Widen Your World, Part I: Read a Book!

I have recently been reading The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business by Steve Mariotti. It is a great resource that I am using as the textbook for the Intro to Entrepreneurship class I am teaching this year. In chapter 2, there is a little section called “Widen Your World,” and throughout the book, Mariotti encourages readers to feed their imagination, read more books, and take an active approach to life. Inspired by Mariotti, this post is the first of a series I will be doing on this blog called “Widen Your World.” I am starting with my favorite source of inspiration, books!

Alexander HamiltonOn one summer vacation, Lin-Manuel Miranda kicked back on a beach chair with a book, just a biography of one of the Founding Fathers. He had no idea what he had coming!

The book was Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and as he read, he was stunned by the feeling of hip-hop lyrics singing from the pages. He started doing a little writing and experimenting, and before long,  he had a hit musical, Hamilton. It set a record with 16 Tony Award nominations, won 11 Tony Awards, and made him one of the most famous names on Broadway today. By the way, The New York Times interviewed Miranda about his reading habits and influences, and you can check out his answers here.

Miranda’s experience with Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton reminds me of my own interactions with books and other media. I often find that a little line in a book, a song I hear at the right time, a poem I run into, or a design concept I see can send my mind racing down a new pathway of creativity that I never saw coming.

For example, I regularly compose music. I am often recording and transcribing new musical ideas that I might use compositions, although most of them I never use. These are my sketches. Most of my sketches come from improvising on chord progressions in various styles of music, which I often do while walking or driving, and when I get something that might be worth using, I write it down. However, the best writing I have ever done has not come from this method of writing sketches. My best ideas come from sources outside of music. My best music writing ideas come when my mind is on some concept I see in art, a book or poem, history, philosophy, or science, and I think, I have to write a piece of music about that! In our culture today, the most creative people seem to work that way. They apply ideas from one field to a completely different ideas, and that becomes the catalyst for new growth and creativity.

In these cases so far, I am talking about specific little creative ideas. These come about from a prolific approach to interacting with art, literature, music, etc., reading a little bit of everything all the time and keeping a wide world-view. There are also those first tier, top-quality works you engage with that change your whole way of thinking. This is where the biggest ideas come from. These are the life changing works that come along more rarely.

Declarations of IndependenceA great example of this was when I picked up Howard Zinn’s Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology at my college library (I was looking for A People’s History of the United States, but their only copy was checked out). Often the best inspirations are discovered by accident… or perhaps it’s serendipity.

In Declarations, I read about Zinn’s love for history, his fighting in World War 2, and his involvement in the civil rights movement, and how the two intertwined. I was struck by his challenge to the 20th century notion that writers and historians should be non-biased. Zinn argues that it is impossible to be non-biased, so you should acknowledge–even embrace–your bias. Let it be your strength and not your weakness.

Zinn is a socialist, which is the complete opposite of my own ideology, but his books awakened my mind and took it down all sorts of interesting pathways. The combination of my disagreement with Zinn, his contumacious attitude, and his skill as a historian awakened my natural love of history, which had been beaten down by too many social studies textbooks. Zinn was a rebel and a scholar, and he quickly became one of the most influential figures in my life, despite my disagreements with him on so many issues. Believe it or not, reading the works of this great socialist scholar did more to strengthen me as a libertarian than any libertarian or anarchist text ever did.

And right there is the core of what I seek to do with this “Widen Your World” concept. We have to challenge our ideas to awaken our minds and get ourselves thinking creatively. If you stay inside your comfort zone, you will miss out on opportunities for explosions of creativity that can make you better at whatever it is you love to do, whether it’s art, science, or business.

Reading Lolita in TehranAnother book that really woke me up–and it was around the same time I discovered Zinn–was Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. When I heard Nafisi speak at my university, I was in tears, and I felt inspired and empowered by her story. Like Zinn, she was both a rebel and a scholar. Zinn fought for civil rights and social justice in America. Nafisi fought for knowledge and freedom of speech in Iran. Nafisi awakened in me an appreciation of the importance of reading literature. Literature is interconnected with the other arts and with our souls. It challenges us to step out of our daily lives and into new worlds, to get out of our heads and into the heads of other humans or of characters based on them. Nafisi writes,

Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.

I think it is safe to assume that she classifies literature as a “great work of art,” as that is the subject of her book. I also think her use of “insubordination” isn’t exclusively directed at governments or even society. We have to fight against our own cognitive biases too.

One thing that literature does that is extremely powerful is to increase our empathy. By getting inside the heads of characters and by increasing our exposure to different cultures and ideas, we learn to appreciate more of what is out there in the world. We understand other perspectives better and become more in touch with the rest of humanity. Again, whether you are an artist, a scientist, or business person, empathy is going to make you better at what you do.

Before discovering writers like Zinn and Nafisi, I did the minimum amount of reading I needed to do to pass my classes, and I would occasionally pick up a piece of pop lit, like a mystery or a Tom Clancy novel. Zinn turned me into a serious reader of non-fiction, and Nafisi convinced me of the importance of reading classic novels and novels that challenge society. Suddenly, reading wasn’t a chore, but it wasn’t leisure either. Reading was sustenance. Reading breathed life into me. Talk about “widening your world.”

Here is my top-tier list of mind-opening books guaranteed to “widen your world”:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  • Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn
  • Ender’s Game (series) by Orson Scott Card
  • Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • Mastery by Robert Greene
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  • The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

Here is my extended list of secondary books that might not change your whole world, but they’ll get you thinking:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Big Short by Michael Lewis
  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
  • A Brain Wider Than the Sky by Andrew Levy
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
  • Conceived in Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard
  • Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
  • Diary by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • A Game of Thrones (series) by George R.R. Martin
  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
  • The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Human Action by Ludwig von Mises
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • The Idea of America by Gordon S. Wood
  • The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
  • The Insurgents by Fred Kaplan
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
  • More by Hakan Günday
  • Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
  • A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman
  • The Power of Negative Thinking by Bob Knight
  • A Short History of Man by Hans-Hermann Hoppe
  • A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
  • The Social Conquest of Earth by Edgar O. Wilson
  • The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
  • Theory and History by Ludwig von Mises
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • World War Z by Max Brooks

My reading progress has been given a great boost by a few web sites and apps that I highly recommend.

  • Goodreads has helped me find new books to read, keep track of books I want to read, discuss books with other people, post reviews of what I read, and stay motivated to finish more books.
  • OverDrive is an app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from your library. There are limited electronic copies of each book which can be checked out at a time. With my library at least, books that are a little older are easier to get instantly without waitlisting, an you can borrow them for 21 days. Overdrive is great for listening to audiobooks in the car on your commute.
  • BookBub sends you an email every day telling you when ebooks you might be interested in are on sale.

I also have a Barnes & Noble membership, as I love to buy many books in hardback and paperback to keep in my home library.

I share all these book titles not to brag about how much I read, but to help you find new things that you haven’t read that have at least passed my test.

I really like a point that Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in his book The Black Swan about books and your personal library:

a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.

Taleb calls this the antilibrary, and he calls the antischolar

someone who focuses on the unread books and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device–an empiricist.

I have several lists of books I want to read to continue branching out into perspectives of the world that are new to me. I also keep many unread books close at hand around the house or on my electronic devices so that I am constantly reminded that I need to be reading and I always have something new to read.

I am not opposed to pure pleasure reading, but I try to get those kind of books from the library so that I spend my money on deep reads. This means that the books I have around the house are high in quality. It also means that my money is being used to support game-changing writers like the ones listed above.

It is important to add that focusing on deep reads doesn’t mean giving up on fun reads. There are books on my list above that are highly entertaining, like Ender’s GameFight Club, The Martian, and World War Z. There are also some amazing graphic novels and comic books out there. Some of my favorites right now are Marvel’s Annihilation: Conquest and Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet and Image’s Nowhere MenSaga, and The Walking Dead. These are all books that attracted me for fun reasons more than creative, mind-opening reasons. They all turned out to be deeper reads than I had originally expected, which shows that fun reading can still lead you down the the path to expanding your knowledge, as long as you don’t trap yourself into certain genres or authors for so long that you ignore what else is out there.

Here in the “information age,” it seems that Americans are reading less and less, and still many of those who are reading are limiting themselves to a few popular fiction selections. Yet, the information age makes reading both more accessible and more important. Dr. Michio Kaku, in Physics of the Future, writes,

Since we are drowning in an ocean of information, the most precious commodity in modern society is wisdom. Without wisdom and insight, we are left to drift aimlessly and without purpose, with an empty, hollow feeling after the novelty of unlimited information wears off.

With so many jobs being automated, digitized, and outsourced in a flat world, we have to develop our creativity if we want to stay economically competitive. There are so many great books out there, so many reasons to read them, and so many technological methods of reading now that there is no excuse for not reading anymore. Grab a book today and get started on a new adventure!

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