09 Dec 26 Books That Have Shaped My 26 Years on Planet Earth
OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS since I graduated from college, I’ve read or listened to around 175 books. Reading is the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I do before I go to sleep.
If I can take one thing away from a book, be it a shift in the way I think about myself or a line that makes me stop and marvel at how beautiful the world is, then I consider reading the book worthwhile.
The books that follow gave me so much more — I return to them when in need of joy, inspiration, solace, or perhaps a reminder of how good life can be. These are 26 books (plus the respective books if it’s part of a series) that have shaped my brief 26-year existence on this fascinating rock we call home.
Favorite books on writing, creativity and inspiration:
Real artists ship,
Steve Jobs famously said.
To ship is to get your work out there. It’s pressing submit. Publish. Post. Shipping is the enemy of perfection. This book inspires me to do the work when I don’t want to and to get my voice out there by cultivating a practice that can be honed and relied upon when all else fails.
It’s not about you. It’s about who you will inspire by shipping.
I’ve recently become more interested in the ancient philosophy of stoicism. I truly believe it can help us lead happier, simpler, more fulfilling lives in our modern age. This book does a wonderful job of outlining the main players and their teachings: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
It also includes many other notable characters throughout history not known specifically as stoics, but who employed stoic principles in their daily lives and writings.
One of my favorite lines:
Think about individuals. There is not one whose life is not focused on tomorrow. What harm is there in that, you ask? Infinite harm. They are not really living, they are about to live.
— Seneca Epistles 45:12–13
This book should be required reading for every human being. Dr. Viktor Frankl not only outlasted the horrific conditions of the WWII Nazi death camps; he did so with his spirit intact.
He turned his horrific condition into a lesson — no matter what happens in life, human beings may choose to see the world as good, meaningful, and full of light, even in the darkest of times.
This book will make you reconsider what we’re really doing here on this spinning rock. Are we meant to dread our work, what we fill most of our time doing? Are we meant to fear one another, nature, progress?
Or is there another way, a world full of connection, genuine connection; full of hope felt by every individual, full of beauty. I believe there is. Charles Eisenstein lays out a captivating case for a more beautiful world which, deep within our hearts, we all know is possible.
I like many others felt a wrongness in the world, a wrongness that seeped through the cracks of my privileged, insulated childhood. I never fully accepted what I had been offered as normal. Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays.
This classic by Steven Pressfield gave a name to that feeling which stops us from following our dreams, from raising our hand, from asking that guy or girl out or pressing publish on that blog post.
Resistance. It takes many shapes and many forms, but it has one goal — to keep us safe, secure, stuck where we are, comfortable.
Resistance feeds on fear. We experience resistance as fear, but fear of what? Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there, fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked up choice for the rest of our lives. These aren't the real fear, the Master fear. Fear that we will succeed. That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess. That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us.
This book by the zany author of Fahrenheit 451 inspired me to allow my imagination to run, and to follow it with a pad and pen and a glint in my eye.
It encouraged me to look at the peculiarities of the world with an astute eye, and write about the things I saw.
Bottom line — it’s fun.
And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation. So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.
As I said, if a book gives me one line to hold on to, one shining star of wisdom or a new way to look at the world, I consider it a worthwhile read. There were many lessons I took away from this book, yet one has stayed with me that I believe always will.
Inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving but it comes to us slowly and quietly all the time. But we must regularly and every day give it a chance to start flowing, and prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that when writing you should feel not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another.
Life is a fountain that flows from within ourselves,
writes Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations.
“If we want it to continue to flow and don’t fight it, it will.”
All-time Favorite Nonfiction Books:
This book by actor, writer, and Austin Texas treasure Matthew McConaughey lit the fire in my belly to go on a road trip and write my first book, Arrows of Youth.
It’s beautifully laid out with photos and poetry by McConaughey from throughout his life. This book delivers the goods both as a hardcover and audiobook.
James A. Michener is one of my favorite writers. He wrote around 40 books, each focused on a location and telling a story of either fiction or nonfiction of that place, sometimes spanning thousands of years.
As an aspiring travel writer, Michener is somebody I read to quell my hunger for wonderful storytelling and history. This book, however, is his memoir. It tells of his life where he traveled to nearly every country in the world. It has inspired me to see the world, planet Earth, as all of our home.
I worked from four in the morning until eight, week after week, while putting in a full nine to five day at Macmillan. I was glad to hear that most serious writers do their first three novels at either four in the morning or eleven at night while holding down a full time job. I was proved to be in that tradition.
If there’s one book that has inspired me to look to nature as a guiding light, it’s this one. Walden is 19th-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s perspective from living in a cabin near Walden Pond on the land of fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
This book captures the beauty of the changing seasons like nothing else — it’s a delight to read.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
One of my favorite travel books, this classic by Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, will inspire you to grab a friend and a walking stick and hit the dusty trail to find yourself.
I love the journey that Coelho portrays along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient European pilgrimage to the resting place of St. James.
One of my favorite lines:
Have pity on those who are fearful of taking up a pen, or a paintbrush, or an instrument, or a tool because they are afraid that someone has already done so better than they could, and who feel themselves to be unworthy to enter the marvelous mansion of art. But have even more pity on those who, having taken up the pen, or the paintbrush, or the instrument, or the tool, have turned inspiration into a paltry thing, and yet feel themselves to be better than others. Neither of these ends of people know the law that says, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known.
Sure, this one might be required reading in high school, but it should be required after graduating, and maybe every five years hence.
Reading it recently reminded me just how damn good life is. None of our worries could come close to what this girl and countless others had to endure during WWII. Yet, Anne Frank somehow retained her love for life. That is true courage.
I looked out of the open window, letting my eyes roam over a large part of Amsterdam, over the rooftops and on to the horizon, a strip of blue so pale it was almost invisible. 'As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?' The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amidst nature's beauty and simplicity.
As long as this exists and that should be forever, I know that there should be solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer. Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you'll know that you're pure within and will find happiness once more.
Jordan Peterson has become somewhat of an icon in the last couple of years for different reasons, but this man has without a doubt been a teacher to me and many others during this difficult time we find ourselves in.
This book caused me to think about life, religion, responsibility, relationships, psychology, and history in new and endlessly fascinating ways. I believe anybody could benefit from reading this book.
Dare to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.
This series gave me the courage and insight to be a writer. Karl Ove Knausgaard tells the story of his seemingly normal life in Norway for around 3,600 pages. I was hooked the entire way.
The series showed me that no day, no moment, no life is bereft of meaning; we just have to do a little digging to uncover what it is.
These books by Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari are enriching to read multiple times for an overview of who we are as human beings, where we come from, and where we might go in the next phase of our existence.
Homo Deus is my favorite of the three.
Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It enables us to turn our head this way and that, and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn't want us to imagine. By observing the accidental chain of events that led us here, we realize how our very thoughts and dreams took shape - and we can begin to think and dream differently. Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.- Homo Deus
If there’s one biography that has inspired me more than any other, it’s the biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo loved to study the natural world and question how it worked.
Everything, he believed, is connected — us as individuals, the planet, the cosmos, a single blade of grass. Nothing was uninteresting to him. His childlike curiosity led him to be the greatest polymath of all time.
Michel de Montaigne was a 16th-century philosopher and diplomat who wrote in a style which made the essay famous. Not the dreaded five-paragraph essay.
The essay’s original intent, as Montaigne exemplified, was a means of exploration on the page. Start with an idea, and see where it leads.
Montaigne was a lover of travel, of people, of friendship; he endured the French Religious Wars and still retained hope. That should inspire us four-hundred years later. The man wanted to know what it means to be alive.
If we love and honor him today more than any other, it is because he devoted himself more than any other to the sublime art of living: rester soi-meme.
As far as self-help goes, this one taught me not to always trust my thoughts. Rather, allow them to come and go like cars on the highway.
Michael Singer tells the story of how he surrendered to life after not being able to quiet the voice in his head.
His surrender experiement takes him on a journey like no other. This book is a useful reminder for anybody looking to let go, and thus, reclaim their peace of mind.
All-time Favorite Fiction Books:
The Name of the Wind and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear are two of my favorite fantasy books of all time. Patrick Rothfuss spins a captivating first-person narrative as Kvothe, arguably the most interesting man of all time (fantasy edition).
These books are bit more realistic than The Lord of the Rings or Eragon, as in more medieval than otherworldly, but full of magic, mystery, and beautiful writing — perfect for this time of year.
It’ll make you want to skip down a cobblestone street chasing a gale of wind, lose yourself in the dusty archives of your nearest bookstore, or watch the moon descend beyond the horizon from the darkness of a rooftop.
Just me? It’s that kind of vibe.
As I mentioned before, James A. Michener takes a place, which in this book is Israel, and tells a fictional or nonfiction story of that place spanning, in this case, thousands of years.
This story is historical fiction; each segment tells of a different era in the history of Israel. It is an epic historical read.
When asked by Tim Ferris on The Tim Ferris Podcast what three books he would give to a recent college grad, the aforementioned Walter Isaacson said:
The Odyssey is a particularly important one because I think life is an odyssey. Especially as you're young and you're coming out of college, you've got to travel. You've got to get on the road. You've got to connect with different types of people and have adventures.
The Odyssey is one of the oldest stories of all time. It baffles me how I can read what Homer was writing or perhaps sharing as an oral tradition around 2,700 years ago.
This is the classic hero’s journey — a tale of adventure, heroism, a battle with a cyclops, and much mead.
East of Eden is a book that exemplifies the following quote by Jordan Peterson:
“In sophisticated literature you don’t have good guys and bad guys. You have good guys and bad guys in the same soul.” — Jordan Peterson Podcast
This book was John Steinbeck’s pride and joy, the book that he said he had in him and needed to write. It tells the story of Adam Trask and his boys Cal and Aron.
They are multi-dimensional characters who long to be good, but are tempted to be otherwise, just as we often are in real life. The story is set against the backdrop of California’s barren interior, a setting synonymous with much of Steinbeck’s work.
As classic as classic literature comes, War and Peace tells the story of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. One scene in particular has changed the way I see the world and who we are as people.
The main character is at war against Napoleon, yet Napoleon is his hero.
In his final moments, he sees Napoleon not as the great man on a quest to conquer the world. He sees him for what he is, petty, vain, small — against the natural beauty of the blue, redeeming sky.
Though five minutes earlier, Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers transporting him, now with his eyes fixed directly on Napoleon, he was silent… To him at that moment, all the interests that occupied Napoleon seemed so insignificant, his hero himself seemed to petty him, with his petty vanity and joy in victory, compared with that lofty, just, and kindly sky, which he had seen and understood, that he was unable to answer him.
Looking into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain.
This might be my favorite book of all time. It taught me about the wonder of world-building. James Clavell starts with details and allows them to blossom into a vast world that breathes with every turn of the page.
John Blackthorne, an English pilot on a Dutch ship washes ashore 1600s Japan. He reluctantly learns to adopt the ways of these foreigners with the help of Lord Toranaga, a daimyo eager to become Shogun, the ruler of Japan.
The story is utterly beautiful, intricate, detailed — an exceptional journey through ancient Japan which has left a lasting impression on my heart and soul.
This was one of the first books I truly loved. It made me realize that my favorite stories are travel stories, as this one takes the reader on a journey through Hemingway’s Europe — France and Spain.
It’s complex in its simplicity and will teach you something new about writing and about living every time you pick it up.
As with any Hemingway story, the drinks flow freely and the fights are boisterous. The scenes will make you want to buy a one-way ticket to the French countryside to munch on fresh strawberry and cream will drinking wine from a leather sack.
These books changed the way I look at fantasy. I read Eragon as a kid, but reading the entire series in the last two years has reignited my love for the genre.
The themes are sophisticated and insightful, especially as a young man striving to find my way in the world. Plus, dragons. Elves. Dwarves. An incredible world to lose yourself in.
Trust me, don’t feel ashamed for revisiting this series. The inner kid in you will be happy that you did. Make that kid proud.