There is a famous conversation between Eisenhower and the Russian General Zhukov. Ike asked, how did you advance so quickly across those minefields without losing any of your tanks. Zhukov answered, I sent the Red Army in on foot first.
It’s a pretty ghastly image but a decent metaphor. Amazon has over 32 MILLION books for sale. Last year, more than 300,000 new ones were published. How do you know which ones are any good? Send someone in ahead of you.
I read a lot, or at least I try. In 2014, I read close to two hundred books and recommended a little over 60 on my reading list email. At the end of the year, I try to narrow them down to the three or four absolute best. People are busy, and most of us don’t have time to read as much as we like. There’s nothing wrong with that—what matters is that you make the time you can.
With that in mind, if you are looking to start 2015 off right or just read over the holiday break, here are some books you not only can’t go wrong with, they might just change your life.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
I was heartily recommend this book by Dr. Drew and since the last book he recommended changed my life as a young man, I did not hesitate. Now this is a tough book, a really tough book, but it is so amazing. People think of Adam Smith as being this ruthless economist who studied self-interest but this forgotten book reveals that he was a great moral and practical philosopher. It is clear to me that Smith was profoundly influenced by the Stoics and by the great classic thinkers of history. Intimidated? Well, good news! It turns out Penguin published a new book this year called How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts and it happens to be an eminently accessible access point into Theory of Moral Sentiments (it also has the same editor as my book, The Obstacle Is The Way, which I take great pride in). I hope you pick up this book and I hope its deep thoughts on the pursuit of fame, of money, and of course, his concept of the “indifferent spectator” to guide your actions, make you think as much as they did for me.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Wow, did you know that Moby Dick was based on a true story? There was a real whaling ship that was broken in half by an angry sperm whale. But it gets even more insane. The members of the crew escaped in three lifeboats, traveling thousands of miles at sea with little food and water until they slowly resorted to cannibalism (like drawing straws, killing and then eating the loser, cannibalism). Besides being an utterly unbelievable story, this book also gives a great history into the whaling industry and the cowboys/entrepreneurs who led it. Definitely recommend and I hope the movie, which Ron Howard is directing, does it justice. Another great narrative nonfiction out this year that I hope you’ll like is: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed and Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. Cheryl Strayed, also the author of Wild, was the anonymous columnist behind Dear Sugar until the publication of this book and boy are we lucky she was. This is not a random smattering of advice. This book contains some of the most cogent insights on life, pain, loss, love, success, youth that I have ever seen. (Here are some of my favs.) I won’t belabor the point: read this book. Thank me later. Anne Lamott’s book is ostensibly about the art of writing, but really it too is about life and how to tackle the problems, temptations and opportunities it throws at us.
Of course, I cannot stop at three (or four). I read both of Sam Sheridan’s books A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind this year and they are both spectacular. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. They are good. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was something I reread and cannot recommend highly enough. In terms of big biographies, Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, Eric Romm’s biography of Seneca Dying Every Day and Edmund Morris’ final biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Col. Roosevelt were engrossing and inspiring like great moral biographies are supposed to be. I also really, really loved Chuck C’s Alcoholic’s Anonymous-inspired classic, A New Pair of Glasses.
In 2013, compiling this list was easy and obvious. In 2012 and 2011, I knew exactly which books I wanted to feature. This year, fewer books towered above the others. And from what I can tell, only two were new releases published this year. That made compiling the list harder—but each one of these reads is worth your time. If you’re trying to read more, these are a good start.
Not only that, they are great opportunities to apply the notecard system—to do more than read, but really dig in and learn. I promise you’ll get more out of the upcoming year if you do.
Happy reading and feel free to make your own nominations!