A list of books and articles worth your time. Further entries, categories and reviews are added over time.

I use one to five stars quite critically, so three stars is already a good book worth your time, especially if you are interesting in the topic.

This list only contains good books. Don’t waste your time on bad books. (Also, you really don’t have to finish books you don’t like.)

Taiwan & Greater China

There is a lot of pseudo-punditry around Greater China these days, so be careful when picking up the next hyped book with “Taiwan” or “China” on the cover at your local bookstore-chain. Luckily, bad books often have gonzo titles.

  • Ai Weiwei, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir (★★★★☆)
    • The autobiography of one of China’s most important artists. Fascinating inside-view that shows that critics of China-the-state can still (and rightfully) be patriots of China-the-country.
  • John Grant Ross, Taiwan in 100 Books (★★★★★)
  • John Grant Ross, Formosan Odyssey (★★★☆☆)
    • Short stories and cultural oddities. Not as sharp as Taiwan in 100 Books but still good.
  • Desmond Shum, Red Roulette (★★★★☆)
    • A great House of Cards-like thriller and the best book to prepare you for everyone who wants to tell you that you can ignore politics in China.
  • Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (★★★☆☆)
    • A classic, very very dense and a bit dry. Probably a slough if you work it through, but quite worth it as an audio-book for some general context.

Biographies & History

These books are mostly about real people, even though some of them are very close to the literary genre. The focus here is historic and cultural. I exclude philosophy mostly, as my philosophical curiosity tends to have a more general character.

(Be warned that there are very many White American Men on this list, but that was what Audible was offering in the years I started “reading”…)

Understanding Germany

(These books include books on both World Wars and the history of German speaking states like Austria.)

It is not easy to understand Germany’s history. First, it is very complex and chaotic, to a degree that even the idea of Germany is a rather modern one. Second, both World Wars and especially the Holocaust are eras of infamy, their dark gravity making it hard to “reach through” into the past. And yet, to understand the present and yourself, you have to understand where you come from, so reading on German history is a small recent “project” of mine.

  • Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens (★★★★☆)
  • Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (★★★★☆)
    • A classic, by now a bit cliché.
  • Egon Friedell, Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (★★★★★)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit (★★★★☆)
    • The master’s autobiography. It’s funny to compare Goethe to today’s life artists and substackers, the man was just 300 years ahead of everyone.
  • Primo Levi, If This is a Man (★★★★★)
    • While Frankl describes life in the Nazi concentration camps as a psychologist, the chemist Primo Levi takes a sociological perspective. Grueling and mesmerizing work.
  • Neil MacGregor, Germany: Memories of a nation (★★★★★)
    • A cultural history of Germany, using places and objects to curb the chaos. An incredible tender and smart book that reads like a true work of love.
  • William Manchester, The Last Lion Sequence (★★★★★, Visions of Glory, Alone, Defender of the Realm)
    • Another heavy masterwork. Thousands of pages plowing through 20th century history following one of it’s most prolific and controversial leaders: Winston Churchill.
  • Rüdiger Safranski, Goethe: Kunstwerk des Lebens (★★★★☆)
    • It’s fun to look at the parallels between what made Goethe’s live special and is so normal now: Finding rich patrons, doing extravagant travels and sharing stories and pictures of it, fooling around with all kinds of different amateur projects. In Germany, his books were for a long time the ultimate bourgeois reading, yet for his time the man was quite the rebel! Safranski’s biography is a good addition to Goethe’s own memoirs and the notes of Eckermann.
  • John Toland, The Last 100 Days (★★★★☆)
    • Fascinating work on the last 100 days of WWII. I remember especially the cruel vivid chapter on the Dresden bombings.
  • Florian Illies, 1913 (★★★★☆)
  • Joachim Käppner, Berthold Beitz: Die Biographie (★★★★★)
    • Beitz is a rather unknown industrialist who lead the Krupp steel conglomerate through the reconstruction era. He is a complex and great case study in principled leadership, and Käppner does an amazing job in capturing his story.

Further honorary mentions from my notes: Wolfram Eilenberger, Zeit der Zauberer

Understanding Europe & modern Germany

I am curious about the European idea and culture, how (and whether) it converged from different independent histories and how it is different from the American story. Yet, my reading here is more sporadic, following impulsive appetites and opportunities.

  • Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time (★★★★☆)
    • An amazing journalistic work on the life of the “small people” of the UdSSR of the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (★★★★☆)
  • Egon Friedell, Kulturgeschichte Griechenlands (★★★★☆)
  • Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle Series (★★★★☆)
    • Knausgård invented the genre of truthful fiction. A very meta-modern approach – he might nonetheless move to my “fiction” list later…
  • Andrea Petkovic, Zwischen Ruhm und Ehre liegt die Nacht: Erzählungen (★★★★★)
    • Ok, this is of course not a literary masterwork, but it was just such a candid and authentic insight into the life of a young athlete that I really mean the outstanding rating.
  • Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (★★★★☆)
  • Peter Pomerantsev, This is not Propaganda (★★★★☆)
    • Pomerantsev’s book are very close siblings on life in modern Russia. I’m not sure how well they would live up to journalistic scrutiny (even though the man is a journalist) – but they are extremely vivid and entertaining.
  • Stefan Zweig, Casanova (★★★★☆)
    • So much fun.
  • Stefan Zweig, Die Welt on Gestern (★★★★★)
    • Zweig’s biographical and most historic book on the city at the center of his life and work: Vienna. (His biographies are often quite revisionist.)
  • Stefan Zweig, Franz Anton Mesmer (★★★★☆)
    • A typical Zweig, an empathic biography about someone who might have been but a cringe huckster. If you try to become more compassionate through reading airport flim-flam and what-not, please grab your Stefan instead!
  • Stefan Zweig, Joseph Fouché: Bildnis eines politischen Menschen (★★★★★)
    • So far my favorite of Zweig’s biographies.
  • Stefan Zweig, Sternstunden der Menschheit (★★★★☆)
    • Zweig’s classic and a great place to start.

Understanding Progress

While I am fascinated by the contingencies of history, I think scientific and technological progress often follow a different, more forcing logic. I am thus fascinated by the stories of those who pushed the boundaries of what is humanly thinkable and possible, and how they manifested their ideas and ideals within the context of their specific times.

  • Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon (★★★★☆)
    • A fascinating chronology of the various Apollo missions.
  • Richand Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (★★★★☆)
    • Feynman was such a joker. His books become a bit of a cliché by now, but they are still fun and a great peephole into America’s illimitable optimism.
  • Anthony Flint, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow (★★★☆☆)
    • Le Corbusier’s ideas, or rather the ideals he stood for, are still relevant, and it’s interesting to read the story of when they were still young.
  • Winston Groom, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (★★★★☆)

Further honorary mentions from my notes: Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage


Whom am I fooling – taking out the books on Taiwan and China, these are mostly on the US…

  • Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia (★★★★☆)
  • Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson Series (★★★★★, The Path to Power, Means of Ascend, Master of the Senate, The Passage of Power )
    • Caro is probably among the best biographers who ever lived and his series on Lyndon Johnson a masterpiece on political power.
  • William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (★★★★☆)
  • Jeffrey Gettleman, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival (★★★★☆)
    • An interesting memoir, nicely illustrating Gettleman’s professional and personal growth. I read it when feeling somewhat stranded in Taiwan during covid and it motivated me to see it more as an adventure. His memories of the war in Afghanistan are especially fascinating.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (★★★★☆)
    • The master’s autobiography. It’s funny to compare Goethe to today’s life artists and substackers, the man was just 300 years ahead of everyone.
  • S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon (★★★★☆)
  • Maria Popova, Figuring (★★★★★)
    • A very fluent weaving of several paths of life. It is less of a collection of biographies than a net of interrelated fates. Poetic and – pardon me for the cliché, but there are just too many white men in this list – very “female” in its writing.
  • Patti Smith, Just Kids (★★★★☆)

Further honorary mentions from my notes: Phil Knight, Shoe Dog; Roland Lazenby, Micheal Jordan: The Life; Martin Luther King Jr., Autobiography; Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years; Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World