Bruce Lee once wrote, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” I’ve come to feel the same way about books, perhaps it’s better to deeply understand one than it is to skim a hundred.
So I read fewer books this year than I did in the previous year, and focused more on actually learning from them. Among those new books I did read in 2017, these are the seven I’d most recommend.
1. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
In 1975, Ray Dalio founded investment firm Bridgewater Associates and then grew it into a billion-dollar company. In Principles, Dalio shares the principles he used to build his success.
Dalio is adamant that you need to embrace reality and deal with it well. To achieve your goals, you have to identify the cause of your problems with clear-mindedness. To learn, be radically open-minded and seek trusted people who will challenge your ideas.
One of the key principles I took away from the book is to think of your life as a machine that produces results, and to distinguish between yourself as the designer and the worker of this machine.
To be successful, the ‘designer you’ has to be objective about what the ‘worker you’ is like, and not be clouded by your prejudices. Using reality as your basis, you can then change what the ‘worker you’ is doing that sabotage your progress.
2. Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within by Chade-Meng Tan
Chade-Meng Tan was one of Google’s earliest engineers and the company’s Jolly Good Fellow, as well as a fellow Singaporean. Among other things at Google, Tan led the creation of a mindfulness course called Search Inside Yourself, which is also the title of his first book.
I didn’t read Search Inside Yourself, but I read Joy on Demand because I wanted to live less seriously and more joyfully. The book turned out to be better than I expected; both as a beginner’s introduction to meditation as well as a practical handbook to becoming a happier person.
One of my favorite lessons from the book is a deceptively easy technique. Simply notice the small moments of joy that arise in everyday life. It sounds simplistic, but practicing this small technique has made me noticeably happier in the past year.
3. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings by Gil Fronsdal
Gil Fronsdal is co-teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, and has practiced Buddhism for over 40 years. You can hear him teaching on the free and excellent Audio Dharma podcast.
In The Buddha before Buddhism, Fronsdal has translated one of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts, the Aṭṭhakavagga, or Book of Eights, with commentary. The Book of Eights is refreshingly direct and mostly free from religious and metaphysical jargon. At the same time, though, it still very much reads like a classical sutta, and won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
I have to admit that my favorite verse in the book doesn’t come from the Aṭṭhakavagga. Instead, it’s a poem from the Middle Length Discourses that’s included in the introduction, named ‘An Auspicious Day.’
Don’t chase the past
Or long for the future.
The past is left behind;
The future is not yet reached.
Have insight into whatever phenomenon are present,
Right where it is;
Not faltering and not agitated,
By knowing whatever is present
One develops the mind.
Ardently do what should be done today —
Who knows, death may come tomorrow.
There is no bargaining with Mortality
And his great army
Whoever dwells thus ardent,
— active day and night —
Is, says the peaceful sage,
One who has an auspicious day.
4. Reflections on Silver River by Ken McLeod
Reflections on Silver River is at turns poetic, at turns shocking. It’s a beautiful book, but not an easy one. Reflections on Silver River is a translation of the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva, which was written by Tibetan monk Tokmé Zongpo of Silver River, who lived from the year 1295 to 1369.
Tokmé Zongpo considered these 37 practices essential; the verses are deep, and McLeod’s commentary equally incisive. Consider the ninth verse:
The happiness of the three worlds disappear in a moment,
Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.
The highest level of freedom is one that never changes.
Aim for this — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
And McLeod’s commentary:
The pursuit of happiness for its own sake is a fool’s errand. […]
The happiness you feel when you get something you have always wanted typically lasts no longer than three days. […] These states soon dissipate once you re-engage the messiness of life. A dewdrop on a blade of grass, indeed!
The quest for happiness is a continuation of the traditional view of spiritual practice — a way to transcend the vicissitudes of the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out a promise of eternity, bliss, purity or union with an ultimate reality. These four spiritual longings are all escapist reactions to the challenges everyone encounters in life.
Akin to Pema Chödrön’s teachings on ‘groundlessness,’ Reflections on Silver River shook up my views of the world. The book challenged and moved me so much I re-read it immediately the moment I finished it.
5. Approaching the Buddhist Path by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron
In Tibetan Buddhism, lanrim texts are guides to the Buddhist path, but these classical texts presuppose a familiarity with Buddhist culture — a challenge for the reader who may have none.
American nun Thubten Chodron spent decades consulting with the Dalai Lama to create a contemporary lanrim for the non-Tibetan reader, and the result is The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, a multi-volume collection presenting the Dalai Lama’s elucidation of the path.
As the first book in the series, I found Approaching the Buddhist Path a comprehensive introduction that’s logically sequenced and persuasively argued. At the same time, it’s clearly written as a textbook, and can get dry in places. Even so, it’s become one of my favorite Buddhist texts, and I look forward to the next in the series.
6. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’m cheating a little here by including a series of books in a single heading. The Earthsea Cycle is a classic in the fantasy genre, and even though the books are classified for young readers, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
There are five books in the Earthsea Cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and each of them has received a literary award of some sort. Ursula K. Le Guin herself is a winner of many other awards, including the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation.
In a world full of fantasy books with monochromatic narratives and world-ending battles, the Earthsea Cycle is refreshingly different. The books revolve around their characters’ inner lives, with climaxes that aren’t always solved by violence. In The Wizard of Earthsea, for example, the wizard Ged has to quietly face a darkness of his own failings, in a showdown that is more psychological than pyrotechnical.
7. Sabriel by Garth Nix
Sabriel is a young adult fantasy novel that I’d heard recommendations for through the years. When I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.
Garth Nix constructs a fascinating world where necromancers move freely in and out of the gates of Death. Unlike necromancers who raise the dead for their own nefarious means, Sabriel is the 18-year old daughter of the Abhorsen, a necromancer who lays those dead back to rest. When Sabriel gets an emergency message from her father, she has to journey into the Old Kingdom to rescue him.
Sabriel is tightly woven and richly constructed, and I can see why it’s still being recommended more than 20 years since it was first published.
P.S. I know some people who consider reading fiction a waste of time, preferring to focus on non-fiction books instead. I get where they’re coming from and I used to think the same. But I’ve found that a story can enrich your world as much as a book of facts, and an emotional journey can change your perspective as strongly as a logical argument.