Skip to main content

What to Read, How to Read. Recommendations from Folks, I Admire and Follow (2021 Edition)

books comic

Image, courtesy Tom Gauld

This post was first sent to my newsletter on February 1st, 2021.
You really ought to subscribe :)

Welcome to the first, “serious” newsletter of 2021.
This was supposed to be my year end post, but life, as usual got in the way.

Now that I’ve jammed both the blogs together, most of the personal stuff is going to stay focussed on stuff about books and reading and writing and a few photos thrown in once in a while for good measure.
Seems like that is what I was doing most of last year, anyway.

Let’s get into it.

To start with, let’s get one thing out of the way.
You’re never to busy to read.

The fact is, people much busier than you have been prioritizing reading for centuries. They have been making wisdom part of their daily lives, no matter what’s going on in the world or in their jobs.

If Napoleon, commanding an army of some 40,000 men, could find time to read on a march some 1,600 miles from home, you can find it.
If Marcus could read while he was ruling the world, if Seneca could do it while studying the law, suffering from tuberculosis, while in exile, in the Senate, as consul, while he dealt with Nero’s insanity, you can.

— Ryan Holiday


My reading hero, Ryan shares the best books he read in 2020 as well as recommendations for 2021.

Books are an investment in yourself—investments that come in many forms: novels, nonfiction, how-to, poetry, classics, biographies. They help you think more clearly, to be provoked less, to be kinder, to see the bigger picture, and to improve at the things that matter to you.
Books are a tradition that stretches back thousands of years and stretches forward to today, where people are still publishing distillations of countless hours of hard thinking on hard topics.
Why wouldn’t you avail yourself of this wisdom?

How, does he do it? Year after year after prolific year?
Ryan shares it all here.


Susan Fowler, autodidact, whistleblower,all round hero, shares her list for the year.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized the importance of routine and structure.
I try to make every single day the same: wake up at the same time, eat at the same time, exercise at the same time, work at the same time, hang out with my daughter at the same time, read at the same time, and go to sleep at the same time.
These routines have become the foundation of my life and give my mind the space it needs so that I can be my best creative self. My brain doesn’t work well when it’s focused on figuring out when to eat, what to eat, when to sleep, when to read, etc. When I’m not in a strict daily routine, my mind wastes all of its time figuring out how to do the basics instead of being creative.
Without routine, I can’t write.
Without writing…well, without writing, I’ve got nothing.


Richard Meadows is someone, I’ve begun following this year. I love reading him, ergo, I love what he reads.
This is his list for 2020.
Love that he loves Peter Watts as well.

From his Love Letter to Reading

Our brains are lumps of meaty plasticine, shaped to a large degree by the people we surround ourselves with. This influence extends to our reading material and even our thoughts themselves, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Toxic, ignorant and relentlessly negative influences should be excised before the cancer spreads.

Why not keep company with the smartest, funniest, bravest people who have ever lived? They will become your guides, your muses, the burning coals that light the fire inside. Sure, they can’t help you shift house, but they’re always there for you, only a bookshelf away. If you spend enough time hanging out with them, they will sculpt your brain into something beautiful.

If you want to know, how to read lots, he’s got you covered there too.

P.S. His book, Optionality, is the best distillation and explanation of the mental model, I’ve seen.


Brett and Co, over at The Art of Manliness don’t bother with pathetic, puny yearly reading lists.
The site has a dedicated section, on books and reading and they do it year round, year after year.

If you want to be challenged, they have a thousand books to read before you die. It’s an episode of their podcast, that is well worth a listen and takes an hour of your life.

Reading is serious business there.
From Embrace Reading for the Sake of Reading

there’s an argument for reading for reading’s sake. For spending time with books for no other reason but enjoyment, pleasure — even simply their sheer beauty.

Think about what happens when you go to an art museum. You wander around, looking at pieces of art, unmoved by some, but caught enraptured and unable to look away by others. You aren’t asking, “Are there practical takeaways from this art I’m looking at?”
You’re letting the impression it makes wash over you. You’re wondering what moved the artist to paint a particular brush stroke. You’re admiring the craft and skill of their work. You’re wondering what it is that so entrances you. Above all, you’re just enjoying it. Things that are beautiful inherently bring light to the soul and the psyche.

This is true for any work of art — books included. Most authors spend years crafting their characters, agonizing over every sentence, arranging paragraphs and dialogue in just the right way. And it’s not just novelists — you can’t read the likes of Robert Caro, Candice Millard, Erik Larson, and so many more, without seeing the art and craft of their books.
If you go into a book with the mindset that you’re simply enjoying a work of art, your mind is freed from the need to find the utility in it. It can be enriching and edifying (though in no specific direction and without quantifiable benefit). It can also be just plain entertaining. Consuming art, from paintings and sculptures to movies and books, isn’t just heady, it’s also fun! An escape. And using art — including books — to find that escape, is okay. It’s more than okay, in fact, it’s necessary.

This isn’t to say that you can’t learn something from books while enjoying their diversionary beauty. Learning is its own pleasure — one that you can pursue for the pleasure alone, with no real end in mind. No practical use, no career or personal development application, no note-taking to review later on, just as its own “useless” Good. I hereby give you permission to put down the highlighter and let your brain wander freely through a book, without the intent of finding applications for what you’re taking in.
Let yourself read with no ulterior motives and embrace the simple pleasure that comes from losing yourself in a text.

They also have an awesome plan on How to Read Long and Difficult Books

  1. Make a plan for yourself.
  2. Set a small amount of time or pages per day that you’ll read.
  3. Engage/interact with the text.
  4. Get an edition that you like.
  5. Have a dictionary/encyclopedia handy.
  6. Just get through the hard parts. and finally …
  7. Take advantage of the momentum!

And having plowed through War and Peace, what is The Best Way to Retain What You Read?

If you’d like to retain and secure more of the information you consume instead of letting noteworthy knowledge pass right through you, here’s the best way to do so: share it with someone else.


Ben Orlin, he of the awesome maths and the bad drawings has his list.
Before I share it though, I’d encourage you to read his books.
Magical, funny, awesome, wise and insightful.
I never thought a bird’s eye view of Calculus would be so beautiful yet so easy to grasp.

Now, here’s his list for 2020. There’s all sorts, literary, sci-fi, nonfiction, everything.


Austin Kleon, author of the Keep Going trilogy, and prolific blogger has his list of great books.
Oh, and he’s been at this for years.
And if you have trouble reading,

  • Be promiscuous. Read more than one book at a time until one pulls you into monogamy.
  • Read old books! Read old favorites! (Every time you re-read a book you’re reading a new book.)
  • more here …

Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Everything, and more importantly the publisher of The Tao of Seneca has a lovely monstrous page up, documenting his year in books.

Complement that with this video of his, on how he takes notes.


The penultimate one is the one that I learnt the most from, over the past decade.
To say, Shane Parrish and fs.blog have changed my life, is both, an understatement and doing them massive disservice.

The Mental Models books are going to stand the test of time. And we are still only two volumes in.
To see what I mean, have a look at the articles they love on their blog this year.

From How to Remember What You Read

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

and of course, Speed Reading is Bullshit

Better and quicker are not the same.
A good book, like good sex or a date, is something you don’t want to end. You’re not rushing to the finish (ok, maybe sometimes you are but let’s skip the quickies, shall we).
Instead you’re totally immersed in the activity — you want it to last forever. It’s supposed to take some time.

And without further ado, here’s the obligatory reading list for 2020.


We end as always, with Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings.
If Shane changed my life, Maria saved me.
It was her writing, over the years that got me through depression and the troughs of life.
It’s given me courage and hope and resilience and empathy.
When Munger spoke of the eminent dead, I think of Maria. Only she is eminently living :)
And I am grateful to be alive in a time when she’s giving of herself.
She taught me science, she taught me about the universe, she taught me poetry, she taught me art, she taught me syntopical thinking and Jesus knows what else.

I bought Figuring a year ago, and I still have not started it, beyond reading the Table of Contents and the blurbs.
I haven’t because I don’t want it to ever finish :)
It took her twelve years to write. I might as well savour it in drips and drabs as long as I can.

Here’s the 2020 list.
And just like the other crazy folk on here, she to has been at this for nearly a decade and a half now.

Two of Tim Ferriss’ most popular podcast episodes, have been with her.

So I bid you adieu with a quote from a post on her blog on how reading saves lives, A 100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor on How Books Save Lives.
I hope you enjoy reading lots more, this year.

Dear Friend,

Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?

At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.

One day, as if guessing my thoughts, one girl beseeched me: “Could you please tell us a book, please?”

I had spent the previous night reading Gone with the Wind — one of a few smuggled books circulated among trustworthy people via an underground channel, on their word of honor to read only at night, in secret. No one was allowed to keep a book longer than one night — that way, if reported, the book would have already changed hands by the time the searchers came.

I had read Gone with the Wind from dusk until dawn and it still illuminated my own dream-world, so I invited these young dreamers to join me. As I “told” them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.

A knock at the door shattered our shared dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: “Thank you so very much for this journey into another world. Could we please do it again, soon?” I promised we would, although I doubted we’d have many more chances. She put her arms around me and I whispered, “So long, Scarlett.” “I think I’d rather be Melanie,” she answered, “although Scarlett must have been so much more beautiful!”

As events in the ghetto took their course, most of my fellow dreamers fell victim to the Nazis. Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust.

The pale green-eyed girl was one of them.

Many years later, I was finally able to locate her and we met in New York. One of my life’s greatest rewards will remain the memory of our meeting, when she introduced me to her husband as “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.

Sincerely,
Helen Fagin



P.S. Subscribe to my mailing list!
Forward these posts and letters to your friends and get them to subscribe!
P.P.S. Feed my insatiable reading habit.