What We Read: The Best Non-Work Work Books I've Seen

You are what you read. In that spirit, AOL Jobs will feature books recommended by our staff and contributors each day for the next week or so. As the year winds down, consider one of these reads to savor in your down time or give to a reader in your life.

When someone asks for suggestions on what to read to improve a career, the temptation is to list obvious books on careers and business, whether a What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles or Peter Drucker's The Practice of Management. But when you think about it, the traits and abilities that help someone achieve success in business aren't, strictly speaking, just about commerce. Authenticity, critical reading, strong communication, and clear thinking are part of a rounded life. And some of the best introductions to them have nothing to do, on the surface, with business.

Zen in the Art of Archery -- authenticity
By Eugene Herrigel

Eugene Herrigel's thin volume on his study of archery in Japan under a Zen Buddhist master is a brilliant approach to a religious and philosophic topic that embodies the precepts it relates. To my mind, another way to discuss this book and philosophy is as a form of authenticity. There is much fakery in the world, and business can be full of it. People who are authentic stand out without effort. Their work also stands out, because when they work, they actually work without focusing on making an impression. Authentic people can really get things done.

"'Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!' he exclaimed. 'The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.'" -- Zen in the Art of Archery

How to Read a Book -- learning
By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

If you can read this book, why would you need to? Because you probably can't read this book, at least not as effectively as you would if you already understood what it had to teach. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren realized that most people go through the motions in reading but grasp and retain relatively little of the books they finish. The authors teach an approach to analytic reading in which you, the reader, can explicitly grasp the structure of a book, follow its arguments, and critically consider what it has to say. The basic principles can apply to many things other than reading books.

"True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline." -- How to Read a Book

The Elements of Style and Politics of the English Language -- communication
By William Strunk and E.B. White, and George Orwell

Business is impossible without communication. The more clearly you can communicate, the more effectively and persuasively you can present your ideas, collaborate, report on your activities, and interact with customers and vendors. For sheer, beautiful, merciful brevity, few titles match The Elements of Style. The book falls into two parts. First is a compressed summary, by the late Yale professor William Strunk, Jr., of good grammatical practice so that others will comprehend what you are trying to say. The second part, by one of the great essayists in English, E.B. White, helps guide the would-be writer to a personal and natural form of written expression.

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." -- The Elements of Style

In a similar vein, George Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm fame was also one of the great English non-fiction stylists. His essay, Politics and the English Language, is a brief tour of sound advice by someone who came by his skills the hard way: through practice.

"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?" -- Politics and the English Language

Symbolic Logic -- thinking
By Lewis Carroll

Most people would associate Lewis Carroll with White Rabbits and young girls falling through mirrors. But the Reverend Charles Dodgson, his real name, was a mathematician who was a pioneer in the arena of symbolic logic, or the application of mathematics to how we think and express ourselves. Don't think of this as a stuffy tome. Although the subject matter is serious, Carroll is both playful in his language and clear in how he walks the reader through how to more clearly work with words, which is the stuff of thinking.

"It will give you clearness of thought--the ability to see your way through a puzzle--the habit of arranging your ideas in an orderly and get-at-able form--and, more valuable than all, the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons, and which so easily delude those who have never taken the trouble to master this fascinating Art." -- Symbolic Logic

Symbolic Logic may be a bit too much for some, but as you can get a free electronic version, there's nothing lost in giving it a look.

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