Had a fun conversation with friend about how in the old days you’d invite your friends over and impress them with your book collection. And how, in today’s digital/library world, the books that mean the most to us often aren’t physically present on our shelves, or we might not be having those we want to impress in our homes :). She was asking me what 10 books would be on my list.
There’s lots of ways to slice a “10 books” list – what are the last 10 books I read? Who do I want to impress now? Or others ways….
These are books that have shaped my life and thinking, from early high school days until very recently. The books I return to again and again, and a short note about why.
Gates of Fire
Gates of Fire tells the story of the 300 Spartan warriors at the battle of Thermopylae. Spoiler alert: they all die. I’ve lived with this book for 20 years and it’s taught me so much about leadership, how to behave under pressure, and being part of a team I love.
I wrote about it here.
Bonus reading: Tides of War by the same author.
A rousing adventure story and a philosophical exploration. A truly unique and inspiring book. A quote:
“Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something ‘discovered’: it is something moulded.”
I first read this book in high school. With its explorations of “What is Quality”, tracing the path of western & eastern philosophies, it set me on the lifelong path of the mind.
William Gibson’s debut novel of cyberspace, computer cowboy jockeys, deadly beautiful women wearing mirror shades, and a reggae spaceship pilot sparked a love affair with computers for me that has continued to this day.
We value what we work for. And man did I work for this. My first three attempts to read it failed. On the fourth, a new world opened to me. Spies and betrayal fascinate me. E.M. Forster famously said, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” – but of course it’s nearly impossible to do one without the other.
What would cause a good man to seemingly betray everything and everyone? A Perfect Spy will take you inside the head and life of Magnus Pym, a spy (and thinly-veiled double for John Le Carré himself), so you will understand.
In the year when my mother died from ALS, and the cacophony of Trump was inescapable, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius centered me and grounded me. My second reading, I read one page every day for a year, as my morning meditation. Every bleeping line has wisdom in it.
“Then what is to be prized? An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to—a clacking of tongues. So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for.“
I wrote more about it here.
From my early days playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school, to reading Beowulf in Old English and the Norse Sagas in Old Icelandic in college, to reading historical fiction to this day, The Lord of The Rings has always been the inspiration. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his review:
“To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”
The well known book reviewer Michael Dirda of the Washington Post famously wrote of Salter: “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”. In a bookstore, I opened the book to a random page, and found:
“I cannot think of it without sadness. I think of the day-long, intimate hours in her apartment with the same record playing over and over, phrases from it like some sort of oath I will know til the day I die.”
Ok. It’s two sentences. My review here.
Speaking of books that will break you heart. Song of the Exile is an extraordinary, powerful, heartbreaking novel. It follows the lives of Keo, a native Hawaiian who burns to play jazz, and Sunny, a Korean/Hawaiian student, as they fall in love, are separated by the tides of World War II, and try to find each other afterwards. Through a series of events Sunny is taken as a comfort woman by the Japanese…. My full review.
It’s hard to explain the allure of this beautiful trilogy by Patricia McKillip. Perhaps it’s that Prince Morgan of Hed is a riddle-master and a wielder of magic harps, not a sword-slinger – at least not at first. Perhaps it’s the hidden identities of those he thought he could trust. Perhaps it’s the winter Morgan spends shape-shifted into a tree in a mountainous forest to hide from a magician seeking him out.
When I truly want to escape to another world, I come back to Hed.
Shogun draws me back every few years. It’s just such an enjoyable historical romp with a cast of unforgettable characters. Blackthorne, the English ship pilot marooned in Japan. Lord Toronaga, the wily Samurai who aims to become Shogun. Mariko-san, Blackthorne’s star-crossed female Samurai lover.
And it’s full of wisdom, especially startup wisdom.