You Are What You Read: 14 Thought Leaders Share Their Bookshelves

186 Comments


Photo: Ozyman

The following is a guest post by Shane Snow, a frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company. It includes photographs of some fun bookshelves, including yours truly (Tim Ferriss). CLICK ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.

Enter Shane

They say a person’s eyes are “the window to the soul.”

I am not very good at pupil-based soul-reading, but I’ve found that I can learn a lot about a person by the books on his or her shelf. When I go to someone’s house or office for the first time, my favorite thing to do is check out the bookshelf.

Here’s what’s on mine:


(click to enlarge any and all photos in this post)

Storytelling is a powerful force, as I’m a fan of reminding people. Stories—fiction and non—make ideas stick; they change minds and shape us in often subconscious ways. I believe the mind of a well-read person is heavily influenced by the books of her past.

A few weeks ago, I decided to conduct a little experiment.

I emailed a few friends and people I admired and asked them if I could see photographs of their bookshelves (or book stacks or Kindle screens). Just about everybody said, “yes.” The experiment soon metastasized, and I started pestering thought leaders in spaces I followed–tech, advertising, philanthropy–to see what books the innovators cared enough about to allot real estate.

Soon, I had more photos than I knew what to do with. Here are some of my favorites:

 

Hilary Mason, Chief Scientist at bit.ly and one of the smartest women in American tech

 

Fred Wilson, Partner at Union Square Ventures and the man responsible for investments in Tumblr, Etsy, CodeAcademy, KickStarter, Meetup, Soundcloud, Twitter, Behance, and StackExchange…

He sent me this one:

But I actually found this closeup in his Flickr photostream, too:

 

Guy Kawasaki, Bestselling Author of Enchantment, A.P.E., and a dozen other terrific books

 

Mike Lazerow, Founder of Buddy Media (sold to Salesforce last year for $700 million)

 

Mitch Kanner, Owner of 2Degrees and one of Ad Age’s “hottest rolodexes” in advertising (this guy hooks people like Jay-Z up with deals like Samsung’s million-album download)

 

Jonah Berger, Bestselling Author of Contagious and “virality” guru

 

Claire Ortiz-Diaz, head of Social Innovation at Twitter and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People In Business

 

Dharmesh Shah, CTO of Hubspot and founder of OnStartups, and one of the most humble leaders you’ll ever meet

 

Dave Kerpen, Bestselling Author of Likeable Business and founder of Likeable Media (also the highest-trafficked LinkedIn Influencer in the world)

 

Cindy Gallop, renowned advertising executive and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn

 

Adam Grant, Bestselling Author of Give And Take and purveyor of revolutionary ideas about work and success

 

Clara Shih, CEO of Hearsay Social and board member of Starbucks (elected at age 29)

 

Jeffrey Walker, philanthropist and Chairman of JPMorgan Chase Foundation and author of the forthcoming book The Generosity Network

 

And I certainly couldn’t leave out Tim Ferriss, whose penchant for anime happens to be his secret weapon for language-mastery:

 

Interestingly enough, the book I referenced in the beginning about stories making ideas stick (Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath) shows up several times in this gallery. There are a few other repeats if you look carefully!

Of course, there were a number of well-read people whose bookshelves I’d love to get a peek at (but unfortunately couldn’t get a hold of). In particular, I wish I could check out the shelves belonging to the following five:

Arianna Huffington

Elon Musk

Martha Stewart

Joss Whedon

Cory Booker (and not just because of the name!)

We’re all a product to some degree of the books we read, the programs we watch, and the people we meet. In the comments, I’d love to discuss: What books from this gallery jumped out at you? Whose bookshelves above do you identify with in particular?

And, perhaps most importantly, what are the most important 2-3 books on your bookshelf?

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186 comments on “You Are What You Read: 14 Thought Leaders Share Their Bookshelves

  1. This is a post near and dear to my heart. I am a bibliophile.

    Here are images of some of my books: http://dj.polishedsolid.com/bookshelves

    While I don’t have Made to Sitck by Chip Heath & Dan Heath which showed up in a lot of the shelves of the actual post, I do have their Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

    The 3 books which have had a MAJOR impact on my life are:
    * Shadows of the Mind by Tom Johnson
    * You Are Your Own Experience by Tom Johnson
    * The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

    The 3 books which I personally recommend to undergraduate students are:
    * The 4 hour workweek by Tim Ferriss (No, I’m not kissing butt here. I have given or recommended this book to my undergraduate seniors more than any other book bar none.)
    * Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
    * Do The Work by Steven Pressfield

    My 3 favorite books about creativity are:
    * Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    * Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
    * Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko

    My 3 favorite books about productivity are:
    * Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos by Steven Chandler
    * Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life
    by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry
    * The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey (a timeless classic which will stand the test of time)

    Also, one of my favorite booklists is by Derek Sivers: http://sivers.org/book

    I could go on and on;)

  2. Greta post! I love books! My top books are :

    The School for Gods- Stefano D’Anna
    A New Earth- Eckhart Tolle
    Reality Transurfing: The Space of Variations- Vadim Zeland
    Becoming a Supple Leopard- Kelly Starrett
    Cure Tooth Decay – Ramiel Nagel

  3. I am a parent, first and foremost; I will recommend to anyone who will listen Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting,” and “The Schools Our Children Deserve.” These two had a profound effect on my relationship to my kids and their environment. I also like Lucy Calkins’ “Raising Lifelong Learners.”

    If a person is in the habit of expressing himself in writing, I’d say “Garner’s Modern American Usage” is a must.

  4. Interesting. The books on thouse thought leaders have some same books or similar interested genre. They are the one that I followed. I suppose other thought leaders not listed may have similar books I happen to be following too.

    Like attracts like.

    The book I find myself referencing often currently is by John Kotter, “Sense of Urgency”. I am work on building a buy-in at my workplace. John Kotter’s framework of driving changes is fabulous.

    Oh yes. A book, a public domain, that may be a secret weapon in my arsenal is Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins. The books surrounding this is reason of my growing collection such as works by Cialdini, Mckee, and likes.

  5. How about Ryan Holiday’s bookshelf?

    http://www.ryanholiday.net/my-library/

    I love, love, and love reading Ryan Holiday’s monthly reading list. He write damn good review and explain why he read this book for what purpose.

    It was an interesting months where Ryan shared his commentary on numerous of civil war books. Ryan reads diverse books and that might explain his all-around savvy.

  6. This is the greatest idea! thanks! I’m always curious about certain people’s bookshelves. I wonder what’s on Jay-Z’s bookshelf and whether or not Dana White reads books.
    I’ll look for fiction books among the bookshelves in this article because I rarely read fiction but I’d like to read more.
    I don’t really have a bookshelf because after I read something I end up giving it away.
    The last book I finished was Power of Habit and I loved it.
    I’m going to pick up Mastery because many of your commenters mentioned it.
    Thanks again. Awesome article.

  7. I see a japanese shogi book in there. It would be interesting to see the accelerated learning principles applied to go, shogi or chess.

  8. The Bhagavad Gita – good enough for Oppenheimer good enough for me

    The 33 Strategies of War – Robert Greene ( and his Mastery and 48 laws)

    The 4 Hour Body – by the man himself ( not to blow smoke up the….. but because it has inspired me to set up my own self learning and self experimentation in a number of areas )

  9. Books! my first love. For me books have always been the best vehicle to travel across the globe. I not only have hard copies but not my hard drive has almost 20Gb of books. Reading books should certainly be everybody’s passion for it shows them the world they know and do not know.

  10. So many great books and so difficult to pick 2-3. Here are my picks:

    1) The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business idea by Bob Burg and John David Mann

    2) Success Intelligence by Robert Holden

    3) Freedom Flight: The Origins of Mental Power by Lanny Bassham

  11. I really appreciate the original material on your blog. Day going kind of mundane? Jump to Tim’s blog for a dash of difference and inspiration. Thanks for sharing your world.

  12. 1. What jumps out is the number of ORANGE COLOURED books, obviously a marketing technique, including 4 Hour Body. (Blue with orange)

    2. Don’t mess with Guy Kawasaki. He has a sniper fetish.

    3. On my bookshelf: Baudolino by Umberto Eco. Collapse by Jared Diamond and the Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz

    4. The books in my heart are: Green Eggs and Ham (favourite), The Millionaire Next Door, The Richest Man in Babylon, and On Watership Down.

    If you can’t learn leadership from a cuddly rabbit named Hazel, this world is too complicated for you!

  13. Tim Ferris has “Creating the Good Life” on his shelf. University of Florida has a “What is the good life?” class mandatory for every new undergrad student coming in. There were some good readings in that class, Siddhartha, On love and other difficulties, The Road less Traveled etc.

    Jeffrey Walker “philanthropist” and JPMorgan… paradox in terms? Oh, his book “The Generosity Wealth”? Oh, what a laugh!

    • Manga is book, anime is … animated.

      I don’t read manga, but I’d recommend Death Note for anime. It’s also available as manga.

  14. Amidst the predominately non-fiction depicted (overall) loved seeing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Darmesh Shah’s photograph.

    • Cem,

      Actually, I’ve read the Power of Now and GTD, 7 habits, etc. etc. I do not think it conflicts personally. It is important to never be rigid about a philosophy or system. A part of being alive is being spontaneous and in the now. For me personally, flexibility is also very key.

      Two of my favorite quotes are:
      “The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” – Lao Tsu from the Tao Te Ching

      “Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable.” – There are variations of this quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower

      So to translate the last quote to your question, goals, habits, etc. are important, but not to the sacrifice of carpe diem. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” (Yogi Berra)

      However, you may want to read Leo Babauta’s take on NOT having goals:
      http://zenhabits.net/no-goal for a different perspective.

  15. The very sight of all those books stacked in neat (and sometimes scattered) piles is exhilarating. This piece made me want to buy more and read more. Glad to see the intelligent choices of all the people featured. Thanks!

  16. Tim,

    Awesome post. Seriously one of the best all year in my humble opinion. Just finished “Creating the Good Life” from your shelf – what an incredible book and so glad I read it at the beginning of my 3rd decade.

    Thank you for putting these amazing books on my radar, and hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!! :)

    Cheers,
    James

  17. Hello Shane,

    Thank you for writing this post, other people’s bookshelves are fascinating indeed and getting a peek into such a private aspect of public figures’ personality is super exciting.

    Something has struck me though: if we all agree that “the mind of a well-read person is heavily influenced by the books of her past”, then we all agree too that the stories read -or read to us- during childhood are as relevant as what we read as adults.

    Many of the books showed in these pictures are pretty serious with a hell of a lot of non-fiction (except for Tim’s collection of mangas, cheers for that!), whereas surely (surely?) everyone here has been a kid and has derived tons of dreaming material and even more anxiety from the books they’ve been exposed to as children. When I look at the bookshelves where my childhood literature is resting, I remember being first introduced to Hiroshima and cancer as a little kid through books (although now that I write this, it sounds odd), ogres (which are figuratively paedophiles (your mind knew)), witches, serial murdering husbands (Bluebeard), suicide (the Little Mermaid) and anthropomorphic cats…..etc, etc.. Real stuff. Stuff that leave a lasting mark on a young, inexperienced mind, and influence their vision of good and evil for many years to come.

    So if you ever decided to make a book out of your pursuit of collecting pics of famous people’s bookshelves, I would love to see included some of the books they read as kids as well as the books they’ve filled their own kids’ bookshelves with.

    On another note, I’d like to know what everyone reads while in the loo as many people seem to have a specific literary selection for that room (and no one reads profound philosophy on the throne, I won’t be tricked into believing that!).

  18. I hang out with a bunch of people who have shelves and shelves of inspirational stories and personal development books until they are barfing quotes from the likes of Jim Rohn and Tony Robbins. Don’t get me wrong, these guys have a place in my heart, but sometimes the personal development sector feels like Christian camp, where everyone seems artificially happy all the time.
    I prefer stories by unknown people who have endured extreme physical hardship. “A boy called it.” “Angela’s Ashes” are a couple of the ones that tell the true story of a horrendous childhood and the survival of it. “Off the rails” inspired me to get off my ass and travel hardcore.

  19. They really read a lot of different books huh? Some of them likes stories. It is not just all informational books. But I don’t think it has something to do with their success. The books they choose is just based on their personality.

  20. This is my first comment here.

    Tim, you’re a huge inspiration and I love to see that you are interested is soccer.

    But after reading the META-chapters in 4HC, I’m really surprised that Pelé is the guy you are learning soccer from. I’m sure you have your reasons and I’d love to hear them – but I think Pelé is one of the biggest natural talents the game has ever seen.

    In true 4HC approach, I’d go for learning from Johann Cruyff. For those who don’t know, he is the key figure behind the ‘total football’ approached that revolutionized the game in the 70′s. Today most top clubs, including FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich, is influenced by Cruyffs adepts.

    The approach also have a lot of similarities with MED and 80/20. One example: Cruyffs team always put the opponent under extreme pressure to win the ball high – so they didn’t have to run as much.

    Also the players changed positions during the game (when somebody was out of position) for the same reason.

    One of Cruyffs legendary quotes:
    “It is the ball who should run and sweat, not the players”.

    Would love to see Tim use the META-approach to soccer.

    Thank you for an awesome blog.

    - Björn, Sweden

  21. Two must read books, both non-fiction, hysterically funny, by women who swear like sailors and make a great difference in the world:
    1. Jenna Lawson’s “Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir”
    2. Jane Bussman’s “Worst Date Ever (Or, how it took a comedy writer to expose Africa’s secret war).
    Best. Books. Ever. You’ll laugh, you’ll snort, you’ll read them over and over again. Brilliant!

  22. Seeing a small part of your manga collection I am sure(Cowboy Bebop is the best and what got me hooked from the anime on Cartoon Network Adult Swim), I wan’t to tell you about a manga series called Denpa Kyoushi. It is a guy who uses social media to turn anysituation into instant viral activity. The other thing about him that reminds me of you is he suffers from ADW (Able to Do only what he Wants. There is slight different definition and acronym later in the series.) If its something that interests him nothing in the world will stop him from doing it. For instance his claim for fame is developing the physics for Doraemon’s “anywhere door.” One reason I like this series so much is because his use of the various websites and such to create viral reactions to activities or opportunities seem realistic. It could be done. Just trying to get this message of a great manga to you seems to be hard since this blog and twitter are the only two listed contacts in your contacts. I have avoided social media like the plague they are, social driven brainless activities to keep the masses enthralled. The upside of social media is well brought in this series on business sales and education, Kagami is suppose to become the world’s best teacher as well. Baiking and The Great Merchant Kim Manduk, Korean manga, are also two good business manga.

    Anyway more on topic of bookshelf vs. somebody mentioned video. I like manga way better because as somebody mentioned you can stop and reflect or look at the details in the background or get all the nuisances of the puns and such used since they have to be explained in footnotes, since I do not yet read Japanese ;(, or just to look at really awesome pictures. Yeahh reading is more imagination producing too.

    Reading this gave me my muse to create a unique interface for selling. So thanks for that as well.

  23. Now this is my kind of book shelf. I also have Kindle books which I take with me when I am travelling. My mind is always thirsty to learn more in the personal development field. I live and breathe it.

    I’m currently reading “Science of the Mind” by Ernest Holmes. Really enjoying it.

  24. Thank you for sharing this; I noticed that I have read a few of the books above and have some on my “to read” list. I have to say that I would also like to see the shelves of Arianna Huffington, Joss Whedon, and Martha Stewart.