Good books are a joy to read; great books make you a better person. Of the books I read in 2016, I would nominate the six below as good or even great.
Per book, I explain how it influenced my life, so that you can decide which are worth your time. If you’re interested in more book recommendations, have a look at “Books that Influenced my Life” and “The Best Books I read in 2015”.
What’s the best book you read this year? What’s the best book you ever read? Please share a book recommendation in the comments below.
1. Dune, by Frank Herbert
Frequently ranked as “best science fiction book of all times”, this story about a battle between extra-planetary noble houses trying to take control of a desert planet Arrakis is a page-turner. I finished this book in a week, spending many nights reading till deep in the night. The book is well-written and rich in narrative, touching on topics diverse as how to start new religions; how to manage international (or interstellar) relations; and how to preserve water in deserts. It’s a tale as rich as Star Wars, so good that I’d be happy to re-read it soon.
2. Road to Character, by David Brooks
People who have cultivated a deep and applied compassion inspire me. One of the best books I read in 2015 was My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, which profiles a dozen or so saints in a chapter each. NYT-columnist David Brook’s Road to Character is similar in structure.
David Brooks observes that in today’s Western societies, our media admire people who show grit, persistence, boldness, and courage. Think of famous entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and pop stars. However, when we look at the people who are most admired upon their deathbed, these are people who show a different set of virtues. Brooks contrasts today’s résumé virtues against eternal eulogy virtues, dedicating the book to profiling eight people who lived in the last two millennia—from St. Augustine to President Eisenhower—in the hope that it may inspire us all to be better. As Brooks writes in his introduction:
“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner coherence. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”
Reading through the book, I found myself underlining constantly, making notes in the margins on almost every page. Re-reading my notes made it clear how much space we have to grow. This is a book I want to continue to return to, to remind myself how much work it takes to be a good person.
3. The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander
This book will make you shine like a lightbulb! In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, a social worker and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, share their philosophy of a life full of possibility. In each chapter, they illustrate a helpful maxim with lively stories. One example stands out: Ben Zander explains how he publicly announces at the start of a new class that each student will get an A, under one condition: they must write a letter to themselves, imagining they have finished the class, explaining what it is that made them deserve an A. By doing so, you can unleash the power of possibility and responsibility.
I first read this book in print, and later downloaded it as an audiobook. I’d listen to (part of) a chapter each morning on my way to work, which would often have a profound impact on how I’d go through my day. Highly recommended!
4. Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel
Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings young people of different religions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. I picked up his autobiography in Chicago this fall, after noticing the title years ago on my friend Ted Gonder’s booklist.
Patel’s short, highly readable biography filled me with inspiration about starting organizations that matter. Patel opened my mind to the reasons why youth are easily attracted to religious extremism, because it offers a clear path to a life mission and social status, things that every teenager craves for. He then suggests that the way to address religious extremism at its root is to offer young people alternative paths to meaning and social status, which he tries to do with his organization.
5. Structures (or Why Things Don’t Fall Down), by J.E. Gordon
Giles Holt recommended this lovely book. Reading Structures was a déjà vu back to my undergraduate civil engineering classes. Gordon, a very witty British professor, will make you learn something new on each page, such as how our quads compare to car springs, why birds have feathers on their wings, or why a piece of paper rips apart more easily once it has an initial cut. He strips structural engineering of its confusing terms, communicating it in vivid and witty prose through clear examples.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is curious to learn more about their physical environment (if you like this book, also consider Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on physics or Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life on cell biology). Although neither Structures nor Dune directly led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, they both brought many new perspectives and were absolutely a joy to read.
6. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight
I picked up Phil Knight’s autobiography three days ago and finished it this morning. This story, about the origins of Nike, reads like a high-speed train. Phil Knight, Nike’s cofounder, explains in detail and without much ego how he started to import Onitsuka Tigers from Japan, building a scrappy business from scratch in a time when venture capital, minimum viable product, and A/B testing did not exist. Knight’s story left me with a sense of the importance of having courage in your endeavors, and pursuing your crazy idea.
I already have a few must-read books on my list for next year: Value Investing by Guy Pierce, Gene by Siddharth Mukerjee, and Tolstoy by Henri Troyat. I will remind myself to read the classics. Which books should I add?