If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
I read my first book for fun at 15.
My next at 19.
And my next at 23.
I was never a bookworm, and I never had a library card growing up. The four years I spent at Indiana University was filled with everything but reading.
I am not saying this as a preface to a master post that will teach you how to go from reading zero books to 1,000 in 12 months. No, my purpose is simply to illuminate my ignorance of books before my catechism from an ignorant, cynical life into a more thoughtful one, thanks to chronic anxiety.
Last month was the first time I thought pursuing writing as a profession was a viable option for me. How does one go from giving zero shits about books to someone obsessed with them?
Well, in my case, it took a sense of desperation to overcome anxiety and a little bit of magic from the Insomniac City.
Insomniac City and Me
It was December 16, 2015. I had spent the whole day searching for an apartment in New York City, after deciding to move back for a job, and was wandering around Nolita before meeting my friend Kurt for drinks.
While waiting for Kurt to get off work, I happened upon a little bookstore at 52 Prince St. called McNally Jackson’s. An independent, two story “bookshop,” as they call it, equipped with a cozy cafe and it’s very own printing press.
What? An indie bookstore with a printing press that isn’t in Brooklyn?
Yes, unfortunately for hipsters, they would have to meander on the NQR across the east river to McNally’s to publish their latest rendition of the ‘spy novel’ their parents were financing. Intrigued by the novelty of broke hipsters printing their books a la carte, I entered the store.
At this point, I was 23, and as I said above, the last book I read was The Truth About Islam in my Freshmen year Islam class at Colorado College (only at a Liberal Arts school). So, when I entered the store, I had no idea where to look first, so I figured staff picks would make for good foreplay.
The Gateway Drug
As I was perusing the staff picks, a thin book, maybe 50 pages or so, with a blue hardback cover and metallic gold text, caught my eye.
I picked it up, thumbing through the first couple of pages to see the table of contents. I got to the fourth page, where the author usually dedicates the book to someone special, and stopped. There was no dedication to a spouse, a dog, or the Universe. This book was different.
Instead of a dedication, there was a quote. Two lines. They were the only two lines that I needed to be utterly hooked.
“I am now face to face with dying,
but I am not finished with living.”
I quickly turned the page to find the name of the book, as I had mindlessly picked it up without even noticing the cover. A few pages later I found it, Gratitude. A title of the book that marked the catalyst of my journey into reading, but more importantly, marked the beginning of a new mindset towards living. It was that book that I give credit to for sparking the fire that led to healing my anxiety.
Gratitude is a posthumous publication of short essays from one of the most revered minds in all of science and literature, Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks was a lot of things. An author. A professor. A heavyweight lifting champion. A gay man in a time when that sort of thing was best kept a secret. But to me, at that moment, he was hope.
This 48-page collection of thoughts acted as a gateway drug to a world I had long forgotten. The world where all of your questions have been discussed, and possibly answered, but it was up to you to find them.
Before walking into McNally’s that evening, I had spent the last eighteen months searching for answers to heal my anxiety without ever once picking up a book. For whatever reason, books never seemed the appropriate answer to the biggest, and scariest, questions.
Man, was I wrong.
I read the entire first essay, ‘Mercury,’ standing in the middle of the bookstore. For the first time in over 48 months, I was fully engaged with a book. It was as if I was pulling insights directly out of Dr. Sacks’ brain and ingraining them into my own.
A worker, probably noticing the look of joy on my face, suggested I also check out The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. I didn’t know much, but what I did know was the people at McNally’s know their shit, so I grabbed it as well and raced for the checkout counter.
As I was reading Sacks’ brilliant essays on the flight home to Chicago, I experienced what I would later be able to define as a “view quake.” A term I learned from Ryan Holiday who distilled this notion from an email correspondence he had with Tyler Cowen, in which Tyler told Ryan, “[I} haven’t in years experienced a “view quake.” That is sad, to me at least, but I don’t know how to avoid how that has turned out. So enjoy your best reading years while you can!”
Luckily, I had just popped my proverbial reading cherry, and I had no plans of being celibate again.
15 Books That Saved My Life
I am so grateful for that December night at McNally Jackson’s in lower Manhattan. I am not sure what my life would look like if I had never walked through those doors.
Sometimes in life, you walk through a door only to realize that you can never go back to being the person you were before. You can not not open a door once you have walked through it. However, this was a door that I sorely needed to shut. I closed the door on an anxious, lost person to become a stronger, more resilient one.
Some are very popular. And some you may have never heard of before. But even if you just read a few that will be enough. Enjoy!
[I am constantly looking for a new book that will provide a quake view, let me know your favorites in the comments!]
1.Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.” — Oliver Sacks
2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor Frankl
3. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
“Pain is not wrong. Reacting to pain as wrong initiates the trance of unworthiness. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat the pain.” — Tara Brach
4. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
“It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life — that’s persistence.” — Ryan Holiday
5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
“I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.” — Paulo Coelho
6. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It by Kamal Ravikant
“So I return to the question, “if I loved myself, truly and deeply, what would I do?” The answer comes easy: I’d fly. Fly as high as I possibly can. Then, I’d fly higher.” — Kamal Ravikant
7. Waking Up by Sam Harris
“…if, like many people, you tend to be vaguely unhappy much of the time, it can be very helpful to manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the terrible things that have not happened to you, or to think of how many people would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you are now. The mere fact that you have the leisure to read this book puts you in very rarefied company. Many people on earth at this moment can’t even imagine the freedom that you currently take for granted.” — Sam Harris
8. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
“It is not that mindfulness is the “answer” to all life’s problems. Rather, it is that all life’s problems can be seen more clearly through the lens of a clear mind.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn
9. The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
“The manifesto of the dealmaker is simple: Reality is negotiable.” — Tim Ferriss
10. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton
“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves.” — Alain De Botton
11. Play it Away by Charlie Hoehn
A Step-by-Step guide Charlie used to heal his anxiety in 30 days. This book gave me confidence that I could heal myself!
12. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie
The most practical book on conquering worry and anxiety I have ever read.
“One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon — instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.” — Dale Carnegie
13. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
“Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.” — Alain de Botton
14. The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo
“It seems there are two basic ways to feel the fullness of life, and both arise from the authenticity of our relationships. One is from our love of life, and the other is from our love of each other.” — Mark Nepo
15. Anything You Want by Derek Sivers (audio)
“Don’t be on your deathbed someday, having squandered your one chance at life, full of regret because you pursued little distractions instead of big dreams.” — Derek Sivers