Why a reading list?
Today we have access to countless hours of free information online, from news and articles, to youtube ‘how to’ videos and podcasts on every subject under the sun. We have so much information easily available that it can be overwhelming, and when we step back we realize much of what we’re reading or listening to or watching is superficial or transient, with little lasting value.
When I feel overwhelmed by the ongoing barrage of media, I find the best medicine is to ‘unplug’ and read a book. Why? Because most of the stuff that really matters is not in the daily news headlines, or even in the thoughtful analysis of those events that come out weekly or monthly. Most current events can’t really be well understood in the moment, and even when they can, timeless wisdom does not often present itself there. Thanks to the drawn out publication process, the amount of time and energy required to produce a book on any topic, and the editing and vetting by agents, publishers, editors, beta readers, and the market itself, books tend to have more comprehensive, coherent and valuable content. They have a better shot at distilling something truly meaningful into a form that we can get a lot out of, occasionally even something we’ll turn back to again and again.
The following is a partial reading list from the last 10-15 years of my life. I’m only including the books I found particularly enlightening, meaningful, deep, informative, or enjoyable. I am NOT including Jewish primary source texts or academic philosophy books which would require special training to understand. So ‘The Talmud’ and the Rambam’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed,’ are not on this list. Neither are works by Plato, Hume or Kant, though I highly recommend them all. If you approach any of these works with curiosity, you should be able to understand and appreciate them.
My brief comments on each book are not meant as full book reviews, just a little explanation to help you sift through to what interests you. Most of the links are to the Amazon page where you can buy the book. Some of the hyperlinks go to the Audible.com site, as that is where I purchased and keep many of them. If you prefer the physical or Kindle book just copy those titles from Audible to Amazon.com’s search box, or the bookseller of your choice.
Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism by Daniella Levy
A collection of heartfelt letters from an observant Jew, explaining Judaism and Jewish life to a Catholic friend. Gives the look and feel of Orthodox Jewish life and practice in a uniquely accessible way.
An excellent introduction to the theological and philosophical underpinnings of many core Jewish ideas. These books were a large part of how I became religiously observant.
Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide by Aryeh Kaplan
This short guide introduces the reader to ancient Jewish meditation practices, some going back thousands of years, which achieve much of the same goal as other forms of meditation. But, unlike various forms of meditation from the far east, these are rooted in Jewish texts and traditions, and help one connect to the G-d of Israel, and experience His presence specifically.
The Way of God (דרך ה’) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
An excellent, orderly disposition on the basic tenets of Jewish thought from beginning to end. A bit dense. Best to be tackled piece by piece, or read out and discussed with a study partner.
The Path of the Just (מסילת ישרים) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
The book on improving one’s character traits (middot), and bringing oneself in line with the will of the Creator. Take it slowly. Not meant to be read through cover to cover.
The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov
A guidebook to everyday Jewish practice. What holidays are coming up soon? What do we say or not say in synagogue? Which hand do I hold the lulav in? This practical guide is great for those starting a journey of Jewish practice, and I still go to it regularly when I need a quick reminder for some detail or other. It also includes beautiful explanations for each holiday and many of the practices it describes.
A biography of the late great leader of Chabad hasidut, one of the great Jewish leaders of the 20th century. The book details how he turned a highly insular movement, largely focused on meditation and other pietist practices, into a worldwide network focused largely on outreach to less or non-religious Jews.
Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael B. Oren
The former ambassador from Israel to the US during Obama’s presidency describes the relationship from the inside, and it’s not pretty. Crucial for understanding the Israel-US relationship over the last decade from the Israeli perspective.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East also by Michael B. Oren
The best history of the Six Day War, in which Israel went from an indefensible sliver of land on the Mediterranean coast to a major regional power in less than a week.
Halevi follows a handful of soldiers who took part in the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967 through to the 1990s, showing how their lives reflect the broader political conundrum the victory created, and how the results of that war have shaped the contours of Israeli politics ever since.
The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner
An insider look at Israeli politics over several decades by a man who served inside the administrations of four separate prime ministers, including both Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.
This book follows the practice and the logic of Israel’s program to assassinate enemies. While not uniformly supportive of this policy, Bergman gives a fair shake to those who put these policies in place. Crucial to understanding Israel’s defense posture.
Catch The Jew! by Tuvia Tenenbom
On the news in Israel you will often see people decrying various NGOs for working against Israel’s interests, often at the behest of foreign governments. Tenenbom’s ‘Gonzo-Journalism’ style reporting takes you deep into the belly of beast.
Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul by Daniel Gordis
A sympathetic biography of the founding father of Israel’s right wing political faction. Whether one loves or detests him, you can’t come away from this book without respecting Begin, and a vastly improved understanding of Israeli history and politics.
Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon by David Landau
Though the two largely overlap, this biography largely picks up the story where Begin’s part ends. This volume takes us almost to the current day, including Sharon’s great victories in Israel’s wars, treachery in Lebanon, and political wheeling and dealing in the first decade of the 21st century.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The book you need to read to understand how our cognitive biases work for, and sometimes against us in our pursuit of truth.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Critical for understanding how people who disagree with us live inside different moral matrices. With this book in hand we can approach even our most potent political enemies with understanding and compassion, and even find points of agreement.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
This is a somewhat disturbing but hopeful look at the way end of life care works in the modern world, what’s wrong with it, and how to make it better.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl tells his own story of survival through the Holocaust, and the theory of man as a ‘meaning seeking’ animal which formed the basis for his ‘Logotherapy.’ If you want to live a meaningful life, this is a good place to start.
Understanding The World: General History, Science, Social Science, Philosophy,
The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson
A fun, informative read about an ancient, natural technology we usually take for granted.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
A fascinating social, historical and scientific exploration of the relationship between human beings and this horrible disease.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Why we eat what we eat, and how to do so in a healthy way when nutrition and diet advice seems to change along with the wind.
History / Politics
Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg
The best single volume to help anyone understand ancient and modern Jew hatred. If you’ve ever wondered why hatred for Jews seems so universal in certain societies, and so difficult to eradicate, this book gives you the answer. Truly eye opening. You will not see the world the same way after reading this.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 by Nicholas Stargardt
The real question about WWII, militarily, is how Germany stayed together, committed to the Fuhrer and the eradication of the Jews, as long and through as much suffering as they did. This is a disturbing look at how an entire nation walked headlong into evil and destruction.
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
Snyder digs deep into the psychological and political underpinnings of the Holocaust, ultimately turning the usual understanding of German clockwork efficiency on it’s head. Snyder argues that the Third Reich enabled the Holocaust by destroying entire societies and creating zones of lawlessness in which even gentle family men, removed from the everyday bounds of society and morality, could engage in the most despicable crimes.
Winston Churchill World War II Collection (6 Book Series) by Winston Churchill
Hearing the history of WWII in the voice of Winston Churchill is one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had. Some modern historians challenge this or that detail of his version of events, but no other historian tells it with as much insight, pathos, and literal ‘insider’ knowledge.
The Last Lion (3 book series) by William Manchester
After you read his history of WWII you might wonder about the history of the man before and after the war. This is a wonderful, in depth history of Churchill himself.
The story of German Jewry. How they suffered, flourished, uniquely assimilated, and then met their untimely end. Elon details how most of the upper class Jews ended up converting and leaving the poor, faithful Jews behind in the half century leading up to the Holocaust.
The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China by David Eimer
China is an empire. The Han Chinese are an ethnic group with massive numbers on their side, but most the area of China has been conquered from less populous peoples. The most well-known example of this is Tibet, but in fact much of the country is similarly made up of ‘foreign’ ethnicities who sit, somewhat uncomfortably, under the Chinese yoke.
The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant
The best single narrative history of the world, from ancient Mesopotamia to early modern times. In these volumes history flows like poetry, and you come to love the storyteller and appreciate the story.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Learning history through biographies is often easier to read than ‘straight’ histories. The life of an individual gives narrative form and substance to times and places which might otherwise appear strange, or sterile, and certainly foreign. This is an excellent case for biography as history.
And these two biographies of the first two emperors of Rome do the same for the Classical age.
A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance – Portrait of an Age by William Manchester
The ‘Medieval’ period is largely either ignored or misunderstood by many modern historians because in many ways it is so deeply foreign to us. Manchester does an admirable job of making the ‘Dark Ages’ come to a well-lit life.
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
Tuchman’s history of how WWI began is the seminal work on the subject, and shows in depth how the network of alliances dragged Europe into a meat grinder that devoured their nations, ending in near-total destruction.
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer
The rest of the story of WWI is masterfully told in this volume by Meyer. It’s hard to over-state how much everything which has happened since, until and including today, was shaped by the first World War. This is an excellent way to start understanding how and why.
Social Science / Politics / Current Events
Tracks how human beings created political order, from hunter gatherers to modern nation states, and the signs of ill health and decline in those nations today.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
Using largely inarguable data, Pinker shows that your chances of dying a violent death today are the lowest in human history. His arguments for why that is are more arguable but strong and interesting.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
Pinker argues that human nature exists, and that ignoring or denying its existence is both intellectually dishonest and leads to absurd conclusions.
The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray and Robert Davies
Murray describes mass immigration into Europe over the last 50 years in both numerical and sociological terms. By analyzing birth rates, policing tactics, and the lack of success in assimilating to European culture, he predicts an Islamization of much of Europe in the not-too-distant future.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Demick brings us the stories of a number of individuals who escaped North Korea. We learn what life in the Hermit Kingdom is like, and get a window into a country so horrifically repressive and backward that the average citizen is a head shorter than their cousins in South Korea due to generations of near-starvation. One of the last truly totalitarian states in the world is here laid bare. It’s not a pretty sight.
Fiction / Memoir
By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy
A multi-generational love story, By Light of Hidden Candles follows the stories of a Jewish woman in Inquisition era Spain, the gentile family that helps her, and their descendants in modern day New York.
Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq
A novel about a spineless French intellectual, watching France become Islamic and how he and his colleagues basically go along with it. Disturbingly believable.
A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption by Yael Shahar and Ovadya ben Malka
The most disturbingly graphic descriptions of the Holocaust I’ve ever read, woven with a complex and interesting psychodrama across space and time.
The Martian by Andy Weir
A sci-fi survivalist story. Hatchet for modern grown-ups. A really fun read.
Every book by Dara horn addresses certain themes, about Judaism, memory, family and time. They are interwoven with references to Jewish tradition and history, are artfully created and fun to read.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A touching, fun, and detailed telling of Frank McCourt’s early life as an impoverished child in New York and then in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s.
Tevye the Milkman by Sholem Aleichem
The original stories which were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. These stories are more sympathetic to tradition than the Hollywood version.
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
The story of a Mishnaic period rabbi turned apostate and his search for ultimate meaning. Based on the story of Elisha ben Abuya recounted in the Talmud.
The mother of all Russian novels follows a large cast of characters through the Napoleonic Wars from the perspective of the Russian upper classes. The novel both pokes fun at, and then forgives the nobles for their foibles.