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The 5 most important books I’ve ever read

Asking someone their favorite book is a great way to get to know them; it provides immediate insight as to whether they read for pleasure, and the answer to the question can say a lot. It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about someone based on their favorite book, but I’ve seldom had that experience.

Aside from getting to know someone, the question also serves as a way of surfacing new books to read. I can recall reading a book on a Thursday night at The Sackett after having just seen Argo at Cobble Hill Cinemas about 12 years ago. Back then, I worked Sunday through Thursday, so it was more or less my Friday night. I chatted with the bartender between pages of the book I was reading, and when asked, he told me his favorite book was The Sheltering Sky After reading the book, I gathered that bartender was into existential despair.

Nevertheless, I’ve continued asking people I meet for their favorite books; I’ll also cop to putting “What is your favorite book and why?” in my Hinge profile and having stolen many a recommendation from women who’ve answered, even if we never went on a date.

All of this is to say: I have opinions on books. Defining “best” is difficult for me in this case, as “favorite” is not the same as “best,” and neither is it the same as “most impactful.” My favorite book has been fluid over time, and I hope that continues. But here are the five most important books I’ve read with a bit about why for each.

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing

I didn’t read The Bogleheads Guide to Investing until I was probably 32 years old. It’s a shame I didn’t read it earlier, but to be fair, I was also broke for most of my life until then. I’d spent some time on r/personalfinance in the preceding years and was amazed at how much I’d learned even just from the “Personal income spending” flowchart. That community led me to read the Bogleheads Guide, which is does a beautiful job of breaking down complex financial topics into digestible prose. I read the book in about a week and it changed my life.

More than anything, this book provided me with a sense of calm about money and how to handle it. My parents made OK money when I was a kid, but we weren’t rich, and they didn’t have investments to speak of. My understanding of money came from a working-class mentality and knowing to spend less than I earned. Most of that went into video games and buying gas as a teenager, being broke in college, and then having too much student debt as an adult to act any other way.

The Bogleheads Guide alleviated any concerns I had about how to handle money. It effectively taught me what I needed to know and that I didn’t need to worry about what I didn’t know. Visualizations and explanations demonstrate how compound interest works, and that almost no commercial financial advisor will beat a three-fund portfolio over time makes all other financial advice in the world sound like noise—because it is. I wouldn’t say I’ve got everything figured out financially—far from it—but this book is an easy read and set my life on a better path.

Bullshit Jobs

I read Bullshit Jobs in the fall of 2020. It was an interesting time to read such a book, given that the world was about 6 months into the pandemic, and most people’s relationships with their jobs were impacted in some way or another.

I tell people Bullshit Jobs is both heartening and disheartening at the same time. It made me consider a bunch of concepts related to work that I hadn’t considered before, but more importantly, made me reconsider others that felt settled.

One example: I think teachers are generally underpaid. You don’t have to be friends with one to feel that way, but I have enough friends who teach to say it seems clear. But let’s say the average salary of a public school teacher were $100,000. In all likelihood, that job would start attracting more people who simply wanted to make $100,000 than ever cared about helping kids. There’s likely some inflection point in between, but the greater takeaway is that this book made me re-examine my relationship with work.

As a whole, it made me reflect on the puritanical work ethic instilled in me; when Europeans came to the U.S., they brought with them Puritanism and an ethos that hard work was its own reward because your spoils would come in the afterlife.

Fast forward a few hundred years. I saw my dad’s company chip away at employee compensation and have lived through enough of it myself. I’ve also questioned organized religion. I’m not sold on hard work being rewarded in the afterlife. Maybe that’s shortsighted. But I only know what I can see, and that the puritanical base has led to this capitalist game most of us are forced to play.

Do I Make Myself Clear

Back in 2017, I was rewarded for my hard work at a travel publication with going on a cruise in Eastern Canada in late September. Let’s just say there’s a reason not many people go on cruises in Eastern Canada in late September.

Aside from there not being a ton going on in terms of sights, the time on ship left me quite bored. On the first day, I realized WiFi cost $25 an hour. On the second day, the satellite TV cut out. On the third day, the movies on demand stopped working. That left four days open for reading.

Fortunately, I’d brought a copy of Do I Make Myself Clear, which proved invaluable. I was at a point in my career where my writing had gotten fat—after all, you’re rarely restricted by space on the internet. Reading this made me self-evaluate and become a better editor.

Harry Evans is arguably the greatest newspaper editor ever. His skill at simplifying writing while making it more engaging is the ideal for any editor. I later read Good Times, Bad Times, which chronicled his time at the Times of London and the Sunday Times.

Time moved slowly on the cruise ship, but I was fortunate to have Sir Harry as a companion.

The Selfish Gene

After rewatching The Smartest Guys in the Room, I fell into a Wikipedia hole wanting to know more. On that journey, I stumbled into the fact that Jeff Skilling, the architect of the Enron scandal, based his entire business philosophy on The Selfish Gene. I’d never heard of the book and was intrigued by the idea that someone could base his entire life on one book (Bible excepted).

It’s not for everyone, but The Selfish Gene didn’t disappoint; plenty of the book is dry. It is a science book, after all. But there’s plenty reason the book has been a best-seller since its release nearly 50 years ago. It’s a treatise on genomics before DNA was fully sequenced. But the book is so much more than that. And while I have no aspirations of engineering a corporate scandal, The Selfish Gene wormed its way into my brain in ways I didn’t expect.

As Matt Ridley wrote in Nature, “The gene-centred view of evolution that Dawkins championed and crystallized is now central both to evolutionary theorizing and to lay commentaries on natural history such as wildlife documentaries. A bird or a bee risks its life and health to bring its offspring into the world not to help itself, and certainly not to help its species — the prevailing, lazy thinking of the 1960s, even among luminaries of evolution such as Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz — but (unconsciously) so that its genes go on. Genes that cause birds and bees to breed survive at the expense of other genes. No other explanation makes sense, although some insist that there are other ways to tell the story (see K. Laland et al. Nature 514, 161–164; 2014).”

That may sound dry but no review can do the book justice. I found myself engrossed in a book about how and why organisms pass on their genetic material as I read it during lunch breaks and on my commutes to and from work. The most surprising part of the book, though, is that Dawkins coined the idea of a meme—in 1976:

Are there any good reasons for supposing our own species to be unique? I believe the answer is yes. Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: ‘culture’. I use the word not in its snobbish sense, but as a scientist uses it. Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution. Geoffrey Chaucer could not hold a conversation with a modern Englishman, even though they are linked to each other by an unbroken chain of some twenty generations of Englishmen, each of whom could speak to his immediate neighbours in the chain as a son speaks to his father. Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

That continues:

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.* If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

I think about this book a lot.

The Culture of Time and Space

In the spring quarter of my senior year of college, I signed up for a class before 11 a.m. for the first time in three years. The class was on the history of Modernism, which I’d taken a particular interest in. At the time, I was leaning toward getting a PhD, likely in Spanish literature. That didn’t pan out, but a good deal of what I learned in that class stuck with me.

Unbeknownst to me at registration, the professor who taught this course at Ohio State also wrote the textbook we used, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918. While that might seem like a racket to some, for me, it was a stroke of luck. Professor Stephen Kern was self-deprecating and humble about his knowledge and experience, telling the class that he lucked out by writing this book when he did, and that so many of his colleagues in the history department and field studied German military history. He told us that getting a second edition from Harvard University Press was a big deal. He knew what buttons to push with a class full of glassy-eyed 20-somethings.

Classroom manner aside, Kern’s vision in the book interweaves art, technology and literature in multifaceted ways that made me see how crucial the Modernist period was for creating Western society as it is today. I haven’t read the book in more than 15 years, but several parts still live inside me. Again, the sign of a good book. One of those is this analogy to the speed of humans and communication. My paraphrase:

First, humans walked. Then they ran. Then they domesticated horses. Then came the steam engine. Then cars. Then airplanes. Then rocket ships. And so much of locomotive speed has come in only the last 150 years at ever-increasing speeds.

Compare that to modes of communication. First, we talked. Then we wrote on caves. Then tablets. Then papyrus. Then the printing press. Then typewriters. Then personal computers. Then the internet. Then social media. The amount of information we can share doubles at ever-faster rates.

I think of both of these evolutions as graphs approaching infinity; ever-reaching upward at steeper slopes. It provides a strange comfort to me when I think of how overwhelming modernity is (in the lowercase sense), and that people have probably always felt overwhelmed as they grow older. The world will seemingly always move faster and faster, and your memories are of slower times in the past. That’s pure nostalgia and can never be revisited.

And here I am, revisiting a book I read in 2007. The thing is, it lives inside me. All of these books do. And that’s the magic of good books.

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