A journey of a thousand books begins with a single page–or, in my case, an audio track. I remember it vividly. It was a cold January morning with air so crisp I could almost feel it crunching as I passed through it. I was walking a dog at the animal shelter my wife worked for at the time, and I was finishing up a business book called The Barefoot Executive. I had started my own business doing freelance writing for small businesses a little over a year ago, and I was still reading business books trying to improve myself. I had always been an avid reader but had focused almost exclusively on business books since graduating college 4 years before. I didn’t realize it then, but this business book would be the last of my narrow focus in reading and the first in a whole new reading project that would really come to transform my life.
Since it was the beginning of the year, I had decided to start keeping track of the books I read. As the year progressed, I started inadvertently picking up books on different topics–just out of curiosity. By the time April came around, I decided to turn my book log into a formal project. My initial goal was to read 1,000 books by 2020 on as diverse a range of subjects as possible. I ended up moving a lot more quickly than I thought I would and actually finished the project on August 23, 2015–964 days after starting. Yes, I had read over a book a day. I did this in a large part by reading audiobooks, as well as spending another 2-3 hours a day in traditional reading. I also admittedly didn’t read as deeply as I could have. My goal was to cover as much ground as possible–not so much to dig for what was underneath it. Going forward, I’d like to do a little more digging and read a little more thoroughly. But, for the 1,000 Books Project, it was all about breadth.
In this post, I want to share with you the 10 best books from my project and why I think they matter so much to me–as well as links to my top 100. Before getting to my favorite books from the project, though, I wanted to share some lessons I’ve learned along the way from engaging in such a massive reading project. I’ve changed dramatically over the past 2-3 years, and I have little doubt that this project has played a major role in my transformation. Maybe, in sharing some of what I’ve learned, I can inspire you to do some more reading and become a better version of yourself as a result. So, here goes…
5 Lessons I Learned from Reading 1,000 Books
- It’s a big world. The most obvious lesson I learned from taking on such a massive project is just how small and insignificant I am in the vastness of time and space. In reading so many different subjects, I’ve vicariously lived many lives through the characters I’ve encountered. I’ve held careers in education, hospitality, biological research, law, sports writing, medicine, chemical engineering, Christian ministry, the military, government administration, and computer programming. I’ve travelled to Costa Rica, Australia, Italy, Algiers, Canada, Sierra Leone, Germany, Russia, the Carribean, North Korea, and even outer space. I’ve been rich, poor, young, old, black, white, male, female, a Christian, an atheist, liberal, conservative, a victim, and an aggressor. I’ve seen through the eyes of many people, places, eras, and ideologies. And upon discovering just how many eyes through which there are to see, I’ve been humbled into realizing just how incomplete my own perspective is. I may be the center of my own universe, but I and all of the beliefs, values, and characteristics that make me who I am are a mere spec of dust on the shoe of the universe as a whole. This revelation, I think, has made me more open to the beliefs, values, and characteristics of others–not just because I can empathize with them as another insignificant soul in a big world–but also because the additional perspective helps complete the picture. To see through another’s eyes is to get one step closer to truth.
- Everything’s connected. Before beginning my project, I was really into the idea of “personal branding.” I felt I had to conform to a rigid profile and every part of my life should rationally align with every other part of my life. I had studied economics and really taken the concept of specialization to heart in my entire being. As I read, however, I began to change my mind. I would read one book and later see something within it referenced in a completely different kind of book. And sometimes it wasn’t so direct, but something in one book would remind me of something I had read in another book. The more I read, the more I realized that everything is related in some way to everything else. This understanding helped me to stop seeing things as black-and-white, and also to start seeing more of the similarities than differences in various ideas. I’ve become more well-rounded and less concerned with fitting a certain mold. There are many things that make me who I am–and I think that can be said of every other person as well as every other concept. All things are multi-dimensional; all things are cross-dimensional; everything is connected.
- Everything is interesting. No subject is boring if you ask it enough questions. A lot of the books I’ve read would probably sound boring to the average person. A history of shipping containers, an overview of materials science, a field guide to birds, a user’s manual on SQL, a novel about a retired butler going back to work…are you yawning yet? Of course, depending on who you are and what you like, these may actually sound appealing to you–but they didn’t to me…that is, before I read them. As I forced myself into foreign subjects, though, and asked questions about what I was learning, I developed an interest. Now, I am firmly convinced that there is nothing that I won’t find at least a little interesting. (Go ahead, try me). Everything has a history–how it came to be. Everything has a science–how it works. Everything has a bit of art–ways in which it can be appreciated. I wrote an article for another website on this subject, and someone left a comment that really stuck with me: “There are no boring subjects, only boring people.” (GK Chesterton said it in another way: “There are no uninteresting subjects, only disinterested minds.”) I couldn’t have said it better myself. If we proactively take an interest, we’ll always manage to find something interesting.
- To be challenged is to be changed. Prior to my project, I bought into two philosophies of living: 1) focus on personal growth; keep improving and getting better, and 2) be confident about who you are and what you believe; stick to your guns; don’t listen to others but be true to yourself. It was only as I got well into my project and found myself deliberately reading books by people who believe differently than I do that I realized these two philosophies contradict one another. You can’t grow without change. To really improve, you have to challenge the status quo within. It means questioning, adjusting, and–at times–shattering old beliefs. Reading books that contradicted my beliefs led me to more informed perspectives on religion, politics, economic inequality, social justice, and decision-making–just to name a few areas. And, it’s not that I’ve even arrived at my final beliefs. Even now, I seek out material that tests my current perspectives, because that’s the only way that I can improve those perspectives. If you aren’t challenging yourself, you aren’t growing.
- The more you learn, the less you know. Lest you start to think this recap is a self-aggrandizing pat-on-the-back for reading so many books and being so smart, let me make it plain and clear: I am an ignoramus. I don’t consider myself to have any more knowledge or insight than anyone else. I have nothing to teach and everything to learn. And that isn’t false humility–it’s the honest truth. Throughout my 1,000 Books Project, I have become increasingly cognizant of my own ignorance. Why? Because the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know and how much more knowledge there is to acquire. Learning is like running a race in which the finish line moves forward in exponential increments every time your foot hits the pavement. So, yes you do know more when you learn something but the increase in knowledge makes you feel less knowledgable, because it leads you to more fully grasp the distance to the finish line. Learning is a truly humbling experience, and I hope I never stop embracing it. When I’m at the end of my days and I’ve read thousands more books, I hope that I still feel like a little child just trying to figure out this strange world I’ve stumbled into. If not, that means I’ve stopped learning. And I never want to stop learning–even if that finish line doesn’t even really exist.
Of course, I learned many more lessons that I’ve incorporated into my thought and behavior, but these are the big ones that really stood out to me. I hope you find as much value in them as I have. Now, let’s get to the books…
The Top 10 Books
Here are my top 10 books, what they’re about, and why I love them. You can find links to their Amazon.com pages in the Top 100 table below.
#1) The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical essay by novelist Albert Camus, and is considered one of the cornerstone pieces of existentialist thought. Although Camus is thought to be the most accessible of the existentialists, there is a great deal of philosophical, literary, and cultural commentary which I still don’t really understand (seriously, try reading Kierkegaard or Nietzsche). The gist of the piece, though, is that the world as we experience it is absurd in that it has no apparent meaning. We don’t know why we’re here or if there is even a reason we’re here at all. What is the point of living if there is no point of living? If I were to give this essay an alternative title, it would be, “Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself Even Though You Have No Reason to Live.”
Okay, so now you’re probably thinking I’m nuts–that I’m unstable and should probably see a shrink. But I’m not weird (at least not for this reason)–what I’m talking about here is the human condition–the search for meaning and purpose in a world where the answers aren’t easy to find. Especially in dark times of suffering and pain, we tend to feel that absurd sense of meaninglessness quite acutely. In the face of death, we all feel it. What is this for? What’s the point? Why are we here?
The answer that Camus gives makes this essay, to me, a self-help manual. In fact, he even jokingly calls his work “a manual of happiness.” To offer a perspective on how we deal with our lives when they don’t make sense, Camus gives the illustration of Sisyphus–a character from Greek mythology who was given an eternal punishment of fruitless labor. Sisyphus had to push a rock up a hill, watch it roll back down, and push it back up again–over and over again, for all of eternity. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus does the unthinkable–he embraces his rock. Instead of seeing his task as meaningless, he finds meaning in the task itself. He takes ownership of his rock and, in doing so, he conquers it.
This image has gotten me through many difficult challenges, and it continues to be the story that plays inside of my head whenever life gets tough. “I am superior to my fate. I am stronger than my rock,” I tell myself–personalizing the words of Camus’ essay. This image has helped stop asking the question, “what’s the point?” and instead accept the hand I’ve been dealt as a blessing–my lot, my rock, my cross to bear. When life pushes, like the heaviness of the rock, I simply push back harder. “There is no fate,” says Camus, “that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
#2) The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind is a book about why people hold the ideological beliefs they hold, and how understanding the nature of convictions can make us all more cooperative. As this was one of the first books I read in my project, I think it’s what really opened me up to the possibility of learning about other ways of seeing the world. It changed the way I feel about where my own beliefs come from and how they fit into the spectrum of world views represented by others who have had different experiences than me.
According to Jonathan Haidt–a social psychologist who has been studying moral psychology for about 20 years–we generally don’t come to believe things because they make rational sense. Instead, we believe things first and then we use reason to rationalize the legitimacy of those beliefs. Beliefs–whether they be religious, political, or any other kind–don’t come from an objective interpretation of reality. They come from the community and culture to which we belong. We adopt these beliefs as part of our experience and then use them to interpret reality. Be believe; then, we seek to justify those beliefs. “Moral intuition,” says Haidt, “is more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
After reading The Righteous Mind, I stumbled across countless other works of psychology that confirmed the notion that we seek to reconcile reality to our own perspectives. But, this was the first book that opened me up to the notion–and it really opened my eyes. Now, instead of standing in condemnation of beliefs that I myself do not hold, I ask myself why I believe what I believe and what makes the other person believe differently. “There are two sides to every story” was an adage that I’d heard before, but this book introduced me to the science of the proverb and made it real for me. I am now more open-minded and tolerant of others’ views, because I realize that my own are just as susceptible to error as anyone else’s.
#3) The Stranger by Albert Camus
I first read The Stranger in 2005. My now wife was taking am International literature course and was assigned to read it. I read it too–and have read it several times since. I can never quite articulate what I find so captivating about this short novel, but I’ll give it another shot here. The story is about an unambitious, somewhat socially awkward, Algerian Frenchman in the 1940s names Meursault who approaches his life with a carefree and non-committal disposition. Through a series of unplanned and random events, he winds up shooting a man on a beach and going to prison. During the trial, his character is called into question to a greater degree than his crime–and he ends up being sentenced to death. The novel ends with him embracing his sentence and inwardly cursing those who’ve condemned him.
While I wouldn’t hold Meursault up as a role model (he’s kind of a sociopath), I suppose I love this novel so much because I identify the way he becomes a victim of his circumstances and–at the same time–embraces his fate. Also, there’s the element in which he finds himself as sort of a prisoner to social expectations when he really just wants to do his own thing. Who can’t relate to that? Anyway, I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it can be fairly humorous in parts.
#4) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Of all the books on my top 10 (and I think even the top 100), this is the first one I actually read (I reread it for my project). I first encountered the classic beloved by English teachers in, you guessed it, high school. This novel sparked my interest in dystopian fiction that continues to this day–and it remains my favorite among them all. In case you don’t know what Brave New World is about, it chronicles the experience of a “primitive” man who enters into a futuristic society in which happiness is manufactured and problems are eradicated.
Why I love the novel so much, I think, is the idea contained within it that happiness doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t genuine. We don’t just want the feeling of happiness; we also want a reason to be happy, and we’d actually prefer suffering over happiness that is artificial. Okay, by “we,” I mean “me.” But maybe the concept resonates with you too.
Side note: I tried to write a paper on this novel for an Existentialist literature class in college, and my Prof wouldn’t let me because he said it really wasn’t existential. Well sorry Dr. (Smith? Turner? Jacobs? I forget–), but after reading Camus, Sartte, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Marcel, Tillich, and Maxquarrie, I have to say that Brave New World has existentialism oozing from its ears. Just saying.
#5) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning is a survivor memoir, a treatise on existential philosophy, and a manual of practical psychology–all rolled into one short book. The first part consists of Frankl’s stirring account of living in and emerging from a concentration camp as a Jew in Nazi Germany. The second part consists of how he continued his career as a psychologist after the war and an explanation of the methodology he developed as a result of his experience. What strikes me so much about this work is its emphasis on how to cope with–and even find meaning in–suffering.
We have few contemporary examples of human suffering that rival the Jewish holocaust and if a man can emerge from that experience having found meaning in suffering, perhaps I too can find meaning in the petty discomforts of my own life. My favorite quote, quite reminiscent of Sisyphus and his rock, is this: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
#6) Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres
Super Crunchers is a book about how using statistical methods can lead to better judgments than relying on intuition. If you’ve read (or, more likely, seen) Moneyball, this book covers the same them in all sorts of context. I love this work so much, because it’s the first thing that really got me thinking empirically and quantitatively. Professionally, no book has had more of an influence on my life (I work in data analysis). But thinking quantitatively has also improves my health, my happiness, and many other things in my personal life. I know, I know–not everything that counts can be counted. But, I’ve come to believe that if it can be counted, it can be counted on.
#7) The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
The Invisible Gorilla is an elaboration by two Psychologists on one of the coolest Psychology experiments ever conducted. If you still haven’t heard of said experiment, it’s your lunch day–you can still participate! Follow this link and follow the instructions in the video–it will only take a minute… So, besides the fact that I geek out over the experiment, I really love this book because it has really transformed my life and thinking. The Invisible Gorilla shattered my illusion of confidence. Before reading it, I was kind of full of myself. Of course, you couldn’t tell. I projected a veneer of humility, but I really thought I was pretty smart and respectable. The ideas I came across in this book–the fallibility of memory and the reality of overconfidence in the general population–put me in my place. Now, whoever I start to think I’m something special, I check myself and start looking for the “gorilla” in my thinking.
#8) Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
I first read Difficult Conversations in 2011 as part of an online business book club when I was working my first job out of college–in automotive sales. I have never been a fan of confrontation, and working in that business didn’t exactly warm me up to the idea. Reading this book enabled me to grasp how to have conversations in awkward situations such that problems don’t escalate and common ground can be found. I continue to use concepts from this book in my professional and personal interactions to this day. My favorite concept is that of looking for my own contribution to problems rather than looking for someone else to blame–there is nothing quite so empowering as assuming responsibility.
#9) Critical Thinking by Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker
Not to sound trite or lazy in my explanation for putting a textbook in my top 10 books of all-time, but I love this book so much because it taught me how to think critically. This text was required reading for an Introduction to Logic class that I took as a Sophomore in college, and it really open my eyes regarding how to discuss/debate issues in a civil and rational manner. The biggest takeaway for me was a simple list of logical fallacies (appeal to authority, red herring, begging the question, etc.) it introduced me to–enabling me to more quickly spot flawed reasoning in the arguments of others and become less likely to use it myself.
#10) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Thinking, Fast and Slow is Daniel Kahneman’s summarization of the Nobel-Prize winning body of research–created by himself and the late Amos Tversky–that has come to be known as prospect theory or, in the popular media, behavioral economics. Essentially, Kahneman argues that the human mind is made of two systems–an automatic, non-deliberative system and a conscious, rational system. The research demonstrates, in a nut shell, that human beings aren’t as rational as we think we are. What I love so much about this book is that it’s a grab bag of the best research in cognitive psychology and decision theory–a category of study with which I’ve become rather obsessed. Off the top of my head, my favorite studies involve the anchoring effect and loss aversion–if you aren’t aware of what these are, look them up. It may just change the way you think about the way you think.
The Top 100 Books
Here are my top 100 Books from the project. Of course, there were many others I read that I really liked and that influenced me in some way. But this is a solid list that I would recommend to anyone. If it sounds like it would be interesting to you, read it. If it doesn’t, read it anyway–that’s all the more reason to do so. Click on the title to go to the Amazon.com page for each book. Click on the author to go to the Wikipedia page for that author (if there is one). To see the entire list of books I read in my project, you can download it from my Dropbox here: 1,000 Books Log.