10 (or a few more) Books That Changed Me

If I had titled this “Ten Books That Changed My Life”, it would have been too melodramatic for what I mean. Books come in all levels of quality. Some you read only to discover they were not worth reading. Some are really badly done but make a major impact on you because of some other factor. Some are good but leave you unchanged. Some are transformational in that they make you a better person, they help you see things that you had never seen before, they open a new window on the universe. Some of them do that in such a large way that you experience the book as altering you in a fundamental way; you feel that you are so changed that you are a different person because of reading that book.

Those are the books that I want most to find. Those are the books that feel the most magical as I am reading them. Once they are done, there is a new room in the mansion of the heart; the room had been there all along, but you had never noticed the hidden doorway behind that curtain, you had never been in. Here I am going to list the books (sixteen, as it turns out) that have had that transformative effect on me, to a greater or lesser extend. Not all of them are particularly well written; their power was as much in their timing as in their quality. By all means read them, but don’t expect them to have the same force in your own life. Each person will have his or her own list of Very Important Books that help to define them as a person. Maybe this list will help you understand me better. I will list them in chronological order as I encountered them.

1. Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. It is not as juvenile as the title makes it sound, but it would be classified as juvenile sci-fi. This book was the first book I ever read and was engrossed in. It convinced me reading might actually be worthwhile; it made me a reader. It made me hope that growing up might actually be worthwhile. Late in my 6th grade year I lived in Mobile, Alabama, and I had never before really read a book with my soul and mind. This book has it all: appealing characters (to a teen), aliens, adventure, drama, poetry, and a scope of imagination that took my breath away. I have read the book a dozen or more times in my life and it has never lost all of the magic I felt then. I know that Heinlein was not a great writer, but at his best he wasn’t half bad.

2. The poems of Sylvia Plath. Sadly this is one of only two books that made any difference to me in college. I had to do a term project on Plath and read a lot of her poetry. Oddly, though I had been writing poetry for years, she was the first poet I had ever read extensively. Perhaps a poem or two by Frost and Auden and Dickinson, but of poetry in general I was nearly entirely ignorant. Her poetry is dark and complex, and I did not, still do not, really grasp it. But the fact that I could not plumb the depths of what she was talking about did not put me off, did not hide the beauty she found in darkness. I was a person who always felt more at home with darkness, anyway, and she taught me how to look at it.

3. Frannie and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. This is the other worthwhile book I met in college. I had read The Catcher in the Rye earlier because it was the cool book to read, and it is a truly great book. But Frannie and Zooey is powerful on a different level. It was talking about spiritual things in a way I had never encountered before, and it astonished me. I read everything Salinger had published, but this rather short two stories are what has lasted best.

4. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I read this just after graduating college. How can a non-fiction work about the philosophy of science mean that much? How can it be so spell-binding that you can’t quit reading? Science has always seemed as riveting as drama to me, and I don’t see a sharp boundary between mathematics and poetry. Otherwise, I can’t explain it. I have never enjoyed another philosophy book except Pascal, and never even found them particularly enlightening. But this book made sense; it showed me how to think about science, faith, knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge. It is a deep and powerful book that gives real insight into the nature of how we think. Probably I read this instead of doing the homework I should have done, but it was worth it.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I tried to read this book in college but could never get into it. I didn’t have the maturity or patience to give it a fair chance. It is a classic now; the new generation seldom reads it; it seems old fashioned. But it is so much more than a fantasy. It is transcendental. It involves, in its scope and imagination, everything that it good and bad in the world. It is about the struggle between good and evil, but it captures the nature of both in ways that moralists and allegorists never never do. It is transcendental (did I say that already?). I finally read it the first year of married life when Kathryn was justly shocked that I had not finished it. We read it aloud, and if she had never given me anything after that it would have left me still in debt.

6. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. This book came my way in about 1976 when I was teaching at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Why I picked it up and began reading I cannot recall. The writing is excellent, as all of her writing is, and the story is bizarre, with the kind of internal deformity I have come to associate with Southern writers. She taught me in this book what being justified by faith meant, though she was a Catholic writer and might not have intended to do so. Once I had looked at the world through the eyes of Hazel Motes, I could not see it the same way again.

7. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin. I can’t remember exactly when I encountered this book. It is one of a kind. I suppose it must be classified as fantasy, but not anything like what I think of as fantasy. To write a story of good vs evil in which the good guys are led by a rooster is the ultimate in audacity, and Wangerin did not dilute the evil for the sake of his chicken hero. I literally could not quit thinking about this book for many months after reading it aloud to my kids. If I had known how vividly evil the evil was, I might not have read it to them; they were pretty young. What this book did for me was show how goodness could be present in the humblest of things and still be greater than the Evil One. I know well enough what evil looks like; this book showed me goodness in its humblest form.

8. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I had long been a fan of C. S. Lewis and had read everything of his I could get, but somehow this book escaped me until the late 1970’s. The most amazing book in a collection of amazing books. How did Lewis manage to even write it? It is almost proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that a mere human being could write it. This book is the epitome, the capstone, of all that Lewis thought and contributed. If you only read one by him, let this be the one.

9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Walter Pirsig. Originally I read it because it was the cool thing to read, I believe in the early 1980’s when I was a government bureaucrat in St. Louis. It is a sort of combination of philosophical treatise, travelogue, diary, memoir, but nothing is quite adequate to describe it. It is only marginally about Zen and only marginally about motorcycles; really it is about two different mindsets, loosely described as eastern and western, the analytic and the aesthetic, how they connect. Yet another book that impinges strongly on the nature of science and scientific cultures. It deserved all its reputation for brilliance.

10. The Third Peacock by Robert Farrar Capon. I really can’t remember when I first encountered this book but it was long after it was dated. The language, the tone, the style all breathe mercilessly of the sixties and all that decade entailed. Most people now would find it irritating, I think, and if it weren’t so great I probably would too. Capon was an Episcopal priest in a time when it was cool for priests to be cool (now they probably shouldn’t be); he, at least, succeeded. This is a work of non-fiction, a work of theology thinly disguised as a fairy tale, and it changed the way that I thought about the Bible and revelation and the gospel. This was probably the one book, if the causes can be narrowed to a single one, that led to my ceasing to be Presbyterian. I was a Presbyterian elder at the time I read it and initially did not fully realize how it would eventually work its way through me and make me non-Presbyterian. It is a small book, there is much that is flawed in it, much that is irritating, but it is great.

11. This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. This is the worst book on this list. It is badly written, the characterizations are flat stereotypes, the plot is a very very thin mask on an apologetic for a fundamentalist Christian mindset. Even so, I loved it and still do, and its sequel as well. If there is any validity to fundamentalism at all, and I believe there is some, this book captures it. We were members of a fundamentalist church at the time and our fellow church friends who were reading it concurrently were amazed that we could read it at night-time; they found it too frightening, too real. I suppose that was proof that we weren’t truly fundamentalists at heart: their fears do not touch us. It is the only link I have to them now, the only glimpse of hope from that chapter of our lives.

12. A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. The finest example of “children’s literature” ever written. Burnett was a Christian Scientist, a philosophy for which I have no sympathy, and if you are sensitive to it that mindset is plainly visible in the book. But the Light shines in the darkness, and sometimes it is all the clearer for being in a dark place. This is a truly Christian book, in the orthodox sense, regardless of what the author had in mind. It is about redemption, innocent suffering, patience in tribulation, and so on. I have never been able to read it without crying.

13. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. This one I read in the late 1980’s. It is from the viewpoint of Native American spirituality and is the memoirs of a boy, a Cherokee, raised by his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains in the Depression. The American Christian white culture doesn’t come off very pretty, and it is always good for us to see what we look like. I love the humanity in this book, and I am thankful for being given a glimpse of humanity in a “heathen” context. This book helped me learn respect for others at a time when I first was realizing I had not yet learned it.

14. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson. There is more than a ten year gap between the previous book and this one. I had given up believing that there were any other great books that had been written. My daughter, Judith, whose opinions I promise I will never again question, took several years to talk me into reading this book, but I could not stop by the second page. It is one of the most brilliantly written, one of the most rewarding, one of the – OK, I will give up on finding phrases and just say it is the best book I have ever read. There is so much about it that is wonderful; I wish I could describe it. It follows me everywhere I go. Now I feel like I know what a holy person would look like if I meet him, and how softly and invisibly grace happens.

15. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I read this book just a year or so ago, immediately after Robinson’s book. It is the opposite sort of book, a book with hardly a glimmer of light in relentless darkness. It is the only fully believable apocalyptic book I have ever read. It is horrifying in every way, so horrifying that I know I am not brave enough for the film. Reading the book was like being confronted by a rattlesnake: you can’t move. Reading it is like facing your worst fears. And yet, for all that, it is redemptive.

16. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. The last one on my list, one of the most recent books I have read. It is also the one that I intended to leave off, but now I realize I can’t. It is impossible to get this book out of my mind. This is what Peretti’s books could have been if he had been a good writer, though that is unfair as well. Enger’s book makes the super-natural seem natural in the best sense, not routine but real. These are people who are like people you might meet but with whom, in the most natural possible way, the super-natural acts. This is the way life is supposed to be. Or the way we want it to be supposed to be, if that is a coherent sentence.

And that is my list. I thought of putting in the Harry Potter books, and though they are a great series of books, they haven’t changed me in quite the way the ones above did. There are many other truly great books I didn’t put on this list. I love The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. I love the books of Anthony Trollope, and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and there are many others. But these sixteen books came at the critical junctions of my life. They are flawed, some of them seriously. None of them are perfect, except maybe Robinson’s. With all of them I find myself at odds, but the dissonance is as important as the harmony. The best friends are the ones you can learn from and with whom it is safe to argue.

Perhaps this post will encourage you to do a literary biography of your own life. If so, share it with me. Here if you like.

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4 Comments on “10 (or a few more) Books That Changed Me”

  1. dantrewear Says:

    Wow, inspiring. Totally agree with 5, 8 (my favourite CS Lewis too) and 13; can’t admit to having read the others but now have some to pick out for the next vacation (i.e when I have time to devour books)… I might have added some Steinbeck (but which one?) who was influential several years back, and maybe some of the scifi/fantasy of Julian May or Orson Scott Card (??)

  2. Eric Alagan Says:

    This is interesting.
    I never thought about books and their impact on my life. It has always been people and events that had impacted my life – for better or worse.
    Thank you for this sharing.
    – Eric

    • If a book is a truly good one, then so much of the author is present in its pages that it is like meeting that person. At least it feels that way to me. I guess a book is half way in between a person and an event. Or maybe it would be better to say a book is like meeting a ghost of the person – but more substantial.

  3. Thank you for sharing these quotes. This paticular saying took me by surprise:

    ” You cannot be a good mathematician without also being a poet.”

    Intriguing hypothesis, which perhaps can be verifiable.

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