While spending some time with my young nephews recently, I thought about all of the things I wanted to convey to them, all of the things I wanted them to hurry up and know. They aren't quite three years old yet, so I clearly need to allow them to be kids for a minute. In the meantime, it's been a good exercise to think about what books I might recommend to them as the three "most important books" in my library.
It hasn't been easy.
I've been enamored with fiction for most of my life, and this list would certainly have included some of the greatest novels ever written depending on my age and what was going on in my life at the time. At various points the most important book has been Don Quixote, Le Rouge et le Noir, The Idiot, Atlas Shrugged, Huckleberry Finn, The Alchemist, and others that don't stick out as far in my brain at the moment.
But while I'll always encourage my nephews to devour fiction, I have warmed up to non-fiction quite a bit in the last few years. So much so, in fact, that I wrote my own book called Useful Things in an effort to help people improve. It does not, unfortunately, make my list.
Here is how I narrowed things down:
- The three most important books will contain ancient--yet timeless--wisdom. Some people might call them "answers."
- They will be written so clearly that everyone can understand and benefit by reading them. So much for Finnegans Wake.
- And they will be so valuable and fun to read that you go back to them repeatedly.
I submit the following three books as the most important I've come across according to the criteria above. Oddly enough, I have been exposed to and read these three books in the last year. I've somehow stumbled upon the most potent combination of ideas and philosophies for moving forward that I've ever found, all in a short period of time and without actually looking for them. Funny how that works.
1. MEDITATIONS by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was the most famous of the Stoics, followers of a philosophy that stressed self-governance and an understanding of the world in line with the "lawfulness of nature." He inherited a Roman Empire troubled by war and natural disaster, and wrote the contents of this book--which he never intended to publish--between military campaigns.
It reads almost like a list of rules for how to think, behave, and act no matter what life throws at you. Any popular self-help book you can name, from Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People to The Power of Now either borrows heavily or simply rehashes what has been stated here. If Marcus was even half as good a person in reality as he aspired to be on paper, he's on a short list for world's greatest humans.
Every chapter has gems about interconnectedness, grief, discipline, loss, integrity, fear, nature, mindfulness, death, and more. This is arguably the finest book ever written by a single author on how to be the best version of a human being. And that it was written by the most powerful man in the world at the time, who could have wielded that power much differently, is even more extraordinary.
Although my copy of this book if full of underlined passages, my favorites follow:
"If it is difficult to accomplish something by yourself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by you, too."
"Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions."
"Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good."
The incredible irony, of course, is that he was at least partly responsible for his son, Commodus. Make of that what you will.
2. AWAKEN THE GIANT WITHIN by Anthony Robbins
I've done a pretty good job of avoiding Tony Robbins. For over twenty years I've seen his books here and there, his infomercials on late-night TV, and his increasing presence on talk shows. I even remember when a dear friend of mine was listening to Robbins' CDs and seemed to be obsessed with the material. I've always thought it was pretty weird. And weak.
I thought it was akin to religious beliefs that people turn to because they "can't figure it out," or don't want to accept certain aspects of reality. Never mind the millions of people who have been transformed and all the positive changes that have occurred as a result of this information. It's always seemed more or less like a cheesy sales pitch, a scam for suckers who can't make life work for them.
How foolish I've been.
When an individual is as sought out by as many successful people as Tony Robbins is, it doesn't matter how the message is packaged. No doubt he is promoting ideas/methods/"technologies" (my favorite terminology) of real value that can probably be of benefit to you and me. Fortunately, I put my snobbery aside and gave it a read.
I realized I've been so focused on all of the things that make me unhappy that I seem to have lost my mojo lately. Disappointed by this, unsatisfied with that, I haven't given myself permission to enjoy much of anything because I haven't met my strict parameters for (and definitions of) success. I've been walking around just existing, hoping for a "win."
Life is too short for that shit.
Awaken The Giant Within is a mirror reflecting how and why you think the way you do. It's a fantastic explanation of how your brain works without being very scientific, a powerful catalyst for change without browbeating, and a look at your true identity under a microscope.
If you've shared any of my skepticism about self-help books/programs, that will change when you write paragraphs that answer each of these questions: Who am I? What do I want? Who do I want to be? What will it take to get there? It's work, and it's not easy, but it is highly rewarding.
Following are my favorite quotes, but the most important thing I've learned from this book--and it's been on my mind every day since I finished it--is this: you have to choose to be happy. That is not anyone else's responsibility, so you might as well get better at making that choice.
"All that you really want in life is to change how you feel."
"If there's any one skill that I've seen in champions--people who have really achieved their highest desires--it's an unbelievable level of persistence."
"The same pattern of thinking that has gotten us to where we are will not get us to where we want to go."
3. OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO! by Dr. Seuss
I just read this book last week. In the midst of being despondent about just about everything (as mentioned above), a fantastic acting opportunity dropped right into my lap: replacing the lead (who was filming a different picture in Malaysia) in an action film for 21 days of shooting with multiple languages and some of my cinema heroes as co-stars! Huzzah!
I read the script, met the director, learned about ten pages of scenes for a chemistry read with the potential female leads, reorganized my schedule, and prepared like a boss to step into that role.
And then the original actor came back. And that was that.
The next morning, as I was talking it over with a good friend, he mentioned wanting to read a quote to me. As he fished through his books, Oh, The Places You'll Go! jumped out at me. I didn't hear anything else he said for the next five minutes. I opened the book to a passage that immediately described what I'd been going through prior to the appearance and disappearance of the opportunity:
"Waiting for a train to go/ or a bus to come, or a plane to go/ or the mail to come, or the rain to go/ or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow/ or waiting around for a Yes or No/ or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite/ or waiting for wind to fly a kite/ or waiting around for Friday night/ or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake/ or a pot to boil, or a Better Break/ or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants/ or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting."
I looked at the drawings and the words and couldn't believe how relatable and appropriate it all was. We've all gone through this and we'll do it again and again as we navigate the successes and failures of our lives. I quickly started from the beginning and read the whole thing in a couple of minutes.
The emotions associated with the human experience, from exhilarating triumph to crushing defeat are realistically described in this little book written for children. Also of note is Dr. Seuss' terrific way of conveying contentedness just by drawing characters with their eyes closed, but that is neither here nor there.
The bottom line is that this book with deceptively simple pictures and words has it all: a call to action, the inevitable fall, the escape from purgatory of inaction, the incredible highs of success, how to deal with abject loneliness, and the comfort of knowing it's all going to be part of every person's incredible journey.
And best of all it ends on a very positive note:
"And will you succeed?/ Yes! You will, indeed!/ (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)/ KID, YOU'LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!/ So... be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray/ or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,/ you're off to Great Places!/ Today is your day!/ Your mountain is waiting./ So... get on your way!"
Ultimately, the way a book resonates with you has a lot to do with who you are when you read it. Or who you think you are. That being the case, this list probably says more about where I've been, where I am now, and where I want to go than any post dedicated to the subject.
Of course, in the end these books are only supplements to that aspect of humanity that cannot be substituted: experience. And that is something my nephews will have to gain on their own. In the meantime, I like to think that many of the answers they'll be looking for are contained in these books. Perhaps they hold some of the answers you seek as well.
Give them a read and let me know.