Book List

Books teach us how to think and how to pay attention. They enrich the human experience and guide us toward living properly.

With a steady reading diet, we can become well-versed in concepts we may not be exposed to otherwise. One goal of reading should be to broaden your perspective, which means reading books that you disagree with or make you uncomfortable.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it should be a good starting point to make you think, feel, and unlock your creativity.

First, here are the books I wrote:

Life Between Moments: New York Stories (2022)

This is a collection of short fiction, populated by individuals that grapple with the fears and uncertainties that define everyday life. In sketches ranging from the grandest heights of society to the anonymous city streets, characters discover their demons, confront heartbreak, and stumble through life in dreamy, oppressive New York.

Everywhere But Home: Life Overseas as Told by a Travel Blogger (2020)

This is a memoir for college graduates and young adults looking for that next step. I wrote this while living in Hong Kong and traveling Southeast Asia, and I explored themes like balancing purpose and making money, security and adventure, and how to navigate uncharted territory as a new grad.

Fiction

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

Many consider Dostoevsky one of the greatest authors of all time, and this masterpiece attests to that. The narrative pivots around a murder (the crime) and the main character’s fall into insanity and paranoia (the punishment).

A true psychological exploration, the novel reveals how morality is not always as black and white as we assume.  

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe (1927)

A brilliant musing and narrative about family relations and dynamics, and the complex relationships between men and women. Woolfe’s work is clean, well-written, and euphonic when read aloud.

She’s considered one of the great 20th century writers, and I’d be inclined to agree.

The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry (1943)

This is a children’s book about a young boy’s experiences meeting adults. It’s illustrated, short, and touching. The child highlights how adults can be absurd and without empathy.

A poignant reminder that there is much more to life than cashing checks and staying busy.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

Protagonist Larry Darryl returns from World War I with the chance to marry a beautiful, wealthy woman. Instead, he leaves her to pursue a spiritual journey across Paris, India, and greater Europe.

The story unfolds over nearly half a century, and the author creates some of the best character development I’ve ever seen.

This book brims with wisdom through themes of spirituality, travel, love, and the meaning of life.

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1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Orwell foretold a great deal with this dystopian novel.

He creates a colorless world, ruled by the iron fist of Big Brother. Citizens are isolated and constantly under surveillance, the reach of the totalitarian government has no limit, and propaganda, Doublethink, and Newspeak determine behavior. Haunting and prophetic, but important.  

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

A sweeping epic of two families at the turn of the 20th century that is at once a California story spanning multiple generations and a modern retelling of the Biblical story of Genesis, specifically of the Cain and Abel tale.

In concert with sharp and intelligently developed characters, Steinbeck’s beautiful writing carries the forward story with remarkable pace. Both implicit and explicit Biblical allusions make the characters and story feel timeless, as if we’ve heard it thousands of times before.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Catch-22 describes the terrors of World War II with satire and wit. It is humorous, sad, and exciting. Multiple perspectives are used throughout to tell a story of soldiers trying to survive the war. Heller makes us reconsider what we call good and evil by blurring this separation.

In short, it’s the best war novel I’ve ever read.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

The most readable novel on this list — fast-paced, exciting, and infinitely quotable. Through the misdemeanors of an underground, all-male “fight club,” Palahniuk explores the psychology of group thinking and male identity, while depicting the fragility of modern society.

A brilliant, artistic book with incisive political and psychological implications.

Forever by Pete Hamill (2003)

One of my favorite books of all time. The story of a man who arrives in New York as an Irish immigrant in 1741, and through a fascinating series of events is granted the gift of immortality — but only on the condition that he never leaves the island of Manhattan.

A riveting history of the world’s most dynamic city from the eyes of someone who’s always in the right place at the right time.

Think Forrest Gump but more focused.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, few books have moved me like this one. It is the story of a young German boy and a blind French girl during World War II. The writing is poetic, the narrative is elegant and well-paced.

A heart-wrenching and beautiful exploration of good and evil.

Nonfiction

How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

This book has been a bestseller for nearly a century.

One of the original self-help books (and the very best one), Carnegie provides a practical set of guidelines to live well. Basic things that we all think we know already (such as smiling, listening, making others feel important) are articulated in the book in clear prose and with excellent examples.

The advice in this book can benefit someone for the rest of their life.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)

Though typically a travel writer, Bryson instead explores the history of Earth and the universe in this great piece of science writing. Starting with the Big Bang, Bryson takes the reader on a journey through history and we encounter quarks, dinosaurs, and modern man.

For a good (and brief) overview of the history and science of our world, start here.

Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham (2004)

One of the foremost writers and leaders in the startup world and an innovator during the dot-com bubble, here he collects his best writing from his popular blog. With great thoughtfulness, Graham touches on a range of complex themes like work, childhood, and artificial intelligence.

Particularly for anyone who hopes to start their own company, I couldn’t recommend this book enough.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell is a genius when it comes to writing about sociopolitical and psychological phenomena, and his wit is on full display with Outliers.

Gladwell shows us how things are not always as they seem, especially in success stories. There is a great deal of luck involved in the greatest achievements. We learn of the habits, happenings, and circumstances that surround humanity’s greatest victories and failures.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (2010)

Yale historian Timothy Snyder penned this historical masterpiece in an effort to pin down the political, ideological, and cultural causes and effects of Hitler and Stalin’s mass killings of the 20th century, highlighting specifically the “Bloodlands,” the area spanning Poland, Belarus, and Western Russia.

These bloodlands, Snyder explains, were where the two totalitarian regimes interacted and spilled the greatest amount of blood in the history of the world.

A heartbreaking, profound historical investigation, with implications on modern political ideology.

The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman (2013)

Lieberman is the chairman of the Human Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard University, and he delivers a revealing history of mankind through multiple lenses: evolution, health, and disease. The paradox explored throughout the book is how we have increased longevity despite an increasing onslaught of chronic disease.

Lieberman explains how we can make changes today in our diet and health habits in order to better align our lifestyle with our biological predilections.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt (2013)

This is one of the most illuminating books I have read about why people do what they do, and why people are who they are.

Haidt breaks down psychological and sociological reasons as to why some people tilt right or left, practice religion or atheism, and why some people are inherently inclined to disagree with certain types of people, no matter what they say or who they are.

For me, this was groundbreaking in terms of understanding the psychological roots of contemporary political affiliations.

The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them by Dr. Meg Jay (2021)

I read this when I was 27 but I wish I read it when I was 17.

Nothing prepares you for the ups and downs of life, but this book comes close. Much of the decade after college is trivialized publicly, as if it’s for fun, but Jay sobers readers up by emphasizing how what people do or don’t accomplish in those years determines the rest of their lives. I’ve gifted this book to countless twentysomething friends of mine.

Your Table is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D’ by Michael Cecchi-Azzolina (2022)

A fast, hilarious, and poetic memoir about a talented restaurateur coming up in New York City through the decades. It covers the glamorous, the decrepit, and the foul — and it changed the way I think about the fine-dining world as well as the everyday food scene.

A rollicking page-turner, maybe the most fun book on this list.

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson (2023)

The story of one of the most innovative, complex, and driven individuals in history, written by the best biographer of the 21st century. Love or hate Musk, he runs multiple billion-dollar companies that have changed the world. Everyone should know what motivates and scares him.

Philosophy

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180)

The definitive guide to living properly and one of the foundational texts of Stoic philosophy. The philosophy is grounded upon a cosmic perspective and maintains a focus on virtues rather than immediate pleasures.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

Walden documents Thoreau’s time living in a cabin in the woods, where he found great richness in a simple life with few belongings. Vivid, beautiful descriptions of the forest and animals are interwoven with philosophies of minimalism and self-reliance, as well as a warning to society about the rapid technological advancements of man.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” remains one of the most quoted lines in American history.

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

This book isn’t particularly difficult to read, but it is still profound. It’s a philosophical exploration of what it means to be an outsider. It is accessible because the ideas are all woven into a compelling narrative. Loneliness, good and evil, and absurdism come into play in this illuminating work by the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher.

Biography and Memoir

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946)

Dr. Frankl, a psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, attempts to answer, “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”

He goes about this with riveting, terrible anecdotes he witnessed, while explaining the importance of meaning and hope in the face of intolerable circumstances. A moving, deeply important reminder of the great evil and the great good that humanity is capable of.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Alex Haley (1965)

Named by Time as one of the ten “required reading” nonfiction books, Malcolm X reveals his journey and philosophy as one of the most influential and controversial civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

He explains his prison time, family life, insecurities, and religious beliefs in intimate detail. Though Malcolm X is often portrayed as violent and bigoted in his own right, his autobiography allows us to see the ambition, faith, and principles behind the legend.

The Gulag Archipelago (Abridged) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)

This book provides an honest, terrible account and comprehensive history of the Soviet Gulag prison camps that the author personally survived.

Solzhenitsyn writes how “the line dividing good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.” It’s an essential read for a global perspective and enlightens us about history that we cannot dare to repeat.

The abridged version, which I recommend, is around 500 pages. Unabridged is more than triple that).

Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott (1994)

Just ahead of Stephen King’s On Writing, this is my favorite book on writing and the writer’s life. It’s honest, touching, and reads as if you’re catching up with an old, wise friend.

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997)

The best-selling memoir of all time, this examines the relationship between the author and his dying former professor. It is touching, revelatory, and beautiful. Here we witness the intimacy of a deathbed, the importance of relationships, and the unfailing power of human love.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (2005)

Popularized by Christopher Nolan’s 2023 film on the theoretical physicist, “Oppenheimer,” this is a detailed and sweeping tale of one of the most consequential minds in human history: The father of the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project.

It’s nearly 800 pages, but I finished the book fast — it appeals not just to readers interested in science, but those invested in on the survival of the human race.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

If you want to read a book to remind you how precious life is, pick this one. It’s the memoir of a doctor and neurosurgeon dying of stage IV metastatic lung cancer. It is beautiful and worth rereading every year.

If I’m not mistaken, it’s the only book on this list that was posthumously published.