I send out a newsletter every Monday at 9:00 AM Eastern Time. To get my writing in your mailbox each Monday, subscribe to the mailing list. Much obliged.
Caveat #1: books are highly contextual; not every topic is for everyone.
Caveat #2: one must be in a certain headspace, or phase in life, to appreciate a book. I’ll do my best to explain why I’m recommending each book and relate it to my life situation.
Caveat #3: I highly recommend re-reading books. If re-reading a book brings you joy or new insights, then just do it. Don’t feel bad about not reading a new book.
Be happy. Life is short. Throw this list away if need be.
Let’s get to it. In no particular order:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki
I’ve been experimenting with looking at life through different lenses. For someone who was raised Catholic, and is no longer connected to the community — but still spiritual — it’s been interesting to explore new avenues of thought.
Part of growing older is realizing that there is nothing special about any of us. Every single significant thing we’ve achieved or lived through has been completed by millions (billions?) of individuals before us. Schools of thought, and religious systems, have faced every major existential issue there is.
It’s humbling and re-assuring to know this, in many ways. While we might not agree with any particular system, it’s always good to expand one’s mental horizons.
Which brings us to the topic of “Beginner’s Mind.” This is an important concept for all, but especially for content creators. When we write or produce or record something, it’s important to not become rigid with the craft of making things.
Content creators build up a portfolio, and that portfolio causes us to develop a confidence about ourselves. Confidence can lead to overinflation of ego.
Whether we’re recording our hundredth podcast, starting our tenth business, or managing our twentieth subordinate, it’s human nature to believe in linear progression.
But what if we can tear it all down, and start over? What if we should?
That’s what this beautiful book is about.
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
I’ve never been the biggest follower of Steve Martin, and that’s not a denigration of his art. There are so many talented comedians over the past several decades. Chances are, unless you’re a huge comedy nerd, you tend to know about comedians through their TV and film work.
That’s how it was for me. I knew of Steve Martin through the mainstream movies, and SNL, and that was it.
That’s why this book spoke to me, because it’s about that gap in my knowledge — the Steve Martin standup career.
Here, Martin talks about the standup Grind. Not that fake Grind that people espouse on social media about waking up at 4:00 am every morning and cranking out a book before breakfast. Or the semi-authentic Grind of how to take responsibility for oneself, and that’s how success in life is found.
No. Martin is just someone who deeply loves comedy and gave up everything else to do it. He played the banjo and performed random magic shows in Disneyland for years, and nobody cared. Nobody paid attention.
One day he “made it.” The “overnight success” as a culmination of decades of sacrifice and hard work. The real Grind.
And at the height of his powers, when Martin was literally printing money with each sold-out performance?
He quit doing standup. He walked off the stage and never looked back.
It’s refreshing to read a memoir that’s about something specific in a person’s life, that’s focused and non-meandering, and is Really Fucking Honest.
That’s why I recommend this book.
Sicker in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow
I love interviews. I have my own interview show for a reason.
Interviews are conversations when done right. And Apatow does them right.
I also love comedy. I subscribe to Netflix to watch comedy specials.
(TV shows take too much time investment. 10 or 20 episodes — are you kidding me? I’d rather be reading.)
This is a sequel to Apatow’s first book of interviews with comedians, called Sick in the Head. This updated book includes newer interviews with comedians conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic period.
I didn’t know all the comedians he interviewed, but every conversation is solid.
I also found myself checking out the comedian’s material later on Netflix, so it’s a discovery win-win.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
As I get older, I can’t help but remember that my friends and family are getting older, too.
As the Flaming Lips once sang, “Do you realize / that everyone you know someday will die?” (all-time great song, by the way.)
Gawande goes all-in on what aging means in the twenty-first century, along with our newfound belief that prolonging death via science is the most important thing to do.
But it’s actually not. Sometimes, we have to let nature run its course.
To live and die is human. There’s no denying or fighting that.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great things about the book, including a look into the history of assisted nursing and senior care.
And you should read the bok and come to your own conclusions. I’m just sharing what has felt profound to me.
Going back to the Flaming Lips:
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
Probably the only “productivity” book I can recommend with a conscience, because so much of the literature now is about squeezing every extra second out of a day.
That’s not the way and it’s absolute horseshit. Trying to become an effective efficiency machine just kills our zest for life.
We master Inbox Zero so that we can…answer more emails? Give me a break.
We need to step off the hamster wheel and leave the working rat race, responding to Slack messages at all times during the day and night, et cetera.
That’s why I found this book refreshing. It’s a time management book that tells us to use common sense, listen to ourselves, and do what feels right.
And to — most importantly — give up control.
Stop thinking about time as something that can be mastered or fully controlled. Stop trying to master your schedule.
Remember: we only stress about something when that thing is important to us. It’s absolutely part of being a regular human being — to be stressed out. If we’re not stressed, then we’re not challenging our mortal fallible capabilities in any meaningful way.
That last paragraph? That’s not in Burkeman’s writing. That’s my own insight.
Everything is interconnected. I find Burkeman’s writing here to complement the ideas of aging / finite time / life / death / Zen Buddhism found in my other book recommendations quite well.
Anyways, read this book. It’s worth it.
Take care of yourself, and be well.
To get my writing in your mailbox every Monday, subscribe to the mailing list. Much obliged.