The Best Old Books

When it comes to reading books, the most common genre that people start with is self-help. That's perfectly fine and natural; those books are popular so you're more likely to hear about them.

But as you read more and mature in your reading journey a great question to ask yourself is: what are the most valuable books to read?

Your time is limited so you (unfortunately) can't read everything. You want to be sure that you're spending that limited reading time on the books that you'll learn the most from.

Old Books > New Books

The most valuable books to read are older books. They're more valuable reads than newer books because they've stood up against the hardest benchmark in existence: the test of time. People have read them, studied them, scrutinized their ideas, and they’ve still survived hundreds or even thousands of years later. That means they’re rock solid. Their ideas have stood strong over the ages.

Newer books don’t have such a strong track record since time is not on their side. Anyone can publish a book with an eye-catching title that goes viral and hits #1 as a New York Times Bestseller... But it could be all-hype. Not enough time has passed to make a full judgment on whether the book is valuable or not.

That doesn’t mean that all new books are useless. But, generally speaking, you’ll get more value out of older books, on average. With limited time, it's best to go for the surer bet.

The Best Old Books

The best old books are those whose lessons are fundamental and universal. Technologies, cultures, trends, and specific applications of ideas may change over time. But the fundamentals of human nature, emotions, strategy, and living well are more stable. Therefore, older books that focus on those fundamental subjects are going to give you the most value.

Let me give you a start. Here are 8 old books that focus on the fundamentals and have stood the test of time.

1. Plutarch’s Lives by Plutarch

Plutarch was a writer and historian who lived during the first and second centuries AD. Plutarch's Lives is a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans including Theseus (king of Athens), Alexandar the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and others.

The book is especially focused on understanding the personal characters of these great people and what we can learn from them. The idea was that one could become a great person by studying people of great character.

“To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.”
“I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.”
“Courage stands halfway between cowardice and rashness, one of which is a lack, the other an excess of courage. ”

2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of the Roman Empire during the height of its power. Meditations is his private notebook of thoughts and reflections on how to live well.

This book will give you a natural insight into the mind of one of the most powerful people in human history: how he made decisions, faced challenges, and handled himself. It's also one of the three fundamental books of Stoicism, a philosophy that is focused on living with the four virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

3. The Analects by Confucius

Confuscius was a philosopher in ancient China. His philosophy formed the basis of East Asian culture and society and continues to be prominent today.

The Analects is a large collection of his timeless sayings and ideas, written down by his students and followers. It focuses on how to live with love, self-respect, self-discipline, justice, kindness, and sincerity.

“Every person has two lives, and the second begins when you realize you only have one”
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

4. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was a writer and philosopher who worked as a record keeper in the court of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C. His book Tao Te Ching marked the founding of the philosophy of Taoism.

Taoism is a guide for living with a balance of integrity and nature. Do your best to take action and put in the effort to achieve your goals, but also embrace the spontaneity and flow of life that make it beautiful.

“If you understand others you are smart.
If you understand yourself you are illuminated.
If you overcome others you are powerful.
If you overcome yourself you have strength.
If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
If you can act with vigor, you have a will.
If you don't lose your objectives you can be long-lasting.
If you die without loss, you are eternal.”
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”

5. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu was a highly skilled and successful Chinese general and military strategist. The Art of War is his fundamental playbook of military strategy.

The beauty of this book is that the strategic lessons are universal; they're presented in a military context but the underlying concepts can be applied to any strategic situation. You can apply them to win in a negotiation, business, sales, politics, law, and sports.

“One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.”
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

6. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli​ was a diplomat and historian who lived and worked in Italy during the highly successful Renaissance period. The Prince is his guide to understanding politics, power, and the true nature of people in competition

Machiavelli worked closely with many royals, politicians, and others in positions of power. After observing how the game really worked, he says what everyone else is too afraid to say about these taboo topics. One of his core ideas is that all people are self-interested and one needs to learn how to work with that dynamic if they are to succeed, rather than against it as most people try to do.

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”
“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”

7. Five Dialogues by Plato​

Socrates is considered to be one of the wisest people of all time; Plato was his most dedicated student. Five Dialogues is a set of writings that present the thought process and core ideas of Socrates.

Specifically, the book contains five dialogues in which Socrates participates in a constructive discussion with another person. He applies Socratic Questioning, continuously asking deeper and deeper questions in order to fully examine a particular subject. It's a master class on how to learn anything deeply and in its entirety.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

8. The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne dedicated his life to gaining knowledge through both reading and personal experiences. In an effort to record all that he learned, he became the founder of essay writing as we know it today. The Complete Essays is a collection of all the known essays he wrote over the years.

Montaigne's essays cover a wide variety of subjects from war to poetry, architecture, human nature, love, sex, experience, and beyond. He explores them individually at first, but then later connects them together, finding remarkable relations and patterns. Reading these essays is like going on a journey of discovery through which one eventually learns how all of life is interconnected.

“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
“I quote others only in order the better to express myself.”
“I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous or savage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.”

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