I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
— George Carlin
I will bet you a book that I have heard every excuse for why people do not read more often.
Most of the benefits are self-evident (e.g. books make you smarter and no one actively wants to be dumb), but whether it is habit, the sheer number of things competing for our attention, or something else, it surprises me how little time is spent doing it.
The best reason for reading (non-fiction) books is to understand how the world works.
The real test of knowledge is the real world. Books just save time. It would be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous for you and I to build a bridge by trial-and-error. Instead we could spend some time understanding engineering and finance which would increase our probability of success.
Essentially, this “increasing our probability of success” is my motivation for reading, or maybe it is growth without a goal, or maybe it is to develop a deeper appreciation of the subject matter.
One of the critical realizations I have had is the distinction between memorizing something and learning something.
The epitome of memorization is the multiple-choice test, which has been as ubiquitous in our lives as infomercials, and is great for regurgitating information then forgetting most of it. Learning, on the other hand is having information in a readily-usable format.
For example: Memorizing “rate x time = distance” in physics so you can answer a question on a test is different than being able to answer your friend who asked how long it’s going to take you to get 40 miles when you’re driving 60 miles per hour; you can do some quick math to solve for time and say 40 minutes. In case you find that too simple, let’s use another one and contrast memorizing the United States presidents (trust me, this is useless knowledge) vs. being able to describe the evolution of politics from 1776 thru today.
The key concept is synthesis (I struggle with this daily).
It is seeing the trees, then connecting them to understand the forest. While on trees…Elon Musk talks about knowledge as a tree. The trunk and big branches are where the basic truths and fundamentals are, and those are most likely rooted (ha) in science and often found in textbooks. Without these, there is nothing for the leaves to hang on.
Some of the suggestions below are dense, with a heavy focus on the trunk and branches, so that you can choose which leaves suit your interest later. Most of the books here are not Best Sellers, because our goal is to learn in the most efficient way and that means we want the knowledge to last a long time. The way to do that is learning key ideas that will carry the most weight.
If you would like to read more, then the best way to start is to follow your interests & passions. Ask yourself what is something you would like to know, but do not. That is the place to start.
Try to create a unique intellectual identity. If you consume the same information as everyone else, you will most likely come to similar conclusions, which creates for a homogenous group of ideas, which is unlikely to contribute in solving existing problems. A solution to this is to incorporate authors from different disciplines, cultures, time periods, beliefs, etc.
A great resource is Farnam Street, one of the best blogs on the internet. In the way they say you should write the book you want to read, Farnam Street is the type of blog I wish I would have created. I have followed it from the beginning to its current popularity. It should be on your Favorites tab and will serve as a great place to go if you want to go to sleep smarter than when you woke up.
Absent from the list are biographies, which are highly dependent on the type of person you are interested in, and novels, which, in a similar vein, are Rorschach Tests that will have unique interpretations and applicability depending on the reader and setting.
There are certainly easier and more fun books to read, but I don’t think I am leaning too far over the railing when I say your life will be better because of them. The problem with creating a list like this is similar to having 100 children and having to pick favorites.
1. Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition
“If you skillfully follow the multidisciplinary path, you will never wish to come back. It would be like cutting off your hands.”
If I could only choose one, this is it. (Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s worth it.) Charlie Munger is the longtime partner of the famed investor, Warren Buffett. If there is a trait to be admired, it is the marrying of theory and practice we talked about above. Munger is the embodiment of this concept, becoming a billionaire with his mind.
In a way, this recommendation is cheating because in a series of speeches and other thoughts, we are introduced to “mental models,” “earning the right to have an opinion,” and provided with a road map to wisdom and a prescription for lifelong learning which (you guessed it) entails more reading. I read the book in 2011 and when I review my notes from it (always take notes) I realize that while I have made progress, it will take 80-100 years to get where I would like to be.
2. The Lessons of History by Will Durant
“The first biological lesson of history is that life is competition.”
A summary of the history of the world in 100 pages. Will & Ariel Durant dedicated their adult lives to writing The Story of Civilization, an 11 volume series with 10,000+ pages. This is effectively the Cliffs Notes.
3. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
“Is this true?”
This is in the Top 3 of most influential things I have read. This book shaped my belief that we should create the life we want to live.
It may seem deceptively simple, but “is this true?” is one of the best questions we can ask in a given situation. If you spend time around organizations or watch the news, this becomes an increasingly interesting question.
4. Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference by Laurence Endersen
“Wishing that something which has already happened were different is pointless.”
5. Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About American Law, Fourth Edition by Jay M. Feinman
“The law is not a secret.”
This is probably the most tempting one on the list to skip. The law seems reserved for lawyers, but that makes something essential to our society seem inaccessible and opaque. Vagueness bothers me. If someone says (specifically with a pretentious air) “it’s complicated,” I almost throw up. “Please, educate me.” If someone knows what they are talking about, I will be grateful for the lesson, and if they do not, this will quickly become evident. Feinman lays down the law (couldn’t resist) in an approachable way that will make you sound like a “reasonable person” to your lawyer friends.
6. The Bible
“Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1:1
Read it cover-to-cover in a version without “thou” & “thee”. There are popular one-year reading plans available on the internet. If essentially all of Western Civilization has been impacted by this collection of words, then it is worth our time to figure out what it says right?
7. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold
“Code has no drawings of trains carrying a cargo of zeros and ones. Metaphors and similes are wonderful literary devices but they do nothing but obscure the beauty of technology.”
I dream of being able to explain concepts as clearly as Petzold explains computers. Although I picked this up because I had no idea how computers really worked and Amazon’s CEO says they’re going to be a big deal in my lifetime, it is on this list because it is an example of the learning process; how we go from not knowing-to-knowing anything.
8. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
“Meaning lies as much in the mind of the reader as in the haiku.”
Although the author himself has difficulty explaining what this book is about (because it is about so much), essentially it tries to answer the question: at what point does a collection of atoms take on a “self”? If this seems esoteric and uninteresting, blame me the messenger for inadequately selling you on the reasons you should read it, and push through it.
This is the hardest book I have read (to be clear, I am referring to grasping the concepts—the sentences are simple and well-written) and I am still working my way through it.
9. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place, but to be a different person.”
If you have ever had something turn out differently than you wanted, check this out. I give this book to those close to me going through hard times, and good times. Written almost 2,000 years ago, its wisdom is still as applicable today as it was then.
10. That book you told yourself you were going to read, but haven’t.
If you can tolerate my blog posts, you can finish that book.
1. This is Water by David Foster Wallace
“What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away.”
David Foster Wallace was a great thinker with tragic clinical depression. His internal battles are apparent in most of his writings, but his ability to dive into the questions behind the questions is unique and wonderful. This was originally delivered as a commencement speech, and has been called one of the greatest of all time.
2. Thirty Years: Reflections on the Ten Attributes of Great Investors by Michael Mauboussin
I’ve noticed that becoming a better investor is nearly synonymous with becoming a better thinker, and often, person.
3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
“Am I good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?”
This sneaks up on you. The title hints at it, but it becomes more than that. I’m drawn to things that force me to acknowledge actions that would be easier left unquestioned. Lobsters and moral philosophy together in one place. Who knew?
4. Letter to a Friend by Hunter S. Thompson
“As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.”
Once I read this, I was almost upset that I could have gone through my life without having read it.
5. How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham
“Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second.”
Read this once every few months until you no longer need to. I still need to.
Enjoy the journey loyal readers. If you are over 30, it’s okay. You can still read them, too.