I read an asininely large number of books. I probably open or start 300 to 500 books a year, finish 50, read substantial parts of 50 more, and listen to another 30 to 70 on audio. I tend to "fast read" books - which is where I skim until I hit a particularly good part, and then slow down for comprehension. When I read a book that's highly tactical, I try to go through it slowly over a couple months while implementing and testing the tactics.
The following isn't my list of favorite books, nor the best books written, nor even the most important to me. Instead, it's my picks of "must reads" if you're doing "creative building."
That's where you're simultaneously trying to invent/innovate while growing and diffusing your inventions and innovations. It's what entrepreneurs do, but not entrepreneurs only. The following list would be useful to someone trying to proliferate their writing, become prominent in fields ranging from music or journalism, and possibly even governance and politics.
There'll be a mix of philosophical, strategic, and tactical books on the list. Let's begin:
1. Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa - If you're talented and get frustrated with stupid people, you have to read "Musashi" by Eiji Yoshikawa. I mean, you have to. Musashi was one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history, invented a new Japanese longblade/shortblade mixed style of swordsmanship, and at one point fought himself out of an ambush when he was attacked by over 30 men. He was undefeated in over 60 duels, including defeating arguably the second best swordsman in Japan at the time while fighting with a wooden oar he carved into a rough swordlike shape. Yoshikawa writes his story about getting into conflict with mainstream society and all of the friction before finally finding a way to hone his craft without unnecessary conflict - and thus reach an even higher level of perfection. A brilliant philosophical read, but also a hell of a swashbuckling story. If you only read one book on this list, read this one.
2. Getting Things Done by David Allen - If Musashi is the patron saint of creative defiance of the mainstream order, then David Allen is the creative defier's guardian angel. Getting Things Done is the best book written on getting over chaos and being organized. It covers mundane topics, but moves quickly. After you start implementing it, you'll wonder how the hell you managed to ever get anything done before reading it.
3. The Rise of House Rothschild by Count Egon Caesar Corti - I go out of my way to read obscure books, and this one is about as obscure as it gets - but it's the best biography/history I found of the early Rothschilds. Meyer Rothschild and his sons, particularly Nathan, are tremendous heroes to me. They came from nothing, had everything stacked against them, and a few generations later they're the wealthiest family in the world. There's an insanely huge amount of lessons about how to present yourself to people, the value and non-value of credentials, how to get credentialed and respected from nothing, how to spot opportunity, how to deal with people with different goals ranging from scrupulously honest to massively corrupt, and how to thrive in all environments. The language is a little dated since the book was written in 1928: there's some minor racism and the author, a member of the nobility, is strongly anti-democracy and paints the French Revolution as a sick joke gone all wrong. It's nothing to make it unreadable though - if anything, it gives the book a sort of dark charm as it gives additional insights to Continental European thinking in the 1920's. This is the first biography I'd recommend to anyone who wants to expand their influence and is starting with no resources.
4 and 5. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand PLUS The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Timothy Wu - Atlas Shrugged will change your life, but it'll also turn you into a belligerent jerk if you don't immediately read a good counterpoint. In some ways, Atlas is the builder's book. It's pro-individual, pro-accomplishment, pro-success, biased towards action, anti-mediocrity, anti-policking, pro-merit... it's brilliant. It's also extremely politically convincing - I was a libertarian for years, until I read an extensive amount of history. You've got to recognize that Rand is a product of her time - which was the era immediately following the largest bloodbath in history which was ran by maniacal charismatic politicians. But, historically speaking, there have actually been good governors and bad companies.
Tim Wu's "Master Switch" is a brilliant counterpoint because it's also highly relevant to the topic at hand - how to communicate and spread your message. Wu will walk you through the rise and proliferation of the radio, telephone, broadcast television, cable television, Hollywood studios, the internet, and all sorts of other "information empires" - it's extremely relevant in its own right, and gives a really layered perspective on the mixed but sometimes good effects of regulation.
Atlas still holds a special place in my heart. It's brilliant. Take the raw strength and the disdain for mediocrity from the book. But if you don't have time to study lots of history, then follow it up with Wu's immediately afterwards for a nuanced perspective that'll also give you ideas on how to build your own empire.
6. Crucial Conversations by the Harvard Negotiation Project - Neo opens his eyes. "I know Kung-Fu." This book makes you feel like that. Immediately after reading it, you can diagnose and disentangle confusing statements people say and separate facts, emotion, and action politely, pleasantly, and empathetically. How to Win Friends and Influence People is still the best 101 course on being friendly and likable, but Crucial Conversations gives you what you need to quickly become much more effective when connecting with people. The Rise of House Rothschild and Master Switch will give you ideas on the kind of things you could do to connect with people. Crucial Conversations will give you the tactical ability.
7. Titan by Ron Chernow - Chernow's one of the most thorough biographers ever, and Titan is one of the most outstanding biographies ever written. It follows John Rockefeller's path of fanatic work ethic, attention to detail, complete mastery and setting-aside of ego in pursuit of his goals, recruiting the best people, and relentless action and focus. Skim quickly through or skip chapter one about Rockefeller's childhood, and start paying attention in Chapter 2 when he's working as an accounting clerk. Chapter one is boring - Rockefeller had a rough and unpredictable childhood. There, that's enough - skip it and get into the meat of the book. The 37-drops-of-sealant-instead-of-38 story that saves one penny per barrel of oil will stick with you forever.
8. Arabian Nights, Husain Hadawy's Translation - Uproariously funny, massively politically incorrect, and containing deep wells of wisdom. Arabian Nights is the folk story of how the Vizier's daughter was set to be executed by the Sultan in the morning, and had to tell a new story every night with a massive cliffhanger in order to get pardoned and live another day. The mechanics of language in the story, along with the stories and deep truths buried in parables... it's outstanding. If you read Arabian Nights, make sure you're reading Hadawy's Deluxe Translation. Arabian Nights was originally written with one-of-a-kind mix of high poetry and really crass toilet language mixed together. Many early Western scholars found this unpalatable, so they gave the book a sterile, High Victorian style translation - which makes it boring and damn near unreadable. Hadawy captures the real essence of the book with its mix of high language and poetry, deep truths concerning human nature, art, love, sex, death, self-control, religion - with its bar-room brawling tone. This book will inspire the hell out of you, as well as give you some really visceral warnings about bad people you'll meet later in life - and recognize as similar to the personality trait of a character from Arabian Nights. One of the most oustanding books ever written, my second favorite piece of fiction after Musashi.
9. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield - Arabian Nights will stir your soul - Pressfield's War of Art will give you a steady hand. It's the definitive book on overcoming fear and just working. It's a short read, and will even be shorter if you take my advice - read Sections I and II which are amazing and life-changing, skip Section III which goes off the deep end too much. I recommend you buy this on Amazon Kindle even if you don't have a Kindle - then you read it in your web browser or on your desktop or smartphone whenever you need a kick in the ass. It's outstanding and a fast read, the definitive book on overcoming fear.
10. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison - If Hadawy is your spiritual guide and Pressfield is your trail guide, then Jamison is your medic. Touched With Fire looks at how artists are often affected with "Cyclothymia" - that's a gentle version of manic-depressiveness. It means you get huge boosts where you can do your creative work, but then get deflated afterwards. Unfortunately, the transition time is particularly brutal for the artist - when you had the divine spark a moment ago, and now you're flat, it's worse than if you just went from normal to flat. It's maddening. "NOOOO! Where is it going?!!!!" If this describes you even a little bit, get this book immediately - if it doesn't describe you at all, then pick it up at your leisure since there's some good inspiration and analysis in there, and it'll help you understand some of the top performers you're going to winding up working with and collaborating over the years.
I know we've got lots of readers on the site. Your recommendations in the comments?