All of the books I finish are at least Good, some are Great, and an exceptional few are All-Time. If a book isn’t Good, i.e it fails the Gladwell test (“is this thing worth my time?”) for too many consecutive pages, I’ll stop reading, and frisbee it across the room into the belly of my beanbag.
But on this list, I’m not going to even bother you with the Good. Every book on this list is at least Great— one that changed my perspective on some topic or person in an impactful way, or introduced me to a concept or person that I hadn’t thought much about prior, and now do.
But a couple books on this list are better than Great. They are what I call All-Time books.
The All-Timers are the kinds of books that don’t just offer a glimpse into what could be— books of possibility. They also offer a picture of what, you’re sure after reading them, should be— books of truth. They are the kinds of books that are so dense with meaning that you cannot possibly grasp all that is there in one read, or three. And what you do glean are not merely bullet points or ‘how-tos’, but a certain sensibility. You are not as much reading these books as you are trying to breathe them in. They cover you like a mist, condense on your skin, and you pray for slow evaporation.
And it’s not just in what these books say, but in how they say it. It’s not just the shift in perspective, but the attitude, the confidence, the lightness with which they offer it. It’s not competitive; its contemplative. It’s not acquisitive, but inquisitive. And the tone is not that of a CEO delivering a rousing speech at a convention, but of that wise old grandparent, sitting in front of the fire, telling their stories, opening up for us, however briefly, a lookhole into reality.
I’ve listed the books below in ascending order. First the GREATS, then the ALL-TIMERS.
The End of Upside Down Thinking: Dispelling the Myth That the Brain Produces Consciousness and the Implications For Everyday Life, Mark Gober
Themes: Consciousness, Physics, How To Know Something, Scientific Revolution
It’s amazing how much we still don’t know. More perplexing— even scary— is how much we don’t realize that we don’t know. This recalls those ominous, infamous Rumsfeld words— ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’
It is the last kind that is most deadly, and what Mark Gober in The End Of Upside Down Thinking, seeks to end. As Gober laments: “Unfortunately, we live during a time in which studying these topics is too often discouraged by the mainstream.”
It’s common to see the “because science” meme affixed to a posted article where an apparently empirical evidence dissolves some superstitious illusion. The social ‘Poster’ in these cases, it seems to me, is often as unaware of the scientific merits of the claim they advocate, as ignorant of its apparent, mystical opponent.
But, Gober, in an impressive debut, has given us reason to rethink what is and what is not possible. In The End to Upside down Thinking, Gober forces us to look a little closer at our seeming scientific ally and suggests that, in this case, she has perhaps retreated in support of the other side.
Gober does not set his aims low. He decides to (as you do) take a shot at perhaps the biggest riddle of our physical world. Gober attempts to piece together, and then upend, a thing about the existence of which we are most convinced, but on the definition of which we can barely agree— the nature of consciousness.
And yet, for all of the apparent heresy Gober seems to support, he is able to strike a near perfect tone— a balance between the objective evidentiary aggregator, merely gathering the dispersed, wet sand piles of evidence and building them into a castle, and the ostensible liberator from our Platonic chains, urging us away from those familiar Cavernous shadows, and towards the foreign, but perhaps real, sunlight.
Now, you may not agree with Gober. You may think some of the topics— humans and dogs being connected by consciousness, for example (though the evidence deserves a look)— are bit, say, ‘out there.’ But that hardly matters for you to get the enduring value that this book offers. For Gober’s gift is not the ephemeral notion of rightness or even truth; it is that die-hard Cartesian concept that we, arrogantly, unwisely and far too often, ignore: skepticism. The will to doubt. Not the will to doubt the seemingly crazy, as we might assume, but to inject it, regularly, into the things we are all too sure about.
“It’s time to put real scientific effort into exploring anomalies of consciousness.”
And with that, this book echoes that great quote attributed to Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
If you’re open to rethinking what’s true, get this book, read it slow, and then tell me— what do you know now?
Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker
Themes: Sleep Science, Health, Overlooked Truth, Broken System
However much you value sleep, it’s likely far short of rational. At least given the shocking science that Berkley Sleep Scientist, Matt Walker, takes us through in Why We Sleep.
Let’s say you get 6 hours of sleep per night, the average of many people I know, and a common brag of the ‘successful.’ Compared to a person who gets 8 hours per night, you’re cognitive abilities are at a fraction of your total capacity. Walker shows us how six hours of sleep for just ten days can have the same impact on your brain as if you hadn’t’ slept in 24 hours! And after ten days, it just keeps getting worse, all the while, the all-night warrior unaware of her diminishing capacity.
And that’s just the beginning, a lack of sleep not only markedly decreases your cognitive abilities (and creative potential and ability to store memory), but also increases your risk for things like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. And this is no small increase, but something like 50%, or higher.
Even if you are convinced that you are part of the 1% that require less than 7-8 hours per night to function at top capacity, maybe you’ll be more sensitive to your kids needs. Walker shows the sickening reality of lack of sleep in kids, for example, the impact of too little sleep on overall health of infants. “Three-year-olds sleeping just ten and a half hours or less have a 45 percent increased risk of being obese by age seven than those who get twelve hours of sleep a night.”
Believe me, for your sake, or for your kids sake, read this book. It will be one of the better gifts you’ve given yourself in a long time.
Then, afterwards, put down the coffee and take a nap for Christ’s sake.
Endurance: Shakleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
Themes: Hope, Human Potential, Leadership, Relationships, Trust, Obstacles, Stoicis
Maybe you think you’re in a bad situation. Maybe you see no way out of it. Maybe you’ve been stricken with some horrible sickness or diagnosed with an unthinkable disease. Or maybe it’s even less serious, even petty, as it has been for me, and yet we still can’t see the sunlight. Maybe you don’t like your well-paying, privileged job, maybe you don’t like where you live, or you find a coworker irritating, or its cold outside, or your fingers hurt (‘well now your back’s gonna hurt’).
If this is you (isn’t it all of us, on some level, at least some of the time?), and you are prone to complaining about your circumstances, perhaps you want to read the story of The Endurance— a ship landlocked and then crushed amongst the frigid Arctic floes, leaving its crew to camp (as in tents) in the frost-bitten temperatures, forced to eat blubber and drink boiled powdered milk, with little in the way of entertainment, or hope. Then take another glance at the fact that they forgot the avocado on your salad and decide how bad it is.
And still, you could read about the fate of the Endurance men for other, perhaps more edifying reasons. You might like adventure, like a multi-month ride to freedom, on basically a canoe + a homemade sail, into the dark sky and wintery sheen of the meanest waters in existence, with liquid ice splashes blackening your dying fingers, your belly long-since resigned to pitiful amounts of food, and your faith flickering in the face of the unforgiving tundra.
Or maybe you want to learn how to lead like the famed Captain Ernest Shackleton, a man whose family motto read ‘Fortitudine vincimus’— ‘By endurance we conquer’ (and whose family actually has a motto), who first, had the insanity to rally men to attempt the first ever completed voyage and hike across the arctic. And then, after over a year living on floating blocks of ice, in the same clothing, raggity tents, and scant foodstuffs, acted with only one mandate. It wasn’t to feed himself best, or give himself the warmest of threads or most comfy of bedding (in fact, he took the opposite), and not even to get himself to safety. His only function, for almost two years, was to get his men— this army of oddball sailors and carpenters and would-be polar explorers— back to their families.
To do it, it took not just what you might assume— survival skills like navigation, hunting, fishing, and carpentry. No, the brunt of the skill was emotional— the ability to understand relationships and moods of men, to keep their heads held high and hope alive, to keep them from killing each other or him. It was nothing short of mastery. As one famous explorer put it:
“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Though at times slightly slow and possibly repetitive, most of the book gripped my throat and pulled me into the voyage and its emotional tilt-a-whirl. And I came out the other end feeling inspired and, in the ways of the Greats, different in some way.
I was so different, that I put down the book, looked down at my avocado-less salad, and, without complaining, ate it, pretty stoked that it wasn’t powered milk + boiled seal blubber…
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Marukami
Themes: Memoir, Writing, Creating Something, Hope, Discipline, Running
Haruki Marukami had never written anything. Not until he was 29. Up until that point, he lead a humble life, running a coffee and jazz bar un Tokyo with his wife. Then, one day, at a baseball game of all places, he got the idea he could write a novel. And it turns out, he could.
Approximately 35 years after this event, unable to sleep, I turned on the audio version of Patti Smith’s melodic memoir, M Train. Somewhere in the midst of Smith’s soothing and poetic account of her life, she talks about books that have spun her world around, vexing in their power. One of those books was by a Japanese author of which I had heard a lot, but had never read, Haruki Marukami.
Smith said of Marukami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:
“There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.”
I paused the audio and immediately ordered it on Amazon Prime.
You experience Wind-Up Bird in the way that perhaps you watched Jurassic Park as a kid. You need to see but you partially cover your eyes. Combine that with a feeling of wonder— almost like watching the movie, Big Fish. You don’t know what’s real or fake. But it expands your sense of possibility and opens your thinking to the mystical, even the magical. The wake of the book shook me, violently and then subtly, for days after.
I immediately ordered three other books by Marukami, one of which being What I Talk About. I read it first and here’s what it did for me: it made me want to create, it taught me discipline and freedom; it made me want write and, of course, it made me want to run.
But it also did a little more for me, perhaps the reason that Director / Writer Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Billions) has called it one of his favorite books of all time. It increased my faith in the idea that if you want to do something, no matter where you are in life, no matter if you don’t have the experience, or the connections, just start.
If you’re a writer, a creator, a runner, a hope-seeker, or someone aspiring to be something you’re not, read this book.
The Creative Habit: Learn It, Use it For Life, Twyla Tharp
Themes: Creativity, Art, Craft, Discipline, Leadership
Maria Popova, the creator of the All-Time blog, brianpickings.org, and the author of the 2019 book, Figuring (which I’m about 1/3 into and will review in a forthcoming post), has lead me to more Great and All-Time books than I can count. One of those, thank the good lord, was the Creative Habit, as I am not sure I would have otherwise come across a book on creativity by an NYC dancer / choreographer.
The book was Great, almost All-Time. Her perspectives on things like creativity and process and craft (no matter what you are creating) are not only interesting— but are, refreshingly, clear and defined. Tharp has mastered the skill of telling us what she believes is right, without making us feel defensive or that she is speaking out of place. And that’s not just because we believe she has earned a place to speak (though she has), but because we believe if she was presented with contrary evidence, she would be capable of changing her mind, which is the ultimate skill.
I especially enjoyed her stance on whether it is passion or craft that spawns creation. As it always seems to go, it’s both:
“Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.”
And she writes with a whim and a cadence that almost feels like a dance. It’s not quite Gift from the Sea, but its in the ballpark.
Themes: Relationships; Story; Perception; Permission Marketing; Doing The Work;
First, a note on why this is not All-Time (for me). A big element of an All-Time book is one that— if I can get all Hewy Lewis-And-The-News on you— gets into your body and soul. But, for me, Seth already lives there.
After reading about a gazillion Godin books, taking his great workshop, the AltMBA, seeing him speak live a handful of times, and listening to his podcast (and anytime he appears on someone else’s podcast), Godin’s ideas already ring in my head.
I am to Godin what Kevin Kelly called a ‘true fan.’ I don’t need to be sold on him at this point. When he comes out with a product or a book or a course, I buy it, no questions asked. This Is Marketing (for me) served to more as a reinforcement of notions that Godin had already softened me towards.
That’s not to say there is nothing novel in this book, even for the Godin expert, even for someone who took the online class on which it was based, The Marketing Seminar.
Lastly, if you’re not familiar with Seth Godin, this easily could strike you as an All-Time book. It is, after all, the culmination (so far) of over 30 years as a writer and a ‘Permission Marketer.’ But whether or not you’re a Godin groupie like me, this is an important book, and should be read and rehearsed.
Seth says, that, “People don’t buy what you make. They want what it will do for them. They want the away it will make them feel.” If that’s true, you’ll want this book.
Topics: Wisdom. Being. Regret. Death.
You know those books that you’ve heard about so many times and you’ve meant to read for so many years, and that your friends have told you so much about that you feel like you already know what’s in the book, and that you don’t even need to read it at this point? For me, Tuesday’s With Morrie (TWM) was part of that group.
And for years I avoided it, just like I’ve done for many iconic books in this category. But, upon reading TWM and dozens of others like this in the past, I’ve decided that the I-don’t-need-to-read-because-I-basically-know-what-its-about feeling is nothing short of arrogance, and, more importantly, dead wrong.
Because when you finally give in, you find a few things to be true. First, what you ‘knew’ about the book was merely the subject matter, maybe a subtitle’s-length summary. But you hadn’t the slightest clue about the depth and breadth of the ideas. Second, what you remember and relate to in any book, fiction or non, is not facts, but story. Things you recognize in your own narrative or in how you relate to others. And different stories hit different people in different ways. Third, it doesn’t even matter. Because, even if you’ve read it before, each read will strike you differently. It’s why people re-read the Bible and Shakespeare and Leaves of Grass year after year after year.
TWM is the story of the classic too-busy business man with something missing. While accolades and awards adorn his walls, an emptiness pervades, unseen, only vaguely felt, until disaster jolts him back into awareness. In this case, a formative teacher— one that he (for years) ‘meant’ to keep up with in that Cats In The Cradle type way— is diagnosed with a terminal illness, given months to live. So, embarrassed by his absence and his gone-astray ambitions, he shows up to visit Morrie, hat in hand, trying to reconnect with the old, dying man; trying to rediscover the early embers of his young heart.
If you’ve ever had a mentor or teacher or coach or parent or friend who changed you, one that you wish you’d spent more time with, you’ll relate to the story. But what you’ll take with you are those glimpses of truth I referenced earlier. Themes of forgiveness, stoicism, passion, the importance of family, integrity. You’ll read it twice and then look forward to revisiting in the future.
How To Think: A Survival Guide For a World At Odds, Professor Alan Jacobs
Topics: Psychology, Emotional Intelligence. Us v. Them.
Several times per year, Malcolm Gladwell indulges in a ritual that I have adopted. He goes to the public library and just moves towards whatever books call to him. This allows for the kind of free expansion of learning and creativity that writer Stephen Johnson calls, “serendipity.” It’s an activity that writer Julia Cameron might recommend for an Artist’s Date. And it’s what lead me to one of the best books I’ve read in several years, How to Think.
On the very first day of my very first trip to Paris, I came across How to Think while thumbing through the stacks of the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore on Rue de la Bûcherie. Though I am compelled by the ‘serendipity’ tactic, the title of this book was, frankly, turning me off.
Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about how to think as much as the next bloke, but somehow that kind of exercise felt below Paris. You eat a baguette in the Luxembourg Gardens or imagine Wilde and Picasso at Café de Flore; not to stay in your room and think. In fact, you don’t go there to think at all; you go there to feel.
But for a combination of reasons— my past experience of book serendipity, the size of the book (pocket-book), and the compelling nature of the subject matter (at least outside of Paris)— I decided to purchase it and read post-Paris. And that, it turns out, what a wonderful decision.
You may look at this title and skip over it thinking, “I already think too much.” Or worse, “I already know how to think.” But what you’ll realize if you are able to overcome that initial resistance is that this book is just as much, if not more about feeling and connection. “If the feelings are not cultivated,” Professor Jacobs warns, “the analytical faculties might not function at all.”
But to only credit Professor Jacobs with a masterly effort in teaching the mere mechanisms of thinking and feeling would be short of what is deserved. And it would be short of what is necessary to make it ALL-TIME.
Because if you come for the help with that automatic track that keeps playing in your head, and you stay to better damn your impulsive reactions, what you return for is Professor Jacobs himself. His writing, the flow of the prose, the authenticity with which you know for sure that he has delivered this book. Like Will Durant, Jacobs blends the technique of the scientist, the mind of the philosopher, and the soul of an artist. The cadence, the phrasing, the references, all create an experience that you’ll need to, experience many times over. I know I’ll need to.
Gift From The Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Themes: Inner and Outer Life; Relationships; Patience; Writing; How To Live
I discussed Gift in my summer reading review, where I said that “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.” (Did I just quote myself? Yes.).
That advice still applies.
Trust me. Get it.
Other Great Books read this year that I have already written about or will write about in a future article:
The 12-Minute Athlete, Krista Stryker (wrote about her here and will write another)
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell
Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal
Dream Teams, Shane Snow
Fallen Leaves, Will Durant
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
A bunch of books on writing (forthcoming article)
Additionally, I continue to re-read Greats and All-Timers. This year it was:
The Lessons Of History and The History of Philosophy, Will Durant
The Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss
Lynchpin, Seth Godin
Switch, Dan and Chip Heath
How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Carnegie
Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse
Let me know what ya think!