As we exited 2020 with the amazing news of vaccines having been developed, I was hopeful that the new year was going to bring new and exciting horizons. I kicked off 2021 deeply interested in politics and biographies – I started January by reading A Short History of Canada (Desmond Morton), then Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, and eventually Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Learning about different countries’ complexities and how the great figures in history navigated difficult times is fascinating to me. It has helped me fill in the wholes of my knowledge web as I seek to make sense of what the hell is going on around me (as there was no shortage of madness already happening six days into the year…).
For the first time in years I didn’t read any business books. I’ve started to notice that the vast majority of them could be put into 1000-word articles (although there are exceptions, such as Good Economics for Hard Times). And so, the Harvard Business Review, The Economist, opinion columns on newspapers, and a handful of newsletters have become a great resource for business knowledge during my daily wanderings. Similarly, self-help books have also dropped off my lists – most of them are recycled works from philosophical thinkers, so I’ve just started going straight to the source (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, or even religious works are my go-to’s).
At around summertime, my interests took a bit of a turn, and I dove into the world of fiction. I’ve never been one to read the genre, but time has a way of changing us – a good fictional story today will teach me more than most textbooks (while being far more enjoyable to read). I have a running list of Classics that my father has recommended me to read over the years, supplemented by reading lists curated by some of my favourite contemporary thinkers. All in, I believe this giant list to be essential for a modern liberal education, and so I’ve started picking away at it.
In my Goodreads page you can find all of the books I’ve read this past year and if you’re looking for recommendations, below are the Top 5 books that had the biggest impact in my thinking this past year.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I picked up this book after taking Doris Goodwin’s U.S. Presidential History and Leadership course on Masterclass. It was a fantastic refresher on what makes an effective leader and how some of the most iconic presidents in U.S. history used to live.
Team of Rivals tells the story of none other than Abraham Lincoln. This 700-page behemoth tells an in-depth and engaging narrative of the life of one of history’s most amazing leaders. From his humble beginnings in a log cabin in the woods of Kentucky all the way to his tragic death at the Ford Theater, this is a page turner.
It is simply fascinating learning about Lincoln’s genius in preparing the population for change and leading the Union through one of the bloodiest wars that the U.S. has ever gone through. His ability to unite and inspire people is unmatched, and Doris makes it easy for anyone, American or not, to understand what the hell happened in mid-1800s America.
I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the Civil War and what makes a great president. In the times we live today it seems that exemplary leaders are hard to come by, but this book gives you direct access into the life of undeniably America’s greatest president.
PS: if you’re feeling inspired, I highly recommend you buying Doris Goodwin’s The Presidential Biographies pack – it contains Team of Rivals, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit and Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt’s No Ordinary Time.
Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
Freud is a polarizing figure – from his early days trying to convince the scientific establishment of the effects of hypnotism, to his addiction to cocaine and troubling work with his daughter Anna, there isn’t a shortage of criticism to go around regarding his ways. But what is undeniable is his impact on the field of psychotherapy, which many attribute its birth to him.
I stumbled upon this book after listening to a Brazilian philosopher named Luiz Felipe Ponde, who has attributed much of his intellectual formation to Freud. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud takes you through a philosophical argument that tries to explain why modern society is unhappy.
He explains his theory of the Id, Ego and Superego, and how humans have an innate violence within themselves that is often expressed through work in a capitalist society and sexual desires. He makes the case as to why communism can lead to further violence and the role that laws have in a society where some of its members have a weak Superego (which is the part of the psyche responsible for the emotions of guilt – hence a critical concept in understanding psychopaths).
This is a great introduction to Freud and a thought-provoking book that will make you reflect deeply on how the debate over societies’ organization models (capitalism vs socialism, totalitarianism vs democracy, etc.) all begin with the human psyche. This book has led me to another work on his biography (Freud: A Life of Our Time by Peter Gay), which I gave as a gift to my dad for Christmas, but haven’t yet read. If you’re looking for an entertaining series on Freud, Netflix’s Freud tells a fantastical story during his early years working with hypnosis.
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (R. Pavear & L. Volokhonsky translation)
Even though a fiction novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, alongside philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, gave birth to Existentialism in the mid-19th century, a philosophical theory that emphasizes that the human experience is subjective and that the universe is irrational.
Dostoevsky was ahead of his time and was one of the first authors to tell stories through the character’s thoughts and feelings, instead of a removed narrator telling a series of events. Through his deeply flawed protagonists, he gave readers access to a new dimension in literature, which is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time.
In Notes from Underground, he divides the book into two parts: the first is the character’s deepest thoughts and conflicts he has with himself (the “underground”), whereas the second part is chronologically before the first, and depicts a series of events that led to those thoughts.
This classic is filled with philosophical dilemmas, as a retired St. Petersburg civil servant battles with humanity’s desire to create a utopia against one’s own self interests. There’s a lot to unpack in this short book, and it deserves to be read many times over. This is such an important book, that you can find entire lectures online that discuss the ideas enclosed in its pages.
“What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has managed to learn (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is no consolation, but why not say it anyway?), while human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives.”Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground
The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre was another existentialist who wrote numerous classics at a time where society was battling with new moral dilemmas. Born in Paris in the early 20th century, he saw two world wars, was a Marxist who believed the Soviet Union was a revolutionary state working for the betterment of humanity, and once refused a Literature Nobel Prize in protest against “the institutions”. In sum, this guy had a pretty wild life – which is often seen as a requirement for fascinating writers (nod to Ernest Hemingway).
In The Age of Reason, Sartre tells the story of a philosophy teacher, who is deeply driven by his socialist ideals, trying to preserve his notion of freedom by looking for money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. The story takes a series of unexpected turns, and it constantly engages the readers in thought provoking dilemmas that makes one realize that right or wrong is subjective.
In the coming year we will be hearing the U.S. Supreme Court decide on whether to overturn Roe v Wade. This is a charged topic that requires deep inquiry into one’s most closely held beliefs and how they should be projected into society. By reading The Age of Reason, one can think through the very questions that hundreds of thousands of people battle with each year in the face of an unexpected pregnancy. It all starts with empathy, and Sartre will pose you difficult questions that most hope they will never have to answer.
Torto Arado (“Crooked Plow”) by Itamar Vieira Junior
This book won numerous awards over the past year in Brazil and abroad for the lyric and narrative style that Itamar Vieria Junior so beautifully composed as he tells a fictional story grounded on a troubled reality.
The narrative takes place in the early to mid-20th century, when slavery in Brazil had just recently been effectively outlawed. The work is divided into 3 parts, and follows two sisters who, in the face of a tragic event, become deeply connected for the rest of their lives. The story is narrated by different characters in each section and brings the reader into a reality that millions of rural workers have had to face over the course of Brazilian history.
It’s magical, tragic and beautiful all at the same time. Itamar, who has a Ph.D. in Ethnic and African Studies from the Universidade Federal da Bahia, wrote a book that many believe should be studied at universities now. Torto Arado, which translates to “Crooked Plow” in English, is a must read for anyone seeking to understand the long-term effects of slavery in Brazil.
Unfortunately, this book is only available in Portuguese, Italian and Bulgarian – for now. The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a grant to Montclair State University Professor Johnny Lorenz to translate the work into English, so the novel should be available in more languages shortly (as well as in series or film form eventually).
I hope I was able to be of help in picking a couple books for your 2022 reading list. Please drop me a line with what you’re planning to read in the new year in the comment section!
To see what I’m reading year-round, follow me on Goodreads here.
You can find my 2020 Book Picks here.