Here’s a list of books in answer to the question: what books will be of most benefit for a man to read?
The following 10 books are essential because they describe what it is like to be human — and, more importantly, a human male — in fundamental ways. They do not describe what it means to be human, because being human has as many meanings as there are people. The essence of how life impacts us and how we impact it is fully covered in these works.
We think, we feel, we act. But how? And why?
These books educate the imagination. They inform one’s cultural identity. They offer intellectual rewards.
We are all cultural creatures. Our best survival strategies are preserved and transmitted via external communication — stories and rules, descriptions and speculation, histories and lists.
Of course, a man can get by in life without ever reading a book. However, if you want to be a fully-activated member of civilization, if you want to understand what it is you’re a part of and how and where your life and accomplishments fit in — and if you want to attempt to go beyond the bounds of disadvantageous and/or manipulative paradigms — you must read what a few distinguished authors have written. And think about it.
In distilling this list, I have attempted to include all the important topics and aspirations that relate to being a man. Your viewpoint is the only thing you have going for you when it comes to making choices. These authors provide enduring perspective on the best (and worst) choices.
It is somewhat silly, I know, to attempt to boil down all of literature into 10 books that constitute an essential reading list for guys. I’m sure you’ll easily think of 10 or 30 or 100 books that should have been included or would better substitute for one of my choices.
But if you read these books, you will not only be almost entirely literate* in a number of important areas, you will enjoy yourself. You will feel like you’ve accomplished something. More importantly, you should be much better at doing what truly effective men do: thinking things through and coming to a consequential understanding. About yourself, about other people, about society, and about your goals.
Note: All of these books are available from Barnes & Noble, a real bookstore, which anyone who values books should support. AbeBooks is another good source. If you buy books online, start your shopping with these stores.
War hasn’t changed much since the events of The Iliad transpired about 3,000 years ago. Only technology has changed. Wars still mostly boil down to egotistical quests for spoils and loot by two or more armed gangs. As you’ll note when reading The Iliad, young men are still killed and maimed in battle in similar ways. Most participants in a war end up as cannon fodder. Only a few, a very few, men are fated to experience war like Achilles, and thus the story revolves around him. And even he comes to detest the enterprise.
The first book on this list of 10 essential books originated, appropriately enough, as a long narrative poem attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Which means it was spoken long before it was written down. It is good to be reminded that all writing is just a stand-in for the spoken word. And to remember that poetry is the ancestor of all literature.
The Iliad is the first great book in the western canon. The translation by Robert Fagles is one of the best. It is beautiful and striking. What keeps The Iliad from being just another action tale is that important questions are raised (for example, destiny versus free will, suffering versus redemption, etc.), gods with personalities are invented, and the inner life of the characters is a crucial element of the account. No man is seen as wholly good or bad, yet war itself is revealed as an endeavor from which, for the participants, nothing good comes. Except, one might argue, a good story.
It is also true that there remains a strong bias in western society for men to try to be like Achilles. You can also find many other valuable editions of The Iliad at AbeBooks.
2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. To stay alive, we eat daily. You would think there would be more information about what this means and the details involved. But unless they’re thinking about ways to lose weight, most people give little consideration to what they put in their mouths. Michael Pollan is the exception. He began by posing fundamental questions about eating — especially about what it means to be part of an industrial food system based chiefly on fossil fuels.
Humans are omnivores, able to eat a wide variety of stuff. The question is: what should we eat? The answer turns out to be a lot more complex than you might suspect. Where does our food come from? Is it better to grow our own? Should we hunt our own? How is our consciousness and self-image affected by what we eat?
Along the way in this book, you’ll meet some exceedingly competent, thoughtful, and self-reliant men. And you’ll be made fully aware of the essential foundation of our civilization.
3. The complete works of Plato. Plato provides the fundamental philosophical underpinnings of western culture. If you want to understand not only the culture in which you live — its moral framework and paramount values — but also virtually any successful culture that has arisen in the past and may arise in the future, you will study Plato. If you want an approach to making optimal choices as an individual, you will consider Plato. If you want an outline of the metaphysics that have informed western philosophy and religion, you will read Plato. And if you want to develop an acute mind, you will commit some time to understanding Plato (and, through him, Socrates).
It is impossible to say which of Plato’s works is the most important. Some may find the early Dialogues to be the most eye-opening. Others may feel that The Republic is indispensable in grasping the potential of human learning and society. Rather than singling out particular works, why not just read everything Plato wrote? Altogether, it’s not that much longer than War and Peace. But it has influenced every area of western political, philosophical, educational, scientific, ethical, and artistic development since he set it down.
If you want all the works in one well-done volume, click here to get Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson. Otherwise, get the individual works. For example, the Grube translation of The Republic.
You can also use the search function at AbeBooks to find many inexpensive editions of Plato’s dialogues and other writings.
4. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin. At the age of 65, while in England, Benjamin Franklin began writing an account of his life for his son William. Over the next 19 years, he produced one of the best autobiographies ever written.
Franklin was arguably the most complete self-made man who ever lived. Interestingly, his book describes the nitty-gritty of how he did it — how he became a successful writer and publisher, how he became successful in business, how he succeeded in politics. A polymath, Franklin lived a quintessentially American life and made the most of it. In a sense, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin could be called the first modern self-help book. If you want to improve yourself as Franklin did, follow his methods. They still work. In fact, no subsequent course in self-development has surpassed his ideas on the subject. (One of his tenets was to imitate Socrates; see Plato above.)
When reading his autobiography you become immersed not only in the history of the time, but in Franklin’s consciousness, his way of thinking. No man has lived a more interesting, productive, varied, eventful, influential, and inspiring life. Printer, scientist, diplomat, inventor, revolutionary, entrepreneur, husband, Founding Father, musician, athlete, postmaster, statesman, Franklin was one of the smartest yet down-to-earth men who ever lived. When he died in 1790 at the age of 84, half the city of Philadelphia — 20,000 people — turned out to pay their respects.
5. The Game, by Neil Strauss. After food, what do guys want? They want girls. (And sometimes they’re willing to skip eating.) Never mind that The Game spawned a cottage industry of “pick-up” instruction and a world-wide community of guys trying to enhance their success with women. What is most interesting and useful to take away from this book is the story of how a nebbish (Neil Strauss) transformed himself into one of the most successful ladies’ men in the world. In fact, his fellow pick-up artists voted him the best pick-up artist in the world.
What Neil Strauss had going for him was intelligence (he was already a pretty successful non-fiction writer), time, and frustration. In researching an article for The New York Times on the clandestine world of pick-up artists, Strauss met “Mystery,” a geeky fellow who went from being fairly hapless with women to being a successful pick-up artist — to the extent that he traveled the world teaching his methods to other guys.
The innovation that made Mystery famous and later, arguably, made his protégé Neil Strauss even more successful was in applying findings from evolutionary biology, primate psychology, marketing, and communication theory (including neuro-linguistic programming) to the problem of attracting women. Guys have always wanted to get women. Sometimes it’s the only thing our genes want. Most of the useful (and, admittedly, useless) activities guys pursue, when you come right down to it, are to impress a potential mate, or at least get laid. The problem is, among humans (as among many mammals), the female holds the power to say yea or nay to mating.
So how do you get her to say “yea?”
That’s the question The Game seeks to answer. Even more, it tries to codify the process. If you want to expand your understanding of the “battle of the sexes” and even bring some of the innovations of the pick-up community into your quest to attract the girl(s) you want, then read The Game.
It is undoubtedly a controversial book (any sex-related innovation tends to to stir up controversy). On the other hand, the FBI has found enough practical value in the book that it is now required reading for field agents and Neil Strauss has conducted training for the FBI in the methods used in The Game. Why the interest on the part of the Feds? To elicit responses from criminals and terrorists such as confessions or informing on accomplices.
Regarding human interaction, there’s more going on in this book than initially meets the eye.
Is The Game the be-all, end-all of learning the art of seduction? Of course not. Ultimately, that requires one to become one’s best self. But it provides some illuminating signposts along the path. Besides, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? Click here to get The Game in its original version from Barnes & Noble (and check the customer reviews).
6. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Is there a common thread running through the world’s mythologies? Do disparate spiritual beliefs end up guiding adherents to a universal destination? Joseph Campbell sought to answer those questions. The result was his treatise analyzing the purpose and significance of the traditional stories we tell each other. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1949, attempts nothing less than to explain the singular wisdom and meaning underlying our belief systems.
It delves beneath the surface and reveals the archetypal roots of human culture.
There are many good reasons to read The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell is not only a great scholar, he’s a good writer). But here’s one that might be the tipping point for you: if there were no The Hero with a Thousand Faces, there might be no Star Wars as we know it.
This book is the meta book that explains the existence of all the other books out there. And why we tell each other stories about gods and monsters and epic quests. More importantly, it explains what it really means to be a “hero.”
You can find many editions of The Hero with a Thousand Faces at AbeBooks, including a copy signed by the author.
7. The complete works of Shakespeare. Okay, this is a reading project that will take some time. And why should you undertake to slog through over 1,000 pages of Early Modern English to read about characters in archaic societies?
First, because of the breadth of what you can learn from Shakespeare, who is simply the greatest writer in English. (In fact, it is said that the worldwide preeminence of the English language is due in large part to Shakespeare.) Shakespeare wrote about everything that is important to people, and did it with more breadth, depth, flair, and artistry than anyone else.
If you read Shakespeare, you will fully survey all human passions, feelings, relationships, and motivations. You will know about love, lust, despair, irony, hate, romance, dread, the imagination, life, death, power, and sacrifice. You will know everything you need to know about politics and politicians, class conflict, money and business, fighting and warriors, thieves and criminals, brilliance and insanity, humor and wit, charisma and charm, ambition and obsession, backstabbing betrayers and steadfast friends. And every other important type of societal role and relationship. Shakespeare brought to life over 1,200 characters.
In fact, you will more fully understand “character” itself, both as a dramatic invention and as the defining quality of an individual. Reading Shakespeare will cause you to define your own self more rigorously and consciously.
And then there’s the poetry. Go all the way through Shakespeare and you will become more articulate and erudite, not to mention verbally adept and flexible. You will more fully understand and appreciate the meaning and rhythm of words and phrases, the power of metaphor and simile, and the nuances of the effective word at the right moment in a given situation. (And remember, the Sonnets are part of the complete works.)
Don’t worry — after you start you soon get used to the Early Modern English. (Hey, it’s a lot easier than Chaucer.) In fact, don’t just read the plays and poems. Read them aloud. Memorize and recite favorite passages. And go see your favorite plays on the stage. You will appreciate them in a whole different light. (Along the way, be sure to learn the best Shakespearean insults.)
In any event, it’s simply cool to read the works of the guy who invented the words “assassination” and “obscene.”
(After reading The Game, you will also understand The Taming of the Shrew much better.)
If you’re going to read all the works of Shakespeare, what better way to own them than in a leatherbound hardcover edition (that’s not expensive)? It’ll be convenient to have the book around (not to mention culturally advantageous). Give yourself a year or two to read the whole thing. On the other hand, if you want a reference version of all the plays, get this comprehensive NOOK eBook with color illustrations. To more fully understand the context and language of the plays, the Cliffs Notes are a good basic reference.
Written by Jerome K. Jerome and published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat describes the boating holiday of three English friends. Also included is the dog, Montmorency.
There are other good humorous writers — P. J. O’Rourke, Dave Barry, Douglas Adams, P. G. Wodehouse — but Three Men in a Boat is the granddaddy of them all. Not only does it incite LOL, it evokes a simpler, more benign era. As with most humor, you recognize a lot of it to be true. Since its publication it has never been out of print. Read it to find out why.
Since you’ll probably want to add this book to your permanent collection, you can also find inexpensive hardcover editions at AbeBooks.
9. The Starship and the Canoe, by Kenneth Brower. Written by the son of famed environmentalist David Brower, this somewhat obscure book, long out-of-print, is a unique double biography about physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, George.
Freeman wants to build a starship that uses hydrogen bombs for propulsion. George wants to build a large, ocean-going canoe/kayak.
For guys, the bottom line of this book is that it explores what it means to live life on your own terms. Hardly any man manages to fully accomplish that. But both of the Dysons, father and son, do. And they started early on. Of course, it helps that both are brilliant.
The Starship and the Canoe offers interesting perspectives on science, self-sufficiency, quantum mechanics, engineering, genius, adventure, the pioneering spirit, Northwest Coast indigenous culture, and the evolution of civilizations. It explores the sometimes challenging relationship that can develop between fathers and sons. Along the way, you find yourself immersed in the fledgling aesthetic of the environmental movement, as well as the idealism that took hold on the edges of American society in the sixties and seventies.
It also examines the pursuit of craftsmanship — what it is and how it works, both mentally and practically.
The book is well-crafted, particularly in how Kenneth Brower includes his own relationship with his subjects. I’ve never come across another book quite like it. It makes an indelible impression.
A bonus to reading The Starship and the Canoe is that both of its protagonists are still alive and well and you can find out what each of them has been up to in the decades since the adventures covered in the book. You can find copies of The Starship and the Canoe available on AbeBooks. Unfortunately, the book is becoming rather rare. You can also try Marketplace sellers at Barnes & Noble.
10. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein. Written by one of the great visionaries of the 20th century, Stranger in a Strange Land is essential reading because it provokes questions about a number of fundamental beliefs about what it means to be a man — an intelligent hominid bound into a society. Where is the balance between freedom and responsibility? What does it mean to think for oneself? Why are people short-sighted? What is the essence of personal power? Is the human religious impulse a blessing or a curse?
Stranger in a Strange Land tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith — a “Martian” who looks like a man. At the end of the book, has Michael gone through the odyssey of becoming human? Or have the inhabitants of Earth embarked on a new, more mature phase of development?
The book examines love — in particular, how it relates to sex. It challenges conventional notions about death. It provokes one to think about money and career. Controversial when first published — in fact, Heinlein waited to bring the book out until he thought the public could handle it — it was immediately recognized as an important novel among the community of science fiction readers. It won the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1962. It quickly burst beyond the bounds of science fiction fans, however, and was embraced by the general reading public.
In 2012, the Library of Congress named Stranger in a Strange Land as one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
Check it out. You may learn how to grok something. Such as what you’d like the import of your own life to be.
* I say “almost entirely literate” because I think to be fully literate one must become fluent in at least one other language and should read the literature of cultures other than one’s own. So, for example, to this list should be added something from India (the Bhagavad-Gita comes to mind), something from China, works from the Middle East, writings from Africa, a book or two from South America, and something by an Australian Aborigine (Maybe Tomorrow, by Boori Monty Pryor, comes to mind).