For the last 100 weeks, I’ve been sending you newsletters about my reading. Over 100,000 words and hundreds of books have have found their way into your inbox. First, I can’t thank you all enough for reading and emailing me and taking my recommendations to heart. The fact that I’ve inspired some of you into more reading is rather meaningful to me.
I’ve been keeping track of my reading for over a decade — since I was a junior in college or so. I was slow to catch onto the “classics,” especially in the realm of literature. I’m naturally more of a non-fiction reader — particularly history and biography. I’ve caught up some, but I still have a long way to go, and there’s plenty of books considered all-time greats I haven’t touched. I’ll get there.
Anyways, to celebrate #100, I’ve been going through all my spreadsheets and have found a way to get it down to my top 40 books. What does “top” mean here? Well, it’s a combination of books that have stuck with me, inspired me, awed me with spectacular writing, and changed my perspective on the world. The very best have done all of those things.
I cannot rank them; picking 40 out of about 800 was taxing enough.
I’d love to hear about the books that have most influenced, awed, inspired, and captured you.
Bonus: I’m including a giveaway with this newsletter! Click here to enter. I’d like the winner to choose a book from this list and it will be my absolute pleasure to send a new copy their way.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
If I had to pick one favorite book, I think this would be it. I’ve read it twice now and I’ll certainly read it again. Paul’s writing has stuck with me in a way that almost no other book has, and an autographed copy (signed by his wife Lucy) has a permanent home on my desk. If you read no other title on my list, read this one. Read more of my thoughts here.
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown
Perhaps the book that sparked my serious interest in works of history. Daniel James Brown brings the past to life in a way that I’m supremely fond (and jealous) of. You should also read Boys in the Boat and Under a Flaming Sky.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A brutal setting and story, but as a father, it carries such significance that I nearly tear up just thinking about it. Ultimately, what I want to do for my kids is carry the fire of goodness and pass it along. No Country for Old Men is also crazy good, but doesn’t carry the same personal meaning.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer is one of the better journalists you’ll ever encounter. This one cemented my love for outdoors writing/reading and gave me a years-long obsession with reading abut Everest. Where Men Win Glory and Missoula are also superb, and all have absolutely changed the way I see things.
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V. S. Ramachandran
This was a book that Jane read during physical therapy school, and I don’t quite know why, but I read it, and it has really stuck with me over the last decade. It introduced me to just how crazy the brain is, and I’ve enjoyed neuroscience-y books ever since.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
The entire trilogy is great, but how the first installment, featuring how TR made himself the man he wanted to be, is intensely inspiring, to say the very least. I first read it just out of college, and will be again here soon as I make my way through presidential biographies.
The Stand by Stephen King
King is one of the all-time great fiction writers, and this is my favorite of his many novels I’ve read. It’s a classic that crosses genres, and at 1,300 pages or so will keep you busy for quite a while.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Another genre-crosser (it’s more noir crime thriller than you might think at first blush) and Fitzgerald’s writing is as good as it gets. The prose had me in awe from the very first page. I’ve read it a couple times, and certainly will again. (Its brevity helps.)
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
This mega-bestseller topped the charts 10 years ago for a reason. The epic story of Louis Zamperini in the Pacific theater of WWII reads like a novel — truly. I’m forever comparing history narratives to Hillenbrand.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It’s just so good. It’s simple — perhaps too much so — but the lessons and scenes are ones that stick with you forever.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Not only is this book legitimately scary, but it has unforgettable lessons on what it means to be human. Despite the caricatures of pop culture, Frankenstein’s monster is incredibly deep and sympathetic as a character.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Tolkien meant for these books to be published as one, so I’ll include them as one here. The LOTR trilogy isn’t for everyone, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll love it. Frodo, Samwise Gamgee, Gandalf . . . the characters are as vivid and memorable as they gets in literature.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
If you do anything creative, this is the best book you can read. Bar none. You’ll devour it, and immediately feel inspired to kick Resistance in the ass and get moving on whatever project you’re dreaming of. Then the momentum will fade, which just means it’s time to read it again.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
If I had to pick a single author to read for the rest of time, it would be Dickens. His style and tone are incredibly fun and lighthearted, and yet he tackles serious topics; it’s a mix that no other author has done so well. This short novella just might be his best work.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
There are so many great threads in Lowry’s classic YA novel. Ultimately, to me, it’s about how memory (and a knowledge of history) colors our world (literally, in the book) and is really what allows love to flourish. The entire series of four is great, but The Giver stands out.
Douglass’s story should be required reading for all Americans. His enslavement, self-education, fight with his captors, and eventual escape are not only motivating in a personal sense, but give you an important idea of the physical and mental horrors of slavery.
1984 by George Orwell
The particulars to this book aren’t actually super memorable (at least to me), but the general message sure is. And it’s just one of those books that gets more poignant as society “progresses.” Feels like required pop cultural know-how.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian book about the power of books and what happens when society spurns the written word. How could you not be moved by it?
Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
I’m cheating here because I’m counting all seven books. When I really think about it, this might be the series that fully cemented my love of reading. I re-read the entire set when a new one was released, and I’ve read it at least two more times since. There just aren’t enough superlatives to talk about HP. Read them.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I really enjoy Hemingway, and this might be my favorite (though I’m not entirely sure). The simplistic depiction of the struggle between man and nature in Hemingway’s distinct and classic voice just can’t be beaten.
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis
Of all the books on this list, this is probably the one you haven’t heard of. It’s a gritty Western-like setting featuring a badass teenage girl protagonist. Almost like True Grit, but better and far more readable. Give it a shot and just trust me.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Fully deserving of all its popularity and accolades. Doerr’s long but readable WWII novel is as good as historical fiction can possibly get.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
A little depressing, but always fascinating. Kolbert’s account of ancient and not-so-ancient history will keep you thinking for long after you’ve finished it.
The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook
I’ve read a lot of books about changing our digital habits, particularly in regards to smartphone and social media use, and I think this one — though not well known — is the best. It’s compassionate and realistic and challenging all at the same time.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Mind-blowing. That’s what this book is. How did we not learn this stuff in school? This biological and sociological history of humans will stick with you. Guaranteed.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
As moving and inspiring as a text can get that isn’t officially part of any religious canon. It’s the ecumenical spiritual/philosophical text of the ages. My copy is legitimately mostly highlighted and underlined. I wrote about it here.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Few books have changed my perspective on the black experience in America like this collection of essays. From reparations, to generational wealth, to the meaning of Barack Obama, Coates covers a wide and fascinating range of topics that are sure to make you reconsider things.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
When a Western wins the Pulitzer, you know it’s more than just a Western. This epic story of the friendship between two old cowboys is long, but the pages fly, and it feels like it ends way too quickly. The entire series of four books is great.
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Cather captures the day-to-day realities of frontier living better than any author in the American canon. The female characters she writes are strong as nails and reminiscent of how I picture my own midwestern ancestors. Cather was truly one of the greats and O Pioneers! is my favorite.
Educated by Tara Westover
Memoirs are decidedly not my favorite genre, but when they’re good, they’re really good. Educated is really good. The author grew up in a strange home driven by both a cult-like culture and the dangerous mental illnesses of family members. She got out of that home and ultimately into Oxford. Westover is a brilliant writer, period.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
I’m surprising myself a little by including this, but it’s the perfect story for our time. The tale that Carreyrou writes about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos captures everything that’s wrong about Silicon Valley and its venture capitalist culture. It’s incredibly rare to see a 4.8 Amazon rating on 3,500 reviews. Super Pumped is very similar and also very good.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Chernow is the master biographer. I’ve not yet read Alexander Hamilton, but Washington: A Life is insanely good. Our first president is sort of a statue in American memory, but Chernow brings him to life in a way that didn’t seem possible before.
Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird
One of the better biographies I’ve ever read about one of the most powerful people in all of history. It’s rare that an entire era of cultural history gets named after a person. A gripping read that’s hard to put down.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
Another cheater pick, as Caro’s series is currently at four books and remains unfinished. This is a long series, and often dense, but utterly unlike any biography that’s been written before or since. The writing is brilliant and insightful and intensely researched.
Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff
The defining day of my generation finally got the history book it deserves. It’s hard to write about the entire scope of 9/11, but Zuckoff does an admirable and beautiful and heartbreaking job, especially when it comes to highlighting the heroes of that day.
Samuel Johnson by W. Jackson Bate
If a biography can be moving, this is it. It’s bonkers that this writer and moralist and lexicographer isn’t more well-known today (he was one of the most famous people in history until a few decades ago). His story of self-creation is as inspirational as more well-known figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
I’m not generally into self-improvement books. And while Holiday himself would call this more of a philosophy book, it’s certainly about how to improve yourself. It’s particularly about tamping down the ego — something that’s much needed in our social media-crazed culture. The insights within have popped into my head on a near-weekly basis.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The slave experience, fictionalized. There’s a bit of an intriguing, unique fantastical element and the characters that Whitehead paints are as vidid as you’ll ever read. It’s not a happy-go-lucky book, but one that feels crucial to understanding the anguish of slavery, and especially of the escaped slave.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
There’s no getting around the fact that this book was a slog at times. But when it’s good, it’s so good. The characters are indeed a little caricature-ish, but I think that’s the point. Goodness, grace, love, and forgiveness are the lifeblood of existence.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
This is a somewhat dense history book. I’ll admit that up front. But no book better captures the full scope of the American Civil War, which is a period of time that every person should know more about. It has defined everything about America for the last 150+ years, and it’s only a few generations removed.