Great Books

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I love to read.  In fact, there are few things I enjoy more.  Though my great passion is fiction, I’ll read almost anything:  non-fiction, comic books, newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, poems, candy wrappers, it doesn’t matter—anything with words in it.  Reading is listening to someone else’s thoughts, learning from and about someone else’s mind.  Reading teaches.  Reading entertains.  And reading sometimes changes lives.

What follows, then, is a list of books I’ve read that did one of the above for me.  The only thing they have in common is that I loved reading them.  I offer them here because I think they’re all worth reading and whenever I come across something good—because good is so rare—I want to share it.  With the disclaimer that I receive no remuneration for the purchase of any, here they are:

  1. Not As A Stranger by Morton Thompson (fiction).  A book about a man’s obsession with becoming a doctor.  It not only gives you an idea about what it takes (even back in the time period in which the book takes place) but also is a gripping story about what it means to have character.  I read this when I was in high school and it sealed my fate:  I was going to become a doctor.
  2. This Far and No More by Andrew Malcolm (non-fiction).  A gut-wrenching book about a woman dying of ALS who must fight for the right to die at a time of her own choosing.  One of the few books that ever made me cry.
  3. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (fiction).  As many people have vilified Ayn Rand’s books as have enshrined them.  In my view, this book deserves both treatments.  The characters seem to come from another planet and the philosophy they espouse is deeply flawed.  But no other book inspired me to think for myself as much as this one.  And Rand somehow makes philosophical conflict gripping.
  4. Eternal Fire by Calder Willingham (fiction).  With outrageous characters that still somehow live and breathe, a hapless hero and tragic heroine, and one of the most fascinating villains in the history of literature, the story grips you and won’t let you go.  You find yourself rooting for (almost) everyone to get what they want.  And a rare treat of an ending:  it both satisfies and moves.
  5. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (non-fiction).  Such a simple idea:  tasks in the modern world have become too complex for one person to do well alone, yet each of us is still responsible for doing so much we often forget to do the basic things—which are simultaneously the most important.  The solution?  A checklist.  Elegant in its simplicity, this may be one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in a decade.  And surprisingly interesting to read.
  6. Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom (non-fiction).  Psychiatrist Yalom tells ten tales of psychotherapy, providing startlingly honest insight into how a therapist helps patients and exactly what goes through his mind as he does so.  The stories have the urgency of fiction.
  7. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (fiction).  A fictionalized tale of a character with the same name as the Buddha who also seeks and eventually finds enlightenment.  A fast, easy, and enjoyable read that I found irresistible.  A book that set me off on my own adventure with Buddhism.
  8. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramanchandran (non-fiction).  If you want to get inside the mind of a brilliant neurologist to get an idea of just how bizarre and wonderful our minds really are, how some modules in our brains really work, then this book will provide a perspective on consciousness and thinking beyond what you’re currently able even to imagine.
  9. Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher (non-fiction).  Want to know what it’s like to produce a movie?  How about a movie about two serial killers you end up liking?  How about a movie about two serial killers you end up liking directed by Oliver Stone?  Funny, true, fascinating—a must-read for anyone interested in writing, making, or watching movies.
  10. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (non-fiction).  The story of how psychiatrist Frankl survived the Holocaust and from his experience developed logotherapy, a form of therapy that argues humankind’s primary drive is to find meaning in life.
  11. The End of Faith by Sam Harris (non-fiction).  A brilliant book that exhorts us all to examine our beliefs and asks why we would believe anything without evidence.  Further, a book that points out the dangers of doing so.

Though far from an exhaustive list of my favorite books, the above represents a good sample.  I’d invite readers to leave similar lists in the comments so we can all meet other interesting minds and expand our horizons together.

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  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova, fiction by a neurobiologist, is not great literature, but really gripped my attention and contributed to my understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Constructive Living by David Reynolds, which taught me that strong emotions were like the weather, so don’t fight them or analyze them—just sit them out, and keep to your purpose, do what needs to be done. A lifelong discipline.

    The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso. The D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythology hooked me as a fourth-grader, and this sank the hooks in deeper as an adult. A fascinating world to lose myself in.

    Oral History by Lee Smith. She was my creative writing teacher shortly after this book came out. This novel so stunned me that I had to put it down and just stare out the window. I couldn’t read any other fiction for weeks till its reverberations had settled down in my mind. A multi-generational story of hill people and the changes they and the world undergo; a bit dated in some places, but her heart is with the hill people.

  • Anne, My sister-in-law left me that book when she was visiting and finished reading it on her trip. I had forgotten until you mentioned it. Thanks!

    My list would be too long (not even sure how to narrow it down) but this is my very short list of favorites:

    – anything by Deepak Chopra
    The Road Less Traveled—M. Scott Peck
    A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered—M. Scott Peck
    Drive—Daniel Pink

  • Thanks for sharing, Alex. In our sped-up world, I think we don’t take enough time to savor the book; we consume quantity over quality.

    Love’s Executioner, Siddhartha and Man’s Search for Meaning are favorites of mine, too.

  • Laurence Gonzales: Deep Survival: Who lives, Who dies and Why

    “Fear can be fun,” Gonzales writes. “It can make you feel more alive, because it is an integral part of saving your own life.” Pinpointing why and how those 10% survive is another story. “They are the ones who can perceive their situation clearly; they can plan and take correct action,” Gonzales explains. Survivors share certain traits: training, experience, stoicism and a capacity for their logical neocortex (the brain’s thinking part) to override the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. Although there’s no surefire way to become a survivor, Gonzales does share some rules for adventure gleaned from the survivors themselves: stay calm, be decisive and don’t give up.

  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which gave me real perspective on how much most of us have to be grateful for, and the delicate balance between hope and despair.

    The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, for it’s clarity on the nature of joy and sorrow.

    My Quest for Beauty by Rollo May.

  • Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver about missionaries and their children; adapting in another culture; jungle dangers; illness that ebbs and flows; politics.

    Phillipa Gregory, Allison Weir and Margaret George as they write about the Renaissance in England and about Henry VIII, his wives, his children and the upheaval of the Church of Rome.

    The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the 1918 flu epidemic.

    Damages by Barry Werth—fallout from a birth injury. Medical. Legal. Complicated.

  • Hmm. Not Atlas Shrugged, but Fountainhead…My loyalties are with Atlas.

    I grew up on a strong Maugham-Cronin diet, and I’d go back to those books any day, specially those impeccable short stories and Cronin’s Hatter’s Castle.

    Dr Ramanchandran’s book is on my shelf, to be perused once I’m done with Neuroplasticity.

  • Peace Like a River—Leif Enger
    Life of Pi—Yan Martel
    Cane River—Lalita Tademy
    The Sparrow—Mary Doria Russell
    The Autobiography of Henry VIII—Margaret George
    Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague—Geraldine Brooks
    Geek Love—Katherine Dunn

    Just to name a few 🙂

    Love this post…will check all of them out.

  • I have just read Tell Me The Truth by Australian oncologist Ranjana Srivastana, and enjoyed it so much. It is very well written, and on a topic I needed to read as a dear friend has just died of cancer. It’s subtitle is: Conversations with My Patients about Life and Death.

    Another helpful and ms impactful book for me has been the Buddhism For Mothers series by Sarah Napthali. They’ve saved my life a few times.

  • Possession by A.S. Byatt, a story within a story—masterfully done!

  • Alex, if you still enjoy fantasy, pick up the Game of Thrones series. There are 5 books now, each 1,000 pages, with a 6th in the works. They are so good you don’t want to put them down.

    Ariel: I’ve been eying them hungrily. I love the HBO series. Once I’ve finished working on my book, I’ll probably devour them. Thanks for the suggestion!


  • Thank you for the intriguing book list. I’ve read a couple and plan to check out the rest. The books that I keep returning to are:
    The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope
    Beyond Happiness by Ezra Bayda
    Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison

  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, which starts out as a fascinating natural history trek by two exceptional individuals, but ultimately deals with the elusiveness of that which we seek.

  • I am so excited to find your list of books! I also LOVE to read, and am just finishing up J. Thomas Shaw’s latest book The Rx Factor, an intriguing political/medical thriller, and needed something new to read. So glad I found your list. Thanks for the great book tips!

  • I just started reading your blog recently and I was so excited when I saw this post. I just read Man’s Search for Meaning and I believe it has changed my life for the better. I start med school in August so I’m going to try to read some of these before then! Thank you!

    Mona: Glad you enjoyed the post (and the book). Welcome.


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  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. A huge, magical book filled with many vivid characters and images, that I loved and am about to re-read. (Other readers disliked it immensely.) Beginning in Victorian 1895, it takes you through the end of WWI, covering subjects like puppetry and pottery, writing, family life, socialism, women’s suffrage, the Boer War to name a few.

  • I am an avid reader myself. It is extremely difficult to name just a few, but I will try to keep the selection as short as possible: 

    Anything by Richard Feynman. The best are: You are Surely Joking, Mr. Feynman; What Do You Care What Other People Think. Feynman was a man of ultimate integrity, joy of life, and also kind of smart too 🙂
    Frank Herbert: Dune (Only the first book in the series is good though.)
    Anything by Betty McDonald: Egg and I; etc. … very human and funny, too.
    Stefan Zweig: Short stories, Confusion of Feelings, Decisive Moments in History, etc. 
    Erich Fromm: Fear of Freedom; To Have or to Be; The Art of Loving
    Ota Pavel: several collections of short stories
    Zdenek Jirotka: Saturnin … one of the funniest books ever, even though I can speak only for the Czech original 🙂  (It has been translated though.)
    Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    John Steinbeck: East of Eden
    Benjamin Kuras: Czechs and Balances … a witty, hilarious insight into the character and history of my countrymen 🙂
    William Saroyan: Tracy’s Tyger; and many more of his books
    Gavin Maxwell: Ring of Bright Water

  • I, too, adore reading! I loved both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I probably read every last Herman Hesse book as a teenager…..lots of other great books listed in the comments as well. Of course, my mind is drawing a total blank when it comes to listing some of my favorites. That happens to me every time someone poses that kind of question!

    It always amazes me when someone tells me they don’t enjoy reading. It is definitely one of life’s great pleasures!

  • I’m a third year med student and miss reading, for my own growth and enjoyment, so so much… Am hopeful to get back to books again someday. Love the list. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is one I’d highly recommend.

    Kathryn: You will be able to get back to books again, I promise. Same thing happened to me.


  • Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this great article.

    I would suggest the mother of all books, Ramcharitmanas (Ramayana). This book can be found in every Hindu’s home as it is a tale of Lord Rama and enlightens you about interpersonal relations, philosophy of life and sacrifices that a person can make as a human.


  • Look, just like the claim that Lay’s potato chips are so good you can’t eat just one, I say there are so many good thrillers and thriller writers out there that you can’t just choose one. At least I can’t. However, I do have favorites I turn to depending on what I’m working on. For example, if I want to work on an opening page or chapter, I always flip through my stash of James Rollins novels. Why? Because what’s going on there is so crazy that I have to keep reading to find out what happens, and apparently quite a few other people do, too. The same goes for books by David Morrell and Steve Berry. These guys can write about something or someone from hundreds of years ago and make me anticipate the connection to whatever is coming next. It never comes across as a boring or unnecessary prologue or backstory. There is always enough suspense to keep me reading and to suspend my disbelief when I have my I-don’t-know-about-that moments. For an all around good, fast-paced action story through and through with interesting characters, international intrigue, and poetic justice, none are better than Jack Higgins. I have repeatedly read and marked up his stories to study how he handles transitions, pacing, and plot. Higgins is one of those guys (Morrell being another) I feel a personal connection to because he was writing, and I was reading him, in my formative years. A writer I’ve turned to in the last couple of years for motivation is Robert Crais. Why? Because I discovered and liked Crais’s characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. And, just as importantly, from the beginning I have faith that Cole and/or Pike will deliver justice to the bad guys, so I go along for the ride to see how, when, and where they make their delivery. Sometimes for motivation I read or reread stories by authors who, to me, are so good with language that they can spend a page describing something and I keep reading because it’s interesting and it just feels good to read it. James Lee Burke does that for me with setting AND characters. For the same effect, and to see how a successful author teaches his readers something about a place or an historical event without lecturing, I turn to Alan Furst. I love the way Alan weaves in threads of the rise of Nazi Germany, the encroachment into Eastern Europe of the Soviets and communism, the politics of smaller, less powerful countries caught in the middle, and the actions of some of the individuals forced to deal with the consequences. I’ve learned a lot about 1930s Eastern Europe from Alan Furst, and when I’m trying to put things into historical context in my stories I think of him and his techniques. Now, since I’ve already veered from the topic of one thriller, let me throw in a plug for a book I think will be a great reference for any thriller writer: Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. Usually when I see a title like that I think: I’ll form my own opinion of what I must read, thank you. However, I have to say that the people who put this book together did all thriller writers a great service. It’s motivational because it shows that we are continuing a long line of powerful stories written by authors we may not have previously thought of as thriller writers. It seems that we have quite a heritage to be proud of and to live up to. It’s humbling because the entries illustrate how much impact a story, even by an author who is not well-known at the time, can have on society. It’s entertaining because it retells stories we may have slept through in high school or college, and actually makes them relevant and interesting. All of the authors above and others motivate me in various ways at different stages of my stories. Time is short for this thread, but if anyone has time, jump in and add to it. One of the greatest benefits of these roundtable discussions for me is that I continue to learn of authors and stories that I somehow missed, and am happy to find.

  • I was inspired by Ayn Rand’s work although I don’t subscribe to her entire philosophy.

    A great book to learn of the evolution of the human mind:

    The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Dr. Julian Janes.

  • The Golden Keys To Happiness