Reading List

Despite attending private schools and having personal tutors his whole life, Winston Churchill wasn’t at all an exceptional student; in fact, his father thought he was too stupid to join the infantry so he made him instead join the cavalry of the British Imperial Army. But when was he was just about 23 years old, serving in the 4th Hussars in Bangalore, India, he was overcome by the “desire for learning.” He reflected decades later that he began to feel himself “wanting in even the vaguest knowledge about many large spheres of thought.” He found his learning – he lacked a college degree – through the pages of Edward Gibbon, Thomas MacCaulay, the Old Testament, Plato, and Adam Smith.

Though I earned an undergraduate degree in engineering, I feel that I started my liberal education, like Churchill, through books that I read in my free time. This is a list of books that have set the foundation for my worldview on politics, economics, and strategy.


Thomas Sowell’s compendium.  Even though I took micro- and macroeconomics in college, Sowell’s Basic and Applied Economics greatly influenced not only my interest, but my thinking in public policy.  I learned in college how to calculate various economic equations, but it was Sowell’s books that taught me how to think about the practical implications on society of economic decisions.  My personal favorites of his are Conflict of Visions and Knowledge and Decisions, both of which are change the way you look at the world books.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  This classic book on politics and war has it all: great leaders and self-serving leaders; fortunate turns of events and unforeseen consequences; human nature at its best and worst; great speeches and sinister speeches.  Particularly fascinating is Pericles’ funeral oration, the arguments before the Sicilian Expedition, the Mytilenian Debate, and the development of the precarious Peace of Nicias.  This is not an easy book to read, so I recommend the Strassler edition, which has a lot of annotations and maps.

Winston Churchill’s Second World War and My Early Life.  The former is Churchill’s first-person account of his experience during the Second World War. I can’t think of any book that captures the essence of crisis leadership better than this. As a leader you’re most often presented only with trade-offs between bad and worse. And that you have to understand all the seemingly disparate and oftentimes contradictory moving parts and synthesize them into a coherent and comprehensive strategy. Never mind those vague and cliche fluff books on leadership – read this instead.

The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  The Federalist, called the Federalist Papers, is a collection of 85 papers that were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787 and 1788.  They were essentially editorials that were used to explain the new Constitution of the United States and influence its ratification among the public.  One thing particularly striking about the Federalist is how the founders viewed the role of human nature in a government, which is aptly summarized in Federalist 51:  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Though that may seem harsh to many, it is what has ensured that the American Constitution has survived all these years; in fact, longer than all other human constitution.

The Book of Job, Old Testament.  The Book of Job profoundly changed my life.  In it, God tests Job’s devotion to him through a series of horrific personal disasters.  The discourse between Job and his friends get to that fundamental religious question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

William Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts One and Two.  I really didn’t get into Shakespeare until my last semester of grad school, but I have been hooked ever since. There is so much timeless wisdom and such deep insight into human nature, not to mention the eloquence of his words, in all of Shakespeare’s works. Henry IV: Parts One and Two are my favorites because I feel that I really relate to Prince Hal. His growth from a mischievous youth to a stately king is instructive for any young man.

The Trial and Death of Socrates by Plato. I love the Socrates in these four dialogues more than that in any others. He stubbornly defends his principles even though he knows that it will cost him his life. Even up to the very moment he had to drink the suicidal hemlock he was calmly discussing philosophy. His exchanges with his young jail keeper are very moving.

Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton was one of the most talented and impressive of the founding fathers. His work ethic and breadth of mastery is breathtaking. Yet behind his brilliance lay deep insecurities that stemmed from his childhood as an out-of-wedlock foreigner, which made him very fragile and vulnerable and eventually caused his downfall. Along with his Wasington: a Life, Chernow is one of the biographers in America.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.  In a concentration camp for five years, Frankl describes the process of how he found personal meaning and purpose in the most dehumanizing conditions imaginable.

Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and Dialogues and Essays.  My personal favorite introduction to stoicism.  Through these series of letters and essays, Seneca describes the process of accepting nature, seeing things for what they truly are, and mastering your self.

Paul Johnson’s a History of the American People,  Modern Times, and Birth of the Modern.  No one writes the sweep of history like Paul Johnson. These two sweeping historical narratives provide a refreshing optimistic, yet fair, look at the history of the United States, the 21st Century, and the power of human advancement.  I say refreshing because it seems that it has been chic the past 40 years or so for historians to write very pessimistically about the United States, playing down America’s accomplishments and playing up its tragedies.

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Along with John Quincy Adams and George Marshall, Kissinger is one of the best secretaries of state in American history. This incredibly insightful tome provides a diplomatic history of Europe during the 17th Century to the United States at the turn of the 21st Century. I recommend a little background knowledge before you begin this because it is just such a rich text that you want to absorb as much as you can.

On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace by Donald Kagan.  Kagan is the preeminent historian of Ancient Greece, especially Peloponnesian War, of this era.  This book traces the origins of five monumental wars.  While the process of how peace broke down and war ensued is very complex in each instance, at its most fundamental level the origins of each war hold to that of Thucydides’ explanation 2500 years ago: fear (or security), self-interest, and honor.

Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram.  John Boyd, fighter pilot ace and military strategist, was an eccentric and often crass personality in the Pentagon, but his thinking profoundly impacted the Defense establishment.  This book is an excellent introduction to the man and his unconventional ideas. Would you rather be or do?

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman.  Milton Friedman utterly transformed the way we think about the economy, challenging a generation of common economic practices.  His old television show, Free to Choose, is an excellent introduction to his thought. I also recommend watching any debate he was a part of, particularly on the Phil Donahue Show – the man defends the free market better than no one else.

The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. This is a fantastic history of the Great Depression. It challenges to the core the prevailing contemporary assumption that the New Deal brought the country out of the Depression.

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker. This is a great introduction to “Lean” thinking.

The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. What a humbling book! Completely changed the way I thought about predictions of any sort.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

House December 6, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Solid list! I’ll have to add a few of these to my Amazon wish list…


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