Why read books at all?
Our ability to learn is one of our defining traits as humans.
Learning makes us valuable in the world.
Being valuable and using our acquired mastery to exchange value with others is one of the most rewarding human experiences.
As well, learning, remixing, and building on top of existing structures, is the only way for progress to happen. And progress appears to be a baked in necessity for human satisfaction.
Author Nassim Taleb likes to say that the best way to learn is by combining street fights (practical experience) with time in the library (books).
We learn more in street fights than in the library. So, if we must choose just one, we should prefer street fights. However, learning is optimized when we use both.
Books are therefore half the learning equation.
Reading a book is to have a conversation with the author, who is presumably more knowledgeable than us on the subject of the book. Giving us the opportunity to close that knowledge gap and get smarter.
Books are more knowledge dense than say articles or podcasts. They usually contain years-worth of research or experience packed into a couple hundred pages that can be consumed in 5-10 hours.
However, we’re unfortunately limited in how many books we can consume.
Over 40 years, reading 25 books a year, that’s only 1000 books.
That’s hardly one bookshelf at the local library.
If we assume that we’ll read the good books more than once. Well, those 1000 books are probably more like 500.
I chose 500 books as a baseline. Some of us may read 5000, others 5. The number isn’t important. The number of books we’ll read during our lives is a tiny fraction of recorded human knowledge.
So, it probably makes sense to choose wisely.
Choosing the books
The multiple T shaped skillset is often considered the ideal model for professional development such that an individual maximizes the value of the skills they bring to the world. That is, an individual gains a broad but shallow base of foundational skills, while going deep in 2 to 3 niche areas.
The 2 to 3 areas of depth tend to be specific to the individual and should be developed through a discovery process of following curiosities and getting feedback from the world. It’s extremely difficult to make book recommendations in advance for the areas of depth as the path to those books will need to be discovered along the way. However, the foundational timeless base is far more general. For that reason, we can plan to an extent which books should be read for its development.
As well, while the areas of depth tend to push the individual to sources of information on the cutting edge of research, the foundational sources are more timeless and have a longer useful life for the individual, giving them a larger compound interest effect over our lifetime.
Ideally, if we’re reading 25 books per year the books should be split evenly between the timeless base, and deep diving into the niche topics of interest.
What types of books are considered foundational?
There are a couple of factors that help a book be considered foundational.
- Undisputed or nearly undisputed.
Math and physics are airtight. Anything left of biology should be taken with a grain of salt.
If a book is old and still available today that means it must have some timeless value. Older books, especially ones that deal with human nature, tend to be more valuable than newer books.
There have been some human beings over the centuries that were just flat out smarter than you and I. People such as: Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, and Kant. Being exposed to their thoughts through their writing is probable a good idea.
4. Admirable lives
Studying the lives of admirable people in the form of biographies is a great way to pattern recognize the cause and effect of our choices over a lifetime.
5. Particularly important categories to study
Interpersonal relationships. Human biases. Self-knowledge. Math. Physics. Evolutionary biology. The nature of reality and the mind. Philosophy. Religion. Mythology.
6. Avoid Anti-learning
Some books will make us dumber for having read them. It would have been better to read nothing at all. These books typically come and go with the popular pseudo-science movement of the moment. They make rational arguments based on pre-selected biased data giving the author a false sense of authority. If we read mainly older, time tested books, however, we can avoid most of these.
Making time for foundational learning
Foundational learning, much like exercise, is never urgent. But because of the timeless nature of its contents, it pays with compounded interest in the future. It will always be tempting to spend all our time reading the material at the cutting edge of our niche but over the years it’s the foundational learning that will build a strong base of knowledge with which we can leverage deep into our lives.
Examples of foundational books by category
This list of foundational books is not even close to being exhaustive. It’s just a sample. Some of these I’ve read, others are still on my to read list. I’m obviously missing some important pieces here, so please reply to this email with your recommendations.
|Philosophy||Plato – The Complete Works||Plato||350 BC|
|The Complete Confucius||Confucius||400 BC|
|Tao Te Ching||Lao Tzu||400 BC|
|The I Ching or Book of Changes||500 BC|
|The Essential Epicurus||Epicurus||300 BC|
|Letters from a Stoic||Seneca||65|
|The Critique of Pure Reason||Immanuel Kant||1781|
|Existentialism is a Humanism||Jean Paul Sartre||1947|
|Philosophy as a Way of Life||Pierre Hadot||1995|
|Mythology||Maps of Meaning||Jordan Peterson||1999|
|The Hero with 1000 Faces||Joseph Campbell||1968|
|Myths to Live By||Joseph Campbell||1972|
|Religion||The Holy Bible||0|
|Aquinas’s Shorter Summa||Saint Thomas Aquinas||2001|
|The World’s Religions||Huston Smith||2009|
|History||The Lessons of History||Will & Ariel Durant||1968|
|The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich||William Shirer||1961|
|The Story of Civilization: Volume 1 – Our Oriental Heritage||Will Durant||1935|
|Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches||Marvin Harris||1974|
|Sapiens||Yuval Noah Harari||2014|
|Diet||The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition||Precision Nutrition||2010|
|Relationships||How to Win Friends and Influence People||Dale Carnegie||1936|
|Crucial Conversations||Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler||2012|
|Motivational Interviewing||Miller, Rollnick||2013|
|Wealth Creation||The Millionaire Master Plan||Roger James Hamilton||2014|
|Think and Grow Rich||Napoleon Hill||1937|
|High Performance||Tools of Titans||Tim Ferriss||2017|
|So Good They Can’t Ignore You||Cal Newport||2012|
|Mathematics||Mathematics – Its Content, Methods, and Meaning||Aleksandrov, Kolmogorov, Lavrent||1999|
|Statistical Models – Theory and Practice||David Freedman||2009|
|Computer Science||Algorithms||Sedgewick, Wayne||2011|
|Physics||The Feynman Lectures on Physics||Richard Feynman||2011|
|Biology||The Origin of Species||Charles Darwin||1859|
|River Out of Eden||Richard Dawkins||1995|
|The Rational Optimist||Matt Ridley||2010|
|Earth Sciences||Atlas of the World – 11th Edition||National Geographic||2019|
|Economics||The Wealth of Nations||Adam Smith||1776|
|Microeconomics – 5th Edition||Krugman, Wells||2017|
|Macroeconomics – 5th Edition||Krugman, Wells||2017|
|Psychology||Modern Man in Search of a Soul||Carl Jung||1933|
|The Language of the Body||Alexander Lowen||1958|
|Man’s Search for Meaning||Viktor Frankl||1946|
|Management||The Ten Day MBA||Steven Silberger||2012|
|Managing Oneself||Peter Drucker||2008|
|Literature||The Odessey||Homer||700 BC|
|On the Nature of Things||Lucretius||50 BC|
|Shakespeare: The Complete Collection||William Shakespeare||1616|
|War and Peace||Leo Tolstoy||1869|
|The Alchemist||Paulo Coelho||1993|
|Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance||Robert Pirsig||1974|
|Biographies||The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie||Andrew Carnegie||1905|