Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
I carried this 900-page novel with me throughout India for three months, which added quite a bit of unnecessary weight to my pack. (Pro Travel Tip: Bring a Kindle or eReader.) Every time I picked up this book, after reading the first paragraph I had to put it down. Why? Because I was so busy volunteering, writing, and creating, that I knew if I started reading the book, it would overtake my life. This book has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve ever read. I love the language Roberts uses, the scenes he creates, and the sentiments he expresses throughout the book.
This extraordinary tale is based on Gregory David Roberts’ life, which included escaping from a maximum security prison in Australia and hiding out in the slums of Mumbai, India. That’s when the story really gets good. I’ve never read a 900-page novel, and I can’t imagine there’s one more engaging. There are so many lines in this book I wish I wrote. You won’t want to put this one down. Here’s the first paragraph:
"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life."
Narcissus and Goldman by Hermann Hesse
When I was younger, people used to ask me, “Well, what do you want to write about?” At the time, I would just say, “You know, life,” as if they understood what that meant to me. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was trying to express an ever-growing, ever-expanding feeling within me—and that if I didn’t express it, it would destroy me. It was that feeling that called me into the world to search for my own expression of it. This is at the heart of my own book, a book which required me to go out into the world to live and discover in order to express it. For me as a writer, my 15-month odyssey was a journey into heart of my self in the hopes of discovering something about the heart of the universal self. That’s why beyond Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, and On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, Narcissus and Goldmund is probably one of my life’s most influential works of art.
Published in 1930 and written by German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse, it’s the story of a thinker (Narcissus, a young, brilliant scholar at a cloister school) and Goldmund (an artist and one of his prize students). Goldmund wants to be like Narcissus and live a cloistered life of the mind, but Narcissus shows Goldmund his life is about discovering his own heart, a heart that is meant for the world, not meant the cloister. Goldmund leaves the monastery and has many loves and adventures as he searches for the meaning of life, or rather, his own meaning of life. Along the journey, Goldmund awakens to his own artistic talent.
The Tender Bar by JR Moehringer
This is a touching, beautifully written, masterly crafted coming-of-age story that I’ve probably read three times. As a young boy, J.R.’s father abandoned him and his mother. His father was still in his life at a distance, however. His father was a New York radio, so as a boy J.R. would sit on the front steps of his Long Island, New York house and listen to his father’s voice on the radio. In his absence, the main male figure, his uncle, was a bartender at a bar on Long Island. This is the story of a boy who’s trying to become a man, his romance with the bar in which he was raised, the characters who inhabited it, his acceptance to Yale, and ultimately his journey towards becoming a New York Times journalist. This is one of my favorite books.
Becoming Supernatural: How Common People Are Doing the Uncommon by Dr. Joe Dispenza
According to the quantum model, all disease is a lowering of frequency. That’s why Dr. Joe, a friend and mentor, teaches meditation all over the world through the lenses of neuroscience and quantum physics. As his students learn to tap into the energy of the quantum field, the results are magnificent transformations and healings of biblical proportions. His cutting edge research is uncovering what was formerly known as truths by ancient cultures and what today could be labeled as “woo-woo.” At his workshops all over the world, as his students learn to tap into the field, and individually and collectively create more coherent energy, his students are healing themselves of Stage IV cancer, past traumas, anxiety, genetic disorders, MS, lupus, and much, much more. “Science is the new language of mysticism,” says Dr. Joe Dispenza.
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy
I am a sucker for rock autobiographies, especially ones where we can learn about an artist’s successes, struggles, and what they had to do in order to overcome themselves. Honest, vulnerable, raw, funny, and authentically Jeff Tweedy, this book catalogs his humble mid-west upbringing, the birth and destruction of his first band Uncle Tupelo, and the rise of his band Wilco. Along his life’s journey, he intimately comes to know tragedy, loss, and addiction, which he works hard to uncover its root causes. He writes with humor, humility, insight, and aplomb, and the audio book is especially enjoyable. In fact, I finished the audio version in three days and then listened to it again. What is great about the audiobooks is hearing conversations between Tweedy and his wife and Tweedy and one of his sons. I especially like this quote from the book:
“I think artists create in spite of suffering, not because of suffering. I just don’t buy it. Everyone suffers by degrees and I believe everyone has the capacity to create. But I think you’re one of the lucky ones if you’ve found an outlet for your discomfort or a way to cope through art.”
My entire reading list could be autobiographies by musicians , artists, and writers, but alas—in the name of diversity, I had to make some choices. I chose this book because it is the most recent one I have consumed. Other notables include: Life, by Keith Richards, Scar Tissue, by Anthony Keidas, Just Kids by Patti Smith, The Universal Tone, by Carlos Santana, Beastie Boys Book, by Adam Horowitz and Michael Diamond.
Lit by Mary Karr
Author of The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr is a master of the insightful memoir. In this memoir, we follow her decent into alcoholism, the many ways in which it destroyed her life, the surprising course of her resurrection from its grip, and how it affected her career as a writing professor. This is another book where I wish I had written some of the lines she wrote. Someday I would love to sit across from Mary and discuss the craft of writing and the writing life with her over tea.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Published in October, 2000, when I first read this book I was disappointed in the second half. The first half is a memoir of his life, which included not remembering writing Cujo because he had a plethora of booze, pills, and cocaine in his writing desk. I wanted to know more about the writing life. We know the rest—he overcame his addictions to become one of the most successful commercial fiction writers ever.
When I read this book again years later as professional writer, I realized just how important the second half of this books is for both wannabe and experienced authors, which is why this is a book I recommend to my writing coaching clients. It is a meditation on both writing, the writing life, the publishing world, and the nuts and bolts of writing.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Three pivotal events at age 17 defined who I would become in the future.
On September 29th, 1991, I first laid pen to paper when I began keeping a journal.
An incredibly powerful mushroom trip at a Grateful Dead concert awakened me to a greater level of consciousness, awareness, and the connectedness of the human experience.
After years of Catholic schooling, at age 17 this book was my first introduction to eastern philosophy, which I would later major in during my days at university. While I haven’t read this book in decades, I do remember that it’s profundity is its utter simplicity. It awakened me to the notion that there’s a much more simpler way to exist and flow through life, and this way is to be like water—to take the path of least resistance. This is the way of the Tao.
There was another war besides the Cold War between the United States and Russia. For more than 50 years, the United States government has been performing experiments in ESP and psychokinesis, the purported ability to move or deform inanimate objects, such as metal spoons, through mental processes. These experiments were performed throughout all branches of the U.S. intelligence agencies and military services, including the CIA, DIA, NSA, DEA, the navy, air force, and army—and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The players these government programs hired were involved in locating fugitives, freeing hostages in high profile, international cases, and even discovering the infamous Russian submarine that the movie The Hunt For the Red October was based upon. It’s a fascinating read and a look at some of history’s biggest events through new lenses and unlikely ways.
The Book of Knowing and Worth by Paul Selig
In 1987, a spiritual experience left Paul Selig with the ability to be a clairvoyant, making him one of the foremost spiritual channels working today. Whoever or whatever is speaking through Paul, it is a wisdom beyond religion and beyond the ages. As one of seven channeled works, this book will be powerful for whoever chooses to internalize the empowering message found within. It’s also worth noting that this book was a winner of the 2014 Nautilus Award, which represents "Better Books for a Better World" and the Silver Award in the category of Religion /Spirituality: Other Traditions.