17 books everyone should read before they die

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

I love Christopher Hitchens’ writing, but I don’t consider myself a staunch atheist in the same way that Hitchens identified himself as, and I wasn’t super comfortable with the idea of reading a man’s tell-all about his death. But what I gained from reading this book was not only an acceptance of death, but also a newfound appreciation for it. As quoted in the book, Saul Bellow once said: “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”

Although it was still emotionally challenging to read a book where you could literally feel someone attempting to prepare for death and bitterly refusing to question their belief systems, it was well worth the struggle. It was the kind of emotional distress you enjoyed reading through, because you got so much in return. 

The History Of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss

In 2018, I gave a speech and, afterwards, an older lady walked up to me, smiled deeply with wet eyes, and handed me a tiny slip of paper. I opened it. All it said was “The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.” Then a few days later I saw the book mentioned again on Mitch Albom’s "Mitch's Picks". It starts off like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, but I promise it does eventually deliver a massive payoff that makes it all worth it. Krauss touches on themes of connectivity between strangers, love, death, and basically everything that defines us as human beings.

A classic line: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” Reading this book feels like setting up a hundred domino's in a dark room. Getting to the end feels like finally turning the lights on and knocking them all over.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch

A raw, edgy comedy written across Microsoft Paint-style cartoons. Despite the visual format the content can be deep and emotionally heavy. I could only read one or two stories at a time.

Amazing introspection on the human condition especially topics such as mental illness, anxiety, and depression. Sarah Andersen and I discuss it in Chapter 8 of 3 Books if you don’t feel like reading the entire thing.

Perfect for self-aware and introspective millennials, graphic novel aficionados, people who forward you absurdist YouTube sketch videos you’re not sure make any sense, and anyone coping with or hoping to develop a greater understanding of mental illness.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell

According to the introduction, this is the only book ever written about autism … by someone with autism. Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida wrote this book with a Japanese alphabet pad and an assistant, one character at a time, and you can feel that slow tenderness and passion as he answers question after question. Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly? Why don’t you make eye contact while talking?

In the introduction David Mitchell shares how his son has severe autism and he, like many, struggled to identify, relate, and support his child … until he read this book. He then worked with his wife to translate it at the request of friends and the book found a giant Western audience after Jon Stewart trumpeted it on The Daily Show and it hit The New York Times bestseller list.

Completely expanded my perception of being human with an entirely new worldview. Perfect for elementary school teachers, parents of children with special needs, and those hoping to develop superhero levels of empathy or compassion.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This book takes place over one school year, so it opens in September, hits the big climax around Christmas, and nicely finishes up just before summer break. I love reliving that roller coaster school calendar feeling from when I was a kid.

Auggie is a ten-year-old with a rare facial abnormality who is entering school for the first time. The author pulls a Jaws-like stunt by never quite revealing what he looks like until much later.

Although part of being human is admittedly defined by our bodies, this book serves as a reminder that not all bodies will or should look the same, and that our diversity is part of what makes us so uniquely beautiful.

Braving The Wilderness by Brené Brown

Brené somehow takes a complex and amorphous concept like belonging and distills it into a series of gripping stories tied around a crystallized, easy-to-remember framework.

Before I read this I had no idea belonging was an issue. By the end I felt like it’s the central issue of our time. I felt touched and committed to make changes in my life right away in order to be more inclusive and fulfil my own deep-seated need for “belonging.”

The takeaways are simple to understand but hard to practice. “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”, “Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.”, “Hold hands. With strangers.”, and “Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.” I have a crush on her in case you couldn’t tell.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter

Take my phone! Lock it up! Keep it away! Do you do this? I do.

Not because I’m some enlightened being who lives in a forest with my kids, but because I’m addicted to my phone and having someone hide it is my only defence.

One study in this book shows that people have difficulty expressing empathy and forming friendships when a cell phone is laying on the table between them.

This book is incredibly important to read before you fall any deeper into the bottomless pit of your social media and electronic addictions. It’s okay to admit it. I’m right there with you.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is a first-person memoir written by the French Editor of Elle after he had a stroke and woke up twenty days later with locked-in syndrome.

He had no way to communicate with the outside world … except through blinking one eye.

He wrote this entire book with that single blinking eye (and a helpful nurse who held up an alphabet card for him) and then died two days after the book came out.

Vivid, heartbreaking, life-affirming notes that redefine what it means to be human and to be alive.

The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

This book is Gretchen Rubin’s latest and it’s her best book yet in my view. She’s created a fascinating 2x2 matrix of four tendencies based on how well we follow expectations.

Follow neither? You’re a rebel.

Follow both? You’re an upholder.

Follow yourself but question others? You’re a questioner. (That’s me!)

Follow others but not yourself? You’re an obliger.

Here’s a video from Gretchen’s Instagram that I made for her describing me reading the book. Her framework will guaranteed change the way you look at your relationships with others and your interactions with the outside world and your inside world.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Completely gripping, poetically written, powerfully provocative novel.

While stranded in the Minneapolis airport, I stumbled into an indie bookstore and found this captivating historical fiction about Japanese “picture brides” shipped to Western California under false pretences to live lives of servitude, neglect, and (very occasionally) beauty.

Slapped with all kinds of fancy awards like “Pen/Faulkner Winner for Fiction” and “National Book Award Finalist” if you’re into that.

Excellent insight into what it’s like as an immigrant juggling uncertain futures in an unknown land and the struggles of birthing and supporting a family.

The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Quit and When To Stick by Seth Godin

After I left Walmart in 2017 I felt discombobulated. Ten years at one place will do that. I felt like that sticky tape on the back of a new credit card after you peel it off. All I knew was how to stick to a credit card, and then I suddenly morphed into a tightly wound ball of tape with no clear purpose. What now?

Well, using far better metaphors, Seth Godin would call this a dip. And this little book (74-pages-little) is a powerful pump-you-up manifesto for navigating what to quit and when to do it while granting those hazy periods the importance they deserve. This book will give you the courage to walk away when you need to. A metaphorical summary a friend shared of this book: The longer you hold your breath underwater the more interesting place you come up.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Crazy story. I was sitting at a bar and I started chatting with the guy next to me. The conversation turned into books (surprise, surprise!) and we learned we shared a taste for writers like David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami. I got excited and said “So, what’s your favorite novel of all time?” and, he immediately peeled back the top of his shirt and revealed a gigantic tattoo of a tree branch. “What’s that?” I asked. And he said “East of Eden. John Steinbeck. This is a tattoo of the cover of the book.” I didn’t have a moment to really gather the fact that he had a book cover tattooed on his body before the bartender shouted “No way!” She came up to us and pulled up her shirt sleeve and revealed some indecipherable quote. “From East of Eden!” she said excitedly. “I got it on my arm.” I don’t quite remember what my reaction was but I think it was something like “If two random strangers who don’t know each other both have a book permanently tattooed on their body, then I really have to read that book.”

I picked it up on my way home from a used bookstore open ‘til midnight and started it as soon as I got home. It blew me away and I was honestly sobbing by the time I read the last page. The book is almost seventy years old but gave me that same nostalgic feeling you get while reading any of your favorite literature.

Long, fast-paced, biographical type narration that twists and ties together with giant themes of fatalism versus free will sitting on top. Easily in my list of Top 5 Favorite Novels. One of those books you’ll look back on post-reading it and go “How did I not read that before?”

The Road by Cormac McArthy

Dark, sparse, brooding, touching.

Amazing piece of writing about a father and son walking a dark and lonely road in the US a few years after a fiery apocalypse wiped out nearly everything.

Doesn’t sound like a heartwarmer…

But it produces incredible feelings of appreciation, gratitude, awe, and love for the world around us like almost nothing else.

A grounding read that helps us tap back into the appreciation and respect this planet and its inhabitants so desperately need.

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who narrated his own journey through the Nazi death camps of World War II.

He loses his parents, brothers, and pregnant wife, and yet somehow comes to the humble conclusion that even though we can’t avoid suffering, we can always choose to learn to cope with it.

Three big teachings: life is not a quest for pleasure but for meaning, you always control your reaction in any situation, and his famous quote that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Haunting.

I suggest reading this book and then going back to it to add context and humility whenever you face a massive struggle or challenge.

Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

I’m not sure if any book kept me up later at night than Enlightenment Now. A few nights in a row I watched the clock click past 3:00 AM as the optimistic part of my brain couldn’t stop chewing on the endlessly delicious nuggets of comfort this book kept delivering in its piece-by-piece deconstruction of how, you know what? Life is actually really damn good (despite what the news may tell you).

We’re living longer, we’re healthier, we’re safer. And the stories and research underpinning these truths are told in a beautifully readable way. The guy is tap-dancing on a stage just daring you to poke a hole in his arguments. Now, when you take on a topic this big (“The whole world is great!”) you’re bound to get buried in criticism, too. There’s a lot out there. But I think that means it’s touching a deep and real nerve.

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber

Do you know how most kids get allowances after they do chores? That’s how it worked in my house growing up. Well, this book says bollocks to that. The New York Times “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber points out when we tie money with chores we’re attempting parenting jujitsu by teaching kids “hard work” and “money management” values at the same time.

But kids learn hard work lots of places outside the home -- school projects, team sports, summer jobs. And they learn money management ... pretty much nowhere. So he suggests giving children three big glass jars labeled “Save”, “Spend”, and “Give” and then simply giving them their age in dollars each week and letting them have free reign on where the money goes and how they spend it.

We loved it and started it at our house. Sure enough, it’s provoking great conversations, teaching money skills early, and importantly, retaining the intrinsic motivation of doing jobs around the house.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I read a blurb by David Sedaris on the back of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers which says “The force and energy of this book could power a train.” I feel like that applies here. The force and energy of this book could power a train.

Starr is black. And sixteen. And living in the projects while attending a glitzy private school across town. When she witnesses a police officer kill her unarmed friend she becomes the central figure in a local case that gains national attention. I loved the inner introspection of Starr … wrestling between emotions, relationships, worlds, and finding her voice.

There are all kinds of braided themes around adolescence, family values, standing up for what you believe in, and just being a kid at the same time. Feels like the most timely young adult book in years. This book bridges the gap between all ages and serves as a beautiful reminder that love is the only way forward.