The Recommendations!

Aaron Mayer
Apr 4, 2020 · 11 min read

It’s been 3 days since I finished listening to 100 audiobooks in one month, and the most common question I’ve been getting has unsurprisingly been “What are your recommendations?!”

So, without any delay, I present to you the unequivocally, objectively, indisputably best books I listened to!

Ok… a bit more delay. I’m choosing to pick the best books I read in each category, so you can scroll through and find the subject you’re most interested in!

Biography and Memoir

Recommendation: A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

This was, by far, the most moving audiobook I listened to out of the 100. The story chronicles the author’s autobiographical account of growing up during the civil war in Sierra Leone and being forced to become a child soldier at age 13. This was the only book that made me sob, and I would recommend it because Beah captures both the horrifying and the mundane effects of war and trauma.

“This was one of the consequences of the civil war: people stopped trusting each other and every stranger became an enemy.”

Recommendation: The Facts, by Philip Roth

This book deserves a special mention because Roth did something incredibly innovative with the literary form of the memoir. After writing about his life (which was super interesting), the final chapter comes in the form of a fictitious letter written to Roth by Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s recurring characters in his novels. This was simultaneously hilarious and immensely clever: he used his own invented character to critique his own memoir. Zuckerman has often been seen as a stand-in for Roth himself in many of his novels, and so when Zuckerman calls into question the veracity and earnestness of Roth’s accounts, it’s like the M.C. Escher image of hands drawing themselves.

Science and Technology

Recommendation: The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan

I really love Pollan’s writing style, and this book is a delightful exploration into the nature of plants. We often think of ourselves as the masters of the earth, bending the environment to suit our wills, but Pollan reminds us that plants exert forces of their own, and he raises the question “Who is cultivating whom?”

Gender, Sex, and Relationships

Recommendation: Pussy, by Regena Thomashauer

This book is written for women and people with pussies, but to the men out there: READ IT! Pussy explores the importance and urgency of embodying our inner pussy power, and you don’t need to be a girl to recognize that we could all use a bit more of that in the world!

“Cherish your own story line and stand, with every fiber of your being, for the significant and momentous importance of your desires.”

Politics

Recommendation: Why You Should be a Socialist, by Nathan J. Robinson

I was admittedly nervous about this one. Most books aren’t so candid and unabashed about their intentions, but I think that the unapologetic nature of this book is exactly what’s needed when it comes to a loaded term like socialism. The word itself has gotten a bad rep thanks to a century of bad press, and it would’ve been inconceivable for an avowed socialist to run for president even 20 years ago. Now, socialism is no longer the kiss of death for politicians, and given the innumerable frustrations I have with capitalism as it manifests today, I didn’t realize that I was dry tinder waiting for a spark like Robinson to come along.

The book itself is SO well executed: it walks the reader through time and space and philosophical ideologies, ultimately landing on a set of core principles that are equitable and kind. These principles are then applied to policies. Robinson steel-mans his liberal counterparts (liberalism here being ideologically right of socialism) and deftly refutes their objections. I found this book to be extremely compelling, and it’s definitely the book that has had the most immediate and practical effect in my life. Where before I was ambivalent between Bernie and Biden, now I’m impatiently awaiting the eventual demise of the bourgeoisie! 🔨

Philosophy and Spirituality

Recommendation: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton

I studied philosophy in college, and after listening to this audiobook, I can give the Philosopher’s Stamp of Approval™️ that you could just read this instead of slogging through four years of listening to boring old white dudes. Here, de Botton does you a favor and picks the six best white dudes of the bunch (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche) and says “Here’s the Sparknotes. You’re welcome.”

I’ll give a sampling of excerpts and quotes from the book:

“Philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind.” -de Botton

“One must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water poured into a container that is full to overflowing.” -Epicurus

“To distract me from morose thoughts I simply need recourse to books.” -Montaigne

“I can bear the thought that in a short time worms will eat away at my body, but the idea of philosophy professors nibbling at my philosophy makes me shudder.” -Schopenhauer

“To be shocked at how deeply rejection hurts is to ignore what acceptance involves. We must never allow our suffering to be compounded by suggestions that there is something odd in suffering so deeply. There would be something amiss if we didn’t.” -de Botton

“The majority of philosophers have always been cabbage heads.” -Nietzschmeister

Recommendation: One World Now, by Peter Singer

Singer is my favorite philosopher of all time. I listened to three of his books during the month. I always thought of him as purely an ethicist, most notably so in the case of advocating for animal rights in Animal Liberation (which I also listened to), but he is also in fact a gifted political theorist as well.

Unlike John Rawls, who is undeniably the most groundbreaking political philosopher of the 20th century, Singer pairs his philosophical inquiries with genuine practicable advice. Many of his suggestions are downright policy proposals, and I love his global outlook without being an insufferable liberal cosmopolitan type. He argues that we can be citizens of the world in a real and tangible way that isn’t just a snobbish signal of elitism, and that we may in fact have a moral imperative to do so.

Business and Entrepreneurship

Recommendation: Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian

This book is part autobiography, part self-help, and part celebration of the quirkiness of the internet. Ohanian is a fierce advocate for the neutrality and ownerlessness of the web as part of the commons, like parks and clean water. I really liked this book because it would have Legend of Zelda references in the same paragraph as a line like this: “Whether you have an online community of a dozen Twitter followers or a website that’s read by millions, you have a parcel of the Internet that you want to protect.” I love his earnest, geeky enthusiasm for the internet as something that enables anyone to become an entrepreneur — a shared space in which we can all better ourselves and others.

Sociology, Linguistics, and Culture

Recommendation: Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I’d never listened to any of MLK’s writing besides his “I have a dream” speech, but this book contains his “letter from a Birmingham jail,” which I found even more stirring. In it, he argues that it is never the “right time” to advocate for disadvantaged peoples. There will always be people who criticize new movements and wish to forestall change or appease the structures of power that be, but Dr. King reminds us that we simply cannot wait or compromise our ideals.

Highlights:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor — it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“No revolution is executed like a ballet. Its steps and gestures are not neatly designed and precisely performed.”

“We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always right to do right.”

Recommendation: How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi is one of the most thoughtful, articulate writers on race out there today. This book weaves his own story of the twists and turns of an adolescent coming to terms with his own skin with the ideological movements that have risen and fallen in contemporary African American thought. He seamlessly integrates his own thoughts with those of MLK, Malcolm X., James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he is thorough and comprehensive in his analysis of modern racism and its intersectional manifestations.

“Definitions anchor us in principles. If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be, in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work towards stable and consistent goals.”

Short Stories and Essays

Recommendation: Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami.

This collection of magical and surreal stories made me want to become a writer. I remember pausing after I heard this line: “He may have felt that, like therapists and religious leaders, writers have a legitimate right or duty to hear people’s confessions” — and I thought, “Damn. I want to hear people’s secrets!” I’ve wanted to develop a consistent writing practice for years, and the 100 audiobook challenge has opened the floodgates of my journal, and now the thoughts and reflections that I would’ve ordinarily kept to myself are being brought into the public eye. I think that’s a really helpful process, since it is by writing that we clarify and hone our thoughts to become intelligible, transmissible, and (hopefully) original.

Economics and Global Development

Recommendation: Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman

I know, I know, the liberals out there will groan at this recommendation. I too bristled at the thought of reading this absolute neo-con laissez-faire incarnation of capitalism, but I think that’s ultimately why I decided to be the better man, set aside my prejudices, read with an open heart and aren’t I so holy and intellectually honest blah blah blah…

Nah, I’m kidding, I started this book with the hope that I could refute it and tear it to shreds.

Thing is, I couldn’t. Friedman is right to point out that the good intentions of institutional actors often end up often harming those they intended to help in the first place. While I didn’t agree with his ultimate prescription, I found a lot of what he had to say frighteningly compelling, and I’d urge anyone interested in economics to approach this book with genuine curiosity, if only to better understand our political counterparts across the aisle.

Humor

Recommendation: One More Thing, by B. J. Novak

To give my mind a break over the month, I found myself listening to a lot of audiobooks by some hilarious comedians. While they were all fantastic, and you should check out the complete list of books since I would recommend them all, One More Thing really stood out. Novak is so clever and creative, and the originality shines through. He’s also responsible for making me set my alarm for an hour earlier each day: “I really couldn’t believe these guys. Didn’t they realize how much interesting shit there was to see and do in this world if you just woke up at a normal fucking time like a normal fucking person?” 😂

Fiction

Recommendation: Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

I think Steppenwolf is the book I was most looking forward to reading. I’ve read some of Hesse’s other work, and he’s brilliant beyond compare. Steppenwolf primarily explores the nature of duality and opposing instincts, but he also writes of love, music, loss, angst, boredom, epistemology, and sex. He jumps from one topic to another so seamlessly, and I kept on pausing to take notes. I had a legal pad next to me during most of the month, and I’d usually jot down a line or two about each book with certain moments that stood out to me. Steppenwolf filled 3 pages on that legal pad.

Three little excerpts to share:

“See what monkeys we are? Look — such is man.”

“He’s quite forgotten that these blessed children are beset with conflict and complexities and capable of all suffering. There is in fact no way back — either to the wolf or the child. From the very start there is no innocence, and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being, and may never again swim back to its source.”

“There is no point at all in talking about music. I never talk about music. I am a musician, not a professor. Music does not depend on being right.”

Recommendation: The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an examination of beauty, racism, and poverty. The story is moving and haunting, and it demonstrates that, in Morrison’s words, “Beauty is something you can do.”

Morrison’s writing speaks for itself, so I’ll include two passages that made me stop and catch my breath.

“They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness, and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds, cooled, and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They danced a macabre ballet around the victim who, for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.”

“Love is never any better than a lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly — but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”

Honorable Mentions:

Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut.
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.
The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
The Quiet American, by Grahame Greene.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong.

All of these are well worth reading!

And lastly…

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

I knew I wanted to squeeze Leo into the mix at some point, and near the end of the month, I realized I was a bit ahead of schedule and I could dedicate the entirety of March 30th and 31st to this behemoth of a story.

The audiobook version I listened to (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude) was over 61 hours long, making this one book account for 8% of the total listening time.

I really loved this story. Tolstoy is unarguably a genius and War and Peace is surely a masterpiece. He provides a window into human nature like no one else does. The line “We don’t love people so much for the good they have done us as for the good we have done them” struck me like a roundhouse to the temples. The book was filled with witty insights, beautiful imagery, and a view into the zeitgeist of war that is really difficult to capture.

But here’s the thing: if you haven’t read Tolstoy and you’re thinking of picking him up, I’d sooner recommend Anna Karenina. The story is a lot clearer than War and Peace and the scope is far less sprawling, so we get to spend more time with individual characters and empathize on a deeper level. While they’re both incredible stories, start with Anna and then try your hand at War and Peace if you can’t get enough Tolstoy. I’ve heard that The Death of Ivan Ilyich is fabulous too, so I’m excited to read that next!

I wrote short reviews of all the books on Goodreads as well, and you can see the entire list (along with my bookmarks) on this spreadsheet. I’ll also be posting in-depth reactions to a lot of the books here on Medium, so follow along for updates!

If you choose to read any of the books mentioned above and want to talk about them, please hit me up! We can start a cute little book club! ❤

100audiobooks

I listened to 100 books in a single month!

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