish I could read more.
My family teases me about the number of books I have. It’s become a running joke. We moved house recently, three of us cramming the sum of our possessions into about 40 boxes. Of those, 11 were entirely my books. I’d say I’ve only read about 25% of the books I own, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m working my way through them. Indeed, on page 1 of The Black Swan, one of the books on the list below, Nassim Taleb writes:
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”
An unread book – my whole antilibrary – signifies future growth, knowledge as yet unknown. An unread book could contain an idea that refines thoughts, adds nuance, or dramatically changes the way you view the world around you. A crucial component of growth is surrounding yourself with the best teachers, and the best teachers are books. As Ryan Holiday puts it:
whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you.”
Of the 50-odd books I’ve read this year, I’ve distilled the list down to the five that had the greatest impact on me. In no particular order, here they are.
I really, really enjoyed this book. I’ve long been interested in high-performance, fitness, genetics and individualised responses. David Epstein did a great job of untangling the contributions of nature and nurture in making us who we are and showing what we can achieve. Chock full of science and fascinating anecdotes, interviews and Epstein’s personal experience. An optimistic celebration of human difference. Very, very highly recommended.
One of those rare books that changes the way you look at the world. It’s often criticised because of Taleb’s tone – at times I agree and I occasionally found his digressions extraneous or irrelevant. But I also enjoyed the idiosyncrasy, which I found reminiscent of Montaigne and reflected the anti-top-down approach he advocates. Also includes the great advice, “Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!” A challenging and important book.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Oliver Burkeman
I read The Antidote exactly when I needed it. I’d just emerged battered and bruised after an anxiety and depression-riddled few months that I’m still not convinced I actually made it through. A lot of these ideas had been coalescing in my head for a while, and Burkeman crystallised them for me. The book counters the inane, relentless positive thinking and goal-pursuit of much of the self-help genre, pointing to practical traditions from contemporary psychology, Buddhism, and Stoicism (on Stoicism, I recommend reading Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). It’s clear that our constant efforts to achieve happiness are often what’s getting us down in the first place and we should lean into insecurity, uncertainty, pessimism and failure.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott
I wanted to frame every second sentence and hang it on my wall. Here is the last paragraph of the book: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It – Gary Taubes
If I could recommend one book to improve your overall physical health, this would be it. This book outlines why we get fat, the role of our internal regulatory systems, the incompleteness of the calories in-calories out model, the failures of food standards authorities, individual difference, and much more. Everyone should read this book.
I send regular reading recommendations and great content to my subscribers to The Being Better Bulletin. If you’re interested, you can subscribe here.
Here’s what I’m reading right now.