Act Smart!: Five non-acting books every actor should read

I know, I know, there are only so many hours in a day, and I’m suggesting you spend one of them with your nose in a book that has nothing to do with acting?

Well, yes. Because if you’re not constantly improving your mind along with your instrument, it’s going to get slack, dull and inflexible. And what kind of artist can work with a slack, dull, inflexible brain? (Okay, don’t answer, I’ve seen them, too. You don’t want to be them; you want to be awesome.)

Read on (ha!) as I share the books you should get cracking on now, to keep you at your sharpest.

1. The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp

You can read my full and glowing analysis here, but here’s the skinny: Tharp’s book on the necessity of building structure into your life to support your art will change the way you think about your work. Drawn from the internationally-renowned choreographer’s actual experience creating outstanding piece after astonishing breakthrough, it’s rife with inspiration, illuminating stories and really, really good exercises, both big and small, that you can put into practice immediately. I’ve read many books on creativity and the particular needs of the creative soul, but this one is at the tippy-top of the list. Walk, don’t run to buy it.

2. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My former acting teacher used to encourage us to read great fiction to start understanding how great characters are drawn and how they help shape the stories they’re in. There are hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful, juicy examples I could give, but the simplest place to start is with what many people consider the greatest of Great American Novels. Read it first, then watch the unfortunate movie they made from it; analyze what did and didn’t work with the transition from page to screen, and you’ll start to understand where you, the actor, fit into the picture. (Bonus-extra: enjoy this fascinating essay on the role that editing played in the creation of the book itself. Talk about a window into process! In four parts: 1234)

3. Ignore Everybody (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity), by Hugh MacLeod

The author of this hilarious, smart and beautifully written short manifesto on how to be creative is a one-time dreamer with a day job (sound familiar?) who hewed to his truth and carved out a spectacular path for himself doing, of all things, a combination of blogging and drawing cartoons on the backs of business cards. You can read my full review here, but really, no need to. Go, now, to your nearest bookstore and read the entire thing for yourself standing in the aisle. Or read an earlier incarnation of it here, online, for nuttin’. I can almost guarantee you’ll want a copy of your own by your side to inspire you on an ongoing basis. (But you can buy it right now, right here.)

4. Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Relationships, and Earn Trust, by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Until I write my book on how actors should use (or not use) social media to further their careers, this excellent volume will have to do. You’ll have to put on your SERIOUS big-boy pants to read it, it’s written for the business world, and not every single, solitary thing will apply to you, the actor-as-sole-proprietor, out there promoting yourself. But enough of it will, and all of it is outstanding advice delivered in uncharacteristically awesome style (you didn’t hear it here, but most business book writing blows big, hefty, boring chunks.) Buy it, read it, re-read it, and do no evil on the Internet. (Again, I have a full review of the book up here.)

5. The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta

I get on my soapbox about the importance of setting goals at least once per year (and soapbox time is right around the corner!), but I don’t think I give enough time to the importance of honing things down to their essence so your goals are focused, reasonable and do-able. Leo Babauta’s lovely, simple book gives you simple tools for trimming away the fat of your life, so you can concentrate on what matters. And in case you hadn’t heard, it’s the concentrating, along with the actual “doing”, that gets the job done. The full review is here. You can buy Leo’s book here or read it piecemeal for free on his site, here.

BONUS EXTRA: My list of top books for actors that are actually about acting. Enjoy, but don’t forget to do your “civilian” reading, too! (Here are some more selects of those, to get you started.)

Next month: Some insight into how the gatekeepers use social media, and what they think of how you do it, from the horse’s mouth!