This list of books of wisdom by smart people is sponsored by Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger.
The world remembers Elie Wiesel—Nobel laureate, activist, and author of more than forty books—as a great humanist. He passed away in July of 2016. Now, in Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, we see him as never before—not only as an extraordinary human being, but as a master teacher. Written by Wiesel’s devoted protégé and friend, Ariel Burger, Witness takes us inside the classroom, where listening and storytelling keep memory alive. Witness provides a front row seat to these lessons in compassion, teaching us that listening to a witness, makes us all witnesses. In this book, Wiesel’s legacy lives on.
To be wise is not simply to have knowledge shoved in your brain box. Sure, knowing enough to drop a few nuggets of wisdom on the masses was enough to get your feet washed in ancient times, but that’s not going to cut it today.
No, wisdom is not simply knowing things—it is knowing things and acting accordingly. It is having both the knowledge to develop principles and the judgment to act in accordance with those principles. Wisdom can be found in all kinds of ways, including in these eight books of wisdom from some mighty smart folks.
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thích Nhất Hạnh
I’ll start you off easy with The Miracle of Mindfulness, written by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. He was talking about mindfulness well before it was trending on Twitter, if you can believe it. I appreciate this quote for several reasons, including the fact that it’s true and the fact that my husband generally does the dishes, so I don’t have to actually follow this advice.
“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
If the smart people in your life prefer pretty pictures to pages of text, then you’ve got an easy way to soak them with wisdom: The Best We Could Do. The story of a Vietnamese family coming to the United States as refugees following the fall of South Vietnam, this books is relatable to anyone who’s ever tried to better their future while feeling nostalgic about a past that’s gone. This family struggles to build a life in their new country, struggles to stay together, and struggles to live the lessons of wisdom they learn along the way. Yes, this is a book created for younger audiences, but anyone can benefit from its heart.
A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative by Roger Von Oech
According to Van Oech, who earned a PhD from Stanford in a program he created for himself called “History of Ideas,” creativity is an essential part of wisdom. Though it’s been nearly 40 years since his “Innovation in Industry” conference series that included the biggest names in Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, and countless other white dudes, I’m guessing), this book still offers practical advice from the non-creative on how to get creative.
“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV and Desmond Tutu, translated by Douglas Carlton Abrams.
What do you get when you add two Nobel Prize winners and a birthday? Lots of cake, I hope—but also lots and lots of wisdom. On this special occasion, the two focused on joy. The book includes lots of stories and teachings on everything from the science of happiness down to the daily practices they follow to stay in touch with their sense of inner joy. Sounds pretty wise to me.
“The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.” —Desmond Tutu
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
If you think becoming wiser should involve a lot of crying, then this is the book for you! A collection of columns from Dear Sugar (later revealed to be Cheryl Strayed), this is an advice column for people who roll their eyes at advice columns. If you read this and talk to other people who’ve read it, they will feel the need to tell you how much they did not want to read it and how they don’t like “that kind of book.” Just smile sweetly at them and bask in the vast wisdom Sugar has injected deep into your bones.
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez
I can hear you over there, yelling “STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME READ BOOKS FOR CHILDREN,” but I’ve got some huge ear plugs so you may as well knock it off. I don’t care how old you are, this book has some seriously wise themes that are particularly useful in 2018: Stand up for what you believe, embrace your culture, be yourself—be wise enough to give it a shot and you can learn a lot from this. Yes, you. Stop glaring at me.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Described as “spiritual prose,” Gilead is a novel with more wisdom than you’ll find just about anywhere else. At its heart it is a story of a father and a son, but it is about so much more—about the wisdom of living a simple yet beautiful ordinary life. If you didn’t cry enough reading Tiny Beautiful Things, I recommend getting through that tissue box with this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.
“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
If wisdom comes through experience and heartbreak and taking the wrong path over and over again, only to end up in a place of peace—regardless of the circumstances—then Milkman Dead gains a whole lot of wisdom and has a whole lot to give the reader. This is a book to return to every few years to find what morsels you missed last time and feast on them until you find more—there are always more.
“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?”
“Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”