The ultimate guide to my shelf sharks

For me, books are the most fascinating objects that our species have ever created. I regularly marvel at the fact that a piece of wood can safely contain a slice of a person’s mind and transfer it into someone else’s brain.

Douglas Adams, the famous author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once described books in the following, very Adamsian way:

Books are sharks [...] because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.

Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books, and no matter what happens, books will survive.

Source at 57:45

So, today, let’s look at some sharks! I wanted to collect the most influential books I have read so far and share them with you. These pieces acted as multipliers in my life; they contain core ideas and shape me in conscious—and probably unconscious—ways. If you asked me to recommend a book, these are the ones I would tell you to pick up at the store.

Constraints breed creativity, so let’s lay down two ground rules: no more than ten books in total (five fiction, five non-fiction), and there can’t be another list. If I want to add a new book later, I’ll have to update this post and take a book off. (Cue an apt Michael Scott line for The Office fans at 2:00.)

Ready? Then let’s jump in!

FICTION

Animal Farm by George Orwell

When it comes to Orwell, it’s pretty hard to decide between 1984 and Animal Farm as his best work, but if I had to pick one (and I do), I’d go with the satirical tale of the animals taking over Manor Farm from the humans. Animal Farm has the bleakness and accuracy of 1984, but unlike that book, it can also be funny and heart-wrenching at times. The book was published in 1945, and it’s both sad and hilarious that we are still finding ways to keep it relevant today.

A good fit for: People who like thinking about the nature of power for fun. Horse lovers and pig haters. People who don’t mind being sad at the end of a book.

Not a good fit for: People who need a happy end and can’t take it when an animal suffers in a piece of fiction.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I remember the train ride on which I’ve read this book. It was an overcast, early Spring day, and as the train was winding its way through the countryside, the sunshine was gradually sucked out of the world. Or maybe this was only the book’s effect on me, and the world was just fine. I’ll never know. What I do know is that I sat for a good five minutes in stunned silence after the last page and before I collected my things to exit the train as the last passenger that day.

A good fit for: Lovers of serious post-apocalyptic fiction, road trips, and intimate drama. People with father issues.

Not a good fit for: Mad Max fans and people who like to read hopeful fiction. People with father issues.

The House of God by Samuel Shem

My short pitch is this: if you are a healthcare professional, read The House of God. You will feel heard, understood; you’ll laugh until you can’t breathe anymore and probably shed a few tears. Apart from some textbooks, it’s the greatest thing I have ever read about medicine.

A good fit for: Fans of Émile Zola, Literary Naturalism, and dark humor. Doctors who always wanted a mentor called the Fat Man saying things like this: “There is no body cavity that cannot be reached with #14 needle and a good strong arm.”

Not a good fit for: Fans of TV doctors and the romantic notions of medicine. People who haven’t worked in or studied healthcare.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I love almost everything Gaiman has ever written, but American Gods towers over the rest of his work. The story centers around Shadow, a recently released ex-convict who ends up at the side of an old grifter, Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday has a plan, and whether or not Shadow likes it, he’s along for the ride. American Gods is a novel about being a stranger in a strange land, the power of human belief, and the stories we tell to define ourselves.

A good fit for: Comparative religion majors, fans of road trip movies, and ex-pats living in the U.S. People who enjoy when their stories take deeply weird turns.

Not a good fit for: People who like straightforward tales and black and white morality. People who don’t care for magical realism or hate when familiar stories are retold in new ways.

Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks

This is probably a controversial choice among Banks fans, but I like Against a Dark Background the most from his Culture series. Maybe it’s the heroine, Sharrow—the cunning aristocrat turned elite soldier turned reclusive veteran on the run. Maybe it’s the premise—Sharrow has to flee because a religious sect successfully lobbied for a year-long, legally sanctioned hunt to kill her. Or maybe it’s the cast of characters who are easy to love and care for. I don’t know, but Against a Dark Background is Banks’s most engrossing work for me, a book I’ve read more times than I can count.

A good fit for: People who love heists and stories with multiple timelines. Sci-fi fans who enjoy deep, rich worldbuilding, clever characters, and moral dilemmas. People who don’t mind a convoluted plot.

Not a good fit for: People who don’t care for sci-fi, want their stories to start at the beginning and finish at the end, and wouldn’t like to visit a town solely inhabited by liberated androids.

NON-FICTION

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

There’s a fairly common belief that mass cooperation can only be achieved by top-down, hierarchical structures where the few control the many. Reinventing Organizations takes issue with this view. Through dozens of case studies, it proves the emergence of a new kind of organization, one where power and agency are distributed without falling into democracy’s traps.

A good fit for: People who want to develop their leadership skills. Fans of systems theory and solarpunk. People who like to understand how structures influence human behavior.

Not a good fit for: Kings, queens, and any other authoritarians. Managers who believe people are fundamentally lazy and generally up to no good.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Sometimes I jokingly refer to this book as the best boring book I have ever read. And it’s kind of true. It’s written by a professor who applies scientific accuracy to every claim he makes. To be fair, this is kind of necessary because the book challenges some pretty deeply held beliefs of the global West. If you have ever wondered why white Europeans conquered the rest of the world and not vice versa, Diamond will answer all of your questions—and then some.

A good fit for: History buffs and patient readers. People who want to understand why history turned out the way it did. Those who think Sapiens was kind of neat but shallow.

Not a good fit for: Racists. This is not a joke—this book will take away every one of the pseudo-scientific legs you might be standing on.

Non-violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

If I’d have to pick the book I use the most in daily life, Non-violent Communication would win by a landslide. Nothing else comes even close to it. It helped me in my relationship, with my friends, at my work, and in my family. Every time I want to listen or talk to another human being, I use what I learned in this book. Just get through the horrible amateur poetry in the first twenty pages—I promise, it’ll be worth it.

A good fit for: People who feel like they’re not heard and people who feel like they are getting into conflicts with others all the time.

Not a good fit for: No one.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

For the longest time, my favorite Gladwell book was Blink, but Talking to Strangers topped that recently. It’s a very Gladwellian book—a lot of cool stories, an almost thriller-like pacing, and a few facts and scientific findings that will alter your view of reality. Talking to Strangers sets out to investigate why we misunderstand each other, especially when we are strangers. It mostly succeeds at the premise, and you’ll have a great time through the ride.

A good fit for: Fans of Malcolm Gladwell. People who are interested in evolutionary psychology and systems theory. Those who enjoy mystery box storytelling.

Not a good fit for: People who dislike Malcolm Gladwell. Those who like their non-fiction with more substance and less style.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White

If you want to write better—no matter the language—pick up this book. I sincerely believe it would be the best investment you made apart from buying yourself a pen or a keyboard. There’s a reason why The Elements of Style has stayed relevant since its first publication in 1918; it’s that good. Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s short, it’ll make you laugh many times, and once you’re finished, you’ll be a better writer. I promise.

A good fit for: Budding writers of any kind. I would go so far as to recommend it, even if you only write grocery lists and emails.

Not a good fit for: Those who never write. People who enjoy putting bad prose on paper and confusing the reader.

That’s it! Those are the ten most influential books of my life (so far). I hope you have found something on the list that piqued your interest. And if you have a similar list of your own, email me. I’m always on the lookout for a good book!