I’ll be honest and say that I’m grateful to be in the category of people that are experiencing Corona Virus as an inconvenience. I’m in isolation, but I’m able to work from home. I don’t have kids I’m suddenly homeschooling. And I’m not facing life threatening medical conditions. But regardless of which of those categories you’re in, you’re probably experiencing a set of circumstances you didn’t choose.
Ryan Holiday, Author of a number of books I love including Ego is the Enemy, has a concept he talks about regularly called alive time or dead time. The idea goes something like this: you’ve been dealt a hand of cards you didn’t choose. You’re stuck at home, not able to do any of the things you normally would like to. Most of your choices have been taken away from you. But one remains: how will you react? Will you choose to let the time slip past you, doing nothing and remaining bitter at the horrible circumstance you got thrown into? Or will you choose to find a way to make the most of the time before you?
This list of 7 books are, by my estimation, 7 books that reflect the concept of alive time: of people thrown into horrible circumstances, either by fate or by choice, and finding the strength to let go of what they cannot control and choose to make the most of what they have. They’re incidentally books I’ve not only loved, but books that have been important to my life. I think any one of them would make a great companion to you in isolation, as they’ve been great companions to me throughout the years.
One. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley.
Malcolm X begins his life living one story, a story told all too often—a boy, born into a broken home, beaten down by the system, turns to a life of crime, gets caught, incarcerated. But facing down a 10 year sentence for crimes he had committed, Malcolm X made a decision. He could have been caught up in the injustice of it, could have spent the 10 years living the same emotions, stuck in the same patterns. Instead, he read. He read everything. He read the bible, he read fiction, he even read a dictionary front to back. And he came out a transformed man.
Two. Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Imagine: the most powerful man in the world, ruling the greatest empire history has ever known, writing a personal, private, never-meant-to-be-published journal of reminders in which he struggles through the greatest questions of morality. And not born from imaginary philosophical discourse, but born from practical, day-in, day-out questions of “what the hell am I supposed to do now?” That’s meditations, the cornerstone of stoic philosophy, the recovered, private journal of one of the greatest emperors of Rome. This book is the cornerstone of what it means to controlling what you can and moving on from what you cannot. And it makes for great daily reading throughout times like this.
Three. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
A book that, by its own early admission, is not particularly factual about Zen Buddhism, or very helpful in the field of motorcycle maintenance. This is a book about many things, a sprawling, twisting path more about the journey than the destination. And while its discourse centers around classical vs romantic thinking, it is a book that is very practically about identity, presence, and truth.
Four. Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa
Part history, part historical fiction, this is the long, rambling tales of the best dueling Samurai of all time. In fact, the real-life Musashi was so dominant as a dueler that he quit in his early 30s because he had already mastered everything there was to master when it came to the sword. More than just a book about a real-life badass, Musashi is a story of personal accountability, about using your strength to master yourself instead of using your strength to master others. In fact, Musashi would have gone the way of his greatest opponent had he not ended up in his own form of isolation—strapped to a tree for days in a storm, waiting for his death, the result of his own failure. The sword becomes a way for Musashi to overcome his own personal shortcomings and youth—not a way to dominant his opponents.
Five. The Second Mountain, David Brooks
Everyone faces two mountains in life: the first is about finding success—building a career, becoming a doctor, launching a company, etc. The second is about finding meaning—about finding the people, community, and religion/philosophy/code that makes life worthwhile. Most of us have been stripped of any ability to pursue the things in life we tend to spend our time worrying about—which makes this the perfect opportunity to start thinking about the underlying question: what makes this worth it?
Six. Endurance, Shackleton
This real-life tale of a failed arctic expedition isn’t just about survival skills and improvisation, it’s a master class in a leader understanding his men well enough to know what they needed. He understood that in the face of extreme arctic conditions, it wasn’t just food and shelter his men needed. They needed to stay engaged, mentally fit, and emotionally balanced. It wasn’t just stockpiles of food and toilet paper that they needed—they needed to maintain a sense of purpose, hope, and identity.
Seven. Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke
This book has a personal place in my heart because I love Rilke’s poetry so much, but this book is a huge dose of great advice on how to create something. While the subject matter is poetry and writing, the book is a dose of perspective, wisdom, and tough love to anyone new at something who wants to become great at something. It challenge the kind of foolishness that can rise from not understanding the lay of the land and being confident in yourself too quickly—it’s a must read for anyone with any kind of creative aspirations or who is new to something they want to be great at.
Bonus: re-read a classic from your own canon.
There’s an idea in academia of the “canon” of great literature—the books that, over the span of centuries, languages, and continents—form the “great conversation” of what it means to be human and confront death. I personally like to think about the idea of a personal canon—the different books I grew up with that have most fundamentally shaped the way that I think. Some of those books are big and grand, like for me personally, Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost. Some of them are genius, though less well-known—like Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. And some of them are downright silly, the kind of ten cent sci-fi/fantasy fiction I kept picking up at the library. But all of them have played into the way the things that I like and the way that I think.
Quarantine is the perfect opportunity to revisit some of these books—I’ve used my local library system to rent the audiobooks for many of the books I grew up with. I re-read (or listened to) the whole Harry Potter series, which was even better than I remembered, and all of the Eragon series, which was… well, we won’t go there. But as silly or trite as some of these books are, in a weird way, they shaped so much of what I thought about what it means to be human, to be just or ethical. And that is no small thing.