In his essay “On Listening,” the Roman historian Plutarch imagines a classroom of students carefully listening to a lecturer. Plutarch was born in 1st century AD, but the lecture hall he describes is not that different from a freshman seminar at Harvard. The Romans didn’t have PowerPoint. But like Harvard, Roman schools were filled with students who passively imbibed information without thinking for themselves.
Plutarch compares students to “unfledged nestlings” with mouths agape, expecting everything to come prepared and predigested. The correct analogy of the mind, Plutarch stresses, is not a vessel to be filled but kindling to ignite. The goal should be original thinking—never the mere accumulation of information.
The purpose of the second half of my bi-weekly newsletter—book recommendations—hinges on the same logic. I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. The goal is to provide a smart selection of books and hope something catches your eye and sparks the intellect. Most of the books I recommend I have not read. That’s intentional. Plutarch also stressed that the student, like a guest at a party or a catcher in a game of catch, must play an active role. In other words, if you enjoy something I recommend, tell me. Your thinking will improve mine.
Here are the recommendations I’d like to share this week:
• Atul Gawande, author of the recent release and bestseller Being Mortal, completed a questionnaire on New York Times’ “By the Book” column, an excellent section that asks public figures (not just writers) about their bookshelves. Gawande explained that he has “read and re-read” Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis for the last four decades. “When I played junior tennis, I followed its advice to put my attention on how the ball is spinning rather than worrying about whether I’m swinging the racket right or wrong. Now I read it to remind myself how not to think, just do, when I have to, whatever the situation.”
• Goodreads just published the “Goodreads Choice Awards.” Check out sections dedicated to “Nonfiction” and “Business Books.” My favorites are #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso and Waking Up: A Spirtual Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. #GIRLBOSS is filled with annoying business platitudes but Amoruso’s story is captivating. I have conflicting intuitions about Sam Harris but Waking Up should be on your bookshelf or in your tablet.
• Amazon just published the best 20 Nonfiction of 2014. My favorite selection is Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm. Rudder is the co-founder and head data scientist of OkCupid.com. Dataclysm is the best book about big data available.
• Adam Grant just published an article on the most influential books of the last decade. No surprises there, but it’s worth checking out.