Syllabus for the good life


My “best of” reading list.

Where do we find the good life?

Can we choose the good life?

  • Arthur Krystal, “The Shrinking World of Ideas”: Phenomenal piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on why neuroscience is ruining the humanities, or, why academia has begun to replace normative questions with empirical answers. In order to choose meaning, we must first believe that meaning exists (that we are more than neurons firing) and that we are capable of choice
  • John Steinbeck, East of Eden: A fictional re-telling of Cain & Abel, re-told through several generations of a family. Subtlety is not the purpose here (the Cain figures’ names all begin with “C”, and the Abel figures’ names all begin with “A”); rather, the clear, familiar archetypes allow Steinbeck to get to the root of the question: is one’s fate determined by circumstance and context, or does one have the ability to choose one’s destiny?
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: A behemoth (1,168 pages), but a fairly engaging story (if you skip the speeches/addresses, which are essentially essays codifying the narrative). Lots of parts to hate and some clearly unfair strawmen, but one of the best narrative critiques of modern society’s failure to accept personal responsibility — something as true today as it was in 1957
  • Tyler Cowen and Ben Sasse, “Ben Sasse on the Space between Nebraska and Neverland”: I love Tyler Cowen’s Conversations podcast, and this interview with Ben Sasse is his best. Lots of pieces here, but a big section (expanding on Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult) on why personal responsibility is dying in America

What does not take us to the good life?

  • David Brooks, “The Organization Kid”: This was the first essay I read in college (Eric Gregory assigned it in his legendary “Christian Ethics and Modern Society” course) and I hated it and thought Brooks was dead wrong. After four years at the institution that Brooks profiled, I concluded he was dead on
  • Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety: One of the best modern critiques of contemporary culture; specifically, a historical and philosophical diagnosis of why people fail to find fulfillment (rooted in status/perception by others) and a rudimentary explanation of what we can do about it
  • Molly McHugh, “Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders”: Well-written example of the destructiveness of status anxiety and how seeking approval of others above all else makes us miss (and often destroy) intrinsic beauty
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: Classic fictional critique of hedonism and materialism

What takes us to the good life?

  • C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: The best case for the Christian worldview I’ve ever read. Historical and scientific defenses ultimately only create a plausibility structure (i.e., they prove that Christianity’s claims are not obviously counter to historical and scientific observations); they are insufficient (though very necessary!) to prove the case for Christ. Lewis paints a compelling philosophical view of why one ought choose Christ
  • The Bible: Of course, the best way to really decide whether Christ is compelling is to read about Christ. Lewis is a useful frame to prepare for this, but ultimately the only way one can evaluate the claims of Christ is to actually read the claims of Christ
  • Reasonable Faith
  • Warranted Christian Belief

How then shall we live the good life?

In relation to God

  • Stacy & Paula Rinehart, Living in Light of Eternity: Old, out-of-print book that presents a succinct case for living for the next life, not for this one — and how that mindset impacts this life
  • C.S. Lewis, Weight of Glory and Other Essays: The title essay is the best — a compelling argument for why we under-weight the value of eternal glory and how we ought to live as a result. The last page or so, which is a short aside and not even the main point of the essay, details a well-explained paradigm for viewing others. But the other essays are also phenomenal (“The Inner Ring”, for example, is one of the most underrated Lewis essays)
  • C.S. Lewis, Great Divorce: So what does this heaven and this weight of glory look like? Lewis presents a compelling picture of the afterlife and how the choices we make today relate to the afterlife. The book can be summed up in this pithy paragraph: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
  • John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: I first read this practical book on spiritual disciplines as part of a book study for a community group I was in. I had never been in a worthwhile book study before and was prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, Ortberg’s mix of story and practical advice changed my life — no new theory, but a host of new practices
  • C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters: Classic stories of what it looks like to live the Christian life and how the Enemy attempts to interfere. The chapter on spiritual dryness has had more impact on me than anything or anyone else in relation to how I think about finding joy in trials
  • C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: Lewis’s journal as he grappled with his wife’s death. Fascinating if you read next to Problem of Pain, one of Lewis’s first books (the classic Christian answer to the problem of suffering) and a book mentioned several times in A Grief Observed. First, it’s helpful to see that even those who have all the intellectual answers can still struggle with faith; second, it’s helpful seeing the journey of a man through grief/anger toward God to reconciliation (although the final reconciliation is not documented in this book). Similar to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, though I liked Lewis’s narrative more

In relation to others

  • Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism: The church I go to in New York, Church of the City, described this as the book you should read if you want to understand our church. It’s phenomenal, and more about discipleship than it is about evangelism. Coleman wrote the book during the Billy Graham crusades, and while he has no quarrel with this approach (Graham actually wrote the introduction), he wonders whether mass evangelism is really the best way to build lasting Christian community. He then examines evangelism in the life of Jesus and finds that Jesus actually spent the bulk of His time ministering to twelve men, and within that, really to three men. This grassroots approach emphasizing quality over quantity allowed the early church to grow, not through mass conversions, but through individual discipleship. Coleman ultimately lost in the court of public opinion and the modern American church grew up through mass evangelism, but given its current state, it is worth wondering how sustainable this approach was
  • John H. Yoder, “”What Would You Do If …?” An Exercise in Situation Ethics”: I read this for Christian Ethics. I hated it, wrote a paper against it, and realized I agreed with it so much that I ended up becoming a pacifist for a full week. While I now disagree with a fundamental premise (that it is categorically wrong to take a life), Yoder’s clear and rational consistency with key Christian first principles (e.g., belief in the supernatural and in miracles) illustrate a broader point — that the Christian life, well lived, requires substantial faith and is not an “easy” life. In many ways, Yoder reminds me of Peter Singer, although with radically different presuppositions

What does the good life look like?

  • William Shakespeare, Henry V: My favorite Shakespeare play, illustrating the glory of fighting and dying for a noble cause greater than one’s self. When I read the St. Crispin’s Day speech, I’m ready to take up arms and fight for England
  • C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia: Various stories of the Christian life, told in a fantastical world. Perhaps they strike us so because they are familiar stories set in unfamiliar circumstances. Lewis is also a literary genius — it takes skill for a set of books to be enjoyed by children and adults for completely different reasons. Favorite books are The Horse and His Boy (great story on the hiddenness of God) and The Last Battle (both for the desperate struggle at the end of days and for the incredibly compelling picture of heaven)
  • Life is Beautiful: A film that portrays the impact one individual can have on another (in this case, a father on his son), even in the face of incredibly institutional adversity
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko: Wonderful book for four reasons. First, a unique and fresh writing style. Second, a story about a marginalized people that most (even most Koreans) don’t know about. Third, a story that illustrates well the Korean story — being constantly beaten down and leaving only pride in self (and the beauty and brokenness of that). And fourth, some wonderful, compelling characters struggling to live out Lee’s (very Presbyterian) world where things just happen — and all they can control is their response. Bonus points for the epilogue, which illustrates Lee’s passion for the subject (it was essentially written / re-written three times)
  • Kevin Clark, “The Collected Stories of Marcus Mariota”The Ringer is not particularly friendly towards religion, so when I saw this headline, I expected a pretty negative slant. Instead, Clark fills the article with vignette after vignette about Mariota’s humble, behind-the-scenes, servant-leader approach to life. Fantastic story of how simple acts of service can profoundly shape those around us — even though Mariota has regressed this year, this is a life worth living

What are the applications of the good life?

What does the good life say about the city?

  • Edward Rutherfurd, London: Written in the style of James Michener (but, I think, a bit more engaging), Rutherfurd masterfully traces the story of London through the eyes of several families, from the era of the Britons, the Romans, and the Saxons all the way through to the present day. There’s also a central “family legend” (about treasure buried during Roman times) woven throughout
  • Edward Rutherfurd, New York: Not quite as good as London, but still fascinating if you love New York
  • E.B. White, “Here is New York”: A love letter to the city “becoming a capital of the world”

What does the good life say about the country?

  • Marilynn Robinson, Gilead: No one better celebrates the mundane and the ordinary than Marilynn Robinson. While small-town America is undoubtedly problematic in many ways, the most redemptive quality has always seemed to be its special ability to inculcate family and community (think of how much harder it is to inculcate these things in the transient city or siloed suburbs), and that shines through here better than anywhere else. The first half of the story will leave you wondering if there is a plot, and you may not understand the plot until the end of the book (it is also not a particularly complex plot), but the real beauty here is the anecdotes that make up the plot, not the plot itself
  • Thornton Wilder, Our Town: “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about”
  • J,D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: Favorite book of 2016, and an explanation of what might threaten the family and community that makes rural America special. Narrative of growing up in rural Ohio/Kentucky — there were so many times that I would pause, re-read an anecdote, and wonder if this could really be in 21st-century America. Big takeaways include the importance of the nuclear family unit and the roots of resentment against coastal elites. This book has been unfairly maligned as victim blaming (vs. describing root causes), misery poker (though he never compares rural white plight to other racial/ethic groups), and conservative propaganda (I barely remember policy recommendations), but I think the criticisms miss the largest takeaway: empathy for a group that is downtrodden
  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men: Microcosmic story of a two-man family/community, and the sacrifices that one man makes for the other. Cliche, but classic
  • John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: Steinbeck travels around America in a pickup truck named after Don Quixote’s horse with his poodle, Charley. Wonderful anecdote after anecdote about the heartland, many of which ring true 60 years later (though Steinback was certainly overly optimistic about the future of trailer parks, which he adored and believed was the future)
  • Friday Night Lights (the television show): Hollywood tends to create media that overidealizes the country (generally more “Golden Age” cinema) or overly-criticizes the country (generally more contemporary cinema). FNL presents an unvarnished view of how small-town Texas can simultaneously build up and tear down community and family. It’s also a phenomenal story of the rewards of persevering in difficult relationships (romantic and otherwise — a stark contrast to the Hollywood meet cutes) and how integral team sports are in character formation

What does the good life say about political institutions?

  • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The best introduction to development that I’ve ever read. Acemoglu (winner of the John Bates Clark medal) and Robinson lay out a compelling case for why politically-inclusive regimes (particularly with strong respect for property rights) hold much more explanatory power than other more intuitive (and popular) theories, like geography, culture, or ignorance
  • William Easterly, The Tyranny of the Experts (summary article in Foreign Policy): Best critique of centralized planning/silver-bullet seeking in economic development and a strong case for rights as both a moral and economic imperative
  • Richard Ben Cramer, What it Takes: Trailblazer in the campaign-book genre; this account of the 1988 primaries and general election is distinguished from modern counterparts (which are generally quite terrible) by its quality writing and relatively even-handed depictions of each candidate
  • Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Intricate yet engaging story of the Bush Administration. The 9/11 story and description of the deteriorating Bush-Cheney relationship are of particular note. (Honorable mention: Keith Hennessey, “George W. Bush is smarter than you”)
  • Ilya Somin, “Every Vote Does Count – But the Chance it Will Make a Difference is Still Ridiculously Low”: A critique of the “noble lie” that every vote counts (not mentioned — the fact that most close elections are decided by a lawsuit, further reducing the probability that one vote would swing an election), why this lie is damaging, and potential alternatives to civic participation. There’s also a good empirical case that belief in this noble lie does not actually increase turnout
  • Jason Brennan, “Shame on You, Voter! A Case for Not Voting”: Normative case against the average voter voting, based on (rational) lack of political knowledge. Of course, the above article suggests that this is purely philosophical, with no practical implications…

What does the good life say about public policy?

  • Avik Roy, “Health Care and the Profit Motive”: Roy was the leading health-care thought leader in the Republican Party until the rise of Donald Trump; he’s now on the fringes and despairing over the future of the Party, but this was one of his seminal health-care pieces, and one of the most compelling cases for a conservative alternative both to the pre-2008 status quo and to the Affordable Care Act
  • Andrew Min, “The Pragmatic Case for Guns”: I never found a good, comprehensive critique of gun-control laws, except for those that argued from normative grounds (e.g., Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?”). Philosophical arguments are important, but often come across as callous (I also have many questions on whether a pluralistic society can fully resolve ethical conflicts). To me, the much more interesting debate is whether gun-control laws actually work, so I wrote a piece on it
  • Dominic Barton, “The Most Important Factor in a College Student’s Success”: Short article from McKinsey’s Managing Director on the importance of mindset/”grit” in college success (“even more than external factors like standardized tests scores, income levels and whether the student’s parents are college graduates”)
  • Peter W. Singer, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on cyberwarfare, and there was an incredible amount of confusion over both definitions (what is “cyberwarfare”? Does North Korea leaking Sony emails count?) and importance (is cyberwarfare so powerful that we need to throw out all our theories of deterrence and start over?). Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the clearest, most-level-headed expert on the subject. Read this if you’re interested in the next frontier of warfare (and especially if you read Richard Clarke’s piece of garbage on “cyber war”)

What does the good life say about public discourse?

  • David H. Freedman, “The War on Stupid People”: Great piece on how intelligence has subtly established itself as the “universal yardstick of human worth” (though perhaps a bit rich coming from the Atlantic)
  • Emmett Rensin, “The smug style in American liberalism”: Best piece I read in 2016 (ironic coming from Vox, as the next piece explains). Phenomenal piece on the issues with discourse in American culture (I also suspect this is more of an elitist issue than a liberal issue, though perhaps more socially acceptable in elite liberals than elite conservatives). It was written half a year before the 2016 election, and if more people had taken it seriously, the results might have been very different
  • Nathan J. Robinson, “Explaining It All to You”: Fantastic piece on Vox. “Do you know what your problem is? Your problem is not that you are uninformed. That is what you might have thought your problem was. Your problem is also not that you lack information. This is a common misconception. In fact, people nowadays have lots of information. Too much, even. No, your problem is the opposite. Your problem is that you cannot interpret the information you have. You lack the guiding hand of expertise. You need a vox dei, a little Voice of God whispering in your ear, helping you along, telling you what it all means. You need someone to let you know what’s what, to find the truth for you and analyze it and put it in orderly stacks of notecards with little suggested opinions on them”
  • Tom Nichols, “Chill, America. Not every Trump outrage is outrageous.”: Phenomenal case study about how ideological groups (in this case, American progressives) often overreact and overexaggerate, putting narrative above fact, and why that damages their credibility with other groups. This piece is about Donald Trump, but the lesson spans ideological lines: it is the warning of what happens when arrogance constructs a perfect narrative and refuses to allow facts to question it
  • Jesse Singal, “The Times May Have Launched a False Rumor About Rick Perry”: Tragic story from New York (not exactly a bastion of conservatism) on illustrating how the New York Times‘s arrogant commitment to narrative consigned it to print claims that were objectively, factually, and verifiably inaccurate — sadly, it still has yet to print a retraction. This one was personally extremely sad for me, because I had always held David Sanger (who used to, and occasionally still does, write incredibly well-researched pieces on foreign policy) in high esteem
  • Chris Bodenner, “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country”: A vignette of why academic freedom is so important — attacking speech you dislike only works as long as you remain in power. Most riveting was the story of a gay, mixed-raced, female professor whose history of PTSD was intentionally targeted and exploited by student activists. Two pieces on the beauty of academic freedom of speech: Princeton President Chris Eisgruber’s interview with the Indian Express (where he states that the ability “to tolerate even offensive kinds of speech and to respond to bad arguments when they are made with more speech rather than with disciplinary actions” was so important that he would allow a public memorial of Osama bin Laden) and William Bowen’s interview with Time on his commencement address at Haverford, lambasting students for dis-inviting a controversial speaker
  • Eugene Volokh, “No, Gov. Dean, there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to the First Amendment”: Great summary of American jurisprudence on hate law; counter to popular belief, hate speech is legally very much free speech (and shouting “fire” in a crowded theater doesn’t get you out of this one)
  • German Lopez, “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.”: The importance of dialoguing with those who feel under attack (great read after finishing Hillbilly Elegy). (Honorable mention: Michael Gerson, “Stop sneering at Trump. It won’t help.”)

What does the good life say about the workplace?

  • Karen Dillon, “New Managers Should Focus on Helping Their Teams, Not Pleasing Their Bosses”: One of my best managers sent this to me after I started managing my first team. Best article on management I’ve read so far
  • Charles D. Ellis, What it Takes: Ellis is an extremely well-connected academic and paints detailed vignettes of “the world’s greatest professional firms”: McKinsey & Company (consulting), Cravath, Swaine & Moore (law), Capital Group (investment management), the Mayo Clinic (health care), and Goldman Sachs (investment banking). Great lessons across distinctive professional-services firms, though Ellis is relatively uncritical (in particular, not all who know Cravath would agree with his glowing characterization of its culture) and it is not clear that Capital Group and, to a lesser extent, post-IPO Goldman remain as distinctive as Ellis paints them
  • Clayton M. Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”: An associate partner sent this to me while I was debating whether to skip Bible study for my dream study
  • “Tribal Workers”Financial Times
  • Mihir Desai, “The Trouble with Optionality”

What does the good life say about the academy?

What does the good life say about culture?

  • Benjamin Mako Hill, “Cultivated Disinterest in Professional Sports”: My friends make fun of me because I post this article so often. Fantastic article about how sports is one of the few remaining categories of conversation that can capture the interest of people across racial and socioeconomic divides, and why coastal elites often intentionally cultivate disinterest (driven by many of the “smugness” factors mentioned above)
  • Christopher Orr, “How Pixar Lost Its Way”: Case study of how a studio figured out what makes a story compelling, how corporate interests sidetracked it, and the sad results (“I’m not sure I dare to expect much more of what used to make Pixar Pixar: the idiosyncratic stories, the deep emotional resonance, the subtle themes that don’t easily translate into amusement-park rides”). For what it’s worth, I thought Coco‘s triumph of making a compelling story about a Mexican protagonist masked the fact that Pixar had made a film with all the elements of vintage Pixar. Perhaps Pixar is getting back on track

What does the good life have to say about relationships?


Clever stories that have nothing to do with the good life

  • Agatha Christie, Murder of Roger Ackroyd: You can really only read it once, but it’s a gripping read with a thrilling plot twist nonetheless
  • Arrested Development: Incredibly witty TV show that gets richer every time I watch it (there are dozens of inside jokes on this show, and I pick up on new, intricate foreshadowings every time I rewatch)
  • Archer: Similar concept, except a bit more creative (in good ways and bad) given the animated nature and cable-station home (vs. Arrested Development, which grew up on Fox)