This page is not nearly complete. For now it is divided into 2 sections: the first is my favorite books, non-fiction and fiction, and the second is books that I like because I learned something (generally what not to do) about life or writing, even though they may suck. It has largely been influenced by Tucker Max’s list and Ryan Holiday’s list. I’m writing this because, just as my life has been changed by another’s reading list, I hope to point somebody in the direction of books they will love and, in turn, will influence them. Books may be cold friends, but they improve your life.
If you have any book you think should be on here or if you are insulted by my dislike of House of Leaves, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and berate me, suggest books, whatever.
My Favorite Non-Fiction
The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius–Pierre Hadot conjectures that the meditations were his writings, not written for the public, but for himself to remind him how to act, look at the world, and to check himself when he felt angry, greedy, revengeful, etc. Similarly, the Discourses of Epictetus, which were a big influence on Marcus. I could talk about this non-stop, but there’s this passage where he says, and I paraphrase, people sell themselves at different prices….I will not do this because, put myself in chains and submit because, while you’re OK with being the white thread in the toga, I want to be the gold thread, the one that gives all the rest their grace and splendor. I think that pretty much everybody complains about other people–how they suck, are pedantic, are boring, gossip too much, is too slutty, etc. Meanwhile, they make absolutely no real effort to change and be better people themselves for whatever reason. That is one thing that disgusts me and that I never want to be. These provide examples of a way of life far better than this.
Philosophy as a Way of Life, by Pierre Hadot–I don’t think I understood what I was saying before until I read this book. The purpose of philosophy in ancient times was to improve your life, be a good person, and find happiness in goodness rather than hedonism. It was never meant to be this academic, ivory-tower subject–as Marcus says, avoid reading those big treatises, don’t be a pundit. See things for how they are, and make it a practice in your life to stay grounded and act with justice. Amazing book.
Games People Play, by Eric Berne–This book is sort of a list of all the screwed up social dynamics out there–you have to know them to be able to recognize them at work. It can include a person who must always play the victim, taking the moral high ground, or a person who must be the parent in a relationship and looks for a “child” to control, etc. In the end he talks about arriving at autonomy of thought and seeing the world on your own terms for the first time–breaking out of this invisible hold on you, and your thought process, that other people have because of their own issues. Excellent book.
The Moral Animal, by Richard Wright–For me, this book is where it all started. What it says about perception, how we’ve come to think of the world as we do, what purpose it serves, what purpose we serve, etc, and then what this means to us in terms of morality, compassion, and struggling with a purpose for life changed my way of looking at life completely. I will say this, don’t take any kind of hallucinogen while you’re in the middle of reading this book, let alone thinking about it. You’re entire framework will crack–Believe me, you will never forget it.
The Fall of Public Man–There is so much in this book. It talks about how the most common illness in society now is narcicissm. Everything today has to be about “finding yourself,” “what does this mean about my personality,” protecting children for the harsh real world, whereas before they were treated as little adults, extracting meaning where there is none. All of this is also reflected in architecture, art, etc. He says that this is because there is no longer a public life as there was in ancient Rome–we actually seek to escape this now. It’s a “tyranny of intimacy.” I can’t even do this book justice.
The Reformation, by Diarmaid MacCullough–I never understood Catholicism, the denominations of Christianity, or, in effect, the formation of much of the world, especially of the US before this book. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, hands down, and is about much more than the Reformation.
War Through the Ages, by Lynn Montross–I stole it from an ex-boyfriend, who had stolen it from some library, but it’s available used on Amazon. This book really got me into military history. I had already read Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War and 48 Laws of Power, and this is almost a background to that. It helps you understand the tactics, versus the strategy–you can get more into the generals minds. It’s not necessary for life, really, but it’s fascinating to me. It’s such a detailed survey that starts with Ancient Greece and ends at WWII. Not only that, but it helps you understand what a role the military had in history and how it’s so very connected–why don’t people learn this stuff in school? Plus, it’s the author’s big life work, a culmination of decades of study and his passion really shows through, which is compelling in itself, I think.
Cracked, by Dr. Drew–I cried a lot through this book. What I liked most was this one part when Dr. Drew is talking to the head therapist who was telling him about how he used to smoke. How did he stop? He just “got it,” realized he wasn’t in control of his habit anymore and somehow found it within himself to want to make healthy choices and fix his life–I related very deeply to this. Not everybody is a drug addict, but I think that we’re all addicts in a way, and can benefit from the 12-step program by changing what you submit to. Also, if you liked insurance companies before this book, you won’t after–if I were rich enough to have a charity, I’d donate to rehab centers.
Boyd, the Fighter Pilot who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram–Much of the book is a biography rather than just talking about his work because, not only was he a revolutionary military strategist, but he had the personal and testicular fortitude to make it all happen.
The Black Swan, byNicolas Taleb–We deceive ourselves into thinking that we are smarter and more civilized than we are. In fact, he says we would be more civilized if we cleared all of the trash out of our lives–news, magazines, pundits and thei predictions, etc. Instead, we should be more humble and accepting of the state of the world as largely unpredictable. Also, do things that can possibly turn into black swans–write books, rather than be a doctor, which requires you to preform every income-generating activity.
Knowledge and Decisions, by Thomas Sowell–Tucker Max had listed both this book and The Vision of the Annointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy on his reading list and I have since read both, but if you read Knowledge and Decisions, it’s not really necessary to read the latter. It’s not an easy book, however. In fact, it can be dry, but you can’t take the government, staticians, special interest groups, or pundits seriously anymore. Basically, it’s the original source of what is learned in most mediocre economics classes.
Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky–Alinsky has a bad reputation these days because of Hilary and Obama, but I love this book. The man was a genius. It’s interesting to see just how well Obama fits into his idea of what the perfect radical is, too. His characterization of society, the quite desperation, and how to tap into it is instructive, to say the least. His idea of a radical can be fit to whatever you want to do in life, not just political reform. I learn more from this book each time I read it.
Art, by Paul Johnson–This book introduced me to a lot of the art that I have on this page. He says that his real passion has always been art history, and it shows in the book. However, I have come to appreciate it more and more as I learn about history; it’s broad rather than deep and his explanations are cursory, so it takes some background knowledge to put it all in context.
Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson–I first read this book when I had either not heard of some of the people he analyzes, like Edmund Wilson, couldn’t name any of their works, like Sarte, or didn’t clearly understand why they were idiots, like Noam Chomsky (outside of linguistics). But I keep coming back to this book as I read their books. For example, I just recently finished Anna Karenina and went back and read the chapter on Tolstoy for more of an understanding of the man. I would never loan this book to anybody.
My Favorite Novels
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole–I do think this is the best fiction ever written. It’s just hilarious. Every page of this book is genius to me, and I often just pick it up and read a few pages for inspiration.
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky–I think about this book everyday, especially his arguments against religion (this chapter is the highlight). I also liked Crime and Punishment, though I think TBK is superior.
Fight Club, by Chuck Palaniuk–I won’t say much because this is everybody’s favorite book, just that I read this book before every getting a job and loved it. Then I got a day job and understand it’s genius.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kessey–Insanity is relative. The most insane are the “normal” ones. But, again, seemingly everybody has read this or seen the movie.
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo–I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Chavez recently gave a copy of this book to Obama, and it kind of disgusted me. I had seen the movie, too, years ago when it first came out and couldn’t believe how boring it was, but the book isn’t like that. Hugo is one of the best observers of personality and human nature. It talks about the different classes in France before and after the revolution, about politics of revolition–who should benefit?–nihilism, love at first sight, the current trends in philsophy–“there’s a philosophy that denies the sun–blindness”–the cruelty toward the lower class, the generation of street urchins, the social consequences of women for an affair, redemption, the penal system…It really does go on and on; it’s something like 1,400 pages, but I think it’s worth it to read the unabridged version.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand–My feelings are very polarized about this one–I love it and yet hate it with a passion, probably because I read and loved the book (except the ending) and then interacted with people who loved HER. I put this after Les Miserables for a reason–I read it immediately after reading it, so I was already in a “compassionate” mindset. Plus, this was about 3 weeks before transferring from a non-ideological college to a HARDCORE libertarian college. The school actually sponsored Ayn Rand meetings, had a statue of Atlas in it, and her portrait was everwhere. I don’t think that her ideas should be taken so dogmatically or implemented in a place like Guatemala right off the bat, but there are parts that are great. No matter what, it’s definitely worth reading if only to force you to decide what you believe and stir feelings in you about society.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy–I like this book and also think it’s stupid in some ways. It’s mostly about relationships (which strike me as unrealistic in general), but in the middle of all that there’s this political message. So much of what he says in the book is EXACTLY what I see in Guatemala (and saw in Panama), especially after going to such a right-wing school that made me hate the upper class in Latin America. They actually say the things that Tolstoy writes the aristocratic Russians as saying in the book, which takes place pretty soon after the serfs were freed in Russia (the civil war “ended” in Guatemala in 1996). Then, combine that with almost a Social Darwinism (I like capitalism, I am pretty libertarian. But when you go to such a poor place, seriously, it makes me hate people who think that it’s more immoral to tax the rich/middle class people than to let 60% of the country starve to death and earn $5 a day. Believe me, I’ve heard every argument against this belief that exists.). In other words, I’m much more sympathetic toward socialism (in poor countries) and see where he was coming from with his arguments.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho–I’m not sure I can talk about this book without sounding like a hack. Basically, it’s about failure and arriving at your destiny. It won’t always be obvious and there may even be a shit-storm to go through. It’s also about shedding the notion that other people’s opinion of what you should do is relevant; listening to all of that won’t lead to happiness.
Shogun, by James Clavell–This book is funny to me but also says a lot about social interaction. Why are people in Western cultures so ready to say what they are thinking and feeling? Isn’t it more prudent to do otherwise. The book presents a totally different system of values to a guy who had never come in contact with them before and it’s entertaining.
Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn–I don’t like it for it’s literary quality–it’s actually a play– or it’s gripping story line (though it is about an interesting event), but because of it’s way of thinking of life. I actually read this for a class, Philosophy in Literature, and wrote a paper on it. I got a B, rewrote it, got another B. Why? Because “We have known since Socrates that we don’t know anything. You say nothing new.” Considering that it’s about the implications of quantum mechanics and complementarity, I consider this the stupidest comment I’ve ever gotten on a paper (I dropped out of college, in the end), but I like the book, nevertheless.
Books that Were Instructive
Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
The Memoirs of Casanova, by Casanova
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintence, by Robert Pirsig
Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill
Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman