Books That Changed My Life

This is my library. I guess you would have to say all the rest of these books are books that ...

This is my library. I guess you would have to say all the rest of these books are books that did not change my life, although they tried.

Books still have the power to change lives. Which ones have changed yours?

I don’t mean merely great books, or memorable ones, or favorite ones. I mean books that altered your behavior, changed your mind, redirected the course of your life. Books as levers.

Here’s my list, in the order they entered my life. (I’m not the only one affected by these books because each of these titles has a Wikipedia entry, linked here, if you’d like to know more.)

Childhood’s End — For a kid growing up without TV in the boring enclaves of suburbia in the 50s and early 60s, science fiction opened up my universe. I devoured any and all science fiction our public library contained. Arthur C. Clarke’s stories in particular birthed a life-long interest in science, and a deep respect for the power of imagination. This story of a singularity always stuck with me as something to prepare for.

Whole Earth Catalog — When I was 17 this big catalog of choices gave me permission to have my own ideas, make my own tools, follow my two loves of art and science unabashedly, and invent my own life. Decades later, I worked at the Catalog in my first real job. Cool Tools is just the electronic version of this book.

The Fountainhead — I got sucked into reading this over-the-top manifesto of self-reliance during finals of my first year of college. By the end of the book I decided to drop out of school. I never returned. It was the best decision of my life.

Leaves of Grass — While reading this classic poetic ode to America and possibilities (“I am multitude!”) my gasket blew and I became seized with an unstoppable urge to travel. I set the book down and bought a ticket to Asia. I roamed there off and on for 8 years. It was my university.

My Experiments with Truth — This autobiography of Gandhi curiously led me to Jesus. Gandhi’s stance of radical honesty prompted me to attempt the same. I was surprised it took a tough Hindu to make me a tender Christian.

The Bible — Reading this all the way through, beginning to end, shattered all expectations I had of such a foundational text. It was weirder, stranger, more disturbing and more powerful than I was lead to believe. I’ve read through several times more and it never fails to disturb me.

Godel, Escher, Bach — I was amazed and impressed by the brilliance of GEB when I first read it, but it didn’t change my life. However over the years I kept finding myself returning to its insights, and each time I would arrive at them at a deeper level. Now I find them my own thoughts, and I realize I now see the world through a similar lens.

The Ultimate Resource — Another book whose influence took time to establish. Simon’s clarifying insight — that mind and intelligence can overcome any physical limitations, and is therefore the only scarce resource — has become a big idea that colors much of what I look at.

Finite and Infinite Games — This small, short book provided me a vocabulary to think about the meaning of life — not just my life, but all life! It gave me a mathematical framework for my own spirituality. As it says, the game is to prolong the game, to rope all beings into playing infinite vs finite (win-loose) games, and to realize that there is only one infinite game.

What’s your list of Books That Changed Your Life? It has to be more than a list. A book cannot be said to change your life unless it can be annotated with the tangible consequences you made as a result of reading it.

Here are a few qualifying lists by others I have encountered in my clickage.

Peter Turney, AI researcher (Peter’s list prompted this posting.)
Tim O’Reilly, Publisher
Steven Leckart, Editor
Mark Reid, AI researcher
Trent Hamm, financial blogger
Eric Rawlins, data architect
Larry Winget, motivational speaker
Mark Verber, software architect
Duane Johnson, software architect
Lucas Doran, road burn chaser
Ryan Holiday, blogger

I get a lot from reading these love letters to books. Why doesn’t everyone do a list like this?

Send me links (kk at kk dot org) — of yours or others you respect — and I’ll add them to the list if appropriate.

— KK


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