The 40 Books That Saved My Life


Oh my god, another list of books I should read! I can’t help it, though.

These are the books I return to when I need help, guidance, solace in my life.

I’m going to cheat. I’m not going to look at my kindle to see what I’ve read. Forgive me if I get a title or an author’s name wrong.

If I can remember the books, then it means they had some impact on me. If I can’t remember them, then why would I recommend them?

For each one of these books: either they made me a better person, or I felt, even as I was reading them, that my IQ was getting better. Or, in the case of fiction, I felt like my writing was getting better by reading the book.

Or I simply escaped to another world. I like to travel to other worlds. To pretend to be a character in someone else’s story.

I think if you can find even one takeaway in a book that you remember afterwards, then it’s a great book.

Remember: It’s hard to remember more than 1% of a book.

Time is the ultimate judge of wisdom. How you bounce back from misery and despair in order to thrive. I hope I learned that from these books.

  1. Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl
  2. Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb (and “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness” by him)
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed
  4. Master of Love” by Don Miguel Ruiz
  5. Anything You Want” by Derek Sivers
  6. Mindset” by Carol Dweck
  7. Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  8. Sapiens” by Yuval something.
  9. The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz
  10. Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
  11. Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson (a collection of short stories, not a religious book)
  12. The Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley (and the Evolution of Everything by him)
  13. Bold” by Peter D. and Steven Kotler
  14. Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell
  15. Peak” by Anders Ericsson
  16. The Surrender Experiment” by Michael Singer (along with The Untethered Soul by him)
  17. Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” by Stephen Batchelor
  18. Mastery” by Robert Greene
  19. Zero to One” by Peter Thiel
  20. War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield (and “Turning Pro“)
  21. Post Office” by Charles Bukowski
  22. Purple Cow” by Seth Godin
  23. Maus” by Art Spiegelman
  24. On Writing” by Stephen King
  25. How We Got to Now” by Stephen Johnson (and his book on ideas)
  26. Creativity, Inc” by Ed Catmull
  27. Sick in the Head” by Judd Apatow
  28. Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin
  29. The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle (and “Practicing the Power of Now” by him)
  30. 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman
  31. How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” by Harry Browne
  32. Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
  33. A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey
  34. To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  35. What We Talk About When We talk about Running” by Haruki Murakami
  36. The Stranger” by Albert Camus
  37. The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo
  38. The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner
  39. The New Evolution Diet” by Art Devany
  40. Poking the Dead Frog” by Mike Sacks
  41. Socrates” by Paul Johnson
  42. Small Victories” by Anne Lamott
  43.  “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Lorette Breuning

Ugh, I’m not even halfway done. And I’m past 40 books.

When I read any of these books, I feel like a vampire. Like I’m sucking all of the blood out of the author. I’m stealing his soul and consuming it.

Thank you, author, for giving me your soul. For giving me immortality.
That’s why reading is great. It’s like I’ve lived 100s of lives as well as just my own.

One of these days someone will eat my soul also. I hope I have enough seasoning to taste good.

  • Nils Van Brabant

    I will definitely add “Choose Yourself” by James Altucher, after I bought this one I got rid off all my physical “self help” books, really. I just kept an other one wrote by Pierre Morency “Ask and You Shall Receive: What did you ask for when you got up this morning?” Not your typical self help book neither. Highly recommended.

  • Watching On

    I’ll suggest you read “Silent Hearer” by Marcia Shury. A relatively unknown new author, but her writing style is raw and gives a look into the life of a hearing challenged person and how they cope. You won’t regret it.

  • Kezer

    Everything else is merely a footnote to Frankl.

  • John Dutemple

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein

  • Dexter Cousins

    The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde

  • Abe
  • gladtobehere

    the undercover economist, Tim Harford. You possibly know all the tricks in it but I remember being surprised, changing how I thought about the business I was opening and the shift in mindset helped,.

  • .Ross

    Alone With Others – Stephen Batchelor

  • beurbs

    The Invisible Gorilla

  • Tomsweetwater

    I’ll add 2 if I may, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persian just bought another copy so that my son could keep the one I never got around to returning to the library {shhhhh don’t tell}

    The other is Shibumi by Trevanian, another book I never returned to it’s owner, that was 36 years ago when we were in grade 6. Shibumi taught me that the ideal is to live a life of chill and both books deal with the idea that quality is the highest goal to which we can strive.

    If we strive for quality we can be assured that our efforts will take us as far as we can go. Living this life is much akin to the recruitment slogan “Be All That You Can Be”. It took me many years understand that I was trying to fit into the boxes that society had created for me but it was a dedication to quality which allowed me to stay afloat financially and spiritually.

    Business and self-help books I’ve read have always stressed setting goals but if you fall short it takes a great deal chutzpah to get back on track. Failure to reach these expectations hit me so badly that, in my case, led to a deep depression which was almost fatal.

    Now I write and I live by the motto “what would Karma do?” and for the first time in my life I’ve discovered how wonderful it is to actually live rather than just struggle to survive long enough to catch the next episode of some forgotten TV show.

    Live, Love and Stay Wild My Friend

    • Edgar

      Mam I have read Shibumi ages ago.
      Forgotten about it.

      Great book.

  • Jayant Mundhra (J.T.)

    Choose Yourself – James Altucher
    The Miracle Morning – Hal Elrod

  • VonMelee

    Oh man, “The Information” by James Gleick. This is also on Mark Zuckerberg’s and Bill Gates list.

    • Funny. Was just looking at it in the bookstore yesterday. Will get it and read. Thanks.

  • I’d add four to your great list:
    44. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
    45. Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
    46. Get What You Want, by Ken West
    47. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

  • Nico Maitsch

    The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  • WOW! Great collection.”The Information” is my favorite

  • Jack Rhodes

    “Small Victories” – you are linking to wrong book

  • anthonysteen

    Derek Sivers is big on, “The Entrepreneurs Roller Coaster” and Seth Godin’s “The Dip” is good as well

  • Maxwell Nagel

    Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

  • Donna Elizabeth Ferrier

    The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton. Beautiful opening sentence. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

    • This is my favorite book of all time.

    • Redaloud

      Ooh need to read this again. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Jennifer McGinley

    Think on These Things – Krishnamurti

  • Tina M. Adams-Sims

    “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell :-)

  • Celia

    The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
    The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

  • Marc Fromowitz

    The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
    Capitalism and Freedom By Milton Friedman
    The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
    Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

  • Paul Yuhas

    The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud

  • Freegoddess

    Anything by Derrick Jensen buy especially his latest ‘Myth of Human Supremacy’. Be prepared to have your heart broken, but then mended into the heart of a warrior for Mother Earth.

  • JLP

    The link to the Socrates book goes to a different book than the one mentioned.

  • Kundan Chhabra

    “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Rober Heinlein

  • Yuval “Something” – you cracked me up :)

    The name is Yuval Noah Harari, and his book is so good – if I had to choose to read one history book in my life that would be this one. BTW – his second book about the future is also great – though much more philosophical.

  • Richest Man in Babylon is a must read to understand how about saving money

  • Karen Unger

    Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
    A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
    Traction – Gino Wickman

  • Signme Uplease

    Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen.

  • Tina Hartigan

    “Living Buddha, Living Christ” Thic Ngat Hahn

  • Victor Filipe

    It’s Paulo Coelho

  • Dani W.

    Maus is truly a must read for anybody. masterpiece

  • Ray Holley

    “GUIDED” – by Linda Deir. ***** Remarkable!…this autobiography is a testament to the magnificence of Spirit, human resilience, and the truly unique paths that our lives take.” (from Amazon reviews)

  • CommonCents

    what? no art of the deal? ;)

  • SriKanth

    Where is Tony Robins – MONEY Master the Game

  • martin_aston

    Thank you for an interesting list. I might sound like a Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday echo, but I would definitely add Letters from a Stoic by Seneca and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

  • alex

    @jaltucher:disqus – Thanks for the list. A quick correction – the link on book no 38 points to stranger instead the blue zones.

    Also I collected all of the books that you recommended and put them together on one page – I feel there is a right time to read a book. If you read a book too early, then you will not understand the concepts in the book.

    In order to figure out whether a book is ready to be read, we put together all the book recommendations from people that we look up to as structured reviews. I was looking to accelerate my learning and so far the structured reviews seems to help. I am interested in know what you think about it.

  • nicci

    Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

  • nikkop

    Zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig

  • Christopher Snell

    I started reading #2 after you posted this list.

  • Redaloud

    A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B Irvine. If you haven’t read it – I think you would love it.
    Also Charlotte’s Web. Sure a “kids” book but still, beautiful and poetic.

  • mochi227

    Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. The audacity and poetry of his prose was like nothing I’d ever encountered before. Open to Desire by Mark Epstein, one of my favorite books to understand the middle path. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda!

  • william ramseyer

    Don Quixote by Cervantes, especially the very funny second

    Tales of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Greatest novel in Japan. Written about 1,000 years ago.

    History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Gossip, history and condensed philosophy.

    The Histories by Herodotus. Gossip, history, and strange local practices. Especially good is his summary of Xerxes business conferences during his campaign to conquer Greece. Xerxes would ask for opinions and then execute those who disagreed with him as cowards. This encouraged positive thinking and consensus, but did not help much when they finally met the Greeks.

    Brothers Karamazov and The Prince by Dostoyevsky

    Dead Souls by Gogol, first half only. Gogol kept burning the novel based on the
    advice of his spiritual advisor and they only found some crude notes for the
    second half. Gogol never had a wife or girl friend so this may have been a factor.

    Anything by Philip K. Dick (my favorite author), Stanislaus Lem, Italo Calvino, or Borges (especially his short stories), Balzac, Dickens or Shakespeare. Japanese Noh plays, Greek tragedies, the poetry of France, Russia, Japan, and China. Novels by Tanazaki, Natsume Soseki, Kawabata (and his palm of the hand short stories), Haruki Murakami, and some novels by Mishima. Franz Kafka and The Stranger (by Camus),
    when you need cheering up. Any other Camus novels, which are nothing like The Stranger, as Camus was a humanist, not a nihilist. Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince,
    and Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight.

    American writers: Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Mark Twain.
    Catcher in the Rye, and our great American literary creation, so
    underrated—Noir detective novels, such as by Chandler or Dashiell Hamet, among
    others. Noir is very close to modern American science fiction (also underrated), and many writers wrote in both genres.

    AI will write the great works to come, so value our human creations while you can. Thank you.

  • Benjamin Barankin

    Robin Sharma’s “Who will cry when you die” (how to live) & Harvey Mackay’s “Dig your well before you’re thirsty” (best book on networking ever).

  • Bora Brigjaj

    The “alchemist” and the “man’s search for meaning” are great.
    The first needs to be read almost once a year and the second needs revision every day to remind us how to touch people’s lives without preaching. A great book of a of WWII survival.
    And obviously the “old man and the sea”.
    And Thhe sapiens is great book as well, which made me think how everything today is so much more complicated than we think, and how little we know about ourselves and how much Google knows about us. A very illuminating book.
    Brought back old memories when we would read a book because it made sense and inspired us and not some books today that when you finish it not even 1% has remained in our memory.
    Thanks for sharing the list with us.

  • Bora Brigjaj

    I would recommend “the silence ” by Endo a book that is made a movie right now. A beautiful story of great people that are so devoted to God, but under terrible situations everything is shaken.

  • quietbyday

    Book (or rather author) that shaped my life: The Book of Not Knowing, by Peter Ralston.

  • Dinosaur

    Late to the party. Mine is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Fantastic bubblegum for my brain, and has been a wonderful cause of several re-sets of my thinking. Which is what you expect from any great piece of writing. Also has the best piece of advice ever given. ” If you want to be a writer, write.”

  • lokesh nandal

    Siddartha – Herman Hesse

  • GaltMachine

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – the most misunderstood, misbranded novel of our time. The writing, especially the conversations with the monster are astonishing, moving, and inspiring. All done without a typewriter or word processor ;)

    • DevMac

      Many years ago I started writing about all the life lessons one could take from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was a long list and one I feel I need to re-create and expand on.

  • Larissa Fernandes

    “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck

    Every time I read it – and I’ve read it quite a few times – it gives my life a different meaning. It makes me stop and reflect on everything.

    It reminds my to be true to my real nature, to my moral standards, to my integrity. It reminds me to be kind to myself and not expect much of others. It reminds me to beware of greed and of greedy people: the more you have, the more people will want from you. It reminds me that my family and my friends are my greatest treasures and they (as well as me) should come before all other things. It reminds me that sometimes having “enough” is better than having it all. It reminds me that there are wounds in life that will never heal, so we should think deeply about what risks we are willing to take to achieve what we believe is “true happiness”.

    Read this one.

  • Tim Hunter

    I would humbly suggest “The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation” by Lee Strobel –because what happened to Christ affected millions of people, literally.

  • Veena

    I will add Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Tuesday’s with Morrie by Mitch Albom, Summing Up by Sommerset Maugham and of course Fountainhead by Ayn Rand which I consider a book way way ahead of its time.

  • Jeff Stafford

    A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. My favorite book, so far.

  • Alisha P

    I would add the Giver by Lowis Lowery.
    It is about a whole society that can only see in black and white. Meanwhile in the hub of the town is a young boy who knows he is different . Everyone seems to be on auto pilot except this young boy left with his courosity. He starts asking questions which leads him to the giver. The all mighty that gives him the gift of coulor among other things.
    The Giver translates the memory of all the pain from the past so the young can have the memories sadly stored away never to be seen. Law was put forth that only one may receive the memories of the past. The boy with curiosity .
    The young boy became defiant after receiving his gifts. It is an amazing look into the world and how many ways it can be recived.
    My thoughts on it are you can only dream in colour unless you open up your eyes to see the beauty that surrounds you . I also think in regards to the Giver that when you bring the color you should paint the whole town. Actually what fun is one town? You should paint the whole darn city to see the beauty the world has to offer.

    When you stick yourself in a bubble it becomes very bland. You need to burst that bubble to leave. When you come back you then see all the beautiful gifts you gave to the world.

    I also recommend Charlotte’s web. OK now hear me out.
    Yes I know both titles are young adult. That’s where some of us tend to stall in life. Always remember to go back and start again over and over again. You will always find something new.
    Why must we as a society not play, be free have a good time! Read some books from when you were a kid. Rediscover what simple really means.

    I always think of this poster in some of the elementary clasrooms I attended when I was kid. Everything I need to learn I learned in kindergarten.
    I stand firm on that notion . De clutter your values . No don’t get rid of them! Just prune the tree a little. Just like bad ideas good ones need to be taken care of . Get rid of the dead leaves at least every six months.
    All of the things I wrote in regards started with those two titles I read them in grade one with a lot of one on one with my teachers Mrs. Lari I got schooled by those two books. Simply Complicated .

  • Neal Griffin

    Hi James – just a quick note that the link for Anne Lamott’s book, Small Victories, points to the wrong book – it is pointing to a recipe book. Not a big deal, but thought you’d want to know. Thanks for the great list.

  • DevMac

    “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks for providing an understanding of how little we understand about how the brain works (and doesn’t work) and how this affects who we are.

  • Eliah S. Mayer

    The books about Narnia, and The Scewtape Letters – C.S. Lewis. Generally all books written by him.

  • Sibo

    I haven’t read most of these. I’ll be adding them to my list. I got many aha moments when I read ‘Key to yourself’ by Venice Bloodworth.

  • Suzanne Davis

    The Idiot–Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s the very first book where I felt connected to another person like me.

  • Marcus Sustain

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

  • Catcher in the Rye. Think and Grow Rich. Occidental Mythology. And When things fall apart

  • Phil Willis

    Fiction that keeps giving every time I re-read it:
    Dune by Frank Herbert
    Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    Reflections on the Art of Living by Joseph Campbell

    Thanks for the great list

  • Arloa TenKley

    Resonated with a lot of the books, and many in the comment section…one I didn’t see mentioned yet is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, it’s long, but very powerful. I still think of sections in it thirty years after reading it.

  • Lorraine Kelly

    wonderful list….now I am going to think about my most important books

  • Lisa Frangipane

    Thank you for the awesome list

  • Steve Rodgers

    Awesome list!! Thanks for your suggestions and always engaging writings! You are very creative, spot on and damn good!

  • snaketrapper

    Great list! Here’s one more: YOU GENTILES – Maurice Samuel

  • Yu-ping Vickie Wang

    Oh good I’m not the only person who gains life by inhaling books.

  • Starshot

    Great list. Man’s Search for Meaning changed my life, On Writing and War of Art made me a better writer, Ruiz, Coelho, and Tolle rocked my world at crucial moments…I could go on. As I said, great list – I’ve read and loved the majority of them, and now know I’ll need to read the others, as you’ve clearly got excellent taste. Thank you.

  • Milijana WorldTravelConnector

    Today I have found your blog. I have been reading a post by post for the past two hours and becoming your new vampire, sucking all of your blood and stealing your soul and consuming it. :-)

    Thanks for the inspiration!