The books the most successful people alive today recommend might surprise you. Elon Musk mentions The Lord of the Rings and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy more than once when listing must-read books.
These books might seem like strange choices, but when you think about it these and similar books start the engine of creative thinking. The technology Tesla uses to manufacture electric vehicles is not new technology. Some of the technology used is 18th century knowledge, even more from the 19th century and early 20th Century. The magic of Elon Musk is applying this knowledge in novel ways. Remember, electric cars came before the internal combustion engine (ICE). The ICE won until Musk built electric vehicles with existing technology that really worked. Then he revolutionized batteries.
Yes, Musk and Company came up with new technologies, usually building off existing technologies. Technologies known for 50 years are now for the first time since, ah, well, Nikola Tesla, being built upon. And the push forward continues. What was once unthinkable is now possible. Tabless batteries are now a reality. And new manufacturing systems are making batteries faster and cheaper.
So how did a kid from South Africa, uprooted to a new home in Canada and later America, do it? In his own word, he was “raised by books”.
It gets even better. Elon Musk is not a rocket scientist, yet he runs a leading space launch company: SpaceX. Once again, old technology is being put to new uses and doing the once unimaginable. When asked the secret, Musk simply stated, “I read books.” When pressed, Musk went on to explain you can become an expert at anything if you read enough books. And Elon is a living example. His claim that he once read 10 hours per day does not seem like an exaggeration.
Bill Gates echoes similar opinions on reading. Gates takes time for what he calls “Think Week”. This is a time where Gates sneaks away to a quite place with a load of books. He finds as many books as possible on an issue he is trying to tackle and immerses himself for a week on the subject. Seven days later he is a much smarter man.
Gates makes time for two Think Weeks per year. Some of the world’s most pressing problems, many thought intractable, get new life on the day after a Gates Think Week.
People are interested in what Bill Gates reads. His Gates Notes’s selections are must-read material. And those are only the books he recommends. There is no doubt he reads many more books than just those recommended.
When Gates was asked if he read the Russian novels he stated he had read them all. Why such strange reading for such a beautiful mind? The Russian novels referred to are the great works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others during the Golden Age of Russian novels. What makes these novels so special? They don’t reveal some great technology to help civilization run smoother, do they?
Like Musk, Gates reads novels that create a spark in the mind. The Russian novels in question are more than mere stories. They reveal something about the human mind, how we think and react to the world around us. The Russian novels tell us something about us; make us feel uncomfortable about something inside us. By looking into the mirror with a new set of eyes, Gates allows his mind to expand to wider horizons. Technology changes; people are still the same animal.
Why do I bring up the reading habits of Elon Musk and Bill Gates before sharing my latest reading recommendations? Because my current list is different from any I recommended in the past. Like Gates, I once read a lot of novels; not so much anymore. Yet, this current list of seven books you should curl up with this winter contains more novels than non-fiction.
There is a good reason for the temporary change in my reading habits. I found some excellent books I knew I had to consume and they happened to be novels. I knew each of these works would educate me equally or better than most non-fiction books I absorbed.
There are a few doorstops in the group so you will be blessed with ample reading material as the weather turns chilly. Each is worth your time. And as always, share your latest finds from the bookshelf in the comments section so other readers and I can enjoy your discovery, too.
Books for Success
The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
It’s hard to go wrong with Dostoevsky. His novels grant you ample time to examine your own inner working. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov commits the perfect murder against an undesirable woman and gets away with it. Then his own mind drives him to madness until he finally confesses his crime.
The Brothers Karamazov dives even deeper into the psyche, examining weighty issues like religious faith and patricide (the killing of your father).
The early part of the book dives deep into Christian faith. The story then focuses Mitya, one of the brothers. Mitya is a troubled man, leading a life of debauchery. He eventually is accused and convicted for the murder of his father. Yet he is innocent. It is his half brother who commits the crime and commits suicide before clearing Mitya in court.
Mitya’s life is shallow. But deep down he is a man of honor. His brother, Alyosha, a monk, helps Mitya find his way to an honorable life, if not to a Christian faith. Alyosha give the Speech at the Stone in the novel’s final pages. It is without a doubt one of the most moving words ever put to print. That short speech is a manifesto for the early retirement, financial independence movement, and it was published nearly 150 years ago!
I picked up a new habit this year. When reading classics, I follow up by borrowing the movie from the library, if available. The Brothers Karamazov is indeed a movie with Yule Brenner and William Shatner (Captain Kirk never looked so young). The movie was a dud. The novel is so rich and detailed, with so much happening, the movie didn’t have a chance. The movie is impossible to follow if you didn’t read the book first and the movie is not true to the book, IMHO. Read the novel instead.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
by: John M. Barry
You know as well as I why I read The Great Influenza. I, like you, want to know how society, the government, the medical community and individuals acted during a time of pandemic in modern times. The Great Influenza provides plenty of details on all this.
What I found most surprising is how similar the response and reaction was to the Spanish Flu and the current pandemic. I checked several times to verify this books was published many years prior to COVID-19. Once again, times change; people don’t.
The Great Influenza is more than a timeline of the Spanish Flu. This book digs into the lives of the people who dealt with the medical disaster unfolding. Many characters could easily blend into our modern news feeds.
Another thing that interested me is how young modern medicine was in the U.S. at the time compared to Europe. It was only the generation experiencing the pandemic that acted in a modern medical manner. The medical dark ages in the U.S. was barely 20 past.
Much of our modern medicine has roots to 1918. There were already vaccines back then and the early hope was a vaccine could solve the Spanish Flu pandemic. It wasn’t to be. Medical researchers also went down a wrong path, convinced the cause of the Spanish Flu was a bacteria; scientists didn’t have microscopes strong enough to see viruses yet. But some medical doctors suspected there was something more to the disease.
The most interesting part of the story was the spread of the Spanish Flu. I wanted to know how disease spread in 1918 compares to the spread of COVID-19 today. The similarities are eerie. Once again, The Great Influenza could be a news post from today. People used the same arguments against masks when it was just as obvious as today that masks slow the spread.
The economy was shut down, just like today with the same results. People found ways to get out and gather. It was better to die than to hunker down for an extended period of time. The name of the disease changes, but the reaction of people is a constant.
You will enjoy reading The Great Influenza. A pandemic from 100 years ago will give valuable insights into our modern scourge and how it might end.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
by: Jordan Ellenberg
How Not to Be Wrong has a certain appeal. Call it a clickbait title if you want, but it really is a book about how not to be wrong versus how to be right, which is not always possible.
I found this the most challenging book of the lot. I took the time to work through the thought process on why certain things are as they are. For example, we all should know the lottery is always a bad idea. Except, it isn’t! There are a few instances where the lottery in the last few decades in the U.S. delivered incredible odds with a virtual guarantee of a massive profit. The information isn’t to encourage you to waste your money on lottery tickets. Instead, it helps you calculate what the real value of a lottery ticket (or any other financial instrument) is and when the lottery officials make a mistake you can average out the expected value with a simple strategy.
What was most interesting to me was the mathematical proof elections don’t always reflect the will of the people in democracies. The more people in the race, the worse it gets. That is why the candidate for each party in the U.S. presidential elections is not usually the real choice of the people. There is no such thing as public opinion, as one chapter title states. Once again I turned to the publication date to make sure this wasn’t preaching about the current election. Nope! Published in 2015.
How Not to Be Wrong takes more time to read as you will want to stop at times and work through the math and logic behind it. Math will not always make you right, but it can make sure you are never wrong. There is a difference.
The Complete Works Of Raymond Chandler
Reading the lifetime’s work of an author is going to take time. Good thing the stories are so darn good.
Raymond Chandler gives you ~2500 pages of engaging reading. If you love noir, as I do, you will find Chandler addicting. Hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s era, with the tough talk and wise cracks had me wanting more when I finished those thousands of pages.
Seven novels — including The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep — one screenplay, numerous essays and a large number of short stories fill these two volumes. (For Amazon purchase here: Volume 1 and Volume 2). With these books in hand you will pray for a snow storm to close the roads this winter.
I watched a few movies from the library on Chandler’s novels. They were actually pretty good and true to the printed story. Check with your library.
The Maltese Falcon
By: Dashiell Hammett
While I enjoyed the descriptive writing of Chandler, I was willing to read another classic in the same genre because I was missing the hard-boiled detective story before I closed the pages on Chandler. The Maltese Falcon is a fast read and an excellent story. (The movie from the library was also good and stayed true to the novel.)
Noir just does something for me. It seems over the top at times with the smart aleck talk and testosterone behavior. I think what is so powerful about these novels is that it is the way we want ourselves to act in the face of danger: with courage, intelligence and no fear.
Novels, done well, can teach as much or more than any non-fiction book. Chandler and Hammett tells us something about ourselves in a way different than Dostoevsky. Yet, powerful understandings all the same.
This time I promise to not give away the plot.
Consider borrowing this one from the library. I like owning many of the books I read and bought this one as well. However, except for the most diehard bibliophile, the library book will do just fine.
Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
By: James Clear
Of all the books on this list, Atomic Habits is a book you need to own. You will read, and re-read, this book again and again.
Every time I ask for great books people have read on this blog’s Facebook group, Atomic Habits always came up. I had no choice at last; I had to read the book my groupies were talking about.
The title is self explanatory. Rather than give a blurb to a number of strategies in the book I will share just one and how it impacted me.
It might be hard for people who follow my work to realize I can procrastinate periodically. A good example of this is during tax season. The hours get long and I get tired. Difficult returns gravitate to the edge of my desk and easier returns get prepared. Returns that I am waiting for more documents on start to age. Before long I believe it will take a lot of time to complete each of those returns. When I finally get desperate (the client is mad) I open the folder and start. And to my surprise it almost always takes less time than anticipated.
While I am not perfect, I have made improvements using James Clear’s advice. He said I should open the file (start the blog post, open the tax file, answer the emails, film the video, on ad nauseum) and just give it two minutes. If it doesn’t work I have permission to put it back away and deal with it later. In all but rare cases, once I start I keep going and the tax return is finished, the client is happy and whatdaya know, I get paid.
The best part of Atomic Habits is the strategies are not hard. It is so simple even a tax guy can do it. You will find value in building habits that support your goals. Therefore, I heartily recommend Atomic Habits for your night stand.
The Plot Against America
By: Philip Roth
The current political climate has brought novels of yesteryear with similarities to today to the forefront. Previously I recommended Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. In a similar vein I recommend The Plot Against America.
The story follows a Jewish family in an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and sides with Germany, Hitler and the Nazis. Each step, as the story unfolds, is thought provoking. Written well before Donald Trump even considered running for president, the action in The Plot Against America can easily have come from this morning’s news feed.
Riveting and chilling. It is impossible not to find your mind wandering to that place where you were that Jewish family or a Charles Lindbergh supporter.
Pulled from the front pages of 1030s newspapers, The Plot Against America could have been a real possibility. And as all the novels is this selection reveal, we all have something to learn if we allow ourselves to look inside our minds.
One spoiler: Charles Lindbergh is shown in such a negative light in this novel I wondered how his descendants received the novel. Lindbergh was a know anti-Semite. There was something chillingly real about the story. It was totally believable. Toward the end of the novel we discover Charles Lindbergh was not the monster we thought he was. He commits the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice for his country which finally allows the U.S. to enter the war against Germany and bring the Allies to victory.
The above selections are a good reading list. Whether you read one, some or all of the suggestions, you will be amply rewarded for the time invested.
A good book never goes to waste. You can learn something from a book, and if you are real lucky, you might learn something about yourself. That makes the world a better place…for you.
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