Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

I read this when I was about about 12. A leather-bound copy given to me as a gift from an uncle. The very first scene of the young Colombian boy seeing ice for the first time (his sense of wonder!) is imprinted on my brain to this day. I was, and still am, that little boy. Even though this book was in translation, it also introduced me to more literary work. I had wanted to become a writer before reading this book, but this book gave me a clear goal.

2. Pretty much every Yukio Mishima book

Okay, already I am cheating, I admit, but these books pretty much defined my teen years. Although I actually cannot remember anything that happened in the book, the mere title of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea sends a shiver down my spine. This and The Sound of Waves converted me to a Mishima fanatic in my mid-teens, and I read everything I could get my hands on, making it a bit of a blur today. Mishima had a big effect on me. For example, I just had to visit Wat Arun when I visited Thailand at the age of 16, because of the third book in the Sea of Fertility series The Temple of Dawn. And of course, it served as motivation/preparation for going to Japan at the age of 18.

3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This was my very first audiobook, which turned me into an audiobook fanatic. I always recommend this to people who are looking to try out audiobooks for the first time. The themes of leadership and strategy in this book really pushed me to think outside of the box, and I think I you can see it in how I lead teams today. I binge-listened to this over a couple of days in Tokyo, where I had gone to write a public service entrance exam for the Department of Foreign Affairs. I can still recall the scenes around Yoyogi as I wandered by myself for a couple of days, listening to this book.

4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

In grad school I read Dawkin’s The God Delusion which converted me to a militant atheist for about two years. I relaxed a bit over the intervening years, but this book made me completely rethink religion and spirituality. It made me almost want to become a Jesuit! My wife was going through a very trying time where we facing down a potentially mortal disease, making me reconsider many things in my life. In the end I started down the Buddhist path. Though at the core this is a fairly hard scifi novel, The Sparrow taught me the value of spirituality and faith.


That brings my list to a close. I am tempted to add recently read books like A Fire Upon the Deep and The Three Body Problem both of which I found mind-blowing, changing how I think about physics itself, but I think it is best to let books settle for a few years. I am not sure if these have changed the trajectory of my life just yet.

I would recommend all of the above books, but of course, your “life changing experience” mileage may vary. If you come up with your own list, please post in the comments — I would love to see!

(Side note: Oh man, I am so motivated to re-read some these books now!)

Addendum: Nonfictional Waypoints

This is a much easier proposition, and I won’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, but I think I could at least list the most influential nonfic books that have changed my personal thinking over the years. It is funny to see how they clash politically over time as I grew as a human being. I wouldn’t recommend a person read all of these books today, not by any means. The list is in more-or-less chronological order, so likely any recommendations I would make at this point are near the bottom.

  1. Donn Draeger’s Classical Bujutsu and the rest of the series are a must read for any serious Japanese martial arts enthusiast. These books were my bible, taking my martial arts to a much higher level in my twenties. Still well recommended.
  2. Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places series added fuel to the fire of Robert D. Kaplan travelogues (especially The Coming Anarchy) which drove me to adventure on the Asian continent from Japan to Iran.
  3. The Language Instinct totally transformed my third year of university, and the way I understood human beings. Very likely out of date now.
  4. Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, and his other books about Central Asia ignited my interest in the region, and Younghusband by Patrick French is the reason why I took the pen-name of Younghusband on the group current affairs blog I wrote for for years in the early 2000s
  5. Prior to graduate school, I spent a long time thinking about the “practitioner” versus “theorist” dichotomy when Thomas Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map came out. Really influenced my decision to go to grad school and learn theory.
  6. Reading The God Delusion really shook me up, and made me question and in fact try to determine what my core beliefs were, and why. Even though I am cool on Dawkins as a person, this book is certainly thought-provoking.
  7. After years of working in tech, and smelling a rotten core, Morozov’s books The Net Delusion and To Save Everything Click Here were both big influences. There are better books out now, but at the time these were mental “hand grenades.”
  8. As I started moving away from my techno-centric, liberal thinking, books like Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century, Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and maybe surprisingly The Origins of Political Order by (conservative?) Francis Fukuyama, made me sharply turn towards a more radical politics.