Why Give a Damn:

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by hard problems, here is a list of resources to help you increase your understanding of the world and then take action.

The author of this post, Paul Polak, has brought 22+ million farmers out of poverty. His work is dedicated to designing products for the Other 90% (the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2/day).

Following is a list of the ten books that have been most helpful in increasing my understanding of the world.

  1. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher (Blond & Briggs, 1973)
  2. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly (Penguin Press, 2006)
  3. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Company, 2011)
  4. Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012)
  5. Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, by Jon Krakauer (Anchor, 2011)
  6. Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys (Metropolitan Books, 2008)
  7. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang (Simon & Schuster, 1991)
  8. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf, 2005)
  9. Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman (Random House, 2012)
  10. The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, by C.K. Prahalad (Wharton School Publishing, 2004)

What are some books that have had an impact on your understanding of the world?

About the author

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Dr. Polak is Founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market and distribute products to benefit the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day. He is an author of The Business Solution To Poverty and Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers.

  • Kait Harman

    This is a simple yet helpful article. I want to try some of these books, I am totally clueless about most these subjects. I am learning about some of the chinese books in one of my general education classes and they are pretty interesting. I would like to make a recommendation, if you ever do a post like this again you should put descriptions about eat book.

  • barczakdm08

    Thanks for the post! I found this very helpful, I am currently not the biggest reader ( never give it a chance) but these books look very interesting. Hopefully I will pick one of these up in the near future, I need to start reading more books! Thanks again for this helpful article.

  • stangleram13

    Thanks for the post. I think this is really nice. I will have to read some of those. This is useful because I want to make a impacted. Out of those book which one is the most insightful to you?

  • AndreaBehling

    Dr. Paul Polak, thank you for this list of books. I’m always looking for meaningful books to read and this will be a good resource. If you could choose, which book is your favorite in this list?

    I know this book probably isn’t in the same league as the ones in your list, but it was meaningful to me—The Art of Racing in the Rain By Garth Stein. The narration is surprising and wonderful, and the message is about the colorfulness of the human spirit and the beauty of life, as only a dog could describe.

  • DuCharmeDR11

    Thank you for the insight Dr. Polak. One book I have recently read that challenged me was called Spiritual Leadership by Henry and Richard Blackaby. It made me stop and think about the way I was treating others as well as myself, and how to best maximize the projects I take on to accomplish something bigger than the immediate task. Great read when split into chunks by chapters!

  • Matthew Gust

    Thank you Dr. Polak. A book I am currently reading is The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell. I have learned so much already about how personal insight can influence others. A lot of this book has to do with how we move people and how we can lead. What I realized is that people are drawn to those who have a purpose and great perspective. From what I have read so far it is a very insightful book.

  • Bucky Fuller

    I would highly recommend “King Leopold’s Ghost” – for a lengthy, sobering history of the Congo, fits well in this list…lots of monumental history, terrorism, and heroism to consider.

  • LevenhagAL14

    Love this, thank you for the list! I’m constantly looking for new reading material and I made a note about these on the list. Besides those authors mentioned, do you have any personal favorites?

  • Kyle Schiedemeyer

    Great list! I have heard of a couple of books on that list. I think that this information is great. As I have gotten older, I have realized that I can learn so much by reading books, I used to hate to read as a kid because I felt that I was forced to read things for school I was uninterested in. Now, I have no problem reading things that interest me and that will benefit me. If I could ask Paul Polak a question it would be, which book should I read first and why?

  • Tammy Hartmann

    Paul, thank you for taking the time to write the list of the books. Reading the books you recommended definitely will help me answer all of my questions. Which book do you recommend to start with? I also really liked how you designed the tree art.

  • Angela Field

    Thank you Dr. Paul Polak!!

  • markwguay

    Great article here. Thanks so much for creating it. I’m curious to hear others’ opinion on Three Cups of Tea w/ Greg Mortenson. I’m a bit biased because I met Greg before Krakauer released his article. FYI: I haven’t read Krakauer’s book and am ordering it right now.

  • Jeremy Marchant

    With two exceptions, all the books are later than 2004, and the earliest is less than 50 years old. Do you believe that the writers of the preceding centuries and millennia have nothing better to say?

    I appreciate this is a list of the books you’ve read, but some sort of belief about the world must have informed your choices.

  • Richard Vasconi

    Where’s your list of books Jeremy?

  • Jeremy Marchant

    I haven’t compiled it yet.

    There wasn’t an implied criticism in my comment – I appreciate it unintentionally might have read like that. But I _did_ mean “Have no earlier writers produced material of better (ie, more useful) quality which deserved to replace some of the choices in the list?” Is that not a fair question to ask? Possibly even an interesting question to ask.

    I’m not asserting that there have been any prior writers worth including since I’ve not read any of these ten works, so I wouldn’t know.

    I’m interested in what beliefs informed the choices and why Mr Polak felt he didn’t need to include any poetry, philosophy or more than one work of fiction.

    With presumably the exception of 5 and 8, this is a very process-oriented list. That interests me, too.

    Apologies if seeking to make a contribution is frowned upon on this site.

  • One River by Wade Davis. Examines indigenous cultures and ethnobotany in the Amazon basin.

  • Warren Vasquez

    Jeremy, it sounds like criticism to me, or at least a critique of the list. So, what??

    Thank you for sharing your comments. I enjoyed reading them 🙂

  • Barbra Bowman

    “How Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…or Yourself”

  • TomInOakCliff

    One of the benefits of a list like this is that even if you’ve never read any of these books, just picking one to begin reading, and the information and perspective you obtain with that book can open your eyes and mind to an interest in possibly another book on this list and then another. Even if you read slow, you still are way ahead in the contribution area. Willingness and desire can so often trumph perceived intelligence.

  • Meg Backas

    I would add “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

  • Mike

    James Micheners “The Source” brought into clear focus the geo political forces present in the eastern Mediterranean from pre recorded history to the present.

  • stray_bullett

    While capitalists and government haters of all kinds love this book, much of it uses claims that have long since been proven false. It also present its ideas as something new under the sun, when in fact the concept has been around since earlier than colonialism. Using false claims as part of the supporting argument and dubious claims of success regarding some companies who “practice” this business effort (European companies are far ahead of US companies in this), doesn’t make for for critical reading. Unless you’re already in the choir, enjoying the sermon.
    If you are impressed by the people who have come out in praise, good for you. But remember, attaching a name doesn’t make it “more” true.

  • fertope0128

    Dr. Paul Polak,
    I love finding new books to read. This list is new to me and I will definitely be investing in a few. I would also like to add two more books that have played a major impact in my life. One is The Alchemist-by Paulo Coelho. This book reminds me of my own journey and it has further motivated me to seek further success. The second book is The Richest Man in Babylon-by George S. Clason, where it teaches you many principles in acquiring wealth and how to save for the future.

  • Tessa Hochberg

    Great list! I’ve added some to my winter break to-do list. I would also add Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

  • Mizu4TheWin

    Wow, this looks to be quite the list. Thank you for the suggestions. I’ve read quite a few of the comments and it seems that many of them approve of the list.

  • Kay

    The book gave me an impact is “Screw It, Let’s do It. Lessons in Life”written by

    Richard Branson, who is the founder of Virgin Group. I was interested in Aviation business, and began to read this. I recommend this to those who are interested in aviation industry and business or economics as well.

  • osonbol

    I would love to read them all, Especially “The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid”, i would recommend it to anyone, and i wish i could do a big impact such as these books have impact our life.

  • lpierce34

    I am embarrassed to say that I have not read ANY of these books! But two books that I found very interesting and made me see the world a little differently were Outliers and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Two fantastic books by an amazing author who points out some of the most interesting trends in society.

  • Theresa Fitzsimmons

    Thank you for this list of books. I have always been interested in books that will help me to understand the world. One of my favorite things I have discovered that is useful to me is a website called Spirit Science. I enjoy watching the videos they post but none of them explain how to make an impact. I will read these books. I always wanted to be an advocate and make a difference, especially to try and help the environment. I just need to take a step forward to make a larger impact in helping. Do you have any personal advice about making an impact on our world?

  • younglinkh200

    I personally haven’t read many books that have helped me better understand the world, but one book would have to be The 5000 Year Leap. It talks about 28 principles of liberty and how within 200 years, America made what seemed to be a 5000 year leap with government and everything else. Looking at your list, I’m wanting to look into some of those books to read on my down time so I can understand the world better than I do now.

  • Phillip Ellard

    I have not read any of these books, Im sure there are some good words to read. I know dave ramseys book is a good book to read.

  • Carly Konkol

    I think what you’ve brought up is a valid point, Jeremy. I appreciate any list of books, as I love to read. But, there does seem to be a bias or certain opinion based on your comment. It’d be nice to have a variety of books that touch on different points of view. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with critiquing an article and I’m sure the author does appreciate it. Thanks for you opinion!

  • vsantoro

    I personally like this because I enjoy reading books that help you become successful. It’s cool that this author really works for the people. It shows you can be caring and still get somewhere.

  • Dennis McMahon

    Reading Jeffrey Sachs end of poverty now – as a macro level solution finder, there are useful learnings here

    Also found “why nations fail” a good framing work while considering what is the most useful role I can play in supporting the people in developing countries

  • Trista Radloff

    Thank you! I feel that sometimes people forget to rely on others words and forge ahead with their own thoughts and ideas. To me, the whole purpose of reading and writing book is to learn a new way of thinking about something and writing down your legacy, your thoughts. The hope is that someone will learn something from your or recreate your idea and make it a great. I look forward to reading these books!

  • hirthjp18

    Thanks for posting this list of books. I see that you have a book by Jon Krakauer. I am a big fan of his work and am always looking for authors like him. If you could suggest one book from the list what would it be?