• “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu. This book’s wisdom is so general and broad that it could easily have been titled The Art of Conflict, or even The Art of Planning. Written in the form of a dialogue among officer cadets, The Art of War is a surprisingly quick and lively read. The text’s gentle and humane nature also comes as a surprise; to Sun Tzu, warfare should always be a purely defensive measure. “Regard your soldiers as your own children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys,” one passage states. “Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”
• “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius. Regarded by many historians as Rome’s finest emperor, Aurelius was an unusually enlightened ruler whose views on free speech and equal rights under the law were centuries ahead of their time. As a Stoic philosopher, Aurelius’ teachings are ideal for those who find life difficult. During a period in my life when I was hit by a sequence of random and senseless tragedies, Meditations offered invaluable solace, and helped me muster the will to persevere.
• “Res Gestae,” Ammianus Marcellinus. Born in the late 4th century A.D., Ammianus was alive to see the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. His Res Gestae (“things done” in Latin) is widely considered the last great historical account of ancient Rome. As a writer, I identify in some ways with Ammianus. His “coarse and undistinguishing pencil,” as described by Edward Gibbon, produced the kind of terse, efficient prose that I prefer to write. Also like me, Ammianus looked around and saw that an institution widely believed to be “too big to fail” was actually in a state of profound crisis. And like me, Ammianus wanted his compatriots to take heed before the situation became unsalvageable.