18 Books Every 18-Year-Old Should Read (a.k.a. The Human Being Syllabus)
How’s THAT for an ambitious title? 18 books every 18-year-old should read? Seriously? Every 18-year-old? Should? Where do I get off being so high and mighty about such a subjective, endlessly debatable topic? Screw me, right?
Well, no. Not screw me. Because I’m writing this for MYSELF as an 18-year-old and pretending it applies to everyone (because it probably does).
Why? Well the age is kind of an arbitrary number but also kind of important.
18 is an important age in a lot of countries. Even cultures that consider you to be an adult in your early teens or forbid you from drinking until your twenties still imbue the age of 18 with a lot of significance.
18 is that age where we’re on the cusp of adulthood. Our hormones are still going a little berserk. We’re probably considering burying ourselves in a shit ton of debt so we can get a 4-year hangover and a piece of paper that says “BA in Communications”. And we’re probably totally arrogant little shits who piss off the older generation no end.
So this list is my literary love-letter list to my 18-year-old self.
Dear 18-year-old Ben,
Read these books you arrogant, ungrateful little bastard. They might just make you a better person.
Your slightly less arrogant, slightly more grateful older self.
Man’s Search for Meaning is the most devastating and the most life-affirming book you will ever read.
Suffering under the weight of first world problems?
Suffering under the weight of real world problems?
Reading Man’s Search for Meaning is the cure for all of them.
It really puts life into perspective.
This book taught me that:
- “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
- Without hope, meaning, a future, death will come soon.
- “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
- You can resist your environment’s influence.
- There is meaning in suffering.
- You can get used to anything.
… And so much more.
I can’t even begin to scratch the surface for how essential this book is for every human being to read.
If I had read MJ Demarco’s The Millionaire Fastlane just 4 years earlier, I would have skipped out on going to Oxford.
I read this book when I was in a state of post-uni floating and uncertainty. I was wandering the globe supposedly without a care in the world but really with a ton of background anxiety about WHAT THE HELL DO I DO WITH MY LIFE?!
I read this book on a long-haul flight from Tokyo to London. I stepped on that plane in Japan as one man and disembarked the plane in England a very different man.
To say it changed my life is an understatement. It fucked my old life, my old world views, into submission and presented me with a shiny new one. A life where suddenly I was in the driver’s seat.
I ain’t super rich and successful just yet. But I’m damn well getting there. And I have MJ Demarco to thank for that.
Some of the best experiences of my life have been as a direct result of practicing the mindfulness philosophy outlined in Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.
Experiences like observing a horse moving gracefully in a field. Or listening to the Holst’s Planets all the way through with tears of joy in my eyes.
These experiences sound simple but the joy that comes from reading The Power of Now is the ability to turn the simplest pleasures into the best pleasures.
The Power of Now takes the best life lessons from wide-ranging spiritual religions like Christianity and Buddhism and shows you a super applicable way to integrate them into your life.
The result of reading The Power of Now?
- More contentment
- More inner peace
- Moments of enlightenment
On The Road is good but Dharma Bums has the same Beat Generation lust for life as Kerouac’s master work except it’s more condensed, more readable, and more motivating.
Dharma Bums is the book to read when you feel like life is getting a bit too serious.
This book makes you want to “go climb that mountain”.
When you feel like the weight of responsibility and work is crushing down on you, Dharma Bums is a gentle nudge towards zen, creativity, art, and nature.
Kerouac is actually wasted on the youth. So be sure to continually revisit him throughout your life. Especially whenever you find yourself feeling that he is too adolescent for you. That’s a warning sign.
There are so many periods in my life that have been marred by needless worry and stress.
And ALL of them — yes, all of them — could have been totally avoided if I had only read Dale Carnegie’s How To Stop Worrying And Start Living earlier.
I recommend this book to people who are stressed and then I feel frustrated that they don’t actually bother to read it.
With this book, you have the magic key to a relatively stress-free life right in your hands.
It’s a workbook — even though it looks like a typical self-help book — so you need to cover it in writing, make notes, reread all of the chapters, and basically keep coming back to it.
Whenever I find myself stressed these days, gently reminding myself to reread certain chapters of Carnegie’s book is the best thing I can do.
I used to read a ton of philosophy.
Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant…
All it did was make me miserable.
But then I came to the stoics. Particularly Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Now THIS is philosophy that is actually worth a damn.
You’ll find no naval-gazing, depressing, nihilistic, existentialist bullshit here.
Meditations was written by one of Rome’s greatest emperors. It was written purely for Aurelius himself to benefit from and was never meant for others to see. As such, it’s an intensely powerful guidebook for handling stress when dealing with crises on the macro and micro level.
I recommend reading a new “meditation” each morning to get you started on the right foot.
I’ll start you off with one of my many favourites:
When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.
Everyone needs to have read at least one good book.
Why not make it one of the best — if not the best — books in the history of world literature?
Moby Dick is an enormous feat of literature and art.
To read Moby Dick is to experience a Wagnerian opera, get lost in the Louvre, and feel the very rub of our collective humanity all rolled into one.
I suggest reading a page or two a day and living with Moby Dick long term.
It will revitalise you.
Malala is one of the most admirable, brave, respectable individuals I have ever read about.
She is the young woman who stood up for education and women’s rights and was shot by the Taliban for doing so.
If only each of us could share one shred of the courage and conviction she possesses, the world would be a tremendously better place.
Whenever you find yourself complaining about some small first-world “injustice”, Malala’s story is sure to give you a hearty dose of perspective and motivate you to do better in your life.
We live in a very entitled society. I wish they handed out copies of Malala’s books in schools so we could actually grow up with a true sense of what is important in the world.
CA$HVERTISING is a great book. It’s not the best book in the world but I had to include something that taught advertising.
I could have recommended Cialdini’s Influence or Brian Tracy’s The Psychology of Selling. It doesn’t matter. The important point here is that you HAVE to read something about selling.
I used to think selling and advertising was evil.
Then I grew the fuck up.
Everything in the world is advertising. From how you sell yourself to employers, customers, love interests, friends to how you can persuade others to live better lives.
Advertising and selling, when coming from a good place, is a damn good thing and the most useful thing you could ever learn.
Why don’t they teach you selling in schools?
Because they want you to be mindless consumers. Take, take, take.
Learn to sell. Learn to be a producer. Learn to give back to the world.
If you complain about having “relationship problems” but then you refuse to take my advice and read this book… I don’t wanna know.
The 5 Love Languages is one of those rare worldview-obliterating books.
Reading it INSTANTLY improved not only my love life but how I communicate with everyone.
The biggest thing this book taught me is that there are lots of different ways to show love. Just because someone doesn’t use the words “I love you”, doesn’t mean they aren’t screaming it at you in another way that you’re missing.
According to the book, the 5 love languages are:
- Gift giving
- Physical touch
- Spending quality time
- Acts of service (devotions)
- Words of affirmation (e.g. “I love you”)
So your love language might be ‘words of affirmation’. You show your partner love by the words you use. As such, you expect him to use words.
But does he give you gifts often? Does he touch you a lot? Does he always initiate dates (spending time together)? Does he do things for you (like make you some food or give you a back rub)?
This book makes you realise you are surrounded by loved ones. It also teaches you how to show love to the people close to you in the “love language” they speak.
We live in a distracted world.
How can anyone get anything done with their Grindr, Pinterest, and Brony forum notifications blowing up?
To be honest, before reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I’m surprised I got anything done at all.
But now, after applying his methods of “deep work”, I have been able to…
- Learn Japanese
- Learn computer programming
- Write several full-length novels
Whether you decide to screw up your life and go to university or do the sensible thing and start a business for yourself — or dedicate your life to any intense, competitive passion — Deep Work is a must-read.
You might have noticed a common theme in this list.
I like and value books that put life in perspective.
Books that force you to stop whining about your own cushy position and see a side of life that is made of nightmares yet very much a reality for many people around the world.
Voices From Chernobyl by the Noble Prize winning Svetlana Alexievich, in addition to being a unique piece of art, is such a work.
The book tells the story of the worst nuclear reactor meltdown in history from the true-life real-word accounts of the people who experienced the hell.
This is one of the most brutal, eye-opening, emotional books I have ever read.
Why am I suggesting a book of short stories to every 18-year-old?
Well… What I’m really suggesting is you take the Bradbury Trio Challenge and read 1 short story, 1 poem, and 1 essay every day for the next 1,000 days.
I know that sounds crazy difficult. So let’s start off easy and just read one book of short stories.
One short story a day = 10 minutes.
But in just 10 minutes a day, by the end of 100 days, you will have more creativity than you’ll know what to do with. Your mind will be a-whirr with new ideas.
And why Bradbury?
Well, I chose Bradbury because he is the master of the short story. His stories exude verve and a joy for life. He understands the human condition. He writes great “what if” sci-fi stories that really make you think. And he’s damn fun.
But feel free to choose another author — I also recommend Alice Munro as another short story master — or an anthology.
The point is = one short story every day. You’ll thank me later.
Here’s another great book for stimulating creativity.
Creativity is important because soon all the manual labour and data entry jobs are going to be taken over by robots.
The one thing they can’t program (yet) is creativity.
So your time is best spent being super-duper artistic and then learning a dash of business skills so you can sell your art to the world.
A Whack on the Side of the Head is a great book for thinking differently. It’s crammed with fun little thinking exercises that really get your mind working.
I actually had to stop reading it before bed because it felt like MY BRAIN WAS GROWING. And that was distracting as I tried to drift off to the land of nod and sticky bedsheets.
Instead I now like to read a creativity exercise before hopping in the shower. I find repetitive motions + problem solving to go well together.
And by repetitive motions I obviously mean lathering up the soap… Not the other thing.
Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most poignant, emotional, and unique books I have ever read.
And the world — particularly America — needs this book more than ever right now.
If you find yourself feeling hatred for your neighbours over their political or religious beliefs, you sorely need this book.
If you find yourself alienated from your family and friends over opinions, you sorely need this book.
The Denial of Death completely dismantles human nature and then leaves you with some of the most life-affirming advice you’ll find anywhere:
Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something — an object or ourselves — and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.
This is one of the philosophies by which I live my life.
Sure, life is full of anguish, confusion, and suffering.
But why not make some damn good art and make ourselves a nice human being just because?
Whenever you feel like something beyond your control is holding you back…
Maybe you have a disability.
Maybe you have no propensity towards a certain endeavour.
Or maybe you just completely lack self-confidence and are riddled with doubt.
Read about Theodore Roosevelt.
This is a prime example of a man who could have given up on himself over and over again. He was a sickly child, thin, weak, and gripped by serious asthma.
But he did not let that stop him climbing mountains, tackling expeditions, writing books, wooing the woman of his dreams, and becoming the best damn president America has seen.
So what’s stopping you?
XVIII. Your Life
This is the most important book on the list.
It’s the book of your life.
Or maybe it’s a movie.
Or a Broadway play.
How would you like the story of your life to be told in years to come?
Is it a quest? A rags-to-riches narrative? A love story? A comedy? Perhaps ALL of those.
Now go live it.
Live a life that will make you proud.
Live a life that others will want to read.