Over the last three months, I have been reviewing the ten books that changed my life. Each one shook my world view, made me reconsider who I was and the actions I put forth, and left me facing a new direction than the one I faced before. Here are all ten in one place, with a brief summary of each one along with a link to the longer essay on that particular book.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel relating the story of Guy Montag, a “fireman” in a future America where firemen burn books. This future America is actually rather frightening: as television becomes more prevalent and more interactive, books are seen by general society as being evil, containing critical thoughts that are better off banished. Guy’s journey takes him from being a loyal fireman to questioning his job and the value of literature, eventually leading him to a life on the run with a bandit of misfits.
Fahrenheit 451 was the first book I ever read that left me thinking about my own value structure after I closed the cover. The book awakened me to the possibility that a book could be more than a simple form of entertainment and left me asking fundamental questions about life and freedom that I’ve never adequately answered for myself. In many ways, these questions led me to blogging which for me is a literary expression of self-discovery. Read my full essay on Fahrenheit 451 and its impact on my life.
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged is a novel that is set in an America slowly rotting away due to technological regression and a lack of leadership. The leaders of society and industry are slowly disappearing, and the remaining ones seem to be fighting a losing battle against a slow societal disease. The book focuses primarily on Dagny Taggart, a hard-working railroad executive who tries to fight this malaise but eventually discovers the root of it in a societal meme: Who is John Galt?
Atlas Shrugged really awoke two things in me: a burning desire to understand how politics and society actually worked, and a deep respect and desire to protect the rights of the individual and his/her ability to succeed due to his/her ability. I realized that it was up to me to make a difference in the world – but also that it was my right to have that opportunity to succeed and a healthy, good society should allow an individual that right. Read my full essay on Atlas Shrugged and its impact on my life.
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity is a Christian apology; in other words, it seeks to explain the belief structure of Christianity in a way palatable to both believers and nonbelievers. Thus, it focuses on only those elements of Christianity that have been part of the belief structure in almost all times and all places and avoids the differences between denominations and also issues with Christian history. It uses a logical structure and follow-through that makes it a wonderful book for both Christians and non-Christians alike to really understand the theological underpinings of Christianity without the strong opposition of an atheistic perspective or the blatant fervor of an evangelical.
Mere Christianity really awoke me to the spiritual dimensions of my life. It didn’t lead me down a blind path directly to Christianity, but it did open me up to the idea that there was more to faith and religion that meets the eye, and it started me on a lifelong quest to find out these answers for myself. To my surprise looking back on it, it actually taught me not to accept the dogma of others, but to seek my own path and truth. Read my full essay on Mere Christianity and its impact on my life.
Titan – Ron Chernow
Titan is a biography of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the world’s first billionaire, but it is no ordinary biography. The real power of Titan lies in the way that it lays out Rockefeller’s growth from rather ordinary circumstances to the unparalleled levels of success that he found later in life, even down to the specific mechanics he used to organize his life and motivate himself. It’s about work ethic and about taking what you have and making something out of it without anyone else’s help.
Titan impacted me because I came from extremely humble beginnings like he did, except that until I read this book I believed that the dizzying heights that he and others achieved were simply unreachable for a boy from the country like myself. It blew me away because Rockefeller started out in my shoes and managed to climb up on top of the entire world – if he could do this, surely I could find success in my life goals. Chernow’s gift for making Rockefeller seem real to me made me feel less alone in the world; it made me realize that indeed I could play the hand that birth dealt me into whatever I could dream of. Read my full essay on Titan and its impact on my life.
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
On the surface, Invisible Man is about an individual trying to find his way in the world, moving from being a loner to being part of a social movement back to being a loner again. Peel away that layer and it almost seems to be about race, but if you peel away that layer you’ll find that the book is about humankind, stumbling along trying to figure itself out. There are a lot of books out there that touch upon these issues, but they all seem to want to blame someone. The truth is that there is no truth outside of our own experience, that everyone’s experiences are different, and by spending all of our time being racist or fighting racism, we’re not actually solving a damn thing.
Invisible Man changed me in more dimensions than I can even relate. It taught me that what was true for me wasn’t necessarily true for anyone else. It taught me that racism is just someone buying into a negative stereotype. It taught me how much actions speak louder than words. And the power of Ellison’s words finally convinced me that I should become a writer after a lifetime of prodding in that direction. Read my full essay on Invisible Man and its impact on my life.
Joy of Cooking – Irma Rombauer
Instead of merely being a compendum of recipes like many cookbooks, Joy of Cooking is a mishmash of recipes, tutorials, and short articles on an almost dizzying array of topics. Even more interesting (with the exception of the archaic 1997 edition), the book is largely written in a very conversational tone, rather different than a lot of cookbooks. In other words, it’s a cookbook that you can sit down and read from beginning to end for enjoyment, and the sheer joy of cooking comes across on every page, convincing you to get up and try it, even if it turns out that you create a complete mockery of Hollandaise sauce (not that I’ve ever done that …).
It was a stained, beat-up copy of Joy of Cooking bought for fifty cents at a yard sale that began my journey into cooking, a passion that has grown without abatement for years and makes me almost cry out for a huge kitchen with a little pantry off to the side and a giant spice rack full to the brim with spices. Before I found this book, I couldn’t boil water without scathing my skin and the thought of an hour in the kitchen seemed like torture; now, my obvious love of cooking oozes out even into this blog on personal finance. Read my full essay on Joy of Cooking and its impact on my life.
The Conscience of a Conservative – Barry Goldwater
The Conscience of a Conservative basically spells out the political beliefs of Barry Goldwater, a Republican Senator from Arizona who ran for President in 1964. He brought to the table a very clear political perspective, one that is basically completely alien to the “conservatives” today. In a nutshell, this philosophy has only one true litmus test: local governments are better suited to solve local issues, because every person and every community are different. The federal government should solve issues of interstate commerce and national defense and that is all. This enables each state to decide their own path on most controversial issues, enabling like-minded people to live in states that respected their beliefs without federal interference.
Before reading this book, I didn’t have what you would call a political ideology of my own. I just followed what others said without really putting together an overall worldview that represented what I thought was right and what I thought was wrong. The Conscience of a Conservative awoke in me a desire to be more aware of politics around me – and also to be involved in the local political process, a transformation that has altered my life in many, many ways. Read my full essay on The Conscience of a Conservative and its impact on my life.
How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
How To Win Friends And Influence People is about how to deal with social situations, nothing more, nothing less. It’s very well written and broken down into small pieces that anyone can follow and accomplish.
So why did it impact my life so strongly? To put it simply, I was not exactly adept at social situations before reading this book. I had a very hard time … well, winning friends or influencing people. As I came into leadership roles, all I had to rely on was pure demonstration of my own abilities to lead, and while that can be a tool for inspiration, it can only carry so much weight – and it certainly doesn’t help when you’re standing up in front of a crowd of people who don’t know you or your record and you have to convince them that what you’re doing is valuable. This book, because it broke down the ability to work through social situations into tiny things that I could practice and learn, made it possible for a complete social train wreck like myself to begin to be able to speak in public venues and relate to other people – which completely changed the rules of how my life worked and what I could do with it. Read my full essay on How To Win Friends And Influence People and its impact on my life.
Getting Things Done – David Allen
Getting Things Done is a book on personal productivity for those who really don’t want to (or have the time to) commit themselves to a sticy, compex system of task management. It has one overall guiding principle: write down the stuff you need to do as you think of it, then process that list when you have open time. If you have ongoing projects, keep a list or a folder for that project and check on it regularly to keep it going. That’s the nutshell of it – the book goes on to show examples of how it works and add some detail for specific situations, but that’s really the key.
I found Getting Things Done just as my life was about to move into hyperspeed: my child was born and I began to really kick my writing into high gear. Given the previous inefficient methods that filled my life, I had no idea how I was going to find time to get these things accomplished, but taking the modular materials in this book and applying them to my life in a sensible fashion, I not only became a father and kicked my writing into gear, I found time to found and develop this blog into something great. Read my full essay on Getting Things Done and its impact on my life.
Your Money or Your Life – Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
Your Money or Your Life is a book about personal finance, but rather than focusing on being rich, the book instead looks deeply at finding the central values in one’s life and realigning your life and money to follow these values. The book is based on the idea that most people’s money problems are actually connected to a lack of fundamental direction in their life: they work just to earn money, not because it’s what they love doing. To do this, the book goes in an unorthodox direction compared to a lot of books on the personal finance shelf, often presenting what initially seem like incredibly contrarian ideas and directions.
After getting so much of my life in order and discovering the joys of being involved, being social, and being organized, I realized how much of a wreck my financial life was. I read mountains of personal finance books, but this one was the one that clicked: it connected my money to my life in an elemental fashion, the first source I’d read that didn’t just tell me that my money didn’t control me, but showed me how to reveal this elemental truth to myself. Read my full essay on Your Money or Your Life and its impact on my life.