When it comes to books, we often think that bigger is better. We want them to tackle big ideas, we want authors with big personalities, we want them to literally be big—to pack as many pages and sources and facts as possible. But as any avid, practical reader can tell you, this is silly. In fact, the most powerful books are often the shortest.
Which is why I wanted to put together a list of some of the shortest but potentially life changing books ever written. These are books that might just take a few hours or even minutes to read—but will stay with you far longer than that. Some are fiction, some are fact-based. Some are manifestos meant to inspire you to action, some are thoughtful essays meant to make you think. In every case, they are not just worth your time but worth the weight of many other ‘popular’, ‘important’ or ‘major’ books that other people might pressure you to read.
Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant
As his business and personal life imploded, Kamal Ravikant got up to give an extemporaneous speech at a conference called Renaissance Weekend. His talk—which was about loving yourself, going easy on oneself, being grateful for this brief bit of time we have on this planet—soon became a short book called Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It. That book which has since sold more than 100,000 copies has saved lives, healed relationships, inspired people to pick themselves up off the floor, and to ask themselves: If I loved myself, truly and deeply, what would I do?
The Flinch by Julien Smith
At the time that Julien Smith wrote this, he was just a writer. Today, he’s a massively successful entrepreneur whose company Breather has raised more than $20M. How? The concepts in this book probably had something to do with it. The book exhorts you to resist the temptation to look away—to flinch—from those uncomfortable situations that require you to be vulnerable, that require you to take big risks, the ones that most people rather avoid and never face. Don’t flinch––embrace them head on instead.
The Prince by Machiavelli
Machiavelli is one of those figures and writers who is tragically overrated and underrated at the same time. Unfortunately that means that many people who read him miss the point and other people avoid him and miss out altogether. It is a short book but take Machiavelli slow, and really read him. Because you’ll never see power the same way again. Also understand the man behind the book–not just as a masterful writer but a man who withstood heinous torture and exile with barely a whimper.
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
This book is not only short, a good half of it is more drawing instead of writing. Austin’s philosophy of ruthlessly stealing and remixing the greats might sound appalling at first but it is actually the essence of art. You learn by stealing, you become creative by stealing, you push yourself to be better by working with these materials. Austin is a fantastic artist, but most importantly he communicates the essence of writing and creating art better than anyone else I can think of. It is a manifesto for any young, creative person looking to make his mark. Pair up with Show Your Work which is also short and excellent.
Fragments by Heraclitus
This book is about a hundred pages. I probably marked 70 of them. The aphorisms are beautiful, and range from philosophic—”Applicants for wisdom, apply within”—to strategic—”Hungry livestock, though in sight of pasture, need the prod.” Heraclitus was quoted extensively by Marcus Aurelius and others, but most of his work is lost. This book is all we have—so you should have it. Other great books of aphorisms/fragments: The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus and Reflections by La Rochefoucauld.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Many people want to be artists, want to pursue some calling or creative endeavor. But most of them don’t. Why? The Resistance. Pressfield’s book is a singular study in the Resistance—the force that holds us back from creativity, from disciplined work, from being our best selves. This is a book I read before I start any major project (and often check in with during the most difficult or trying parts as well). It’s become a bible for artists for a reason. Because it works.
The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello
Coach Shaka Smart recommended this little book (and it’s a little book, probably the smallest I’ve ever read. It fits in your palm). But it’s an incredibly wise and helpful read. Written by a Catholic priest who’d lived in India, the book has this unusual convergence of eastern and western thought. In fact, the sheer number of great insights combined with its small size actually make reading and taking notes on it rather difficult. I folded so many pages the book hardly closes now. One of my favorite lines: “The question to ask is not ‘What’s wrong with this person?’ but ‘What does this irritation tell me about myself?’
The Dip by Seth Godin
Maybe the best book I’ve read on work/inspiration/creation since The War of Art. It’s only 70 pages and it looks like something someone would give as a joke gift, but it’s anything but. Godin talks frankly about quitting and pushing through–and when to do each. Quit when you’ll be mediocre, when the returns aren’t worth the investment, when you no longer think you’ll enjoy the ends. Stick when the dip is the obstacle that creates scarcity, when you’re simply bridging the gap between beginner’s luck and mastery.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi.
Widely held as a classic, this book is much more than a manifesto and manual on swordsmanship and martial arts (the original intention). It’s about the mindset, the discipline, and the perception necessary to win in life or death situations. As a swordsman, Musashi fought mostly by himself, for himself. His wisdom, therefore, is mostly internal. He tells you how to out-think and out-move your enemies. He tells you how to fend for yourself and live by a code. And isn’t that precisely what so many of us need help with every day?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Some adults in my life owe me a serious explanation as to why I was not read this as a kid. Anyway, Dr. Drew came to the rescue again and recommended it (also I was on his podcast recently, which you can listen to if you like). I particularly liked this line from the book: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Oh, and I liked: “Vain men never hear anything but praise.” Anyway, this is a great story that I want to learn more about (this article was a good start).
The Man Without a Country by Edward E. Hale
Patriotism is not a concept that gets a lot of love today. But this essay/book makes you think a little. Released in 1863 during the height of the Civil War, the plot’s simple: an innocent man caught up in Aaron Burr’s treasonous conspiracy stands trial for his actions. When asked to address the judge, he bitterly remarks that he wishes to be done with the United States forever. So the judge grants his wish as a punishment–he’s sentenced to live the rest of his life in a cabin aboard ships in the US Navy’s foreign fleet, and no sailor is to ever mention the US to him again. He dies many years later, an old man like Rip Van Winkle, unsure of the changing world around him. For those with some understanding of historical, you’ll enjoy the meta-fiction of it, for those that haven’t it is still a very good look into early America.
The Enchiridion by Epictetus
Epictetus’s “handbook” was picked up by everyone from James Stockdale to George Washington. Theodore Roosevelt took it with him on his travels. And for a good reason. It is a collection of lectures delivered by a former slave in Ancient Greece (which also inspired Marcus Aurelius) that as part of the Stoic tradition will help you cultivate a resilient core and prepare you for the vicissitudes of fate.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man is sent to a concentration camp and finds some way for good to come of it. Finds some way to turn it into the ultimate metaphor for life: that we have little control over our circumstances, complete control over our attitude, and our ability to make meaning out of the things which happen to us. I think constantly of his line about the man who asks, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer is that you don’t get to ask the question. Life is the one who asks and we must reply with our actions.
Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood by Elizabeth Wurtzel
When I was in college, I attended a lecture by Elizabeth Wurtzel and covered it for the school paper. I thought: How cool is it that this woman gets to write books for a living and is paid to travel around and talk to people? It struck me when I was reading her newest book, published by our friends here at Thought Catalog, that’s what I am lucky enough to do now. Ironically, it’s also what Wurtzel’s incisive, well researched and beautiful little book (manifesto) is about too. Why does America lead as a creative culture? What forces make that possible? What laws make that possible? I think you’ll like this book.
The Measure of My Daysby Florida Scott Maxwell
The daily notes of a strong but dying woman (born 1883, written in 1968) watching her life slowly leave her and wind to a close. The wisdom in this thing is amazing and the fact that most people have no idea exists–and basically wait until the end of their life to start thinking about all this is very sad to me. Also I love her generation–alive during the time of Wyatt Earp yet lived to see man land on the moon. What an insane period of history.
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
I’ve read Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and most of the other seminal slave narratives. I was probably most moved by this one, and most disappointed by the fact that you don’t see this book recommended as often. Especially because it’s the most accessible and self-improvement oriented. My version is now riddled with notes, on personal responsibility, on hard work, on race, on fairness, on advancing an agenda, on building an institution and on working with other people. This is a short read, but definitely packed full.
What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan.
There are lots of books on aspiring to something. Very little are from actual people who aspired, achieved, and lost it. With each and every successful move that he made, Jim Paul, who made it to Governor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was convinced that he was special, different, and exempt from the rules. Once the markets turned against his trades, he lost it all — his fortune, job, and reputation. That’s what makes this book a critical part in understanding how letting arrogance and pride get to your head is the beginning of your unraveling. Learn from stories like this instead of by your own trial and error. Think about that next time you believe you have it all figured out. (Tim Ferriss recently produced the audiobook version of this, which I recommend.)
Some Fruits Of Solitude: Wise Sayings on the Conduct of Life by William Penn
A good little book of aphorisms. I actually liked the short bio of Penn more than the aphorisms themselves, but there are definitely some gems in here. Penn was a Quaker but the book is not overly religious and his wisdom is undeniable. My favorite: “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”
You Can’t Make Me Angry by Paul O
One of the best books in the so-called Sobriety Canon–something I am increasingly finding to be critical for creative types. I really like Paul’s “Declaration of Emotional Independence” for relationships. But even if you don’t read the book, the title is provocative enough to change how you think. Someone can make you angry. Only you have that power over yourself.
And if this still isn’t enough books, I can’t rave highly enough about the Penguin Great Ideas series. These are collections of essays or excerpts from great writers or schools in short, digestible and inspiring form. They’re a great way to get started on a writer you’ve been too intimidated to read or get started with. I’ve read a bunch of them and often when I’m leaving for a trip, I’ll throw one in my bag. Some favorites: Writings from the Zen Masters, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Apology for Idlers, Orwell’s Why I Write, Tolstoy’s A Confession, and Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life.