Seven Books That Changed My Life

Both my wife and I love books — when we married, one of the first challenges was figuring out how to fit the dozens of boxes we’d accumulated into just one apartment.

Written words have had such an impact on both our lives that it’s hard not to see them as an essential fuel for living, like oxygen or Doritos. Thankfully, the rise of eBooks has eased our space crunch, and regular donations to the local library have thinned our shelves to make room for selected new arrivals.

There are a few, though, that I’ll never have the heart to part with — books that have changed how I see the world around me, how I understand my own life. Seven arbitrarily selected examples are presented here in no particular order; some are still my favorites, others feel as dated as my high school poetry, but all of them are part of who I am.

The Myth of Certainty, by Daniel Taylor

I grew up as an earnest, passionate kid in a fundamentalist religious community — a True Believer who learned apologetics and theology to spread the Truth. When I eventually questioned the unyielding principles I’d learned, the most difficult part was feeling trapped between unacceptable extremes. I could ignore my doubts to please fellow believers, or abandon everything to fit in with skeptics who acknowledged my questions. The Myth Of Certainty described a third way, one that was less comfortable but more honest, and helped shape my understanding of doubt, faith, and empathy.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman helped develop the atom bomb in the 1940s, and became one of the world’s foremost experts on quantum physics. Reading this collections of stories from his life, it’s easy to think that his days were a giant parade of practical jokes, recreational lock-picking, bongo-playing antics, and arguments with Albert Einstein. What stuck with me after the zany anecdotes? The universe is full of amazing things; discovering them and sharing them with others is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

“Clarity, clarity, clarity!” That phrase echoed in my skull for years after reading this tiny little book of grammar, punctuation, and composition advice. It’s a classic, and the author’s passion for communicating in words comes through every syllable. When I wanted to throw everything I had at the page, it gave me clear and simple tools to pull my unruly words into line.

The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf’s first book was also my first encounter with feminist writing, and its critique of modern society’s “beauty machine” was a shocking eye-opener for me. Although some of the book’s statistics on eating disorders have been criticized, its documentation of the relentless pressure to be beautiful is still compelling. It helped teach me to look for systems and structures that can hurt the people around me, even if I’m blissfully unaffected.

Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, by Søren Kierkegaard

I’m pretty sure I picked this one up at Borders because I was 21 and wanted to look really, really profound. I was out of my depth from the first page, but slowly, some important stuff sunk in. The importance of honestly assessing one’s own priorities and admitting them to others — of owning one’s own choices — hit me like a ton of bricks. Kierkegaard wasn’t exactly a cheery guy, but he changed how I understood faith, ethics, and social responsibility.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

I love science fiction, and I’ve read my weight in pulp novels more than a few times over. This story of humanity’s first doomed encounter with an alien race has depth and complexity that puts other every other first-contact novel to shame. Mary Doria Russell’s experience as a cultural anthropologist informs its exploration of tragedy, the human need for meaning, and the desire for connection. It broke me of the adolescent belief that “real” science fiction is about technology, and I always keep a second copy to loan.

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander

It’s impossible to learn a programming language these days without stumbling across some mention of “Design Patterns.” The idea of describing common approaches to architectural challenges isn’t unique to software developers, though. In the 1970s, architect Christopher Alexander used it to describe a new and more holistic way of approaching the design of rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, and even whole cities. Picking up his original book, rather than just reading about software Factories and Facades, was worth the effort. It helped me realize that meaningful systems, with carefully designed and complementary elements, could improve our work in all kinds of fields.

These books aren’t necessarily the best writing in the world, or ones that every reader will care about. Other books have emerged as my favorites over the years, and even changed my feelings about the ones in this list. But they’re a part of me, and their spines on the shelf are a kind of time capsule.

What books have shaped and changed you? What stories and experiences would you have missed without them? Take the time to remember, and let others know about the writing that’s helped make you who you are. I know I’d love to hear about them — and I miiiight just have enough room on a shelf to fit a few more in…

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