As a (attempting) minimalist, and a traveler who has no permanent home base, I try to keep as little stuff as possible, which is quite a feat given that I have natural pack rat tendencies, and enjoy collections (hello spoons of the world).
Books are one of the most common things people collect, and as an avid reader, I am no exception. Living in China my access to own physical English books is limited, which seems like a good thing, but it makes it worse as every physical book is more precious to me, and even if I don’t like it I figure some English speaker would at some point in the future so I should hold onto it.
But with only one bookshelf in my place, and it half filled with diaries, travel books and knickknacks, I am forced to keep my books to a limited number. So I only keep the books that mean something to me, that I want to read again and again, books I know intimately and books that no matter how I change or grow, I will always return to.
So here are the five books I returning to the most:
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
I am never not reading this book. Every time I open it and read chapter, or just a few paragraphs it always gives something to think about. The Hero’s Journey, as laid out by Campbell, is the basic story structure of most books, movies and TV shows, but it’s also a guiding force in my life. I teach it to my students every year, but I also make most major decisions by it.
While most people know and like the quote “follow your bliss,” the one that has really changed my life is “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Campbell taught me that your fear can actually tell you more about your deepest desires than your joy.
Like I tell my students, if someone asks to speak to 500 people about teaching English in China, I’d have no problem. Sure, I’d be nervous about speaking in front of so many people, but not threateningly so, and I’d lose almost no sleep over it. But if someone asked me to give a TED talk in front of 20 people, I’d have a twisted, nervous stomach for weeks. It’s because teaching English is my job, it’s not my passion. I love it, but it’s not a big part of my identity or something I am looking to improve or be considered a leader in the field.
But TED talks are something I admire a lot, only interesting people get asked to give one, and I very much admire it. So the fear and nervousness (“Will they like me? Am I gonna flop? Who am I to give a TED talk?”) actually shows me what I care about, what I want deep down. So Campbell taught me to chase my fears to be a “hero” in my own story. And that’s just ONE example of how his words have changed my life. I could go on for hours about it. (And do, sorry students! lol)
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I know, I know, nothing as hip and trendy as reading Stoic philosophers these days. But like Joseph Campbell I am never NOT reading this book. If you are unfamiliar with it (congrats, you are not a hipster), it is the private diary of Marcus Aurelius, an emperor in Ancient Rome, who just wrote down his personal thoughts on how to be a better person. Unlike Campbell, in which I have a bookmark that I move sequentially, I prefer to pick up Meditations and read sections at random. Since it’s a private diary, not a story or novel, really any section gives you something to think about in your life.
Such as “At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a man’s work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into this world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant’. Were you then born for pleasure – all for feeling, not action?”
Motivational, relatable and very easy to understand. This and Hero are the only books I have underlined, highlighted and tagged pages to because there is so much to think about. I hate marking up books, but it’s almost a necessity with these two. No one should read either of these books only once because there is so much to chew, one reading would be a waste.
Winnie-The-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, AA Milne
While these books might seem totally different from my first two, in reality they aren’t. Classic, original Winnie (the one written by AA Milne before Disney bought it) is just as much a philosopher as Campbell or Aurelius. Possibly even more so with lines like: “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”
I mean, that’s basically the same as Aurelius’ chapter on waking up right? Only much more cute.
I’m convinced there is no self-help guru half as wise as Winnie and the gang. And with short chapters and cute stories, it’s perfect to keep by your bedside as read as you drift off.
Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankel
Another classic I think doesn’t need much introduction, Man’s Search is a psychology book that teaches you that meaning, and not happiness, makes our lives fulfilling. That we can choose how to react in any situation and that our worst pains and struggles actually make our lives better.
I find that this book is also important to read over and over because as you change, the understanding of this book changes. Nobody gets through life scar free, and the longer you are around, the more difficulties you’ll face, So its really helpful to read this book regularly. I tend to read it cover to cover every 2-3 years, just to see what new lesson I’ll learn from the same words.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
As a creative person we need someone in our corner, cheering us on, giving us tough love, and just being the stern voice in our head that makes us sit our butts down and get the work done. For me that’s Steven Pressfield and this book.
He doesn’t care if you’re busy. He doesn’t care if you have no talent, he doesn’t care if you have 100 reasons why you can’t do your artist calling, Because to him they are all just weak excuses brought on by “resistance” (that negative voice in your head. And he has NO time for it. This book is short and sweet about how to get over resistance and get back to doing the work your soul is calling for you to do. I love his strict, unforgiving (yet understanding) tone because that’s what you need to hear sometimes.
So this are the five books I keep returning to again and again, and expect I will continue for the rest of my life. Now it’s your turn. What book or books do you read over and over? Tell me in the comments below!