I recently saw a list of “100 books that rocked my world” from a blogger. It turned out to be a list of “books that are really cool” and not “books that made me think differently in fundamental ways.” So I thought I’d look back and ask myself, years later, what books changed me fundamentally?
1. Godel’s Proof, Nagel and Freeman. As Shaw says in “Man and Superman”, it made me want to “think more, so that I would be more.” The idea of there being some things that I will never know or prove, is something that I am still wrestling with.
2. Spark, Ratey. The idea that we fluctuate chemically between addiction to pessimism and addiction to optimism based on whether we are channeling our hunter ancestors seeking prey by exercising in company, between learning by moderate physical stress and forgetting based on sedentary habits, between inoculating against disorders by moderately poisoning ourselves with food and moderately stressing ourselves with exercise and opening ourselves to disease and death by eating unchallenging foods and avoiding challenging exercise, seems to apply to and alter every aspect of my life.
3. The Age of Diminished Expectations, Krugman. It began to give me an ability not only to understand my sense of disconnect between conventional economics and what was happening to me in the real world, but to apply new tools to understand and improve the broad scope of my life in terms of money and generational cycles – something I’d been looking for over 20 years of college and work. Of course, I needed several additional books and articles to understand the full scope of Krugman’s approach.
4. The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien. I wasn’t expecting what I got when I scrounged my Dad’s library for yet more books at age 12. Suddenly, I was able to see the non-human world around me as a separate, interconnected, wonderful, alive thing. And the idea that you could frame a book or part of a life as the necessary preface leading to the beginning of a journey – like Frodo’s, stripped of his teachers, into Mordor – made me see that my life could be seen that way – and that has always given me hope.
5. Falconer, Cheever. This one is painful. I had to ask myself, after it was over, am I, like the protagonist, seeing my relationships with women too much in terms of my own needs, or can I finally grow up? I don’t know how much I’ve changed in my behavior after reading it; but I know I can never think the way I used to about relationships without far greater discomfort and dissatisfaction with myself.
6. How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. There are many, many things wrong with this book, as I have come to realize. But it gave me the humility of understanding that my artsy and intellectual achievements were of very little value to others, and showed me that I really liked people, if I just listened to them. It also gave me a basis for understanding people’s social viewpoint that has allowed me to connect, slowly, over 30 years.
7. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Twain. I don’t think I recognized this at the time, but it was my introduction to what I might call the “science fiction viewpoint”: the idea that by facing scientific facts and leveraging technology, you could make a fundamental change for good in the world – the true meaning of “progress”. I can never quite shake that idea, and it has led me in quite a different direction from the rest of my family, into math and computers, and away from Great Literature that had few solutions to offer. Of course, I never quite accepted Twain’s other idea: that this progress could vanish like the mist from history, resisted by willfully ignorant humans frightened of change, unless you were lucky.