Goodreads just informed me I read 65 books this year. That’s miles away from my goal – which was to crack triple figures – but it’s still been a hell of a good year.
The way I read these days isn’t nearly as haphazard as it was. I curate recommendations from trusted people and sources, see which titles come up repeatedly, and then choose the ones I think will tickle me the most.
That means there were hardly any disappointments this year, and about two thirds of the books I read were really good. From those, I’m skimming off the absolute crème de la crème to recommend to you.
Note: The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, use the links below to send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
These are the books that blew my mind, made me howl, or filled my notebook to overflowing.
Here they are, in no particular order.
Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a 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.”
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, a psychologist, endured unspeakable horrors in three concentration camps. His tale of love and nobility in the midst of utter desolation tackles the question that “burns under our fingernails” – what is the meaning of life?
Certain philosophers (and emo 16 year olds) love to point out the absurdity of striving for meaning in a world which is fundamentally meaningless. Man’s Search for Meaning is an epic smackdown of nihilism in favour of defiant, passionate existentialism. This is one of the most moving and inspiring books you’ll ever read.
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Kahneman, a Nobel prize-winning psychologist, lays bare all the ways in which we are hideously and hopelessly irrational. This has all sorts of implications for self-improvement, the way we treat others, and the way we structure society: Why does everyone think they wash the dishes more than they do? Why is playing the stock exchange for suckers? Why are paraplegics surprisingly happy? Why are experts so woefully bad at making predictions?
A billionaire hedge fund manager personally recommended this book to me, then my flatmate just so happened to offer me a copy. Clearly it was meant to be. Thinking, Fast and Slow led me to the rationalist community; people who are actively trying to overcome the messy cognitive biases of the human brain.
Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
“As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.”
One critic complained he couldn’t stand Seneca because there was hardly a sentence which couldn’t be quoted – “to read him straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce”. I love Seneca for that very reason. He packs an enormous amount of wisdom on frugality, friendship, freedom, death, and dealing with haters into this volume, with lines you can chew on for hours.
Stoic philosophy has survived the test of time remarkably well, and has made a big impact on my own life. Check out the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy for a modern overview, then follow up with either Letters From a Stoic or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I also read Epictetus’ The Discourses this year, which is a little tougher going, but my personal favourite.
An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks
“These then are tales of metamorphosis, brought about by neurological chance, but metamorphosis into alternative states of being, other forms of life, no less human for being so different.”
Last year we lost Oliver Sacks, and what a loss it was. A physician, neurology professor and author, he also happened to be a gay, Jewish, motorcycle-loving, 300 pound powerlifting champion (nickname: Dr Squat). Naturally, I’m a fan. Sacks wrote amazingly detailed narrative case histories of neurological conditions like Tourettes and Parkinson’s.
My favourite essay in this collection is the title story about Temple Grandin. Sacks explores the connection between Grandin’s autism and her incredible visualisation skills and ability to recall detail, which have made her a world expert on humane animal handling and slaughterhouse design (she also invented a mechanical ‘hug box’ for autistic people who don’t like human contact). This book offers fascinating glimpses into the minds of people who think in fundamentally different ways to the rest of us.
Born to Fight – Mark Hunt
“He’d be black and blue head-to-toe regularly. I’d have to wash away the blood, massage his bruises and put salt on his wounds, so Dad could give him another beating. At about five Mark started to become a thief, and a violent maniac, but how would he know any better? He didn’t even understand what love was until he met Julie. There were good parts of him but, that survived during the abuse, and those parts became the soul of my brother.”
Sports biographies are normally boring and sycophantic. Born to Fight is so riveting I read it in one sitting. UFC star Mark Hunt admits he was little more than a mindless animal during his South Auckland street brawler days. Under the patient coaxing of journalist Ben Mckelvey, he reveals a nightmare upbringing, dominated by hatred, sickening abuse, and mental illness.
The first lesson in this book is that you never know what people have been through, and what factors have shaped the course of their lives. It’s a minor miracle that Hunt is even alive, much less one of the most beloved figures in martial arts. This leads to the second lesson – there’s always a chance for salvation and redemption.
You don’t need to follow the UFC to get something out of this book, and if you actively look down your nose at fight sports, you’re exactly the sort of person who should read it.
The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
“The cornucopia that greets you as you enter the supermarket dwarfs anything that Louis XIV ever experienced (and it is probably less likely to contain salmonella).”
A fascinating romp through the history of technology and prosperity, in which Ridley explains why the division of labour is such a wondrous thing. I don’t entirely buy his argument about government constantly undermining the fruits of free trade, but he does make a good case for it.
The best part of The Rational Optimist is the cheerful skewering of the doom-mongers who have consistently been wrong about everything, as well as the overwhelming evidence presented that there’s never been a better time to be alive. A great antidote to the crushing negativity of the news media, and the trendy moaning about how awful everything is these days.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
I hated the style of this book at first – a series of letters, written in colloquial language – but I’m glad I stuck with it. The Color Purple is the Great American Novel as far as I’m concerned. After reading something like this, Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye look like shallow navel-gazing. If you want to change it up from the angst of rich white people, step into the world of black women in the South of the 1930s.
Walker’s characters have rich development arcs, which helps her explore some pretty challenging themes around sexuality, gender roles and family. If you make it through with dry eyes, you might not have a soul.
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”
For some reason I’d never read Dawkins’ classic before, but already I can’t wait to re-read it (I lost all the notes I took in a tragic Kindle malfunction). It turns out we are but temporary hosts for our genes – ruthless replicators which care not a whit for our own survival, let alone our group or our species.
This elegant reframing of natural selection explains so much about the way we behave and about altruism, with a fascinating foray into game theory too. Dawkins is great at using metaphors to break down complicated concepts for the layperson, which makes this a surprisingly easy read.
Burmese Days – George Orwell
“As his brain developed—you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life—he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire.”
I’d never even heard of Orwell’s debut novel before I arrived in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where bootleg copies are sold everywhere for a few thousand kyat. The searing critique of imperialism and racism isn’t exactly subtle, but I assume it’s a reflection of Orwell’s own experiences in the Raj.
The beautifully written vignettes of Burmese life are thrilling, especially because many remain eerily accurate despite the intervening decades. However, the beauty is counterbalanced with ugliness. I’ve been eating street food for the last six months, and nothing made my gut churn like the ending of this book.
Doing Good Better – Will MacAskill
“Donating to charity is not nearly as glamorous as kicking down the door of a burning building, but the benefits are just as great. Through the simple act of donating to the most effective charities, we have the power to save dozens of lives.”
The ideas in this book blew my mind like nothing else. The way we’re doing charity is hopelessly inefficient. We’re drawn to big events like natural disasters, ignoring that the world is in a permanent state of emergency. Every single day we have the chance to save lives, and the cost of doing so is incredibly low – about $3400. By giving to effective causes over the course of our careers, any normal person can become a hero, saving perhaps 100 times as many lives as a doctor.
The challenge of effective altruism is resisting our bias toward supporting people who look like us and who live in our neighbourhoods, rather than the invisible ones (usually with brown faces) who are in far greater need of our help. If you read one book off this list, make it this one.
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein: Finally I grok why every geeky dude over a certain age uses the word ‘grok’.
The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell: Russell is an easy philosopher to read, and his writing beats the hell out of the typical self-help shelf stuff.
Zero to One – Peter Thiel: Great advice for people interested in start-ups, with some weird digressions into the VC billionaire’s personal hobby-horses.
Anything You Want – Derek Sivers: Man, Derek Sivers is such a lovely guy. After all the ruthless entrepreneurial guides, this is a refreshingly holistic take on doing business.
The Upside of Irrationality – Dan Ariely: The sequel to Predictably Irrational, another great book on behavioural economics. This one is focused on recognising our irrational behaviours so we can use them to our advantage, which is cool.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck: This is my favourite Steinbeck yet. I picked it up entirely on the basis of thrashing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ (the E Street Band version where he battles Tom Morello). Good call, Bruce.
What was the best book you read this year? Don’t forget to come add me as a friend on Goodreads so we can share recommendations and reviews!
65 books is super impressive. I wish I carved out enough time to read at least a book a week.
You definitely have me intrigued with the book Born to Fight. I’m not a huge MMA guy but your description makes it seem intriguing.
Thanks for sharing!!!
I’m determined to get 100 one of these years! Thanks for your comment, and definitely give Born to Fight a try. It’s harrowing as hell, but worth it.