Leadership + Organizational Culture
Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (2006). Goleman’s research shows that IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces. He writes, “My concern is with a key set of these ‘other characteristics’, emotional intelligence: abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think to empathize and to hope.” The fundamental task of leaders, he believes, is to “prime good feeling” in those they lead, creating a reservoir of positivity that brings out the best in people.
Tony Hsieh, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. (2010). (The visionary founder and CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, explains how building corporate culture that inspires people to be their best at work can lead to unprecedented success. One of my favorite ideas: pay new employees $2000 to quit. Whoever takes you up on it wasn’t a good fit anyway.
Fred Kofman, Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values (2006). Fred Kofman is a former MIT economics professor who over time became more interested in the human dimension of business. In 2005, before his book was out, I listened to audios of him teaching and coaching, and declared, “This is the man I want to work for.” Then I hunted him down, and convinced him to hire me. Many years later, I continue to partner with him on various projects. His book is a thorough compilation of the most essential qualities of great leaders. This is from a Sounds True interview with Fred, where he was asked, “What would a conscious business environment look like?”
“The most significant observation would be the total absence of abuse, shame, and threat. People would take responsibility for their behavior and deal with each other honestly and respectfully. They would hold themselves and each other accountable for adhering to some set of agreed-upon values and for working toward an agreed-upon vision. Deviations and errors would be an opportunity for learning and growth, rather than an excuse for blame and punishment.”
“There would still be problems, people that don’t get along, and losses. A conscious business environment is not a Garden of Eden where everything is always blissful. The marketplace is a turbulent place with no guarantees of success. The main difference displayed by a conscious business environment is that in addition to the drive to achieve their goals, people would experience also the commitment to operate according to their values. This commitment is the source of unconditional dignity that would give the organization and its members a core of luminosity from which to extend into the world.”
“A conscious business environment would be a challenge, an invitation to develop people’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual spheres. The conscious organization is a crucible where people refine themselves through service and partnership. As Khalil Gibran would say, a conscious business is a place where it becomes obvious that work is “love made visible.”
Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (2016). What does the organization of the future look like? Laloux uses Spiral Dynamics (see Integral Theory below) to map out where we’ve been and where we’re going. Some things to look forward to: the end of command and control, and the beginning of self-actualized individuals self-managing. “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world.”
Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011). Money matters, and motivates people to an extent. But to get the heart and soul of employees, you have to find ways to a) give them autonomy, b) enable them to master a valued skill and c) contribute to a higher purpose. If you happen to be suffering in such an environment where this is not understood or appreciated, you might consider firing your boss, i.e., quitting.
Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (2007). One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to get clear about your own strengths, and then be curious about the strengths of the people around you. Roth found that if your manager focuses on your strengths, your chances of being actively disengaged go down to 1 in 100. If your manager primarily focuses on your weaknesses, on the other hand, your chances of being actively disengaged are 22%.
William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (2011). This is a staple for anyone in the business of trying to get things done with other people. Think you aren’t a negotiator? Anyone needing to have hard conversations with others is a negotiator. Bill Ury was one of the first to describe a style of negotiating that focused not on winning OVER people, but on finding creative and win-win solutions by taking a deeper dive into what is really going on in these situations, and exploring what people really care about, not just what they are asking for.
Also known as “Productivity Porn” – please do not let me read any more of these books.
David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2002). David Allen provides a system for capturing all the cycling to-do’s in your head, breaking them down into sequential steps, and putting them in an action list. This frees up your brain for more important things, like sleeping well instead of lying awake worrying.
Francesco Cirillo, Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: Can You Focus – Really Focus – for 25 Minutes? (2010). This is a deceptively simple idea: 1. Decide what you most need to work on. 2. Set a timer, preferably a red kitchen timer that looks like a tomato. 3. Until it dings, just work on that one thing. Amazing.
Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less (1999). The 80/20 Principles proposes that 20% of your efforts lead to 80% of results. For example: 20% of crops produce 80% of yield. 20% criminals are responsible for 80% of crime, 20% of drivers account for 80% of accidents, you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time, Here is the link to your life and to business: 20% of your effort is producing 80% of the results. 80/20 thinking asks you to figure out what that 20% is that leads to 80% of the results. How can you stop doing the 80% that results in mediocre, low-value outcomes? Koch advises us to “calm down, work less, and target a limited number of very valuable goals where the 80/20 Principle will work for us.”
Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It (2011). Who doesn’t need more willpower? McGonigal writes with the casualness of a good friend, which belies an academic rigor to all her assertions, thoroughly researched and backed up by science. I learned a lot from this book, including that if you do fall off the wagon, it is better to be gentle with yourself than not. Also great: The Upside of Stress.
Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014). This is the antidote to overwhelm. Figure out what matters, and just do that. “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”
Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016). “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”
James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (2018). I learned from James the stacking concept for developing new good habits: Whatever new thing you want to do, tie it to something you are already doing without thinking about it. Keep forgetting to take your vitamins at night? I bet you don’t forget to brush your teeth at night. Put your vitamins next to your toothbrush, and let that be the trigger to remind you.
Brad Stulberg, Peak Performance (2018).
Psychology + Self-help
Jenny Blake, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters is Your Next One (2017). I was an early adopter in the art of pivoting. Or that’s how I’d describe it now. At the time it was more, “Seriously, what is wrong with me?” To thrive in the current world means to master the art of the pivot. Jenny shows you how to do it, starting with the positive and practical step of exploring what is working, and onward from there. Think of this as a companion guide to careers and life not going as planned, and that being a good thing.
Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007). Tal Ben-Shahar combines his own life experiences, theory and exercises to create an inspiring and actionable guide. Grounded in the Positive Psychology movement, Ben-Shahar defines “happiness” as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” He teaches this content to undergrads at Harvard, and it is consistently rated the best class there.
Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2005). Whenever we feel anxiety, fear and uncertainty, Instead of automatically reaching for whatever temporarily makes us feel better, we can treat difficult times (and difficult people) as spiritual opportunities. The end result: a deep sense of peace and joy, which would not have otherwise been possible.
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014). This book carries a transmission. You start reading and a clarity begins to rise in you and next thing you know you are throwing things out. The best part is Kondo’s undertone of total kindness. No shoulds. You either love it or you don’t. If you love, it keep it; no judgment. (My boyfriend has probably 60 pairs of shoes. He loves them all. No judgment.)
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012). “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” In her no-nonsense West Texas voice, Brene weaves research with her own personal stories to make the case for dropping the mask and being yourself. One of my favorite lines: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”
James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (2009). James Hollis is my favorite Jungian writer. He writes and lives deeply, mythically, grounded in the best of religion and literature. His basic advice: that we reconsider our entire lives, so that every commitment, connection, habit and friendship serves the needs of the soul. (True story: I was once doing some horrible law work in Houston. I took a walk outside and realized the Huston Jungian Center was just a block away, led at that time by James Hollis. I went in, and asked if he was there. He was, but with a client. I left him a handwritten note, telling him how much his work meant to me. I felt better, and quit that job soon after.)
Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (2003). Here’s a practice: Love what is. Trust reality. Butt out of business not your own. “I can find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s. Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our business.” “How do I know that the wind should blow? It’s blowing!” “Every story [of suffering] is a variation on a single theme: This shouldn’t be happening. I shouldn’t be having this experience.” How do I know it should be happening? Because it is happening.
Masaru Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water (2005). One of my favorite books to give as a gift. Your thoughts matter! You’ve probably considered this possibility but have you ever seen it? Emoto says words, like “love” or “hate” to water crystals and then photographs the results. A picture is worth a thousand words, or in this case, maybe more.
Diane Osbon (ed.), Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion (1995). Thank God for Joseph Campbell. He has had such an influence on me – he led me to understand my own life as a hero’s journey – yet there is no one book I can point to of his that contains what has moved me most. So instead I recommend this compilation by Diane Osbon, full of the best of Campbell thinking and quotes. Like this one: “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (2011). Gretchen Rubin was a lawyer, a clerk in the US Supreme Court actually, who quit law to be a writer. Here she makes herself the gunnea pig in an experiment to test theories on what makes us happier. For example, in January, she goes to bed earlier, excises more, and get organized. It is hybrid memoir and self help, written by someone with intellectual horsepower harnessed to the ultimate question: how to live a good life.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (2004). Confession: I am a big fan of what I call “The Power of Not-Now.” Otherwise known as this-too-shall-pass-and-the-future-will-be-better. Also, I think there is a risk of the “spiritual bypass” with the Power of Now, where by you miss what is great about being a human and not a dog: you can project yourself into the past and future. That said! We can’t go wrong continuing to practice how to really show up, and let things be as they are. “Accept-then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” And, “If there is nothing you can do, face what is and say, ‘Well, right now, this is how it is. I can either accept it, or make myself miserable.’ The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about the situation. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.”
Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014). I got to sit next to Pico at a Speakers Dinner for Wisdom 2.0 several years ago. I knew him from his beautiful essays in the New York Times, and then from this book, which I came to understand as excellent preparation for the year 2020 when suddenly no one went anywhere. Because I’d loved this book, I was never bothered by this inconvenience, and imagine I will crave the stillness when life returns to “normal.”
Alain de Botton, Philosophy for Life (2001).
Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019).
Jenny Wade, Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness (1996). Developmental psychology is the study of how humans’ interior develop over time. It’s more common to hear about childhood developmental psychology, but to realize there is an equally developed field mapping the development of adults is mind-blowing. I have read the
Don Beck, Christopher Cowen, Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change (2006). Like Jenny Wade above, Spiral Dynamics maps adult and cultural development. Once you see it you can never unsee it. Particularly helpful is the explanation of the shadow side of post modernism: “Building everything from the bottom up is just as bad as top-down. In its egalitarian, power-to-the-people enthusiasm, GREEN [post modernism] sometimes puts too much of its energy into the lowest echelons. Everybody gets a say, whether competent or not. Nobody’s opinion carries more weight than anyone else’s. When misapplied, this noble philosophy only leads to a pooling of ignorance and wasted time. The one or two people with real expertise are shouted down by know-nothings getting their share of consensus.”
Ken Wilber, The Integral Vision (2007). A good introduction to the framework of Integral Theory. It took me years to get around to reading Ken Wilber. As I was plowing my way through the entire self-help, psychology, religion, and philosophy sections of the bookstore, I made it a point to steer clear of his books. I used to see his photograph on the cover of his books and his face annoyed me. Why? I think I was associating his intellectualism with what I’d come to resent about having gone to law school. Finally, I remembered I appreciated rational, clear thinking and I opened one of his books. It is not an exaggeration to say that his writing changed my life.
Creativity + Entrepreneurism:
James Altucher, Choose Yourself! (2013). I love James’ authenticity, vulnerability, and genuine care for others. His message is simple: Don’t wait for someone (a company, a boss, a publisher, whatever) to choose you. Figure out what you want and go for it. The illusion of security in the old system of lifetime employment is over. The only real security is resilience.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creatively Living Beyond Fear (2016).
Seth Godin, What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) (2014).
Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (2012).I now have 3 of these little 4×4″ books on my bookshelf. They’re all beautiful.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). This is not just a book for artists. It is for anyone who wants to let passion and creativity be guiding forces in life and work, and overcome Resistance with a capital “R.” “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Danielle Laporte, The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms (2012). How I love this big orange book, which has found a permanent home on my coffee table. Another one I swear I get transmission from. All about how to figure out what really, really deep down lights you up and then get up and do that. Danielle was the one who told me to write my bio in the first person. “For God’s sake, we all know you wrote it yourself anyway.” It’s true!
Tim Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (2009). Now a classic! Tim Ferris’s mission is to invent a new definition of a good life, and then encourage others others how to live that. Even if you don’t want to quit your job you may get a lot out of Ferris’ creative thinking and passion for life design.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2005). Twyla Tharp is perhaps the best-known American choreographer. Here she reveals her recipe for a successful, creative life: Talent + practice, discipline, focus, and the habit of making space to allow the muse to speak.
The Past, Present + Future:
Peter Diamandis, The Future is Faster than You Think. We hear a lot about how bad the world is getting. Diamandis has a different focus: how much things are improving. Diamandis is a tech entrepreneur who is credible in his argument that exponential growth in technology will soon result in the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of everyone on the planet. That is exciting.
Nicholas D. Kristof, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2010). I read this book with my mouth agape: More girls have been killed in the last fifty years – because they were girls – than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. There are many horrible stories and statistics, but the book is heavy on hopeful and heroic stories too.
Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2006). When Theodore Roosevelt lost the 1912 Presidential election, he distracted himself by going on a great adventure down an uncharted tributary of the Brazilian Amazon. He got more than he bargained for: Indians with poison tipped arrows, man-eating piranhas, 500 pound pythons, river rapids that smashed to bits log boats that took forever to build, typhoid, malaria, sweltering heat and near starvation. Ever since reading this book, I try to meet every pang of discomfort with the thought: “This, I can handle. At least I’m not on the River of Doubt.”
William McDonough, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance (2013).
Health + Fitness
David Perlmutter, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers (2018).
Doug McGruff, Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week. (2009) I have several friends and clients who are completely into Crossfit. And that’s great for them. They love it. If you are not into Crossfit, however, and you’d rather do something radical for your health and longevity in much less time, read this book!
Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (2011). Taubes buries the “calories in/calories out” theory. Taubes sets out the evidence that saturated fat is not the enemy, and is not responsible for heart disease. If you have struggled to lose weight, or are just interested in nutrition, this is a fascinating read.
Dallas & Mellissa Hartwig, It Starts with Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways (2014).
Dave Asprey, Super Human: The Bulletproof Plan to Age Backward and Maybe Even Life Forever (2019).
James Nestor, Breath (2020). This book was so unexpectedly good. Nestor weaves in his own journey to breath better with the entire human history of breathing better and worse. Spoiler alert: It’s all about the nose. Breath through your nose, especially at night.
Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012). Conventional wisdom in education tells us that the the most important thing children need to learn to be successful is reading and math. Tough argues that real education, and truly successful lives, come from first learning the mindsets of grit, conscientiousness, curiosity, and optimism.
Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (2012). If I had read this book the first year of being a mother, I wouldn’t have like it. The first year, I was a textbook attachment parent, and it worked well for both of us. But after awhile, I started looking around for another approach, which I found here. French kids don’t whine, don’t tantrum, eat grown-up food, and entertain themselves. French moms seem happy, not neurotic, still sexy, and (especially close to my heart): well dressed even at the playground. Advice on how to pull this off? I’ll take it. (Also loved her most recent book, There Are No Grown Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story.)
Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Another book on the benefits of living simply and consciously, this one focused on the effect such living has on children. My favorite chapter was the one arguing for not giving kids choices. Parents in charge.
Shefali Tsabary, The Awakened Family: How to Raise Empowered, Resilient and Conscious Children (2017). I will never unsee what I saw as I read this book. Quite simply: It’s not your kids. It’s you. It’s true. Every problem you have with your kids probably has a significant portion to do with you, and some conflict you have yet to resolve with yourself. Seeing this has a positive effect on my parenting, as any criticism of my daughter I new viewed suspiciously, and saw it more as a call to sit down with my journal and explore the unhealed part of myself before trying to lead her to any more conscious ground. It’s a lot of work. But there are no short cuts with parenting anyway, so real progress to not pretend there are.
Neil Strauss, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships. (2018). Whoa! This story is wild. This memoir is Neil’s story of evolving from a philandering, polyamorous asshole-trying-to-be-good, to a truly devoted husband and father. It is a story of healing from the inside out, what work that really requires, and the true partnership that becomes possible as a result.
Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Romantic Love: Romantic Love in an Anti-Romantic Age (1980). Most psychologists dwell on the struggle inherent in romantic love, and the likelihood of such love being mostly deluded projection. Nathaniel Branden, on the other hand, has a refreshingly optimistic focus: the centrality of admiration between two people. (Branden’s own life is fascinating. He spent several years as the protégé and then lover of Ayn Rand. Another great book is his memoir of that experience: My Years with Ayn Rand.)
David Deida, The Way of the Superior Man: A Spiritual Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Women, Work, and Sexual Desire (2006). From the title you’d think this book is for men, and it is, but it’s just as important for women. I first read it in 1999, when I was slogging my way through life as a trial lawyer, dressing in suits every day, eschewing make-up, assuming it was anti-feminist to believe in any real differences between men and women, and generally bored in romantic relationship. This book came along and hit me over the head. I stopped being a trial lawyer. I realized that I had an intensely feminine essence, which I’d been in denial of most of my life, and unless I made room for, I was going to wind up seriously under-expressed. This is no longer the case.
Ester Perel, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (2007). Ester Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist living in New York, addresses the tendency in marriage to merge completely. The problem is that enmeshment kills passion, which needs mystery and uncertainty. Perel has good advice on how to love, and be close, without becoming enmeshed, without giving up all independence, maintaining some separateness, so that the spark that brought two people together survives. See her Valentine’s Day Ted Talk here.
David Schnarch, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships (2009). As I read through these case studies, I mostly thought, “These people should probably get divorced.” And then again and again, I was humbled to see there was so much more possible that they (and I) couldn’t see. A reviewer on Amazon wrote that after 22 years of marriage, she and her husband came to a crossroads. They read and applied this work, and made it though. “My dear partner and I found a way of understanding that has plainly transformed us and the way we are for and with each other. We came so close to losing each other, and the preciousness of what we have instead continues to floor us. The PM approach is not something you pick up a few tips from and set aside… it is life-changing.”
Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008).
Alain de Botton, The Course of Love: A Novel (2018). Alain again! Written as a hybrid novel/romantic love examination, Botton walks us through the journey of falling in love (piece of cake) and maintaining love (not). How normal it is to reach the point where you look at your partner and think, “uh oh, I’ve made a mistake.” And how exalted is the next phase, one of true love, mature love, so much deeper and richer than the puny sparks that set this fire ablaze.
Jason Rosenthal, You Might Want to Marry My Husband (2019). Like 10 million other people, I read Aimee Rosenthal’s Modern Love Essay titled “You Might Want to Marry My Husband.” It was published 10 days before she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 52, just as she and her husband were about to be empty nesters and enjoy every minute of it. This is Jason’s version of their marriage (inspiring) and his grief (devastating), and his brave intention to create something beautiful with the rest of his life. I include it in the “Relationship” section of this list as I think it’s important to hear stories of marriages that really work, as theirs clearly did. (Another book I loved about a happy marriage: Calvin Trillin, About Alice 2006.)
Gerald Powell, Shit the Moon Said: A Story of Sex, Drugs and Ayahuasca (2018). Gerry Powell runs the Ayahuasca healing center Rythmia in Costa Rica. I’ve been. This is Powell’s story from drug addict/horrible person to unlikely, irreverant, crass and lovable spiritual guru.
Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work (2018). A book about how harnessing the power of altered states of consciousness can influence individual performance as well as the future of human potential.
Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (2010). I don’t follow tennis, I don’t play tennis, I don’t even know the rules of tennis. And, this was one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Agassi is just so honest. He is not trying to look good. He’s not trying to set the record straight. He’s just unraveling what happened, trying to understand it as he writes, and is for some reason willing to let that process be witnessed. It’s the honesty, as much as the story (which is also very good) that was so compelling. I couldn’t put it down.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2008). Another that I could not put down. Beah tells of the story of civil war in Sierra Leone, where he was separated from his family at age 12, and then a year later kidnapped for the Sierra Leone army. From 13 – 15 he was on drugs (“brown brown”), carrying an AK-47, and doing horrible things. When he was 15, he fell into the graces of a UNICEF rehabilitation center, and the spell was broken. It is an incredible story of innocence, guilt, and redemption. By the end of the book, I felt close to him, and feel close to him still. I do not know him, but am rooting for him with all my heart.
Roseanne Cash, Composed: A Memoir (2010). I love Johnny Cash. I don’t have a “God Bless Johnny Cash” bumper sticker on my car, but I might get one still. Here is his daughter’s version of his life and hers, her coming-of-age story as a writer, artist and singer. The writing is beautiful, as is her generosity of spirit to all involved.
Claire and Mia Fontaine, Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (2008). This is a true and miraculous tale of the ferocity of a mother’s love, and its capacity for redemption. I felt devastated in the middle. How can this end well? And yet it does. Thank God, it does.
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). A classic. Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl tells the story of his time in a Nazi death camp. He was the only one of his family to survive; his parents, brother, and pregnant wife died. His response was to write this, the manifesto for taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s reaction, regardless of external circumstances. “Everything can be taken from man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (2008). Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a remarkable story to tell, and tells it here beautifully. Her strict Muslim upbringing was characterized by civil war, female circumcision, and brutal beatings. Nevertheless she remained a devout believer until late adolescence, and it is only in the last chapter that she rejects Islam by escaping from a forced marriage and seeking asylum in the Netherlands. It is a story about the courage to defy convention, change one’s mind, and make a new life grounded not in what you’ve been taught, but what you have come to believe.
Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (2009). I do not love hardback books. They are heavy and expensive, and I prefer paperback. Not only did I buy this in hardback and not regret it, I bought two more in hardback, one for my mother and one for a client with an alcoholic sister. Her other two memoirs are about childhood and adolescence. This is her story of adulthood: alcoholism, recovery, and her sincere, irreverent re-embracing of Catholicism after many years away.
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (orig. 1965). Most memoirs focus on people and events. Jung’s memoir is unusual in that it is the story of his relationship with his inner self, his Soul. In the end, he concludes,
“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.”
Caitlan Moran, How to Be a Woman (2012). I can’t remember the last time I have laughed this hard reading a book. Moran is so funny, and then in the next breath, deep and wise. She writes about motherhood beautifully, and treads into the waters of abortion with a candor and poignancy I salute.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012). This is more than the story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s the story of a grieving 26-year-old woman who easily could have spent her life running but decided to face herself instead. (Also great: Tiny Beautiful Things (2012). Cheryl, disguised as Sugar, is a kind of Dear Abbey figure who writes advice with remarkable honesty, transparency, real love and empathy.)
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle: A Memoir (2006). If you think your parents were bad, read this. Her parents were awful. Creatively, eccentrically, awful in a way that is equally amusing and tragic. Walls tells the story with a sweetness and generosity I don’t think I would have. That she survives all this and became the functional, inspiring figure she is today is a miracle.
Life After Death:
What can I say. I’m interested in this topic.
Anita Moorjani, Dying to be Me: My Journey from Cancer to Near Death to True Healing (2012).
Annie Kagan, The Afterlife of Billy Fingers: How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me There’s Life After Death (2013).
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream(1996). In 1997, after graduating from law school and taking the bar exam, my friend Lisa and I traveled through Turkey. In a town called Kas, lying on beach chairs with the Mediterranean stretched out before us, we read this book out loud to each other. I was at the time reeling from certain big decisions I had just made, and If I had known what an ordeal lay ahead of me, I would have been quite daunted. But the lessons of this book helped prepare me: listen to your heart, follow your dreams, pay attention to the signs, and trust that your hearts’ longings were put there for a reason.
Jeffery Eugenies, Middlesex: A Novel (2002).
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel (2011). A powerful, can’t-put-down novel of an ordinary, supremely complex family that unravels completely and then finds its way back together. I read the ending as one of redemption and grace, though not everyone sees it that way.
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (1994). This Norweigen mystery novel tells the story of 14 year-old Sophie, who is on a hunt to discover the sender of her mystery mail. It is a good introduction to the foundations of Western philosophy, though that is not why I liked it. I liked it for its ending, which felt to me like looking at an auto-stereogram) and suddenly seeing a three-dimensional image you didn’t see before. Ironically, it makes a point about the true nature of reality not covered in the history of Western philosophy, more borrowed from Vedantic Hinduism. It is a magical book.
Annie Proulx, Accordian Crimes (1996).
Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (1971).
Irvin Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (2005). Irvin Yalom is a Psychiatry Professor at Stanford, whom I was first introduced to when I was assigned his textbook on Group Therapy. It was strangely good so I set out to learn what else he was up to, and discovered all sorts of great things. This is a novel set in 1880s Vienna, and imagines the relationship and conversations between a physician (Josef Breuer, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis) who is treating a suicidal philosopher, Nietzsche, with a new kind of “talking cure.” (Also great: Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy)
Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall: A Novel (2010). If you love the disastrous history of England under King Henry VIII, this is for you. I cannot explained how sucked into this book I was. It is not an easy read. Several times I flipped back to understand where I was, but also to understand how she got me to care so deeply about these people, Thomas Cromwell in particular, with so little explanation. It is a gory and masterful book.
Louis de Bernieres, Corelli’s Mandolin (1994).