Rijks Museum Library in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

My Personal Reading List

The books that have impacted my life most

Devon Sydney
7 min readFeb 2, 2018


Yes, yes, yes, we all know reading is great, we know it makes us smart, well spoken, and it makes our parents and teachers happy. Yay!

That’s not what I’m writing this for. This is not designed to guilt you into doing something you know you should be doing. Instead, I just want to share a personal story of the books that have most impacted my life. I won’t go through the storylines or dissect plot points or review them, but rather will briefly highlight the ways these books affected me and why they hold an important space within me.

1. The Wall — Jean Paul Sartre [age 14]

Existentialism and Self-Criticality. Reading hadn’t been philosophical for me before The Wall (full text here). It had been more escapist. This short story changed everything. Exposure to existentialism brought about an ability to be critical of my self without taking it too seriously, which has allowed me to improve myself continuously. Ever since, I have been drawn to books, films and tv shows with an existentialist or nihilist touch and to things that can challenge or change my perspective.

Bonus reading: Razor — Vladimir Nabokov

2. The Foundation Series — Isaac Asimov [age 16 to 20]

Empathy for Humanity. Reading the Foundation series re-framed my perspective on humanity as a whole. It resulted in my deep interest in the problems we face as a global community, and in energy and global geo-politics in particular. I have a manifesto, which is yet to be committed to ink, that is inspired in large part by the titular Foundation.

Awareness of Artificial Intelligence. When I hear the words ‘science fiction’, Asimov is still the author I think of first. He coined the Three Laws of Robotics for us, and the interactions of humans and robots in his stories are excellent thought experiments for what we may face very soon as we develop more powerful thinking machines.

Suggestion: I personally like to start the series with ‘Prelude to Foundation’, which was actually written later, but you can also start with ‘Foundation’

Bonus reading: Neuromancer — William Gibson

3. The Four Hour Workweek — Tim Ferriss [age 25]

Fear. This book isn’t about being lazy and only working four hours a week, it’s more about understanding yourself and your own effectiveness to do more and create more. The biggest part of this for me was reframing how I look at fear. Tim sets out a system where you first define your fear, go through a ‘worst case scenario’ imagination of what could happen, and then work yourself back from that to realize it’s not as bad as you thought.

Bonus reading: Delivering Happiness — Tony Hsieh

4. A Language Older Than Words — Derrick Jensen [age 27]

Critical look at Abuse and Corruption: This book was recommended to me from a surprising source, my boss at the time in a multi-national company. In fact, that company is specifically torn apart for corruption in this book. The story is a look at the power and abuse structures in our society, and the author uses his own history of pain and suffering to look at why we lack empathy for the abused, our relationship with the environment, how we are cruel to animals, and how we’ve let corruption run rampant. This book really refocused me on thinking how we can fix the fundamental systems in society that cause harm. For me, these are governmental and corporate corruption, and our ever-growing reliance on energy.

Bonus reading: Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air — David MacKay (digitally available free online here)

5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert M. Pirsig [age 28]

Quality. Zen is an amazingly pure description of what I had always felt was my own personal perspective on life but had been unable to verbalize it. In fact, after reading Zen my list of ‘values’ collapsed from attempting to define many across different areas of life to one single value: the pursuit of quality in all things. The story bounces back and forth between describing the author’s motorcycle journey with his son and deep introspective and critical dives into the philosophies of life.

Suggestion: You should NOT read the ‘Introduction’ until you’ve finished the book, instead just jump right into ‘Part I’. The author inexplicably describes and ruins the ending of the book in the Intro. DO, however, read the ‘Afterword’ as it is integral to the overall impact of the book, and then return to read the Introduction.

Bonus reading: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion — Sam Harris

6. Dune — Frank Herbert [age 28]

Quality, squared. When I finished Zen, I wanted something light, something cool and fun and escapist to allow my mind some calm. I had heard about Dune before, knew only that it was the best selling science fiction of all time, and thought it would be perfect. Little did I know that Dune is Zen on steroids. Right from the first chapter, the book is a long epiphany on the ideas of Quality taken to a level only explorable through science fiction. This is the story of a war for control of the powerful drug known as ‘spice’ on a sand covered planet; throw in technology, politics, religion and ecology, and you can understand why this is such a timeless classic.

Bonus watching: Jodorowsky’s Dune (ambitious and spectacular failed attempt to bring Dune to the big screen)

7. 100 Years of Solitude — Gabriel Garcia Marquez [age 29]

Limits be damned. This is the most purely fantastical tapestry I have ever experienced. Reading the words on the page took my imagination to places I couldn’t even imagine possible, and I could feel it redefining pathways in my brain. Confusion of many characters with the same name, time interacting in unexpected ways, and vibrant descriptions made this book an adventure for my mind. This book and Marquez’ other writings defined the genre ‘magical realism’.

Bonus reading: The Alchemist — Paulo Coelho

8. Blood Meridian — Cormac MacCarthy [age 29]

Violence. Also known as ‘The Evening Redness in the West’, this is the most violent media I have ever consumed. The characters throughout act with such unabashed deference to brutality that you become so numbed to it. It becomes unimportant to both the story and the underlying symbology. The simple lack of violence in certain moments therefore becomes impressive in its own right. Seeing such visceral, real violence gives me a bit of a pause when considering how ‘normal’ it has become in our society to depict ultra-violence.

This became cemented personally too. Mere hours after finishing the last sentence I experienced the most violent event in my life. This story now hangs over me as a sort of dark but humbling reminder.

Bonus reading: American Psycho — Bret Easton Ellis

9. Sapiens — Yuval Noah Harari [age 31]

Shared Fictions. Through a deep look back at human history, Yuval explores the idea that humanity only functions by agreeing to believe things that aren’t real; religion, money, borders of countries, even human rights. A staggering look at this subtle difference has allowed humans to dominate the planet, but also a recognition that allowed me to start looking at things I didn’t understand with less judgement.

Bonus reading: What Technology Wants — Kevin Kelly

10. Siddhartha — Hermann Hesse [age 31]

Enlightenment. I went into this thinking it would be a story of a perfect Buddha figure, but was delighted to discover I could relate completely. A person on a flawed and real path, finding meaning through his struggle. I read this at a time of removing self-judgment and recognizing that the experience of the path is more important than the end point.

Bonus reading: Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

11. How to Change Your Mind — Michael Pollan [age 34]

Mental Health and Psychedelics. The full title is “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” A detailed, science-driven look at psychedelics, covering the history, the policy, the science and neuroscience, and the potential benefits and risks of psychedelics used in a mindful approach to both heal and to become a better person. Mental health is such an extremely important subject, and this book exposed the power of psychedelics to me while still taking a skeptical approach. With respected organizations like Johns Hopkins University doing serious research, psychedelic therapy is an emerging area of medicine to watch and could change our world massively.

Bonus reading: Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

12. The Culture Series — Iain M. Banks [age 36 to 37]

Post-Scarcity as Philosophy. The Culture series carefully crafts a galactic society where scarcity is over due to extremely capable and benevolent (albeit tentative and still fallible) artificial super-intelligences. Through the lens of these uniquely strange circumstances, the series deeply explores dense ethical dilemmas, moral theories like utilitarianism, concepts of ego and hedonism and death, the human search for meaning, corruption of societal systems, and more. Be prepared to have your mind and ideas challenged in fresh and new ways constantly.

The stories are all set against the most vibrant and engrossing galaxy and character-building imaginable. All 10 books stand alone, and all 10 are worth reading. These ignited my old love of science fiction I thought wouldn’t be found again after the masterful Foundation, Neuromancer & Dune series.

Bonus reading: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

So What?

Of course your own list will be different, but the key is that if you read a lot, you will inevitably come across stuff that shakes up your worldview and changes you forever. Drop a note below if you want to share some of your own most impactful reading.

Thank you to my mom for lighting the passion of reading in me early. It is truly a great gift that I owe you dearly for.



Devon Sydney

Tech entrepreneur, with an aim to change the energy industry.