Recommended reading: a list of great books

@gbonaert Gregory Bonaert bonaert

Here you’ll finds books that I either loved reading, that were beautiful or that had a big impact in my life and the way I think. They’re organized by topic and have a summary, so that you can quickly find what interests you!

Work & Business

So Good They Can't Ignore You - by Cal NewportSo Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Rating: 9/10
Topic: Finding work you love & becoming great at it

There a common trope in career counseling: “Follow your passion”. In this nuanced book, Cal Newport argues that this advice is misguided at best, and harmful at worst.

Instead of relying exclusively on passion as a career compass, Cal argues that there’s a better approach to get a great job you like: career capital.

Career capital are the rare and valuable skills you have that make you really valuable to your employer. Since great jobs are rare and coveted by many, only people with rare and valuable skills will get them – if you have career capital, that’s you.

Besides this core idea (which I simplified quite a bit here), Cal also gives a roadmap to acquire those skills and use them to get better jobs. If you want to get a great job, this book will make you think – and probably change your whole approach.

Living a Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life, by William IrvineA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine

Rating: 10/10
Topic: Stoicism & leading a good life

I learned about stoicism from this book, and DAMN there are insights every 10 pages here.

Stoicism in this book is different from the modern meaning of “being stoic”, where you show no emotion; it refers to the philosophy of life practiced by Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and the other great Stoics.

It’s full of unconventional wisdom such as,

  • Think regularly of the worst things that could happen to you
  • Put yourself regularly in situations of discomfort and pain
  • Learn to accept that you have no control over some crucial things parts of your life

Stoicism is about insatiability, and how to tame it. It teaches you break out of the desire loop and mostly eliminate bad emotions from your life – anger, jealousy, fear, dissatisfaction, while teaching you gratitude, joy and simple pleasures. It’s a great read, and will change your perspective forever (at least it changed mine; it was liberating).

Animal Liberation, by Peter SingerAnimal Liberation, by Peter Singer

Rating: 9/10
Topic: Suffering of Animals, Animal Rights & Ethics

This short book managed to do something I wouldn’t have imagined a year ago: it made me a vegetarian.

Peter makes a very simple, powerful and (I think) water-tight ethical argument for animals rights, and lays out the (sadly) huge ways we’re inflicting avoidable pain and suffering to innocent animals.
He gives only two examples of animal suffering – laboratory testing and industrial farming – but they are enough. However, he doesn’t give in to powerful emotional appeals; instead he creates a logical argument for animal rights, which seems to me irrefutable.

We’re very good at looking away and forgetting about the animal behind the meat on our plates. However, this isn’t something that can be forgotten: the truth is too grim for that. Even if you don’t believe this book will change your beliefs, give it a chance. It’s too important. If you prefer a video, watch Earthlings – but I warn, you it’s a tough watch; better read the book.

Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, by Mark MansonModels: Attract Women Through Honesty, by Mark Manson

Rating: 10/10
Topic: becoming a better man (disguised as a dating book)

Disguised as a dating book, Models is actually a practical guide to self-development – especially the chapters about Honest Living, Honest Action and Honest Communication. I felt very uncomfortable reading this book – it felt like I was repeatedly slapped in the face – and that’s actually the point.

Models is a manual to learning vulnerability – the skill to be who you are, instead of who others want you to be. This is excruciatingly hard. Really hard. But it’s worth it, because shame and hiding is not a solution.

Instead, Mark shows you another way: accept who you are and grow. Of course, most of the book is inherently practical, because telling you “Be yourself” is completely useless. He gives the juicy details we want: how to become a more interesting person; how to handle rejection; how to free yourself from the bullshit; how to become attractive; how to overcome anxiety; and a lot more.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark MansonThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson

Rating: 10/10
Topic: be a better person and live a better life

As you can see, I’m a big Mark Manson fan: he’s the only author I recommend twice. The reason is simple: he’s  one of the rare honest people in the personal development world.

He doesn’t make fake promises, he doesn’t sell cheap tricks, he doesn’t pretend that life is easy or that a simple method will suddenly make your life wonderful.

Instead, he talks about the unpleasant but crucial things in life: responsibility, values, identity, boundaries, choosing what to care about, accepting negative things, and even death.

These topics sometimes crop up, but it’s generally in vague generalities that don’t help anyone (e.g. “Enjoy life because you’re going to die one day”. Gee, no one had thought of that before). What sets this book apart is that the treatment is profound and practical at the same time. (I haven’t talked much about the content because of this, it’s hard to summarize his ideas in 2 sentences)

It’s a book that changes the deep beliefs and axioms that are the foundation to the way you see the world and choose to live your life. In other words, enjoy!



Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl StrayedTiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Rating: 10/10
Topic: beautiful answers to hard questions

You know a book is going to be good when it says “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it” and “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill”.

In this beautiful book, Cheryl answers some really difficult questions about life from her readers – like “How to start new relationships after a divorce?”, or “Should I leave my town and friends who hold me back in my music dreams?”, and even “Should I reveal my sexual fantasies or bury them?”. The summaries I’ve made of the questions make me feel horrible, because they lost all the beautiful humanity and fragility of the people who asked them.

To understand how beautiful the book is, just read this excerpt. You’ll understand the kind of book it is.

Social Skills

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale CarnegieHow to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

Rating: 9/10
Topic: have better relationships with people

Despite being 80 years old, How to Win Friends and Influence People remains the most famous social skills book, and one of the best. You’ll learn how to get people to like you; how to convince and influence them; how to become a good listener; how to become a more interesting speaker…

The book is a series of simple tips, such as “Be genuinely interested”, “Smile”, “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain”. But don’t be fooled: simple is different from easy. Working out is simple, but it’s not easy.

Most of us don’t apply these basic principles. The people who do have a common trait: they’re liked and have good relations with friends and strangers. That’s the power of this book.

Personal Finance

The richest man in babylonThe Richest Man in Babylon, by George Clason

Rating: 8/10
Topic: parable about how to become rich

This short book explains the basic principles through which Akmad, the richest man in Babylon, made his fortunes. It is very well written, and simple enough so that you’ll remember it forever.

It teaches the essentials of financial wisdom: save some of your money, invest your money to make it work for you, be careful with your expenses, learn to live with less, avoid losing money above all, and a lot more.

I Will Teach You to Be Rich, by Ramit SethiI Will Teach You to be Rich, by Ramit Sethi

Rating: 10/10
Topic: practical guide to vastly improve your finances

This book is extremely practical, and in 6 weeks will improve your financial situation enormously. Each week has an explanation of why you’re doing that thing and a simple and detailed step-by-step plan.

It covers the most important things, such as credit cards, investing, bank accounts, taxation and more. Even better, he’s a great writer and it’s never boring, which isn’t easy for a financial book.

Ramit knows humans are lazy. So everything is built around simplicity and automation: once it’s set up, you don’t have to worry about it anymore. It just works.

Caveat: a good dose of Mr. Money Mustache for early retirement, stoicism, and frugality advice is necessary afterwards.

Biographies

Total Recall, by Arnold SchwarzneggerTotal Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Rating: 10/10
Topic: the absolutely insane life and determination of Schwarzenegger

Arnold tells his life story, from his humble beginnings in rural Austria, his army days, his bodybuilding, his real-estate business, movie life, marrying Marie Schriver, charity work and being a governor (oddly, that part was a lot less interesting).

His ambition and hard work are unbelievable. It’s inspiring. At one point in his life, he trained 3 hours every day, took college classes, worked in brick-laying, invested in real-estate and started his movie career. Every day. It’s just incredible.

Read it if you want to understand how he did it, and his perspective on life.

Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman, by Richard FeynmanSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard Feynman

Rating: 10/10
Topic: the fascinating and hilarious life of Feynman

This is the funniest book on this list: it’s chapter after chapter of fun stories about the life and adventures of Richard Feynman.

Feynman, who won the Physics Nobel Prize, is one of the most down-to-earth and no-bullshit people I ever heard about.

He isn’t your stereotypical physicist: for example, you’ll hear about how he joined a samba band in Brazil, how he defended the owner of a topless bar and his work developing the Atom Bomb.

Despite his adventurous side, his love of science is still a major part of him: few had so much pleasure “figuring things out”. To convince you to read this book, I have 2 main arguments:

The autobiography of benjamin franklinThe Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin

Rating: 9/10
Topic: the amazing life of Benjamin Franklin, with advice

Benjamin Franklin didn’t have an easy life: his father wanted him to do a job he hated, so he fled his home and build his life in Philadelphia. But he didn’t build any life – as we all know.

 

With an Arnold-like love for work, here’s a small list of things he has done:

  • Created the Union Fire Company, one of the first voluntary firefighting companies in America
  • Founded the University of Pennsylvania
  • Made Nobel-Prize worthy discoveries in electricity
  • Participated in the American Revolution and the writing of the Declaration of Independence
  • Argued for the end of slavery, while that belief was still very unpopular
  • Created his own printing company (and then newspaper) at age 23

At that’s still very incomplete. What he was able to do is just insane. Since the best way to learn about such a mind is to listen to it, his autobiography is a great read.

Titan, by Ron ChernowTitan: The Life of John D. Rockerfeller Sr., by Ron Chernow

Rating: 10/10
Topic: the life of Rockerfeller, who became the richest man on Earth

Rockerfeller, the “richest man in modern history”, is a fascinating man, full of contradictions and paradoxes. Ruthless, but kind; extremely rich but also a great philanthropist; a fervent Baptist yet sometimes undoubtedly immoral – his complexity is astounding.

From scratch, he built Standard Oil, a company so big and powerful that it had to be broken down. At one point, it controlled 90% of oil refinement, with the only 10% remaining free because Standard Oil didn’t want to be seen as a complete monopoly.

Yet the path was long, complicated and very interesting. But the most interesting part of the book isn’t Standard Oil – it’s Rockerfeller himself. Read to understand for yourself. You may not like him, but you certainly will understand the giant he was.

The World & Politics

Guns, germs and steelGuns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Rating: 9/10
Topic: new perspective on world history

Why did some societies developer faster than others? Why did America or Australia never develop like Europe (before colonization)? Why was Iraq one of the most prosperous regions in the world, and not anymore?

All of these could be explained by racist theories – “some races are just better” – but thankfully, most of us are past that stage. Instead, Jared Diamond argues that it can be linked to geography and the environment.

For example, the way a continent is oriented has huge impact – Africa and America are aligned on the North-South axis, while Eurasia is on the East-West axis. Another reason is arrival time – humans got to Australia and America a lot later and suddenly.

Guns, Germs and Steel reveals all those hidden force we never think about, and reveals their huge impact on societies. It’s just fascinating – highly recommended.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis FukuyamaThe Origins of Political Order + Political Order and Decay, by Francis Fukuyama

Rating: 10/10
Topic: evolution of how people organize themselves (e.g. politics)

This series of 2 books is all about the origins of political structures – from tribes, to cities, to nations and empires. Surprisingly, it’s far from boring.

Francis Fukuyama starts really early with the first societies – the Chinese, the Indians – and slowly tells the story of how we ended up with democratic republican societies. Let me tell you: that wasn’t easy. The amount of bloodbaths, mass murders, wars, treasons, and power struggles it took before democracy became common is deeply sad.

This book is not depressing though – let’s not forget the democratic boom since the 20th century – but acknowledges there’ still a lot we don’t know and can’t predict. If you want to learn how incredibly lucky you are to live in the 21st century, and see how hard it was to get here, this is the book for you.

How the World Works, by Noam ChomskyHow the World Works, by Noam Chomsky

Rating: 10/10
Topic: a eye-opener about the under-told horrors caused by the US government

Noam Chomsky is a very interesting person. As the The New York Times, Noam Chomsky is “arguably the most important intellectual alive”, and a MIT press release found that Chomsky was cited within the Arts and Humanities Citation Index more often than any other living scholar from 1980 to 1992.

He is most famous for his political books, especially his criticism of American interventionism and foreign policy. When you read him, you take the red pill in the Matrix: a whole world of horrors and war crimes you had never heard is suddenly revealed to you, and you wonder how it was possible that you never heard it before. Your views on the US government will probably change radically, and you’ll probably become a cynic.

I just can’t make this book justice: it’s an eye opener that reads easily and makes you look the world in a different way. Follow it by Manufacturing Consent and Who Rules the World.

Animal Farm & 1984, by George Orwell

Rating: 9/10
Topic: critic of totalitarianism and communism

Orwell’s two classics are both depressing and political.

Animal Farm is the story of farm animals who were sick of their owner, kicked him out of the farm and decided to rule themselves. It starts well: they lay basic principles and divide the work equally. But as time progresses and the pigs – the smartest animals – get greedy, the rosy picture becomes a lot darker.

1984 is a story of oppression – which introduced words like Big Brother and doublethink (this one is a great addition). It’s set in a world where there’s constant surveillance, where individuality and original thinking are crimes.

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth as rewriter – he must change old news articles so that they always conform with the party line. Anything that contradicts the government must be destroyed. Secretly, however, Winston despises the government and only dreams of rebellion.

Great reads, and pretty short. Good for a weekend when you have enough time, a nice couch and a desire to like your government again.

Brave New World, by Aldous HuxleyBrave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Rating: 10/10
Topic: reflection on happiness and meaning

In the same vein as 1984, Aldous Huxley gives us a different vision of the future: one where everyone is completely happy, but at a cost – their lives are meaningless.

The world is governed by a benevolent dictatorship, who keeps people fully happy through material goods, sexual pleasure, constant company, use of drugs,  and perfect health until death. People of different classes (and jobs) are conditioned differently, so that everyone is constantly happy.

We meet two people displeased by the system: Bernard Max, a psychologist at the human hatchery, and John, born and raised in a Reservation – a place where the old system was kept intact – who enters the New World. This book is both a great story and an interesting discussion of happiness – is it really what we want above all?

Classics of Literature

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-ExuperyThe Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Rating: 10/10
Topic: beautiful story about a little Prince who fell from space

This children’s book, one of the best-selling books, is also one of the most loved in many countries of Earth. Like Of Mice and Men, the story is simple but beautiful.

An aviator, lost in the desert with his broken plane, sees a prince, not yet a man but neither a child, who asks him to draw a sheep. In the middle of the desert. Hundreds of miles away from any human village.

As we learn more about the little prince, we start loving him: his asteroid, the planets he visited, his rose, the snake, the fox… everything is magical about him. And like Of Mice and Men, the less I talk about the book, the best for you.

I totally completely 100% recommend this book to anyone. It’s very short – 80 pages with drawings and big letters – but it leaves a big mark. 10/10

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina and War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Rating: 9/10
Topic: deep exploration of people’s minds and drives

Tolstoy, like most great Russian writers, seemed to love writing huge books – both of these surpass the 1000 page mark. Thankfully, they’re great – Tolstoy has an amazing talent to really understand people and paint the inner picture of people.

His books are set in a very different world – Russian high society – but what he explores is universal: human nature. Tolstoy just seems to get people. He writes about them so clearly, so truthfully that it’s almost incredible. (Note: I haven’t finished War & Peace, but what I read has been great)

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

Rating: 8/10
Topic: Old man catches a fish. Beautifully written.

Ah, Hemingway… the first time I started this book, I read 10 pages then thought “How could anyone ever enjoy this book? It’s boring and nothing happens”. After about a year I decided to read it fully, and then thought “Wow. I almost ignored such a great book”.

Santiago is an old Cuban fisherman. After a rough life filled with his love of the sea, he continues to fish. During this trip, he meets the fish of his life – the capture every fisherman dreams of.

You shouldn’t read this book for the action – it would be the most boring book ever. I liked because of the atmosphere, because of the fisherman, and as other people say, because of everything Hemingway doesn’t say but we feel anyway. A writer’s job is to put things into words, and few managed to put it so succinctly as Hemingway.

Of Mice and Men, by John SteinbeckOf Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Rating: 10/10
Topic: can’t tell you, but fantastic book

This book is like a myth – a story so simple that it stays with you forever. The power of Of Mice and Men comes from that simplicity. Everything in this book is meaningful.

George, a smart but uneducated man, is friends with Lennie, an innocent giant unaware of his strength. Both dream of having a farm one day, and bunnies. After needing to flee from their job, they go away and find a job at a new farm.

I won’t say anything more, because anything else would spoil the story. I also highly discourage reading a summary of the story (not even the back cover) if you want to fully enjoy it.

The paradox of this book is that the less I talk about it, the more you’ll enjoy it. So I’m going to shut up, and leave you with the promise that it’s amazing.

Psychology

Your Deceptive Mind, by Steven NovellaYour Deceptive Mind, by Steven Novella

Rating: 8/10
Topic: Don’t trust yourself, you’re full of flaws

If you love reading hundreds of pages telling how flawed your brain is (and how stupid we can be), then you’ll love this book. In this book, Steven Novella goes into detail about our brain’s flaws: biases, logical fallacies, false or made-up memories, our horrible sense of probabilities, seeing imaginary patterns, and so on.

He does this through a series of examples – everything from conspiracy theories, UFO, pseudoscience, scams, con men, and some “miracles”. You’ll learn that you can’t trust yourself, your thinking, your perceptions and even your unconscious. Being aware of these, you can start distrusting yourself more and learn the essential skills of thinking about your thinking – metacognition.

It’s a great read, even though it doesn’t feel good to discover a new flaw of your mind every 10 pages. If you want to think better (or at least to think badly less often), this is the book for you.

Health & Fitness

Starting Strength, by Mark Rippetoe

Rating: 8/10
Topic: how to do the most important barbell exercices

Often called the lifting bible, this book is very simple. It teaches you how to do 5 lifts: the squat, the deadlift, the press, the clean and the bench press.

What puts this book apart is that it’s one of the rare books whose advice is accompanied by good explanations. He doesn’t just say “turn your feet 30 degrees out” and you’re supposed to blindly believe him. Instead, he spends 2 pages explaining the effect turning your knees has on your body, and why you’ll lift better that way.

He is very detailed in his explanations, and you’ll learn a lot about anatomy along the way. Most lifts are surprisingly more complex than they look, and without good form heavy weight will injure you. This book is your solution.

You’ll lift better, progress faster, avoid injuries and make sure your basics are covered. That’s a good deal for a single book.

(Note: His nutrition appendix is a bit too extreme for my tastes though, so focus on the lifting part of the book (about 90% of the content))

Software Development & Computers

Code CompleteCode Complete 2, by Steve McConnell

Rating: 8/10
Topic: essentials to code well

It’s the ultimate book on the nuts and bolts of programming, and covers every step of the process. If you want to improve quickly, this book combines both great advice and practical checklists to make sure you apply it.

It covers everything from requirements, architecture, development (of course), debugging and testing. Every software developer would benefit from this book. He even talks about the small but crucial things, such as naming things, building good functions and classes and refactoring.

It’s great, and you should read it.

Code by Charles Petzhold

Rating: 9/10
Topic: building a computer from scratch

This fun and beginner-friendly book answer the simple question: “How does a computer actually work?”. You start from scratch, and piece by piece your learn how to take simple things to get more complex things, and at the end you learn how to build your own mini-CPU and memory.

 

This book is FUN – it’s not the boring style from classical dry textbooks. There are lots of examples, drawings, stories to make everything lively and interesting. A good read if you wanted to understand the hardware part of your computer.

Novels

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Rating: 10/10
Topic: a hyper-cerebral man’s quest for love

Don Tillman, a brilliant genetics professor, has a orderly and well-settled life: every minute in his calendar is planned, he eats the same optimized meals every week and leads a evidence-based life.

As an eccentric, he struggles with dealing with other people (fewer than 5 friends) and has always had hard times with women (he’s never been on a second date).

After a colleague’s remark, he decides to start the Wife Project: find the perfect woman and marry her. He approaches it as a evidence-based logical science project, building questionnaires and assessing women, but everything changes when he meets Rosie, an unpredictable, fiery, smart woman on a quest to find out who her real father is. Trouble ensues as their completely different personalities mesh.

Rating: 10/10. Extremely enjoyable book, very fun, very funny, one of the few books I read in one go.

Reading list of reading lists:

Derek Sivers’ recommended reading (with notes and ratings)

Jeff Atwood’s recommended reading for developers

Joel Spolsky’s favourite books

Bill Gates’s yearly reading lists

Richard Branson’s favourite books

and The Greatest Books (generated from 107 “best of” book lists, based on how many lists a particular book appears on)

Leave a Reply