Joseph Campbell was once asked what spiritual practice he followed. He answered, “I underline books.”
So do I.
Here are a few (as in, 80 or so) of my favorites.
(Sidebar: I am an “Amazon Affiliate.” Which means that if you click on a link here and buy the book through Amazon, 6% of the price of the book comes to moi. I then send that 6% on to the Half the Sky Movement. That’s cool!)
Business + Organizational Culture:
Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
Richard Branson, Screw Business As Usual (2011). A reader on Amazon says, “If you can’t stand Donald Trump, you’ll love Richard Branson.” Branson argues that a company need not choose between financial success and human and environmental sustainability – both is possible and even good business.
Tony Hsieh, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose (2010). I am a VIP member of Zappos, and know first hand about their customer service: it is exceptional. Here the visionary founder and CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, explains how building corporate culture that inspires people to be their best at work can lead to unprecedented success. One of my favorite ideas: pay new employees $2000 to quit. Whoever takes you up on it wasn’t a good fit anyway.
Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011). Money matters, and motivates people to an extent. But to get the heart and soul of employees, you have to find ways to a) give them autonomy, b) enable them to master a valued skill and c) contribute to a higher purpose. If you happen to be suffering in such an environment where this is not understood or appreciated, you might consider firing your boss, i.e., quitting.
Leadership + Productivity:
William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (2011). This is a staple for anyone in the business of trying to get things done with other people. Think you aren’t a negotiator? Anyone needing to have hard conversations with others is a negotiator. Bill Ury was one of the first to describe a style of negotiating that focused not on winning OVER people, but on finding creative and win-win solutions by taking a deeper dive into what is really going on in these situations, and exploring what people really care about, not just what they are asking for.
David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2002). David Allen provides a system for capturing all the cycling to-do’s in your head, breaking them down into sequential steps, and putting them in an action list. This frees up your brain for more important things, like sleeping well instead of lying awake worrying.
Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (2007). One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to get clear about your own strengths, and then be curious about the strengths of the people around you. Roth found that if your manager focuses on your strengths, your chances of being actively disengaged go down to 1 in 100. If your manager primarily focuses on your weaknesses, on the other hand, your chances of being actively disengaged are 22%,
Francesco Cirillo, Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: Can You Focus – Really Focus – for 25 Minutes? (2010). This is a deceptively simple idea: 1. Decide what you most need to work on. 2. Set a timer, preferably a red kitchen timer that looks like a tomato. 3. Until it dings, just work on that one thing. Life-changing!
Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (1990). First published in 1990, this was the beginning of a very big idea: Start with self-mastery, and let your success flow from that.
Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (2004). Goleman’s research shows that IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces. He writes, “My concern is with a key set of these ‘other characteristics’, emotional intelligence: abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think to empathize and to hope.”
The fundamental task of leaders, he believes, is to “prime good feeling” in those they lead, creating a reservoir of positivity that brings out the best in people.
Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less (1999). The 80/20 Principles proposes that 20% of your efforts lead to 80% of results. For example: 20% of crops produce 80% of yield. 20% criminals are responsible for 80% of crime, 20% of drivers account for 80% of accidents, you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time, Here is the link to your life and to business: 20% of your effort is producing 80% of the results. 80/20 thinking asks you to figure out what that 20% is that leads to 80% of the results. How can you stop doing the 80% that results in mediocre, low-value outcomes? Koch advises us to “calm down, work less, and target a limited number of very valuable goals where the 80/20 Principle will work for us.”
Fred Kofman, Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values (2006). Fred Kofman is a former MIT economics professor who over time became more interested in the human dimension of business. In 2005, before his book was out, I listened to audios of him teaching and coaching, and declared, “This is the man I want to work for.” Then I hunted him down, and convinced him to hire me. Seven years later, I continue to partner with him on leadership development projects. His book is a thorough compilation of the most essential qualities of great leaders. This is from a Sounds True interview with Fred, where he was asked, “What would a conscious business environment look like?”
“The most significant observation would be the total absence of abuse, shame, and threat. People would take responsibility for their behavior and deal with each other honestly and respectfully. They would hold themselves and each other accountable for adhering to some set of agreed-upon values and for working toward an agreed-upon vision. Deviations and errors would be an opportunity for learning and growth, rather than an excuse for blame and punishment.”
“There would still be problems, people that don’t get along, and losses. A conscious business environment is not a Garden of Eden where everything is always blissful. The marketplace is a turbulent place with no guarantees of success. The main difference displayed by a conscious business environment is that in addition to the drive to achieve their goals, people would experience also the commitment to operate according to their values. This commitment is the source of unconditional dignity that would give the organization and its members a core of luminosity from which to extend into the world.”
“A conscious business environment would be a challenge, an invitation to develop people’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual spheres. The conscious organization is a crucible where people refine themselves through service and partnership. As Khalil Gibran would say, a conscious business is a place where it becomes obvious that work is “love made visible.”
Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It (2011). Who doesn’t need more willpower? I do! This has been referred to as “The Idiot’s Guide to Not Being Lazy.” McGonigal writes with the casualness of a good friend, which belies an academic rigor to all her assertions, thoroughly researched and backed up by science. I learned a lot from this book, including that if you do fall off the wagon, it is better to be gentle with yourself than not.
Psychology + Self-help
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012). “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” I can’t get enough of this message: We all just want to drop the mask and be ourselves. Brene weaves research with her own personal stories, all in a no-nonsense West Texas voice. This is one of my favorite lines:
“Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”
“No social change can come about until the consciousness of individuals is changed first. When a young man asked Carlyle how he should go about reforming the world, Carlyle answered, ‘Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world.’ The advice is still valid. Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.”
James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (2009). James Hollis is a Jungian analyst in private practice, and the director of the Jung Center in Houston. There is not a writer I admire or trust more. He writes and lives deeply, mythically, grounded in the best of religion and literature. His basic advice: that we reconsider our entire lives, so that every commitment, connection, habit and friendship serves the needs of the soul.
Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (2003). Here’s a practice: Love what is. Trust reality. Butt out of business not your own.
“I can find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s. Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our business.”
“How do I know that the wind should blow? It’s blowing!”
“Every story [of suffering] is a variation on a single theme: This shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t be having this experience.”
How do I know it should be happening? Because it is happening.
Tama Kieves, Inspired & Unstoppable: Wildly Succeeding in Your Life’s Work!. I loved this book. I read it at a time when I was discouraged, and Tama’s words were exactly what I needed. (Then I wrote her an email to tell her this, and managed to lure her to my house for lunch. We ate leek and goat cheese quiche and had a great afternoon. She’s wonderful in person.) If you are attempting something tricky in your life, and feeling discouraged, READ THIS.
Diane Osbon (ed.), Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (1995). Thank God for Joseph Campbell. He has had such an influence on me – he got me to understand my own life as a hero’s journey – yet there is no one book I can point to of his that contains what has moved me most. So instead I recommend this compilation by Diane Osbon, full of the best of Campbell thinking and quotes. Like this one:
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types (1999). The Enneagram is a model of human personality based on nine interconnected personality types. It is used for self-understanding and development, and in business to gain insight into workplace dynamics. To find your personality type, you can take a test on line, or even better: buy this book, start reading from the beginning, and when you get to the chapter that describes you so well you suddenly realize that it’s you and not the world that is creating your suffering, that is your number. Spend the next three years making peace with this. Good times!
Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (2011). I have to love Gretchen Rubin because she was a lawyer, a clerk in the US Supreme Court actually, who quit law to be a writer. Here she makes herself the gunnea pig in an experiment to test theories on what makes us happier. For example, in January, she goes to bed earlier, excises more, and get organized. It is hybrid memoir and self help, written by someone with intellectual horsepower harnessed to the ultimate question: how to live a good life.
Martin Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.
Hal Stone, Embracing Ourselves: The Voice Dialogue Manual (1998). Each of us is not one person, but many. This is essentially a Jungian idea: that we are made up of sub-personalities, some dominant and some not. To parse these out, give them names, and let them speak to one another can be revealing. One of my favorite exercises is imagining a school bus full of all the different selves. Then ask, “Who’s driving?” and “Who should be driving instead?” Lovingly, take out the insane driver, and replace her with the sane one. The drive to school will go much better.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (2004). First, let me confess that I am a big fan of what I call “The Power of Not-Now.” Otherwise known as this-too-shall-pass-and-the-future-will-be-better. Also, I think there is a risk of the “spiritual bypass” with the Power of Now, where by you miss what is great about being a human and not a dog: you can project yourself into the past and future. That said! We can’t go wrong continuing to practice how to really show up, and let things be as they are:
“Accept-then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”
“If there is nothing you can do, face what is and say, ‘Well, right now, this is how it is. I can either accept it, or make myself miserable.’ The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about the situation. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.”
Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality (2001). It took me years to get around to reading Ken Wilber. As I was plowing my way through the entire self-help, psychology, religion and philosophy sections of the bookstore, I made it a point to steer clear of his books. I used to see his photograph on the cover of his books and it actually made me mad. Why? I think I was associating his intellectualism with everything I’d come to resent about having gone to law school. Finally I came to remember what I appreciated about rational, clear thinking and I opened the book. It is not an exaggeration to say that his writing changed my life. He really does explain everything.
Creativity + Entrepreneurism:
James Altucher, Choose Yourself!
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). This is not just a book for artists. It is for anyone who wants to let passion and creativity be guiding forces in life and work, and overcome Resistance with a capital “R.”
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Danielle Laporte, The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms (2012). How I love this big orange book, which has found a permanent home on my coffee table. Another one I swear I get transmission from. All about how to figure out what really, really deep down lights you up and then get up and do that. Right now.
Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (2009). Tim Ferris’s mission is to invent a new definition of a good life, and then encourage others others how to live that. Even if you don’t want to quit your job you may get a lot out of Ferris’ creative thinking and passion for life design.
“[Y]ou are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.”
“By working only when you are most effective, life is both more productive and more enjoyable. It’s the perfect example of having your cake and eating it, too… “Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.”
Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1993). This is a short book of great advice for anyone considering following a dream or doing something risky.
“Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist
[or an entrepreneur]
. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2005). Twyla Tharp is perhaps the best-known American choreographer. Here she reveals her recipe for a successful, creative life: Talent + practice, discipline, focus, and the habit of making space to allow the muse to speak.
The Past, Present + Future:
Peter Diamandis, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012). We hear a lot about how bad the world is getting. Diamandis has a different focus: how much things are improving. Diamandis is a tech entrepreneur who is credible in his argument that exponential growth in technology will soon result in the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of everyone on the planet. That is exciting.
Nicholas D. Kristof, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2010). And… we’re still not there yet. I read this book with my mouth agape: More girls have been killed in the last fifty years – because they were girls – than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. There are many horrible stories and statistics, but the book is heavy on hopeful and heroic stories too.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012). Important book alert! With all the news of war, crime and terrorism, it’s easy to conclude that we are going to hell in a hand basket. It turns out, however, that violence has been on the decline for centuries, that right now is the most peaceful time in the history of humanity, and that we can reasonably expect things to get better and better. Hallelujah.
“Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don’t mind to be raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain. The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire’s quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2006). When Theodore Roosevelt lost the 1912 Presidential election, he distracted himself by going on a great adventure down an uncharted tributary of the Brazilian Amazon. He got more than he bargained for: Indians with poison tipped arrows, man-eating piranhas, 500 pound pythons, river rapids that smashed to bits log boats that took forever to build, typhoid, malaria, sweltering heat and near starvation. Ever since reading this book, I meet every pang of discomfort with the thought: “This, I can handle. At least I’m not on the River of Doubt.”
Health + Fitness
Catherine Shanahan MD, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food
Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions (1999). What to eat is a confusing topic. Many people I respect advocate a vegan, raw diet, and almost everyone out there seems to agree that on a low fat, low cholesterol diet is best. So this is shocking at first: Sally Fallon is a big fan of animal fats, organic, of course. After experimenting on myself (13 years a vegetarian, no longer), I agree. This is more than a cookbook. It’s also a textbook on nutrition that advocates, in a nutshell: DON’T: eat processed fats, starches, sugars and proteins, DO: eat animal protein + fat, whole grains, and fermented foods that retain their nutritional value. It’s worth a look.
Doug McGruff, Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week. I have several friends and clients who are completely into Crossfit. And that’s great for them. They love it. If you are not into Crossfit, however, and you’d rather do something radical for your health and longevity in much less time, read this book!
Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (2011). Taubes buries the “calories in/calories out” theory. Like Sally Fallon (above), Taubes sets out the evidence that saturated fat is not the enemy, and is not responsible for heart disease. If you have struggled to lose weight, or are just interested in nutrition, this is a fascinating read.
God (Sort of. Or, Books by Gurus, Monks, Priests and Religious Fanatics):
Tosha Silver, Outrageous Openness: Letting the Divine Take the Lead
Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (Self-Realization Fellowship)
Masaru Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water
Pico Lyer, The Art of Stillness
Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2005). Whenever we feel anxiety, fear and uncertainty, Instead of automatically reaching for whatever temporarily makes us feel better, we can treat difficult times (and difficult people) as spiritual opportunities. The end result: a deep sense of peace and joy, which would not have otherwise been possible.
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (1986). Father Thomas Keating is a Trappist Monk who lives in a monestary in Snowmass, CO. Once, a couple of years ago, came to speak in Boulder and I went to see him. He is past 80, very tall, and dresses in a brown robe with a hood and a rope for a belt. He started his talk, “Who is God? I mean, who the hell is he?” I thought that was funny for an 80-year-old monk. His book is a guide to “Centering Prayer,” the Christian equivalent to Eastern meditation. If you are drawn to meditation, but have more of a Western/Christian nature, this is worth exploring.
Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. This is a classic, one I return to often. Jack Kornfield founded the Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, CA, where he teaches Western-minded people how to incorporate Eastern wisdom into their daily lives. He is a great writer and storyteller, and seems to be a funny, kind, and gentle teacher.
“When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and the end of spiritual practice. Only in this moment can we discover that which is timeless. Only here can we find the love that we seek. Love in the past is simply memory, and love in the future is fantasy. Only in the reality of the present can we love, can we awaken, can we find peace and understanding and connection with ourselves and the world.”
Annie Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. If irreverence and Christianity don’t seem like natural pals, try Annie Lamott. This is her memoir of having a child alone, sobering up, and finding God in a largely black church with a gospel choir that she tried to resist, but couldn’t. She is my most honest, neurotic, and hilarious friend. (She doesn’t know me, but I consider us friends.) Her twitter feed is wonderful.
Anthony de Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (1990). Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest. He wrote this simple, profound 200-page book on waking up. I like his Libertarian bent:
“Part of waking up is that you live your life as you see fit. And understand: That is not selfish. The selfish thing is to demand that someone else live their life as YOU see fit. That’s selfish… The selfishness lies in demanding that someone else live their life to suit your tastes, or your pride, or your profit, or your pleasure.”
Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (2012). If I had read this book the first year of being a mother, I wouldn’t have like it. The first year, I was a textbook attachment parent, and it worked well for both of us. But after awhile, I started looking around for another approach, which I found here. French kids don’t whine, don’t tantrum, eat grown-up food, and entertain themselves. French moms seem happy, not neurotic, still sexy, and (especially close to my heart): well dressed even at the playground. Advice on how to pull this off? I’ll take it.
Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Another book on the benefits of living simply and consciously, this one focused on the effect such living has on children. My favorite chapter was the one arguing for not giving kids choices. Parents in charge.
Neil Strauss, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships
Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Romantic Love: Romantic Love in an Anti-Romantic Age (1980). Most psychologists dwell on the struggle inherent in romantic love, and the likelihood of such love being mostly deluded projection. Nathaniel Branden, on the other hand, has a refreshingly optimistic focus: the centrality of admiration between two people. (Branden’s own life is fascinating. He spent several years as the protégé and then lover of Ayn Rand. Another great book is his memoir of that experience: My Years with Ayn Rand.)
David Deida, The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire (republished 2006). From the title you’d think this book is for men, and it is, but it’s just as important for women. I first read it in 1999, when I was slogging my way through life as a trial lawyer, dressing in suits every day, cutting my own hair, assuming it was anti-feminist to believe in any real differences between men and women, and generally bored in romantic relationship. This book came along and hit me over the head. I stopped being a trial lawyer. I realized that I had an intensely feminine essence, which I’d been in denial of most of my life, and unless I made room for, I was going to wind up seriously under-expressed. This is no longer the case. Thank you, David Deida.
Ester Perel, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (2007). Ester Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist living in New York, addresses the tendency in marriage to merge completely. The problem is that enmeshment kills passion, which needs mystery and uncertainty. Perel has good advice on how to love, and be close, without becoming enmeshed, without giving up all independence, maintaining some separateness, so that the spark that brought two people together survives. See her Valentine’s Day Ted Talk here.
David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships (2009). A reviewer on Amazon wrote that after 22 years of marriage, she and her husband came to a crossroads. They read and applied this work, and made it though. “My dear partner and I found a way of understanding that has plainly transformed us and the way we are for and with each other. We came so close to losing each other, and the preciousness of what we have instead continues to floor us. The PM approach is not something you pick up a few tips from and set aside… it is life-changing,”
Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (2010). I don’t follow tennis, I don’t play tennis, I don’t even know the rules of tennis. And, this was one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Agassi is just so honest. He is not trying to look good. He’s not trying to set the record straight. He’s just unraveling what happened, trying to understand it as he writes, and is for some reason willing to let that process be witnessed. It’s the honesty, as much as the story (which is also very good) that was so compelling. I couldn’t put it down.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2008). Another that I could not put down. Beah tells of the story of civil war in Sierra Leone, where he was separated from his family at age 12, and then a year later kidnapped for the Sierra Leone army. From 13 – 15 he was on drugs (“brown brown”), carrying an AK-47, and doing horrible things. When he was 15, he fell into the graces of a UNICEF rehabilitation center, and the spell was broken. It is an incredible story of innocence, guilt, and redemption. By the end of the book, I felt close to him, and feel close to him still. I do not know him, but am rooting for him with all my heart.
Roseanne Cash, Composed: A Memoir.
Claire and Mia Fontaine, Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back.
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (orig. 1959). A classic. Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl tells the story of his time in a Nazi death camp. He was the only one of his family to survive; his parents, brother, and pregnant wife died. His response was to write this, the manifesto for taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s reaction, regardless of external circumstances.
“Everything can be taken from man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2007). Is it possible to tell a genuine, messy story of self-discovery and not be labeled a narcissist? Thank god Gilbert persevered, weathering the critics, inside and out. There is so much here: courage to leave a conventional life that didn’t fit, depression and self doubt, plates of steamy cheesy pizza, a hesitant, stumbling seeking of God, unexpected, unconventional friendship and ultimately, true love.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (2008). Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a remarkable story to tell, and tells it here beautifully. Her strict Muslim upbringing was characterized by civil war, female circumcision, and brutal beatings. Nevertheless she remained a devout believer until late adolescence, and it is only in the last chapter that she rejects Islam by escaping from a forced marriage and seeking asylum in the Netherlands. It is a story about the courage to defy convention, change one’s mind, and make a new life grounded not in what you’ve been taught, but what you have come to believe.
Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (2009). I do not love hardback books. They are heavy and expensive, and I prefer paperback. Not only did I buy this in hardback and not regret it, I bought two more in hardback, one for my mother and one for a client with an alcoholic sister. Her other two memoirs are about childhood and adolescence. This is her story of adulthood: alcoholism, recovery, and her sincere, irreverent re-embracing of Catholicism after many years away.
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (orig. 1965). Most memoirs focus on people and events. Jung’s memoir is unusual in that it is the story of his relationship with his inner self, his Soul. In the end, he concludes,
“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.”
Caitlan Moran, How to Be a Woman (2012). I can’t remember the last time I have laughed this hard reading a book. Moran is so funny, and then in the next breath, deep and wise. She writes about motherhood beautifully, and treads into the waters of abortion with candor and poignancy that I have never seen. If I had read this book in college, I might have stayed a women’s studies major.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012). This is more than the story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s the story of a grieving 26-year-old woman who easily could have spent her life running but decided to face herself instead. (Also great: Tiny Beautiful Things (2012). Cheryl, disguised as Sugar, is a kind of Dear Abbey figure who writes advice with remarkable honesty, transparency, real love and empathy.)
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle: A Memoir (2006). If you think your parents were bad, read this. Her parents were awful. Creatively, eccentrically, awful in a way that is equally amusing and tragic. Walls tells the story with a sweetness and generosity I don’t think I would have. That she survives all this and became the functional, inspiring figure she is today is a miracle.
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989). Tobias Wolff was not a good boy. He was a liar, a fighter, a thief, all of that disguising the heroic man he was becoming. It’s the story of growing up in the 50s, with a warm mother who picks bad men, and an idiot stepfather he wisely declares war on. Beautifully, economically, sparsely written. Another where you wonder how in the world did someone who had this childhood grow up to do such wonderful things.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream(1996). In 1997, after graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, my friend Lisa and I traveled through Turkey. In a town called Kas, lying on beach chairs with the Mediterranean stretched out before us, we read this book out loud to each other. I was at the time reeling from certain big decisions I had just made, and If I had known what an ordeal lay ahead of me, I would have been quite daunted. But the lessons of this book helped prepare me: listen to your heart, follow your dreams, pay attention to the signs, and trust that your hearts’ longings were put there for a reason.
Jeffery Eugenies, Middlesex: A Novel
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel (2011). A powerful, can’t-put-down novel of an ordinary, supremely complex family that unravels completely and then finds its way back together. I read the ending as one of total redemption and grace, though have heard from several who didn’t see it that way. I enjoyed Franzen’s previous novel, The Corrections,but to me this one had much more heart.
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (1994). This Norweigen mystery novel tells the story of 14 year-old Sophie, who is on a hunt to discover the sender of her mystery mail. It is a good introduction to the foundations of Western philosophy, though that is not why I liked it. I liked it for its ending, which felt to me like looking at an auto-stereogram) and suddenly seeing a three-dimensional image you didn’t see before. Ironically, it makes a point about the true nature of reality not covered in the history of Western philosophy, more borrowed from Vedantic Hinduism. It is a magical book.
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (orig. 1943). Ayn Rand is flawed and so is this novel, but I will always love her intense philosophy of freedom and personal choice. Some of my favorite quotes:
“Anything may be betrayed, anyone may be forgiven, but not those who lack the courage of their own greatness.”
“Why do they always teach us that it is easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world – to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage.”
Peter Keating [the anti-hero]: “Do you always have to have a purpose? Do you always have to be so damn serious? Can’t you ever do things without reason, just like everybody else? You’re so serious, so old. Everything’s important with you. Everything’s great, significant in some way, every minute, even when you keep still. Can’t you ever be comfortable – and unimportant?”
Howard Roark [hero]: “No.”
Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun.
Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (2005). Irvin Yalom is a Psychiatry Professor at Stanford, whom I was first introduced to when I was assigned his textbook on Group Therapy. It was strangely good so I set out to learn what else he was up to, and discovered all sorts of great things. This is a novel set in 1880s Vienna, and imagines the relationship and conversations between a physician (Josef Breuer, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis) who is treating a suicidal philosopher, Nietzsche, with a new kind of “talking cure.” (Also great: Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy)
Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall: A Novel (2010). Good Lord. This is intense. If you love the disastrous history of England under King Henry VIII, this is for you. I cannot explained how sucked into this book I was. It is not an easy read. Several times I flipped back to understand where I was, but also to understand how she got me to care so deeply about these people, Thomas Cromwell in particular, with so little explanation. It is a gory and masterful book.