Reading is one of the first things to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, so in 2016 I set a goal for myself to read 52 books a year. My kindle is packed with books from over the years. Everything from business books I’ve wanted to read, to travel books, to gifts from friends. And there’s a lot in between all that too. There is no rhyme or reason to the selection, nor the order. Some of these are classics that many read in high school (that I missed while reading other classics that many read in high school). Others are business and self-help books that I’ve thought might help me in my work and personal life. The goal of this personal 52 books challenge was to actually act on the stack of books I have started piling up over the years.
In general, I am reading four books per month. Each month I aim for: one travel or development book, one personal growth book, one I’ve had on my reading list for years, and one that was recommended or given to me. I also read a romance novel about once a week (that’s my guilty pleasure!). I am not counting the romance novels, but I read between 4-7 of those a month. :)
This is the running tally of what I’ve read. Click on the book name and it jumps down to a summary, ideas I pulled from it, and my favorite quotes from the book.
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery
- Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
- Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
- Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
- Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
- How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan M. Katz
- Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
- I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like by Mardy Grothe
- Charity Case by Dan Pallotta
- Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert
- Rising Strong by Brené Brown
- Born For This by Chris Guillebeau
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Little Princes by Conor Grennan
- Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by H.H. Dalai Lama
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
- No One Wants to Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield
- Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks by Nicholas Christakis
- What Should We Be Worried About by John Brockman
- Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin
- River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- The Art of Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
- Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone
- Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
- 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
- Brain Rules by John Medina
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Not the lightest way to start out my New Year, but I am so glad I decided to start the year with this read. So much of what Frankl has to say about purpose and meaning in life has been reflected in other readings too. I see nuances of his ideas in other articles and books each day since. This was assigned reading in 9th grade and I skipped it. I’ve always felt guilty. That guilt only multiplied once I read it. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps in WWII; he also happened to be a neurologist and psychologist before he went into the camps. Upon leaving, he used the clarity he had gained from his experiences to write Man’s Search for Meaning. His core idea is that feeling like you have a meaning and something clearly identifiable to live for is a key part of the human experience. What a worthy read. Here are some highlights that I’ve been chewing on for a while.
“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” I loved the simplicity of showing how focusing outward helps us becoming stronger. Though I volunteer often, it’s a helpful reminder that the daily gratitudes and the focus on volunteering both of deeper psychological benefits too.
“Most important, he realized that, no matter what happened, he retained the freedom to choose how to respond to his suffering.” Yes. This sentiment reminded me so much of my Vipassana course. A core idea of the meditation is to learn how to control your response to suffering.
2. The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
What a great book. And I read this simultaneously with Man’s Search for Meaning. Between the two it was interesting to see how each related their experiences and research on happiness. Weiner is specifically focused on how cultures and nations create and experience happiness. Frankl on the other hand looks at happiness through the byproduct of creating meaning in one’s life. Together, the two perspectives were fascinating.
“We want to achieve our happiness and not just experience it. Perhaps we even want to experience unhappiness, or at least leave open the possibility of unhappiness, in order to truly appreciate happiness.”
“Humans, even nomadic ones, need a sense of home. Home need not be one place or any place at all, but every home has two essential elements: a sense of community and, even more important, a history.” I’m in my eighth year of travel, and this struck a chord. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a strong sense of home. I spent 2015 trying on homes, looking for a place that had a community and that also pulled me to set up shop. I’m still look, but I know it unsettles me deep in my brain to never have a landing spot I can call home.
“If you want to be happy, put great effort into living a virtuous life and expect nothing, absolutely nothing. Divorce your actions from their results, and happiness will flow like oil.”
“Necessity may be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection.” This reminds me so much of Nelson Mandela’s quote: “There is little to be said in favour of poverty, but it was often an incubator of true friendship. Many people will appear to befriend you when you are wealthy, but precious few will do the same when you are poor. If wealth is a magnet, poverty is a kind of repellent. Yet poverty often brings out the true generosity in others.” I think about this a lot and I’ve seen pieces of it play out in my life in the oddest of ways. I grew up relatively poor. We had food and secondhand clothes, so I won’t compare myself to those who struggle more, but there was an urgency to the interdependence between my siblings. As an adult, when I play in other circles — wealthy circles of friends — I feel out of my league. There are games and dynamics that just don’t have room to exist when so much of your life is focused on procuring necessities. I read a piece about the struggles scholarship students have when they attend private schools. The struggle to appear middle class goes so far beyond money. Somehow, and I haven’t yet worked out how, I see there are similar elements at play in these ideas. They are interconnected.
“Part of positive psychology is about being positive, but sometimes laughter and clowns are not appropriate. Some people don’t want to be happy, and that’s okay. They want meaningful lives, and those are not always the same as happy lives.” Intriguing distinction. I have found great sadness in the volunteer work I do; encountering the suffering and facing the cruelty in the world doesn’t bring me happiness, but working for change has brought meaning to my life. Weiner and Frankl seem to agree that this might be the most important part of feeling a life well-lived.
3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery
Most people read this book earlier in life, but it was always one that I just never took the time to sit and read. It’s a fast read, just one or two sittings. There are nuggets of wisdom throughout. It’s a light but deep read at the same time. Perhaps more than anything, I loved the whimsy of the story and how it progressed. It’s a beautifully written book. I can only imagine more so in the native French. Only surrounded by the beautiful poetry of the story do the quotes come alive.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world… You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
4. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
I have read some of Brene’s other works and I deeply enjoy the depth and clarity of her writing.
“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.” I have a problem with perfection; I fear so much the idea of failing publicly and this book was a long-read on why that tactic has failed me over the years.
“When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts. From my research with families, schools, and organizations, it’s clear that shame-resilient cultures nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback. These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.” This is the core of the struggle against failure. I look back (and to the current) and see countless instances I chose the less vulnerable path, purely from a fear of publicly failing at something. It’s not a comfortable lens through which to see many of my big life decisions. She writes “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.”
“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” Yes. I use this idea within my advocacy work for grassroots tourism. We are here to make connections. As travelers, it’s by finding ways to deeply connect to the people within a new culture that we leave with lasting, deep memories. Only through connection with a people and culture do we cultivate the empathy that so many claim travel builds.
5. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
Taleb’s core idea is that building antifragility into our lives at every level — economic, political, personal — should be our ultimate goal. It’s only by building systems that actually thrive on instability that we have relative safety. It’s an intriguing concept, though at times the author stays on an idea for longer than necessary. But I found myself interested enough to stay with it. I super dig this idea and how it forced my brain to rewrite some narratives I took as fact.
6. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Another one I somehow skipped reading in grade school. It’s lyrical and poetic and a quick read.
“Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish.” A reminder that the comparison games serves none. As a writer, I look to my doctor friends, and who work for the U.N, and I struggle not to measure my worth against them. But that serves none of us. I am not sure what I give to the world, but comparing it to the gifts others bring never makes me feel very good.
“It’s a beautiful life you have chosen for yourself,” the passenger spoke. “It must be beautiful to live by this water every day and to cruise on it.” With a smile, the man at the oar moved from side to side: “It is beautiful, sir, it is as you say. But isn’t every life, isn’t every work beautiful?”
“Everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me.”
“I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.”
7. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed is among my favorite authors. This is a bit of a cheat because I parceled this book out over the course of many months. Instead of binge-reading, I allowed myself a few of her entries each night. This book is a collection of Strayed’s advice columns for the Rumpus. They are poetic, beautiful, and deeply profound. I find perspectives on so many “big issues” that I pull from and think over after I read her advice.
“The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. ” I lost my brother ten years ago. It was a long and dark path to get to this point — the point where I agree with Strayed. Losing my brother gave me perspectives and a journey to healing that forever changed how I experience the world. I wish he hadn’t died. But, in death he gave me a depth of grief and profound sadness I had never known. His death forever colored my world.
“The urge to help seemed to have overpowered the desire to do so thoughtfully.”
“The island, in good times and bad, is not a place to which you adapt. It rewires you. To cope and not be torched by its energy, you have to change the way you think and feel and see the things around you. Even the illogic has a rhythm to get used to. But there’s a limit to understanding. I had thought I’d known Haiti before the quake struck; I had thought I’d learned postquake Haiti when the epidemic hit; I had thought I could predict the direction of things when the election went sour. I had no idea. Haiti, like life, does not care what you want from it.”
9. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
This book made the rounds of recommendations for females over the past couple of years, so I decided to give it a read. I wasn’t very impressed with the synthesization of information. At times, I paused to make sure I wasn’t falling into the trap Sandberg points to throughout — namely that successful women are less likeable. I gave it a lot of thought and just concluded that I didn’t like the book, and I wasn’t her target audience at all. I’ve never worked in a corporation and have no desire to lead in the way she described. I respect Sheryl’s accomplishments, but as a self-employed freelancer quite happy with my position, I found very little that I related to in the book.
10. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
“When we allow ourselves to become culturally conditioned to believe that we are not enough and that we don’t make enough or have enough, it damages our soul.”
“The question is, does our _______________ (eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using _____________ to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?”
“When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy. In fact, addiction research shows us that an intensely positive experience is as likely to cause relapse as an intensely painful experience.”
“Whether we’re overcoming adversity, surviving trauma, or dealing with stress and anxiety, having a sense of purpose, meaning, and perspective in our lives allows us to develop understanding and move forward. Without purpose, meaning, and perspective, it is easy to lose hope, numb our emotions, or become overwhelmed by our circumstances. We feel reduced, less capable, and lost in the face of struggle. The heart of spirituality is connection. When we believe in that inextricable connection, we don’t feel alone.”
11. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
“Only contingent rewards—if you do this, then you’ll get that—had the negative effect. Why? “If-then” rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy.”
“What makes this response interesting for our purposes is that the same basic physiological process—this particular brain chemical surging to this particular part of the brain—is what happens in addiction. The mechanism of most addictive drugs is to send a fusillade of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens. The feeling delights, then dissipates, then demands another dose. In other words, if we watch how people’s brains respond, promising them monetary rewards and giving them cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamines look disturbingly similar.”
“Even in high-poverty non-Western locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives.”
“Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people—not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied—hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”
“In 1962, Clare Boothe Luce, one of the first women to serve in the U.S. Congress, offered some advice to President John F. Kennedy. “A great man,” she told him, “is one sentence.” Abraham Lincoln’s sentence was: “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.” Franklin Roosevelt’s was: “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped us win a world war.” Luce feared that Kennedy’s attention was so splintered among different priorities that his sentence risked becoming a muddled paragraph.”
12. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
“The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.”
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”
“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.”
“I left his room because, and only because, we had said all we could say. The unsaid words pushed roughly against the thoughts that we had no craft to verbalize, and crowded the room to uneasiness.”
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.”
13. Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
“Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.”
“Access is by invitation only, so you have to know an existing user. Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable.”
“Rather than just going for a catchy message, consider the context. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience.”
“Awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself. Awe expands one’s frame of reference and drives self-transcendence.”
“Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask “Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea, but the emotion behind it.”
“When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action. On the positive side, excite people or inspire them by showing them how they can make a difference. On the negative side, make people mad, not sad. Make sure the polar bear story gets them fired up.”
“Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings.”
“Social Currency: We share things that make us look good. Triggers: Top of mind, tip of tongue. Emotion: When we care, we share. Public: Built to show, built to grow. Practical Value: News you can use. Stories: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. “
14. I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like by Mardy Grothe
This book turned out to be a collection of quotes. Which is cool, I like quotes. But, because I read things on Kindle, I hadn’t flipped through the book to see that it wasn’t a history of metaphor in language like I had thought. That said, there were some beautiful metaphors and thoughts. I collect all kinds of quotes, and so I added the ones I liked from this book on those appropriate collections. I have a collection of travel and life quotes; a collection of creativity, writing and art quotes; and quotes about serving others and humanitarian-themed quotes.
15. Charity Case by Dan Pallotta
“The general public donates 75 percent of the $300 billion given to charity every year.” I would not have anticipated that figure. With the massive amounts of government aid, I thought personal contributions were in the 30% range. That shows a remarkable amount of control the public has over the charities and development projects supported around the world.
“In 2006 the Nonprofit Overhead Cost Project at Indiana University studied the impact of suppressed spending on overhead and found that the organizations that spent more on their own organizational strength and capacity had superior programs.”
16. Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert
My friend and fellow travel blogger wrote this book and it was interesting to see her journey in print. Our paths interested in at several points in her story, so I enjoyed seeing how those moments wove into her overarching journey. The book chronicles her adventures as a family to live in three countries for long enough to become fluent in three languages: Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish.
17. Rising Strong by Brené Brown
“While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for—love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few—the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.”
“Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.”
“I had learned several years before that when I’m planning payback or rehearsing a conversation where I’m being super mean or trying to make someone feel bad, I’m normally not mad, I’m hurt, feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, or feeling shame.”
“And just so we don’t miss it in this long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy: living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us. We fill every ounce of white space with something so there’s no room or time for emotion to make itself known.”
“What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”
18. Born For This by Chris Guillebeau
“Life is seasonal. There’s a time to explore and experiment, and there’s also a time to focus.”
19. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
20. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
I started this book over the summer when I was housesitting and completed it 12-weeks later. This is the first time I’ve finished the course, in the past I usually petered off around week six. With few clients on my roster in 2016, this book allowed me to tap into my creativity again and start writing a range of projects from writing a novel to dancing more often in my life. It’s an accomplishment to have finished, and I have continued my daily morning pages because of the brain-dump and fresh clarity those pages provide each day.
“Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.”
“A successful creative career is always built on successful creative failures. The trick is to survive them. It helps to remember that even our most illustrious artists have taken creative U-turns in their time. Have compassion. Creative U-turns are always born from fear—fear of success or fear of failure. It doesn’t really matter which.”
“Once we admit the need for help, the help arrives. The ego always wants to claim self-sufficiency. It would rather pose as a creative loner than ask for help. Ask anyway.”
“To be an artist is to recognize the particular. To appreciate the peculiar. To allow a sense of play in your relationship to accepted standards. To ask the question “Why?” To be an artist is to risk admitting that much of what is money, property, and prestige strikes you as just a little silly.”
“Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.” – Meister Eckhart
Books Recommended Within These Books
- Dumbing Us Down (in Drive)
- Meditations Divine and Moral (in Metaphors)
- The Face-to-Face Book (in Contagious)
- Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in Metaphors)
- Healing Through the Dark Emotions (in Rising Strong)
- Creativity, Inc. (in Rising Strong)
- Bird by Bird (in Rising Strong)