You can tell a lot about a person by knowing the books they read—and particularly the books that impact their lives. That is one reason I love the goodreads.com community. Founded in 2006, the online community provides a world of insight into my fellow book lovers. For a person that is a voracious reader, Goodreads provides an unprecedented journal to know what books you have read, how many you have read, when you read them, and what you thought of them.
I read 369 books during the decade of 2010-2020. That averages out to around 37 per year or a little over 3 per month. That means I finish a book about every 9.8 days. I read considerably more than average in 2018—17,948 pages across 49 books. But far less than average during the years we were carving out the land and building our home at Kalien in 2015-2017.
Here are my top ten books of the decade and the year I read them. Note: These books were not necessarily written this past decade.
10. (Tie) “Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World” by Thomas Cahill (Date read: 2014) A gift from my friend Jonathan Ford, it guides us through the thrilling period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western world would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Death, Cahill traces the many developments in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation.
10. (Tie) “The Complete Essays” by Michel Montaigne (Date read: 2003) Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance. Written in the 1500s, he discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. Above all, Montaigne studied himself to find his own inner nature and that of humanity.
9. “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway (Date read: 2016) Published posthumously in 1964, it remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most enduring works. It brilliantly evokes the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the unbridled creativity and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.
8. “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails” by Sarah Bakewell (Date read: 2016) A spirited account of a major intellectual movement of the twentieth century and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters–fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships–and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.
7. “The Long-Legged House” by Wendell Berry (Date read: 2015) First published in 1969 and out of print for more than twenty-five years, it was Wendell Berry’s first collection of essays, the inaugural work introducing many of the central issues that have occupied him over the course of his career. Three essays at the heart of this volume―“The Rise,” “The Long-Legged House,” and “A Native Hill”―are essays of homecoming and memoir, as the writer finds his home place, his native ground, his place on earth.
6. “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” by Carl Jung (Date read: 2017) It is the classic introduction to the thought of Carl Jung. Along with Freud and Adler, Jung was one of the chief founders of modern psychiatry. In this book, Jung examines some of the most contested and crucial areas in the field of analytical psychology: dream analysis, the primitive unconscious, and the relationship between psychology and religion.
5. “How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto” by Tom Hodgkinson (Date read: 2017) A gift from my friend John Palm, this book is an antidote to our work-obsessed culture and presents a learned yet whimsical argument for a new universal standard of living: being happy doing nothing. It covers naps, sleep, work, pleasure, and relationships; while reflecting on the writing of such famous apologists for the art of idleness as Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Nietzsche; all of whom have admitted to doing their very best work in bed.
4. “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up” by James Hollis (Date read: 2013) Turbulent emotional shifts can take place anywhere between the age of thirty-five and seventy when we question the choices we’ve made, realize our limitations, and feel stuck— commonly known as the “midlife crisis.” Jungian psycho-analyst James Hollis believes it is only in the second half of life that we can truly come to know who we are and thus create a life that has meaning.
3. “The Magus” by John Fowles (Date read: 2015) Widely considered John Fowles’s masterpiece, The Magus is a dynamo of suspense and horror and a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul. You cannot put it down. A young Englishman, Nicholas Urfe, accepts a teaching post on a remote Greek island in order to escape an unsatisfactory love affair. There, his friendship with a reclusive millionaire evolves into a mysterious–and deadly–game of violence, seduction, and betrayal.
2. “The Joy of Reading” by Charles Van Doren (Date read: 2010) This engaging love letter to reading follows the great authors and classics that transformed the world: from Aristotle and Herodotus in ancient Greece to Salinger and Heinlein in 20th century America. It explains what’s wonderful in the books you’ve missed and awakens your desire to reopen the books you already know. Divided chronologically by the periods in which these classics were written, each book is put in its historical context and brought to life by Van Doren’s brilliant analysis.
My #1 Book of the Decade: “A Gentleman In Moscow” by Amor Towles (Date read: 2018) This novel buzzes with the energy of numerous adventures, love affairs, and twists of fate. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery. Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.