Below I’ve listed my own favorite books. Below that I’ve written a blurb about what I appreciate about each of these books.
- Amis, Lucky Jim
- Buckley, Thank You for Smoking
- Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
- Clavell, Shogun
- De Waal, Chimpanzee Politics
- Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
- Johnstone, Impro
- Lewis, Mere Christianity
- Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
- Schwarzenegger, The Education of a Bodybuilder
- Tolle, The Power of Now
- Watzlawick, Change
Amis, Lucky Jim
If you visit the website of the late James Carse, you’ll find this quote:
“My first novel, PhDeath… grew out of a life-long dedication to the institutions of higher education (I went to school at the age of five and never left) and profound alarm at the self-inflicted degradation of the university–which, after all, is Western civilization’s noblest creation.”
Today everyone feels the corruption and precariousness of our noblest creation. but in the 1950s, when Lucky Jim was published, the university was still esteemed. There is something brave about Kingsley Amis’s novel, which so gloriously pillories higher ed.
The satire was not only ahead of its time, but it has also kept up with time. Comedy rarely ages well, but Lucky Jim will be cracking readers up as long as we have academia––which may be just a few more years!
Buckley, Thank You for Smoking
Not only one of my favorite books, but also my favorite movie thanks to a career-making performance by Aaron Eckhart.
Having some experience writing and performing stand up comedy, I can tell you that there is little more challenging than writing words that make a stranger laugh.
Thank You For Smoking is short, fast, and funny. Read it. Or watch it. Or both. If you love satire, you’ll love it.
Bonus: A decade ago a worked an internship with a lobbying firm and subsequently parlayed it into a one-month internship on Capitol Hill. It was my taste of being Well Connected––a sort of kids’ edition of the revolving door.
On Capitol Hill I learned that a lot of disgruntled citizens call their Congresspeople to rant about impending mass insurrection. Little do they know that an unpaid 20 year-old is on the other end of the phone line!
Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Caro’s series is the best exposition of political power I have discovered.
In Caro’s other opus, The Power Broker, he describes Robert Moses’s genius thus: Moses saw “the potential for power where other men had not.” Johnson had the same genius, but greater ambition.
Americans often gripe about the political oligarchy: Another millionaire president who graduated an Ivy League school? Yawn. Give us LBJ, who grew up in Texas Hill Country squalor and graduated from the modest San Marcos Teachers College
We want the “bootstraps” story and Johnson gave it to us. Again and again a powerless LBJ seizes the “potential for power.” But the bootstraps story came at a cost: war in Vietnam.
Also, LBJ’s dog had the best dog name in presidential history: Little Beagle Johnson.
Long ago I came across a blog post (I’ve since forgotten which) in which the author wrote that Shogun taught him everything he knew about business.
Before reading Shogun I suggest reading Venkatesh Rao’s series “The Gervais Principle,” which would be on this list if it were book-length. In it, Rao writes about “Powertalk.” Rao writes, “What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little.”
In Shogun, the title character is a master of these power equation manipulations. Author James Clavell understood how leaders Powertalk. You can read Dune for the same Powertalk porn. (Dune might be added to this list should I read it again.)
Also, one of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the mouth of a geisha in Shogun:
‘Always remember, child,’ her first teacher had impressed on her, ‘that to think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world. If you leave your mind to itself it will spiral you down into ever-increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts, however, requires effort. This is one of the things that discipline––training––is about. So train your mind to dwell on sweet perfumes, the touch of this silk, tender raindrops against the shoji, the curve of the flower arrangement, the tranquillity of dawn. Then, at length, you won’t have to make such a great effort and you will be of value to yourself.’
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
De Waal, Chimpanzee Politics
Newt Gingrich supposedly recommended this book to new members of Congress during his tenure as Speaker.
Gingrich likes it, I suspect, because Chimpanzee Politics is a good model for human politics. But that does not mean it is the model for human politics. Reality is much more nuanced––Robert Caro wrote four volumes about the nuance of LBJ’s political career.
Beyond just being an incomplete model, the evolutionary biology perspective of human behavior just gets boring. There’s been a million books written about it. That said, it’s a good idea to understand the foundation of evolutionary behavior, and Chimpanzee Politics is the best book I’ve read on it.
Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
None of my words about The Origin of Consciousness will do the work of Richard Dawkins, who wrote that it is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius.” But can’t it be both?
I began to be deeply interested in consciousness and ontology in 2020. My reaction to the ostensible outward chaos of Pandemia, perhaps, was to retreat inward.
This is one of the “big” books I read in 2020: After reading it, it’s not obvious what to do next except ponder it. And then you ponder it some more after that. And then after a bit more pondering you decide, “Welp, time to move on,” and go back to life as it was or perhaps search for an even bigger book––but the selection of bigger books is limited.
Those five hundred pages are a special intellectual journey toward understanding why we have special intellectual journeys.
My first exposure to improv came from my high school theater teacher Jim Shelby, a master educator who fended off public school banality and facilitated a blissfully creative environment. I’ve kept a lifelong interest in theater and performance because of Mr. Jim.
I have a long list of memories from his classes, but one of them stands out: We did a six-week “musical improv” unit. Mr. Jim or my lifelong friend Mr. Noel Carey would sit at the piano and play a tune and the students on stage had to improvise a song. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I sometimes recount that the most valuable thing I learned high school was to be comfortable making a fool of myself on stage.
I remember one of the rules Mr. Jim gave us in preparation for musical improv: Everything Rhymes! With that rule in mind, you needed not fear improvising a song about oranges.
I digress. Impro is less about improvisational theater and more about life. Johnstone’s discussions of status games provide deep insight into the why behind human behavior. It’s a book like no other I’ve read. No doubt Mr. Jim has read it, too.
Lewis, Mere Christianity
I grew up in a secular household or, rather, two secular households. I’ve never read the Bible except for the odd verse that jumps out at me from another text. Like a lot of young men in America, a twinkle of an interest in Christianity came about from listening to a skinny Canadian psychology professor on Joe Rogan.
A few years later I asked a colleague for a few book recommendations. Mere Christianity was one of the books on his list. And, to be honest, I read through his entire list before begrudgingly reading it. But then I read it again.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, Mere Christianity is great reading for understanding what Christianity is, what Christians believe, and Western society. The Christian worldview is fundamental to the Western worldview. Why do Americans place so much importance on the well-being of individuals? Because Christians believe in eternal souls. To put the individual soul before the society is the Christian way.
I particularly enjoyed Lewis’s discussion of the evils of pride, which helped me to better understand and harness my own judgement of myself and others.
Finally, there’s this brilliant idea, which I’ve just learned is famously known as Lewis’s Trilemma:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.
Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” -Theodore Roosevelt
I love this criticism about education that comes from H.L. Mencken:
“It is, indeed, one of the capital tragedies of youth… that the young are thrown mainly with adults they do not quite respect… It would be hard enough for a grown man, with alcohol and cynicism aiding him, to endure such society.” Indeed, excepting the venerable Jim Shelbys of public education, Mencken was right. He adds: “The average boy of my time, if he had his free choice… would have chosen Roosevelt.”
The average boy of my time, too, would have chosen to spend his schooldays with Roosevelt. Scientist, hunter, conservationist, cowboy, romantic, warrior, scion, politician––Roosevelt played just about every desirable archetypal male role in his lifetime. So yes, let’s send our boys to a Wyoming ranch with Teddy Roosevelt instead. Give them a taste of “The Strenuous Life.”
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is Caro’s The Path to Power crossed with Musashi.
Schwarzenegger, The Education of a Bodybuilder
Once upon a time Arnold was a young man. This book was published in 1977––before bodybuilding was part of pop-culture, before The Terminator, and long before the Governator.
Since The Education of a Bodybuilder predates his worldwide fame, Arnold (or––let’s face it––his ghostwriter) is unmuzzled. He writes about sex, beer, and eating shish kabob in the woods with his lifting buddies.
Being what he is today, it’s easy to forget that Arnold’s life was an against-the-odds underdog story. Along with the heart-warming narrative, it is an exposition of Arnold’s mind-over-matter philosophy and superlative discipline.
I’ve had friends become bodybuilders after reading this book. Another of my friends once posed the question: “Do you think I’d be more successful if I stopped reading other books and only read Arnold over and over for the rest of my life?”
It’s worth contemplating.
Tolle, The Power of Now
I feel a bit hacky including Tolle on this list. I don’t think The Power of Now holds up to the surrounding books. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I turn to Tolle in moments of turmoil.
Tolle’s genius was labeling spirituality in a friendly way for a secular audience. God is scary. Holy Spirit is scary. Souls are scary. But who has a problem with now? Who has a problem now?
Bonus: Get the audiobook for Tolle’s soothing German accent.
In 2020 I solicited recommendations for books about Change from my network. Watzlawick was recommended to me by executive coach Steven Feinberg. Like Mere Christianity, after reading Change I immediately read it again. And then after that I read Watzlawick’s The Language of Change. It’s that good.
The meat of Change is the idea of first- and second-order changes. Most of the time the changes we make in our lives and organizations are topical, first-order changes that will not fundamentally change a system or structure.
Each election of a new U.S. president is an example of a first order change. No matter how much a new president promises, he is unlikely to produce higher-order structural change. Watzalick explains why.
Watzlawick’s discussion of “the why versus the what” of therapeutic intervention is also brilliant. Traditional therapy is frequently about the “why” behind behavior. What happened in your childhood, for example, that explains why you are suicidal? To Watzlawick, therapists should be more focused on the “what.”
“Since you are suicidal and won’t be here next week,” asks Watzlawick, “Why don’t you spend all your money on some new clothes and a haircut?” When the patient does, he incidentally takes self-loving steps toward a healthier lifestyle and, hopefully, transcends his depression.
Important: Skip the first chapter. Why Watzlawick would make the first chapter a highly technical discussion meant for academics is beyond me. It belongs as an Appendix!