“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”
I love to read. It one of my most beneficial and enjoyable practices.
Each book is a tool for my utility belt, giving me a better understanding of the world in which I live and adjusting my lens with which to better navigate my experience. Reading gives us the gift of learning from the greatest minds that ever lived, hand-picking mental constructs and paradigms that best suit our needs while throwing out the rest.
Below are the noteworthy books I had never read before this year. They come in no particular order except for the first.
Schopenhauer’s great work consumed about a month of my life, a trade I will happily make again in the future. He gave me a better understanding of myself, my world, and my philosophy, and a vocabulary with which to express what I have always felt but lacked the dexterity to say.
The Top Ten Books of 2016
#1-“The World as Will and Idea” by Arthur Schopenhauer
From my current perspective, I think my academic life can be codified as two periods: Before Schopenhauer and After Schopenhauer.
In this magnificent achievement, Schopenhauer clearly explains the core of eastern teachings in a western, pseudo-academic way. With beautiful prose, Schopenhauer translates the Upanishads and teachings of Buddhism, describing the “will,” the driving force behind all things, and its relationship to the world.
What in eastern metaphor and language becomes so esoteric, things like “Enlightenment,” “Nirvana,” and “Samsara,” Schopenhauer pens in common tongue, logically describing in simple terms what the Koan perpetually fails to do in the West.
#2-“On Writing” by Stephen King
One of the best fiction writers of all time sat down to write the memoirs of his craft. Written with the constant reader in mind, the words fly off the page and into the reader’s mind without effort.
With funny tales from his childhood, and the highs and lows that come from pursuing one’s passion well into adulthood, Stephen shares with us the life experiences that made him the man he is today, and both his subjective and objective view of what makes for good writing, where it comes from, and how we can give ourselves the tools to find our own muse.
This is a blueprint for mastery, regardless of field.
#3-“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides
A tale about a young woman in a love triangle, navigating the struggles of young adulthood, from family, romantic love, and finding meaning. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffery Eugenides writes with a beautiful combination of poetic imagery and lucid description of human emotion. It is the rare treat of truly beautiful writing constantly stepping in and out of puddles of the densest existential themes.
A joy to read from beginning to end, I found myself avoiding my usual “fly to the end, finish this book in one sitting” mindset, taking many moments of meditation after each page, doing my best to delay the book’s inevitable end, which was fantastic.
#4-“The Wisdom of Life” by Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer makes the list twice. Deservedly so.
This text came at the end of his life, over thirty years after his magnum opus, and is one of the best practical philosophies I have ever read for how to live well. From what I gather, it sounds like this man never heeded his own advice regarding moral virtue, but nonetheless his teaching is sound.
He describes in a western way the profound teachings of the Buddha and the Upanishads, prescribing the mode of thinking and living which leads to our happiness, self-actualization, and ultimate transcendence of our burning concern for the opinions of others.
With my copy being 77 pages, this book is easily the biggest “R.O.I.” per page on this list.
#5-“Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings”
The oldest work on this list, a collection of writings and sermons from the German theologian from seven hundred years ago, clearly describes the fundamental ethical core of Christianity with a mystic cosmic perspective.
Confined by the times to describe nonduality in the pluralistic vocabulary of the Holy Trinity, Eckhart seemed to give two sermons: one for those in attendance who needed spiritual guidance, and he gave it to them within the symbolism of their world view, and then to the initiated, living hundreds of years later, who have had the blessings of studying the great eastern religions that he seemed to naturally intuit.
#6- “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein
A Martian comes to earth to shed light on our myopic thinking. With so many characters to root for, the reader is taken through a journey of love, passionate philosophical debates on human ethics, and the sheer power and curiosity that is religion.
The science fiction is exciting. The characters are endearing. Heinlein touches on countless themes that are deserving of books in themselves. And at times, we are given a code of living at which to aspire.
#7- “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing
Thanks to the dairies of the men themselves, Lansing retraces the steps of Earnest Shackleton’s daring 1914 Expedition, in which he and his 28 man crew survived an Antarctic shipwreck, conquering the incessant obstacles of nature for two years.
No synopsis can do this book justice. A story about leadership under the harshest conditions. A battle between man and the most inhospitable terrain on the earth’s surface.
This is one of the greatest tales of human suffering and perseverance ever told, and whenever I feel that life presents me with sufficient obstacles, I skim through these pages and am reminded that I have no right to complain about anything, ever.
#8- “Why I am Not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects” by Bertrand Russell
I believe the two greatest philosophers of the twentieth century were Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley.
Bertrand Russell wrote “The History of Western Philosophy” which is the best summary of western thinking that I have ever come across. He seems to have fully entertained the core tenets of every major philosophy, making each thinker’s full life’s work largely understood in a single chapter.
Still, I think his greatest contribution is his original works. This book is a collection of essays on the human condition, from logically showing the fallacies of popular dogmas to sharing his own world view, inspired by brilliant reason, depicted with artful syntax.
His life echoes Socrates. The most brilliant philosopher of his day publicly criticized for tainting the minds of the youth. Russell’s writings show a man driven out of a need to serve, propelled by an intellect that few, if any, have ever known.
#9-“Above the Clouds” by Anatoli Bookreev
The most exciting book to read on this list. Through Anatoli’s personal writings, we see into the mind and the experiences which shaped one of the greatest mountain climbers of all time.
From the highest places on earth he brought down timely wisdom. Anatoli shares the well-known struggle of pursuing athletic perfection while earning a living, as well as the highest highs and lowest lows of his unique life. He lead a life by a fierce moral code, holding himself to the greatest standards, and with raw honesty shows the pains and joys this fostered, and shares his relationship with the mountains rivaling our most intimate human relations.
#10-“In My Own Way” by Alan Watts
I have listened to just about every lecture of his on YouTube and am quickly working through all of his writings. Alan Watts popularized eastern teachings in the west, translating deep, esoteric concepts into simple, digestible morsels with great wit and humor.
Watts is the rare philosopher who is also a theologian. A former Christian priest, Watts spent the bulk of his adult life in California, communicating the teachings of the great eastern religions through simple metaphor and unquestionable logic.
Watts, better than anyone I have ever studied, can teach the most abstract concepts of religion and philosophy using the vocabulary of a child. From my perspective, he is like the Rosetta stone, helping us understand a language so foreign from our own.
“Nature, Man and Woman” by Alan Watts
“Thou Art That” by Joseph Campbell
“Freedom From The Known” by Jiddu Krishnamurti
“On Love” by Alain de Botton
“White Fang” by Jack London