Go ahead, prove me wrong...
Book recommendations are a dime a dozen. Whether it’s the online read-all-these-books-in-your-interminable-free-time list or the, “I loved this one, you need to read it, too,” friend, everyone’s got an opinion on the next book you’ll look up on Amazon before brushing it aside for the things that really matter (i.e. Netflix binges).
That’s why I’m not going to tell you to read these books. In fact, let’s make a deal: I’ll leave the “read more” guilt trip out so long as you commit to the next 1000 words.[i] Deal?
Instead of the typical book list, I’m going to share books that mean something to me. Each of these gave me a gift that is situated in the time, place, and headspace of the original reading. I cannot claim these books will give you the same gifts, but it’s my sincere hope that you’ll take the time to look for hidden treasure in the pieces you’ve had the unique experience of reading.
Winter 2015: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
I can hear the mixed grumblings of countless AP Lit students, current and former alike, reverberating through the Internet now. Regardless of how many are forced to read García Márquez’s masterpiece, it is a masterpiece nonetheless. I didn’t have any idea how personally important this book would become when I fell into the town of Macondo and the saga of the Buendía family; as a stressed-out twelfth grader who very mistakenly thought nothing in life could be harder than college applications, this is a book I was compelled to read by my English teacher. It is the single most compelling piece of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a story where every paragraph could be a poem, with all of the intention and emotion that comes with it, yet in total it can be described as nothing less than permanently impermanent. The ultimate narrative with its the twisted character plots and curtailed timelines, García Márquez’s masterwork reignited a spark for exploration that I hope to never lose.
Summer 2016: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl’s best-known work is half-autobiography, half-psychological theory. It follows his personal experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps and the personal agency he discovered in the harshest of human conditions. He asserts that the kind of person one becomes is the result of an inner decision, no matter the circumstances, and how this decision leads to the recognition of purpose in life. In his words:
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”[ii]
I read this book over a weekend toward the end of my senior year, and by then I’d received all the responses on my college applications. I had committed to a great school, but for one reason or another, something about high school felt incomplete. Man’s Search imparted a sense of perspective on my contemporaneous mental rut and laid the groundwork for personal agency that became integral to my first year in college.
Spring 2017: “The Ethnographer” by Jorge Luis Borges
At this point I can already hear some of you saying, “Gabe, I’d love to read more, but I just don’t have the time.”[iii] Well you’re in luck, because this piece of life-changing literature is less than 700 words long! There is something so perfectly nostalgic about this short story. While it may not be entirely true to say that these are the most important set of paragraphs in my life, they certainly gave me to courage to believe that the decision that is “right” for me and that which will prioritize my happiness often aren’t exclusive of each other.[iv]
Present: Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson’s gift for bringing history’s geniuses to the level of the layman is particularly evident in this biography on the Renaissance man above the rest. In a time where fine art seems increasingly stratified from the lived reality of most and famous pieces fetch almost impalpable sums, Leonardo is portrayed as a brilliant man, but a man nonetheless. It’s incredibly humbling to read about someone so ubiquitous in such a personal format, and my understanding of the creation and perception of art will never be the same.
Fall 2018: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa – A semi-biographical novel following the family of a Sicilian nobleman during the unification of Italy. Best read when lounging in the sun on a summer day (or when you want to dream about the Italian countryside).
Spring 2019: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – Perhaps the most-recommended novel in recent memory, The Alchemist lives up to the hype and then some. This story gave me a platform to reconsider my daily happiness.
The Book I Need to Pick Back Up: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans – After taking an incredible course on human-centered design last fall, this book is the most natural application of the HCD design process onto the canvas of your life. It sounds ridiculous to say this out loud, but I’m actually a little scared to pick it back up because of the personal growth the authors promised in the introduction.
[i]. For those of you that do want to read more, I always recommend reading for a few minutes before bed. They say a half-hour of no screen time before bed actually improves your sleep; substitute that late-night Instagram scroll for a good book!
[ii]. Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (1946; repr., Boston: Beacon, 2014), 75.
[iii]. A teacher once told me that there is never a lack of time, just a lack of prioritization. Begrudgingly, I’ve come to agree with her.
[iv]. Pro-tip: Jorge Luis Borges was a masterful short story writer. If you find this type of writing easier to consume on a tight schedule, be sure to check out his Collected Fictions.