Books are my favorite things. They are, ideally in their physical hard-bound form, my most treasured possessions. They are so vital to my journey towards personal improvement that I have stopped loaning my books to friends. First, because I have lost so many books over the years — I cannot seem to keep track of my borrowers. Second, I lose not just the book, which on its own is easy to let go, but my notations — the lessons and takeaways that have influenced my thinking and writing. These are highlighted and flagged. So I prefer to just gift new books to special people on special occasions, or when the situation calls for it.
This year, I read more than forty books, many of them recommended by folks whose podcasts and newsletters I follow: Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday and Ann Bogel. These people talk about books all.the.time. and their suggestions, which I instantly record on Goodreads, have yet to fail me. Many of the books they have raved about on their show, which I listen to while I am stuck in traffic, have been life-changing. Here are some of them:
- Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
“Safety, I understood, hinged on speed. I huffed toward the relative security of the serac’s crest with all the haste I could muster, but since I wasn’t acclimatized my fastest pace was no better than a crawl. Every four or five steps I’d have to stop, lean against the rope, and suck desperately at the thin, bitter air, searing my lungs in the process.”
Into Thin Air was the most outstanding book I read this year, which I only decided to pick up because it had high ratings on Goodreads and the book costs a mere $6. Jon Krakauer, a reporter for Outside magazine, gave a detailed, harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster which claimed the lives of 8 people and raised questions on the commercialization of Everest. His writing was so lucid and his love for the outdoors so palpable, that despite the tragic fate that befell his fellow mountaineers, it triggered in me a desire to climb mountains more.
2. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”
Anne Lamott’s guide to good writing has helped tremendously with my own. She breaks down her writing process meticulously and promises no shortcuts: to become a good writer, you need to read and write…a lot. And she is hilarious. Her tales of her travails as a writer humanizes the craft and assures me that yep, we are all on this boat together.
3. Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
“For me, who had never had any ‘culture,’ to end up as a professional musician for a ballet was the height of achievement.”
The beauty of this book is in its spirit and ability to inspire humankind to move. Richard Feynman is a respected multi-hyphenate — physicist, Nobel laureate, educator, lock picker, safecracker, bongo player, nude drawer — because he was curious. He is extraordinary because he challenged the ordinary. He never stopped asking about how things worked and trying new things. Richard Feynman’s 1985 memoirs is a must-read for anyone genuinely interested in life, which should be all of us.
4. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
“A year from now, instead of going to the bank and talking to a human being, you will simply launch this piece of software from anywhere in the world.”
I picked this up because it was recommended by Tim Ferriss to Brandon Stanton, the guy behind Humans of New York, after learning that he would be doing a project in the Philippines. Not only was this 1999 sci-fi tour de force set in my home country. It also talks about digital currencies and Internet banking which has become ultra-popular and widespread today. And that is just one morsel of this 905-page feat — Alan Turing, the Enigma and U-Boats all figure well in Stephenson’s inimitable storytelling.
5. Levels of the Game by John McPhee
“The first point played in any set was of considerable psychological importance. A perceptible edge can go to the winner of that point. As the case may be, that one point can restore, maintain, deflate, or destroy confidence. Confidence goes back and forth across a tennis net much like the ball itself.”
This was the second book on tennis that I read this year, the first being “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey, and I do not even play tennis. I do know how it is played and what the scoring parameters are, which are essential knowledge for appreciating this masterpiece, and its relevance in real life. This 150-page account of one tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is an exemplar of concise and elegant creative nonfiction by none other than the genius of the craft, John McPhee.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World by Tim Marshall
“A third of Brazil is jungle, where it is painfully expensive, and in some areas illegal, to carve out land fit for modern human habitation. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a long-term ecological problem for the whole world, but it is also a medium-term problem for Brazil: the government allows slash-and-burn farmers to cut down the jungle and then use the land for agriculture.”
This book is so fascinating that I still remember how excruciating it was to have to put down. If you are curious to learn why China is bullying its neighbors, why the melting of the ice caps has led to an expansion of oil exploration initiatives in the North Pole, and why the United States will never be invaded, pick this up and broaden your understanding of the world.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
“If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot of that.”
This book discusses our current approach to old age, and how we may have been remiss in humanizing the end of life phase that affects our elderly loved ones. It renewed my appreciation for cultural bonds and tradition: in many Asian countries, like the Philippines where I come from, the elderly are cared for by their children. I stay with my parents, and when my dad was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I recall with gratitude the lessons I gleaned from Dr. Gawande — to try as best as possible to afford our elderly a sense of normalcy and usefulness. I now try to be more present around my dad as he goes about the daily minutiae of life, no small thanks to the timeless wisdom of this book.