In line with my efforts to share more of my learning, here are the books I read this last year. Living next to a branch of San Francisco's public library has been fantastic for reading.
Through constructing this list, I began to see even more connections in the things that I read. Those connections will become more clear as I revisit the passages I copied down from many of the books. As I've done for some in this list, I may also attempt to push these insights in future posts. As a reader, I try to bounce between different types of books, though I unwittingly chose books this year that seemed to have tried to answer in some manner questions surrounding how we should live. Some common themes emerged: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the insights of modern psychology. Here we go, in chronological order of finished date:
William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy
I read this in the spring and haphazardly decided to change the subject of one of my class's research paper to how the philosophy of Stoicism can apply to the work of lawyer-activists. You can read a more universal piece conveying the thrust of that paper here. If you're at all interested in learning about Stoicism, this is a fantastic primer. I think the philosophy is battle-ready and incredibly valuable in the modern age.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Suzuki is the founder of San Francisco's Zen Center. I've always been fascinated by Zen and this book was a challenging yet rewarding exploration.
Jean Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, A Monk and a Philosopher
A father (the philosopher) and son (the monk) discuss Buddhism. They each have valuable insights in this dialogue-format book.
Alan Watts, Wisdom in the Age of Insecurity
I've listened to Watts many times before, but this was one of the first of his books I've read. Known to have been a pioneer in bringing Buddhism to the West, this book brings Watts's heartening humor to many important subjects. Valuable highlights here, here, and here.
Elle Luna, Crossroads of Should and Must
Luna's Medium piece went viral, and this book was its result. The crux: "There are two paths in life. Should and must. We arrive at this crossroads over and over again. And every day, we get to choose." Sometimes we just need someone else to tell us the thing we already know. I enjoyed reading this one and the illustrations throughout make it a real joy, too.
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (Volume 1)
This was my very first graphic novel. I absolutely loved it! Gaiman is a wordsmith and the art is outstanding. It doesn't hurt that the story really draws you in.
Charles Duhigg, Power of Habit
How do our habits work? Duhigg tackles that question, working to dissect the mechanics of the habits that run our lives. I'm an advocate for building up routines in life, so this book gave some great insights about how those routines actually work.
David Foster Wallace, This is Water
Not so much a book, this commencement speech is among the best. I'll try to re-read this often. You can find my commonplace book entry for this one here.
Shawn Anchor, The Happiness Advantage
Anchor argues that modern society has put the cart before the horse: being more productive wont' make us happy, but focusing on our own happiness can make us more productive. Though the writing surrounding the takeaways isn't always the most enticing, the book covers some research that I've worked to integrate into my daily life, like gratitude journaling.
Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit
This philosophical essay is on well, bullshit. It's a short read easily found in PDF form. I happened to find it as a slim booklet. It's an entertaining, refreshing read.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
I can't remember if I actually read this in high school or pretended as if I read it. Regardless, the short, classic read is worth your time. More here.
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
Gilbert's fascinating point: we are awful at forecasting our future happiness. All your intuitions are wrong, and horribly wrong at that. I'll have to come back to this one in the future and figure out how to better integrate the book's insights into my own life.
Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
It might've just been the timing of reading this one right after Stumbling on Happiness, but this one lacked a punch for me. The book is essentially a series of experiments the author conducts on herself to be happier. The author works to sell the reader on many things that I already bought into, so that perhaps slowed down the pace for me.
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
This classic is wisdom packed. Seneca is a fantastic writer and his words have traveled extraordinarily well over the ages. Highly recommended. A taste of it: "What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately."
Sam Harris, Free Will
Harris argues (in my opinion, effectively) that our concept of free will is bunk. I'm theoretically on board with his conclusions and through the practice of meditation have experienced first-hand the foggy nature of self that we try to pin our decisions on, but I haven't quite wrapped my head around how to bring these conclusions to bear on day-to-day living or the way in which we should structure our laws or policy.
Maria Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty
I don't really know how to accurately describe this one. It's a kind of illustrated journal covering all sorts of topics that can be consumed easily in one sitting. The style is distinct and arresting and I'll be looking for more of her work.
Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
This is big book comes in only 184 pages. Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, details his experiences and his framework for dealing with it all. One idea in particular has stuck with me: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (Volume 2)
As good, if not better, than Volume 1.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Hays translation)
Aurelius, a successful Roman Emperor, was the last great Stoic. This book, originally intended to be the private journal of Aurelius, contains his instructions to himself to be a better man. This was my second reading, though with a different translation that I found more accessible. Like Seneca, this writing is wisdom-packed.
Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way
Holiday's book works to export Stoicism by way of helpful historical anecdotes. In this quick book, his writing offers clarity and concise takeaways.
Gretchen Rubin, Better than Before
I'd heard lots of good things about another of Rubin's books, so even with the mixed experience with The Happiness Project, I decided to give this book a shot. Exploring different strategies to habits, I found this one a lot more interesting and it gave me a few things to think about.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
This book was valuable if only for the idea of thinking through the idea of resistance: the barrier between you and your work.
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance
I read this on the very day of the Paris attacks. My long review of sorts can be found here.
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
A guide to decluttering that somehow became #1 NYT best-seller, this one is a book after my own heart. I'm a minimalist through and through, and the insistence to get rid of anything that doesn't bring you joy resonated with me.
Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, A Rap on Race
Maria Popova's consistent high praise of this book encouraged me to check it out. It's an enriching read of a conversation between two brilliant minds. So many points had me pausing simply to reflect. A series of Popova's highlights here.
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
Harris takes on the idea that science has nothing to say about morality. He makes a few philosophical moves in the beginning that I find interesting, though these moves have not been without criticism. Rather than read the book, his TED Talk on the subject of the book is probably the best way to explore the material.
Gary Tuabes, Why We Get Fat
Why do we get fat? Modern society's intake of carbs. Read the book if you're interested in the science of it all. I was pretty convinced by it all, though I won't lay down any absolute claims just yet.
Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
The story of this dystopian graphic novel is as timely as ever. Having seen the film before reading the graphic novel, the story's main flourishes were somewhat spoiled. Still, despite this and the sometimes hard-to-read print, I got lost in the post-apocalyptic world and the idealism of V.
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
As I got the hang of a daily meditation habit, I wanted to deepen my practice. I came across Brach's teaching by way of Maria Popova. Ignoring the cheesy title, this book provides a valuable exploration of how we can use mindfulness to be better to ourselves and to others.
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