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My favorite books

Why you should read more

Introductory words

Reading is a rediscovered hobby of mine. In my childhood, I loved reading books. I downright devoured them, staying up way past my bedtime reading with a flashlight under the covers. Unfortunately, I lost that interest in books at some point and got more into playing video games. Reading then felt like work to me and required effort whereas gaming, watching TV, or procrastinating on my phone was pleasurable and even rewarding. When succumbing to such activities after a day of school, I didn’t have to strain my attention any longer. My brain could unwind.

However, the instant gratification we obtain today from mindless consumption, social media, and fast-paced technology is rewiring our brains. Many of us have grown increasingly impatient and struggle with extremely short attention spans, myself included. I wasn’t aware that staring mindlessly at a screen had such a grave effect on my mental capacity—I learned that only later on—but I definitely had become unhappy with how much time I was wasting being unproductive. I was just dawdling my time away instead of doing something meaningful with my life.

It’s no coincidence that phones suck you in for hours. They’re deliberately engineered to be highly addictive. I wanted to do something about that. Reading became a way for me to not only become more educated and to widen my horizon but also to decelerate my life and fight my phone/internet addiction.

Yes, taking up reading as a hobby can be hard in the beginning. I went through that too. I often caught myself putting my Kindle aside in the middle of a sentence to check Twitter or Instagram on my phone, asking myself just seconds later, “What are you doing?” That’s the shortened attention span I mentioned earlier. It takes time to get used to reading again. After all, your brain isn’t mindlessly consuming anymore. You’re putting it to real work now. It has to build entire worlds in your imagination or ponder heavy thoughts. But soon enough you’ll get hooked and find yourself reading late into the night again, same as you perhaps did as a child. When you’ve reached that point, grabbing a book will come just as naturally as reaching for that game controller. With one difference. A few years from now, no one will be talking about today’s Call of Duty anymore whereas the ideas you pick up from reading books stay with you forever. So ask yourself: what are your priorities?

“My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer and I have my mind … and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much.” — Tyrion Lannister

Although I think it’s fair to say that we simply had more free time available when we were kids compared to now as adults, I also have to say that most people’s excuse that they “don’t have the time for reading” is bullshit. They say they have no time, yet they still wind up spending an hour a day scrolling through their Instagram feeds. It’s all a matter of priorities. You don’t have time, you make time. Take Bill Gates for example. Bill Gates reads 52 books a year, i.e., every week he finishes an entire book. Are you saying that you’re busier than Bill Gates? Yeah, I didn’t think so. President Obama reads for at least one hour before going to sleep to relieve the stress of the day. Every single day. If someone like him can make the time for reading, you can do it too. If you’d like to do what I did, delete your social media apps, news apps, et cetera, from your smartphone. Allow yourself to check social media only at certain times when you’re sitting in front of your computer—maybe during your lunch break—and you will be surprised how many hours you still can squeeze out of a day when you thought you had no time. The world will not end if you don’t check your Instagram every hour or don’t respond to a text immediately.

If you want to get more into reading but just don’t know what to read to make you put aside your phone or game controller more often, here are some books that had a great impact on me.

The books I’ve enjoyed the most

You don’t necessarily have to start your reading habit with one of my favorite books. As I’ve said, reading is hard in the beginning and if you don’t enjoy it the chances are high that you will eventually quit and abandon your new habit all together. So start with something light, something fun, something that you can enjoy in order to ignite the spark. If that means that you’ll have to ask your parents to search the attic for your childhood Harry Potter books, then that’s perfectly fine. When your fire has started burning, figuratively speaking, I highly recommend reading the following books.

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Biographies and memoirs

Biographies and memoirs are two of my favorite genres. They often tell the stories of truly inspiring human beings, give you insights into the minds of some of the worlds most successful people—often among the best in their respective field—and teach you how to think like them. At the same time, they are easier to digest than business-related or other non-fiction books that keep your problem-solving apparatus going, which makes biographies perfect for bedtime reading.

Personal development

There are two kinds of people: those who see a problem and those who see an opportunity to grow; those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset; those who are nervous and those who are excited. It doesn’t matter how much you currently know, with the speed the world is changing you will eventually end up a dinosaur if you stop learning just because you’re not in university anymore. Since you’re still reading this page, looking for books you want to read voluntarily, you probably belong to the latter group. The books in this category will help you increase your human capital and to grow mentally, emotionally, and socially.

Philosophy

Maybe you’ve already heard about Stoicism from folks like Tim Ferriss or Ryan Holiday. If not, Stoicism is a way of thinking that you want to adopt so that you don’t get constantly outraged because of every triviality, because of every little thing someone says or does to you. It’s a school of thought that teaches you to accept things that are outside of your control and to not worry about them more than it is due. If you can’t do anything about it anyway, then there’s no point in raging and whining or in building up anxiety. Sure, it may suck that X happened, but in addition to the discomfort and frustration that X has caused in and of itself, you inflict even more frustration upon yourself—only this time it is entirely voluntarily—if you complain about X afterward instead of accepting it and learning to live with it. You actively decide to take some time during which you could feel happy and rather feel unhappy during this time. Complaining that X has caused you misery only prolongs your misery and grants X to linger in your thoughts for a while longer. Inflicting this additional suffering by your own choice on yourself—or your loved ones—is totally unnecessary. You may vent for a bit but should never lose your composure. Raging and whining only causes more damage and won’t help you a bit. Therefore, accepting what has happened and moving on to other matters is the only reasonable option you have. Yet so many people behave like puppets, letting their emotions push them around and pull their strings like a puppetmaster, complaining for days or impulsively saying/doing something stupid in their anger. With that clarification out of the way, I hope that you now understand that philosophy doesn’t have to be something boring and dry that only old men are interested in.

Stoicism is not the only philosophy I like. To give you a little heads-up: being a Computer Scientist, I believe in science, not in God. I’m not a religious person. So please don’t get the wrong idea that the books in this section are woo-woo and utter nonsense drowned in mysticism. The other two philosophies/religions I’m into are Taoism and (Zen) Buddhism. You’ve already heard of Taoism a thousand times, even if you’re not aware of it. It’s the Chinese philosophy with the Yin and Yang. What I like about these philosophies/religions (whatever you want to call them) is that they’re not about praying to and worshipping some external God but about introspection and working on oneself. As I said, I’m not a religious person. These schools of thought teach about accepting things (that are outside your control) as they are, worrying not too much, not resisting your own success, freeing yourself from suffering—be it because of materialistic things (i.e. minimalism) or emotional attachments—in short, living a harmonic happy life. From my perspective, learning all these things sounds pretty great, independent of what name you give the teachings someone follows.

To get a sense of what the Far Eastern philosophies/religions are about, watch the following video:

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Some of the following books are ancient texts (more than 2000 years old) and their translations can thus be quite difficult to read. So if you’re not yet used to this old-timey writing style, I recommend first reading something contemporary, something modernized. Start with Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way or Ego Is the Enemy and watch some YouTube videos with Alan Watts (#1, #2, #3). Then work your way through multiple different translations of the ancient originals to really grasp their message. Here’s an example for the wisdoms that come from Taoism (chapter 17 in Tao Te Ching):

The ruler who does not trust the people will not be trusted by the people. The best ruler stays in the background, and his voice is rarely heard. When he accomplishes his tasks, and things go well, the people declare: It was we who did it by ourselves.

This tells us that a good boss should not dictate his employees how to do a given job but let them do it their way. He may be positively surprised by the outcome when his expectations are exceeded and the employees will be happy too. It also illustrates a core concept in Taoism: non-interference (wu wei). Action through non-action. Achieving results not by giving orders but by allowing things to do what they naturally do. There’s a lot you can learn from these books.

Productivity

Productivity is the wrong word. I much prefer the word effectiveness. After all, you are not a robot of which you want to increase the productivity or, in other words, that you want to produce more. To produce more in the same time, you could make the machine more productive. Or you could let it work longer if it’s not already running 24/7. With humans, both approaches would eventually lead to burn-out. The problem we humans face is a different one: each day, we typically need to complete a handful of tasks and we want to be done with them rather by 5 p.m. than by midnight so that we’re left with more free time for what actually matters … like doing sports, reading a book, learning a new skill, spending time with friends and family, or simply enjoying a beer while watching a silly movie. What you don’t need is to do more or to work longer but to cut out all the time-wasting bullshit. You should want to be more effective rather than more productive. As Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive, said:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Workplace

I hate working in mismanaged corporate environments. These books are must-reads if you’re someone else’s boss or want to become your own boss. Even if you’re unhappy in a shitty day job—these books will show you how a fulfilling job can look like and give you the much needed nudge to look for a new job. Sadly, the people who need to read these books the most are those who probably won’t.

I’m also a big fan of the company Basecamp, founded by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Most books in this category are written by them. Besides following them both on Twitter, you should also subscribe to their blog.

Physics

I often wondered what exactly black holes are. I wanted to understand the science behind the movie Interstellar. Being a computer scientist and with quantum computers on the horizon, it’s certainly not a bad idea to get to know how quantum mechanics works. When you’re delving into quantum mechanics, you will consequently also ponder on gravitation, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and string theory—and understand what exactly Sheldon from the TV show Big Bang Theory is working on. You’ll appreciate what a brilliant genius Stephen Hawking was. And as a sideline, you will also learn how stars like our sun are born, what unimaginable things had to happen for life on earth to form, and what alien life could look like. For example, the blood in our very bodies would not be able to transport oxygen to our cells, had not some dying star in a far-away galaxy dispersed its iron core in a ferocious supernova. We are literally made of stardust. Makes you value life even more. Extremely exciting topics!

But to quote Naval Ravikant, who gives the advice to “read the original scientific books in a field”:

Instead of reading advanced books on what cosmology and what Neil Degrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking have been saying, you can pick up Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and start with basic physics.

Once you understand the “foundational things”, you can then form your own opinion on contemporary books:

Biology and neuroscience

As a computer scientist I want to understand how my computer works. As a human I want to understand how my body works—on the most fundamental level. Since I’m specializing in machine learning, I’m particularly interested in the brain.

To quote Naval again:

Instead of reading a book on biology or evolution that’s written today, I would pick up Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Instead of reading a book on biotech right now that may be very advanced, I would just pick up The Eighth Day of Creation by Watson and Crick.

Humanity and technology

These books focus more on the history of humanity and how our future will be like when a general artificial intelligence and robots fully take over, and what that will mean for our jobs. Even jobs as complex as software engineering will one day be automated away. At the moment, the safest jobs in that context seem to be low-wage jobs like haircutter, since that is what machines currently struggle with the most. That’s not to say, though, that you should drop out of college to become a haircutter 😃

Finance

Whether it’s learning how to invest your own money, reach financial freedom and retire early; whether it’s learning how flash traders screw millions of regular people trying their luck in stock markets; or whether it’s reading about how the 2008 financial crisis came to be—the finance genre can be as captivating as any genre and is not as bone-dry as you might initially suspect … given that you read the right books.

Sports

As a result of sitting so much—be it in front of a computer, on the couch watching TV, or all day in university classes—I was stiff as a board. I couldn’t even touch my toes without bending the knees. Understanding the various muscle groups in the human body and doing the exercises from the books of leading mobility coach Dr. Kelly Starrett helped me immensely in becoming more flexible, improving my posture, and avoiding the typical mistakes the average gym-goer makes.

Nutrition

Sugar is the main cause of all kinds of modern diseases such as obesity (obviously), Diabetes, even Alzheimer’s … and it’s contained in virtually everything. Think about it: every one of these diseases was unheard of just a few hundred years ago, before convenience food existed. Studies have shown that a proper nutrition is far more important than exercising regularly. You can exercise all you want, if you’re on a poor diet it is all for naught. The same holds true if you stuff your body with loads of (poor-quality) whey protein and cause inflammation en masse in doing so. By understanding the very things you’re putting into your body literally each and every day you can reach your goal of staying/becoming healthy way more effectively than by absent-mindedly jogging on a treadmill.

Fiction

I mentioned the problem-solving apparatus earlier. While all books on this page are extremely interesting, you don’t want your brain to put the pedal to the metal right before you go to sleep. This is not helpful when trying to calm down. So what I usually do before going to bed is to meditate for 10 minutes, drink a cup of green tea with honey, and read some fiction until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I’m a huge Game of Thrones nerd, so A Song of Ice and Fire and its companion book The World of Ice & Fire obviously are my favorite reads in this section. I guess it goes without saying that The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series are always worth a re-read, so let me suggest some other favorites of mine.

German books

Since my native language is German, I also read books from German authors (in their original version rather than their English translation).

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