(This post is part of the 30 for 30 challenge).
Anyone who is even a moderate reader has at least one book that they can point to and say, “That book changed my life.”, or, “That book completely changed the way I view the world.” These are the stories that stick with us; the universal messages that shape who we are as individuals and our world view.
Here are the books that had that impact on me:
Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn – This was the first book I ever read where the message impacted me so profoundly that I was literally unable to stop reading it. I stayed up all night and read it straight through. It was during the early years of my undergraduate degree, and I was searching for many answers in life. The story is fictional, but it carries a very clear message: that humans treat this planet unlike any other living species does or ever has. We as humans act as though the planet is ours to do with as we please, and this attitude is, as this book argues, traced back to a time when our species shifted from a hunter/gather species to an agricultural one. The book tells the fable of how this came to pass, the affects it has had on the planet since then, and what we can expect to see in the future if it continues at the same rate. All of this is telepathically told by a caged gorilla (one of our closest ancestors) to an inquisitive man who responded one day to a classified ad that said only, “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.” A must read.
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins – I read this book at a time when I was searching for answers on spiritual and religious matters. I had been raised Catholic, and attended Catholic school for eight years. I was even an alter boy! And yet, I felt that the more I learned about the world, and the varying philosophies and ideas out there, I doubted more and more the infallible, dogmatic language of organized religion. As I started reading, it all just hit me like a ton of bricks, and I realized more than ever after finishing it that those who claim to have the Answers (with a capital A), are simply promising more than they can ever hope to deliver. They are in the salvation game, perhaps one of the biggest scams of all time. This book didn’t make me a hardcore atheist (a position which I think has its own dogmatic issues), but instead made me a skeptical agnostic. If you are someone like me who was raised religious, have an open mind to alternative arguments, and have as many questions about the claims religion makes, then I highly recommend this book.
1984, by George Orwell – Everyone has heard of “Big Brother”, but not everyone realizes where it comes from. That was me when I picked up this book back in high school. Written in 1949, it tells the story of a dystopian future where absolute tyranny rules, and where not only the meaning of language, but language itself, is transformed and shortened to meet the ruling Party platform. Coming across these ideas in high school was quite jarring, especially considering the upheaval our country was going through just after the attacks on 9/11. I could see some of the arguments in the book seemingly taking root in my own country, and it scared me. Namely, the doublespeak saying that “War is peace” – a direct quote from the book that could almost be the neo-conservative party platform for intervention in international conflicts. The current political body and country that today most exhibits the warnings in 1984 is that of North Korea.
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair – If a book ever was a catalyst for regulatory change in this country, it was this novel. A fictional story, but set in the meat packing plants of Chicago in the early 20th century, The Jungle tells the story of one immigrant family’s struggle to earn a living through working in the meat packing plants, and how the corruption and filth of the industry (pre-regulation), violated human rights, and subjected people to some of the most inhumane and disgusting working conditions ever documented in the United States. Oh yeah, and it makes you wonder how ANYONE could stomach eating meat after reading the book! This book showed that individual voices expressing a problem, and the need for change through their art, can make all the difference for social action.
The Wisdom of Insecurity, A Message for an Age of Anxiety, by Alan Watts – This precursor to the modern self-help explosion in mindfulness books (i.e., Ekhart Tolle), is an essential read to anyone wanting to refocus their minds to the present. Watts extols the virtues of living in and for the present moment, and with eloquent prose, explains why so many of the anxieties we have as humans are caused by a false assumption that we know enough about the world and our experience to control every aspect of our daily lives – past, future, and present. It isn’t until we acknowledge and understand what is out of our control, or simply unknowable, that we will be able to recognize and appreciate the present, thus making us healthier and happier people. Since reading this book most recently, I have found myself to be calmer, more patient, and yes, less anxious than I was before. If you’re seeking a read that will help bring peace of mind and put everything in context in this crazy existence we call LIFE, then this is a good read that can be accomplished in a single weekend.
What books have changed your life, and/or have significantly shaped your view of the world? I would love to know. Please share your experiences in the comments section of this post.