“I cannot live without books.” — Thomas Jefferson
I read 30-50 books per year. You should too. There is a strong anti-intellectual strain in American (and world) culture that says that book-learning is not so valuable. I respect the School of Hard Knocks—but reading can save you so many bruises, broken bones, and humiliations that reading and the real world are not an either/or proposition; they are both/and. As Francis Bacon said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” Quite simply, reading tells you things you can’t readily learn in the School of Hard Knocks. Socrates argued that wisdom is the metric of a life well-lived and that knowledge is the path to wisdom. If so, books are the guide-posts. Ah, to be a full person.
Second-Year student, Prateek Shrivastava, wrote to me recently asking me to “share the list of books that you are reading currently.” In addition to the books I read, I look at three newspapers each day, several magazines each month, and perhaps a dozen blogs each day—let me share these other media another time. I confess that my bedside table groans with a stack of books in progress: I’m an inveterate variety-seeker and prone to start reading several new books before finishing anything in process. And let me allow that I take some risks in my reading. I figure that if I don’t pick up some dreary, awful, or wrong items now and then, I’m not testing the edge of my comfort zone. Discomfort, disquiet, and dyspepsia ( the “three D’s”?) are some metrics of the reach of your reading. I’ll spare you the dregs. What follows responds to Prateek’s query with a fractional reply: the top five books I have read in the past 12 months, five more runners-up, and the top three most interesting books in which I’m in the middle of reading. Here goes (see the hyperlinks for more info on each):
The Five Best Books I’ve Read Over the Past Year
Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World –we place great faith in economic reasoning as a driver of behavior, yet this book displays the role of politics and behavior as equally important influence. The Versailles Treaty ending World War I is a tragedy of errors.
David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. A key message: the good life is about taking responsibility and making sound choices. This would be a wonderful graduation gift for any MBA student.
Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Remarkable profiles of investors who bet against the real estate bubble of the early 2000s.
Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance. An excellent overview of what went wrong over the past decade and why we should be very very concerned.
Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Any survey of leadership should include an understanding of the practices and life of Julius Caesar. If you can only read one book, this is the one book to get.
The Five Runners-Up—Over the Past Year
Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire
Steig Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest Larsson’s novels are first-rate thrillers. [Note: they are riveting, occasionally violent, and may require a strong stomach.]
David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear—this is the single best history of the Great Depression.
William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: the Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age –if you think life is hard today, read this.
The Three Most Interesting Books I’m Currently Reading
Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain from 1700-1850.—the Industrial Revolution is the Mount Everest of economic history. This book lends a wonderful perspective and argues that great change is rooted in new ideas.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. He takes the long perspective on the human condition. In the long run, things are bound to get better. Maybe yes, maybe no. But this is a very well-documented argument in the affirmative.
Herbert Sloan, Principle & Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt. Very well-written volume on UVA’s founder and the attitudes toward debt financing among the Founding Fathers of the United States.