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Ten Books

Man do I love reading, sitting as it does in the very nexus of pleasure and meaning; intrinsically enjoyable, satisfying of intellectual curiosity and an exquisitely pleasurable downpayment on a happier future.

I’ve reviewed my (virtual) bookshelf and come up with ten books that I think that everyone would derive some benefit from reading. You won’t find any fiction here - I’m way too practical for that sort of frivolity - but you will find guides on how to live a healthier, happier and productive life.

Some goals are worth pursuing, as Naval says

A fit body, a calm mind and a house full of love. These things can’t be bought, they must be earned.

Top Ten Books

So, in no particular order (other than alphabetical by title :))…

1. Atomic Habits (James Clear)

A very good synthesis of a number of strategies to successfully deliver long term change. Fundamentally it’s about the recognition that long-term improvements do not derive from once-in-a-lifetime, heroic transformations but instead from the steady accretion of simple, daily habits. This very much chimes with my own experience and runs counter to our intuitions - and therein lies the book’s real value. It’s sat on the New York Times bestseller list all year, and rightly so.

2. Chimp Management (Prof Steve Peters)

Probably best described as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) dressed up in a fancy-dress monkey suit. Steve Peters has good credibility having worked with a lot of folks in the world of sport. The analogies - chimps and planets and so on - grates a little at times and some of the later chapters I’m not a fan of at all but the ideas in the first two thirds are solid. Like everything else though - the theory is good, but you have to practise what you’ve learned. If you want to understand why you experience negative emotions and why you are not always your best self’ and want some easy-to-digest theory and sound practical advice this is the book for you.

3. Deep Work (Cal Newport)

We live in the age of distraction. The biggest and most powerful tech companies in the world need our attention to sell to their actual customers - advertisers. We’re also bombarded with emails, news, WhatsApp messages, alerts and notifications. This book is the antidote : it promotes the value of deep work’ - defined as cognitively challenging, value-creating endeavour that is hard to replicate. You’ll find compelling theory and a strong urging to move beyond good intentions to positive action.

4. Eat Rich Live Long (Ivor Cummins)

Terrible title, great book. Ivor Cummins is an engineer by trade and brings a fresh perspective on health freed from the pseudo-scientific, tidal wave of crap that somehow has become common sense’ in the world of wellbeing. In fairness there are only so many ways and times you can say avoid grains, seed oils, sugar and processed foods but I think he’s on the right track. The experts in nutrition and public health are completely bonkers and genuinely can’t be trusted - it will take another at least another couple of decades before they can admit they’ve been wrong about diet for the last fifty years.

5. Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

A classic with one of my favourite quotes of all time The best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. Hear, hear.

6. Getting Things Done (David Allen)

I’ve embedded the Getting Things Done (GTD) engine” into my daily life with great success. There are elements of planning that the method claims to solve but doesn’t in my view (which I discuss a bit more in this post). The core premise is sound however - our brains are great at thinking of ideas, but really bad at storing them and so we need to create a reliable system outside of our heads to compensate. Outside of the core premise there is a bit of a ragbag of ideas that don’t really hang together and you need to look elsewhere. So, definitely if you want to live a more peaceful life, create order where before there was chaos, the ideas and methods described in this book can definitely help.

7. A Guide to the Good Life (William B Irvine)

It’s been a few years since I read this book but I recall it having a fairly profound effect on me at the time. William Irvine is a decent guide though the history and practise of Stoicism which is rather in vogue at present - and this book no doubt helped the movement along. It’s probably a bit long on the history for me and - like most books frankly - could have been 30% shorter and not lost anything but that should not put you off.

8. The Happiness Hypothesis (Jonathan Haidt)

This book is the best synthesis I’ve read on a couple of thousand years of thinking on happiness and mental wellbeing. Jonathan Haidt is a brilliant man. There’s a metric tonne of interesting ideas in the book, and the core premise is that … happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world confirm to your desire”.

9. The Obesity Code (Jason Fung)

Another book where the marketing folks have been at it’. Try to ignore that. It’s just about my favourite summary of where we are in terms of thinking about nutrition and health. You don’t have to be obese to have an interest in this area (hence my dislike of the title!) and despite the author’s tendency towards irreverent flourish I’m convinced he’s heading in the right direction - and that direction is almost diametrically opposed to the zeitgeist of the last 50 years.

10. Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari)

That this book is extraordinary is hardly a secret. It’s an enormously lucid account of the history of humankind. It’s a masterpiece of scope, depth and elegance. Apparently Yuval spends 3 months a year in silent retreat - it shows. Perhaps in our politically embattled times it’s helpful to reflect a little on where we have come from, and just how hard our ancestors had it.