- Books, Literature, and Writing
10 Books That Changed My Life
10 Books That Deeply Influenced and Even Changed My Life
Books can have incredible power to change lives. Writing has changed the world, for both the better and worse. This is a list of ten books that have deeply influenced me and have even changed my life. There are many others, too, but this will be about the top 10 books that changed my life.
Note: I've intentionally left out most religious texts because I feel they get misrepresented so often that the point of life changing literature gets lost in the mix.
The Brothers Karamazov: The Most Brilliant Novel Ever Written
I want to learn Russian to read this novel in the original language. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is in my opinion, and in the opinion of thousands of critics, the most brilliant and amazing novel ever written.
Like so much of Russian literature it is dark and brooding, and even with a "happy" ending, this is a monumentally depressing book at points. Or heavy may be a better read. This is a heavy book that makes Grapes of Wrath feel like a light 5th grade read.
The chapter "The Grand Inquisitor" is one of the most famous chapters of any novel ever. This is Russian literature at its best, and the ability of the author to wrestle with the great existential questions of faith, humanity, and the universe is incredible. Every major argument for and against God that has ever been made is in this novel, and both sides argue with passion, and it's incredible.
I wish I could describe how amazing this book is, but I think that's impossible. It is truly a life changing book. This is one of those rare works that you can tell the author poured everything into, heart and soul, and it flows beautifully in English--which makes me wonder how incredible it would be in its native Russian.
You can't read it and be the same, and if you're searching for answers to the great questions that have been asked since the beginning of time, The Brothers Karamazov is a must read.
The Best Discovery of Grad School
A gift from fellow grad students
The original #10 on my list was Jesus' Son, a book that I discovered in graduate school in Fairbanks, Alaska, thanks to fellow graduate students. That group was full of Denis Johnson fans.
It turned out I had an encounter with Denis Johnson prior to Fairbanks, Alaska. When I was a nineteen year old undergrad at Coe College, Iowa, I told a film class taught by one of the greatest teachers I've ever had: Gordon Mennenga.
One of my favorite clips from the hundreds we viewed in the Intro to Film class was from Jesus' Son. It was vivid enough that I rented, watched, and loved the movie--but didn't even know it was based on a book until years later.
In Alaska there were two pieces of art that were overwhelming favorites of everyone: Jesus' Son and The Big Lebowski. A friend gave me a copy of Denis Johnson's book and I read the entire episodic novel in a day.
The poetry, the detail, the intensity of the prose was intense and amazing. The style was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The book truly had a mezmorizing effect on me. Certain sentences in it still do.
The skill with which he weaved these stories put more poetry into a hard world I knew well than I ever knew was there. This reinforced my love of writing, and is worthy of being on any book shelf.
Kurt Vonnegut: Under the Humor, a Melancholy Good-Bye
Humor, tragedy, and sharp reflecton
I had read Slaughterhouse Five in high school at the recommendation of Miss Broghammer, one of the best English teachers I ever had. I remember enjoying it, and noticed the especially short and easy to digest chapters, and the clear prose, the strange twisted humor that I so easily related to.
I picked up and read Vonnegut's last work: A Man Without a Country and was not disappointed. Part non-fiction, part reflection (both on his own life and on current events in the world around him), it was funny, hilarious, tragic, pointed, and a deserving work that was quintissential Kurt Vonnegut.
This is an extremely quick read, with hand drawn illustrations, that can easily be digested in an hour or two, but the sarcastic wit, sharp obsevations, and in the end, the sad resignation and reflection on his life, on the world, on the dark bitter later years of many literary geniuses, gives us a sad good-bye, a resigned wrap up to an amazing life that makes both the life, and the good-bye, seem all the more remarkable.
Although this book has many spectacularlly funny moments, it's not a light read, but it is worth seeing a master of language's last good-bye before he moved on to whatever is next after this life.
Earth in the Balance: A Young Boy's Revelation
A lone voice crying warning, now the world watches in apprehension...
I was in 7th grade when I first found a copy of Earth in the Balance by Al Gore. That would have been in 1992, when I was twelve. Gore was the relatively new Vice President, but the copy of the book the town library had was written by "Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee." I read the entire book in about a week, and was blown away.
What hit me about that book was not only the incredibly clear rhetorical argument, but the stories about traveling around the world, the experiences of this man, of realizing something was horribly wrong and everyone just wanted to ignore it--but that the problem was that ignoring it too long might mean there was no time left to fix it.
That was the only non-fiction book that I had ever read more than once, and I've read it 4-5 times. It is a wonderful text on the environment, on the world, on politics, on social justice, and on giving a solid respectful rhetorical argument. Also, contrary to a lot of bad press, he points out that being environmentally friendly will not kill the economy.
Modern case in point: American car companies are dying. Between the hundreds of millions of dollars the CEOs are giving themselves in bonuses and the hundreds of millions spent on lawyers and buying off legislators, they could have built cars with higher miles to the gallon...for all the talk about that being impossible, consider this: China makes cars that efficient now.
In fact, we can't even sell our cars overseas because they don't meet anyone else's standards. Besides, even if you don't believe in the environmental crisis (and the evidence is overwhelming--consider Alaska, a hugely conservative state, but almost everyone believes in global warming because they see the results), why would you shoot down being #1 in technology? Why would you shoot down being free from oil? Why shoot down free and clean energy? It doesn't make any sense.
This book affected me greatly, as did his recent documentary. If you loved, or were simply intrigued byAn Inconveinant Truth then I strongly recommend the book Earth in the Balance. It's well worth your time.
Raging Words: The Empassioned Writing of Richard Wright
Words so hot they singe the pages.
Richard Wright was born September 4, 1908, in Roxie, Mississippi. He was a famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) novelist, short-story author, and one of the first African American writers to directly and unabashedly protest, the treatment of blacks by whites.
This theme made him one of the giants of African American literature until the arrival of James Baldwin. He is most famous for the novels Native Son(1940) and Black Boy(1945).
I read Native Son when I was a senior in college. I bought a beat up used paperback copy at a library book sale. It was recommended to me by a professor I took an African American Literature Seminar from in college.
What struck me about the book was the sheer rage. When Richard Wright created Bigger Thomas as a character, he didn't make him a persecuted hero, someone blameless. He made this character go insane from the opression, and one act led to another, and just kept going until the "hero" was a villain, but one whom many readers could understand, though not sympathize.
The power of the writing is that the emotion of rage pours off the pages, the anger from oppression, from pain, radiates from the work. It taught me the sheer power of words, and opened me to the idea of literature as a revolutionary weapon.
I first read this in junior high, when the library had a first edition that read by "Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee"
Sharp, poetic, bare--an incredible flashpan journey through a junkie's life, and eventual reconciliation.
Dharma Bums is also great. It's not so much the writing as the emotions invoked--I can't read Kerouac without wanting to give in to my inner drifter.
Before James Baldwin was Richard Wright. Native Son is brutal, violent, and an incredible insight into the racism of the early 1930s.
Bit by Bit and a little bonus
Bit by Bit I'll add stories about how I came across each work, how it's affected me, why I have these books and not others, but I wanted to include part of a poem that has long kept its hooks in me.
I found this my freshman year of college, first week, only 17, because I loved Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, only three books long at the time, and wanted to find the poem that was his inspiration: Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came".
I remember reading it tucked away in a chair in the hidden little corner behind the steps, light filtering in yellow and autumn, vivid in the way only memories from that time of your life can be.
The first stanza has always stuck with me as one of the great openings to any work ever:
My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.
It's an incredible poem, both dream like and real, dark and hopeful, mysterious but so clear as to feel like truth.
It's one of those works that confirmed firmly in myself why I've always wanted to be a writer.
Travel Writing Like No Other
From my undergraduate years
I have always had wanderlust. The road calls me, unseen destinations call me, I'm like my father in that respect. Men in our family hear the wind, the ocean, the call of adventure. Our ancestors were the same way--our ancestor, Ralph Dayton, was in the United States 15 years before the Pilgrims.
So when Lee, a great buddy of mine who wrote poetry, train jumped, and lived and loved with passion, gave me a copy of Dharma Bums when I was a junior. Sadly, I never had time to read the book.
Several years later I ran across it while packing for a road trip to New England. Why? Because it was there, I had a bad experience in grad school that caused me to drop out, and it was time for a change. A buddy went with me, and we road tripped for Vermont while I read Dharma Bums on the road.
The pure energy with which Kerouac writes is incredible. In my mind it was like I could see Kerouac hunched over, scribbling furiously while the parties of the sixties went on around him, sweat dripping on the pages.
I have never read a writer who could put down so much energy, who could awake your inner traveler with a furious yearning for the road, for adventure, for one of those once in a lifetime experiences. For life itself.
I loved this book so much that I bought a copy of On the Road in a book store we visited in Rutland, Vermont, and read it by campfire light during camping nights in the Appalachians. We visited Vermont, Pennsylvania, avoided New York, also enjoyed New Hampshire and a weekend in Maine.
We ended up back, not being able to find work to stay in the area, but the trip was one in a life time, and the intensity of his writing stuck affected me, stuck with me, was an inherent part of that road trip, whether it was shivering on an incredibly cold September night in Indiana, the smell of the ocean (not necessarily pleasant--which made it a great surprise!) off the Maine coast,the amazing ravine in New Hampshire...so much there.
These books are dangerous to someone like me, because my wanderlust is hard enough to control, and these books set me on fire for another adventure.
But if you need a kick in the pants to do something different, to embrace passion and adventure, these are your books!!
C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was a major influence for me by many reasons. What really enticed me about this book was that C.S. Lewis could talk about deep philosophical questions using simple and easy to understand language without cheapening the depth of the argument.
Likewise, I was always told that logic, reason, and history stood in contrast to any type of philosophy or faith, but C.S. Lewis came to his conclusions by using logic, reason, and scientific methods. This was extremely interesting to me. I'm a strong believer that areas of education mix. You can't have English literature without knowing history, politics, and philosophy. You can't study history without seeing culture, literature, and religious beliefs.
It seemed to me that C.S. Lewis knew how to blend all these areas of study to come up with an academic way of thinking about the larger "religious" questions. This way of analyzing religions and religious beliefs, while still being able to come to a conclusion of the possibility of the supernatural, was fascinating, and really hit me as being more "open-minded" than what I keep running into at colleges, a "I'm right because you're closed minded and brain washed" attitude that never dealt with the actual facts and arguments at hand.
If you're a Christian, this is a fascinating read. If you're not, it's still a great read to see this individual's use of logic and reasoning to come to a conclusion on a philosophical question.
And the writing itself is clean, to the point, and still manages not to lose any of the complexity of argument. I highly recommend this read.
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Another travel book, written by a wandering soul
John Steinbeck was one of the great writers of the 20th century, and is one of my personal favorites. He had an understanding of the common man like perhaps no other American writer has ever captured, and his adventurous life and wide spread travels affected all his novels, from Cannery Row to Grapes of Wrath to The Wayward Bus.
Travels with Charley, a book that won the Nobel Prize for John Steinbeck, was his last major book that focused around travel, and was an amazing read. Intense because the traveling spoke to me, heart breaking because of his realization that when he was back places 20 years later, it was awkward.
The old Cannery Row was gone. His old friends were there, but after 20 years apart they weren't the same, and he was more comfortable with his memories of them than he was with them, and the same vice versa. Once he was gone, he was gone.
It was interesting me to discover that realization with Steinbeck, that a place is also a time, that memories, and not the place, are sometimes what made it. I realized how the college I went to never could be what I remembered, because time moved on and we moved on. The Appalachians are a memory I'm removed from, I wonder if in 20 years Fairbanks, Alaska, will be the same for me personally.
This was an extremely well written travel novel, and describes memory, personal journey, and travel. It's an incredible read, and is a must read. Truly remarkable.
Links to influential books/papers
Various influential books, papers on them, more information, etc.
- Wikipedia, list of most influential books
List according to one author.
- The Stones of Summer
Intense and mind altering book written by an alumni of my alma mater, Coe College. Also, an incredibly similar sotry of re-discovery to that of the movie: Finding Forrester
- Catcher in the Rye
Extensive work on one of the most influential books of all time.
- Richard Wright Paper
This is a paper I wrote in grad school on Richard Wright and shared cultural literary interpretation.
- 10 Books That Changed America
Lens I made on books that changed the history and society of America forever.
- Upton Sinclair
One of the great influential writers of the 20th century.
- Best Dystopian Novels
Lens on the best dystopian novels ever written.
- Sinclair Lewis
A lens on Sinclair Lewis, a forgotten literary giant.
- Travel Writing
I love travel writing and travel novels. Here's a lens all about it!
- Freelance Writing Blog
A fantastic freelance writing blog with good advice on how to get started as a writer.
Catch-22: Greatest American Novel Ever?
Certainly the best American satire by far...
I had this book recommended to me in high school, but I never got around to reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22 until I was in college. I bought a copy for ten cents at a library book sale, and it gave me a used, but nice, paperback copy from 1965 or something.
This is one of the very few novels that I have read more than once. This satire is not only brilliant because of the alliteration and language use, but also in its managing to lambast both the uncouth values of uncontrolled American greed and unchecked capitalism, but also bashing facism and satire at the same time.
This novel is where the slang term "catch 22" comes from, and is an incredibly brilliant work that has probably affected me and changed my life more than any other individual piece of fiction I've ever read.
Fahrenheit 451: The Most Important Dystopian Novel Ever
1981 and Brave New World may get more press, but 451 is the most important of them all.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is often described with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, but usually as an after thought. In my opinion this is probably the best written (though Brave New World was pretty darn good) of the three, and is the most important.
This story was originally a novel titled "The Fireman" in 1951. Bradbury predicted an increasingly mindless population, basically an "MTV" and "reality TV" generation four decades before it happened, and the dire consequences of this which would ultimately result in unchallengable facism.
In this novel all books are outlawed, and critical throught is shunned, and even illegal. People are all self-centered and mindless. In this world Fireman are hired to burn books--and the people who illegally hold them. In fact, the number "451" refers to the temperature (in Fahrenheit) at which a book or paper burns.
This book was an eye opener to me, and the fact it was written in the 1950s makes it's ultimate prediction frightening, and it's one that we have to be aware of and guard against.
Not only does this book have an amazing story, but Bradbury's persistence shows what kind of commitment one needs to learn how to become a writer.
Science Fiction on Amazon - The best dystopian novels
Science fiction is the genre that more than any other can use a future setting to really make a statement about the current society.
Anything on influential books, poems, whether they're listed here or not, or any ideas on improving the lens. Thanks!