Ryan Holiday graciously and revealingly answers questions posed by Shelf Awareness:
On your nightstand now:
Billie Jean by Billie Jean King.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Doc Holliday by Matt Braun. I bought it at the checkout stand of a Raley's Grocery store in Sacramento. He had the same last name as me! In retrospect I know that great books are not usually sold at grocery stores, but to me, at the time, it had everything I wanted. Action. Sarcasm. Wit. History. I would never re-read it because I want it to stay exactly as it was in my mind as a 9 year old. Also, I can't believe my parents let me read it at age 9.
Your top five authors:
1. Seneca. I did a piece for the New York Times on the relevance of Seneca in today's political landscape. He was a Stoic philosopher who found himself--for mixed motives--serving in the court of Nero. It was a bargain for power that did not work out well, but remains a powerful lesson. His letters are brilliant and wise, no matter how much trouble he had living up to their advice. His plays are also quite good, and are probably underrated compared to Sophocles or Euripides.
2. Rich Cohen. I'll read anything Rich Cohen writes. Books about baseball, books about fruit in South America, books about Jewish gangsters, books about the Rolling Stones. Everything he does it brilliant, hilarious and totally in his own unique style. He was my inspiration as I wrote Conspiracy, my book about Peter Thiel and his war on Gawker.
3. Walker Percy. The Moviegoer is my favorite novel. I think it perfectly captures the angst of the 21st century...despite being written about mid-19th century New Orleans. Walker Percy came from a long line of writers and his best friend growing up was Shelby Foote, a wonderful historian. Also a great Stoic connection and thread running through Percy's work.
4. Robert Greene. I think Robert is our greatest living strategic mind and in 100 years or 500 years his books will be read the way The Prince is read today. People will still be partly horrified but they won't be able to say he's wrong. To me, that's high praise.
5. Stefan Zweig. I've not read much of Zweig's fiction but his series of biographies, of Marie Antoinette, Magellan, Nietzsche and most of all Montaigne deserve to find a new audience today. Pushkin Press has brought a few editions back out and I hope bookstores will carry them. His memoir The World of Yesterday is also very good.
Book you've faked reading:
I've never read 1984. And it's one of those books you're so supposed to have read that I feel like I'd be embarrassed to be seen with it publicly, like I was going back to get my GED or something. I've read some Orwell (he has a great little essay on writing), think he's brilliant and therefore appreciate the irony--or doublespeak--of pretending to have read him.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The single most remarkable book in all of Western Literature. It's the most powerful man in the world recording his private thoughts and exercises about how he can be better, and not be crushed by the pressures and temptations of his job. Lord Acton's line about how absolute power corrupts absolutely and Marcus Aurelius is one of the few exceptions to that rule. To me, what's in Meditations--Stoic philosophy--is the explanation why. I think the Gregory Hays translation for the Modern Library is the best translation but it's hard to go wrong with any of the newer, more recent editions. It's just an incredible book that will change the life of anyone who reads it.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Have you seen the cover of Satan is Real by the Louvin Brothers? It's kitsch but brilliant, scary and hilarious at the same time.
Book that changed your life:
All the Stoics, of course, Marcus Aurelius most of all. Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power showed me how the world works but also--because I was lucky enough to be Robert's research assistant on some of his later books--from it I learned how a writer can show the reader how the world works.
Favorite line from a book:
"Accept it without arrogance, let it go with indifference." Marcus Aurelius. Again, it's so stunning given the position of the man who wrote. This was a guy who was named emperor of Rome...and immediately and unsolicitedly decides to make his step-brother co-emperor. He thought it was the right thing to do. This was a man who experienced the highs and lows of life and he was determined to let neither change him.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
As I said about the Matt Braun pulp paperback I earlier, it is a wonderful experience to read something at an age when the world is fresh and new. At the same time, reading something again--not for the first time but for the second time--is almost always more illuminating. It is sad that we read The Great Gatsby for the first time so young. So many of the classics should be pushed later so we can appreciate what they actually mean.