What I Learned From Reading 170 Books in a Single Year
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin
No one is going to die your own death FOR you, and so no one has the right to tell you how to live your one and only life.
I believe that so strongly, and it was hammered home during the year in which I read 170 books, all the way through, taking notes on each one, and combining the most important lessons into a single word file entitled “Life Lessons”.
You could say that I was, and am, a little obsessed.
That was last year (2015), and this year I’m closing in on my 100th book.
(Note: You can view my entire reading list here. The year I read 170 books starts at #96 with “The Alchemist”, and ends with #265, “Lost History”.)
Before I go on, some of you are wondering how I could possibly read that much without “cheating” in various ways.
There’s no real secret, other than that I have set up my entire life so that I focus consistently on what I really love to do, which involves reading.
I just find life endlessly fascinating, and I don’t read in order to “get” anywhere or reach someplace where I haven’t yet arrived.
I read because the fundamental questions about the nature of our existence are so interesting and nuanced, and so many brilliant people have had so much to say about them.
My Reading Habits
I have a two security jobs, and I read books at both jobs.
There’s one with a security company where I sit at a desk inside a hospital or sit outside various construction sites, where I usually have between 8-12 hours of uninterrupted reading time.
I’m also a nightclub bouncer, and since my bar is open later than most, we don’t get busy until later. That means that I usually have between 2-3 hours of reading time at that job per night as well.
I read in coffee shops; I read on my phone while waiting in line; I read on my couch at home.
Basically, I find time during my day where I can open my book in peace, and I never, EVER let anyone tell me that I should be “going back to school” or “advancing myself” since I refuse to live anyone else’s life.
Reading books, working out, spending time with friends, and being active in the human rights movement is what really matters to me, and I have to defend what little time that I have.
I can’t be spending that time NOT reading while working at a job that I hate. I just don’t have time to do anything I don’t enjoy doing. No one does.
To quote Fight Club (a book that I’ve never read but want to!), this is your life; and it’s ending, minute by minute.
Take control, and radically defend your time so that you can spend more on what’s meaningful to you. It’s my urgent plea from me to you.
There’s a gorgeous and endlessly mysterious world that surrounds us all, and I implore you to say to yourself, “Stop. Look.”
The 170 Books
If I had my way, I’d copy out the most important lessons that I’ve learned from each and every book that I read during 2015 and write a paragraph on each one going into a little more detail.
But you’re busy.
I get that, so what I’ll do is pick out a few of my favorites, or ones that I think you might get the most value out of, and take only a few key lessons that I’ve learned from each one.
If you’d like my full set of notes, they are available to you. Just email me.
So, let’s begin…
Marcus Aurelius was one of the Stoic philosophers, and he’s widely regarded as one of the five “good” emperors of Rome. The dude faced civil war, a crumbling marriage, invasions from the north, ailing health…and then wrote a book on how to rise above all that garbage and stand strong. This is one of the books that I push into other people’s hands most often.
“At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
Lesson: You have no time to waste! People postpone their happiness to this elusive “future” which is always arriving, and never actually gets there. You can’t afford to waste time with people who don’t value you, you can’t afford to waste time working at a job you hate, and you can’t afford to waste time.
“Say nothing untrue and do nothing unjust.”
Lesson: This means exactly what he says. It’s a simple guideline for life, from one of the most unencumbered philosophers/emperors of all time.
“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul.”
Lesson: It will be of great service to you to become like a deep lake. Whatever happens on the surface of your life, there will be a layer beneath, at the very bottom of this deep lake that is nothing but stillness, tranquility, and peace.
“Is it your reputation that is bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.”
Lesson: Who is actually going to care whether you made millions in business or whether you dedicated your entire life to alleviating the suffering of others? I can suggest which path I believe to be more meaningful, but MY opinion of what you do means absolutely nothing compared to YOUR opinion of what you do.
In the mid-19th century, Thoreau built his own house out in the woods. He lived there in blissful solitude for two years and recorded his everyday thoughts. Modern life was getting crazy, and Thoreau decided that it just wasn’t for him. His reflections are some of the most beautiful insights into the value of the natural world and our own possibilities for happiness within it that I have ever read.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Lesson: This is a quote you’ve probably heard before, and it’s a reference to the miserable people who are “living” all around us. You don’t have to be one of them; you can take control of your future and dare to live the life that you’ve imagined.
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Lesson: The natural world is GORGEOUS, and it’s all around us to experience. People today confuse money with real wealth, and fail to appreciate the stunning beauty that’s all around them. And it’s free!
“Direct your view inwards, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered.”
Lesson: You could spend your entire life trying to figure out who exactly you are, and still not come close to arriving at a suitable answer. In fact, I believe the most fascinating question in the world is “Who am I?”. Ask, again and again. And again and again.
Guy Montag is a fireman. But in Bradbury’s dystopia, firemen burn books because all books are forbidden. Desperately unhappy with the unsatisfying choices that his society offers him, he ends up concealing books in his house and is chased down by a mechanical hound with a hypodermic needle that is deployed to execute people who defy the state. I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this book is really beautiful. Everybody who has ever been powerfully impacted by books of any kind will relate.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
Lesson: I literally think about this quote every single day. It’s at the top of one of the lists I keep on the “Notes” app on my iPhone. This is your absolute last chance to feel everything there is to feel, love everyone that there is to be loved and to live unapologetically until the very last moment. So it’s up to you to make a conscious decision to take it all in and enjoy it while it lasts.
“We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
Lesson: Tonight at work, I couldn’t help eavesdrop on a conversation where a woman was complaining that the ATM was out of money, and she’d have to walk 6 minutes to get to another one so that she could pay for her parking. What she probably doesn’t know is that every six minutes, close to 100 children under the age of 5 will starve to death. Yes, if we don’t raise our voice about even minor concerns, nothing will change. But it’s time we all started to become really bothered by the suffering that exists all around us and that afflicts billions of our brothers and sisters.
“People don’t talk about anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say, how nice! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anybody else.”
Lesson: Yes! Ray Bradbury stole the words from my very soul. We don’t even talk about anything substantial anymore. Or at least most of our daily conversation is especially banal. Because we’re afraid of really connecting with another human being, we throw out all these superficialities, and neglect to have the really important conversations. I’m learning to save my breath for the really important stuff.
This is almost literally the perfect book. It’s pretty short, and it follows a shepherd boy from Andalusia in his journey far from home to find a buried treasure. Sounds like some lame, TV movie, right? But it’s one of the only books that I would consider re-reading. Indeed, I’ve read it twice, and it reveals more wisdom with every reading.
“Each day, each hour is part of the good fight.”
Lesson: The only easy day was yesterday, and a meaningful life will challenge you every single day. I agree with those who say that they don’t want an easy life. Instead, they want the strength to endure a difficult one.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
Lesson: I believe that life is genuinely “purposeless”, in that it isn’t trying to GET anywhere. It just is. The universe doesn’t HAVE meaning, but instead, it IS meaning. Your dreams add meaning to this life, and this life would be all the more boring if your dreams didn’t exist. But they do. You have something that you know that you were born to do, and now is the time to get down to the business of doing it.
“Everybody seems to know how other people should lead their lives, but no idea about how to live their own.”
Lesson: How many well-meaning (or malicious) people do you have in your life telling you how they think you should live? How many of them are actually doing what THEY want in life? We’re all just stumbling around in this place, and the only one who can possibly know what you “should” do with your life is you. Who else could it be?
“There is one great truth on this planet: Whoever you are and whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe.”
Lesson: This is one of the most famous lines in the book. The point is that doors will open for you, but you have to be moving down the hallway. You have to go all in, and then coincidences will appear to lift you towards your destination. Things will start to happen. As Carl Sagan has observed, everything amazing about the universe is inside of you, and the two of you are inseparable.
This is one of those iconic books about adolescence, and finding your way in the world. It’s about the importance of strong male role models, personal responsibility, and about the unique challenges that each individual will have to face each day. Robert Bly is a world-renowned poet who uses the Grimm fairy tale “Iron John,” in which the universal father-figure, or “Wild Man,” guides a young man through eight stages of male growth, to remind us of archetypes, or long forgotten images of vigorous masculinity, both protective and emotionally centered. Women can – and should – read it too.
“We make the path by walking.”
Lesson: Any course that you set for your life will invariably change as time goes on. We can set out expected paths, hopes, visions, but they will all change as we are moving down the path which is our life. Yes, make plans for the future. But no, don’t be too rigid in sticking to them.
“No stage is the final stop.”
Lesson: You think you’re done growing? Not so fast. There isn’t any final stage of development where you’re going to be able to stop and say “Yes, I’ve made it”. That’s the greatest lie that’s ever been told to our generation. If the world began in the past, then when that happened it was now. But it’s still now. And your life is just beginning now. Now is when you will start to become who you will be in the next moment. All the hard work takes place in this eternal, present moment.
The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao. What the hell does that mean? This book is 2,500 years old, and it’s been translated into English so many times that its only real competition for popularity is the bible. It’s essentially a book of Taoist wisdom, but Lao Tzu doesn’t ask you to “believe” anything. There is an entire world beneath whatever we can say about it in words, and that’s what the first line means. It’s short, only 81 verses, and you can read it in an hour. But you can spend an entire lifetime studying it.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
Lesson: I follow this precept religiously. I’m not in competition with anyone; in fact, I hope we ALL make it. I don’t work out because I want to be bigger or more muscular than anyone else, and I don’t read books because I want to be smarter than anyone else. I do these things for me, and I don’t force my lifestyle or views on anyone else. In short, I stay true to my authentic self.
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”
Lesson: To quote Rocky (which I do often!), life will beat you to your knees, and keep you there permanently if you let it. Death would be easy; the end of all your problems! To know that life is hard, that it will eventually take everything from you, and to keep on living…that takes real courage.
Kahlil Gibran is one of those writers who, although long dead, you wish that he were a really good friend of yours and you could call him up and talk to him whenever you want. The Prophet has terrific things to say about love, marriage, children, giving, work, joy and sorrow, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, beauty, religion, and death. It’s beautifully written, with timeless messages on every page.
“And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
Lesson: One area where we should absolutely be greedy is in the enjoyment of our friends and loved ones. We have this infinitesimal moment in time between two eternities during which to enjoy each other’s company, yet we spend far too much of our time engaged in pointless disputes and needless argumentation. Grab hold of someone who makes you feel alive, and spend as much time as you can with them before it’s too late.
“Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.”
Lesson: You share the earth with every single other human being now living. They’ve been deemed worthy to receive the gift of life, so who are we to withhold our companionship from them?
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”
Lesson: Beautiful! As is clearly shown in the Tao Te Ching and dozens of other spectacular books, life and death create each other. We arise from the mud of this earth in order to glimpse all its beauty for a very brief period of time, and then we return to the mud from which we came. This is our one chance.
This book is a photojournalism essay in which the author presents pictures of where children around the world lay their heads at night. There is the New York lawyer’s son who sleeps in a racecar bed, and there is the eastern European immigrant living in Italy who sleeps with his entire family on a mattress in the middle of a field. But… the idea isn’t to point out that privilege is somehow “wrong”. As I understand it, it is to make it known that children everywhere are growing up in starkly different circumstances and that we can offer our help where we can. That our pasts don’t have to equal our futures.
“Indira says she doesn’t mind working in the quarry, but that she’d rather be playing. Her favorite food is noodles.”
Lesson: This is just one of the photo captions from the book. Try to really feel what it would be like to be 7 years old and working in a granite quarry.
“She was born in the refugee camp and has witnessed violence her entire life. Her brother killed himself and 21 Israelis in a suicide bombing attack.”
Lesson: This girl has grown up in an environment surrounded by violence. How will she grow up? Will she swear revenge on the people who caused her brother so much pain? Or will she break the chain of violence and dedicate her life to bringing people together? Neither?
“She wants to be a policewoman so that she can protect people.”
Lesson: What an “ordinary” dream! Yet it’s extraordinary because this girl is so young and she can absolutely achieve this fantastic dream. Her whole life is ahead of her, and her choices matter.
In this book, Mitch Albom comes to visit his dying professor, Morrie Schwartz, so that the latter can pass on some of his greatest lessons, and they can both enjoy the remaining time in each other’s company. Every Tuesday, they meet for a couple of hours to talk about life, and each Tuesday brings Morrie closer to death from ALS.
“Don’t trade your dream for a bigger paycheck.”
Lesson: Never, ever, ever do this. Period. Don’t be blinded by society’s vision of an “acceptable” life path for you. Maybe your dream will come with a bigger paycheck, and if it does, then that’s great. But if your dream means living in relative poverty while you achieve it, I say you need to go for it. Making money is easy. It’s hammering away at a difficult dream that’s rewarding, though.
“I’m just really into breezes”
Lesson: I actually say this quite often. I’ll be outside, just standing there, enjoying a slight breeze while I sip my coffee. I’m not “going” anywhere, or thinking about anything in particular. I’m enjoying the sensation of the cool breeze on my skin while I can. Nothing more needs to be said.
“Love each other or perish.”
Lesson: I can’t stress this enough. I don’t have this particular quote written down anywhere except my notes, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea!
This man is my hero. Fromm was a famous psychoanalyst and was one of the founding members of and greatest financial contributors to Amnesty International, the human rights organization. He was even the psychiatrist that Jackie Kennedy took her kids to go see after their father was killed, and he influenced a massive number of people with his radical humanism.
“Man is born against his will, and dies against his will.”
Lesson: Life sucks, man. Like I said before, it will take everything from you; everyone you ever loved, and everything you ever cared about will be taken from you. We’re just thrown into this place, with not a whole lot of help. And then, just when we get comfortable, or at least attached, we get yanked out. This is the harsh reality that we face, but we can choose our own attitude. Choose our own way.
“The deepest need of man, then, is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”
Lesson: Connection is literally everything! There’s a deeper psychological reason why friendship and cooperation feel so good, and it’s true that they’re absolutely vital to the proper mental functioning of human beings. Connection is what we’re here for, and it’s what we all desperately need.
“If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of humanity, his love is not love, but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.”
Lesson: You may think you love someone, but if your love doesn’t extend to the entirety of the human race, then you don’t know what love actually is. It is all-encompassing, readily available, and terrifyingly absent in today’s world.
“The selfish person does not love himself too much but too little.”
Lesson: When you see self-centered people, and you think that they think really highly of themselves, sometimes you might be wrong. Sometimes they’re the most vulnerable people of all, and they need to feel safe to express their true, imperfect selves. Don’t get caught up in their games, but at the same time, recognize that they might not be as strong as you think they are.
“Love is the only rational answer to the problem of human existence.”
Lesson: What a beautiful sentiment! This is one of my favorite lines of any book that I have ever read, and it’s so very, very true. Many answers have been tried, but they are all ineffective, or worse, dangerous. Collective narcissism runs rampant today, and violence is the inevitable result. If we take care to look for a real answer, we will see that we’ve had one for millennia.
“Any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.”
Lesson: You heard it from Fromm. It’s in our basic human nature to crave connection and love, and if we’re not getting and giving it, then…today’s society happens. At present, we are destroying ourselves because we’re neglecting one of our deepest human needs.
Some Final Thoughts
I can’t even begin to express what reading has done for me. The best way that I can describe it is that it’s kind of like taking the red pill from “The Matrix”.
You can take the blue pill (non-reading) and lead pretty much the same life that you’ve always lived.
Or you can take the red pill (devouring every book you can get your hands on) and an entirely new universe will burst into existence before your very eyes.
You’ll start to realize a few things, one of which is that nobody really knows anything about what’s going on, and we’re all just kind of making up our own life philosophies as we go along. Epistemologically speaking, no one living or dead can lay any sort of claim on ultimate truth.
Life is actually full of contradictions, such as the fact that simultaneously, you are the single most important thing in the entire universe, and at the same time, no more important than a single blade of grass.
Also, life is fundamentally purposeless. Just like the point of music isn’t just to get to the end of the song, the point of life is to listen to the music as it’s being played.
Yet, we can also create lives of meaning through our choices.
Connection is ultimately what it’s all about, although society at large will try and hammer you into some pre-made mold.
At the end of all this, the best advice I can give is that of my father, who attended every single one of my baseball games and most of my practices.
Even though he could never bear to go see any of my boxing fights, his advice before games was simply:
“Do your best and have fun.”
There’s nothing that you need to “achieve” or “attain”.
Is the point of dancing to get to a particular spot on the floor? Is that the idea of dancing?