Forced to choose between fiction and non-fiction, I’m going to lean towards non-fiction even if I’m a professed fan of the fantasy, science fiction and mystery genres. Non-fiction just spans too many categories that I enjoy, including but not limited to history, business, economics, writing (of course), psychology (and other sciences), philosophy, sports and the catch-all “self-help” bucket. Let’s have a look at some of my favorite tomes from these categories.
History: I’m a mark for military and political history (and those usually go together), but my favorite book in this category is Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a walk through human history, and imparts a full range of emotions while adding to your knowledge. There’s a miniseries out there, but like many things the book is way better than the TV show. Honorable mention: Diamond’s Collapse is just as good as its predecessor, but I have to recommend Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which could double as a “sciences” work as well.
Business: Lots to choose from here, but my personal favorite is a little book called The Five Temptations of a CEO, by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni writes what essentially amount to business fables. They’re simple (but not simplistic) stories that hammer home fundamental soft skills that any leader needs to understand. Honorable mention here is Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, which has become even more relevant in a world where inventory is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Economics: I enjoy the way Tim Harford writes his Undercover Economist articles, which was my favorite part of skimming through The Economist for things I could understand. (My university Economics courses only get me so far.) There are a lot of books that masquerade as other things, but are actually economics texts at their core. My favorite example of this is Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Yes, it’s about baseball. It’s also about supply and demand and arbitrage. The combination of the two subjects is plain fun.
Writing: I’ve already blogged about this book several times, but I’ll do it again here. I credit Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with keeping my inner artist child alive through many years of creative starvation. Having the book, inherited from my mother, reminded me that the spark was still around, and it was determined to stay alive. I’m still here writing, so this book is worth its weight in gold to me. Cameron also wrote a fun hybrid book. The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size is a fun read for people who struggle with both writing and dieting, making it fit both this category and “self-help”. That term really amuses me.
Psychology and Other Sciences: I put in “other sciences” to illustrate how broad this category can be, but my personal interest has always been on human behavior, both individually and in organizations. Many of these texts can also be defined as “self-help” in that they try to help the reader understand his own behavior and hopefully make changes for the better. One of the earliest texts I read was the seminal Keirsey/Bates work Please Understand Me, which details a tool to evaluate and interpret personalities on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) scale. On the more “fun” side of the spectrum, books like John Medina’s Brain Rules are interesting reads, if only to have the “hey that’s me” moment.
Philosophy: These books range from Machiavelli’s Il Principe to Nietzsche’s Wille zur Macht to Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Clausewitz’s Von Kriege and Sun Tzu’s Ping Fa. There’s a staggering amount of material that I’ve always wanted to get to but realistically will never have time to read, especially since it’s not possible to absorb any of these books at speed. I treasure The Art of War as one of my personal top ten books.
Sports: I follow NBA basketball, MLB baseball, FIFA football, NFL football, a bit of NHL hockey, WTA women’s tennis and the WWE (really). My reading interests here are mostly histories (Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, Simmons’s The Book of Basketball) and “sports business” books (the aforementioned Moneyball). I don’t care much for the individual biographies of players and coaches. It’s the games and the leagues and the stories of the teams that interest me.
Self-Help: Another staggering category, I classify any “Dummies” or “Idiots” book here. Writing books are technically a subclass of this category, but since this is all about the writing I gave it its own category. I’ll highlight Buzan’s The Mind Map Book and Allen’s Getting Things Done as two books that helped me quite a bit by arming me with a couple of new tools that proved to be quite useful over the years.