Recent circumstances forced me to undertake a task most bibliophiles would call, at the very best, “unpleasant”. I had to compress four and a half bookcases down to one. ONE. I know. Oh lord, the horror. Yet, despite the pain inherent in the task I was able to accomplish it.
I now have a rather crammed bookcase parked next to my desk. And as I haven’t posted recently I’d thought I’d share the books that remain upon it. The books I decided to keep out of storage serve three purposes. First, amongst them are books I have yet to read or finish: they offer me fresh material. Second, there is material I deem worthy of re-reading. As Thomas Cleary put it in the beginning of his translation of The Art of War:
“On a small scale, a classic yields significantly different meanings when read in different circumstances and moods; on a large scale, a classic conveys wholly different worlds when read in different times of life, at different stages of experience, feeling and understanding of life. Classics may be interesting and even entertaining, but people always find they are not like books used for diversion, which give up all of their content at once; the classics seem to grow wiser as we grow wiser, more useful the more we use them.”
Within the collection are many classics. Finally, the books chosen inspire me not only whilst I sit here writing but also whilst I live. Seeing them every day reminds me of certain answers, but more importantly their presence provokes questions old and new.
The bookcase itself has six shelves. These are themed, from the bottommost to the topmost shelf, as follows:
– Making a Living.
– Philosophy, or How to Live.
– The Mind-Breath-Body Triangle.
– Strategy / Hitler.
I’ll tackle the shelves in the order listed above. I’ll begin each section with a brief commentary on the theme of the shelf. I’ll then continue to list all the books the shelf contains and offer a few sentences concerning the effect of the individual books upon me. Now, onto the books themselves (of which there are 137)…
Shelf #1 – Making a Living (21 books).
The theme of “Making a Living” is a duffel bag containing a bunch of things: working, playing, technology, philosophy and psychology. It contains books that answer questions about beauty, discipline, ethics, desired and undesired impacts upon the self and others, giving, taking, innovating, failing–you know, lots of stuff.
~ Business Model You by Tim Clark, Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur et al.
In my eyes, this is the weakest of the Strategyzer series. That’s not to say that it is awful, though. It distils concepts from the first two books in the series and reframes them in a way favourable to indie creatives and freelancers.
~ Value Proposition Design by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur et al.
I enjoyed this. It really helped me understand what it means to market and what it takes to sell. By that I mean that I didn’t realise that there’s a buttload of things that have to be consciously created because most people are unconsciously looking for them. Naturally, I’ve taken said lessons to heart: I’m now a seven-figure freelance editor (I am not).
~ Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur et al.
My favourite of the series (which, in case you haven’t figured it out, consists of this and the two books above). It helped me dial down on the sort of work I want to do, the people I want to do it with and, rather inadvertently, why.
~ The Interface Envelope by James Ash
I didn’t keep this one out because I’m a technological practitioner. I kept it out because looking at it reminds me that what we call the “bleeding edge” isn’t an edge so much as a boundary through/over/below/around which two or more entities communicate. Without analogy: it reminds me that interconnection is pretty darn important.
~ Goat Man by Thomas Thwaites
Just fun. I mean, it’s a book about a man trying to be a goat. I could say that it makes me think about skin in the game and stepping outside of social norms to conduct experiential experiments. But really, it kinda makes me chuckle.
~ The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
All I need say about this book is that it showed me there was a different way to live. For me (as it has been for many others, I’m sure) it acted like a sort of Pandora’s box. I still think about DEAL (Define, Eliminate, Automate, Liberate).
~ Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday
I kinda knew going in that the modern media environment was shady. This book confirmed it. Thinking about it now, however, I also realise that it’s a testament to the idea that if you understand the (dis)incentives you can control the game.
~ The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
This one I’ve read multiple times. It’s a true “inner game” book that helped me to understand what it takes to operate at the highest level (hint: a lot). It also communicated the existence of a higher plane of capacity, where skill is so intuitive that exhibiting it becomes a joy. It’s a plane I aspire to in many activities, and one I actively avoid in others.
~ The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr
Technology doesn’t have a clean, orderly history. It’s messy. It involved millions more people than you think–mostly nameless, mostly dead. That we have technology X over technology Y is sometimes down to inherent virtue but more often plain goddamn luck. This book revealed a chaotic history and also planted a seed within for a hopeful future.
~ Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Probably one of the landmark studies about the practice of creative people. Reading it is probably the reason I haven’t had to re-read it: see, it’s been a long, long time since I classified myself as “uncreative” or “stuck in a rut”. Perhaps this book is why.
~ Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
Posits a simple dichotomy (amateurs vs professionals) and lays out the difference between the two. Simple, clear, and thus powerful.
~ The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I read this what seems like years ago. At the time, I was struggling to get the fire started. It gave me a spark and since then the fire hasn’t gone out. It’s recommended a lot for a reason.
~ The Quest by Daniel Yergin
A book about energy, security and the modern world seems out of place on a “making a living” shelf. Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes obvious why it isn’t: the basic infrastructure of modern life is taken for granted and this book reveals some of the difficulties and challenges associated with keeping it intact. It’s also a note to self that there are Bigger Things To Worry About.
~ The Case for Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford
The most-free people I know now are trade workers. They have definitive skills that are in demand and that permit them autonomy a regular worker-bee can only dream of. Many of them are or will be in a position to semi-retire in their early 40s. That is part one of why this book is here: it reminds that I need to be useful to others in order to have my own ideal life. Part two relates to embodied cognition: our intelligence is a direct result of our physiology, so to do my best work I need to look after my body and also find a way to make mental work more physical in nature.
~ Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith
Contrary to the above. This book is a reminder that ideas are intangible. They don’t come in a box. You can’t hold them in your hands (not really). So how the hell do you sell them? Using some ideas from this book.
~ The Dip by Seth Godin
After reading this book I quit coaching movement to write. That was effect numero uno. Effect numero duece was that I made a promise to keep writing for a long time. If I complete ten books and still don’t get anywhere, maybe I’ll stop. Until then? Nope. No backsies until I get out of the Dip.
~ Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
A manifesto-type text that reminds of the sentiment, “Reality is negotiable”. I forget this sometimes, so every time I look at this book and consider a possibility I’d previously written off I end up thinking, “Why the fuck not?”
~ Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
This book showed me many things, but most importantly it showed me how fucking easy it is to create consistently. Inspiration is all around and our inhibitions are constructed out of vapour instead of concrete, most of the time. Lower your standards and a whole new world opens up.
~ Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
Philosophically, I kinda already knew that process is more important than outcome. This book shows why it is true professionally. It’s an argument for blogging, corresponding, shitposting, curating, and just generally continuing a dialogue with the world around you.
~ Figuring by Maria Popova
A book about overlooked woman in the history of art and science. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I don’t agree with some of the more romantic ideas contained within. I think about the lives of the woman within equally as much as the confusion about romanticism this book provoked.
~ A Velocity of Being by Maria Popova
A beautiful book containing letters written about books which reminds how important books are in my ambition to write books for a living. To be a writer, I have to first be a reader.
Shelf #2 – Non-fiction (16 books).
Like the “Making a Living” theme, non-fiction is a catch-all term. But scanning my selection I’ve realised that most of my chosen non-fiction focuses on people. People in different places at different times doing different things for different reasons and with different levels of success. In a way, all these stories of reality give me hope. They slide a knife across the throat of the notion that anyone’s path is straight, unobstructed and void of difficult choices.
~ The Path to Power by Robert Caro
The first in Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series told me more about Texas than I need to know. It also set the stage for the life and times of a man who had a huge influence on the turns mid-20th century ‘merica made. More importantly for me, it is a standard-setter for historical rigour.
~ Means of Ascent by Robert Caro
The second in Caro’s series, this one is about the grasping of the reins of power. It is an instructive tale as much as it is a cautionary one: at most points in spacetime the dynamics of power remain the same. A monument.
~ Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
My favourite of the Lyndon Johnson series, this one shows how LBJ came to dominate the Senate. I use “dominate” deliberately. Shelving minor feelings of disgust and horror about some of LBJ’s maneuvers allowed me to see how much of a master he really was.
~ The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
In the third of the LBJ series, LBJ seemed to be calling the shots. In this fourth volume he seems to be responding to events instead of initiating them. Like other large historical figures he seems to have crossed a threshold and entered a world within which his attempts to control reality become increasingly futile. I learnt a lot about the interplay of crisis, opportunity, influence and agency here.
~ The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Oh. Boy. A LOT of things from this book call out to me. Moses’ tyranny, his drive, his ambition, his weaknesses, his strengths, what people did and didn’t do when confronted with his will. An incredible book.
~ Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow
I am a huge fan of written interviews. And this a selection of interviews Judd Apatow conducted with renowned funny men and women. Everything about this book is honest, insightful and a tad strange. I learned a lot about the comedy of the human condition and how serious the art of comedy can be.
~ Titan by Ron Chernow
One of thpse books which compels a person to look at their own life and think, “Uhhh.” The story of John D. Rockefeller is beguiling. In its epic proportion it is comparable to the stories of the gods of Mount Olympus romping around. Hugely thought-provoking.
~ Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
I associate this book primarily with courage–intellectual, physical and moral. Confronting the sea, confronting society, confronting yourself: I see this tale as a collection of attempts to stare directly at the sun that we call truth.
~ To Reach for the Clouds by Philippe Petit
Why would someone walk a wire between two of the world’s tallest buildings? Why wouldn’t they? A book about achievement, about humanity’s desire to do what hasn’t been done and to attempt what perhaps shouldn’t be done.
~ Genius by James Gleick
Feynman is a celebrated figure because he was a fantastic man. He was a modern day trickster. And the reason this biography stayed out, instead of Feynman’s assorted tales of his adventures, is that it interposes Feynman’s well-documented comedic episodes with episodes of tragedy. When I look upon it I am reminded of the ups and the downs, and of how instructive both classes of events can be.
~ Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
Malcolm X was a hero for many people, and reading this it is easy to see why. It is also revealing to see some of the holes in the personal mythology he created for himself. Take nothing away from Malcolm though: the man lived with ferocity. Enough said.
~ The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
War shreds the fabric of our souls as much as it gouges holes in the fabric of society. This book is about that process. It is about the effects of war upon those responsible for waging it. I would’ve shed tears if it weren’t for the sheer incomprehensibility of such experiences.
~ The Tiger by John Vaillant
Want an insight into life on the borders of society? Check this book out. More specifically, the primary barb from this book that is stuck in my skin concerns the challenges of solitude. How does one conduct oneself when no-one is looking? Without witnesses, what choices would a person make? And how do they live with them?
~ The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman
A warming story of an utterly eccentric individual. There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom that come to mind here. However, for me it is the collective impression concerning the nature and effect of obsession that sticks.
~ Reach for the Sky by Paul Brickhill
Douglas Bader was quite a man. A model in many ways, less of courage, but of sheer audacious stubborness. Bader flat out refused to bend even when reality was most insistent. I am still amazed by that.
~ Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano
A sickening book about cocaine, and thus about modernity in its entirety. On my first readthrough there were points where I just had to nope out. I couldn’t take it. I needed some to establish some temporary distance because the text was undermining many thoughts I’d held to concerning the wider world.
Shelf #3 – Philosophy, or How to Live (24 books).
I’m not overly concerned with high philosophy, with the clouds that soar in the sky and consist of the most obtuse of abstractions. That’s why philosophy is, to me, alternatively titled “how to live”. It deals with the questions of and the answers to life.
~ The Complete Works of Primo Levi (3 Volumes)
Some books entertain. Some books teach. Some books make one more interesting. Others, including this collection, make one more human. It would not be going too far to say that I believe it impossible to read Levi and not be profoundly changed. I certainly was, and the ramifications of said change are still revealing themselves to this day.
~ Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed
Yet another book that arrived at the perfect time. There is SO MUCH that I took from this book that the best way to return the favour is to implore you to read it. If you’re still uncertain check out this mini-thread. But seriously, buy it.
~ Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi
In no way do I understand the context amidst which Leopardi recorded these thoughts, but I do recognise their profoundity. I haven’t read the entire book, but looking at it I am struck by the idea that certain thoughts are impervious to the passage of time. 2000BC or 2000AD, some problems don’t go away. Additionally, many of these thoughts are tinged with a melancholy that I thoroughly relate to.
~ Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
This book represents a significant milestone in my life. I read it in the no-man’s land that is post-mandatory education. It acted as a kind of compass when I felt utterly adrift. My copy has a load of underlined passages, orange highlights everywhere, and folded pages that fatten the book when closed. To this day I am plucking the fruit from multiple readthroughs.
~ Battling to the End by Rene Girard
Girardian theory is about as abstract as this shelf gets, but even this little book extrapolationg Clausewitz’s ideas has practical implications. To me, it offers up a formula for the end of the world: the secularisation of society, the globalisation of culture, the decay of traditional communities and the inevitable escalation of mimetic conflict combine to create a vision of an eminently possible apocalypse.
~ The Girard Reader
This book contains accessible explainers of the Girard’s core ideas. There is enough here to satisfy the curiosity of a layman like me, and to provoke deeper questons about the ideas themselves and the societies they apply to.
~ Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman
Until I read this book I had not realised how much I deified notions like liquidity, minimalism and nomadism. It confronted me with the implications of blind faith in these ideas and teased me for thinking they could be adopted at scale without severe consequences.
~ On the Warrior’s Path by Daniele Bolelli
In a culture that shames explicit violence a book that explores the warrior spirit can seem out of place. It isn’t, I promise. The warrior’s path is not an archaic ideal long past its sell-by date. It is shockingly relevant for we live in a time where conflict–if not physical, then definitely moral, intellectual and interpersonal–rules the day.
~ Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
This book reveals to its readers that philosophy in antiquity was treated as a tool. It was not, as it is today, confined to academia. It was used by every person in all things to help them determine the way forward.
~ The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Never has a book been so successful at stripping away the assumptions I lived by. In excruciating detail Solzhenitsyn describes a horrifying reality, the path that lead to it and the people that walked it. A profoundly humane book about an utterly inhumane episode of history.
~ Everything is Better…
A custom book my partner designed for my birthday (or Christmas, I can’t quite remember). It makes me smile.
~ Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse
The observation that “life is a game” is true but it provokes questions. What are the rules? Who are the participants? What is at stake? Carse’ book adds another question to the list: am I playing to win, or in order to keep playing? Finite games, as Carse calls them, can be won whilst infinite games can only be prolonged. This text is up there in the scale of the impact it had upon me. It convinced me to switch from playing a finite game to an infinite one.
~ A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I don’t really know how to describe this slim volume. It is written by the author of The Gulag Archipelago and describes an apocryphal day in the life of a camp inmate. It’s not shocking so much as unsettling. Reading it left me with a curious sense of unease that I still, to this day, don’t really know what to do with.
~ Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Frankl occupies the third point of the Vienna triangle. Freud argued that life is about pleasure; Jung argued it is about power; Frankl argued it is about meaning. Frankl, in my mind, is the least wrong of the three and it is this book, more than any of his others, which explains why.
~ Beyond Economics and Ecology by Ivan Illich
A fun book, if only because it pokes holes in many notions that are adopted without thought. Illich talks about energy, condemns shadow work, and just generally tears about multiple aspects of modern life. Refreshing as it is intriguing.
~ Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
What is a philosophy shelf without Seneca? A classic collection which had a big impact on me.
~ The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne
The essayist. Montaigne turned introspection into an art and his courageous curiosity is utterly infectious. Even now, I can recall the joy I felt when reading these essays for the first time. Here was a man unafraid to look and determined not to flinch, no matter how absurd his findings.
~ The King James Bible
I keep this for I am slowly making my way through the Gospels. Girard claims the Gospels are singular in history; I am reading them to see if he is correct. Also: I recently completed Tom Holland’s Dominion, and keeping a copy of the Bible on my shelf reminds me that I am very much a default Christian.
~ Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius’ handbook is the counterpoint to Seneca’s letters. Short where Seneca is long, direct where Seneca is descriptive, harsh where Seneca is compassionate. A helpful little book.
~ The Nocilla Trilogy (3 Volumes) by Agustin Fernandez Mallo
I’ve read the trilogy on Kindle and decided I wanted it in print, too. The books, and the stories they contain, are strange to me. They seem to mirror modern life in their fragmented structure and in their diffuse meaning.
Shelf #4 – The Mind-Breath-Body Triangle (26 books).
I’ve written before that the breath forms a bridge between the mind and the body. It mediates. This shelf is representative of that observation. It contains books about writing (an activity of the mind), mindfulness (an activity concerned with the breath), and the movement/health of the body. Each of these verbs (write, breath, move) are fundamental to me and to how I live.
Books about Writing:
~ Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Come on. I have to have this on the shelf.
~ The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
This book presents a very useful model for story-telling. I’ve used it, and I’m sure that in the future I will be coming back to it.
~ Line by Line by Claire Kehrwald Cook
A useful guide which I have only briefly consulted. I’m still sharpening my tools as a writer but rigourous line-by-line edits are something I am going to have to learn to do. This book should help.
~ Story by Robert McKee
Although it is positioned as such, I don’t really see this book as a guide, a tool, or a troubleshooting aide. I see it more as the compression of a principle: that all story is about conflict.
~ The Penguin Writer’s Manual
Not exactly a book for face-to-face reading, I kept it out just in case.
~ A Muse and a Maze by Peter Turchi
One half of a pair of books which provide fabulously enlightening lenses through which to view the art and craft of writing. This one is more about mystery and enigma.
~ Maps of the Imagination by Peter Turchi
The other half of the aforementioned pair. To me, it is focuses more on the mind that gives birth to the word. It is about how we hold concepts within our mind, how we think and therefore how we write (and why).
~ Impro for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone
Less transformative than its prequel, this book has a bucketload of exercises which can be adapted for someone in need of a creative confidence boost.
~ Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Short, succinct selections from one of the greats. Useful and inspiring.
~ Impro by Keith Johnstone
A fantastic book that majorly rewired my brain when it comes to creativity and productivity: it persuaded me that creativity is a BASE state, not a PEAK state. It is something we already are but, for the most part, have forgotten how to be. I’ve read it a few times and I always pick up something new.
~ Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien
I really treasure this book for a few reasons, but especially because of the short story, “Leaf by Niggle”. The story helped me come to the terms with the fact that we cannot always finish what we start. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be ferociously ambitious…
~ On Writing by Charles Bukowski
Bukowski was a madman in the best sense. This makes a fantastic contrast to the Hemingway book. Combine the two and one could potentially have all the macro writing advice needed.
~ Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
A lot of gems here but the chief one is that quantity leads to quality. Bradbury meant it to apply to writing, but as writing is a proxy for thought it is applicable as a general rule. To have better thoughts it is necessary to have more thoughts.
~ Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
There’s not much smashmouth advice in here. Le Guin’s guidance is more subtle, softer, and deliberately practical. Which, in many ways, makes it fantastically effective.
~ The Penguin Guide to Punctuation
Another reference book kept out, just in case.
Books about Mindfulness:
~ Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw
I’ve only dipped into this very briefly. But when I did I was advised to switch observational cues: instead of “breathing in” and “breathing out” I now use “rising” and “falling”. Sure, a small change, but profound in effect. I suspect there are more like it, but I have yet to discover them.
~ Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
A great primer on the fundamental practice of mindfulness. I read this a few years ago and it set the tone for much of my life that came after: the cultivation of patience, the nurturing of compassion, attempts at unflinching honesty. Much came from this text.
~ Beyond Mindfulness by Bhante Gunaratana
The follow-up to the above begins to look at the jhanas, a form of concentration meditation which is the counterpart to insight meditation.
~ Practising the Jhanas by Stephen Snyder
A slightly more thorough look at what the cultivation of the jhanas involves. Useful for practitioners and for people like me who have a fairly erratic interest in cultivating contemplative capacities.
~ Minding Mind by Thomas Cleary
There are interesting texts here, but I kept the book out to remind me of one idea: “…the best require but a moment, the least take countless aeons.” That can be applied to meditation and the practise of mindfulness, but it can also be applied to creativity, virtue, movement, and a host of other domains.
Books about Health and Movement:
~ The Practice of Natural Movement by Erwan le Corre
Phenomenal. Sure, the second half provides a lot of useful movements and drills. But it is the first half, where Erwan le Corre lays out the philosophy of Movnat, that holds the most value. There truly is a lifetime full of ideas to occupy oneself with.
~ Movement Matters by Katy Bowman
A decent collection of essays. Most impactful for me though was the idea of 23/1; an hour-long gym session is no compensation for 23 hours of neglect, abuse and dysfunction. To change a body requires a fundamental change in lifestyle. We need to build a life around movement, instead of stuffing it in the small gaps as an afterthought.
~ Never Let Go by Dan John
I read this many years ago. There are ideas I carry with me to this day, concerning both the practice of movement and how I conduct myself in life. I’ve also met Dan, and his example, signalled to me by this book, is one thing I won’t likely forget.
~ Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price
Another old read, this is an early study that practically condemns many elements of modern nutrition. Humans are adapatable and we can survive–nay, thrive–in many environments, but one we struggle to prosper on is the one now dominant around the world: the infamous western diet.
~ The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
The title says it all really. This is a book that shows, fairly comprehensively, that process outweighs outcome in its salience. Ignoring the influence of luck, the safest investment one can make with time and energy is in the process. It’s not sexy, it’s not flashy, it won’t win you a tribe of raging cultists, but it will have a substantially positiove impact on your life.
~ Food Rules by Michael Pollan
Nutrition doesn’t get much simpler than this collection of directives from Michael Pollan. Most of us know how to eat, what to eat, and when. We just need reminding and little rules like this help.
Shelf #5 – Strategy / Hitler (24 books).
The smaller part of this shelf is concerned with my novel-in-progress, Hitler, My Hero. The larger part of this is concerned with strategy. Early on, I was naive and think I aspired to be some sort of mundane-Moriarty who could manuever himself into an advantageous position with minimal effort. Such notions have, I hope, departed along with my naivete. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in “strategy”. In fact, more than ever I find it useful to play with its precepts. The difference is, I think, a result of reading Carse’s above book: I’m less concerned with winning, per se, and more concerned now with keeping the game interesting.
Additionally, the strategy section of the shelf is segmented into the four. The first (from left to right) has a distinctly Eastern flavour. The second has for a focus the uses and abuses of time. The third is devoted to B.H. Liddell Hart. The fourth is devoted to the admittedly finite-game orientated Robert Greene.
Strategy (Eastern Bias):
~ The Art of War: Complete Texts and Commentaries translated by Thomas Cleary
Pretty foundational. The advantage of this version from Thomas Cleary is that it contains multiple interpretations and commentaries on the original Art of War. The book itself won’t provide a step-by-step guide to navigating modern scenarios, but it might nudge your thoughts in an interesting direction…
~ The Hustler by Maija Soderholm
A focused book about swordplay and tactical thinking. It’s short and quick, but it packs a few punches. Some of the things I learned are applicable to BJJ, but at the same time they are just plain interesting. Conflict–especially blade-focused–is a subtle art and it’s great to listen to a clear master talk about it.
~ The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
Another enigmatic old text, this time from Miyamoto Musashi. To me, this book is similar to the Art of War. It has some rather obtuse ideas that, if considered closely, can have interesting effects on how a person thinks and acts.
~ The Unspoken Way by Michihiro Matsumoto
A book about the Japanese practice of silence. Why it matters, what it means, how it’s used and how it’s overlooked, especially in the West. Enjoyable and intriguing.
~ The Chinese Looking Glass by Dennis Bloodworth
A short, sharp look into Chinese culture. I can’t remember why I ended up with this book, but I am glad I did. I learned a lot about subtlety, ambition, and most interestingly, about intuition.
Strategy (Temporal Bias):
~ Tempo by Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao’s book was perhaps the first which taught me that time is a construct that can be used, not just consumed. It contains a lot of interlocking ideas and, as a BJJ practitioner and a writer, it revealed a new plane of ideas and strategies to play with.
~ Brave New War by John Robb
The main truth that comes to me when I look at this book is: complex systems are vulnerable to simple attacks. It applies in warfare, Robb’s own domain–see the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. But it applies elsewhere, too. For example, complex rituals don’t survive contact with one’s newborn baby. More generally, this book is about the search for and exploitation of asymmetry and how such vulnerabilities are multiplying at great speed in the modern world.
~ Certain to Win by Chet Richards
This book takes John Boyd’s ideas and develops a framework for applying them in a business environment. Useful and intriguing, but not something I have fully acted upon (yet).
~ Boyd by Robert Coram
A fantastic biography of a fanatical man. Coram does a good job of laying out Boyd’s fundamental ideas, but he also reveals what it is like to be a man of action trying to wreak change in an institution designed to suppress it. Lots of good stories, observations and ideas here.
~ Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne
This book is about the detection of threats in hostile environments. It’s written, mostly, for military and law enforcement officers, but it reveals some interesting things about humanity in general. There’s no mystical keys to human nature here, however. All there is is solid advice about seeing abnormalities, assessing them, and preventing the worse of the risks they could pose. A good read and one that makes people watching a lot more enlightening.
Strategy (B.H. Liddell Hart):
~ Liddell Hart’s History of the First World War
I’ve read a little of this, but not much. It seems to be of the same calibre as the following book: meaning, it’s good.
~ Liddell Hart’s History of the Second World War
Funnily enough, this was the first full history of the Second World War that I ever read. It totally ignited my interest in the period and I retain that interest to this day.
~ The Sword and the Pen by B.H. Liddell Hart
A fun selection of excerpts about strategy, from antiquity to the modern day. It’s interesting to see the parallels across time and the evolution of perspective, too.
~ Why Don’t We Learn From History? by B.H. Liddell Hart
A slim volume which explores answers to a fundamental question. This is perhaps Hart at his best: he is short, concise and powerful.
~ Sherman by B.H. Liddell Hart
I know next to nothing about the American Civil War, but this book still yielded insight. The chief thing for me was Sherman’s flexibility and his use of the many paths approach which I still employ today.
~ Strategy by B.H. Liddell Hart
If you need one book on Hart’s ideas concerning dislocation and exploitation then choose this one. It’s both an historical survey and a summation of his thought. Definitely useful.
~ The Other Side of the Hill by B.H. Liddell Hart
Incredibly, Hart, in the postwar years, had leave to communicate with high level German officers and generals. This is what came of it and it is fascinating. Much is written of the losers in history, but only a small proportion of it is their own words.
Strategy (Robert Greene):
~ 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene
When I switch into entrepreneur mode (which isn’t often) I sometimes come back to this book. It’s ideas are simple, potentially effective and generative; toying with them tends to generate more possibilities than I know what to do with.
~ 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
As time has passed I have come to feel ambivalent about this book. Undoubtedly, it contains vast insights about human nature. However, I now question how applicable they are, and more importantly, whether I want to try applying them. As a result, I now view this as a more defensive manual. As Publius Syrus said, “He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.”
~ Mastery by Robert Greene
Of Robert Greene’s book, I think this is the best one. It’s a book about learning, ultimately, and on that count it is fantastic. There are a ton of straegies and ideas for levelling up quickly and effectively. The major change it wrought on my personal trajectory is that it extended it–it compelled me to think on a timeline of decades instead of months and years.
~ Hitler: Volume One: Ascent by Volker Ullrich
The first book I purchased when I began looking into Hitler and the Third Reich. It is fantastic. It clears away the fragments of many caricatures, tidies up many contradictions and takes a level look at Adolf Hitler himself. I cannot wait for the second volume.
~ Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
In every book about Hitler, this ends up being quoted. So, I thought it sensible to get my own copy. Perhaps not the best translation, but enough to get a sense of the content. Reading it I was able to see how ridiculous and convoluted the ideas contained were. However, it was also clear to me how, presented a particular way, the ideas could be persuasive.
~ Hitler at Home by Despina Stratigakos
I’ve picked up and read multiple biographies of Hitler and the Ullrich effort still reigns supreme. However, this comes a close second. It’s about Hitler’s architectural ideas and about the manufacture of his personal mythology. Massively enjoyable.
~ The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
The book that birthed my novel.
Shelf #6- Fiction (26 books).
I read from a young age and most of what I read was fiction. My dad reads fiction endlessly and I used to read whatever he had just finished–mostly crime books. That’s how I got my start and it is probably the activity that has had the most profound effect on my life. For that reason, I will never look down upon fiction. It is no less noble that scientific treatises or philosophical explorations. It is, to me, one of the most transformative mediums there is. Nothing can change a person in the way a story can.
~ The Tales of Beedle the Bard, A History of Magic, Illustrated Harry Potter, Volumes I to IV by J.K. Rowling
Make no mistake, my lumping these together is not a dismissal of these book’s impacts upon me. The Harry Potter series was huge for me, as it was for millions of others. Of course, as time passes the cracks begin to show, but in my mind that just makes the work all the more endearing. Whenever I want to slip into the comforting embrace of nostalgia I pull out one of these books. And whenever I think of the power of literature to evoke change and wonder, I think of these books.
~ The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated by J.R.R. Tolkien and Alan Lee
Alongside the Harry Potter series, this work forms the foundation for many of my ideas about what literature should be and can do. I’ve read the series countless times and the addition of Lee’s illustrations makes re-reading the series a great joy.
~ The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Volume I to X by Steven Erikson
People who pick up Erikson’s Malazan series either make it halfway through the first book or become devout devourers of everything associated with the world he and Ian Esslemont created. I am in the latter category.
The first entry, originally planned as a screenplay, leaves newcomers floundering but that’s okay. I found that about halfway through the first volume something went thunk and from then on I was hooked.
As it progresses, the series gets better and better. The characters carve a home in your heart, the world becomes real in your mind, the story shakes the entirety of your soul and the narration makes it all easy to ingest. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is insanely ambitious. It is remarkably human in its portrayal of light, dark and all that lies in between. Honestly, it leaves me awestruck.
~ Fictions by J.L. Borges
Borges was a master of mystery, ambiguity and beauty. This collection, small though it may be, delivers haymakers to many goliaths.
~ Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and Shogun by James Clavell
These two come as a pair in my mind. They both paint pictures of the samurai era but the artifacts are remarkably different. Musashi is simple, clean, easy to digest, and to me, introspective. Shogun is the opposite. It’s dirty, grey. It strikes a note closer to reality. The contrast between the two is why I kept them out. I would not choose one over the other because both speak a different language about the same thing.
~ Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
This book remains close to my heart because it forces me to meet with my shadow–the freewheeling, joyous, carefree, spontaneous Me that I am so adept at ignoring and suppressing.
~ His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
This book stayed on the shelf mainly because it reminds me of several potent scenes. The first is when Lyra and Will enter the land of the dead. The second is the bench. There are more, but these two are enough.
~ The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula K. Le Guin
On its surface, the Earthsea Quartet is simple. It is stripped down and polished until almost nothing remains. That said, of the four novels contained within, it is the last which most struck me. It serves as a reminder that the realm of the heroic often forgots, ignores or downright abuses the mundane.
~ Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, Notes from the Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
These three remain out for two reasons. The first is the Girardian link. Girard references Dostoevsky in Deceit, Desire and the Novel and these books serve as a reminder of those ideas. The second reason is that Dostoevsky’s work, to me, represents a true reflection of the human consciousness: psychotic, tinged with chaos, confused, bipolar with certainty and doubt, liable to swing between moods of unbearable clarity and complete delusion.
THE LAST INDULGENGE
137 books are listed above. About another 700 are in storage. Picking the ones that were to remain out was an interesting exercise, as was working through them and explaining a fragment of their importance to me. Now, the final part of this admittedly indulgent exercise is, I think, to talk about reading in more general terms.
The biggest thing that the list considered as a whole communicates to me is this: the gaps in my knowledge. I did not fare well in traditional education so I never really walked far down any particular path to specialisation. Looking at the shelves, I see proof of this. There are no shelves with technical books about a tightly defined domain. I lean far towards the humanities and demonstrate only a dilletante’s interest in the sciences. Part of me owns this unashamedly: I can’t change what I am drawn to and what I find fascinating in the world. Another part of me protests that I am shut off from a terribly rich vein of thought and ideas. A reconciliation between the two positions may happen in the future, but it is worth noting the tension here and now.
A more practical observation is this: limited space means a pause on analog purchases. This means reading mostly on the Kindle, which in turn has meant the death of my annotation practices. When I switched to Kindle I did start to highlight and lay out a workflow for progressively summarising my reading using digital tools. I abandoned that, in part because I’m lazy, and in part because I thought it would be interesting to let past practices go entirely. I wanted to see what happened to me when I let myself be taken in and taken away by whatever I happened to be reading.
My hope was that relinquishing annotating practices would help me to surrender objectivity and more fully understand books on a fundamental level. The reasoning for this was based in my interviewing experience. Personally, I feel I can connect to a person when there is nothing between me and said person. In the context of an interview, that means no notebooks, no notes, no recording devices; just two people being honest and open, trying not to talk past one another. In the context of a book that means refusing to hide my self behind any intermediary other than my brain.
I can’t vouch for the success or the failure of reading like this, so far. I may not ever be able to, in fact. It is a different approach based on contrary assumptions. I’m enjoying it, however, not only for the convenience, but for the immersion.
Applied to fiction, it is similar to how I read as a child. It is easier to access joy and sadness, comedy and tragedy, the wheel of emotion and experience. Applied to non-fiction, it is strange. I am not, by nature, critical. I am easily taken in. If an author lays out arguments that are grossly persuasive but logically incoherent I am more likely to fall for the rhetoric than I am to critique the reason. Naturally, this results in an inefficient process involving backpedalling, revisions, cognitive dissonance, confusion and, at times where I go public with my thinking, embarassment. But maybe that is okay? I don’t know.
Undoubtedly, reading has been, is and will remain a central pillar of my life. At this point I am enjoying my experimentations with it. I think the tendency when it comes to reading is to focus on the end. To fix our gaze on how books can entertain a person, teach a person, make them more interesting or more human. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. But the means is equally as worthy of attention.
Are there as many ways to read as there are books to read? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that there are not a tonne of ways to do it. Nowadays, I’m less interested in finding the optimal way to read than I am in finding an interesting and engaging way to be with a book.
It may not work for you, but it’s proving fruitful for me. For years, I have tried to use books. Now, I am granting them a chance to use me.