A Brief Introduction

So, first and foremost, this isn’t a book review. Not really, anyway. I recently started reading fervently again, continuing a love that I grew apart from- quite ironically- during university. Through analysis comes deeper understanding, and my hope is that by putting my thoughts in writing I’ll gain a deeper knowledge not just of the books I’ve read, but on the impact that they have had on me. If you have any book recommendations, please send them to me.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

by Donald Robertson

Among the most meaningful books of my adult life. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor provided my first real exposure to the philosophy of Stoicism and the science of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The book chronicled the life of Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and one of the last great Roman emperors.

Stoicism is one of the more accessible schools of philosophy, and an introduction is not really required to grasp the main points from the most popular Stoic texts. Despite this, How to Think Like A Roman Emperor provides a tremendous amount of value by digging into the main principles of Stoicism, the founders and thought leaders of the movement, and the ways in which Marcus Aurelius lived in accordance with his Stoic ideals. These three narratives were skillfully interwoven and concisely explained, leaving me with a solid foundation of Stoic philosphy and history.

At its core, Stoicism is a practicable philosophy. The application of Stoic ideals are meant to promote a healthier mental state and more principled decision making, similar to Cognitive Behavior Therapy which is at least partially derived from Stoicism. By understanding the main principles of Stoicism and how a great Stoic leader applied them throughout his life, a watered down version of the philosophy could be adopted by practically anyone.

Robertson is not the first person to discuss Stoicism in this way. In his books The Obstacle is the Way and  The Daily Stoic, pop-philosophy author Ryan Holiday takes a similar approach to introduce an ancient philosophical school to a modern audience. While these books provide a fantastic base-level understanding of Stoicism, they do not adequately convey the full meaning behind the texts of Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca. To fully understand the philosophy, much more reading is needed. 

This is where the brilliance of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor shines. Though Stoic literature is relatively easy to read, the context provided by Robertson makes the theses more cogent and the overall writings more impactful. I made connections between the important Stoic texts as I read them, armed with an understanding of the lives of the philosophers and how the philosophy fit into the greater philosophical context of the Hellenistic schools.

Read this book. Read this book for a toe-in-the-water introduction to philosophy. Read this book to dispel the myth that philosophy is difficult to understand or impracticable in modern life. Read this book to gain a better grasp on your mental health.

Just read this book.

Socrates used to say that death is like some prankster in a scary mask, dressed as a bogeyman to frighten small children. The wise man carefully removes the mask and, looking behind it, he finds nothing worth fearing.

Designing the Mind

by Ryan Bush

What was expected to be an alternative to Stoicism, CBT, and meditation ended up being an endorsement of each. Through modern tech-speak popular principles from eastern and western philosophies are synthesized into a new framework for self-optimization. Some ideas were novel and compelling- most were derivatives of practices and thought processes I was already familiar with.

I am conflicted about this book. On one hand, the main point- that we have the tools at our disposal to create better lives for ourselves- is adequately reasoned and defended. On the other hand, Bush didn’t really bring anything new to the table. Designing the Mind read like a totally new tech-based mental framework, without providing anything of his own besides modern programming terminology.

My perception of this book is likely skewed from having read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor first. Had the order been reversed, this book may have been perspective-shattering. Despite lacking many new takeaways, Bush did succeed in reinforcing some strategies for mindfulness and discipline. Still, the delivery quickly got on my nerves. We get it, the mind is like software. And with software you can re-write lines of code to perform intended functions in better, more efficient ways. This point is reiterated tirelessly throughout the book, sometimes by itself and sometimes through a third-party teaching.  Profound teachings of Buddhists, philosphers, or scientists read as forced or contrived after going through the tech-speak filter. While there is still some meaning in the teachings, it reads as silly compared to the source material.

The greatest benefit provided by Designing the Mind was an introduction to Vipassana meditation. I had never tried meditation previously, and this book finally convinced me to give it a go. Lifechanging? Not necessarily, but certainly deeply impactful. Between Vipassana, lovingkindness meditation, and a semi-regular yoga practice I was able to reach a level of mental clarity that I hadn’t previously experienced.

For someone looking for an easy to read self-help book to build better habits, this is a great choice. Though not nearly the equal to the sum of it’s inspirations, Designing the Mind is a good fit for your tech-bro-on-the-go looking to optimize his life in as few words as possible while providing the ultimate stroke to his ego. It is not quite my cup of tea, but to each their own.

Metacognition and the closely related mindfulness allow us to step outside of our software and analyze it, and vipassana meditation is one of the best methods for cultivating these qualities.

Team Human

by Douglas Rushkoff

Few books attempt to solve the world’s problems, and most that try fail miserably in coming close to anything actionable. This books is different.

Though it describes the steep slope of societal degradation that we continue to slide down, Team Human is a story of hope and optimism much more than pessimism. We have very real problems that seem insurmountable, but in the course of human history we have showed that it is precisely times like these that real progress is made.

I was first exposed to Rushkoff’s ideas during his appearance on the Duncan Trussel Family Hour. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was on MIT’s list of the top 10 most influential intellectuals in the world. I expected an old soft-spoken scholar, sharp and authoritative, probably British. What I heard was quite the opposite- an unpretentious, easygoing guy who really did walk the walk of his philosophy. His ideas resonated with me, and less than an hour after listening to his episode I had bought the book on Kindle and started reading.

Team Human is the rejection of the structures and systems that tear us apart, and an acceptance and celebration of the forces that bring us together. The understanding that different human factions do not exist in any real capacity, and that there is only one legitimate team- Team Human- that must prevail if our civilization is to continue on the right path. While this may sound like new age hippie nonsense, it is presented in a thoroughly reasoned way that challenges our understanding of human institutions- our money, media, education system, and so much more. We created these systems to work for us, though we ultimately ended up working for the systems themselves.

This issue of human inventions growing to end up at cross purposes of their original intentions is a central theme of Team Human. As Rushkoff puts it, “the figure becomes the ground”, meaning the system that were created to serve humans grow into institutions that require humans to serve them. 

Rushkoff puts into words a problem that everyone is aware of but can’t quite put their finger on, and provides a solution that is almost universally agreeable to all walks of life. An absolutely must-read book for anyone that cares about building a better future. 

To have autonomy without interdependency leads to isolation or narcissism. To have interdependency with no autonomy stunts our psychological growth. Healthy people live in social groups that have learned to balance or, better, marry these two imperatives.

Siddharta

by Herman Hesse

A tale so expertly crafted it could have only come from the pen of Herman Hesse. Siddharta chronicles the path of Siddharta Gautama on his way to reaching enlightenment. First a Brahmin, then an ascetic, next a businessman, and finally a riverman. Over the course of this journey, a lifetime of experiences deeply contemplated culminates in a cosmic realization.

I started reading this book shortly after completing a re-read of the classic Journey to the East. Written in similar prose but with a significantly less abstract story, Siddharta explores different life paths and where they ultimately lead. Though many people will try to sell their version of enlightenment, it is important to recognize the fallacies in their logic and the hypocrisies in their actions. The truth must be sought, even as we are pitched snake oil from the well-meaning but misled.

Siddharta was a deceptively easy read, short enough to be completed in a few days and read again fully within a week. For maximum impact, I’d recommend completing it twice, or just reading it once slowly and intentionally, not hesitating to read back over dense paragraphs. 

I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.

Better Small Talk

by Patrick King

Well, they can’t all be winners. Better Small Talk was a great concept poorly executed, failing to adequately convey the why behind better conversation. The book was written as a set of scenarios with call-and-response, as well as general guidelines for promoting more meaningful dialogue and avoiding awkward silences.

Though generally unhelpful and at times potentially harmful (some examples were laughably inappropriate in nearly all social situations) there was some value that could be derived. All of the recommendations, of which there were many, could be extrapolated to one of a small handful of personal traits or behaviors that do impact the gift of gab.

I believe it is impossible to follow a few rules and simply “become” a better conversationalist. Instead, behavior and perspective must be changed in a way that promotes connection. Those that live exciting lives have more to talk about, making talking easier. Along the same lines, those that care about what others say are easy to talk to and thus good conversationalists.

The path to better small talk is much less linear than this book would lead us to believe. Still, King provides ample advice on how to position yourself well for better conversation. Actionable in it’s own right? No, not at all. Helpful to pinpoint personal shortcomings that lead to poor conversation? Yes, absolutely.

What this book does best is connect quality of life with conversational acumen. Humans are social creatures, requiring deep connections with one another to lead fulfilling lives. Recognizing the reasons behind our social shortcomings can lead us to a richer, more meaningful existence.

They found a clear correlation between substantive and deep discussions and greater well-being and happiness. It's something you've probably suspected or even felt before, but being vulnerable and open with others is a deeply satisfying activity on many levels.

Meditations

by Marcus Aurelius

A classic Stoic text, made all the more meaningful by the context provided by Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Meditations is a personal journal kept by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, not originally intended for anything more than introspection by the author. While some sections read as other philosophical texts do, most chapters are personal and refreshingly open. Meditations begins by listing important people in the life and development of the Roman, detailing the contributions that each made to his development. Much of the text has a similar introspective quality, reading as if you are following along with Marcus through his life, reading how he manages hardship, success, life, and death.

Through the many events referenced throughout the period the book was written (presumably over much of Aurelius’ life) there is a consistent lens used to interpret them. The ultimate goal is to live a virtuous life, and a virtuous life is one that is lived in accordance with nature and reason. Thereby, all situations should be approached rationally, and the course of action must be that which is most virtuous and most in accordance with the natural order.

Historically, Meditations provides a rare glimpse into the mind of what many historians consider to be the last great Roman emperor. Politically, the book provides an example of an archetypal leader with relationship and emotional management strategies that still prove effective today. Philosophically, it is one of the most important Stoic texts and depicts Stoic philosophy in action better than any other existing text. Whatever your interest, there is likely value to be gained from reading Meditations.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Discourses & Enchiridion

by Epictetus

Two very similar topics with drastically different deliveries. Discourses is the seminal work of arguably the most renowned Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, and Enchiridion (or ‘The Manual’ for those that don’t speak Latin) is effectively the SparkNotes version authored by the same man. Both are very much worth a read, and I would recommend starting with Discourses to get the full scope of Epictetus’ ideas before having the main points reiterated directly in Enchiridion.

Of all of the Stoic texts I read in 2021, Enchiridion resonated with me the most. For one, it was the most applicable- Discourses discusses Stoic metaphysics and logic at length, which while very interesting, does not provide many direct takeaways. Meditations did have a focus on ethics, but was a bit too personal to the author (for good reason, considering it was his journal). Enchiridion provides the meat of practical Stoicism, creating a literal manual for how to live a good life based on Stoic ethics. Easy to read and concise, it can be consumed over the course of a few days without any background needed on Stoicism.

To clarify, Enchiridion was not written by Epictetus, but was  a summary of Discourses and the teachings of Epictetus. It was written by Arrian of Nicomedia, a pupil of Epictetus. Though it is often attributed to Epictetus and is formally called The Enchidion of Epictetus, Epictetus was not in fact the author.

It is the action of an uneducated man to blame others for his own misfortune; but a man who enters education of this kind, will blame himself; and a man perfected, will blame neither himself or others.

On the Shortness of Life

by Seneca the Younger

A powerful short essay (less than 100 pages) on how to live a meaningful life given the constraints of our mortality. Seneca proposes that the ultimate resource is time, and that we paradoxically hoarde earthly possessions while being cavalier with what we allow to take up what should be cherished most.

Seneca doesn’t believe that our time is limited, but instead that we only use our time to a fraction of its full potential. As he says, ““It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” Part of this wastefulness, Seneca argues, is due to a failure to recognize our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. By being more aware of the certainty of death, we can more fully live.

While many arguments in this book are deeply impactful, others are a bit silly. Seneca reiterates a main Stoic theme of living in accordance with nature and focusing on needs rather than vices. Continuing to argue for the actions of a life well lived, Seneca states that the practice of philosophy is paramount to “the good life”. Personally, I’m not so sure about that. Considering Seneca’s position as a philosopher living under the murderous Emperor Nero that would later force Seneca to commit suicide, it makes sense why he would promote philosophy as the path to the best lived life.

Overall, On the Shortness of Life is a compelling short read that is sure to spark some manner of introspection. Everyone is equally guilty of letting life pass them by, and everyone is equally capable of taking steps to correct that error. Though not as powerful as the Enchiridion, On the Shortness of Life is well worth a few hours’ investment to better understand what a few hours is truly worth.

They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.

The Art of Saying No

by Damon Zahariades

What a happy accident that I found this book in such close proximity to On the Shortness of Life.

I don’t really mind saying no. I try to help out as much as possible when I can, but I’m usually pretty good at balancing my priorities. The Art of Saying No seems to focus on people pleasers, helping them to realize that it isn’t their job to help out all the time, and they have no reason to feel bad for denying someone’s request. Though I don’t really fit the target audience for this book, it did offer up an interesting perspective on the effect saying no has on us.

Saying no sucks. It hurts the person requesting, and it hurts the person requested. Understanding how this feeling impacts our decision making can help us make more impartial decisions on when to say yes and when to say no. Furthermore, our relationships are impacted by how we respond to requests for help.

The Art of Saying No is probably a fantastic book for… people that struggle to say no. If you don’t have such a problem, it’s still worth a read to gain a better understanding of the forces at play when we say no and how our responses are perceived. How the impact of saying no is perceived given delivery and timing is also interestingly described. For example, though the denier stalls due to feelings of guilt, they are just hurting the requestor more by not being upfront about their inability to help. That wasted time could’ve been spent finding someone else or doing it themselves- generally, the sooner the response is given the better for everyone involved. Though my behavior did not change much from reading this book, my response time to requests became much shorter.

I think the whole topic can be summed up succinctly; if you can, say yes, if you can’t, say no. Don’t complicate the matter, don’t make excuses, don’t apologize. Did I need a book to teach me this? Perhaps not, but it sure did drive the point home.

We have a limited number of hours to play with each day. That means every time we say yes to someone, we’re saying no to someone or something else.

The Coddling of the American Mind

by G. Lukianoff and J. Haidt

It takes a tremendous amount of tact to pull off this ambitious of a book without serious blowback. Lukianoff and Haidt pull no punches in this incisive exploration of the American education system. Leaving little room for rebuttal, they back up their arguments with ample research and succeed in painting a picture of just what went wrong in American higher education and upper class family life. Most important of all, they provide a framework for how we can get back on track.

The book begins with a fictional hiking trip to Greece where the authors meet the Oracle of Koalemos. This fictional holy man teaches them the three truths- “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”, “always trust your feelings”, and “life is a battle between good people and evil people”. If you’re thinking, “wow, that doesn’t sound remotely correct”, congratulations, you’re right. The authors proceed in explaining these “Three Great Untruths”, tackling the pervasiveness of each throughout our homes, school systems, and universities. Despite the seriousness and at times overtly depressing nature of the subject matter, the authors inject humor throughout, making it feel like a less sobering read. 

Perhaps the most cogent argument for abandoning these Great Untruths is the effect they have on the believer. Though the ideas were taught to students in an effort to protect them, they often have the opposite effect- each belief correlates with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Fixing these false perceptions isn’t just needed for societal good- it’s a human rights issue that threatens our children.

If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'brien

I’ve owned The Things They Carried for years but just never quite got around to reading it. As soon as I bothered opening it up and flicking through the first few pages, I was hooked. The narrative that O’Brien weaves pulls on your heartstrings, bringing you in to the experience and conveying the complex weight that war carries.

As a civilian, it’s hard to understand what wartime soldiers go through. As a wartime soldier, it’s hard to process your experiences. The Things They Carried provides a nuanced look at the reality of war- the companionship, the hatred, the fear, the responsibility, the shame, all of it. Derided as “vulgar” and “complete garbage trash” by suburbanites that haven’t seen the outside of their gated communities, this book presents a clear picture of the blurriness of war for those willing to view it.

The “reality” of war is also examined as a false concept. Reality in a narrative is secondary to the subjective truth of what an experience means to the storyteller. Whatever actually happened takes a backseat to the thoughts, feelings, and lasting impact that the event provided. Maybe there was some truth in the details, and maybe the narrative was compelling, but that is not where the meaning lies.  O’Brien explores this concept both in the stories he shares from his fictional war buddies and through his fictional inner turmoil deciding what to leave in, leave out, or change in his book.

What is war? War is hell. War is complicated. War is life-changing. War is life ending. War is permanent. War is an enigma, explored and dissected in great length by O’Brien over the course of 20 interrelated short stories, each more profound than the last. 

Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference- a powerful, implacable beauty- and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.

The Accidental President

by AJ Baime

Like finding a Monet at a Goodwill. I entered into this book with no real expectations, but left amazed at the roller coaster ride that was the last year of Harry Truman’s life pre-presidency, and the first four months after he took control of the oval office.

First and foremost, he wasn’t supposed to be there. Making his way to the national political stage was largely accidental, and finding his way to the Democratic ticket with FDR was nothing short of miraculous. A few short years previous and he had zero political experience, minimal political ambitions, and next to no money. What little experience he did have was marred by a relationship with a shady political machine boss that would wind up in prison. Yet, he persisted- largely against the better wishes of his own mother, his wife, and even himself on multiple occasions.

How he became president was odd enough, but it was nothing compared to his first few months in office. Following the death of FDR, Truman realized just how much was going on behind the scenes that he was never made privvy to. Immediately after taking control of the White House, Truman oversaw the completion of the atomic bomb, the death of Hitler and surrender of the Nazis, and negotiations with the Big Three at Potsdam that would alter the course of history for decades to come.

Through all of this, Truman was in shock at how he came to be in such a position in the first place. His private writings disclose the immense pressure and anxiety that he kept behind closed doors. Still, he led with dignity and poise, a shining example of how an ordinary man can rise to extraordinary circumstances. 

My main takeaway from The Accidental President was the ultimate authority of fate to guide us to where we need to go. As a poor 27 year old farmer named Harry Truman once said, “I’ve always had a sneakin’ notion that someday maybe I’d amount to something. I doubt it now though like everything.”

He raised my brother and myself to believe that honor is worth more than money. And that's the reason we never got rich.

The Art of War

by Sun Tzu

A great book for military tacticians, military historians, and leaders in any walk of life. The version I read was the Bob Sutton adaptation on the Dr. Lionel Giles translation, an edition designed for English speakers with little knowledge of Chinese language but an appreciation of Chinese history. The actual Sun Tzu text comprised only about 20-30 percent of the book, with the remainder being supplemental notes.

I knew that this version was note-heavy, but I did not anticipate just how overbearing the notes would be. To read The Art of War is to read The Art of War, but this was another beast entirely- not necessarily bad, but certainly taking away from the original intention of the text. Through many sections, long stories are added to provide examples of military successes that used the principles described. Most refer back to ancient China, while others pull from US and English military history. The text itself is also heavily scrutinized, both in terms of possible alternative translations and sections that may not have originated with Sun Tzu at all. Changes in writing style, odd chapter structuring, and contraditions are pointed out and analyzed.

I believe that this translation is a fantastic second reading of The Art of War. Starting with the base translation with some footnotes would allow one to understand the text itself before diving into the weeds with the Dr. Giles translation. While the notes provided are extraordinarily comprehensive, they defy their intended purpose to provide a more thorough understanding of the text to anyone that isn’t already familiar with the writing. 

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.