We live in a time where the ability to learn and stretch your mind are more valued than ever. But not everything has to be about “improvement” or “value”.
Experiencing joy and transcendence is part of the human experience, and I have frequently experienced both while turning the pages of a book.
As Kafka said,
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”
Perhaps because a digital axe would be of little use when one needs to break ice, I read books in their physical form. I spend the bulk of my waking hours reading and writing material on luminescent screens, so the comfort of a physical book is a balm for me. Also it’s a healthier way to read before bed.
I’ve avoided referring to this as my “favorite” books list because while many of them certainly are, there are too many great books I have enjoyed over the years to feel comfortable with the term. But from my perspective these are indeed great books, and I’m better for having read them.
I’m a strong believer in the importance of balance. A well-lived life should allow for time investments in the productive, social, physical, creative, intellectual and spiritual aspects of our lives. Books are a great way to stretch our minds, and as you’ll see from this list I tend to flex across a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. Many readers get stuck in one favorite category of books and rarely venture outside of it. Men in particular have a tendency read only non-fiction and shy away from literature.
Perhaps some books on this list will inspire you to slide your feet, ever so carefully, out onto your own frozen sea, axe in hand.
I’ve arranged the books in the following categories. Clicking on a specific category will take you directly to that category detail. There is a button in the lower right-hand corner that will send you back to the top of this page to reduce scrolling.
Non-Fiction Categories (excluding Business)
- Art & Creativity
- Health & Money
- Science & Geography
- Historical Fiction
- Issues & Public Policy
- Children and Young Adult
- Classic Literature
- Great American Literature
- Science Fiction
- General Fiction
Genre note: this is a tough category to limit myself to only a few books because of the breadth of book subjects that can fall within it. These are just a few that represent both deep character development to useful tips and tricks.
|The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey — I’m starting off this list with arguably the most influential book I’ve ever read. Covey wrote a book that wasn’t his personal opinion on becoming more effective; he reviewed and categorized millennia of proven wisdom and created a simple framework for its present-day application. This isn’t a book you read – it’s a book you “do”, so be ready to set the book aside from time to time so that you can contemplate and create your unique path to personal and professional effectiveness.|
|The Road to Character by David Brooks — A smart look at how character is formed over a lifetime, viewed through the lens of mini-biographies of great people such as Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and many others. NYT columnist Brooks – whose writing I admire – has clearly grown bored with pontificating about the political issues of the day and over the past few years has been more interested in exploring what is “real” in our lives. Through these biographies, he shows how character is formed by a lifetime of struggle against our chief sins, whatever they may be. There are also excellent videos available on YouTube of David giving talks about the book at various venues (but first read the book).|
|Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss — Tim has been described as “The Oprah Winfrey of podcasting”. His over-the-top zeal for understanding and applying the habits of high performers is legendary and has given rise to his famous “four hour” books (The Four Hour Workweek, The Four Hour Body, The Four Hour Chef) as well as his podcast. This book is dauntingly huge but is really readable. Tim simply asked a wide range of high performers in his network a series of simple questions via email, and with some light editing he created a book with their responses. Some responses won’t resonate with you, but some will. Each of these are only a couple pages, so you can skip around to find people you already know, or – as I did – read through them all and marvel at how these people think through their routines and create habits to maximize their effectiveness. Bonus: if you like this book, consider also a similar collection from Tim called Tools of Titans.|
|Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl — Frankl’s famous memoir is a reflection of his experience while struggling to survive Nazi death camps. Frankl was a psychologist who, while imprisoned, pondered how one can remain human in the face of inhumanity. The result is this book, a key pillar upon which Stephen Covey’s book and a hundred others rests. In Ferriss’s book, when he asks his subjects to cite one to three books that have significantly influenced their lives, this appears to me to have been the most cited by far. That should indicate its power and importance.|
|Deep Work by Cal Newport — The complexity of the work we engage in today is increasing, yet we live in an era of distraction. Additionally, recent studies demonstrate that while we think we’re excellent at multi-tasking we in fact are terrible, and the slightest distraction requires significant effort to get back on track. In this book Cal Newport outlines how those who master the ability to engage in “deep work” – extended periods of uninterrupted time spent on a complex task – will separate themselves from the vast majority of people who are furtively tapping on their social media feeds. If you’re like me, you know that you need to improve in this area. I loved how Newport (an academic) used research and common sense to point out why we suck at concentrating these days, and why we need to get our act together. He doesn’t pull any punches.|
|Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday — This book could easily be categorized in the “Religion and Spirituality” section – not because it is religious in any way, but because it addresses the constant human struggle with our insufferable ego – a major theme across different religious traditions. Holiday’s earlier book is The Obstacle is the Way (also recommended, but didn’t make this list). This book seeks to help us be “humble in our aspirations, gracious in our success, resilient in our failures”, and uses a mixture of excellent writing and short biographical snippets to convey why our ego so often causes us to act against our better angels and what we can do about it.|
|A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman— I love what this book is about: curiosity. I think most people perceive curiosity to be an inherent trait we’re either born with or without. I don’t see it that way. I believe that curiosity is an attribute you can develop through intentional practice. If you don’t know the author Brian Grazer, you certainly know him by the blockbuster movies he has produced such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. In this book, he talks about how he arranges “curiosity conversations” with all sorts of people. And while Brian might have an easier time than you and I arranging discussions with A-list celebrities, we are all surrounded by interesting people who can teach us something – if only we’d take the initiative.|
|Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet — There are a thousand books on entrepreneurship, but Aulet – who is the managing director in the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at MIT and also a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management – gives a great framework for entrepreneurs to follow. Entrepreneurship – and it’s corporate version, “intrapreneurship” – is both an art and a science. In this highly readable and actionable book, budding entrepreneurs are walked through twenty four steps that roll up to a complete effort. My copy is dog-eared and marked up, and I grab it every now and again to re-read a section. Teaser: read the book to learn about a common mistake entrepreneurs make which Aulet refers to as the “Chinese Syndrome” problem.|
|The Dip by Seth Godin — Entrepreneurs all experience “the dip” – Seth Godin’s term for the period of time after which the excitement of the new idea starts to wane and obstacles present themselves. This is a great aid to help you power through and get back on track.|
|Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur — Like Aulet’s “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” above, this book walks you through a process. I think it’s a great way to visualize a business before you start. The template becomes your “Business Model Canvas”, and forces you to think through all aspects of your effort. Entrepreneurs who work through a process like this would improve their prospects. And like any book for entrepreneurs, this applies to corporate business leaders as well.|
Leadership and Business Biographies
Genre note: “Leadership” is ingrained in many book genres, so you’ll find profound leadership insights throughout this list. I included some biographies and autobiographies here because personal stories can be the best way to learn about leadership.
|My American Journey by Colin Powell — Civilian business leaders are often interested in insights from the military. There are no shortage of these books, but this autobiography from Colin Powell was one of the best views into the military that I have read, and it demonstrates for any reader how one of the greatest Americans – in both the military and in statesmanship – was formed and excelled.|
|Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen. Stanley McChrystal — This is another book from the sub-genre of military insights for the non-military world. General McChrystal was the leader of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq and in this book describes how he had to change centralized (translation: bureaucratic) tactics to fight a decentralized opponent. Those who work for large companies will immediately grasp the reason why this book is so valuable.|
|Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin — This book is often on peoples’ lists of top leadership books and for good reason. Leaders often have to lead teams that involve a complicated mixture of petty jealousies, overwrought egos, and outright hostility. The reaction among some leaders is to eliminate the problems and replace them with a more supportive team. But does that simply create an underperforming group of sycophants? Lincoln was a genius in how he put together the right team at a dire time. Bonus note: Both this book and McChrystal’s book start with the word “Team” – something to reflect upon when the word leadership becomes too associated with individual accomplishment.|
|Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin — Two in a row for Doris! I thought when this was released in September, 2018 that this might be a hastily-written book to address our current societal angst, but in fact it was researched over the course of several years and is a great way to get real insights to the four presidents that Doris refers to as “her guys”: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The book charts how their ambition was formed, how they underwent their own dark nights of the soul, and how they used their obstacles to strengthen themselves for their destiny. Brilliant writing and powerful stories.|
|Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson — There are those who find the adulation for Steve Jobs unseemly given his lengthy record of being obnoxious, and I have some sympathy for this view. But his ability to fundamentally reorder entire markets – more than once – based largely upon his commitment to a vision makes this book a must-read for those who seek to change even the smallest corner of their product/market. One of the things I admired about Jobs was his commitment to beauty. If Apple was only about technology it would be a small fraction of its current value. Isaacson (who has two books on this list) was a fair and insightful biographer as Jobs’ life was ending.|
Genre note: I’m skipping the academic books on strategy, but if you’re looking for that simply search using the term “Michael Porter”.
|A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden — The idea is simple: we humans think better when we’re faced with constraints. Although most corporate employees would deny this, they have an abundance of resources to draw from, and this very fact makes them less creative. Imposing constraints – even where there are none – make us reach down and do the real thinking success requires. Teaser: read about the “Can-If” map and apply it to improve results.|
|Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown — To paraphrase the Harvard professor and strategy expert Michael Porter, the essence of strategy is what you say “no” to. But how do we choose? How do we reduce our to-do list and improve our results? This is a great book to read if you feel busy but not productive.|
|The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen — In David vs. Goliath markets, David used to get crushed. Now David often has the advantage, and Christensen’s book helps explain why. This is a great model to understand as small upstarts nibble their way from the bottom to a position of market dominance.|
Genre note: a bucket for a few great books that were difficult to categorize
|The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle — Culture is one of those things that everyone knows is important but has a hard time “doing”. I’ve read a lot on culture over the years and think this is one of the best books you can read on the subject. Coyle studied several high performing teams to see what makes them tick. The result is a fascinating book that will inspire you to be more aware of the culture you are part of and how it might become a more powerful ingredient in your teams’ success.|
|The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee — There are many future-oriented books in the market, but this one stood out for me. The authors look at technological progress and its impact on society and jobs. From truck driving to legal work, few professions will be untouched by what is coming, and this book lays out the forces that our propelling us into the unknown future (as all futures are). As we see in recent elections around the world these changes can be destabilizing, and books like this can better prepare us to understand why and what might be coming next. It is a smart and optimistic book.|
|The Big Short by Michael Lewis — There are a few writers who I would pay good money simply to read their grocery lists – that is to say, anything they write. Michael Lewis is one such author for me and as such he shows up on this list three times. This book is probably well-known to you since it was also made into a major motion picture (as one of his other books, Moneyball, also was). This story is a view into just one element of the titanic disaster that was the 2008 recession and its connection to collateralized mortgage instruments. Lewis is a gifted storyteller and knows how to make complex financial concepts understandable. This book was a great read. I also recommend his book Boomerang if you like his writing.|
Non-Fiction Categories (excluding Business)
Genre note: This is an underappreciated genre that is usually stuck in the back corner of your local book store. If you’ve traveled a lot, you’ll love many of these books. If you haven’t, you’ll love them all the more. I had a hard time limiting myself to these selections only.
|Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker— A lovely, lyrical book written by one of the guys piloting your international flight. Vanhoenacker delivers observations from the cockpit while exploring the disorienting and amazing aspects of international travel in the jet age. To call it a “travel book” is reductive. It weaves geography, history, and about ten other disciplines into a seamless journey across oceans.|
|The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton— A beautifully written book about the “why” of travel, complete with experiences of the author as well as the travel experiences of great people from history such as Baudelaire, Wordsworth, and Flaubert. Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about those people – de Botton introduces you and illustrates how their travel experiences were key to understanding their time and their art. This is one of those books you can get lost in.|
|River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler— Hessler is another author who I will read no matter the subject and who also has two books on this list (both in this genre). This is one of a collection of books Hessler wrote about his time in China. River Town chronicles Hessler’s time in a remote Chinese village in the Yangtze Valley where he taught English as a member of the Peace Corps. In many cases, Hessler was the first westerner anyone in town had seen. The intense cultural implications of his life there combined with his incredible writing make this a must-read.|
|Country Driving by Peter Hessler— In this book, Hessler undertakes an effort to drive across the entirety to China over a series of trips. This book is a great way to understand China and it’s rapid ascent as a world economic power. The fact that he deeply respects the Chinese and also speaks the language and understands the culture makes for a fascinating introduction to the regular people he meets along his trip.. If you’ve read zero books on China, and are willing to allocate some reading time for just one, this would be the book I’d recommend.|
|Flirting with French by William Alexander— To be an American overseas is to appreciate how much difficulty we have learning new languages. This book is a love letter to France written by the author while taking part in a language immersion program in that country. The author’s overwhelming desire to master français is met by the difficulty of the language itself along with the science indicating that our ability to master foreign languages drops quickly as we age. A fun and interesting read that goes well with a baguette and a nice Bordeaux.|
|Best American Travel Writing, 2014 edited by Paul Theroux and Jason Wilson— My pick isn’t this one so much as the entire series. These annual collections feature the finest travel essays from each year chosen by a guest editor. I am highlighting this 2014 version because it is edited by the man considered by many to be the greatest American travel writer: Paul Theroux. These essay collections are a great way to expose yourself to great travel writing without committing to an entire book.|
Art and Creativity
|The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich— If you’re like me then you’ve spent much of your life secretly feeling like a rube when the topic of art arises or you find yourself in a museum. This book is a great way to get yourself up to speed on everything from art history to architecture, the Italian masters, modern art and more. And don’t be intimidated by the book’s heft, since if ever there was a type of book that has lots of pictures, it is the art book. After reading this you won’t be a sophisticated connoisseur of art, but you’ll be a lot smarter and will feel a trifle superior when you casually inform your friends and family that you really like how the columns at your local public library are of the Ionic order.|
|Japanese Garden Notes: A Visual Guide to Elements and Design by Marc Peter Keane— I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Japan a few times during my career and have always been interested in the aesthetics of Japanese culture. This book was almost a form of contemplation for me, with elegant layout design and incredible pictures.|
|What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn) by Seth Godin – Seth brings a blend of earnest thinking and encouragement to this highly unusual “book”. I place “book” in quotes to prepare you for something different because Seth and his team used design and illustrations as much as writing to spur the reader to creative action. The result is a beautiful blend of art, design, philosophy, and actionable insights. Bonus: this book is an awesome graduation gift.|
|On Writing by Stephen King— There probably are very few writers out there who haven’t read this book. Perhaps you’re not a Stephen King fan (my condolences). Doesn’t matter. He’s published more books than you and can teach you a few things. This is a must-read if you’re interested in the craft of writing. Imagine my surprise while reading this to learn that he spent a short and unhappy part of his childhood in the Wisconsin town where I went to college, which means that he and I are pretty much the same.|
|Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss— If I was a book publisher and heard I was going to be pitched on the idea of publishing a book about punctuation, I would run the other direction. This book became a best seller because it is a fun read and many of us wrestle with punctuation. I have a life-long struggle with the humble comma, since I use them liberally while writing but then delete while editing. The title of the book is funny, but you have to get the book to understand the joke.|
|The War of Art by Steve Pressfield – I doubt there’s a writer or blogger out there who hasn’t at least heard of this book. This is one of the best books to read when you maybe need a kick in the pants and want to leave something more in this world than a pile of your ashes. Pressfield writes about what he refers to as “The Resistance” – the mental blocks and excuses we need to surmount every day to create what we need to create. Cleverly flipping the title of Sun Tzu’s famous book about war, this book is a call to action and an engaging way to inspire creative work. It’s small, direct, and powerful.|
Health and Money
|Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath— By the author of StrengthsFinder (also recommended), this is a short, direct book to help you make better lifestyle choices. It is clear, concise, and actionable. Unfortunately for me, the author did not uncover a link between better health and a steady diet of bread and pasta – two weaknesses of mine – but I can’t in good conscience complain. I grab this one off the shelf every now and again to remind me that health is about eating right, moving right, and sleeping right.|
|The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko— I have recommended this book to a few people who confessed to me they were wrestling with spending and wealth creation issues. I particularly think this is a great read for someone in their twenties or thirties because it charts a course for a lifetime of wealth accumulation. The writers use a collection of research of the high net worth crowd along with anecdotes from the field to help the reader understand the difference between PAWs (Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth) and the flashy, less wealthy UAWs (Under Accumulators of Wealth). This book helps people realize that when it comes to wealth creation, a good defense (limited spending, little concern for status brands) beats a good offense (high income).|
Science and Geography
|The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and The Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick— I carry with me a lurking embarrassment about being secretly ignorant when it comes to the basics of certain subjects, and science is certainly one of those. Of the general knowledge books I have read on the subject, two made this list. This one was a really fun read and helped explain the story of how a group of men – seemingly surrounded by ignorance and chaos – took a hard look at the world and found order. Just as you hide your dog’s pill in a tasty treat to get it to swallow it, the best way to help me read a book on science is to hide the subject in a great story.|
|A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson— Another way to get me to enjoy a big book on science is to make it smart, humorous, and written with a beginner’s mind. Bill Bryson – well known for his Will Rogers-style writing on a number of subjects, such as an ill-fated hike with a friend on the Appalachian Trail (A Walk in the Woods) – seeks to understand the big questions – the big bang, the formations of life and, as his title hilariously indicates – “nearly everything” that there is to know about the basics of the world we inhabit. He painstakingly reads and harasses various scientists until he understands the concepts well enough to write about them simply. Like many books on this list, this is a good gift for a curious friend or family member.|
|Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings— If the author’s name sounds familiar, it’s because Ken is the reigning champion of consecutive games won on Jeopardy (74!) and is a fun guy to follow on Twitter if you’re into that sort of thing. For some reason that I can’t fathom I’ve always loved maps. If you’ve ever harbored a secret fascination with maps and geography but haven’t divulged it to anyone for fear of being laughed at, this is the book for you. This book is a lot of fun and filled with stories about the geogeeks who hang out at places like the National Geographic Bee and the London Map Fair. Enjoy this book (compass optional).|
|On The Map by Simon Garfield— Garfield gives us a book filled with interesting facts and stories about maps. Leavened with stories of cartographic intrigue (!), this books details our relationship with maps and how they chart both our journey and our history. Readers will also learn how to properly fold a map – a skill that will confer Jedi Knight status upon you in this GPS-saturated digital world.|
|The Death and LIfe of the Great Lakes by Daniel Egan— We often take for granted the geographic gifts we grew up around, and for me that blind spot has been the Great Lakes. Despite living the vast majority of my life within a one hour drive of Lake Michigan, it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood when I realized how awesome (in the traditional, inspiring-awe sense of the word) and important they are. This well-researched book by journalist Daniel Egan will – I’m sorry to tell you – cause you to fly into a rage as you read about the ignorance, hubris, and ecological damage wrapped up in the St. Lawrence Seaway and how we move forward from here. The title of the book is clever, and foreshadows that not all is lost. Fun fact: if the waters of the Great Lakes were spread across the 48 contiguous U.S. states, the depth would be nine feet. These lakes are, indeed, great.|
Genre Note: This group of books reveals how we make decisions and form habits. Just as the History genre has moved in the past several years from dusty academia-only books to accessible (but no less informative) books from authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, so too has there been a huge increase of smart books on psychology and cognition topics ranging across behavioral economics, cognitive biases, and why we behave the way we do. I have a number of blog posts on these topics that you can find via the search box.
|Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman— This has become “the” book in this genre. I sometimes present to an MBA class and know that this book is required reading for the students. Kahneman uses years of research to outline how we have two “systems” that help us make our decisions. System 1 is quick and intuitive, while System 2 is deliberate and thoughtful. Both are vital to our species’ evolution and survival but they are often in conflict, leading us to common cognitive biases that cause companies to fail and people to make avoidable mistakes. The book also includes suggestions for coping with the under detected arguments between these two systems.|
|The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis— Another Michael Lewis book, this one purposefully placed after Kahneman’s book above since the book relates the story of the unusual partnership of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The subtitle of this book is “A friendship that changed our minds”, because Kahneman and Tversky together found how to apply psychological insights into understanding a range of human decisions. That they were both awarded the Nobel Prize gives you some sense regarding how singular their collaboration was. A wonderful story that is made all the better by Lewis’s unique brand of insight and storytelling.|
|The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam— A great book about how we make up our minds in ways that chart the course of our lives. Like the books above, Vedantam (who hosts a great podcast on this subject) uses a combination of story telling and science to unveil how we approach life’s important decisions. The “hidden brain”, as the author calls it, can cause us to reach the greatest heights of altruism or be manipulated into being a terrorist. Some of the chapters were hard to read, particularly the one detailing the son of a former colleague of mine whose small decisions in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 probably caused him to miss his opportunity to escape.|
|When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink— Many of the questions we ask ourselves are “when” questions: When should we work out today? When should we start a business? When should we go to the hospital (answer: not in the afternoon)? We often think the answer to our “when” questions are more about intuition and art, but Pink’s book explains how there is a lot of science involved in making the right decisions.|
|The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg— Sometimes when we’re incessantly poking on our electronic device hoping to be validated through likes and retweets we might wonder if we’re simply mice looking for a piece of cheese. Duhigg not only provides the answer to this (yes), but further helps us understand how our habits are formed and can be changed. Name drop: I was a panelist at a conference at Harvard a few years ago that Duhigg also spoke at, and I had a great chat with him afterwards. So not only is this book great, but you can be assured that the author is also a nice guy.|
|The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal— There are thousands of books on asserting our willpower to break bad habits, but this book, modeled after Professor McGonigal’s popular class at Stanford, applies new research to help us understand what willpower is, why it often isn’t there when we need it, and how it can be harnessed to improve our health, happiness and productivity. Here’s one of many interesting insights in the book: guilt and shame over our setbacks lead us to giving in again, but self-forgiveness and self-compassion boost our self-control.|
|David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell— This book both deserves to be included in this list, but also serves as a placeholder for all of Gladwell’s books, including Blink, What the Dog Saw, Outliers and others. Gladwell reimagines why David might have had more of advantage than we’ve been led to believe in his famous fight with Goliath. Gladwell shows how the pattern of the smaller competitor outwitting the ponderous and larger adversary is more common than we think. He is one of the authors who, when they release a new book, I purchase it immediately.|
|The Wright Brothers by David McCullough— You might think you know enough about the Wright brothers – two bike guys in Dayton who figured out how to make their plane fly at Kitty Hawk. For most of us, that’s probably the extent of our general Wright brothers knowledge. McCullough’s book is certainly among the finest biographies I’ve ever read and I can’t recommend it highly enough. These men were amazing (Wilbur was likely a genius) and this is a fun story to read and reflect how many giants paved the way for our current life of ease and international travel.|
|Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson—An illuminating biography of one of history’s true innovative geniuses. Walter Isaacson, also the author of the Steve Jobs biography on this list, is a can’t miss author. In this book, he explores the genius of Leonardo through use of his original sketches and, in so doing, connects Leonardo’s art with his science. Leonardo’s insatiable curiosity is best expressed by this question that once occurred to him and he wrote down in his journal: “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker”.|
|When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss—Disclosure: I’m a shareholder in the Green Bay Packers (although the Packers refuse to take my advice when I shout at the television). But that isn’t why this book is on my list. Maraniss does a great job capturing the essence of Lombardi and why he continues to be inspirational to leaders in all walks of life. You don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate this book (although it helps). A life well lived has a lot to do with if a person is intentional and builds his or her life on positive principles or simply drifts along through life. Lombardi was an example of the better way to live, and in so doing he transformed lives all around him.|
|John Adams by David McCullough—Much has been written about our first and third U.S. Presidents – Washington and Jefferson – but comparatively little is known by most people about John Adams, the deminutive founding father who served as a key catalyst for our independence and was our second president. The only non-slave holding founding father, Adams was humble and principled. The surviving letters between he and his wife Abagail enabled McCullough to explore their powerful relationship during times of great personal sacrifice to pursue the idea of America. Truly a remarkable man, a remarkable couple, and a remarkable book.|
|When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi—An autobiographical journey written by a young renaissance man and neurosurgeon who, on the cusp of completing a decade of medical training is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This book is the story he wrote as he switched from treating those who were dying to traveling that journey himself. A thoughtful and sensitive book from a man who could have simply thought only of himself and his young wife during his final days, but instead used them to explore many of the same questions we all contemplate and, in so doing, left us a gift.|
|Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank—I somehow entered adulthood without ever read The Diary of Anne Frank, as it is colloquially known, and harbored a lurking sense of shame about it. I decided, well into my adulthood, to rectify this oversight and in retrospect I’m glad I waited. My reaction to this book – then as a father of adolescent daughters – was significantly more powerful than it would have been had I read it when I was younger. If you’ve not read it, please do so, and if you haven’t since you were younger, consider re-reading. I am convinced she was one of the great humans of the twentieth century.|
|Red Notice by Bill Browder—This book is doubly important because it is so timely and topical. Browder’s story of how he came to be involved in the elite world of international finance when Russia emerged as a market economy (of sorts) would be interesting enough. But as is the case for many who succeed in Russia he became the target of threats and harassment from the ruling elite, culminating in the imprisonment, torture and death of his associate, Sergei Magnitsky. Browder – who remains the subject of Vladamir Putin’s creepy attention – wrote a great book and, more importantly, used it to push developed countries to pass their versions of the “Magnitsky Act”, which restricts the travel and freezes the financial assets of those responsible. Putin hates this book, which is another good reason to read it.|
|Born a Crime by Trevor Noah—Trevor Noah is famous for his late night The Daily Show, but I think he’s more than a comedian or talk show host. Through his writing and reflections on important societal issues he’s as much a philosopher and commentator as a comedian. This book, about his childhood in South Africa where he was born to a white father and black mother (then punishable by five years in prison) who were unmarried, is part social commentary, part interesting story, and part hilarious (as you would expect). The fact that he has achieved so much since his childhood days is a testament to him, his mother, and the power of opportunity.|
|The Autobiography of Ben Franklin—Ben Franklin’s autobiography of his childhood and early years. Like many authors of autobiographical works, history has shown that Franklin took a few liberties to make his subject more impressive and sympathetic. But there is no denying the power of this book which – I emphasize here – is freely available for download (click the link). I was particularly taken by the way he willed himself – there’s no other way to say it – to improve his writing through hours upon hours of work. A national treasure and a fun read.|
|The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls—A memoir by the author of her childhood in a dysfunctional, and at times hyper-functional, family dominated by her charismatic but flawed father. The stories of her upbringing were so outrageous I spent most of the time reading it with my jaw hanging open. This book is amazing and weird and funny and sad all at once.|
|Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose—Like authors David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, I suggest you read everything Stephen Ambrose has ever written. This book picks up where his book D-Day left off: 0001 hours on June 7, 1944. In this book he traces the ensuing hours and months as a group of ordinary American citizens – transformed into soldiers for the war – made their way to ultimate victory in Germany. This book is part of Ambrose’s overall work that lead to the award-winning HBO series Band of Brothers, which I highly recommend also.|
|Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose—The story of Lewis and Clark is one of those stories that suffers from it’s place in elementary school curricula. Since we’ve all been exposed to it (US students anyway), we think we know the key facts. But most of us have really forgotten even the “key facts”, and precious few know the real story. Ambrose’s book reveals the story in a way that, once you’ve finished it, you’ll have an entirely new appreciation for the awesomeness of their feat.|
|How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill—This book illuminates a key part of the Dark Ages, specifically how St. Patrick instilled a love of learning and literacy on the island of Ireland, but also how subsequent years of monks and scribes painstakingly copied and preserved centuries of Western Civilization, both christian and pagan. This is not just a story about Ireland, but the story about how Europe transitioned from the classical Roman era to the medieval era and how that tradition – and our world today – would have been very different were it not for Irish monasteries and the monks who labored to preserve the records of civilizations and lands that they could only experience through reading and writing.|
|The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester—For brevity’s sake I usually don’t include the sub-title of the books in this list, but I include it here to fully convey the weirdness of this book and how it tracks two compelling characters and the creation of the OED. If you like words, drama, history and great writing, grab this book and enjoy the ride.|
|A Diplomat in Japan by Earnest Satow— This book is a fascinating read because it was written by a British diplomat who was in Japan during the Maeji Restoration in the 1860s. How often do any of us read first hand accounts written 150 years ago? The Meiji Restoration was a period where Japan first opened up to the West (precipitated by Commodore Perry’s gunships sailing into Tokyo Bay in 1853), so Satow’s book is actually showing us what ancient Japan looked like during a time of great transformation.|
Genre note: Don’t be fooled by the word “fiction” – these books are works of exacting historical research. However the authors have developed details around specific conversations and thoughts to better illuminate what occurred and why. I’ve struggled with placement of this genre since these books are both works of history and fiction. Some (Killer Angels) are more rooted in history, while others (Pillars of the Earth) are more fictional due to the lack of historical record from the time period.
|Killer Angels by Michael Shaara—This book was required reading when I was going through my Officer’s Basic Course in Military Intelligence. We spent three days on the battle this book uses as it’s subject: Gettysburg. Shaara’s book was the basis for the movie Gettyburg, but the book – as is so often the case – is much better than the movie. This book will teach you more about this pivotal battle than anything you’ve read until now.|
|The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson—The book is the intertwined story of two men. One, the architect of the famous “White City”, constructed in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair, the other a serial killer in the same city who, during this time, preyed upon the countless young women flooding into the Chicago train stations from small towns in search of a better life. Larson’s book is a gem, rooted in research but delivered in the best can’t-put-it-down tradition of great page-turners.|
|Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett—You might imagine that a book about the construction of a Gothic Cathedral in twelfth century England wouldn’t be a page-turner, but you’d be wrong. An Oprah Book Club selection, this first book in a series is a sweeping epic across generations (a recurring theme of books I like, as you’ll see from other entries on this list). Many of us wonder “what would it really have been like to live hundreds of years ago?” This book helps you envision what life was really like, and you’ll end up learning about Gothic architecture by accident while you’re engrossed in the plot.|
|Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker—A portion of this book was turned into the movie The Gangs of New York, but this book is so much more. It covers the conflict in a section of New York as immigrants poured into the city in 1863, infuriating the nativists who got there first. Add corrupt politics, racial animosity, and the draft instituted to support the Union’s fight in the Civil War and you have a combustible situation. Baker does a superb job of drawing the stories of characters on different sides of the struggles and drawing the reader in to a period of New York history that many of us do not fully understand.|
Issues and Public Policy
|Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean—Many people have seen the movie based upon this book starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. As great as the movie is, the book is worthy of a read. The subject of the death penalty is a vexing one, wrapped up in society’s justified interest to send a message for the grisliest of crimes but also the ancient process of confession and forgiveness. The story of a Catholic nun who tries to live her faith in the midst of hardened viewpoints, explosive emotions and a man traveling the road to his execution. Powerful.|
|An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal—Given how complex the enormous topic of healthcare in America is, I set out to read a few books on the topic. All of them had their points of view, but I most enjoyed this book from Dr. Rosenthal. Not only does she do an excellent job pointing out the American healthcare systems is built upon a series of incentives that work against patients and the public, she provides excellent advice on how to be a more empowered healthcare consumer.|
|Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance—A fabulous book that became required reading for many trying to make sense of the 2016 presidential election results. I was late to the party in reading this book in part because I was wary of the over-the-top praise it was receiving during an emotional time, but once I finally picked it up I was completely transfixed. Books like this (and others in this section of the list) help me “see” other lives and better understand the forces that impact them and, as a result, the underlying contributors to a developing national schism.|
|Evicted by Matthew Desmond—A book that wins the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2017) probably doesn’t need me to recommend it – but I am recommending it anyhow. Like Hillbilly Elegy, this book shines a light on the socioeconomic underclass and the leap in the number of evictions they suffer in a byzantine labyrinth of local regulations, sheriffs, landlords and job loss. Rather than a dull book on the public policy implications of evictions, Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee to better illuminate the personal struggles in a real and human way. The fact that the story is not only set in my country but in the very state in which I live is a demonstration that mass evictions (and their human and financial costs) are likely a problem near you as well. The Pulitzer Prize award underscores what an important book this is.|
|The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis—How much do you know about the Department of Agriculture? The Department of Energy? The Department of Commerce? If your response is that these massive governmental organizations “do a bunch of stuff concerning agriculture, energy and commerce” (I’m putting words into your mouth), then you’re as ignorant of their mission and activities as I was and, thankfully, was Michael Lewis. Lewis began following the the disastrous non-transition of these departments during the Trump “transition” and emerged with this book that provides a fascinating look into the myriad of ways our government works to prevent our early deaths from disease, natural forces, nuclear accidents and much more. A quick read that will make you smarter.|
|Our Dumb Century by The Onion, Scott Dikkers and Mike Loew—I’m proud to say that I was reading the satirical newspaper The Onion when it was a free newspaper available on the streets of Madison (where it started) and other fine midwestern cities. It eventually transitioned to the digital era, and after an ill-advised move to New York it regained its senses and is now located in Chicago. That so much of history’s comedic talent has originated in the upper midwest and Canada cannot be a coincidence. This awesome review of the 20th century will be impossible to NOT read to those around you. Hopefully your listeners will patiently wait for you to choke out the story in the midst of your laughter.|
|Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris—I have a beef with Sedaris and it is this: I was reading this book once while eating dinner by myself at an Italian restaurant while on business travel and laughed so hard that I snorted Chianti out of my nose. It wasn’t pleasant. Like Malcolm Gladwell – who I recommend no matter the book – I recommend any of Sedaris’s books. This one details some of his early troubles with speech but quickly cover his eccentric, over-the-top family life. I once heard him in an interview say the he’s not that much different than you and I except that he carries a notebook around and jots down his observations. I don’t think he’s remotely “normal”, but that makes his writing all the better.|
Genre note: I’m Catholic but am presenting a series of books here that should give seekers and members of other faith traditions some great material to challenge the mind and nourish the soul. I’ve always liked Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quote: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a human journey.” Journey on my friends.
|Falling Upward: A Spirituality for Two Halves of LIfe by Richard Rohr—This is one of those books that I have so dog-eared and marked up that it’s good I don’t have to return it to the public library. If you’re in your teens or twenties I recommend you hold off reading this book until you’re at least in your forties. In this book Rohr points out that in our youth we necessarily must have personal wins for the ego – those who lack these wins when they’re young are constantly in search of them. But the wise person, approaching his or her second half of life, must find a broader and more abundant way forward. I found this to be a powerful book and come back to it often.|
|Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris—This book is a follow-up to Norris’s book A Cloister Walk, a book by a poet with a Protestant background (though distant) who becomes part of monastery during a time of great personal trial and need. In this book Norris uses her background in poetry to reflect on the “scary vocabulary” that separates explorers from a recommitment to a faith life – word like “dogma”, “salvation”, “faith”, “sinner” and more. Going from being a Bennington-educated poet in the secular east coast literary world to living in the small Dakota town of her grandmother, and re-acquiring the vocabulary of her Grandmother’s faith community must have been disorienting. A great reflection from someone seeking, contemplating, and writing about the experience for those who view the whole thing with some suspicion.|
|Mere Christiantiy by C.S. Lewis—This book by the author of the incomparable Narnia series is based upon earlier writings and a series of radio addresses Lewis delivered for the BBC during World War Two. Can you imagine how present and urgent the questions concerning man’s existence and relationship with the divine would have been at that time for those listeners? While you may need to gloss over some language and imagery that would have been commonly accepted in his time, this is an example of how people from places like Oxford didn’t tolerate lackadaisical reasoning. In this book Lewis is crisp and direct. Pretend you’re listening to Lewis’s voice over a crackling radio broadcast during the war as you read this book.|
|Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo—The only book on this list written by an actual saint (as of this writing). The Satow book above was an example of first-person narrative in the 19th century, but Augustine wrote these Confessions at the end of the fourth century. Thankfully they’ve been translated from their original Latin, but the struggles he writes about, from his licentious youth to his eventual conversion, are timeless. Son of a pagan father and Christian mother, Augustine grew up in a Roman Africa that is now present-day Algeria. A deeply faithful book, I enjoyed spending time with it – although I think he was a bit hard on himself for stealing that pear when he was a kid. Read the book for the details.|
|Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained by Peter Kreeft—Kreeft, a professor from Boston College, introduces the reader to Pascal’s endlessly fascinating “Pensées” – a series of thoughts Pascal wrote during years of contemplation. That he identified in the seventeenth century that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” is sobering given our interrupt-driven lifestyles, social media enthusiasm, and digital devices. Pascal wasn’t just famous for theology – he was an inventor and mathematician. This is a great book to read. If you enjoy this book, I also recommend Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne, which was also a good book but didn’t make this list.|
|The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin—The author, a Jesuit priest, writes a fun and thoughtful book about how the ancient Jesuit order approaches life (hint: find God in everything). Martin writes about his own conversion after getting his business degree from University of Pennsylvania and serving in a corporate finance role in GE for six years. Martin is an approachable writer who helps guide readers through the spiritual exercises designed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder the the Society of Jesus (aka The Jesuits) which are used by countless people around the world today.|
Children and Young Adult
Genre note: Like all of these categories, this one could be much longer. I’m just including a few books here, but salute authors like Roald Dahl, Sharon Creech, E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), and Beverly Cleary. One other thing: don’t be afraid to buy that young someone in your life a book featuring of a famous comic strip that you love. Reading syndicated cartoon strips (The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, etc) as well as humor publications at a young age helped expand my vocabulary, learn satire, and the art of a good punch line.
|Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Suess—This book, of course, has become an annual bestseller during graduation season since it dispenses wisdom in the cheerful “the world is your oyster” tradition of many commencement addresses. But just like animated movies that sneak in deep philosophical points between the jokes, this book is timeless wisdom wearing a costume of colors and cartoons. Among the stacks of books from which my children would select for my wife or I to read during story time, this was among my favorites. There is no human who cannot be reminded of important truths when reading this book – such as the pitfalls of “the waiting place” or the certitude that failure and redemption are a necessary part of the human condition. Parent tip: when the kids have heard the story enough, start pausing to let them fill in the natural rhyming word. It keeps them engaged and they love to participate. Dr. Suess will applaud you.|
|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling—I know, I know, you’ve already read this book….wait….you haven’t? This series of books changed the lives of many young people around the world (some of them living in my house) and are worth the read even if you have seen all the movies. They are not great works of fantasy literature like Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, but they are ripping good yarns and did more to attract a generation of young readers than perhaps any other series. Every young adult author who hit it big after Harry Potter should send Rowling a percentage of their royalties, although I suspect she’s living comfortably.|
|The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis—A second entry for author Clive Staples Lewis on this list. The Narnia series, beginning with this first book, are infused with Christian allegory and are timeless and beautiful. Naturally, we live in a time where this book was turned into a big budget movie but as is almost always the case, the book is better. Enjoy this book and know that Aslan is on the move.|
|The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky—I read this book later in life and realized that my life-long fear of famous Russian novels was misplaced – at least in this instance. I’m a sucker for great stories spanning generations, and this book is a fun read that packs a message.|
|Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes—This story of a self-created knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha, and his loyal squire Sancho Panza traveling through sixteenth century Spain is both hilarious and tragic. When a book this great is referred to by some as “the first modern novel”, and is also likely the most published book of all time, it makes sense to sit up and take notice. Just don’t go tilting at windmills.|
|The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde—It’s hard to travel through life without bumping up against something witty Oscar Wilde is purported to have said. The Irish writer wrote this book about a young man who finds something curious and disturbing about a portrait of himself. If you happen by the Chicago Art Museum, make sure you seek out the Dorian Gray painting by Ivan Albright – but not until you read the book.|
|Great Expectations by Charles Dickens—I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who feels that some other Dickens book should be here, such as A Tale of Two Cities. But I was charmed by the story of Pip and his narrative voice. It’s important to remember that Dickens wrote before radio and television, so this book was written in a serial format, meaning readers got to read the next chapter as it was released in a local magazine.|
Great American Literature
|East of Eden by John Steinbeck—Perhaps a few other Steinbeck novels could also be on this list – Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley (underappreciated) – but this sweeping epic that spans generations is my favorite. Oprah selected it for her book club some years ago and I was delighted when she did so that others could be introduced to this great book (disclaimer: Oprah does not consult with me prior to making her book selections).|
|To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—Hopefully you’ve read this already. If you have, it’s worth a re-read, and if you haven’t, it’s not too late (see the Diary of Anne Frank entry in the biographies section of this list). Scout is a fun character trying to find her way in her small town and given to attempts at independence. But as she observes her town she also observes racism and the nobility of her father, Atticus, in fighting against it. In an era where skin color and national origin are still reasons to treat others as unequal and unworthy, this book is as on point as ever.|
|Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—I suspect that Heller would have been disappointed that a young student both loved his book AND went into the military, but that’s my story. If you had asked me during a few important years of my life what my favorite book was, this would have been my answer. Yes, it’s tragic and raw. But it also had me in tears from laughing.|
|Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—It’s tough to determine what should be in the general fiction category and what is “Great American Literature”, but I saw a Marilynn Robinson novel on a list of great American literature and immediately jumped at the chance to include this fabulous book here (which won the Pulitzer Prize). Gilead is a painful but beautifully written book of an elderly preacher in a small town who knows that he is approaching his own death, and writes down his thoughts for his young son while also coming to terms with his dislike for a young man – a prodigal son, you might say – who returns to his town. Truly a lovely and haunting book.|
Genre note: I like reading poetry anthologies, that is, collections featuring the works of many different poets, rather than reading a book from one poet only. I have written about the value of poetry in a few blog posts. I recommend you pick up any anthology that looks good to you. Also, when you’re in a store that is selling the works of a local poet, consider purchasing it to support the poetry community.
|Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor—For a number of years, NPR would regularly run a morning segment called The Writers’ Almanac, which featured the mellifluous voice of Garrison Keillor reading a poem. This anthology is a collection of many of those poems, including “Her Door” by Mary Leader, a poem that will make anyone who has had a daughter leave for college wail and gnash their teeth. But not all is misery! This collection will give you an opportunity to see what you like and what you don’t. People can be intimidated by poetry, but anthologies like this show that it needn’t be so.|
|The Seagull Book of Poems (4th Edition), edited by Joseph Kelly—I’ve read the second edition of this anthology, but am linking to the most recent edition. Kelly amasses a great collection of poems that, like other anthologies, will give you a wide range of styles.|
|The Trouble with Poetry, and Other Poems by Billy Collins—I highly recommend this book by the former U.S. Poet Laureate or any other book by him. Billy Collins is a family favorite, and I’m confident you’ll appreciate his deft use of language and razor-sharp humor. The poem “The Lanyard” in this collection is a fun poem to contemplate every Mother’s Day.|
|The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell—A science fiction novel with deep philosophical themes and questions. This book about a group heading to a distant civilization after contact is made is combination of all three narrative conflict themes: Man versus Nature, Man versus Himself, and Man versus Man (or in this case, “Alien”). Buckle up for a time-hopping ride, but make sure you pack your brain.|
|Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut—”Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”, and as a result jumps worlds and times as Kurt Vonnegut tries to come to terms with the horrific fire-bombing of Dresden he survived while in captivity during World War II. A painful, powerful book that blends humor and great writing to explore the brutal nature of war.|
|The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams—Adams is probably similar in style to Vonnegut and Heller in that he blends humor with a sharp point of view. Unlike the other two however, Adams is more lighthearted and humorous. A statement on the absurdity of life, I found much of it uproariously funny the first time I read it, and based upon the massive popularity I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it. This is book one of a series. To those who have read these books I say “so long, and thanks for all the fish”.|
Genre note: I have left myself an impossible task to limit my selections here, but I’ve done so anyway. I don’t maintain that these represent the greatest works of fiction ever written, and I’ve left a lot of books I love off this list, but here are a few that are special and might give you something to dive into and enjoy.
|My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—I am neither an artist nor a Hasidic Jew, but this story of a young boy in the most conservative Jewish sects with a God-given artistic talent is truly one of my favorite works of fiction. Such is the magic of literature, immersing us in completely different cultures and times and impacting us in the process. Potok has written other great books, including The Chosen and a sequel to this book. The Gift of Asher Lev. But this story of his family, his community, and most importantly Asher himself trying to figure out what to do about his urge to draw and make art is a unique gift of artistic expression itself.|
|Life of Pi by Yann Martel—If I were a book editor and some author pitched me a story about a boy stuck on a life raft with a hyena, an orangutang, a zebra, and a 450 pound Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, I’d be skeptical there’s a novel to be written about that. But Martel’s book is a riot of language, metaphor, and action and deserved all of the awards it received, including the Man Booker Prize. I have not included another Martel book – Beatrice and Virgil – in this list but am sneaking it in now. It too uses animals (these in a taxidermist’s shop) and metaphor (the title character names are taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy).|
|The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver—The Amazon description of this book is perfect: “The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959″. This book was recommended to me, as many great books are, by my brilliant wife who compared the quality of this book and Kingsolver’s writing to Melville and Moby Dick. I was transfixed by the story and the writing.|
|The Stand by Stephen King—Picking out a favorite Stephen King book is difficult given his longevity and the pace with which he churns out great books, and while the arguments among his millions of readers concerning the “best” of the list, this one is my personal choice: The Stand. A tale set in a dystopian future where the remaining remnants of civilization form into two camps, one led by a supernatural man/devil, the other by a faithful elderly woman named Mother Abagail. This classic good vs. evil tale gets the full Stephen King treatment of horror, humor, and quick pacing. Don’t be intimidated by it’s length. It’s a fun ride.|
|Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter—An almost-love affair set on the Italian coast in 1962 resurfaces fifty years later in contemporary Hollywood. This story is full of great characters and lovely images of the rocky Italian coast, while providing some wicked satire on the entertainment industry.|
|Peace Like a River by Leif Enger—Rueben Land, the 11 year old narrator, is certain his father Jeremiah performs miracles, including the miracle of saving Reuben’s young life despite his faulty lungs. This book is a classic journey narrative where Reuben, his father, brother and sister, are forced to flee their home. The ensuing journey (and journey narratives are always about the characters more than their journeys) takes them through the Badlands and a series of existential challenges.|
Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon
the entire house is filled with books;
poems, stories, histories, prayers of
all kinds stand up gracefully or are
heaped on shelves, on the floor, on
the bed. Strangers old and new offering
their words bountifully and thoughtfully,
lifting my heart.
But, wait! I’ve made a mistake! how
could these makers of so many books
that have given so much to my life –
how could they possibly be strangers?
– Mary Oliver