Reading Time: ~11 min
There exist at least three types of books: Good books, Great books, and All-Time books.
I recently took Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass. If you haven’t considered taking a Masterclass- I’d look into it.
In one lesson, Gladwell is riffing on the subject of how to determine what to read in the midst of so many options. Gladwell says that when he is reading he has a little man in his head constantly asking this question: is this book worth my time? If the answer is no, at any point, he closes the book with zero remorse. If it is yes, he continues.
For any book, the initial questions have to be: was this book worth the 10ish hours I spent reading it? Am I at least content with the fact that I am trading my attention and time for what this author has to say?
A good book passes that threshold.
A great book is one that goes beyond the initial threshold of being worth my time. It additionally teaches me one of two things:
- a completely new and compelling concept about which I had little or no prior knowledge or
- a new and mind-changing perspective on a concept I thought I had figured out.
The first type teaches you something new. It get’s you to see a new “place.” But the second, far more powerful, gets you to see, as the Proust saying goes, the same place with new eyes.
But the books that really stick—the one’s that are what I call, ‘rereadable’— are the ones that do all of that and more. They have a certain aspect that propels them to timelessness. These are the All-Time books.
An All-Time book is a Great book, usually of the second kind, that I will go back to year after year. It’s one that is shocking in it’s revelations and addictive in its delivery. It is less of an intellectual exercise and more of an emotional experience. You don’t read these books, they read you.
And these books are not merely worth my time once, but demand indefinite referrals back, re-discovery, and new insight. These books don’t simply teach me something new, or get me to consider a new perspective– their writing, their voice, and what they represent is ironed into my brain and my body. I don’t want to experience it cognitively. I desire it to become apart of me.
Below are three Greats and two All-Times that I read this summer.
Five Great Books From Summer 2018
(1) Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart, Shane Snow.
“Our brains are wired to collaborate but also to be suspicious of other tribes—to “bury” those who don’t look or think like us.”
Dream Teams is all about the problem highlighted in the quote above. We know that two minds are often better than one, but how do we form teams that add up to more than the sum of their parts, rather than clash with or distract each other? Through the study of great teams that span industry and time, Snow pulls out the core similarities that appear to lead to their successes.
It is worth investing in this book just for the introduction and chapter 1 (though the rest is also great). In chapter 1, Snow describes how the best teams— the ‘Dream Teams’— tend to combine people of different perspectives and different heuristics. A perspective is how you view the world, given your background. A heuristic is, given your perspective, the way in which you then process a problem.
Through the use of a compelling analogy of a mountain range, Snow shapes the path the book will take with his signature, but uncommon, clarity, humor, and enthusiasm. If you are a part of, run a, or are interested in the dynamics of, teams, this books is definitely worth the investment. [BTW— Smartcuts, another Snow classic, is also worth a look].
(2) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
“Why? They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in. They expose themselves to more temptation, such as hanging out with smokers or leaving cookies around the house. They’re also most likely to be surprised by setbacks and give up on their goals when they run into difficulty.”
This book spells out the lessons of a continuing education course that Standford’s Kelly McGonigal started a few years back called, “The Science of Willpower.” A class that is among the most popular ever offered by Stanford’s Cont. Ed. School.
One of those lessons is captured by the quote above regarding why most people experience failures of willpower. As you’ll notice, McGonigal does not implicate lack of discipline or innate willpower disparities. It isn’t a lack of self-control; it’s a lack of self-awareness. McGonigal explains this phenomenon and how to fix it throughout the book, as well as giving very easy-to-understand explanations of the biology of willpower.
Though I have read many books on the topic, including by leading self-control researcher, Roy Baumeister, I found McGonigal’s book to be more accessible. She also finds a way to find the happy medium with respect to several debates in the willpower community.
If you think you lack willpower, want more of it, or are simply fascinated with our apparent inability to control ourselves around a slice of pizza, this is a great book to read.
(3) The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists; The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Neil Strauss
“And that’s when I realized the mistake I’d been making my whole life. To get a woman, you have to be willing to lose her.” Neil Strauss, The Game
“Don’t trade long-term happiness for short-term pleasure.” Neil Strauss quoting Music Magnate, Rick Rubin, The Truth
The Game was published when I was in college. I assumed it was probably not my thing, given its apparent subject matter. From what I heard from friends who had read it, it was about how to pick up chicks. The very concept of taking such a sentiment seriously made me nauseous. However, upon randomly listening to a few interviews with Neil Strauss— which I found compelling and insightful — I determined that there must be more to these books. I read both and I was not disappointed.
In the early 2000s, Strauss, a long-time writer for Rolling Stone, stumbled into the extremely weird world of pick-up artists. In short-order, under the wing of some of the best pick-up artists in the world (puke), the self-described scrawny and nerdy Strauss went from a guy who could barely talk to girls to one who was apparently having threesomes at will. He documents his experience, including many of the lessons— tricks, really— of the pick-up game.
But that is not what this book is about. Just like the mistaken belief that Ferris’s 4-Hour Work Week is about how to not work (from a guy who probably works more than most), believing this book is merely a how-to guide to sleep with women, would be to miss the point entirely, and would, frankly, be a disservice to depth of Strauss, an extremely thoughtful and interesting writer.
Because what Strauss realizes in the end is that the best thing to come of this adventure was not tactics on how to bed girls. Those, he comes to realize, are just magic tricks worth merely short-term, unsatisfying reward— as scarfing down a cheesecake. The enduring aspect of his experience was that he was able to shatter the illusion that engaging in conversation with beautiful women is dangerous or for “cooler” guys. What he gained ,then, was the confidence to talk to girls in the first place.
But the real learnings come from the sequel —The Truth— where Strauss takes us into the messy, but nakedly real, sorting out of his underlying emotional issues via every therapy you can imagine (and those you can’t). I found it interesting, disturbing, and inciting of reflection on my own relationships.
(4) Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, Will Durant.
“Childhood may be defined by the age of play; therefore some children are never young, and some adults are never old.“
Will Durant is probably the writer to whose intellect, fluidity, and grace I most aspire. Part philosopher, part scientist, part historian, Durant, in Fallen Leaves, tells us of the learnings of more than 60 years of knowledge and life experience. Knowledge and experience, in part, built on his five-decade study and documenting (along with his wife Ariel), the entire history of civilization. A contribution for which they were, rightly, awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the posthumously published, Fallen Leaves, Durant, ever gently, but intently, takes us through the unfolding of a human life, inserting what he thinks are the great virtues and follies of man and woman at each stage: birth, childhood, adulthood, latter years.
Writing like a man reflecting proudly on a life well-earned, and with the knowledge and peaceful acceptance of his looming rest, Durant offers his collected wisdom on topic ranging from Education to War to Love to God.
You end this book feeling much like how I imagine Durant felt at the end: enriched, full of gratitude, and a little wiser than when you picked it up. Like every All-Time book I’ve read, this one demands rereading for the knowledge bared alone, but much more for the delicate loveliness with which it is written, and the fullness with which the reading experience fills.
(5) Gift From The Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, to greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach– waiting for a gift from the sea.“
To read Gift from the Sea, Reeve Lindbergh, said, is to almost feel like you are bobbing upon the tide, with its gentle ebb and flow, its light crashes upon the shore, and its continuous change and regeneration. The oceanic experience, however, is merely the setting. What is in store for the reader is so much more, as the author’s son also tells us: “[It] offers its readers an unusual kind of freedom…the freedom that come from choosing to remain open…to life itself, whatever it may bring: joys, sorrows, triumphs, failures, suffering, comfort, and certainly, always, change.”
I’ve never read anything else by Anne Lindbergh, the wife of the famous aviator and 20th century renaissance man, Charles Lindbergh, but I certainly will after reading her incomparable Gifts From the Sea. I am not sure if I’ve ever read a book where I felt I had to cultivate every word such as I did while reading this one. It’s the kind of book that, right after reading, even during, you feel— you know— that this is a book you’ll read many more times. Each time, teaching something different, for there is no possible way to invite it all in at one sitting. It reads more like a infinitely spinning world than a fixed, flat mass of land.
To me, there is one guiding theme to this book. One purpose for which Lindbergh wrote it. A major juxtaposition between two ideas: our inner world and the external world. How can we gain presence and patience and insight without getting swept up by the currents of everyday life, and yet, still participate in, and influence them. How do you swim with the current, without it swimming you, as so often seems to happen. And how do you tell the difference?
Within this theme— in v. Out— Lindberg discusses concepts that abide by its rules, as all things must— for we have nothing else. She uses her trips to Captiva Island, a quite and secluded place off the Florida’s Gulf Coast, and beautiful analogies to the sea, to tell her story. It’s through this story and her lessons from it, that she then, lightly, hands us her Gift.
If you take nothing from this article, do the following: purchase this book, find a quite place, hopefully within eye or earshot of nature, and allow yourself to be taken in by this book.
What I Know for Sure, Oprah. Lessons from one of the most remarkable lives ever lived. Form poverty and tragedy in an oppressive south, to the glory and wisdom of one of the most recognized and admired women in history. You think her lessons are worth a read?
Pre-suasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini. The sequel to the classic, Influence, Dr. Cialdini teaches us about the world of influence— not of us on others— but the influence of the environment on all of us.
Predictably Irrational, Professor Dan Ariely. Classic book that upends the common microeconomic notion that the market is full of rational decision makers — us. When we test those reasonable minds, what we find is a bunch of impulsive, rash, and emotional decisions made on predictably irrational grounds. If you’re making decisions like this, it’s probably best to know about it and find out how to protect yourself from… yourself.
Madame Bovary, Flaubert. A classic in literature, and its easy to see why. A little slow moving in the beginning as the stage is set, but the flowing and engaging prose will guide you through that grizzle until you are taken front-and-center inside the minds and lives of people for whom the status quo is never enough.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates. The opposite of Madame Bovary in terms of pace and style. The description of social interactions and the character’s experience, in all it’s hilarity and life-like accuracy, rivals Salinger. The story of a 1950s couple who fancy themselves above the ‘basic minds’ of their society and time, and deserving of ‘great’ things, ends in more questions than answers. A perfectly untidy ending to a very real look into life and its struggles.
Welp, that sums it up. Hope you enjoyed.
[If you’re interested in more reviews– these were the best books I read last year].