Books to make your life better – the Live Hard reading list
I read a whole lot of books. Sometimes for fun, sometimes for work, quite often to improve my brain and look at the world in different ways. I try to keep it diverse – when I meet someone I like, I ask for recommendations, and I’ll often go off into wormholes of books recommended by other books. A good rule of thumb is that the more books you read – by making more time for it, reading more efficiently and just reading everywhere – the less you have to rely on any single one being a life-changer. Read six books a year, and you want them all to be great. Read 50, and you can afford some clunkers.
Or you could just read these. The below are some of the best books I’ve ever read, but also the ones that most fit in with the ideas I talk about in Live Hard. They’re picked to inspire you, inform you, or make you a better person. Pick one up today, and change your brain for the better.
Assault on Lake Casitas You’ve probably never heard of rower-turned-prolific-author Lewis, but that needs to change. Firstly, he took the hardest of all possible routes to the Olympics – after falling short in the single scull trials and being passed over in selection for the doubles, he did everything from training alone to scrounging his own boat en route to the 1984 finals. Secondly, he’s an incredibly thoughtful, honest writer – it’s fairly tricky to get across the physical and psychological horrors of rowing a legitimate all-out 2,000m via words on a page, but he somehow manages it. And thirdly, there’s a wealth of training advice here, on everything from sets and reps to psychology and ‘shadow rowing.’ You’ll be hyped out of your mind by the end, even if you know what happens.
Iron War: Two Incredible Athletes. One Epic Rivalry. The Greatest Race of All Time. If you don’t know what happened in the 1989 Iron Man finals: stop, don’t look it up, then buy this book right now and see it off in a weekend. This one’s all about tri-giants Mark Allen and Dave Scott and the early years of the world’s nastiest event, told via the medium of their greatest ever race…but interspersed with biographies of both men, alongside dozens of fascinating insights into training theory past and present. This book made me want to do an Ironman triathlon, and my last marathon left me swearing I’d never do anything so stupid ever again.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There This book started as a collection of anonymous advice columns under the name Dear Sugar, and if that puts you off then you are a goddamned idiot. It’s full of some of the most warm, sensible and practical advice anyone could give you about dealing with situations worse than you will (hopefully) ever have to encounter, from a woman who has been through a lot of them.
Open: An Autobiography A terrifying account of just what it takes to succeed at the very top level of tennis, from hitting 1,000 balls every morning under the watchful eye of an obsessive father, via the ultra-competitive environment of a teen academy, to the reinvention via strength and conditioning that it takes to succeed on the main tour. Even if tennis does nothing for you, the pain and perseverance on display in this book ought to give you a newfound respect for its athletes.
Born to Run: The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Another book that makes me want to run every time I read it, even though I hate running: a super-readable take on how evolutionarily-adapted humans are for running, told via the barely-believable tale of an ultramarathon in the mountains of Mexico. Essential, if only so you can argue with runners.
How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle Matt Fitzgerald knows how to write about endurance sport, and here he’s on top form: interspersing some of running and riding’s most inspiring tales with the neurology that made them possible. Protip: gearing up to hurt definitely works, it’s science.
Bad Science Outwardly this is a collection of bang-your-head-on-the-desk anecdotes about homeopathy, anti-vaxxers and outlandish medical claims, but more importantly it’s a great primer in scientific thinking. To quote Carl Sagan, ‘Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking.’ In other words, what you know about atoms or gravity or the large hadron collider isn’t as important as the system you use to check whether ideas are right or not.
The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary edition (Oxford Landmark Science) Dawkins has written a collection of excellent books on evolution – Climbing Mount Improbable explains the mechanism in detail and The Greatest Show on Earth hammers home the evidence – but this is the best: beautifully written, passionately argued, and with just enough morality to pique your interest for some Matt Ridley.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers Or: why you should be taking more steps to reduce stress. The short version: we’re well adapted to cope with occasional high-stress incidents like sabre-tooth tiger attacks, but terribly equipped for long-term ones (thinking about redundancy, war and mortgages). Quite dense on the science but often hilarious, from one of the world’s foremost experts in this sort of thing.
The Elon Musk Blog Series: Wait But Why This first came out as a blog, but it’s more readable in book form: and takes you right from first principles (what energy is, how space travel developed), to how Elon Musk is changing the world, and how he’s organised his mind in order to do it. The best book I read in 2016, and it might even make you feel better about climate change.
Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists In his prime, Hutchinson was an elite cyclist who narrowly fell short of an Olympic slot: he was also a guy who did absolutely everything he could (and a few things that he’d admit were stupid) in pursuit of getting faster. This book is about all of them: from examinations of laminar airflow and the lactate system to advanced carb-loading.
Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning Dan John is my favourite writer on training, and this is him at the peak of his powers: simple concepts, explained brilliantly. Read this, then get on with Intervention and Easy Strength: even if you don’t care about the overarching subject matter, there are nuggets of gold sprinkled through each.
Strong Enough? : Thoughts on Thirty Years of Barbell Training The book that launched a thousand blogposts: this is Starting Strength author Mark Rippetoe’s collection of essays on everything training-related. Money quote:
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training This is the first ‘real’ training plan I ever did, and if you’ve never touched a barbell before it might just be the best: it put 40kg on my big three lifts in about three months. I might not still agree with the absolutism of the form advice in here – I think, for instance, that you can experiment with head position without ruining your efficiency – but it’s a great starting point.
Lido for Time Wait what? Yes, it’s a collection of annotated workouts, but when you’ve finished Assault on Lake Casitas and you’re Jonesing for more Lewis, this is where you should go. Side note, you could just email the guy: I once sent him a message to say I liked his waffle recipe and he sent me a signed book. You don’t get that from Usain Bolt.
The 6-Pack Checklist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Shredded Abs If you want to get lean, this is your choice: Nate Miyaki hits that perfect spot in the Venn diagram between evidence-backed advice and stuff you can actually do in everyday life. With eating rules that go from sorting out the very basics and then increasing in complexity, it’s the perfect introduction to a smart, sustainable way of being ripped.
9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes Yes, it’s about climbing, but if you only read one book on this list, this should be it: swap ‘climbing’ for another verb and its discussion of learning curves and thinking about how to improve applies to virtually anything. I recommend it to everyone who asks me for a book – and most of the really switched-on ones have already read it.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder Nothing is certain except surprises: so rather than just aim to be resilient, you should aim to benefit from them. That’s the premise of Antifragile, and in a mid-Trump, zero-hours, teetering-on-the-brink-of-epochal-changes world it seems like a smart way to think. Certainly not the easiest read on this list, but one of the most recommended.
The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness This is the system that Olympic medallists have used to calm down before competition, and it’s what I used to start sleeping like a tranquilised ape: an introduction to how your stupid brain works, and an ultra-practical guide to dealing with it. It’ll take you a day to read, and if you do the exercises in it it’ll change your life.
The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science The old ‘journalist hangs out with mad people’ trope is done now, right? Exactly: that’s why Will Storr put a huge amount of effort into working out why people believe some of the most insane things possible, from Holocaust deniers to past-life regressers. Remember: you are never going to change anyone’s mind without understanding why they can’t see your point of view, and this book explains it.
Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough Quite a recent addition to the scientific take on how the brain works, but a brilliant one: it’s all about how limited time/money and the resulting lack of mental ‘bandwidth’ can put your decision-making process on the fritz and plunge you further into trouble. It’ll apply to your own life, obviously, but also hopefully help your empathy for people less fortunate than you.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change One of those books that I refused to read because everyone else was doing it…and then I wished I’d read it years earlier. Very easy to read, but full of perfect illustrations of how to stop relying on willpower by just shifting your habits.
Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive Duhigg’s follow-up to the Power Of Habit, and another belter: the appendix is the money section, full of concrete advice on how to mix ‘stretch’ and SMART goals to achieve anything you like.
How to Win Friends and Influence People Sounds creepy, but isn’t. Carnegie’s work is a classic for a reason: there’s no pick-up artist bullshit here, just genuine, sensible advice on how to cultivate a genuine interest in what other people are doing and get on better with them as a result. Everyone should read this.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Rightly considered a classic – and again, none creepy if you use it for its stated purpose, which is to avoid the tricks in it being used on you. This covers everything from social proof to reciprocity with iron-clad ways to bulletproof yourself against them. Think of it as your Magneto-helmet against advertising.
Homage to Catalonia (Penguin Modern Classics) Still posting the old ‘rise and grind’ memes? Please read this, remind yourself that George Orwell contracted tuberculosis fighting fascism years before most of the world got the memo, and remember that you are, at heart, quite soft. Then learn to punch, and go do something good.
The Perfect Storm: A True Story Of Man Against The Sea You should read this not just because it’s a fascinating insight into weather systems, fishing, drowning, boats and the mindset of men in dangerous jobs, but because the sheer effort Sebastian Junger put into writing it will make you feel bad about yourself. As he says at the end: “Writers often don’t know much about the world they’re trying to describe, but they don’t necessarily need to. They just need to ask a lot of questions. And then they need to step back and let the story speak for itself.”
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed Replace everything I just said about the Perfect Storm with ‘but for the logging industry/environmentalism/the inhumanity of everyone’s dealing with native American tribes’ and that’s The Golden Spruce. Then replace all that with ‘Siberian Tigers’ and you’ve got Vaillant’s other book, which you should also read.