The Greatest Books of the Modern World

The classic journalist Edward P. Morgan once said, “A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

I’ve loved to read since I was a little kid. I tried to conquer War and Peace when I was eight years old; I failed, of course. When I was ten, I read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which has helped me quote the Shakespearean sonnets on dates. Beyond that, I’m not sure what it did for me. Over my high school career, I read over 400 books (nonfiction, fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical, philosophical, drama, theatrical, religious, romance, scientific, and anything else I could get my hands on). I even read two pages of a harlequin novel, but I quickly ended that foray into curiosity.

There is no denying that books are beneficial. Reading is a long lost art – I hate going into the library to see everyone on the computers and in the DVD aisle, but nobody walking through the bookshelves. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to read on paper than on a computer screen.

So for the aspiring literary enthusiast, what books should you read? The inner nerd in me wants to shout, “All of them!” But that’s not good advice, and it makes for a horrible blog post. Instead, I’m going to outline the Top 5 books that I think everyone should read, especially if you want to play an active role in the world. I will probably expand this to the Top 10, but let’s start with baby steps.

  1. The World is Flat: A Short History of the 21st Century, by Thomas L. Friedman. Pulitzer prize recipient Thomas Friedman is the authority on globalization. From call centers in Bangalore, India, to executives in the United States, to the future of the global workforce, The World is Flat presents the fascinating tale of society’s progression from the 1900s into the 21st century. This book will either excite you for the future of the global economy or frighten you about job prospect’s for a spoiled American citizen. Either way, it provides an excellent introduction to the modern state of business. It should be required reading of anyone who is entering an international field of business.
  2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah. We’ve all heard about boy soldiers – prepubescent African boys who are used as killing machines in return for alcohol and drugs. In Ishmael Beah’s moving story, his village is massacred and he and his friends are forced to run for their lives. After a lengthy pursuit, he is captured by a squad of soldiers and indoctrinated to kill. He eventually escapes from this horrendous life, recovers from drug addiction, and visits New York City to testify before the United Nations about child soldiers. The writing is not polished, but it lends an air of authenticity to this harrowing tale. This is the best remedy for a western civilization that doesn’t care about the plight of the sub-Saharan citizen.
  3. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. After reading his first book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, I was eager to pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s second book. By exploring the “stickiness” of various commodities like Hush Puppies and Sesame Street, he uses social theory to explain why some ideas take off and others die before they leave the hanger. For any entrepreneurs out there, this book will be a fascinating and worthwhile read. I would heartily recommend it for everyone, however, if only to change how people look at the world around them. If we can explain teenage smoking and books sales using the same theories, what aspects of society can’t we figure out?
  4. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser. If anyone ever tells you that writing skills are unimportant in today’s business world, don’t listen to another word they say. I work with some brilliant people and far too many of them cannot write a coherent email to save their life. It doesn’t matter how magnificent your idea is; if you can’t adequately articulate your vision, you will make no progress. William Zinsser used to teach nonfiction writing at Yale University and is an authority on the subject of journalism and general writing. His book is filled with elegant lessons in composition and even contains some humor. This book ranks up there with The Elements of Style.
  5. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, by Joseph Nye. While his other books are more in-depth and academic, Soft Power is an excellent primer to the idea of “attraction versus coercion.” Joseph Nye is the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was an assistant secretary of defense in the 1990s. This book provides a general introduction to the new wave of political power, beyond the unilateral idea that bigger guns control little guns. I recommend this book for everyone interested in politics and international relations – if you are intrigued by the ideas in the book, then continue on to read his other two books, Understanding International Conflicts and The Paradox of American Power.
  6. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the world, we will never see success. These books are just the starting points – we need to use introductory books to pique our interests. Specialization is for insects – read about everything, learn about anything, and join the revolution of knowledge.

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2 Responses to “The Greatest Books of the Modern World”

  1. Troy Camplin, Ph.D. Says:

    If you read enough literature, it will affect your world view. I’ve actually had Europeans tell me that I was the most European American they had ever met. I suspect it had to do with my being a voracious reader of European novelists like Goethe, Kafka, Kundera, Stendhal, Hugo, Dostoevski, Gide, Sartre, Camus, etc. Perhaps equally influential were the European philosophers I read, like Nietzsche, Descartes, Sartre, Heidegger, etc. Of course, some writers have a direct influence on your thinking. Mine have been Frederick Turner, J.T. Fraser, Don Beck’s book “Spiral Dynamics,” Nietzsche, and Kundera. Mises, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Walter Williams were all responsible for making me a libertarian.

  2. Patrick Says:

    Egad, I’m sorry, that’s an pretty poor set of books.

    Replace “World is Flat” and “Soft Power” with “World on Fire” and “Understanding Human History”. The latter two will give you a much more accurate perception of reality.

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