The 1,000 Books Project: What I Learned from Reading a Thousand Books in a Thousand Days

A journey of a thousand books begins with a single page–or, in my case, an audio track. I remember it vividly. It was a cold January morning with air so crisp I could almost feel it crunching as I passed through it. I was walking a dog at the animal shelter my wife worked for at the time, and I was finishing up a business book called The Barefoot Executive. I had started my own business doing freelance writing for small businesses a little over a year ago, and I was still reading business books trying to improve myself. I had always been an avid reader but had focused almost exclusively on business books since graduating college 4 years before. I didn’t realize it then, but this business book would be the last of my narrow focus in reading and the first in a whole new reading project that would really come to transform my life.

Since it was the beginning of the year, I had decided to start keeping track of the books I read. As the year progressed, I started inadvertently picking up books on different topics–just out of curiosity. By the time April came around, I decided to turn my book log into a formal project. My initial goal was to read 1,000 books by 2020 on as diverse a range of subjects as possible. I ended up moving a lot more quickly than I thought I would and actually finished the project on August 23, 2015–964 days after starting. Yes, I had read over a book a day. I did this in a large part by reading audiobooks, as well as spending another 2-3 hours a day in traditional reading. I also admittedly didn’t read as deeply as I could have. My goal was to cover as much ground as possible–not so much to dig for what was underneath it. Going forward, I’d like to do a little more digging and read a little more thoroughly. But, for the 1,000 Books Project, it was all about breadth.

In this post, I want to share with you the 10 best books from my project and why I think they matter so much to me–as well as links to my top 100. Before getting to my favorite books from the project, though, I wanted to share some lessons I’ve learned along the way from engaging in such a massive reading project. I’ve changed dramatically over the past 2-3 years, and I have little doubt that this project has played a major role in my transformation. Maybe, in sharing some of what I’ve learned, I can inspire you to do some more reading and become a better version of yourself as a result. So, here goes…

5 Lessons I Learned from Reading 1,000 Books

  1. It’s a big world. The most obvious lesson I learned from taking on such a massive project is just how small and insignificant I am in the vastness of time and space. In reading so many different subjects, I’ve vicariously lived many lives through the characters I’ve encountered. I’ve held careers in education, hospitality, biological research, law, sports writing, medicine, chemical engineering, Christian ministry, the military, government administration, and computer programming. I’ve travelled to Costa Rica, Australia, Italy, Algiers, Canada, Sierra Leone, Germany, Russia, the Carribean, North Korea, and even outer space. I’ve been rich, poor, young, old, black, white, male, female, a Christian, an atheist, liberal, conservative, a victim, and an aggressor. I’ve seen through the eyes of many people, places, eras, and ideologies. And upon discovering just how many eyes through which there are to see, I’ve been humbled into realizing just how incomplete my own perspective is. I may be the center of my own universe, but I and all of the beliefs, values, and characteristics that make me who I am are a mere spec of dust on the shoe of the universe as a whole. This revelation, I think, has made me more open to the beliefs, values, and characteristics of others–not just because I can empathize with them as another insignificant soul in a big world–but also because the additional perspective helps complete the picture. To see through another’s eyes is to get one step closer to truth.
  2. Everything’s connected. Before beginning my project, I was really into the idea of “personal branding.” I felt I had to conform to a rigid profile and every part of my life should rationally align with every other part of my life. I had studied economics and really taken the concept of specialization to heart in my entire being. As I read, however, I began to change my mind. I would read one book and later see something within it referenced in a completely different kind of book. And sometimes it wasn’t so direct, but something in one book would remind me of something I had read in another book. The more I read, the more I realized that everything is related in some way to everything else. This understanding helped me to stop seeing things as black-and-white, and also to start seeing more of the similarities than differences in various ideas. I’ve become more well-rounded and less concerned with fitting a certain mold. There are many things that make me who I am–and I think that can be said of every other person as well as every other concept. All things are multi-dimensional; all things are cross-dimensional; everything is connected.
  3. Everything is interesting. No subject is boring if you ask it enough questions. A lot of the books I’ve read would probably sound boring to the average person. A history of shipping containers, an overview of materials science, a field guide to birds, a user’s manual on SQL, a novel about a retired butler going back to work…are you yawning yet? Of course, depending on who you are and what you like, these may actually sound appealing to you–but they didn’t to me…that is, before I read them. As I forced myself into foreign subjects, though, and asked questions about what I was learning, I developed an interest. Now, I am firmly convinced that there is nothing that I won’t find at least a little interesting. (Go ahead, try me). Everything has a history–how it came to be. Everything has a science–how it works. Everything has a bit of art–ways in which it can be appreciated. I wrote an article for another website on this subject, and someone left a comment that really stuck with me: “There are no boring subjects, only boring people.” (GK Chesterton said it in another way: “There are no uninteresting subjects, only disinterested minds.”) I couldn’t have said it better myself. If we proactively take an interest, we’ll always manage to find something interesting.
  4. To be challenged is to be changed. Prior to my project, I bought into two philosophies of living: 1) focus on personal growth; keep improving and getting better, and 2) be confident about who you are and what you believe; stick to your guns; don’t listen to others but be true to yourself. It was only as I got well into my project and found myself deliberately reading books by people who believe differently than I do that I realized these two philosophies contradict one another. You can’t grow without change. To really improve, you have to challenge the status quo within. It means questioning, adjusting, and–at times–shattering old beliefs. Reading books that contradicted my beliefs led me to more informed perspectives on religion, politics, economic inequality, social justice, and decision-making–just to name a few areas. And, it’s not that I’ve even arrived at my final beliefs. Even now, I seek out material that tests my current perspectives, because that’s the only way that I can improve those perspectives. If you aren’t challenging yourself, you aren’t growing.
  5. The more you learn, the less you know. Lest you start to think this recap is a self-aggrandizing pat-on-the-back for reading so many books and being so smart, let me make it plain and clear: I am an ignoramus. I don’t consider myself to have any more knowledge or insight than anyone else. I have nothing to teach and everything to learn. And that isn’t false humility–it’s the honest truth. Throughout my 1,000 Books Project, I have become increasingly cognizant of my own ignorance. Why? Because the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know and how much more knowledge there is to acquire. Learning is like running a race in which the finish line moves forward in exponential increments every time your foot hits the pavement. So, yes you do know more when you learn something but the increase in knowledge makes you feel less knowledgable, because it leads you to more fully grasp the distance to the finish line. Learning is a truly humbling experience, and I hope I never stop embracing it. When I’m at the end of my days and I’ve read thousands more books, I hope that I still feel like a little child just trying to figure out this strange world I’ve stumbled into. If not, that means I’ve stopped learning. And I never want to stop learning–even if that finish line doesn’t even really exist.

Of course, I learned many more lessons that I’ve incorporated into my thought and behavior, but these are the big ones that really stood out to me. I hope you find as much value in them as I have. Now, let’s get to the books…

The Top 10 Books

Here are my top 10 books, what they’re about, and why I love them. You can find links to their Amazon.com pages in the Top 100 table below.

 #1) The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus is a philosophical essay by novelist Albert Camus, and is considered one of the cornerstone pieces of existentialist thought. Although Camus is thought to be the most accessible of the existentialists, there is a great deal of philosophical, literary, and cultural commentary which I still don’t really understand (seriously, try reading Kierkegaard or Nietzsche). The gist of the piece, though, is that the world as we experience it is absurd in that it has no apparent meaning. We don’t know why we’re here or if there is even a reason we’re here at all. What is the point of living if there is no point of living? If I were to give this essay an alternative title, it would be, “Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself Even Though You Have No Reason to Live.”

Okay, so now you’re probably thinking I’m nuts–that I’m unstable and should probably see a shrink. But I’m not weird (at least not for this reason)–what I’m talking about here is the human condition–the search for meaning and purpose in a world where the answers aren’t easy to find. Especially in dark times of suffering and pain, we tend to feel that absurd sense of meaninglessness quite acutely. In the face of death, we all feel it. What is this for? What’s the point? Why are we here?

The answer that Camus gives makes this essay, to me, a self-help manual. In fact, he even jokingly calls his work “a manual of happiness.” To offer a perspective on how we deal with our lives when they don’t make sense, Camus gives the illustration of Sisyphus–a character from Greek mythology who was given an eternal punishment of fruitless labor. Sisyphus had to push a rock up a hill, watch it roll back down, and push it back up again–over and over again, for all of eternity. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus does the unthinkable–he embraces his rock. Instead of seeing his task as meaningless, he finds meaning in the task itself. He takes ownership of his rock and, in doing so, he conquers it.

This image has gotten me through many difficult challenges, and it continues to be the story that plays inside of my head whenever life gets tough. “I am superior to my fate. I am stronger than my rock,” I tell myself–personalizing the words of Camus’ essay. This image has helped stop asking the question, “what’s the point?” and instead accept the hand I’ve been dealt as a blessing–my lot, my rock, my cross to bear. When life pushes, like the heaviness of the rock, I simply push back harder. “There is no fate,” says Camus, “that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

#2) The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind is a book about why people hold the ideological beliefs they hold, and how understanding the nature of convictions can make us all more cooperative. As this was one of the first books I read in my project, I think it’s what really opened me up to the possibility of learning about other ways of seeing the world. It changed the way I feel about where my own beliefs come from and how they fit into the spectrum of world views represented by others who have had different experiences than me.

According to Jonathan Haidt–a social psychologist who has been studying moral psychology for about 20 years–we generally don’t come to believe things because they make rational sense. Instead, we believe things first and then we use reason to rationalize the legitimacy of those beliefs. Beliefs–whether they be religious, political, or any other kind–don’t come from an objective interpretation of reality. They come from the community and culture to which we belong. We adopt these beliefs as part of our experience and then use them to interpret reality. Be believe; then, we seek to justify those beliefs. “Moral intuition,” says Haidt, “is more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”

After reading The Righteous Mind, I stumbled across countless other works of psychology that confirmed the notion that we seek to reconcile reality to our own perspectives. But, this was the first book that opened me up to the notion–and it really opened my eyes. Now, instead of standing in condemnation of beliefs that I myself do not hold, I ask myself why I believe what I believe and what makes the other person believe differently. “There are two sides to every story” was an adage that I’d heard before, but this book introduced me to the science of the proverb and made it real for me. I am now more open-minded and tolerant of others’ views, because I realize that my own are just as susceptible to error as anyone else’s.

#3) The Stranger by Albert Camus

I first read The Stranger in 2005. My now wife was taking am International literature course and was assigned to read it. I read it too–and have read it several times since. I can never quite articulate what I find so captivating about this short novel, but I’ll give it another shot here. The story is about an unambitious, somewhat socially awkward, Algerian Frenchman in the 1940s names Meursault who approaches his life with a carefree and non-committal disposition. Through a series of unplanned and random events, he winds up shooting a man on a beach and going to prison. During the trial, his character is called into question to a greater degree than his crime–and he ends up being sentenced to death. The novel ends with him embracing his sentence and inwardly cursing those who’ve condemned him.

While I wouldn’t hold Meursault up as a role model (he’s kind of a sociopath), I suppose I love this novel so much because I identify the way he becomes a victim of his circumstances and–at the same time–embraces his fate. Also, there’s the element in which he finds himself as sort of a prisoner to social expectations when he really just wants to do his own thing. Who can’t relate to that? Anyway, I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it can be fairly humorous in parts.

#4) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Of all the books on my top 10 (and I think even the top 100), this is the first one I actually read (I reread it for my project). I first encountered the classic beloved by English teachers in, you guessed it, high school. This novel sparked my interest in dystopian fiction that continues to this day–and it remains my favorite among them all. In case you don’t know what Brave New World is about, it chronicles the experience of a “primitive” man who enters into a futuristic society in which happiness is manufactured and problems are eradicated.

Why I love the novel so much, I think, is the idea contained within it that happiness doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t genuine. We don’t just want the feeling of happiness; we also want a reason to be happy, and we’d actually prefer suffering over happiness that is artificial. Okay, by “we,” I mean “me.” But maybe the concept resonates with you too.

Side note: I tried to write a paper on this novel for an Existentialist literature class in college, and my Prof wouldn’t let me because he said it really wasn’t existential. Well sorry Dr. (Smith? Turner? Jacobs? I forget–), but after reading Camus, Sartte, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Marcel, Tillich, and Maxquarrie, I have to say that Brave New World has existentialism oozing from its ears. Just saying.

#5) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning is a survivor memoir, a treatise on existential philosophy, and a manual of practical psychology–all rolled into one short book. The first part consists of Frankl’s stirring account of living in and emerging from a concentration camp as a Jew in Nazi Germany. The second part consists of how he continued his career as a psychologist after the war and an explanation of the methodology he developed as a result of his experience. What strikes me so much about this work is its emphasis on how to cope with–and even find meaning in–suffering.

We have few contemporary examples of human suffering that rival the Jewish holocaust and if a man can emerge from that experience having found meaning in suffering, perhaps I too can find meaning in the petty discomforts of my own life. My favorite quote, quite reminiscent of Sisyphus and his rock, is this: “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

#6) Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres

Super Crunchers is a book about how using statistical methods can lead to better judgments than relying on intuition. If you’ve read (or, more likely, seen) Moneyball, this book covers the same them in all sorts of context. I love this work so much, because it’s the first thing that really got me thinking empirically and quantitatively. Professionally, no book has had more of an influence on my life (I work in data analysis). But thinking quantitatively has also improves my health, my happiness, and many other things in my personal life. I know, I know–not everything that counts can be counted. But, I’ve come to believe that if it can be counted, it can be counted on.

#7) The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

The Invisible Gorilla is an elaboration by two Psychologists on one of the coolest Psychology experiments ever conducted. If you still haven’t heard of said experiment, it’s your lunch day–you can still participate! Follow this link and follow the instructions in the video–it will only take a minute… So, besides the fact that I geek out over the experiment, I really love this book because it has really transformed my life and thinking. The Invisible Gorilla shattered my illusion of confidence. Before reading it, I was kind of full of myself. Of course, you couldn’t tell. I projected a veneer of humility, but I really thought I was pretty smart and respectable. The ideas I came across in this book–the fallibility of memory and the reality of overconfidence in the general population–put me in my place. Now, whoever I start to think I’m something special, I check myself and start looking for the “gorilla” in my thinking.

#8) Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

I first read Difficult Conversations in 2011 as part of an online business book club when I was working my first job out of college–in automotive sales. I have never been a fan of confrontation, and working in that business didn’t exactly warm me up to the idea. Reading this book enabled me to grasp how to have conversations in awkward situations such that problems don’t escalate and common ground can be found. I continue to use concepts from this book in my professional and personal interactions to this day. My favorite concept is that of looking for my own contribution to problems rather than looking for someone else to blame–there is nothing quite so empowering as assuming responsibility.

#9) Critical Thinking by Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker

Not to sound trite or lazy in my explanation for putting a textbook in my top 10 books of all-time, but I love this book so much because it taught me how to think critically. This text was required reading for an Introduction to Logic class that I took as a Sophomore in college, and it really open my eyes regarding how to discuss/debate issues in a civil and rational manner. The biggest takeaway for me was a simple list of logical fallacies (appeal to authority, red herring, begging the question, etc.) it introduced me to–enabling me to more quickly spot flawed reasoning in the arguments of others and become less likely to use it myself.

#10) Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow is Daniel Kahneman’s summarization of the Nobel-Prize winning body of research–created by himself and the late Amos Tversky–that has come to be known as prospect theory or, in the popular media, behavioral economics. Essentially, Kahneman argues that the human mind is made of two systems–an automatic, non-deliberative system and a conscious, rational system. The research demonstrates, in a nut shell, that human beings aren’t as rational as we think we are. What I love so much about this book is that it’s a grab bag of the best research in cognitive psychology and decision theory–a category of study with which I’ve become rather obsessed. Off the top of my head, my favorite studies involve the anchoring effect and loss aversion–if you aren’t aware of what these are, look them up. It may just change the way you think about the way you think.

The Top 100 Books

Here are my top 100 Books from the project. Of course, there were many others I read that I really liked and that influenced me in some way. But this is a solid list that I would recommend to anyone. If it sounds like it would be interesting to you, read it. If it doesn’t, read it anyway–that’s all the more reason to do so. Click on the title to go to the Amazon.com page for each book. Click on the author to go to the Wikipedia page for that author (if there is one).

# Author Title Genre Year
1 Camus, Albert The Myth of Sisyphus Philosophy 1942
2 Haidt, Jonathan The Righteous Mind Psychology 2010
3 Camus, Albert The Stranger Fiction 1942
4 Huxley, Aldous Brave New World Fiction 1931
5 Frankl, Viktor Man’s Search for Meaning Psychology 1946
6 Ayres, Ian Super Crunchers Math 2007
7 Chabris, Chrisopher and Daniel Simons The Invisible Gorilla Psychology 2011
8 Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen Difficult Conversations Self Help 1999
9 Moore, Brooke Noel and Richard Parker Critical Thinking Philosophy 2007
10 Kahneman, Daniel Thinking, Fast and Slow Psychology 2011
11 Rand, Ayn Anthem Fiction 1938
12 Ishiguro, Kazuo The Remains of the Day Fiction 1989
13 Wansink, Brian Mindless Eating Psychology 2006
14 Carnegie, Dale How to Win Friends and Influence People Self Help 1936
15 Lamb, Wally We Are Water Fiction 2013
16 Pink, Daniel Drive Psychology 2011
17 Adams, Douglas The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Fiction 1979
18 Dweck, Carol Mindset Psychology 2006
19 Schultz, Howard Pour Your Heart Into It Business 1997
20 Eagleman, David Incognito Psychology 2012
21 Pendergrast, Mark Uncommon Grounds History 1999
22 Ariely, Dan Predictably Irrational Psychology 2010
23 Priestland, David Merchant, Soldier, Sage History 2012
24 Pressfield, Steven The War of Art Self Help 2002
25 Macquarrie, John Principles of Christian Theology Religion 1966
26 Ishiguro, Kazuo Never Let Me Go Fiction 2005
27 Gifford, Bill Spring Chicken Health 2015
28 Gladwell, Malcolm The Tipping Point Business 2000
29 Tolstoy, Leo The Death of Ivan Illyich Fiction 1886
30 Underhill, Paco Why We Buy Business 1999
31 Levitt, Steven and Stephen Dubner Freakonomics Psychology 2009
32 Kierkegaard, Soren Fear and Trembling Philosophy 1843
33 Orwell, George 1984 Fiction 1948
34 Plato The Republic Philosophy -380
35 King, Stephen Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption Fiction 1983
36 Buzzati, Dino The Tartar Steppe Fiction 1940
37 Bradbury, Ray Fahrenheit 451 Fiction 1966
38 Roberts, Russell How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life Philosophy 2014
39 Stockett, Kathryn The Help Fiction 2011
40 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi Flow Psychology 1990
41 Godin, Seth Poke the Box Business 2011
42 Mukherjee, Siddhartha The Emperor of All Maladies History 2011
43 Covey, Stephen MR The Speed of Trust Business 2006
44 Gladwell, Malcolm Outliers Sociology 2008
45 Miller, Arthur The Crucible Fiction 1952
46 Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot Fiction 1953
47 Schulz, Kathryn Being Wrong Sociology 2010
48 Pink, Daniel To Sell Is Human Business 2012
49 Maslow, Abraham The Farther Reaches of Human Nature Psychology 1971
50 Pinker, Steven The Language Instinct Psychology 1994
51 Festinger, Leon A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance Psychology 1957
52 Gaustad, Edwin Religious History of America History 2004
53 Godin, Seth Permission Marking Business 1999
54 Beah, Ishmael A Long Way Gone Sociology 2007
55 Keller, Timothy The Reason for God Religion 2009
56 Hamilton, Edith Mythology Literary Criticism 1942
57 Orwell, George Animal Farm Fiction 1945
58 Karlsson, Jonas The Room Fiction 2015
59 Kafka, Franz The Trial Fiction 1925
60 Taleb, Nassim The Black Swan Math 2007
61 Isaacson, Walter Einstein History 2007
62 Heath, Chip and Dan Decisive Psychology 2013
63 Stark, Peter and Jane Flaherty The Only Negotiating Guide You’ll Ever Need Self Help 2003
64 Boese, Alex Elephants on Acid Psychology 2007
65 Shelley, Mary Frankenstein Fiction 1818
66 Tye, Larry Superman History 2012
67 Standage, Tom Writing on the Wall History 2013
68 Goodwin, Doris Kearns Team of Rivals History 2006
69 Green, John The Fault in Our Stars Fiction 2012
70 Kiernan, Stephen The Curiosity Fiction 2013
71 Fox, Elaine Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain Psychology 2012
72 James, William The Varieites of Religious Experience Psychology 1902
73 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Self Help 2004
74 Gottman, John The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work Psychology 2000
75 Johnson, Spencer Who Moved My Cheese? Self Help 1998
76 Green, Charles Trust-Based Selling Business 2006
77 Kaku, Michio The Future of the Mind Psychology 2014
78 Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons Unchristian Religion 2007
79 Smith, Adam Wealth of Nations Business 1776
80 Golding, William Lord of the Flies Fiction 1954
81 Brown, Peter, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel Make It Stick Psychology 2014
82 Sowell, Thomas Applied Economics Psychology 2003
83 Isaacson, Walter Steve Jobs History 2011
84 Milgram, Stanley Obedience to Authority Psychology 1974
85 Baptist, Edward The Half Has Never Been Told History 2014
86 Gaskell, Elizabeth North and South Fiction 1855
87 Davenport, Thomas Competing on Analytics Business 2007
88 Lewis, CS Mere Christianity Religion 1952
89 Wells, HG War of the Worlds Fiction 1898
90 Mill, John Stewart On Liberty Philosophy 1859
91 King, Stephen The Running Man Fiction 1987
92 Obama, Barack The Audacity of Hope Politics 2006
93 Lowry, Lois The Giver Fiction 1993
94 Pink, Daniel A Whole New Mind Psychology 2006
95 Schwartz, Barry The Paradox of Choice Psychology 2004
96 Waldschmidt, Dan Edgy Conversations Self Help 2014
97 Ward, Douglas A New Brand of Business History 2010
98 Solomon, Robert No Excuses Philosophy 2000
99 Walton, Sam Made in America Business 1990
100 Zinsser, William On Writing Well Literary Criticism 1976
Advertisements

About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
This entry was posted in blog, Books and Reading, philosophy, Psychology, Self-Help. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The 1,000 Books Project: What I Learned from Reading a Thousand Books in a Thousand Days

  1. TimNeal says:

    How did you schedule the time to read 1000 books in 1000 days? Did you read longer books or where they limited to books of certain length?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s