The 16 non-business books that CEOs love

Sixteen business leaders offer their recommendations for books that have nothing to do with the business world.

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Asked once about his secret to success, Warren Buffett said he reads 500 pages a week, comparing the feat to compound interest. Start today, he said, and the knowledge builds over time.

Buffett might have meant more annual reports and regulatory files than thrillers and investigative bestsellers. But there’s no doubt that books beyond the boardroom theme can be incredibly enriching for both one’s personal and professional lives. The takeaways may be fresh perspectives, expanded worldviews, reminders of what’s real and most important in life – or even a 300-page ticket to escape.

From fantasy worlds lightyears away and crime novels exposing government secrets, to quiet reflections that have stood the test of millennia, here are 16 non-business reading recommendations from leaders around the world and what each book has meant to them.

Lord of the Rings series

Author: JRR Tolkien

“If there’s a book I wasn’t able to put down, it was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. I’m a big fan of fantasy novels, and this was the greatest read of my life. It’s so much more than a story about two friends on a journey to save the world. It’s about friendship, hope and facing your fears. The series taught me to love life, regardless of the struggles. It showed me how important it is to have faith in myself. Believing in yourself is the most important part of overcoming challenges.”

– Elisa Bender, Co-Founder of RevenueGeeks 

Comos

Author: Carl Sagan

“When I need to remind myself of the triviality of work commitments, I read my all-time favorite book, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. This stellar book has helped me put my professional life into perspective – and it’s helped me in my personal life as well. I’ve found myself reprioritizing my professional relationships, setting realistic goals for my company and working toward a better work–life balance. This book had a lasting impact. The vastness of the universe is a stark reminder of one’s place in it. It’s the perfect book to burst one’s bubble about what success looks like.”

– Marcus Arcabascio, CEO and Founder of DMV Office

Strangers on a Train

Author: Patricia Highsmith

“I read Strangers on a Train more than 15 years ago – and I still remember it. It’s a psychological thriller by Patricia Highsmith and published in 1950. The story revolves around two strangers who meet on a train and, following their dark conversation, become entangled in a dangerous pact. The book has many profound lessons. It explores themes of guilt, obsession and the dark side of human nature. It reminds me of the importance of having both a support network as well as a personal constitution, so you know where your line in the sand is.”

– Avil Beckford, Founder of The Invisible Mentor and The One Problem Podcast

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

“I absolutely loved every page of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It takes the enormous topic of all of human cultural and societal evolution and compacts it so succinctly. It really gave me that step back from everything feeling and some insight into how we all work. One particular anecdote I still keep in mind: About 600 years elapsed between the invention of gunpowder and its use in weaponry. It leads me to believe that, right now, hidden in the undercurrent of our fast-changing society, are revolutions that will only be fully realized centuries from now.”

– Christopher Falvey, Co-Founder of Ghost Tour Nola

Anne of Green Gables

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery

“I will forever remember Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. As a child, I was always challenging things. I questioned and never accepted the first answer I received. This book was my first exposure to a strong female character, a character that had standards and wouldn’t accept disrespectful behavior. It showed me the importance of setting boundaries and that it’s not others who decide your value, it’s you. Anne was unafraid and bold. For the first time, I was seeing a reflection of myself in print. The book gave me permission to be my naturally decisive self and to set standards, which I did both personally and professionally.”

– Jacine Greenwood, CEO and Founder of Roccoco Botanicals

The Broken Earth trilogy

Author: N K Jemisin

“I just couldn’t put down The Broken Earth trilogy, a science-fantasy series by N K Jemisin. I don’t know if it was more the world building, the reflection of underlying issues in society or the plot, but I kept coming back for more. As someone who runs a company, it’s nice to read a book that has nothing to do with my work. We talk about unplugging and getting away from our businesses, but that’s so hard to do. What better way to try than by entering a completely different world where you’re not concerned with solving problems X, Y or Z; rather, you’re rooting for the main character along their hero’s journey.”

– Eric Moyal, Executive Director of Project Insulin

The Pregnant King

Author: Devdutt Pattanaik

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is set during the times of Mahabharata, the Indian epic. The story stimulates the mind to contemplate the extraordinary, the uncertain and the realms in between. It blurs the lines of gender and challenges the trivialization of the physical body. Yuvanashava is a king who becomes pregnant after drinking a magic potion. His wife, however, despite worshiping a god who embodies both male and female forms, rejects him. The narrative explores themes of belief, faith, confusion, boundaries, order and disruption in a vividly depicted mythological setting.”

– Upasna Kakroo, CEO of Peerbagh

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Author: Douglas Adams

“One of my favorite non-business books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It’s a hilarious sci-fi comedy that follows the adventures of a hapless human who escapes Earth moments before it’s destroyed by an alien race, and the cast of eccentric characters he meets along the way. The book made me laugh out loud and inspired me to think creatively. It helped me on my own journey toward becoming a business leader by teaching me to embrace uncertainty and chaos, to be flexible and adaptable, and to have a sense of humor and optimism. Also, it reminded me that sometimes the best answer to a problem is 42.”

– Abdur Rahman Choudhury, Founder of Weight Loss Crown

The Iceman Cometh

Author: Eugene O’Neill

“One of American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s most well-known works is The Iceman Cometh. The play’s protagonists sit around, drink beer and discuss how one day they’ll realize their dreams. But you learn early on that these individuals will never carry out their plans, which will never be more than bar chit-chat. Your dreams won’t materialize if you don’t take action. You’ll never finish the book you said you’d write. Or start the YouTube channel you’ve talked about. The good news is that action is the only thing standing between a wish and a reality. You turn your aspirations into reality by acting every day, every year.”

– Erin Murphy, CEO of Best in Ireland

The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster has stuck with me, influencing how I approach business as well as life in general. I first read it growing up, and it’s a book I’ve revisited a lot over the years. Yes, my copy is falling apart! In the book, a young boy named Milo is feeling bored and uninspired. He ends up traveling to a bizarre world that helps reinvigorate his thirst for and enjoyment of life. It’s a good reminder to focus on the things, big and small, that make life feel magical.”

– Ryan Farley, CEO of LawnStarter

Little Women

Author: Louisa May Alcott

“There are so many important themes in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The book is a celebration of the full spectrum of our humanness – encompassing family, grief, loss, love, sacrifice, service. It encourages us to embrace love in all its forms; love, after all, starts with us as individuals. It’s a beautiful reminder to stand in your truth, trust yourself and live joyfully, always keeping faith in your dreams.”

 – Sonia Bestulic, Founding Director of Talking Heads Speech Pathology
and Co-Founder/Director of Flourishing Ladies

Cobalt Red

Author: Siddharth Kara

“I recently read Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara, an investigative journalist’s riveting account of the horrific working and living conditions of miners in the Congo. As an executive, I think it’s vital to ensure you’re making decisions based on correct information. So often, we’re fed propaganda that tries to influence our decision making in order to suit the interests of the economically and politically powerful. And it’s all too often to the detriment of those far less fortunate than ourselves. I think it’s important to continually search for the real truth in order to make decisions that fit with our values and are in the best interests of our companies and society.”

– David Jepson, CEO of The CEO Magazine

Meditations

Author: Marcus Aurelius

“If there’s one book that’s left a lasting impression on my thinking and on my personal and professional lives, it’s Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If I ever find myself under stress, this book reminds me how trivial work deadlines are. I’ve found solace in its many lessons. I’ve learned to prioritize the things that enrich my life. I’ve also realized the importance of faith in everything that I do. This book has motivated me like nothing else. I find myself going back to it from time to time; it’s been a game-changer.”

– Jessica Shee, Marketing Manager of iBoysoft

A Wrinkle in Time

Author: Madeleine L’Engle

“In A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, an eccentric young girl sets out on a dangerous expedition to save her family from a mind-controlling creature in a dimension devoid of personality. The book, which takes place in a world where conformity is commonplace, emphasizes individualism as a safeguard against groupthink. It reminds us that uniqueness is a strength and should be celebrated, that being ourselves is a potent force. An interesting tidbit: The book was turned into an opera. Awesome, right?”

– Olly Gaspar, Owner and Editor-in-Chief of We Seek Travel

Think Again

Author: Adam Grant

“The world around us is rapidly changing and, as the pandemic taught us, we need the ability to rethink and unlearn. I’ve had to re-evaluate some of my opinions regarding recent global and political changes. Adam Grant’s Think Again has pulled me from the comfort of conviction, where I prefer opinions that make me feel good instead of ideas that make me think hard. This book offers bold and accurate evidence to help us embrace the joy of being wrong. It builds the intellectual muscle needed to stay curious about the world and re-think topics such as abortion and climate change. Reading this book helped me understand how to think again, let go of stale opinions and adopt mental flexibility, humility and curiosity.”

– Doris Joyce, Co-Founder of Electrly

The Legal Killer

Author: Elliot Mason

“The problem with many suspense thrillers is that the vast majority have a lead with some ridiculous specialized skills; they’re a super spy or an assassin. The plot often centers around preventing some hard-to-believe national or worldwide catastrophe, and the lines between good and evil are never blurred. In Elliot Mason’s The Legal Killer, the main character is an Everyday Joe who’s taunted by a serial killer and placed in an extraordinary situation he has neither the experience nor knowledge to deal with. It’s thought-provoking, thrilling and, at times, disturbing. The writer led me on an emotional roller coaster as he challenged the logic behind the operations of our most cherished government institutions.”

– Alexandre Bocquet, Founder and CEO of Betterly

Robert Lee

Robert Lee is a distinguished political correspondent who brings a wealth of experience from covering national and international affairs. His perceptive analysis and thorough reporting have established him as a reliable voice in the realm of political journalism. An astute observer of political institutions and mechanisms, Robert offers a unique insight into power dynamics and global influences. As an influential author for CEO Times Magazine, he continues to shed light on important political narratives.

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