22 Books to Live By

Dear E & V,

One of the great things about being human is our ability to communicate a message to someone without actually being there. That’s the whole point of these letters to you (though I do hope to chat about them with you when you read them), and the main point of books.

Books are road maps for your imagination. The authors help you explore ideas and wisdom that they’ve either learned in their own life or that of others. You can learn everything from how to install brakes on your car to new literary devices that you never would have dreamed of using (like using end-notes that form a novel in itself).

At one point your mother and I had tons of books in the house. But as we started to simplify our lives to pursue financial freedom, we got rid of a lot of our books in exchange for more frequent visits to the library. So instead of passing down physical copies of books to you, I’m going to pass down this list of books that have had the most profound impact on who I am today and my life philosophy.

Philosophy

  • Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche (I’d recommend all of his books, but this one especially). This was the first philosophy book I read that caused me to really question my thoughts and beliefs about the world. It’s a critique on Western civilization at that time (1886), which really isn’t that much different than it is now — at least when it comes to the unquestioning beliefs of most people. This book got me started with the world of Nieztsche, who is responsible for my most important life philosophy — live a life so beautiful you would live it over and over and over again.
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius I’ll be honest, I’ve never read this whole book before, but it’s on my bucket list to finish. The lessons Aurelius (a former Roman Emperor) gives on how to deal with hardships, cruel people, and other misfortunes of life are invaluable if you are going to reduce the stress you give yourself from being human in a human world. The main point that he (and many of the others who share his Stoic philosophy) talk about is how it is your responsibility to control how you react to the world, for the world itself is beyond your control.
  • I and Thou by Martin Buber The world desperately needed Buber’s message when he wrote this book in 1923, but unfortunately it went unheeded by the people that needed it the most. Had the German people taken his message to heart, the Holocaust would have been stopped before it even started. His message is simple: our relationships with people overflows our ability to label them — the I-Thou experience. Once we use labels to describe other people we turn them into objects and dehumanize them — the I-It experience. I don’t need to tell you which one we should apply to ALL human beings.
  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki I’ve written a little bit on the reality-clearing benefits of meditation, and you can thank Shunryu Suzuki for that. This is probably the best introduction you can get on Buddhist meditation, both from a practical standpoint and a philosophical one. Suzuki was a Zen Buddhist monk who opened the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, and this book is a compilation of the talks he gave while running that monastery.
  • Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings Most introductions to the philosophy of Daoism start with it’s most famous text, the Dao-De-Ching. While this isn’t a bad way to start, I prefer the writings of Chuang Tzu because there is less “poetry” and more stories — it’s more comprehensible to me. Daoism (to me) is the study of the flow of life and how we can live more in tune with our world. It’s like Stoicism, but much more imaginative and playful. One of my favorite Chuang Tzu stories is about grief:

​”Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. ‘You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,’ said Huizi. ‘It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing – this is going too far, isn’t it?’

Zhuangzi said, ‘You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.'”

https://navigatingthezhuangzi.weebly.com/drumming-on-a-tub-and-singing.html
  • Incerto by Nassim Taleb This is actually a four book series by my favorite living (at least as of this letter) author. Part statistics, part philosophy, part economics, part finance, and part social commentary, Taleb writes superbly about the misunderstanding of risk in our lives and how we can mitigate that risk (like getting a boat load of “f*ck you” money, a term which I first heard from Taleb). He’s a modern day Nietzsche, blasting everyone from know-it-all economists to overzealous GMO shills, using statistics and cold hard logic to back up his claims. For even more fun I recommend following him on Twitter.

Finance & Business

  • Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin This book taught me the fundamental principle behind my #1 financial goal: If you want to retire early or be financially independent, your passive income (investments, whatever they may be) needs to be greater than your expenses. The book is written for people all along the financial spectrum, whether you just looking to get out of debt or want to experience the freedom of financial independence. It’s filled with practical advice about how to improve your finances; I’ve kept track of our monthly expenses for about 2 years now because of this book and now have an idea of how much passive income our family would need to be financially free. A great book if you’re looking for financial advice that’s outside of the traditional “work til you’re 65” crap that has been pushed down our mouths by corporate America. One lesson I do wish this book would have talked more about: financial freedom is just as much about creating passive income as it is cutting expenses.
  • The E Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber If you ever work for yourself (and I think you should), either as an investor or as a regular business owner, then you need to read this book. It states simply that if you want to succeed in business and not burn yourself out in the day-to-day tasks then you need to systematize your business processes. You need to work ON your business, not IN it. You need to have enough systems in place that you could spend four months hiking the Appalachian trail and not worry about your business failing.
  • Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki This is the only book on my list that has a caveat: Kiyosaki is a salesman. As such, I think there are some untruths in this book and some rather sketchy legal recommendations and attempts to upsell you to more books and programs. With that said, the primary lesson in this book is priceless and well worth all the other negatives you have to read: jobs are one of the worst ways to bring money into your life; to truly become wealthy you NEED to invest in income-producing assets . Whether its real estate or a business you own, financial independence will only be achieved when you have money working for you without you being physically present all the time. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you the freedom to do what you want when you want.
  • Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris We in America take the 40+ hour work week for granted. It’s assumed that if you’re a contributing member of society you work from 9:00am to 5:30pm (30 minutes for lunch, of course), and that those 8 hours every day are efficiently filled with productive tasks. The truth is those hours worked for factory workers but aren’t the most efficient use of time for everyone else. Tim Ferris shows you an alternative: make more efficient use of your time so that you only have to work four hours a week. As refreshing as it is insightful, you should read this if you ever find yourself tired of the 40 hour grind.

Health

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan This book opened my eyes to just how inefficient, cruel, disease-ridden, and polluting the modern American food system really is. Whether you’re eating a processed hamburger or a processed vegan soy-burger, you’re contributing to a system of food production that is contributing both to the obesity crisis and the destruction of our environment. Pollan dives deep into what makes industrial farming and processed food so bad for us, but also shows us a more sustainable way: farming practices like those practiced by the Salatins in Virginia, using nature itself to increase crop and meat yields instead of chemicals and genetically modified organisms.
  • Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss – Corporate America has created some really fucked up food. In Salt Sugar Fat, you learn all about how they’ve spent millions (billions) of dollars messing with both natural and artificial ingredients to create some of the most addictive foods ever seen in human history. It’s hard not to see the results of these frankenfoods when you look around and see all the people struggling with obesity and other metabolic disorders. Yes people vote with their dollar, but it’s hard not to hold these mega-food companies complicit in the suffering of millions of people — not that different from Big Tobacco.
  • Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes A lot of “no BS” nutritionists love to talk about “calories in, calories out” as the main way to lose weight. They’re not technically wrong, but it’s shitty and lazy advice about how to lose weight. There’s a lot more factors that go into weight loss — like psychological, mental, and emotional ones — than just the calorie count of what you eat. In perhaps the most data-backed book I’ve ever read on nutrition, Taubes explores whats wrong with modern nutritional thinking on “calories in, calories out”, the “dangers” of saturated fat, and how both of those thoughts may be contributing to the obesity crisis.
  • Misguided Medicine by Colin Champ, M.D. Take the eye-opening, question-everything-you’ve-ever-heard format of Good Calories, Bad Calories and apply that not just to nutrition but to all medical advice, and you have Misguided Medicine. I have the pleasure of previously working with Dr. Champ as a health writer, and I can say he is one of the most insightful and intelligent people I have ever met — and above all he practice what he preaches. Misguided Medicine he explores how current recommendations on everything from sun exposure to salt intake may just really be a big fat misguided lie.

Other

  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari It’s easy to take our lives and technology for granted. As a kid, I wouldn’t bat an eye about getting a Nintendo system for Christmas and then throwing it away 5 years later, as an adult I don’t bat an eye while I type this letter and push away the cat as she tries to step on this keyboard. But all of these things — the technology, the cat, writing, some of my social interactions with you mediated through this screen — are all a product of our long evolution from the grassy plains of Africa to the mega-cities of North America. Harari puts our current lives into perspective by analyzing how we got here, and how we’re getting more and more into trouble by creating a world that we have not physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally adapted to yet. But the one ability that got us into this mess — our consciousness — has the same ability to get us out. (To be fair, that’s my conclusion from his book, not necessarily his).
  • The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot I read this book a long time ago and so can’t speak to the current scientific validity of it. However the premise — that our universe is simply one of many holograms — even if not true, was enough of of mind-blowing “whoa” moment to me that I included it on this list. It was the book that first got me to question the nature of our universe, our reality, and how we perceive both of those things.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Quite possibly my favorite work of fiction (or at least my favorite one for philosophical reasons), this book is an exploration of religion, free will, morality, the concept of God, and other topics as told by the story of three brothers and the murder of their father. Unlike most fiction books that explore these topics, Dostoyevsky isn’t trying to sway you one way or another — he’s simply letting you into his head as he uses his characters to explore those topics with you. This book is a work of art.
  • You Are Being Lied To by Russ Kick The winners write the history books while the losers are confined to blogging in obscure corners of the internet — except when they find a voice in someone like Russ Kick. Kick reevaluates some commonly held historical opinions in the light of new evidence and new ways of thinking (like that the mass media isn’t always right!). It was the first book I’ve ever read that questioned anything I ever believed in, and was probably the initial step that lead me to study philosophy. Like anything else you should read this book with a critical eye, while I applaud Kick’s attempt to question commonly held beliefs there were some issues on which he failed to persuade me. Nonetheless a good inspiration for learning how to investigate commonly held beliefs.
  • Man And His Symbols by Carl Jung If your mind is an iceberg, consciousness is the tip and unconsciousness is the mountain of ice that lies beneath the water. Because of its use of language grasp the world, consciousness is limited in what it can both process and perceive. The unconscious is a lot more flexible and dynamic with its processing and perception, but because it lacks the language capacity of the conscious its messages can be much harder to decipher. Jung explores these unconscious symbols, how they’re shared across humanity, and how they affect our lives. Again, like more of the psuedo-scientific books on here I’m recommending it not so much for the “truth” value but for the value to inspire different, non-traditional ways of thinking about our world.
  • Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins I vacillated on putting this book on here because of a large philosophical presumption that it makes: That there is an “I” (an ego, or a consciousness if you like) upon which our world is built. While I disagree with this assumption (i.e. see Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind above for the opposite view), the fact is that it feels real enough to me and practically speaking I live it everyday. So Robbins’ book spoke to me because it has practical advice for reflecting on your life and who you are and taking action so that you can change the direction of your life. Want to stop smoking, lose weight, be more confident, more persistent, etc? If you’re struggling with finding ways to improve your life, then Awaken the Giant Within is a great tool to break through any obstacles you put in your way.

I think all of these books will do great things for your mind and your happiness. But with that said if you really truly want to learn about something — whether that’s the nature of reality or how to tie your shoes — there is absolutely no substitution for experience. Book learning may be easier, but experience is a much better teacher.

Love,

Dad

letters

Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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