Nelson Mandela recommends4 min read

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South African leader and Nobel Laureate on books that helped form his views

   “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” by William Shakespeare

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many years on Robben Island, one of the political prisoners smuggled a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works into the jail, and then it was secretly circulated among the prisoners. Many of them signed and dated their names near the most favorite passages. Mandela put his name next to the passage, which included the following lines: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

While you could find a Gutenberg copy of most of Shakespeare’s work, the value of this Complete Works is that you don’t have to remember the 37 titles of his plays or differentiate between his many sonnets and the longer epic poems. Whether you enjoy the political intrigue of Macbeth or Titus Andronicus, or the lure of romance mixed with smoking-room comedy as offered by Much Ado About Nothing, there is something for everyone – especially witty and insulting quotes. It would be hard to read a few pages of Shakespeare without coming across a film title or an inspirational message regarding life and all its diversions.

“Red Star Over China” by EdgarSnow

– Nelson Mandela in his autobiography

While Snow never became famous by leaking international secrets, he did write a Western book that became as well-known as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. The author and his political motivations are not as well-known as the encouragement given to him by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung to include his carefully crafted auto-biographical account. At the time of its publication, China and Japan were engaged in a battle over Nanjing, which excited the author’s anti-imperialism leanings. For the ComIntern, criticisms of Stalin were carefully edited; the Chinese communists were portrayed sympathetically for their sufferings and struggles, and interviews of nearly 100 leaders were included for scope and depth.

“The Art of War” bySun Tzu

– from an article on

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Sun Tzu’s ancient work began on book lists as a necessity of military strategy, and has become a necessary addition to business book lists as well. The US Marine Corp and intelligence units still recommend this work on their book lists. It emphasizes excellence, the strategic use of deception, and the psychological nature of winning a war before battle begins. Those wanting a leadership book won’t be disappointed by Tzu’s insights into the “wise general”, and those wanting a treatise on business tactics can also make great use of tips on strategy, and appearing to be what you’re not.

“Antigone” by Sophocles

– Nelson Mandela in his autobiography

One of the few surviving Greek tragedies that portray a female as a protagonist, Sophocles’ work shows that Oedipus’ daughter shows that stubbornness and eloquence run in the family line. Creon, the King of Thebes, may win the battle of where and when to bury Antigones’ brother, but Antigone wins the battle for power and popularity; her supporters include a blind but insightful prophet as well as Creon’s own son. The text can used either as a guide to Greek mythology, principled living, or as a useful ice-breaker on the topic of family versus civic duty.

“The Grapes of Wrath” John Steinbeck

– Nelson Mandela in his autobiography

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One of Steinbeck’s best known novels, this story has made it onto many book lists and English literature reading lists for its Pulitzer Prize. It should be known for its classic American themes of determination in the face of crippling discouragement, its vast descriptions of families caught in the teeth of the 1930’s Depression, and a tenacious insistence on clinging to life. The Joad family survives a stop-and-go movement toward the golden shores of California, one family member’s prison background, and economic instability – but not without a cost. The benefit of self-sacrifice comes through in Ma and Rosasharn, Jim Casy provides gritty life philosophy, and the characters without names provide a rich tapestry of background.

“War And Peace” by Leo Tolstoy

– Nelson Mandela in his autobiography

Tolstoy’s most famous work, with the exception of Anna Karenina, doesn’t leave out much in terms of themes or timeless concepts. The Petersburg party crowd is made up of privileged persons with deep psychological and family issues, while the Moscow families are beset with debt but in better emotional states. Readers who don’t shy away from political, philosophical, or religious topics of all kinds will be fascinated by Tolstoy’s grasp of Napoleonic historical forces mixed with changeable but fascinating human individuals caught up in forces much larger than themselves.

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