The ten books that changed me

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If you want a reminder of the abundance in Nature’s DNA, you have only to think about the number of books in the world, plus the staggering statistics of the number of new books published each year, whether by traditional presses or self-published. That’s a lot of words! My own house has floor to ceiling bookshelves in several rooms and still there are piles on the tables in my office and bedside.

So why write anything more? Hasn’t it all been said already? These questions haunt me.

In a recent conversation, a friend said the only kind of book he was interested in writing is one that can have a profound affect on people, the way he’s been changed by a handful of books. Now, the two of us are in a challenge to name the ten books that most changed us. That’s different from listing the ten books you would bring to a desert island. This 10-books list will not necessarily have books on it that you read again and again. Any book worthy of this list is likely to have done its work in one read.

This morning, I went through some shelves and wrote down possible candidates. This is not an easy assignment! My initial list runs to forty-four – and that’s not even counting library books. It’s skewed to non-fiction and the timeline starts in college. (I wasn’t much of a reader as a child.) To narrow it down, I went line by line and imagined how, exactly, my life changed as a result of reading this book. What did I do differently, or take on for the first time? How was my sense of the world or my place in it altered?

I showed no mercy! “Anam Cara,” for all its shimmering beauty, didn’t make the cut. Nor did “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean’s gripping, poignant tale of being “haunted by waters.” Nor did Annie Dillard, Wallace Stegner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Thomas Berry.

A book’s affect on me comes from an almost unknowable alchemy of language, imagery, emotion, and ideas, so a list like this is as much about style as content. Maybe on another day, in another season, the list will change. For now, the best I could do is sixteen books. And here they are, roughly in the order I encountered them:

“Letters to a Young Poet” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“The Poetics of Space” – Gaston Bachelard
“Invisible Cities” – Italo Calvino
“Lost Illusions” – Honoré de Balzac
“Open Secret” – Rumi
“Ishmael” – Daniel Quinn
“Home Economics” – Wendell Berry
“Plant Spirit Medicine” – Eliot Cowan
“Goddesses in Everywoman” – Jean Shinoda Bolen
“The Chalice and the Blade” – Riane Eisler
“The Outermost House” – Henry Beston
“The Marriage of Sense and Soul” – Ken Wilber
“The Great Transformation” – Karen Armstrong
“The War of Art” – Stephen Pressfield
“Winning the Story Wars” – Jonah Sachs
“The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible” – Charles Eisenstein

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