Matt’s Essential Reading List #1

For the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly making my way through Amazon’s list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”.  This has gotten me to thinking what books I would consider essential books that people should read. I, therefore, have decided to share my own list over the course of this year, finishing with a list of 50 books that I have read and strongly recommend to anyone and everyone.

First of all, let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  I have absolutely no credentials or expertise that would actually qualify me to make such a list.  I am simply a guy that reads a fair amount and is opinionated.  So, take my recommendations with a generous serving of salt.

I am basing my list on a variety of factors:

  • Prestige of author/book: Therefore, while there may be some fun books I truly enjoy, if they are rather obscure,  they aren’t going on the list, even if I enjoy them more than other books I do include on the list. (I may ignore this prestige factor in the case of some books, especially nonfiction, that may be obscure, but I find them to be unique and cover important subject matter.)
  • Readability/Approachability: I am choosing books that I think anyone and everyone could read and gain something from. There may be other books that would be considered better or more thorough; however, they might turn the average person off.  For example, Ulysses by James Joyce is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th  Unfortunately, that thing is a pain in the ass to read if you are not an English Literature major.  It took me seven months and rereading chapters in the SparkNotes version to get through it.  Books like that will not be included.
  • Subject matter: This will be my pontification aspect. Many of the books, especially the nonfiction ones, but also some fiction, will have subject matter or messages that I believe everyone would benefit from learning.
  • Quality: It’s gotta be good, right? That’s the entire point.

Here’s a summary of my format.  Each month, I will list five books.  Two or three of them will be off of Amazon’s list, and I will designate them as such.  My goal is that about half of the final list will be from Amazon’s list and about half will be my own choosing.  For each book, I will include a brief rationale as to why I chose it.  There will not be any rankings, so there is no reason for the order of their being included except for possible relevancy to current events.  To maintain variety, each month will include one book for each of these categories:

  • Fiction
  • Memoir/Biography
  • Self-Improvement/Philosophical
  • Academic/Expository/Analysis
  • Open

In November, I will look back at my previous entries and likely make some replacements.  Then in December, I will compile the final list of 50.

I hope you find this exercise interesting, and if you’ve read any of my selections and would like to discuss, please contact me.

With that, here are my first five books (* indicates that the book is also included on Amazon’s list of books to read in a lifetime)

Any book about any subject that interests you

Image result for blank book coverOpen Category

While I said that there would not be any rankings, in truth, this is Book #1.  Any book that gets you into reading is the most important book in the world.  There are so many incredible cognitive benefits of reading, but many people don’t do it.  However, all it takes is something to grab your interest.  My dad had told me years ago that he hadn’t read a full book since college, until someone recommended Marley & Me to him because of his love for yellow labs (like his own Leinie).  While still not an avid reader, he has read other books since then.  So, if you’re not currently a big reader, try to find a book that sparks your interest, whatever it may be.


*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. 

Self-Improvement/PhilosophicalMan's Search for Meaning by [Frankl, Viktor E.]

Again, while I am not ranking this list, if I had to choose only one book to recommend to people, it would almost definitely be this one.  Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.  Before the war he began researching human purpose and happiness, and began writing what would become this book.  In fact, his papers were his most prized possession and what he held onto the longest when the crackdown began and he was sent to the camps.  Obviously, his work took on a whole new meaning in the face of one of the worst atrocities in human history.

The combination of the thought-provoking academic work and the heart-breaking recollection of his persecution make for a book that is nothing short of amazing.  This book had more of a profound impact on my world view than any other, and there isn’t even a close second.

The World’s Religions by Huston Smith


I read this book long ago during graduate school when I began taking courses in Religious Studies.  It is probably the single greatest one volume resource to get a general overview of the major religions of the world.  He also gives a brief philosophical discussion of tribal religions as a whole. The book discusses each religion’s history and basic beliefs and practices.  At the end of each section, Smith also lists recommendations for other books if you’d like to learn more about that specific religion.

In order to foster better relations across cultures, it is crucial to have a basic understanding of other cultures.  Religion is one of the key factors of culture, and with so much religious conflict and discrimination occurring in the world, better understanding is desperately needed.  If you want a nonbiased and thorough introduction to one of the other major religions (or all of them), this book is a great first step.

*1984 by George Orwell


The dystopian classic.  I decided to choose only one of the three major novels set in a future totalitarian society (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Fahrenheit-451 by Ray Bradbury being the other two).  I went with 1984 for a couple of reasons.  First, I believe it is the most realistic and relevant in today’s world.  The combination of total surveillance, even in our homes, and a constantly changing official narrative told to the populace that is divorced from reality are aspects we should keep in mind in the era of social media, smart homes, alternative facts and fake news.  There is a reason we use the term “Orwellian”.

Secondly, I personally feel the story of 1984 is far superior to the other two.  Winston Smith is the most compelling protagonist of the three.  The twists and turns of the plot make it a generally enjoyable read, even beyond the incredible political commentary. It’s that rare book that is entertaining and thought-provoking.

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham

Memoir/BiographyDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by [Meacham, Jon]

I am including this book mostly because of George H.W. Bush’s recent passing.  I just so happened to read it about a month before he died; and was enthralled.  If you happened to watch the state funeral, presidential historian Jon Meacham, the author of this biography, gave the first eulogy.

This book is the closest thing to a memoir of George H.W. Bush, as he gave Meacham access to his diary and letters, as well as allowing many in-depth interviews with the former president and his family. It is, admittedly, a little too kind to Bush and his legacy (as a memoir would likely be).  However, it is an intimate and fascinating look into the life of the man whom I believe will go down in history as the most underrated President ever.  Any policy/partisan beliefs aside, his commitment to honor, duty, and service should be a model for all our leaders, and us ourselves, to strive towards.


When I decided to go abroad, I knew I wanted to do more than just travel and be a tourist. I wanted to interact with the community and do something productive and, hopefully, meaningful.  I was in the process of completing a program in Nonprofit Management through UCLA-Extension, so I thought this journey could be an opportunity to gain some experience in the nonprofit sector.  I then began researching options and before long, I was accepted into a YMCA program in Colombia, and then also had some ideas for other volunteer options in other countries.  My worldwide foray into voluntourism was about to begin.

Volunteering with wallabies in Australia through Oceans 2 Earth Volunteers

“Voluntourism” has risen in popularity over the past decade, as people want to make a positive impact while exploring new countries.  Having spent over a year travelling the world as a voluntourist, I recommend this incredible way of traveling, albeit with some caveats that I will discuss later.  I have found that in the places where I volunteered, I have lived a more authentic experience with the people and culture.  If voluntourism appeals to you, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of it.

To begin, here are the main options for voluntourism that I am familiar with.  If you can commit to an extended period (usually six months or more) and/or have a needed skill set, you can find programs that will cover most, if not all, of your expenses, and maybe even pay you a small stipend.  This was what I did with the YMCA in Colombia, but the most common version of this is teaching English, which may need TEFL or similar certification.  And, although not really considered “voluntourism”, there are also the even longer term programs such as the Peace Corps.

Doing an English program with YMCA-Colombia

If long-term programs aren’t viable for you, and you are looking for something more on the timeframe of a few weeks, you basically have two options: going through a fee-based organization or trying to find a local volunteering opportunity on your own.  A fee-based organization will have local partners overseeing the volunteer programs, while the larger organization acts in a support role, especially as you plan for your trip.  Your fees will usually cover your lodging and most, if not all, of your meals, as well as administrative costs and funding for your local project.  Finding a program on your own can result in a variety of opportunities.  You may find a volunteer opportunity but must cover all expenses yourself.  Other times, you may find an opportunity that will offer lodging and food in exchange for your services and a commitment of at least 2 or 3 weeks, but no fees required.

Helping out at a medical visit day in the village of Papuso, Chile, with EFTG Taltal

The next step, and possibly the most important one, is to research the organization, program, and community.  Some fee-based organizations are not much more than tourist agencies, with little or none of your fees and efforts really helping the community.  Also, be careful of programs that may actually be counter-productive.  For example, I am wary of orphan programs.  There have been scandals in India and Cambodia where “orphans” were being rented so that unsuspecting fee-paying volunteers could work with them.  Additionally, a revolving door of short-term care-giving volunteers can lead to further abandonment issues for the children.    This is not to scare you away from these programs completely.  Just items for consideration so that you can find the best placement for you.  It is extremely important that you investigate to make sure that the organization is truly working to benefit the community or cause you wish to help. Otherwise, everyone would be better off if you just took a regular vacation.

This is also one of the benefits of using a larger, well-regarded placement organization.  Usually, they will ensure that their partner organizations are actually beneficial for the local community or cause they are supposed to serve.

Finally, we need to set expectations.  You are not going to change the world, or even the local community, in only a couple of weeks.  It is important to remember that your role should be supporting those on the front lines.  This may mean that you won’t always get the Instagram worthy pictures with smiling children or cute baby animals. Instead, you may be doing the much more helpful behind the scenes work of cleaning and repairs that have been neglected because there haven’t been the funds or time to do such work.   But know that these unpublicized tasks are greatly welcomed, beneficial, and appreciated.

Trying to make the transition refugee camp on the north shore of Lesvos, Greece a little more welcoming, with Refugee Rescue

Along those lines, in all honesty, sometimes, the most important assistance you will offer is the fee that you pay.  Some local nonprofits in these voluntourism hotspots are beginning to see it as a revenue stream; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Even if the work you do isn’t all that critical, but the money is being used to further a cause you support, and you gain appreciation and experience in the process, it is a win for everyone involved.

Gaining cultural and travel experience; and spending your time and energy in service to someone or something are incredible aspects of life that should be encouraged.  Voluntourism, for all its positive and negative attributes, is a way to combine those aspects.  If it is done correctly, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both for you and those you wish to help.


Here are some resources to help you on your voluntourism adventure.  The first four links are websites/organizations I used on my journey.  The others links have more information, including discussion of voluntourism with more eloquence than I can muster.

If you would like to discuss voluntourism with me, feel free to reach out to me directly!

IENA ( The organization where I found my YMCA-Colombia placement.  They have a variety of long-term programs.

IVHQ ( Respected organization with many fee-based volunteer programs around the world.

Workaway ( A website where travelers can find lodging and food in return for working part-time, usually at farms & hostels, but some nonprofits as well.

GivingWay ( Similar to Workaway but focused on nonprofits.

How Stuff Works Entry on Voluntourism: A good in-depth overview of voluntourism. : A good resource website full of information, tips, links, blogs, webcasts and other resources regarding voluntourism.

Some articles about voluntourism, including the pitfalls, things to consider, and how it can be improved: