My two daughters have started to develop deeper interest in books, including some of the old warhorses that line the shelves in my study at home. It’s gotten me thinking about the books I’ve read that have had the biggest impact on me. Around here at CO9s, there’s a lot of writing about high technology and its place in education, but in my own ongoing intellectual journey it’s the books — you know, the ones made out of paper and which you actually physically hold in your hands — that have had the greatest impact on me.
I also just so happened to run across this post about ten life-changing books and a list (via Joanne Jacobs) of 101 great books that college-bound students should read over the summer (I like the level of ambition there!), which made me want to make my own list. So without further verbage, here it is. These aren’t in any sort of order except the order in which they come to mind.
The Holy Bible. Yes, I know the Bible is not really a book but a small library, and some of the volumes in that library have had a greater impact on me than others. And it’s probably a little cliche to pick the Bible for a list like this — doesn’t everybody, if they are making a public list? But my life has not so much been changed by the Bible as it has revolved around it. From authoritative “belief” growing up in the Southern Baptist denomination to wholesale rejection in college to an ongoing coming to terms with the Bible — on its own terms — later in life, it’s not a stretch to say that my entire life can be interpreted in terms of where I am relative to the Bible at any point in time. Apart from that, there’s too much to explain why this book is so important. Although I do blog about such things elsewhere.
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky). I read this for the first time just after finishing graduate school, in the summer between defending my thesis and moving off to Indiana. I had all my stuff packed up and in storage the whole summer, and I wanted to have a single, great book to immerse myself in so I would have to pack and unpack more. I picked up this modern English translation and began immersion. Blew me away then, and still does, with its image of dark humanity punctuated by the light of confession and repentance.
Getting Things Done (David Allen). It may be a little weird to include GTD here among the Bible and all these classic works, but David Allen’s manifesto on personal organization and productivity is the book that finally crystallized what I had been trying to accomplish with personal productivity and life management since my sister bought be a Franklin planner back in 1994. Allen gets it right — with just the right combination of structure and simplicity to form the basis of what is really a worldview more than an organizational system. And it’s a worldview that, since first reading the book only last summer, has really transformed my work and home life into a more simplified, organized, and enjoyable place.
The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien). I read this back in the fourth grade. My two older sisters were working at a summer camp and everybody on staff was reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wanted to join in, but LOTR was a little old for me, so I got The Hobbit from the library and read the whole thing. It was the first real novel I ever read, and I think my teachers in White Bluff Elementary were a little shocked that a fourth-grader would read such a thing. Trivia: I had the vinyl album version of this book. That’s a persistently great memory from my childhood — and I wish I had kept the thing, because it’s now quite valuable.
Desiring God (John Piper). I’m not sure how I came to reading this book — it must have been a recommendation by somebody or some other book I was reading. But I found the perfect paradigm for my faith in Piper’s vision of “Christian hedonism”, for which this book is the primary source. I had the great fortune of being able to spend a weekend with my wife back in 2003 (before kids) at The Cove in a seminar with Piper himself, explicating the pivotal eighth chapter of Romans. It was an amazing experience and when I come back to Desiring God it’s like opening up a bottle that contained the essence of that weekend. Don’t miss Piper’s website either, which has tons of free text and audio content on it, most of which is connected to the Christian hedonist theme.
The Screwtape Letters (C. S. Lewis). There’s so much truth about life and God in this book that I come away with new wisdom, or old wisdom renewed, every time I read it. And this is probably the most frequently read book in my library; I’ve read it at least a dozen and a half times, more than this if you count listening to the superb audiobook version with John Cleese doing the reading. (Sadly, that audiobook is out of print and quite hard to find. Come on, iTunes…)
The Great Divorce (C. S. Lewis). I include it because it’s perhaps the best religious fiction of our time, and some of the best fiction of any kind. But its lasting impact on me comes from this one quotation:
“Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again; even now.”
That’s on my wall at work, and it’s a very economical statement of my motivations and outlook as a teacher.
A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge). When I was a kid, I tried to read science fiction because I was trying to cultivate as much of the nerdly image as I could — not because I enjoyed it or knew what I was doing. A year or so ago, I decided that I actually wanted to read sci-fi, and through a recommendation from Instapundit I picked up this book. I remember thinking, 100-or-so pages into the book, that this is what I had hoped sci-fi would be once I was really ready to enjoy it: Well-written fiction with characters I care about and ideas and settings that set my imagination on fire. I’d read this book before bed and wake up thinking about it. It got me into the old sci-fi genre with a new outlook and taught me the importance of my imagination, and how much my imagination wants to get out and play.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn). This short novel packs a powerful message about the value of freedom and the evils of a tyrannical government. Like most Americans, I was pretty much unaware of the brutality of the Soviet regime under Stalin until I read this book (and later Cancer Ward and The First Circle), where a person could be torn from his family and placed in hard labor in Siberia for a decade or more for the most trivial of reasons. I came away from this book more thankful than ever for the freedoms that I enjoy and determined to make myself educated as a citizen as to how to preserve them.
Godric (Frederick Beuchner). Beuchner in general is great, and this is Beuchner at his best. This fictional autobiography of a real-life twelfth-century saint is first and foremost just great writing, with gorgeous scenery and wordsmithing that really evokes the time and the characters. But the spiritual message — that even the great saints are fallen men and women whose lives are defined by failure and redemption — is what affects me the most.
So there you have it. Anybody who wants to pick up the meme, feel free!