The novelist Alice Hoffman once observed that books “may well be the only true magic."
I’ve long observed that you can learn a lot about people by looking at their bookshelves. Some might say this is because books are a reflection of us, and this is partly true; but books also shape who we are. They have the power to lead us to truth or conceal it from us.
Here are six books that can change how you see the world and reality—in a good way.
1. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand (1957)
Atlas Shrugged is one of the most influential books ever written—it has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide—and for good reason.
Rand’s magnum opus is a visionary work of art that details the struggle of the individual against collectivist forces seeking to control and rob him all in the name of a greater good. Part mystery, part romance, and part polemic, Atlas Shrugged tears down the curtain hiding the wizards who control society in the name of fairness.
When I first read Atlas Shrugged, I was stunned how clearly Rand “saw the future”—until I realized she lived through the New Deal. That’s when I realized Rand wasn’t a prophet as much as a shrewd author who had ascertained how the collectivist machine (and grift) works.
2. Meditations (161-180 AD), by Marcus Aurelius
A friend bought me a copy of Meditations when I was in college, and it’s been one of the books that has remained near my bedside over the years. Written by one of the few great Emperors of Rome—Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)—Meditations is more like a series of philosophical reflections than an organized book. But its insights are beautiful and powerful, and it’s perhaps the single greatest work of Stoic philosophy ever written.
Meditations is a fountain of reason that will teach you how to control your mind, and through that your habits and actions. Written at a time when the greatest civilization of Antiquity was collapsing, it’s essentially a road map for self control and self improvement that will teach you individual progress is still achievable in a crumbling world.
Life is a precious gift, but Aurelius understood it’s also filled with challenges: pain, suffering, and injustice. Few can better prepare you and your mind to meet these challenges than Meditations.
3. 1984 (1948) by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most terrifying book on this list—largely because Orwell saw the future so well. Dubbed “the definitive book of the 20th century,” his masterpiece depicts a totalitarian future where people are constantly surveilled, manipulated, lied to, and sometimes tortured. While Big Brother’s totalitarian tendencies and surveillance techniques speak a clear warning and remain highly relevant today, Orwell’s most impressive literary insight was how postmodern philosophy combined with state power and mass propaganda would torture not just people but truth itself.
After reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, the more subtle psychological terror of our own time becomes more acute, and the book is sure to change how you see the world today.
4. Basic Economics (2000), by Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell’s bestselling work Basic Economics is arguably the best introductory economics book ever written. It’s packed with history that shows the power of incentives—good and bad—and the danger of focusing on the intention of public policies rather than their results.
Sowell, unlike most professional economists, is a talented writer and storyteller. His historical anecdotes and punchy prose will be an eye-opener for new readers trying to understand why so many problems exist in the world today despite our prosperity.
5. Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley's terrifying work Brave New World is one of the few books that some argue is more prophetic than Orwell’s masterpiece. Imagine a world where a small group of central planners engineer a drugged-out society and use education as a means of conditioning pupils with class consciousness to control everyone.
That’s basically the setting of Brave New World. Huxley's dystopia is more seductive than Orwell’s, which is what makes it more real in some ways. The English writer understood that humanity would come to love the chains it wore, especially in the presence of opulence, sex, and drugs.
Huxley believed the world’s governments would slowly but surely grow more totalitarian, and the only thing that could prevent this was a “large-scale popular movement toward decentralization.”
After reading Brave New World, you’ll likely agree with him.
6. The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek (1944)
Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek’s most popular and influential book, The Road to Serfdom was written and published during the height of World War II in response to the global rise of fascism and socialism. Hayek saw that most Western governments in the world, including the United States, were "progressively [abandoning] that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past."
An honest, meticulous, and unapologetic defense of laissez faire capitalism and classical liberalism, Hayek pulled no punches, pointing out that the “increasing veneration for the state, the admiration of power, and of bigness for bigness' sake” was scarcely different in countries such as England than it was in Nazi Germany.
Few books will help readers better understand that fascism wasn’t actually defeated in 1945, but lives on today in various incarnations.