It struck me one night that, in many ways, great books are like puzzle pieces.
If the “puzzle” you’re trying to solve is the fundamental nature of reality (which is the most fascinating puzzle around, to be honest), how to live courageously in the world, how to achieve worldly success, or whatever else, then reading the best books will help illuminate your path.
To continue with the metaphor that I’m inordinately pleased with myself for having thought up on my own, the best books are like “edge pieces” that help you develop your macro-level worldview, and the lesser (though by no means unimportant) books serve to fill in the details of whichever puzzle you’re trying to solve.
The edge pieces give you an idea of how big the puzzle might be, what its basic structure looks like, and then, if you want to dive deeper and really “fill out” your knowledge, you can keep doubling down on your reading and read more books on the puzzle in question, even if those additional books aren’t as paradigm-shattering as the edge pieces you started with.
The funny thing is though (albeit maddeningly frustrating at times) is that you’ll soon realize how much you didn’t even KNOW that you didn’t know!
If you think of what you “know” right now as one giant room, each book you read leads you into an entirely different room.
And once you get to THAT room, you’ll find that it opens up into three (and often more) ADDITIONAL rooms that you didn’t even know were there.
Clearly, reading is a giant rabbit hole, and no single individual will ever reach the bottom.
You’ll never find all the edge pieces (because most of them haven’t even been written yet), you’ll never be able to explore every room, and you’ll never get to the bottom of the rabbit hole.
But the attempt itself is the intellectual adventure of a lifetime.
What this all boils down to is that this list is necessarily incomplete.
Myself, I’ve set the worthy goal of reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, but I’m quite sure that there are probably tens of thousands of books that are WORTH reading.
So, with some measure of sadness concerning the finitude of human existence and the immensity of available knowledge, I present to you what I believe are the greatest “edge pieces” that I’ve read so far.
If I were to mix my metaphors, which I do often, I would say that these edge pieces are the books that pack the strongest one-two punches I’ve ever experienced in all my years with the printed word.
I list each book below in alphabetical order, summarize it in a few sentences, and reproduce some of the personal study-notes that I took for each book, along with a representative pull-quote here and there.
Since I’ve started taking notes on every single book I read, I’ve amassed thousands of pages of study-notes. I’ve even distilled the very best notes from each book into one “master” document that I’d like to give you for free. That book/document alone is over 400 pages long!
Supporters of my Patreon page are able to get monthly updated notes on every single book I read, along with the thousands of pages of notes I already have, plus that master document etc, but as a special thank-you for being a brave and curious reader of High Existence, I’m going to give you that 400-page master document of study-notes ENTIRELY FOR FREE, along with ALL of my notes for every single book on this list.
And FYI, my notes for all the books listed below add up to 276 pages! Take them. They’re yours.
Please accept them as my gift, on the one condition that you never, ever stop learning, and that you never, ever, stop asking questions. Click here to get everything I just mentioned.
Alright, so let’s get to it. Enjoy the list below, and always remember that reading, in its purest form, shouldn’t be an “escape” from your real life; it should be a “discovery” of your real life.
Your real life is waiting. All you have to do is turn the page.
The Epic Book List:
A Year of Living Generously by Lawrence Scanlan
This is the story of journalist Lawrence Scanlan’s year of volunteering for twelve different Canadian charitable organizations, dedicating a month to each one. Whether the issue is homelessness, environmental degradation, the ineffectual criminal justice system, or infectious disease, Scanlan is continually face to face with overwhelming need. The question to be asked here is, of course, What do we live for if not to make life a little less difficult for one another?
From My Notes:
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”
“Many homeless people in Toronto would rather sleep outside in the winter than take a bed inside some of the shelters available, just because of the conditions there.”
“The mortality rate of homeless people is four times higher than that of housed people.”
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”
“I’ve always appreciated nature, but now I find myself saying ‘Stop. Look.'”
“The more eyes there are on any specific place, the safer it tends to be.”
“What inmates need is for someone to believe in them.”
“No person should be defined by his or her worst act.”
Paul Newman: “I don’t think there’s anything exceptional or noble in being philanthropic. It’s the other attitude that confuses me.”
“One of the greatest gifts you can offer to someone else is to listen to his or her story.”
“Be less the avid consumer and more the engaged citizen.”
Against Empathy by Paul Bloom
Sometimes, rationality and empathy are at odds, and our emotions can cloud our judgement with respect to our moral choices.
That’s Paul Bloom’s contention in this book, and he makes more than a convincing case.
If we really want to maximize the overall good in our societies, then we need to rationally assess the consequences of our actions, and use our heads as well as our hearts.
From My Notes:
Empathy can help us do good in the moment, but without consideration for the long-term effects of our actions.”
“An act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to worse consequences in the future.”
“We may be too quick to credit empathy with much of the good that we see in the world.”
“Empathy, as well as anger, can be excellent servants but we should never have them as masters.”
An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski”
James Orbinski has spent decades of his life living and working in war zones, sewing up machete wounds and hooking up feeding tubes to starving children. This is his story. As Past President of Doctors Without Borders, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on their behalf, and continues to inspire people like me to answer the call of other people who need our help. This is the kind of book that leaves lasting impressions on the mind.
From My Notes:
In Somalia, his first “patient” was placed on top of a pile of dead bodies because he was going to die of starvation anyway and there wasn’t enough time or people to tend to everyone.
Girl who escaped the killing squads in Rwanda: “My mother hid me in the latrines. I saw through the hole. I watched them hit her with machetes. I watched my mother’s arm fall into my father’s blood on the floor, and I cried without noise in the toilet.”
“We must confront injustice and hold our own governments accountable for what is done in our name.”
“I could not live with who I would be if I did not go back.”
Cluster bombs buried in the sand look like butterflies and so children pick them up.
“I still struggle now when I confront memories of that time, memories that are no longer unspeakable, but still unbearable.”
People in Rwanda taken to mass graves would have their hands and feet cut off so they couldn’t climb out of the graves.
“We are not certain that speaking out saves people, but we are certain that silence kills.”
“I know why the struggle is right and good, and why always we can begin again.”
“The most important thing any of us can do is to actively and pragmatically assume our responsibilities as citizens for the world we live in.”
Anger and Forgiveness by Martha Nussbaum
A professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum is one of the most influential philosophers of our time. In this book, she makes a convincing case for the ideas that anger is always harmful in practice, and that well-designed institutions can help reduce the need for us to fall back on our overly-retributive criminal justice system.
From My Notes:
Anger is often relative to the sense of helplessness versus the wish for control.”
“The idea that payback will somehow restore the important thing that was damaged is metaphysical nonsense, however common and deeply ingrained in human cultures.”
“My account of social welfare, then, requires any governmental use of coercion to satisfy very demanding constraints: it must be compatible with equal dignity and non-humiliation, it must be accompanied by public acknowledgement of the seriousness of wrongdoing, and it must be justified to the person involved as only one part of a much more comprehensive project in which we reasonably aim to promote social welfare.”
“By the time we reach crime and the criminal justice system, we have already missed the most significant opportunities for social improvement.”
“Punishment is a fallback mechanism, in turning to which we admit a degree of failure in other strategies for prevention and deterrence.”
“When trying to deter young offenders, it must be made clear that they are separate from their crimes and that although they have failed to live up to society’s norms, their equal human dignity is to be taken seriously.”
“Stigmatization and humiliation need to be replaced with the sense of the offender being capable of reintegration and worthy of basic human dignity.”
Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
This is one of the more challenging books on this list, but Taleb’s main insight here is that there are certain things that “gain from disorder”.
You put your muscles under stress at the gym (disorder), and they will overcompensate by getting stronger (gain).
Something that is “antifragile” can survive these stresses and emerge stronger. Example: Negative publicity can ruin a politician, but negative publicity will often cause an author’s books to fly off the shelves.
From My Notes:
A smear campaign, should you be able to survive one, does wonders for your popularity.”
“The economy wants some people to fail so as to improve the functioning of the whole.”
The Turkey Problem: “A turkey will be fattened up over the course of 2 or 3 Thanksgivings and will develop a false sense of stability.”
“A system built on illusions of predictability is bound to collapse.”
“If you earn more than you lose from fluctuations, then you want a lot of fluctuations.”
“Work hard for future generations because we are a part of something special.”
“If we are here, it is because someone, at some stage, took some risks for us.”
“Never trust the words of a man who is not free.”
Apology by Plato
Socrates is one of my moral and intellectual heroes, and Apology is the story of his denunciation by his enemies in 399 B.C. for “corrupting the youth of Athens”.
Sentenced to death by poisoning, but told that he could walk free if he simply denied what he had been teaching, he replied that he would rather die a thousand deaths than renounce what he believed to be true.
I don’t know how I would behave in such a situation, but having role models like Socrates gives each of us someone to try to emulate when our own moral courage is tested.
From My Notes:
The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways. Me to die and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.”
As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
Originally published in 1902, As A Man Thinketh has become a classic personal development text.
The main idea here is that we literally become what we think about all day long.
Our mind is like a garden, and whatever we plant there will grow.
It’s quite short, about 80 pages, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea to re-read this book at least once every six months.
From My Notes:
A man’s mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.”
“Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power.”
“The outer conditions of a person’s life will always be found to be harmoniously related to his inner state…Men do not attract that which they want, but that which they are.”
“As he thinks, so he is; as he continues to think, so he remains.”
“A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”
At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell
This is one of the most wildly exciting books I’ve ever read. Sarah Bakewell traces the lives and fortunes of the great existentialist philosophers against the backdrop of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, and does so in an eminently engaging style.
The entire existentialist movement was based on the questions of “What are we?” and “What should we do?” and in this book we are exposed to some of the most provocative and courageous answers to those questions; answers put forth by some of humanity’s greatest minds, each of them living in the shadow of their own impending, inevitable deaths.
From My Notes:
There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”
“The way to live is to throw ourselves, not into faith, but into our own lives, conducting them in affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harboring resentment against others or against our fate.”
“Philosophy becomes more interesting when it examines how real lives are lived.”
Some people chose not to resist giving the Nazi salute, if only to save their own lives, but:
“Few people will risk their life for such a small thing as raising an arm – yet that is how one’s powers of resistance are slowly eroded away, and eventually one’s responsibility and integrity go with them.”
Jean-Paul Sartre escaped from a POW camp in World War II after he procured a medical pass, left one day, and never went back!
“We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free – context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives – for things that define us and take away our freedom. But it is only WITH all of these that we can be free in a real sense.”
Sartre: “Humanity now has the power to wipe itself out, and it must decide every day that it wants to live.”
Camus: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
“Each individual is an infinite universe in his or her own eyes, and one cannot compare one infinity with another.”
Kierkegaard: “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition, it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it.”
“The only consolation is to have had something, rather than nothing.”
“The existentialists remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.”
But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
This is probably one of my favorite books of all time, a book where the ingenious Chuck Klosterman examines the present, from the perspective of the future, as if it were the past.
He asks, for example, How many of our current ideas that we accept as demonstrably true will turn out to be false? What is humanity collectively, objectively, wrong about? Is it even possible to understand the world of today before today has become tomorrow?
From My Notes:
When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, “Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived, since the dawn of human history.” Yet offer those same people a laundry list of contemporary ideas that might fit that description, and they’ll be tempted to reject them all.”
“The problem is not with our reasoned conclusions, but with the questions themselves.”
“Logic doesn’t work particularly well when applied to the future.”
Klosterman’s Razor: The philosophical belief that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.
“There is an unbreachable chasm between the subjective and objective world.”
“Discounting those events that occurred within your own lifetime, what do you know about human history that was not communicated to you by someone else?”
“It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is.”
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
What makes the Diary of a Young Girl so tragic is that it’s so…usual. She’s so obviously a teenage girl, precociously smart though she may be. And of course, as you can probably guess, it ends rather abruptly at the time when she and her entire family were discovered by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.
Her diary will unfreeze you. It will make you angry, and it will shake you up, especially when her written thoughts turn to a future she is never going to live to see.
From My Notes:
Mummy always wanted to know whom I’m going to marry. Little does she guess that it’s Peter Wessel.”
“I’m very afraid that we will be discovered and shot.”
“I adore daddy. He is the one I look up to. I don’t love anyone in the world but him.”
“As long as this exists and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts, I cannot be unhappy.”
“Riches can all be lost, but that happiness within your own heart can only be veiled, and it will still bring you happiness again, as long as you may live.”
“I can hardly wait for the day that I shall be able to comb through the books in a public library.”
“Surely the time will come when we are people again, and not just Jews.”
Don’t Be a Jerk by Brad Warner
Japan’s greatest Zen master (as if you could ever “master” Zen), Dōgen, wrote a mind-expanding book called The Shobogenzo more than eight hundred years ago, and its effects have rippled through time in order to reach both Brad Warner and myself.
Warner is an American monk and Don’t Be a Jerk is his exposition of Dōgen’s teachings. It’s hilarious and fun, fascinating and profound. Well worth your time.
From My Notes:
You cannot know your own enlightenment because whatever you call enlightenment can’t be enlightenment.”
“You can be a Buddha one minute and then be a jackass three minutes later. You don’t just become a Buddha at the moment of your first enlightenment experience and then stay one forever.”
“You must do a thorough house cleaning of the mind, taking everything out and cleaning it. Then, one by one you take the things back in that you would like to bring back in.”
“Two mirrors in front of each other create infinity, except your head keeps blocking it off.”
“On an actual day in the future, you will be in the unimaginable.”
“We’re educated by a society which doesn’t even understand itself.”
“Even our mistakes are part of the perfection of the universe.”
“By not being a jerk now, we create the cause of not being a jerk in the future.”
“At every moment of every day, no matter how I feel about the situation, whether it’s mind-blowingly thrilling or completely brain-numbing, I am the totally of the universe experiencing the fullness of itself. Even if I don’t notice it.”
“When we say there’s no self, we only mean that there is no fixed and limited entity that remains unchanging while life and time go on around it. Yet what we mistakenly call “self” still exists. We just have completely wrong ideas about what it is and make huge mistakes by acting on those wrong ideas.”
“You are not a person living in a time and a place. You are the person and the time and the place all rolled into one.”
“This is the moment of universal creation. This is the most important thing that has ever happened in the history of everything. If you miss it, it’s a damned shame.”
“We ARE the circumstances or external events and objects that other people are investigating.”
Enchiridion by Epictetus
Epictetus is one of the most famous Stoics, and his Enchiridion, or “Handbook”, is all about how to separate what we can control from what we can’t control.
We can control our judgment of events, but not events themselves. We can examine our own thoughts and beliefs but can’t force the thoughts and beliefs of others.
Born into slavery, and suffering from physical disability, he shatters into a million pieces any excuse why you and I can’t lead fulfilling lives.
From My Notes:
If it relates to anything not in your power, be ready to say that it does not concern you.”
“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.”
“The thief pays for his stolen goods by consenting to have become a thief.”
“You may put me to death, but to injure me is beyond your power.”
“My will is simply that which comes to pass.”
“It is independent of the will; cast it away. It is nothing to you.”
“Do you seek a reward greater than the act itself of doing what is good and just?”
“Shall I no longer exist after death? You will not exist, but you will be something else, of which the world now has need; for you also came into existence not when you chose, but when the world had need of you.”
“An act of injustice is of great harm to he who does it.”
“Nothing that makes up your body will perish.”
Escape From Evil by Ernest Becker
This is the follow-up to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, published posthumously and against his wishes.
The world is richer for having Becker’s wife disregard his final request, truly. This tortured meditation on the nature of evil and the prospects for transcendence in the modern age is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the nature of human destructiveness. It thus receives one of my highest recommendations.
From My Notes:
There is nothing in man or nature which would prevent us from taking some control of our destiny and making the world a saner place for our children.”
“Man transcends death by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits. Spirituality is not a simple reflex of hunger and fear. It is an expression of the will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has lived, has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died.”
“The origin of human drivenness is religious because man experiences creatureliness; the amassing of a surplus, then, goes right to the heart of human motivation, the urge to stand out as a hero, to transcend the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence and finitude.”
“The twin fears from which we suffer are life and death.”
“The gauge of a truly free society would be the extent to which it admitted its own central fear of death and questioned its own system of heroic transcendence.”
Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm
People often say that they want freedom, but sometimes the thing that they’re most afraid of is that very same freedom they profess to want.
Erich Fromm’s discussion here of authoritarianism and the problem of the individual attempting to explore his fullest potentialities should wake you up from your socially-imposed stupor.
But don’t just think about this stuff once. The ideas in this book, and others on this list, need to be returned to again and again. And again.
From My Notes:
Freedom can often be a burden too heavy for some people to bear.”
“For some, freedom is a cherished goal, and to others it is a threat.”
“There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men, and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.”
“The influence of any doctrine or idea depends on the extent to which it appeals to the psychic needs in the character structure of those to whom it is addressed.”
“There is a discrepancy between the aims of the smooth functioning of society and of the full development of the individual.”
“The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destructiveness.”
“Truth is one of the strongest weapons of those who have no power.”
“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.”
“The desire for freedom can be repressed, it can disappear from the awareness of the individual; but even then it does not cease to exist as a potentiality.”
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
You don’t have time to do anything that is not absolutely essential!
When you’ve learned the truth of this statement, you can get intentional with how you spend your time.
You can stop trying to get more done, and instead focus on making sure you’re doing the right things in the first place.
This is simple stuff, and the book is very easy to read, but you need to constantly revisit these themes and make “essentialism” a cornerstone of your life philosophy.
From My Notes:
Very few things are essential.”
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
“If I didn’t already commit to doing this, would I have chosen to do it?”
“Almost everything is noise.”
“Because there are things that are more important and worthwhile, the time spent figuring out what those things are is worth it.”
“Don’t get caught up in the race to nowhere.”
“Essentialism is not a way to do ‘one more thing’.”
“Almost everything is worthless, and a few things are extraordinarily valuable.”
“If the answer isn’t a definite ‘yes’, it is a definite ‘no’.”
“Each time you fail to say ‘no’ to a nonessential, you are really saying ‘yes’ by default.”
“If I didn’t already have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”
“Every single commitment or activity or anything at all has to justify itself.”
“Done is better than perfect.”
“The important thing right now is to figure out what the important thing is right now.”
Every Cradle is a Grave by Sarah Perry
Is it ethical to bring children into the world without asking them? Does someone who wants to die have the ethical right to take his or her own life?
You can easily go your entire life without asking yourself questions like these, but they are legitimate questions that deserve a fair hearing.
Sarah Perry was a virtual unknown; she came out of nowhere to deliver a philosophical left-hook to modern civilization’s most cherished beliefs.
From My Notes:
The interests of an aware being are very hard to predict before that being is created.”
“Do parents give up the moral right to commit suicide once they take on responsibility for a child?”
“The very universality of the idea of the meaning of life should motivate us to question it.”
“If it is meaning that justifies the suffering of life, then meaning has a high burden of proof to demonstrate its inherent, non-instrumental value, and the frequent use of illusion in this domain invites skepticism.”
“Life, of course, is the ultimate freedom, a human existence being the prerequisite for having any meaningful freedoms at all. But life is also a burden.”
“Bringing a child into the world necessarily entails harming a stranger.”
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Guy Montag is a fireman. But in Bradbury’s dystopian future, firemen don’t fight fires, they burn books.
He continues to perform his assignments dutifully and thoroughly, until he gradually starts to become curious about what might be in those books, and wonders why one woman chooses to be burned alive in her house instead of giving up her books (I know why).
When Montag gets caught with books in his possession, he then has to run for his life.
From My Notes:
Stuff your eyes with wonder; live as if you would drop dead in the next seconds. See the world. It’s more beautiful than any dream that’s made or paid for in factories.”
“There are too many people alive today. Nobody knows anyone.”
“People don’t talk about anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say, How nice! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anybody else.”
“Books contain everything we are afraid that we might forget.”
“For a little while I’m not afraid. Maybe it’s because I’m doing the right thing at last.”
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Most people live for a little while, don’t understand any of it, and then they die.
This is your life; and it’s ending minute by minute.
The things you used to own, now they own you.
Losing all hope is freedom. It’s only after you’ve lost everything, that you’re free to do anything.
Do you recognize any of these amazing quotes from Fight Club?!?!
You know what it’s about, now dive in and let this short existential novel change you, let it shake you up. Let Fight Club be the axe to the frozen sea inside you.
From My Notes:
It’s easy to cry when you realize that everyone you love will reject you or die. On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero.”
“One day you’re thinking and hauling yourself around, and the next, you’re cold fertilizer.”
“This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you.”
“I’m breaking my attachment to physical power and possessions, because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit.”
“The liberator who destroys my property is fighting to save my spirit. The teacher who clears all possessions from my path will set me free.”
“You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.”
Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings
We’ve been alone in the universe for a very long time. Most would say close to 4.6 billion years, as long as the earth has been around.
As astronomers discover more potentially habitable planets all the time, the question becomes, When are we going to discover that we’re not alone?
In the hundreds of billions of other galaxies besides our own, couldn’t there be at least ONE other intelligent civilization out there ready to meet us?
It’s starting to look like it’s only a matter of time.
From My Notes:
Maybe what happened once would happen many times, in many places.”
“Life on this planet has an expiration date.”
“Here, now, on this lonely planet, is where all our possible futures must begin, and where I pray they will not end.”
“If the average longevity of an advanced technological society is a few hundred years and two are situated 1,000 light years apart, then even if one discovered the other and sent a message, when the message was received, the society that sent it might no longer exist.”
“We’re the product of millions of years of evolution, but we don’t have any time to waste.”
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
The field of neurology was enriched when Oliver Sacks devoted his life to the study of consciousness and the brain.
To be read along with his excellent autobiography, On the Move, Gratitude was written while he was faced with certain death due to terminal cancer.
“As agonizingly shy in my eighties as I was in my twenties”, Sacks wrote this short, wonderful book to remind us that there is no time for anything inessential, and to explore what the idea of “completing a life” might mean.
From My Notes:
It is the fate of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
“I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living.”
“I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize that it is almost over.”
“I am sorry that I have wasted (and still waste) so much time.”
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
Yeah, I’ve thought about reading Proust too. His books are just so long though! Alain de Botton however, brings out the practicality, usefulness and wisdom of Proust, and he does so in about 1.2 million less words than In Search of Lost Time.
I’ll still get to it eventually, but you and I would do well to start here with this little volume. In attending to the everyday, Proust and de Botton are really examining the most important things we’ll ever attend to in our entire lives.
From My Notes:
Simple recognition of our inevitable demise doesn’t guarantee that we’ll latch on to any sensible answers about what we should do with our lives.”
“In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself.”
“An effect of reading a book which has devoted attention to noticing such faint yet vital tremors is that once we’ve put the volume down and resumed our own life, we may attend to precisely the things the author would have responded to had he or she been in our company. Our mind will be like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness; the effect will be like bringing a radio into a room that we had thought silent, and realizing that the silence only existed at a particular frequency and that all along we in fact shared the room with waves of sound coming in from a Ukrainian station or the nighttime chatter of a minicab firm. Our attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend, or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about. The book will have sensitized us, stimulated our dormant antennae by evidence of its own developed sensitivity.”
“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.”
“There are two methods by which a person may acquire wisdom, painlessly through a teacher, or painfully via life.”
“Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.”
“A precondition of being knowledgeable may be a resignation and accommodation to the extent of ones ignorance.”
“There seems a gap between what others need to hear from us in order to trust that we like them, and the extent of the negative thoughts we know we can feel toward them and STILL like them.”
“There are of course superior people at large in the world but it’s simplistic to assume that they can be easily located based on their last name or their wealth.”
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut
A sought-after commencement speaker as well as an American literary icon, Kurt Vonnegut traveled all over the country to speak to graduating college students about what was really important in life.
In this collection of speeches, he urges, pleads, with young people (and all of us) to notice the good things in life, to be kind to one another, and to constantly be jumping off cliffs, developing wings on the way down.
From My Notes:
Stop, appreciate small things, and ask, “If this isn’t nice, what is?””
“There’s only one rule that I know of – goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
“Whenever my children complain to me about the state of the planet, I say “Shut up! I just got here myself!””
“We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.”
“It’s a terrible waste to be happy and not notice it.”
“There’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!”
“We must become a family in order to take care of one another in the way families do.”
“It’s worth it to be deeply wounded by some ideas in order for all of them to be expressed.”
“The good earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”
“You’re learning that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure – that the older people around you are worried, moody, goofy, human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So homes can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons.”
“Coarse language doesn’t hurt children. It didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”
In My Own Way by Alan Watts
You may have noticed that we at High Existence have a little thing for Alan Watts. And for good reason: he’s brilliant.
Watts taught us that life is nonsense, and that the secret is to just ‘dig the nonsense’.
Just as music is purposeless, there isn’t anywhere else we need to go, or anyone else we need to be.
We are something that the universe is “doing” in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing, and there is nothing, fundamentally, to be afraid of.
From My Notes:
You would not know that you exist unless you had once been dead.”
“There have been few people in my life who could be regarded as my enemies – so few that I have not mentioned them.”
“Do you suppose that God takes himself seriously?”
“Befriending an animal is a lot more difficult than hunting them.”
“The individual is the universal, and the moment eternity.”
“On the one hand I am a shameless egotist. But on the other hand I realize quite clearly that the ego named Alan Watts is an illusion, a social institution, a fabrication of words and symbols without the slightest substantial reality.”
“Real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.”
“How can I forgive anyone else if I don’t forgive myself?”
“Giving oneself up for dead, having nothing to lose, gives one the time, the energy, and the freedom to be concerned with how marvelously life can be lived.”
“I’m more of a physician than a minister, because I aim to get rid of my clients instead of to keep them. I insist that, after a while, people will have heard everything important that I have to say. Having received the message, they should hang up the phone.”
“At the time of our death, the universe will, supposedly, be going on as usual, but for each individual it will be as if it had never happened at all; and even that is saying too much, because there won’t be anyone for whom it never happened. All of a sudden it will strike you that this nothingness is the most potent, magical, basic, and reliable thing you ever thought of, and that the reason you can’t form the slightest idea of it is that it’s yourself.”
“Trying to figure out the meaning of the universe is like trying to explain music in words. You just have to listen to it, get with it, and go with it.”
Iron John by Robert Bly
One of the most excruciatingly boring debates today is about what it means to be a “man”. Give me a break!
But as much as I can’t stand listening to most people talk about it, growing up is real, and the struggle to become a responsible, adult individual (man or woman) is the fight of our lives.
Role models are crucially important, and initiation rites aren’t going anywhere, but at some point each adult needs to decide for himself or herself what kind of adult they want to become. This is a book about that choice, and it’s a vitally important one.
From My Notes:
We make the path by walking.”
“We cannot discover our genius until we have been wounded.”
“Some people make no distinction between the instinct for fierceness and the instinct for aggression.”
“We look into our own eyes with an intensity not present when we look out into the world.”
“Do not identify with either opposite but instead rejoice that they exist.”
“The artist accepts the suffering that this choice entails.”
“We live without knowledge of appropriate sacrifice and as a result, our sacrifices are unconscious, regressive, pointless, indiscriminate, self-destructive, and massive.”
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Any respectable book list worth its name will feature Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
In two parts, Frankl relates his experience losing nearly his entire family to the Nazi prison camp system, his analysis of what makes life meaningful, and the core tenets of logotherapy, which was his own psychoanalytical method.
Viktor Frankl labored in three different Nazi concentration camps during World War II and emerged with the long-suffering understanding that the last of the human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s own attitude in any situation.
From My Notes:
It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life purposeful and meaningful.”
“Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
“Even in suffering, each man is unique and alone in the universe.”
“What you have experienced, no power on earth may take from you.”
“The hopelessness of our struggle does not detract from its dignity or meaning.”
“No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
“No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”
“Losing someone you love spares them from losing you.”
“A life whose meaning comes from simply surviving isn’t worth living at all.”
“A meaningful life can and should include all of your sufferings.”
“Man does not simply exist, but also decides what he will become in the next moment.”
“Man is the being who created the gas chambers, but man is also the being who entered those gas chambers upright, the [Jewish prayer] on their lips.”
“The final meaning of one’s life is only determined at the moment of death and every moment leading up to it must be actualized to its full potential.”
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is a philosophy that is mainly concerned with separating what one can control from that which one cannot control, and Marcus Aurelius was one of its most famous practitioners.
As Roman Emperor, he had to deal with a civil war, marital distress and unfaithfulness, failing health, and barbarian invasions from the north.
His personal notebook, published posthumously as the Meditations serves as a reminder to all of us that the only rewards of our existence here is an unstained character and selfless acts, and that the only thing that isn’t worthless is to live out this life truly and rightly; and to be patient with those who don’t.
From My Notes:
At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
“Don’t ever forget what proportion of the world you make up.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say, and think.”
“Say nothing untrue and do nothing unjust.”
“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul.”
“Is it your reputation that is bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.”
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
“What stands in the way becomes the way.”
“Why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!”
“Resolve to live up to your own expectations.”
“Our business is with things that really matter.”
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. Just try and escape your own.”
“Before long you’ll be no one, nowhere.”
“Ask what is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.”
“To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice. It degrades you.”
“You can also commit injustice by doing nothing.”
“Is a world without pain possible? Then don’t ask the impossible.”
“As an antidote to battle unkindness we were given kindness.”
“We all love ourselves more than others, but care about their opinions more than our own.”
Models by Mark Manson
A dating book on the same list as Meditations and Walden?!?! Yes. Yes, it is.
This isn’t a book about “tricking women into sleeping with you”; it’s about fundamentally altering how you think about dating.
It’s written mostly for guys, but the reversal is the same: what if, instead of wondering if they’re going to like you, you wondered whether or not you were going to like THEM?
Manson espouses the ideal of non-neediness in relations with women, and puts forward the (strangely radical) idea that perhaps you should focus on putting together the kind of life for yourself that enables you to self-select for the type of woman you actually want to date.
From My Notes:
Learning techniques without doing genuine, identity-level work in order to permanently decrease your neediness will only be a band-aid solution”
“The psychological health of the women you date is a reflection of your own emotional security.”
“The perfect balance is to have respect for yourself and respect for women.”
“The truth is always shining through.”
“The most attractive thing in the world is someone who genuinely likes you.”
“Invest in and care about yourself more than others, but in the positive sense of that statement.”
“Non-neediness means that you respect yourself AND others.”
“Establish extremely clear boundaries about what you will and will not accept from women and people in general.”
“You are going to be incompatible with most women and this is just an annoying fact of life.”
“When you have self-respect and higher standards, you won’t want to be around a woman who doesn’t appreciate you, and who you don’t actually like.”
“We live in a world where it’s actually OK to just walk over to another person and speak to them.”
“Be more invested in your opinion of yourself than in others’ opinions of you.”
“Women who are only interested in money don’t usually have much else going for them, and so you’re probably not missing out on much.”
“Women don’t spend so much time on their appearance, go out to bars, and join dating sites etc just because they love to reject guys. They do actually want to meet men they like.”
“Women want you to be the one, the guy who’s not like all the rest and who she won’t have to reject like all the others.”
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Written when he was in the last stages of his fight with cancer, a fight that he would eventually lose, Mortality is gallows humor, but also a sincere investigation into how one should conduct themselves in their last days, as well as Hitchens’ own attempt to steel himself in the face of death.
Funny and honest, it’s all the more poignant because he never got to finish it. The last few chapters consist of incomplete paragraphs and single-sentence notes that one can imagine were prompts in order to think about what he wanted to say next.
From My Notes:
To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply ‘Why not?'”
“The darkness is an old friend.”
“What if I pull through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.”
“The man who prays is the one that thinks God has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct God on how to put things right.”
Horace Mann: “Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.”
“The thing about stage four is that there is no stage five.”
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Nausea is one of the greatest existential novels of all time.
Antoine Roquentin, the “hero”, is horrified at his own existence. He’s just “in the way” and there’s nothing except pure “existence” all around him.
It’s a dramatization of Sartre’s philosophy, that we are, each of us, condemned to be free. We bear complete and total personal responsibility for our actions and there is no safety or refuge to be found anywhere or at any time.
To live in the world takes existential courage, indeed it’s my highest value, and Nausea makes this terrifying philosophical system come alive.
From My Notes:
You must choose between living and telling stories about living.”
“You must claim your right to exist.”
“Each of us exist while having no reason to be here, vaguely alarmed, embarrassed at ourselves, feeling in the way in relation to the others.”
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”
“Nothingness was just the existence before existence.”
“To do something is to create existence, and there is quite enough existence as it is.”
“To be free to do anything is to be unable to do anything.”
“You choose someone to love by choosing millions of people not to love.”
Night by Elie Weisel
This is another of the great “Holocaust memoir” books, and Elie Wiesel is a Nobel Peace Prize winner for very good reason.
He was an Auschwitz survivor and political activist and Night is probably one of the strongest motivating forces behind my own work in the public sphere.
He taught me that there is important work to be done, and we can’t remain passive and self-interested when there is a higher calling for each and every one of us.
As he says, our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
From My Notes:
I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.”
“My eyes had opened, and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”
“They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the trigger, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure.”
“For a ration of bread I was able to exchange cots to be next to my father.”
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
All of the greatest books serve to inspire us to get down to the real business of living. We’re not meant to grind out our lives in meaningless drudgery and crushing solitude. We don’t have to stagnate in one place, spatially or temporally.
On the Road is about travel, the desperate craving for experience, and the ultimate freedom of the individual. It’s about two friends who have “nowhere to go but everywhere”, and it will wake you up. The road is life.
From My Notes:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing.”
“All I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.”
“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
“He could hardly get a word out, he was so excited with life.”
“But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?”
On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
Back in the Roman Empire, Seneca had wealth, power, esteem, friends…basically everything anyone could reasonably ask for. The end.
But wait…this famous Stoic was also engaged in a fierce personal battle against sloth, ignorance, and the inexorable advance of time.
He has proven to be a priceless fountain of wisdom (I wish someone would say that about me), and he’s no less readable for having written this book more than 2,000 years ago.
From My Notes:
A significant enough amount of time has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
“We are not given a short life but we make it short.”
“Why do we complain about Nature? She has acted kindly.”
“It is a small part of life that we really live.”
“People guard their possessions ferociously but waste their time like it was nothing.”
“When you take stock of all that you have wasted, you will learn that you are dying prematurely.”
“All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.”
“We can’t choose our parents but we can choose whose children we would like to be.”
“Life is very short and anxious for those who ignore the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”
“They lose the day waiting for the night and the night fearing the dawn.”
“No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by Her favors.”
“For how little have we lost, when the two finest things of all that will accompany us are universal nature and our individual virtue, which follow us wherever we go.”
“Provided I can keep my mind always directed upwards, what does it matter what ground I stand on?”
“Many people could have achieved wisdom if they had not imagined that they had already achieved it.”
“Often a very old man has no proof of his long life other than his age.”
“Claim the world as your country, that you may give your virtue a wider field for action.”
“No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us.”
“No condition is so bitter that a stable mind can’t find some consolation in it.”
“What look like towering heights are precipices.”
“You are a fool if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground.”
“You are wondering whether souls are immortal; I shall soon know.”
“Seek to learn not only up to the point of death but from the experience of death itself.”
Paradise Lost by John Milton
There’s so much to say about Paradise Lost, but one of the poem’s greatest merits is that it raises so many questions.
It’s a 10,000-line epic poem about the Fall of Adam and Eve, and Milton asks, rather sonorously I might add, why God would create a world so beautiful but only for so short a time, why humans need to live with an awareness of their own mortality, and why knowledge should be denied to humankind at all.
Equally amazing is that Milton dictated the entire thing after becoming totally blind in his old age. Even if you’re not a Christian or anything, this is an amazing read.
From My Notes:
The mind is its own place, and in it Self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
“O Shame to men! Devil with devil damned firm concord holds, men onely disagree of creatures rational, though under hope of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace, yet live in hatred, enmitie, and strife among themselves, and levie cruel wars, wasting the earth, each other to destroy: As if (which might induce us to accord) Man had not hellish foes anow besides, that day and night for his destruction wait.”
“Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.”
“Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”
“One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge called, Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidden? Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their lord envy them that? Can it be sin to know, can it be death? And do they onely stand by ignorance, is that their happy state, the proof of their obedience and their faith? O fair foundation laid whereon to build their ruin! Hence I will excite their minds with more desire to know and to reject envious commands, invented with design to keep them low whom knowledge might exalt equal with Gods.”
“Love thou saist leads up to heaven, is both the way and guide.”
“For what God, after better worse would build?”
“But what will not Ambition and Revenge descend to?”
“Justice divine mends not her slowest pace for prayers or cries.”
“Why is life given to be thus wrested from us?”
“Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou livest live well, how long or short permit to heaven.”
“Then wilt thou not be loath to leave this paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee.”
Practical Ethics by Peter Singer
The proper sphere of ethics is the real world. You’re probably never going to have to decide between pulling a lever and killing one person, or not pulling a lever and letting five people die (the famous “Trolley Problem”).
But at some point, you may have to decide whether your parent stays on life support, whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or think about how you should minimize your carbon footprint.
In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer offers up a thoroughly reasoned, moral response to real problems that real people face every day.
From My Notes:
Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’. But if the gods approve of some action, it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good.”
“Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right answers to moral questions.”
“Many people assume that anything natural is good. They are likely to think that if our moral intuitions are natural, we ought to follow them, but this would be a mistake. The word ‘nature’ either means everything that exists in the universe, including human beings and all they create, or it means the world as it would be, apart from human beings and what humans bring about. In the first sense, nothing that humans do can be ‘unnatural’. In the second sense, the claim that something humans do is ‘unnatural’ is no objection at all to doing it, for everything that we do is an interference with nature, and obviously much of that interference – like treating disease – is highly desirable.”
“Affirmative action only reinforces negative stereotypes that minority groups are unable to achieve success due to their own abilities.”
“If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration.”
“If the right to life is the right to continue existing as a distinct entity, then the desire relevant to possessing a right to life is the desire to continue existing as a distinct entity. But only a being who is capable of conceiving herself as a distinct entity existing over time – that is, only a person – could have this desire. Therefore, only a person could have a right to life.”
“Continued existence cannot be in the interests of a being who never has had the concept of a continuing self – that is, never has been able to conceive of itself as existing over time.”
“We can, and should, compare the lives of those who will exist with the lives of those who might have existed, if we had acted differently. If we change what we are doing now, those who will exist are going to be different people than those who would have existed had we done nothing differently.”
“Sometimes people are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions and although they may not be morally right, that is what they chose to do and we simply need to educate people to make the best decisions that they can.”
“If everyone with abundance were to contribute to the effort to reduce extreme poverty and all that goes with it, the amount each of us would need to give would be quite modest.”
“If 49% of the population can be wrong, so can 51%.”
“We will probably always need the sanctions of the law and social pressure to provide additional reasons against serious violations of ethical standards.”
Siddartha by Hermann Hesse
The Buddha is actually a character in this book, but it’s not really “about” him.
It’s about this other man, Siddhartha, and the story of the unfolding of his own life.
Just reading my description won’t be the same as letting this short book disrupt you, so I’ll just say, apothegmatically and enigmatically, that the world is complete in every moment.
Everything carries within it the potential for its opposite, and if you can’t think on two levels at once, you’re missing a huge part of the immense grandeur of earthly existence.
From My Notes:
There is nothing you know less about than yourself.”
“The natural world has always existed, regardless of whether you are paying attention.”
“The opposite of every truth is just as true.”
“The gap between good and evil is illusory and truth that can be put into words must necessarily be one-sided.”
“The world is not imperfect or on a slow path towards perfection; it is perfect in every moment.”
“Everything that exists is good.”
“The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it. -These, oh Govinda, are some of the thoughts which have come into my mind.”
Symposium by Plato
When a bunch of ancient Greek dudes get together to drink wine and talk about love, you should listen.
That’s actually a half-decent description of what’s going on in this Platonic dialogue, which features Socrates and a few of our other old favorites.
I was actually thinking recently that instead of the Platonic “Forms” being something metaphysical that human beings could never actually attain, what they might be representative of is our own potential for self-overcoming, and the highest good of which we are capable.
But who knows. Maybe you should read this book and come to your own conclusions.
From My Notes:
Love desires not only the good but also the everlasting possession of the good.”
“Socrates refuses to speak at all unless he is permitted to speak the truth.”
“An entire army made of lovers would be invincible.”
“People don’t know the true power of love, or else they would behave differently than they do.”
“He whom love touches not walks in darkness.”
“Think only of the ambition of men, and you will wonder at the senselessness of their ways, unless you consider how they are stirred by the love of an immortality of fame. They are ready to run all risks greater far than they would have run for their children, and to spend money and undergo any sort of toil, and even to die, for the sake of leaving behind them a name which shall be eternal.”
Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu
Written 2,500 years ago, the Tao Te Ching contains more practical wisdom in its 81 verses than most authors could achieve in 2,500 pages.
It’s the main text of Taoism, and it’s another book that would be worth reading every single year at least once.
I’m in no danger of becoming a Taoist per se, but the radical shifts in my thinking and behavior that this book has engendered has been nothing short of striking.
It’s possible for you to read it in an hour, but it’s my ardent belief that you could profitably study this book for your entire life.
From My Notes:
Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”
“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”
“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”
The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth
Some people arrive at the end of their lives with no proof of their years except their age, and yet some others seem to possess almost transcendent knowledge and experience.
Some of them are kindly old professors, and one of them is Bernard Roth.
He’s the co-founder of the Stanford d.School, and although I went in not knowing exactly what “design thinking” consisted of, through a series of stories and examples and experiments he was gracious enough to let me in on a few advanced secrets of old age.
You really get the feeling here in this book that he’s speaking directly to you, and he’s certainly earned the right to impart sage advice to the younger generations.
From My Notes:
Many of our fixed views of the world are based on limited samples of reality.”
“Pay attention to the difference between trying to do something and actually doing it.”
“If the consequences were really important to you, you would perform.”
“If you don’t like the way things are happening, do something different next time.”
“If someone goes to great lengths to prove that they are not a liar or a cheat, then they probably are.”
“Manifest a bias towards action and don’t be afraid of failure.”
“Always make sure that you are working on the real problem.”
“If you really don’t want to do it, the world might be nice enough to give you good reasons why it can’t be done. If you really want to do it though, those reasons are not going to stop you.”
“When you “help” someone it’s because they’re helpless, but when you “assist” someone, you’re working with them so they can do it on their own.”
“Imagine you only have the rest of your life to live. What would you do?”
“Your death is closer today than it was yesterday, and it will be closer still tomorrow.”
“Improving yourself will keep you busy until you die.”
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This book is so insanely popular that, on average, everyone has read it. Even if you haven’t read it, statistically, you have.
Maybe I exaggerate (slightly), but The Alchemist seems to affect people in an extremely powerful way, and I have to include myself among this number.
Ostensibly, it’s the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy who leaves home in search of treasure. He loses everything, falls in love, blah blah blah, but the magic here lies in Coelho’s acknowledgment of the power of personal destiny, and how we create it for ourselves, or fail to do so.
From My Notes:
Those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and will accompany us as we give up everything for our dreams.”
“Each day, each hour is part of the good fight.”
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
“Everybody seems to know how other people should lead their lives, but no idea about how to live their own.”
“There is one great truth on this planet: Whoever you are and whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe.”
“When each day is the same, it’s because people don’t recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”
“When you can’t go back, you can only think about the best way of moving forward.”
“The universe needs no explanation as it moves through endless time.”
“Every day is here to be lived or to mark our departure from the world.”
“When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell people about them, seldom are you believed.”
“Anyone who interferes with the personal legend of someone else will never discover his own.”
“The world we live in will become better or worse depending on whether we become better or worse. That’s where love comes in. Because when we love, we strive to become better than we are.”
The Art of Being by Erich Fromm
Whatever your feelings about it, you are in the world. Since none of us can escape our own eventual deaths, for all intents and purposes we are “all in”.
There’s nowhere for us to go, so we may as well develop our fullest capacity for being in the world.
Instead of this, however, Fromm saw that we often live superficially inside our constructed societies, afraid to get close to anyone, afraid to experience anything other than desire, suspicion and resentment.
There is however, a way out, and a path at the end of which one can confidently affirm that “I am what I am.”
From My Notes:
The overcoming of greed, illusions, hate, and the attainment of love and compassion are the conditions for attaining optimal being.”
“Get over the naive idea that you can learn in a single lifetime what the great masters of living have learned over thousands of years.”
“One can hardly overestimate people’s need to talk about themselves and be listened to.”
“There is no contact between human beings that does not affect both of them.”
“A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet “for sale”, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity. He cannot help suffering, even though he can experience moments of joy and clarity that are absent in the life of his “normal” contemporaries. Not rarely will he suffer from a neurosis that results from the situation of a sane man living in an insane society, rather than that of the more conventional neurosis of a sick man trying to adapt himself to a sick society. In the process of going further in his analysis, i.e., of growing to greater independence and productivity, his neurotic symptoms will cure themselves. In the last analysis, all forms of neuroses are indications of the failure to solve the problem of living adequately.”
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
Imagine the focus and intense dedication necessary to become the world champion in something.
Josh Waitzkin has done this in TWO separate sports, Tai Chi and Chess, and this is his manual for “learning how to learn”.
Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is a major theme here, as I’m just learning how to do in my own life.
I can tell you that it makes all the difference to whether you stagnate or move ahead. But that’s not all that the lessons in this book boil down to. Take notes on this one, and revisit them often.
From My Notes:
Growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”
“You study the technical aspects of an art until you integrate them into your intuition and you no longer have to think about them.”
“Avoid making the same mistake twice and you will progress more rapidly than ever.”
“Never expect the rest of the world to understand what it takes to become the best that you can become.”
“Practice being willing to put yourself on the line as a way of life.”
“Depth of knowledge with respect to a basic skill set beats a superficial knowledge of many techniques every time.”
“If you want to be the best, you have to take risks that others would avoid.”
“When people expose a weakness of yours, they are doing you a favor.”
“Discover which emotion results in your greatest inspiration and then create the conditions for its arrival.”
“There is more than one solution to virtually every meaningful problem.”
“Once you learn what good feels like, then you can take that feeling and use it as a measure with respect to other skills.”
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm
The most popular of Erich Fromm’s dozens of books, The Art of Loving has sold over 25,000,000 copies worldwide.
He contends (accurately, I think) that people usually focus more on being loved, rather than loving, and that love is the only rational answer to the problem of human existence.
I would respond that perhaps love is the most “productive” answer to that same problem, but Fromm is certainly right in that most people rarely think that they need to learn anything about how to love.
This is a relatively short volume, but it’s packed full of brilliant psychological insights and I would recommend it to everyone on earth.
From My Notes:
There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, yet which fails so regularly, as love.”
“Mastery of any art proceeds from the deeming of it as important, above all else.”
“Part of the reason people fail so often at love is that they view many other things as more important.”
“Man is born against his will, and dies against his will.”
“The facticity of existence becomes an unbearable prison when confronted with the death of loved ones, one’s own aloneness, and the realities of nature and everyday life.”
“The deepest need of man, then, is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”
“Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which you love.”
“If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of humanity, his love is not love, but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.”
“If I truly love one person, I love all persons, I love the world, I love life.”
“Modern capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly, and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.”
“Any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.”
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson
Interestingly enough, Dr. King never actually wrote an autobiography. Rather, this is a collection of his notes and lectures and speeches, compiled and arrayed in autobiographical form by Clayborne Carson.
It’s masterfully done, and Carson tried to connect everything using Dr. King’s tone and voice, which I believe was done to great effect.
Through Carson, Dr. King taught me that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
From My Notes:
It is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it.”
“Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”
“We must not go back on the buses and push people around unnecessarily, boasting of our rights. We must simply sit where there is a vacant seat.”
“No one is an outsider when he goes to any community to aid the cause of freedom and justice.”
“Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.”
“The choice now is between nonviolence and nonexistence.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
This is probably one of the most important books on this list, although the first few chapters made me feel physically sick.
It concerns the history and eventual decline of human violence, and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker spares nothing in the way of graphic detail.
His thesis is that this is the safest and least violent time ever in human history, and he has the charts and graphs to back it up.
Get past the first few chapters and you’ll see that there is hope for civilization and that we’ve been working towards peace for thousands of years.
From My Notes:
Part of the bargain of being alive is taking the chance of dying a premature or painful death.”
“6 billion people died in the 20th century and only 0.7 percent were battle deaths.”
“Only .008 percent of Americans who died in 2005 were victims of violence.”
“Most of what we conceive of as crime is justice in the eyes of the perpetrator.”
“Violence is often a reproductive competitive advantage.”
“There is an optimum incarceration rate but America is unlikely to find it, especially in a system where judges are elected and anyone who says that too many people are in jail will be accused of being soft on crime.”
“We owe our long peace to the belittlement of war, the spread of democracy, the expansion of commerce, and the emergence of international organizations.”
“As time passes, anyone not old enough to remember things like slavery and smoking inside offices usually consider them unthinkable.”
“People force a despised minority to live in squalor, which makes them seem animalistic and subhuman, which encourages the dominant group to mistreat them further, which degrades them still further, removing any tug on the consciousness of the oppressor.”
“Reading is a technology for perspective-taking, and once another person’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world through that person’s eyes. As such, reading may have been one of many catalysts for the humanitarian revolution.”
“Of the 21 worst things that people have ever done to each other, 14 were in centuries before the 20th.”
“Great powers account for most of the war deaths and the percentage of time they spent fighting each other has trended downwards.”
“Religious fervor can induce more casualties because people can see themselves as doing the work of God. Religious wars are also unlikely to end in negotiation because such acts can be seen as heresy and treason.”
“Almost as many people drown in bathtubs every year than have been killed by terrorist attacks since 1969.”
“For every moral advance in history, there have been social commentators who insist that we have never had it so bad.”
“Today, if you wanted to have your child abducted and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave them outside and unattended for 750,000 years.”
“A society can be taken over by a belief system that the majority of its citizens do not hold individually.”
“To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness.”
The Bhagavad Gita by Vyasa
Just like the fact that you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate Paradise Lost, you definitely don’t need to be a Hindu in order to be transformed by The Bhagavad Gita.
It’s one of the masterpieces of Sanskrit poetry, wherein the god Krishna appears to a warrior named Arjuna and reveals that the real battle is an internal battle that must be fought no matter what.
It’s beautifully written and pleasing to the ear, and it’s a book that has, over the course of time, dispensed invaluable guidance to untold millions.
From My Notes:
It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
“Hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.”
“Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.”
“I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“He is the source of light in all luminous objects. He is beyond the darkness of matter and is unmanifested. He is knowledge, He is the object of knowledge, and He is the goal of knowledge. He is situated in everyone’s heart.”
“Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.”
“The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There was never a time when you and I and all the kings gathered here have not existed and nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist.”
“Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion.”
“We behold what we are, and we are what we behold.”
The Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker
This is a really cool book because it kind of foreshadows Ernest Becker’s future thinking and the working out of the ideas presented in his masterwork, The Denial of Death, for which he would posthumously be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
He explains how people can become so identified with what they have, or what they “belong to”, that they develop neuroses which have subsequently caused the deaths of hundreds of millions.
Also fascinating (really) are his explanations of what is really going on when two people talk to each other. In fact, my description doesn’t do justice to how profound this book actually is.
From My Notes:
The ability to withstand anxiety is probably the only genuine heroism given to man.”
“If you really want to understand someone, ask him what his framework of reference for heroism looks like or why he doesn’t feel like a hero in his own life.”
“Culture is a structure of rules, ideas, and customs which serves as a vehicle for heroism.”
“At stake during each social encounter is the positive self image that each person has laboriously crafted for himself.”
“Society is beginning to crumble around an archaic commercial-military hero-system, unrelated to the needs and challenges of contemporary life. But to turn the hero-system around to one of peace, social service, the reconstruction of society, seems beyond the imagination and capability of the people.”
“The last thing that man can admit to himself is that his way of life is arbitrary.”
“The problem of despair can be met only in one way: by being a cosmic hero, by making a secure contribution to world-life even though one may die.”
“The only way that man could securely know that he was a hero would be if he really knew what was going on in evolution on this planet and in the cosmos. If he knew for sure how things were supposed to come out and where his part fit into the outcome, then he could relax and accept death because his life would be lived in the Truth of Creation. But this is precisely what he cannot know, can never know. And so the bitter defensiveness of his fictions, the desperation of his pretense of certainty that his cultural hero-system is the true one.”
“If a person admitted this utter lack of control, that death lurks at every breath, and let it rise to consciousness, it would drive him to fear and trembling, to the brink of madness.”
“Comfortable illusion is now a danger to human survival.”
The Book by Alan Watts
You’ve gotta have something pretty important to say if you just call your book “The Book”.
Here, Alan Watts discusses the fundamental nature of reality with grace and wit, along with an indefatigable curiosity that turns out to be quite infectious.
He explains how we don’t come “into” the world, but instead come “out” of it, and how, in trying to beat “evil”, we are trying to get rid of the valleys and keep the mountains, which of course, is ridiculous, not to mention impossible.
From My Notes:
Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
“We are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself.”
“God has no shape because there isn’t any outside to him.”
“The Self always escapes inspection because it is always the inspector.”
“What moves, the galaxies or the space?”
“Death will always intimidate us unless we give ourselves up to its inevitability and stop trying to postpone it indefinitely or believe in some afterlife.”
“Life is not a constant struggle against death in the sense that one can overcome the other.”
“Our whole knowledge of the world is, in one sense, self-knowledge.”
“You can’t grasp the idea of unity with your mind because your mind is part of everything that exists.”
“We can no longer define ourselves as an in-group in relation to an out-group.”
“You are nothing at all apart from everything else.”
“You are both the leaf and the wind.”
“The world outside your skin is just as much ‘You’ as the world inside your skin.”
“The universe is meaningless in the sense that it doesn’t point to anything beyond itself.”
“You can never adequately describe the universe, because what is “everything”?”
“The universe cannot be understood, because understanding lies within the universe.”
“Nothing is left to you at this moment than to have a good laugh.”
The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
If the rest of philosophy is just a footnote to Plato, then much of contemporary thought can be seen as merely a footnote to Bertrand Russell.
One of the principal thinkers of analytic philosophy, he was also a Nobel laureate, a committed pacifist, and a passionate defender of human rights.
The Conquest of Happiness identifies the principal causes of unhappiness, and then dives into the principal causes of happiness.
It’s a “conquest” because the struggle for happiness can never be passive, but instead must be maintained vigorously for as long as one lives.
From My Notes:
Men are so unhappy that mutual extermination seems to them less dreadful than continued endurance of the light of day.”
“What is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are often so miserable?”
“Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.”
“The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and the mere absence of effort from one’s life removes an essential ingredient of happiness.”
“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
“The highest form of love is made possible by cooperation and is not available strictly to the individual.”
“What people fear when they engage in the struggle for what they call life, is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.”
“The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live.”
“We commonly expect everybody else to feel towards us that tender love and that profound respect which we feel towards ourselves.”
“To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.”
“The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has.”
“Without self-respect, genuine happiness is scarcely possible.”
“You are not an isolated individual but one of the great army of those who have led mankind towards a civilized existence.”
“In all likelihood, the future of humanity will be immeasurably longer than its past.”
“It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
In a world where so many claim to be “victims of oppression”, Stoicism is here to remind us that we can choose our attitudes and responses to the world around us.
We don’t have to be blown around by the winds of Fortune, but instead can choose to deal only with that which is under our own control. We can hammer away at the obstacles in our path until either they fall, or we do.
We can take our own lives back, and attain tranquility against all odds.
From My Notes:
The single most important practice in stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we cannot.”
“If a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?”
“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?”
“Alexander the Great was buried in the same ground as his mule driver.”
“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?”
“The two ways to be wealthy are to get everything you want, or to want everything you have.”
“No one who acquires wisdom, self-control, justice, or courage experiences remorse after having acquired them.”
“Nothing can make you a slave if you don’t desire anything.”
“The power of others often only exists because of our wants.”
“Don’t get upset. Do the right thing. That’s it.”
“Get active in your own rescue – if you care for yourself at all – and do it while you still can.”
“As a species, we fight to survive on a planet indifferent to our survival.”
“If doing good was easy, then everyone would do it.”
“Plato: “Every soul is deprived of truth against its will.”
“Wanting less is a shortcut to wealth.”
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
“Our power over our own mind and our power to make our own decisions can’t be broken – only relinquished.”
“Your mind is untouchable, and so, in a way, so are you.”
“There is no good for a human being except what creates justice, self-control, courage, and freedom, and nothing evil except what destroys these things.”
“The meaning of life is not our question to ask. Instead, it is we who are being asked the question, and it’s our life that is our answer.”
“Be good, and noble, and impressive now – while it still matters.”
“The person who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
“Our greatest asset at the moment of our eventual death is our calm and reasoned mind.”
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Welcome to one of the most thought-provoking and intellectually courageous books on this entire list.
As you might be able to tell, it’s one of my absolute favorites, and it’s about the subconscious fear of death.
Ernest Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, although it was awarded posthumously, after he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at age 42.
His magnum opus, The Denial of Death, deals with our individual and collective striving for symbolic immortality and our desperate struggle to become a cosmic hero in our own lives. Please, please, please give this book a second look!
From My Notes:
Man’s tragic destiny is that he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe.”
“Societies are cultural hero-systems created to fulfill each individual’s need for cosmic specialness.”
“Man not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now.”
“It is impossible to stand up to the terror of one’s condition without anxiety.”
“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
“Man is protected by the secure and limited alternatives his society offers him, and if he does not look up from his path he can live out his life with a certain dull security.”
“The urge to immortality is not a simple reflex of the death-anxiety but a reaching out by one’s whole being toward life.”
“The moral courage to confront the silence of the universe is a real manifestation of cosmic heroism.”
“Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching?”
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Brooks Atkinson
I find the writing style of Emerson to be difficult to follow at times, but it’s well worth the effort to read him.
Furthermore, I can’t imagine a completed education being achieved without having at least once been exposed to this great American transcendentalist.
Like Henry David Thoreau, he impresses upon us that this time, like all times, is very good if we know what to do with it.
From My Notes:
Every action and event of your life will eventually form the pool of your wisdom.”
“The scholar must sometimes endure solitude and ignorance of popular events and sometimes criticism and poverty. But he must know that his days are not wasted in search of truth.”
“The world is his who can see through its pretension.”
“The day is his who works in it with serenity and great aims.”
“The highest price you can pay for something is to beg for it.”
“A great man is always willing to be little.”
“We gain the strength of the temptations we resist.”
“With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.”
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
“Happy is the house that shelters a friend.”
“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
“Life wastes itself while we are preparing to live.”
“People wish to be settled. Only in so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
The Good Book by A.C. Grayling
Subtitled “A Humanist Bible”, this work of A.C. Grayling is nothing short of stupendous.
Structured just like the “real” Bible, and almost as long, Grayling draws from over 1,000 source texts and opens us up to the possibilities for wisdom, courage, justice and temperance that are available to all of us.
I have more than 10 pages of notes from this book, and it’s one that I will be returning to again and again over the course of my entire life.
From My Notes:
Every moment of the pursuit of truth rewards the pursuer’s pains.”
“For we live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths; and our time should be counted in the throbs of our hearts as we love and help, learn and strive, and make from our own talents whatever can increase the stock of the world’s good.”
“Aristotle: “He who says, I do not know, has already attained the half of all knowledge””
“Maybe the wise can make one lifetime into many, but the many make one lifetime into less.”
“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after millions of years of non-existence: He lives for a while, and then again comes an equally long period when he exists no more.”
“Philosophy speaks the truth, and people prefer illusions.”
“Yet to me, the thought of my dead friends is a consolation nevertheless. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still.”
“Death has taken away, but life has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. We have lost too much of their time while they were alive.”
“Renounce your grief by your own will, when you are ready.”
“We have, therefore, no reason to be prideful as if we were surrounded with things that belong to us; we have received them merely as a loan from time.”
“Remember the living, who need you still.”
“Accept the mortality of ourselves and those we love, and see that to give life is to prepare to lose it, to love is to prepare to grieve, and yet: love, and give life, and be full of courage and honour, for this is our human lot, and we must make it as fine as our powers allow.”
“It is foolish to be unhappy now just because you may be unhappy at a later time.”
“This is the final consolation: that we shall sleep at evening, and be free for ever.”
“When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honour are things to be ashamed of.”
“Come where there is idle laughter, where wine graces the feast: patience and wisdom are launched on a sea of tears and soon we must sleep without end.”
“Better build schoolrooms for the child than prisons for the adult.”
“Evil often triumphs but never conquers.”
“An evil life is a kind of death.”
“You are free at the moment you wish to be free.”
“Good people and bad people are both less so than they seem.”
“The wise seek wisdom, the fool has found it.”
“They live ill who are always beginning to live.”
“For we must live not just in the world but in the world of humankind; that is where we flourish or fail, that is where we can make our contribution to the good not just of ourselves but of our fellows, and well justify our place among them.”
“There are as many good lives as there are people to live them.”
“Bring it to pass that I will cease trying to escape from death, so that life may cease to escape from me.”
“But when all the answers to all the questions are summed together, no one hears less than this: Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try.”
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Every story you’ve ever been told has followed a similar structure.
This is what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey”, and this book is Campbell’s exploration of what this journey means in our own lives and in the history of our civilization.
Life is a slow initiation into what it means to be fully human, and there are commonalities that have existed across cultures and across time since the very earliest days of human societies.
The moment of death is our birth to eternity, but how we live today is our greatest concern. So let Joseph Campbell hand you the answer key to humanity’s inner narrative.
From My Notes:
The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls.”
“In the understanding of one who has transcended the pairs of opposites, this world is nirvana.”
“The returning hero can find it very difficult to live in the normal, waking world after having experienced his transformation and enlightenment.”
“Sometimes a fool, sometimes a sage, sometimes possessed of regal splendor; sometimes wandering, sometimes as motionless as a python, sometimes wearing a benignant expression; sometimes honored, sometimes insulted, sometimes unknown – thus lives the man of realization, ever happy with supreme bliss. Just as an actor is always a man, whether he puts on the costume of his role or lays it aside, so is the perfect knower of the Imperishable always the Imperishable, and nothing else.”
“Through myths, symbolic expression is given to the unconscious desires, fears, and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behavior.”
“The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to co-ordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions.”
“Truth is one; the sages call it by many names.”
“The ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.”
“The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live”, Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal – carries the cross of the redeemer – not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon university and this is the book form of his famous “Last Lecture”, given before his death from pancreatic cancer at age 47.
It expands on the themes of his famous talk, but it also let him say a lot of things he didn’t have time to say during his short time on that final stage.
Personally, existential courage is my highest virtue, and Randy Pausch had it. This is the final memoir of an exciting, excited man who wanted to show us all that it’s not too late, but someday it will be.
From My Notes:
Many would expect the talk to be about dying. But it had to be about living.”
“If you work hard enough, there will be things you can do tomorrow that you can’t do today.”
“The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
“Whatever news we get about the scans, I’m not going to die when we hear it. I won’t die the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. So today, right now, well this is a wonderful day.”
“It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to be a father to children over age six.”
“Go out and do for others what somebody did for you.”
“I’m aware that Chloe may not have any memory of me at all. She’s too young. But I want her to grow up knowing that I was the first man ever to fall in love with her.”
“In a sense, the last lecture gave me the chance to ‘leave the field under my own power.'”
The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer
Peter Singer appears elsewhere on this list, and his influence on my own thinking has been nothing less than substantial.
Intensely moral and caring, Singer’s work is all about making each of us realize how much power we actually have over the lives and happiness of others.
The Life You Can Save details how little we actually have to give up in order to save lives in the developing world, as well as several of the psychological blocks that often prevent us from doing so.
From My Notes:
If you are paying for something to drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have money to spend on things you don’t really need.”
“That millions of children under the age of five die each and every year is a moral stain on a world as rich as this one.”
“If it is so easy to help people in real need through no fault of their own, and yet we fail to do so, aren’t we doing something wrong?”
“While thousands of children die each day, we spend money on things we take for granted and would hardly notice if they were not there.”
“The good that you do for a specific person is not lessened by the fact that there are many more needy people you cannot help.”
“We are living in the midst of an emergency in which 27,000 children die from avoidable causes every single day.”
“With our choices, we are saying whether we believe our comfort is more important than whether other people live or die.”
“We should praise people for what they actually do, instead of blaming them for not doing more.”
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
“Speaking of existential courage, here we have one of the most famous philosophical inquiries into the meaning of struggle and the opportunities for heroism in the face of death ever produced.
Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature, was featured on magazine covers, worked for the French underground during World War II and fought off a multitude of female admirers.
This is the work of a man who stared into the abyss of death, acknowledged the absurdity of human existence, and yet ultimately, proclaimed himself happy.
From My Notes:
The absurd is not within man or within the universe, but arises from their confrontation.”
“What, in fact, is the absurd man? He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal. Not that nostalgia is foreign to him. But he prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”
“What comes after death is futile, and what a long succession of days for whoever knows how to be alive!”
“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.”
“There is a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity.”
“If the world were clear, art would not exist.”
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
“At that subtle moment when man glances over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling. I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
“If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
“In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
“There is thus a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honour most in this world.”
The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley
One of the most dangerous ideas ever adopted by human beings is that God is somehow “outside” of them, independent of Nature and themselves, organizing their lives and caring about what they do.
But the wisest of the wise in all the various wisdom traditions have maintained what Huxley calls “The Perennial Philosophy”: that we are, each of us, a part of the whole, responsible to one another, and intimately connected with everything else that exists.
This book is his erudite examination of that philosophy across time.
From My Notes:
The last end of every human being is to find out Who he really is.”
“It is only by becoming Godlike that we can know God – and to become Godlike is to identify ourselves with the divine element which in fact constitutes our essential nature, but of which, in our mainly voluntary ignorance, we choose to remain unaware.”
“Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as celestial joys; having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you can never enjoy the world. Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all ages as with your walk and table; till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made; till you love men so as to desire their happiness with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all; you never enjoy the world.”
“As long as I am this or that, or have this or that, I am not all things, and I have not all things.”
“Everything is ours, provided that we regard nothing as our property.”
“How shall I grasp it? Do not grasp it. That which remains when there is no more grasping is the self.”
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Nine million copies of this book have been sold, and that’s just counting the American editions since 1923 when it was first published.
I would put it right up there, poetically, with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, although it’s not nearly as long and detailed as Milton’s epic.
Instead, there are 28 short chapters on everything from joy and sorrow, freedom, love, crime and punishment, friendship, good and evil, beauty, religion, and death.
Add this to the list of books that I will end up reading again and again for many years to come.
From My Notes:
How often have you sailed in my dreams. And now you come in my awakening, which is my deeper dream.”
“And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
“Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.”
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
“A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me.”
The Republic by Plato
Much-criticized, much-discussed, much-admired, The Republic stands as one of the foundational texts of Western civilization. You do yourself a disservice by not becoming familiar with it.
If nothing else, you will be forced to answer the question of whether virtue is a worthy aim in its own right, and whether the unjust individual can ever be truly happy.
Plato has also convinced me that no one remains deprived of truth against their will.
From My Notes:
Virtue is the health and beauty and well-being of the soul, and vice the disease and weakness and deformity of the same.”
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils – nor the human race, as I believe – and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”
“The state in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed.”
“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”
“As the government is, such will be the man.”
“Wherefore my counsel is, that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.”
The Revolution From Within by Jiddu Krishnamurti
This book is a collection of talks that the great Krishnamurti gave throughout the 1950s.
Interestingly, I’m calling him “great”, and people had proclaimed him to be the leader of a new spiritual movement that was supposed to “lead us to salvation”, but Krishnamurti categorically rejected all this.
He didn’t want to be a “savior” or a “guru” or any of those ridiculous distinctions that society sometimes hands out; rather, he was more interested in the transformation of the individual, really observing what’s going on in this world, and discovering how we can get closer to Truth.
From My Notes:
Trying to change society while leaving the individuals who constitute society unchanged is a dangerous error.”
“We cannot afford to be “ordinary” any longer; the challenge of the world is too great.”
“We are the world, and we are not on the sidelines.”
“If we take this journey together, and simply observe as we go along the extraordinary width and depth and beauty of life, then out of this observation may come a love…which is a state of being free of all demand…and we may perhaps be awakened to something far more significant than the boredom and frustration, the emptiness and despair of our daily lives.”
“When you realize that you do not know, then you are beginning to find out.”
“Freedom is not at the end; it is at the very beginning.”
“If one really learns how to listen, then everything is a revelation.”
“It’s very difficult to admit to oneself that you are confused, and we are all confused.”
“So long as there is the idea of the “me” of the “I”, then there must necessarily be loneliness.”
“It may be that we do not know what living is, and that is why death seems to be such a terrible thing.”
“A mind that seeks peace will never find it.”
“Parents want their children to conform to meet the demands of their insane societies, but is that education?”
“Since our society is not at all what it should be, why encourage our children to stay within its destructive pattern?”
“When violent, the mind has an ideal of non-violence which is over there in the distance. It will take time to achieve that state, and in the meantime the mind can continue to be violent.”
“Most of us are so eager to reform others and so little concerned with the transformation of ourselves.”
“The mind is not different than its thoughts. Remove the thoughts and there is no mind.”
“The immeasurable cannot come to a mind that knows measurement.”
“Fundamental change has to be a total transformation, and anything less than that is a simple modification.”
“The right question has no answer.”
“Sirs, life is something extraordinary, if you observe it. Life is not merely this stupid little quarreling among ourselves, this dividing up of mankind into nations, races, classes; it is not just the contradiction and misery of our daily existence. Life is wide, limitless, it is that state of love which is beauty; life is sorrow and this tremendous sense of joy. But our joys and sorrows are so small, and from that shallowness of mind we ask questions and find answers. So the problem is, surely, to free the mind totally, so that it is in a state of awareness which has no border, no frontier. And how is the mind to discover that state? How is it to come to that freedom?”
The Sane Society by Erich Fromm
It is not a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society. But whereas a worrying number of intellectuals seem to want to tear down Western civilization completely and start over, Erich Fromm insists that humanity is worth saving, and that we must build on the progress we have already made.
This was the first of his books that I ever read, and it was like a devastating right hook to my previous conceptions of what a modern society could be like.
From My Notes:
We commonly presume that we as a society are sane.”
“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make those vices into virtues.”
“Today we come across a person who acts and feels like an automaton; who never experiences anything which is really his; who experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; whose artificial smile has replaced genuine laughter; whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech; whose dulled despair has taken the place of genuine pain.”
“A sane society is that which corresponds to the needs of man.”
“The will to destroy must arise when the will to create cannot be satisfied.”
“The person who has not freed himself from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being; his capacity for love and reason are crippled; he does not experience himself nor his fellow man in their own – and his own – human reality.”
“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation.”
“Only when man succeeds in developing his reason and love further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have found a new, human form of rootedness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home.”
“What clearer example could there be of the separation between private and public existence than the fact that the same man who would not think of spending one hundred dollars to relieve the need of a stranger does not hesitate to risk his life to save this same stranger when they happen to be wearing the same uniform.”
“If you ask a computer what it is, it would say “I’m a computer”. If you ask a person today what he is, he would likely say something similar, like a thing.”
“Human qualities like friendliness and kindness are turned into commodities for exchange on the marketplace.”
“Man can fulfill himself only if he remains in touch with the fundamental facts of his existence, if he can experience the exaltation of love and solidarity, as well as the tragic fact of his aloneness and of the fragmentary character of his existence.”
“The pleasure of listening to a concert cannot possibly be expressed in terms of money, but people ask whether it is worth the amount of money they paid to see it.”
“The questions of whether a life is “worth living” or if someone is a “success” or a “failure” makes life out to be a sort of enterprise which should show a profit.”
“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love, or the joy of breathing on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies?”
“Life is a unique gift and challenge, not to be measured in terms of anything else, and no sensible answer can be given to the question whether it is “worth living” because the question does not make any sense.”
“The contemporary system needs people who feel “happy”, who have no doubts, who have no conflicts, who are guided without the use of force.”
“The aim of life is to unfold man’s love and reason, and every other human activity has to be subordinated to this aim.”
“Conscience depends on nonconformity.”
“The aim of life is to live it intensely, to be fully born, to be fully awake. To emerge from the ideas of infantile grandiosity into the conviction of one’s real though limited strength; to be able to accept the paradox that every one of us is the most important thing there is in the universe – and at the same time not more important than a fly or a blade of grass. To be able to love life, and yet to accept death without terror; to tolerate uncertainty about the most important questions with which life confronts us – and yet to have faith in our thought and feeling, inasmuch as they are truly ours. To be able to be alone, and at the same time one with a loved person, with every brother on this earth, with all that is alive; to follow the voice of our conscience, the voice that calls us to ourselves, yet not to indulge in self hate when the voice of conscience was not loud enough to be heard and followed. The mentally healthy person is the person who lives by love, reason, and faith, who respects life, his own, and that of his fellow man.”
“Real patriotism is the recognition of our common humanity under one civilization.”
“Man is the end, and must never be used as the means.”
“The mentally healthy person is the productive and unalienated person; the person who relates himself to the world lovingly, and who uses his reason to grasp reality objectively; who experiences himself as a unique individual entity, and at the same time feels one with his fellow man; who is not subject to irrational authority, and accepts willingly the rational authority of conscience and reason; who is in the process of being born as long as he is alive, and considers the gift of life the most precious chance he has.”
“As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost.”
The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
This book changed my life. No joke. The basic idea here is that there are things, small things sometimes, that if you did them every single day, would add up to huge changes over time.
The catch is that while they are easy to do, they are also easy NOT to do, and therefore it’s easy to let your whole life slip by without making any sort of meaningful progress towards a worthy aim. For a self-help book, this one’s actually not bad.
From My Notes:
Don’t stop doing things after they start to work for you.”
“It’s not that you don’t know what to do, it’s that you stop doing those things.”
“Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.”
“The slight edge is always working in your life either for you or against you.”
“The things that create success in the long run don’t look like they’re having any impact at all in the short run.”
“The difference between success and failure isn’t dramatic.”
“What you do every day matters.”
“It takes far less discipline to keep yourself doing something that you’ve already started.”
The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
While it’s common that successful people who write books about success don’t actually know what made them successful, autobiographies of great moral leaders are always worth reading.
Like…THE Mahatma Gandhi wrote this book. Seriously, why would you skip it?
Here is a man who inspired hundreds of millions of people to give up violence and resentment and search within themselves for truth, patience, and humility. We all have something to learn from people like him and books like these.
From My Notes:
Let hundreds like me perish but let truth prevail.”
“Truth is the substance of all morality.”
“The salvation of the people depends upon themselves and upon their capacity for suffering and sacrifice.”
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
I’ll give Mark Manson credit: there are a higher number of good ideas in this book than times he says the word “fuck”. Well, it’s close anyway.
One major theme present throughout the book is that you need to start giving a fuck about a fewer number of things, and really commit yourself to something in particular. Or at least fewer things.
It’s also full of mental judo such as the fact that wanting a positive experience is actually a negative experience, while accepting a negative experience is actually a positive experience.
From My Notes:
Trying to be more or to have more makes you focus on what you lack, what you aren’t already, instead of what you already are.”
“Everything positive in life is won by surmounting the associated negative experience, such as becoming fit by subjecting yourself to brutal workouts.”
“Find something more important than your adversity to care about.”
“If you’re not in love with the process, then you won’t achieve the result.”
“Sometimes we want the reward and not the struggle, but life doesn’t work like that.”
“The people who love the struggles of their ascent are the ones who actually make it.”
“I used to believe that the brain was the most amazing organ in my body. Then I realized that it was my brain that was telling me this.”
“If someone is better than you at something, it’s likely that they’ve failed more times than you have.”
“If you don’t feel the pain of staying the same, to the extent that you are very conscious of the desire to change, then you never will.”
“You are going to die, and that’s because you are fortunate enough to have lived.”
The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
The title of this book refers not to personal, ego insecurity, but to the inevitability of change.
The message is that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.
Alan Watts explains this so beautifully in this book, and with his characteristic love of everything that is alive, he shows how the truth is revealed by removing things which stand in its light.
From My Notes:
To understand a problem is also to know how to solve it, and if you don’t know how to solve it, then you don’t understand the problem.”
“The question of finding security and peace of mind in an impermanent world shows that the problem has not been understood.”
“If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, then I want to be separate from life. Yet it is this very separation that makes me feel insecure.”
“I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces.”
“There is no safety, seeking it is painful, and when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.”
“Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that “I” cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life.”
“So long as there is a motive to become something, so long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no freedom.”
“Without thoughts, there are no things; there is just undefined reality.”
“Life is meaningless because it does not HAVE meaning, but instead it IS meaning.”
“The highest to which man can attain is wonder.”
The Worm at the Core by Sheldon Solomon
A devoted follower of the late, great, Ernest Becker, Sheldon Solomon explores the key tenets of Terror Management Theory, or the efforts of men and women everywhere to transcend their death anxiety by pursuing wealth, fame, achievement, or “symbolic immortality”.
He explains how we build culture and character in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death, and thus, offers us a way of identifying for ourselves how we can live more courageously in the world. Even if we know that we must someday perish.
From My Notes:
Since we’re constantly on the brink of realizing that our existence is precarious, we cling to our culture’s educational, governmental, and religious institutions to fortify our view that human life is uniquely significant and eternal.”
“Self-esteem enables each of us to believe that we are enduring, significant beings rather than material creatures destined to be obliterated.”
Cicero: “No one could ever meet death for his country without the hope of immortality”
“Efforts toward “collective immortality” like nationalism satisfy people’s aching need for heroic triumphs over death.”
“Recognizing the validity of other belief systems means unleashing the very terror and dread that our beliefs serve to suppress.”
“What better proof of the validity of our view of the world than for others to come around to our way of thinking?”
“For every individual, the whole complex business of living, this whole fascinating, agonizing, thrilling, boring, reassuring and frightening business, with all its moments of simple peace and complex turmoil, will someday, inescapably, end.”
The 50th Law by Robert Greene and 50 Cent
The feeling that you have nothing to lose brings you incredible power.
You may have already read The 48 Laws of Power, also by Robert Greene, which ended up becoming the number-one most-requested book in prison libraries throughout the US.
I have dozens of pages of notes from that book alone, and this time, he teams up with rapper 50 Cent to deliver The 50th Law: Have No Fear.
From My Notes:
Your fears are a kind of prison that confines you within a limited range of action.”
“Choose to confront your fears even if you don’t have to.”
“Our culture offers all sorts of crutches, but you need to avoid all of them.”
“If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring.”
“Every negative is a positive. That means that you can’t do anything to hurt me.”
“People will take from you what they can.”
“There are no shortcuts, and power that is lasting and real is built on deep knowledge that takes patience to acquire.”
“The higher your self-belief, the greater your power to transform reality.”
“From the moment we are born we carry our deaths inside us as a continual possibility.”
“There is no knowledge that is not power.”
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but this is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.
It’s endlessly complex, enigmatic, and just simply…devastating to everything I thought I once knew.
It challenges me every day (I LITERALLY think about this book every single day of my life) to go past where I thought my limits were, question every assumption that I have, and expend my whole being in pursuit of the highest good of which I am capable.
The only thing I have to lose are my chains.
From My Notes:
Man is something that is to be surpassed.”
“Remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.”
“I should only believe in a god that would know how to dance.”
“How couldst thou become new if thou have first not become ashes!”
“Let the value of everything be determined anew by you!”
“Dead are all the gods: Now do we desire the superman to live.”
“What would there be to create if there were gods?”
“How did I ever bear it? How did I survive and surmount such wounds? How did my soul rise again out of those sepulchres? Yea, something invulnerable, unburiable is within me, something that would rend rocks asunder: it is called MY WILL!”
“Before my highest mountain do I stand, and before my longest wandering: therefore must I first go deeper down than I ever ascended – deeper down into pain than I ever ascended, even into its darkest flood! So willeth my fate. Well! I am ready. Whence come the highest mountains? so did I once ask. Then did I learn that they come out of the sea.”
“Look at this gateway! It hath two faces. Two roads come together here: these hath no one yet gone to the end of. This long lane backwards: it continueth for an eternity. And that long lane forward – that is another eternity. They are antithetical to each other, these roads; they directly abut on one another: and it is here, at this gateway, that they come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: “This Moment””
“‘Was THAT life?’ Will I say unto death. ‘Well! Once more!'”
To Have or To Be? by Erich Fromm
The famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm here makes the distinction between the “having” orientation (of character), focused on possessions and status, and the “being” orientation, of being actively and passionately engaged with the world and one’s fellow human beings. It’s an important distinction.
In laying out the optimal conditions for the individual’s personal growth and happiness, Fromm recognizes and affirms that peace and greed are mutually exclusive.
From My Notes:
For the first time in history, the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.”
“What holds people back is the belief that they can’t walk by themselves without the crutches of their religions or possessions.”
“The human desire to experience union with others is rooted in the specific conditions of existence that characterize the human species and is one of the strongest motivators of human behavior.”
“If life is experienced as a possession, the fear is not of death, but of losing what we have.”
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss has been learning from the best of the best for decades. He’s humbly placed himself in the learner’s role for so long because he understands that that is often the most powerful place to be.
Yet, more than two million people receive his emails, and his podcasts have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. He’s no beginner.
In this mammoth book, which is worth every penny and minute spent to acquire it, he presents the life-advice of the best of the best of the best.
From Jamie Foxx to Maria Popova to Seth Godin, Tools of Titans features the highlights of his interviews and time spent with the supermen and superwomen of the world.
From My Notes:
If you were forced to achieve your 10-year goals in 6 months, how would you do it?”
“You need to become really good at suffering.”
“If the best in the world are all doing the same thing in order to get strong or improve, then why aren’t you?”
“If you ran into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you’ve been running into assholes all day, then you’re the asshole.”
“The secret is to show up, do the work, and go home.”
“You are going to spend far more time on the actual journey than with those all too brief moments of victory at the end.”
“Make one decision to reach your final goal, and relieve yourself of the distraction of making decisions all along the way about whether or not to keep going.”
“Anyone who has ever achieved anything really big isn’t necessarily that much different from you, and when they started, they were pretty much just like you.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you do consistently.”
“Being busy is a form of laziness because you’re not putting enough time into figuring out what’s really important.”
“Once you get enough bad ideas, some good ones have to show up.”
“The way you teach your kids to solve interesting problems is to give them interesting problems to solve. And then, don’t criticize them when they fail. Because kids aren’t stupid. If they get in trouble every time they try to solve an interesting problem, they’ll just go back to memorizing what’s in a textbook. I think that it’s a privilege to be able to look a trusting, energetic, smart 11-year old in the eye and tell him the truth. And what we can say to that 11-year old is: ‘I really don’t care how you did on your vocabulary test. I care about whether you have something to say.”
“To be something extraordinary, you have to either be the best at one specific thing, or enter the top 25% in two or more things.”
“The more we associate money with life, the more we convince ourselves that we are too poor to buy our freedom.”
“When you’re trying to go 10% bigger, you’re competing against everybody. But when you’re trying to go 10X bigger, you’re there by yourself.”
“You should spend 5% of your working time figuring out what you want to do, and in the course of an 80,000-hour career, that ends up being about 4,000 hours.”
“If someone came to me with a list of my problems, I’d be able to sort that person out very easily.”
Look backwards at yourself from the stars and think: “There’s that little tiny character there for a fragment of time worrying about X.”
“Honor those who seek the truth, beware of those who’ve found it.”
“You want to be famous to 2,000 or 3,000 people you handpick.”
“You can drop out of college, but make sure you drop into something.”
Naval Ravikant: “We go around desiring things all day and then wonder why we’re unhappy.”
“You’ve only got like 70 years out of the 50 billion or however long the universe is going to be around, and it’s really important not to spend it being unhappy.”
“People’s IQ seems to double when you give them responsibility and let them know that you trust them.”
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
“At least one of the people you make smile during the day is on the front lines with you, battling something similar or equally difficult.”
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom had a professor, Morrie Schwartz, and Morrie was near death. He was suffering from ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”, and everyone knew that he didn’t have much time left.
This is the story of Mitch’s weekly visits with his old professor, on Tuesdays, where they would discuss what’s really important in life.
I think about this book often, especially since it reminds me of one of my old professors and everything he’s done for me.
From My Notes:
Morrie gave all his students in the 1960s A’s so they couldn’t be drafted to fight in Vietnam.”
“Don’t trade your dream for a bigger paycheck.”
“You know that these great teachers and thinkers are right. So do something about it.”
“Love is the only rational act.”
“Everybody knows that they are going to die but no one really believes it.”
“Trying to show off for people “above” you or “below” you is pointless because they will either look down on you or envy you anyway.”
“Think of my voice and I’ll be there.”
“Death ends a life, but not a relationship.”
Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
I’m a writer. Whether I’m a professional writer, or an amateur writer is really up to me. “Turning Pro”, as Pressfield says, is free…but it’s not easy. It requires a fundamental shift in how you think about your work and how you approach your workday.
The passage from amateur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Just like an amateur, I copied and pasted that last sentence from the Amazon description, but it’s the harsh truth.
Being a professional has nothing to do with money. It’s about self-respect, diligence, patience, and the will to see your created vision in your mind and bring it forth into reality. That’s professionalism.
From My Notes:
It all starts with a decision.”
“The pain of being human is the condition of being suspended between two worlds and not being fully able to enter into either of them.”
“At the bottom, there is no one there but yourself.”
“Our lives are entirely up to us.”
“The professional says “One day at a time.””
“The professional acts in anticipation of inspiration.”
“The real enemies lie inside whereas the physical opponents are just stand-ins.”
“Professionals work over their heads.”
“The hero wanders, the hero suffers, and the hero returns to give his gift. You are that hero.”
Waking Up by Sam Harris
The controversial neuroscientist Sam Harris isn’t usually too kind when he’s discussing religion, but he certainly cares intensely about the flourishing of conscious individuals.
What he’s done here is offer a secular approach to getting in touch with your own mind, and discovering a little bit about what’s in there.
This is the only life of which we can be certain, says Harris, but it’s worth indulging our curiosity regarding what might be hidden in plain sight.
From My Notes:
We have a choice every moment of our lives to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer needlessly.”
“Everything you see and feel is an appearance in consciousness, and inseparable from consciousness itself.”
“Everything we do is to alter consciousness.”
“The only alternative to exploring our consciousness is to remain confused about the nature of our minds.”
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
In the mid-nineteenth century, the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau built his own house in the woods for just $800 worth of materials (adjusted for inflation), and lived there by himself for two whole years.
Walden is the story of his time in solitude, and his reflections on nature, and the irrationality of much of contemporary city life.
Quoted by many, read by far fewer, this book is one which I can honestly say I think about almost every single day of my life.
From My Notes:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“The true cost of anything is the amount of life you are required to exchange for it.”
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
“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.”
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
“The universe is wider than our views of it.”
“Direct your view inwards, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered.”
“I left the woods for the same reasons that I went there. It seemed to me that there are many more lives to be lived and I could spare no more time for this one.”
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
“The setting sun is reflected as brightly from the windows of the almshouse as from the rich man’s abode.”
“Superfluous wealth can buy only superfluities.”
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman
Great fiction is truth. Ostensibly, this is the story of how Dan Millman met a nighttime gas station attendant named Socrates who changed his life.
He’s taught that there are no ordinary moments, and that one ought to think less and feel more.
This is the kind of book that comes out of nowhere and gets you to realize things like the fact that everyone is from outer space, depending on your viewpoint. The overall message: the time is now, and the place is here!
From My Notes:
How do you know you haven’t been asleep your whole life?”
“You are ignorant of where the universe is, and therefore where you are.”
“You have even less time than you might imagine.”
“Once you make your choice, do it with all your spirit.”
“No need to worry – death is perfectly safe.”
“Death isn’t sad. What’s sad is that most people never really live at all.”
“The only thing you know absolutely is that you’re here, wherever here may be.”
“One day you’ll discover that death is not what you might imagine; but then, neither is life. Either may be wondrous, filled with change; or, if you do not awaken, both may turn out to be a considerable disappointment.”
“Be happy now, for no reason, or you never will be at all.”
“There is no need to search; achievement leads to nowhere. It makes no difference at all, so just be happy now! Love is the only reality of the world, because it is all One, you see. And the only laws are paradox, humor, and change. There is no problem, never was, and never will be. Release your struggle, let go of your mind, throw away your concerns, and relax into the world. No need to resist life; just do your best. Open your eyes and see that you are far more than you imagine. You are the world, you are the universe; you are yourself and everyone else, too! Wake up, regain your humor. Don’t worry, you are already free!”
Where Children Sleep by James Mollison
Where Children Sleep is an enlightening, often heartbreaking photojournalism essay wherein James Mollison profiles dozens of children around the world, and shows us where exactly they lay their heads each night.
One child in New York sleeps in a race-car bed, and another sleeps on a mattress in a field with his entire family.
Yet another has her possessions stored in a drawer at night at her orphanage, after which she sleeps on a mat on the floor.
Challenge yourself not to condemn the rich kids for being born into luxury, but instead, sympathize with the poorest of the poor.
From My Notes:
Indira says she doesn’t mind working in the quarry, but that she’d rather be playing. Her favorite food is noodles.”
“His home sits on a huge rubbish dumb. 5,000 other people live and work and pay rent there.”
“She was born in the refugee camp and has witnessed violence her entire life. Her brother killed himself and 21 Israelis in a suicide bombing attack.”
“This book is dedicated to our parents, who gave us wonderful childhoods.”
Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
The idea of the “adjacent possible” made this book come alive for me.
Think of it like exploring rooms in a mansion where each door opens into three other possible rooms that couldn’t have been accessed before.
It’s actually kind of how I feel about books: your knowledge actually DECREASES with each great book you read, because you now know a smaller percentage of what there IS to know.
This is just one of the powerful ideas expressed here in this book. Well worth your time.
From My Notes:
There is a mathematical elegance present in the universe.”
“Your own life is a huge web of adjacent possibles.”
“Your brain has orders of magnitude more connections than the internet.”
“Expose yourself to more ideas and you open yourself up to the adjacent possibles.”
“Two hunches together move an idea forward when sometimes just a single hunch does not.”
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at MIT and he’s been teaching meditation for decades to patients suffering from chronic pain and terminal ailments.
If you’re new to mindfulness or just want a different perspective on the practice, he’s the man you want to pay attention to.
Even if you’ve been practicing for a while, my guess is that he has something to say to you as well. This book deserves to be on this list not just because of his preeminence in the mindfulness community, but for his patient reworking of familiar concepts into flashes of brilliant insight.
From My Notes:
Our unexamined assumptions are not always true.”
“Mindfulness is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”
“Nothing else has to happen for this moment to be complete.”
“At its core, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient; just the universe rearranging itself.”
“What lies behind us and what lies in front of us are small matters compared to dwells within us.”
“We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”
“Who are you that is asking who you are?”
Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt
Finally, an engaging and intellectually honest investigation into why there is something rather than nothing.
Throughout, you can sense that Jim Holt actually wants to find an answer he can believe in, and he’s not going to settle for something that makes him “feel good”.
He’s looking for the reason he’s alive, a conscious being on this strange and miraculous earth.
This is the chronicle of his adventures discussing the question with some of humanity’s greatest minds, and I think that reading it is an excellent use of your brief time here on earth.
From My Notes:
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus, nothing is self-forbidding. Therefore, there must be something. QED.”
“Why is the strength of gravity in our universe determined by a number with the digits “6673”?”
“God cannot stand apart from nature because then each would limit the other’s being.”
“Even if we could imagine nothingness, we would still be left with the region from which everything has been emptied.”
“The question of why there is something rather than nothing presupposes that there must be some explanation for the existence of the world.”
“Why should nothingness be the default option?”
“The universe has always existed because it has existed at all points in time where time itself existed.”
“For every completely different interpretation of why there is something rather than nothing, there is a brilliant thinker who endorses it.”
“The extraordinary question of why there is something rather than nothing may have an extraordinary answer.”
“There are a multitude of cosmic possibilities, and one of them has to obtain, as a matter of logical necessity.”
“Maybe like a dog trying to understand an internal combustion engine, the human mind just isn’t powerful enough to understand the mystery of existence.”
1984 by George Orwell
It’s time for me wrap this list up, and I shall do so with one of the greatest and most timely dystopian novels ever written.
You can read it as entertainment, absolutely, but it’s also meant to be a warning. Because the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart, the potential that humans have to resort to totalitarianism will never disappear forever.
We must remember this as we recognize ourselves in Orwell’s horrifying description of a world where individuality and freedom are suppressed, governments assert total dominance, and the future was likened to a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
Hopefully, 1984 won’t always appear so timely.
From My Notes:
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
So there you have it! 80 of the greatest, most mind-bendingly awesome books that I’ve ever had the good fortune to stumble upon.
Now you have a choice: you can either let this post drown among the dozen or so other awesome articles you’ve bounced through today, or you can stop, pick a single book on this list that interests you, and figure out a way to get it into your hands.
It’s at this time that I wish to remind you that you literally BECOME what you think about all day long. What you think about all day BECOMES your life.
It follows, therefore, that whatever passes in front of your eyes each day changes you in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.
Everything you read or consume has an effect on you, positive or negative. The bad news is that you can’t always have total control over what you’re exposed to. The good news, however, is that you do have a SUBSTANTIAL level of control over what will influence the trajectory of your one and only life.
It could very well be that within the pages of one of these books contains a passage, a phrase, a hint, that will alter your personal destiny.
But not if you don’t take your own education into your own hands and crack open a book.
I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve opened a book and had the VERY FIRST SENTENCE radically alter my worldview. What that tells you is that when you read, you are always only seconds away from becoming a fundamentally different person. A stronger and wiser person.
Something is learned every time a book is opened; aren’t you the least bit curious about what that could mean for you?
All the best,