The 10 Wisest Books I Know
‘Tis the season to shop ‘till you drop. Here’s 10 books to read ‘till you’re freed (I didn’t include sacred texts like the Bible or Koran because I wanted to focus primarily on secular options that could work for virtually any reader).
1. “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
This book saved my life. It was in my backpack when I had an NDE (Near Death Experience) at age 47 and was convalescing in the ICU. It helped me to see that meaning is the fuel of life and that my sorry circumstances were nothing like what this psychologist was dealing with in a concentration camp during World War II. It also helped me realize that Despair = Suffering - Meaning with suffering being ever-present (a constant) and despair and meaning being variables that we can influence. The more meaning we create, the less despair we feel. I often surprise people when I say this is the best personal leadership book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read it a half-dozen times).
2. “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.
I read this book in college and didn’t give it a second thought. Ten years later, I re-read it and found a series of gems in this Stoic philosopher’s ruminations, including:
- “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
- “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul.”
- “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
- “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
- “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
3. “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
This book helped me understand race relations in the U.S. with a whole new lens. Every American would be much wiser if they read this book, authored by a sagacious and poignant storyteller.
4. “The Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu
As someone who has spent his life cultivating a “can do it” attitude, this book helped me see the value of being the “conduit.” There’s a timeless, martial arts-like beauty to the language and message of this small tome, which was written around the time of Confucius, over 2,500 years ago.
5. “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau
I’ve made a couple wise decisions in my life based upon Thoreau’s insightful sentence, “The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it.” This gem has such relevance in our time of pandemic reflection and social distancing. There are few books that better speak to the idea of nature as a teacher.
6. “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” by Richard Rohr
Modern Christian mystic Richard Rohr’s books are scattered all over the MEA Library, but this one might be my favorite since it’s so germane to MEA’s purpose. This new-classic reminds us that the operating system of the first half of our life is our ego and then around midlife, the operating system moves to our soul. Unfortunately, we have few rituals and tools that help mid-lifers learn how to “drive” their soul. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book:
- “Much of the work of midlife is learning to tell the difference between people who are still dealing with their issues through you and those who are really dealing with you as you really are...By the second half of life, you learn to tell the difference between who you really are and how others can mirror that or not. This will keep you from taking their insults or praise too seriously. I doubt whether this kind of calm discrimination and detachment is much possible before your midfifties at the earliest. How desperately we need true elders in our world to clean up our seeing and stop the revolving hall of mirrors in our tracks.”
7. “Island” by Aldous Huxley
While Huxley’s “Brave New World” offers a prescient perspective on the future, this final novel moves from dystopia to utopia and offers a modern mixture of hope and wisdom. Here are a couple excerpts:
- “Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul’s words, Mohammed’s words, Marx’s words, Hitler’s words — people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history.”
- “Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward.”
8. “The Essential Rumi” translated by Coleman Barks
“Wisdom is like the rain. Its source is limitless, but it comes down according to the season,” writes one of the most beloved poets/philosophers of all-time. While there are all kinds of Rumi books, in my opinion, this one packs the biggest wisdom punch. As an aside, nine years ago, I had the good fortune of going to the Mevlana Whirling Dervish festival in Konya, Turkey (each Dec 10-17) as Rumi was the first whirling dervish, inspired by the divine intoxication of the dervish dance.
9. “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran
This classic book of wisdom was published nearly 100 years ago and has influenced The Beatles, John F, Kennedy, and Indira Gandhi. This magical book Lacks dogma but is full of sagacity with a universal message full of humanism and spirituality. It addresses some of the most important questions in life including love, family, work, and death.
10. “Animal Farm”” by George Orwell
It was a coin flip whether I should have included this book or “1984.” In the end, I chose this one because its wisdom is accessible to a wider audience. The fascinating relationship between animals and humans, power and victimization, promise and punishment are all played out in a dystopian way commenting on the risks of autocracy, an anesthetized public, groupthink, and rewriting the rules based upon the whims of the moment. A timeless, wise parable about the importance of freedom.
What would be on your top ten list?