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.

  1. Undisputed or nearly undisputed.

Math and physics are airtight. Anything left of biology should be taken with a grain of salt.

2. Timeless.

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.

3. Brilliant

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.

CategoryBookAuthorYear Published
PhilosophyPlato – The Complete WorksPlato350 BC
 The Complete ConfuciusConfucius400 BC
 Tao Te ChingLao Tzu400 BC
 The I Ching or Book of Changes 500 BC
 The Essential EpicurusEpicurus300 BC
 Letters from a StoicSeneca65
 MeditationsMarcus Aurelius180
 The Critique of Pure ReasonImmanuel Kant1781
 Existentialism is a HumanismJean Paul Sartre1947
 Philosophy as a Way of LifePierre Hadot1995
MythologyMaps of Meaning Jordan Peterson1999
 The Hero with 1000 FacesJoseph Campbell1968
 Myths to Live ByJoseph Campbell1972
ReligionThe Holy Bible 0
 Aquinas’s Shorter SummaSaint Thomas Aquinas2001
 The World’s ReligionsHuston Smith2009
HistoryThe Lessons of HistoryWill & Ariel Durant1968
 The Rise and Fall of the Third ReichWilliam Shirer1961
 The Story of Civilization: Volume 1 – Our Oriental HeritageWill Durant1935
 Cows, Pigs, Wars, and WitchesMarvin Harris1974
 SapiensYuval Noah Harari2014
DietThe Essentials of Sport and Exercise NutritionPrecision Nutrition2010
ExerciseMovementGray Cook2010
 KingElliott Hulse2016
RelationshipsHow to Win Friends and Influence PeopleDale Carnegie1936
 Crucial ConversationsPatterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler2012
 Motivational InterviewingMiller, Rollnick2013
Wealth CreationThe Millionaire Master PlanRoger James Hamilton2014
 Think and Grow RichNapoleon Hill1937
High PerformanceTools of TitansTim Ferriss2017
 So Good They Can’t Ignore YouCal Newport2012
MathematicsMathematics – Its Content, Methods, and MeaningAleksandrov, Kolmogorov, Lavrent1999
 IncertoNassim Taleb2001-2018
 Statistical Models – Theory and PracticeDavid Freedman2009
Computer ScienceAlgorithmsSedgewick, Wayne2011
PhysicsThe Feynman Lectures on PhysicsRichard Feynman2011
BiologyThe Origin of SpeciesCharles Darwin1859
 River Out of EdenRichard Dawkins1995
 The Rational OptimistMatt Ridley2010
Earth SciencesAtlas of the World – 11th EditionNational Geographic2019
EconomicsThe Wealth of NationsAdam Smith1776
 Microeconomics – 5th EditionKrugman, Wells2017
 Macroeconomics – 5th EditionKrugman, Wells2017
PsychologyModern Man in Search of a SoulCarl Jung1933
 The Language of the BodyAlexander Lowen1958
 Man’s Search for MeaningViktor Frankl1946
ManagementThe Ten Day MBASteven Silberger2012
 Managing OneselfPeter Drucker2008
 PrinciplesRay Dalio2017
LiteratureThe OdesseyHomer700 BC
 On the Nature of ThingsLucretius50 BC
 Shakespeare: The Complete CollectionWilliam Shakespeare1616
 War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy1869
 The AlchemistPaulo Coelho1993
 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceRobert Pirsig1974
BiographiesThe Autobiography of Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie1905

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