“Books that change your life”. A look at what that means and which books have shaped mine

books that changed people's livesIn a recent blog post, “28 Books That Changed Your Life”  GoodReads shared the top picks that resulted from asking readers to:”name the books that prompted a positive change in your life.” The books they featured are shown to the left of this text.

As GoodReads tells it: “Readers described eye-opening and unforgettable books that helped them become more compassionate, appreciative and positive, as well as books that, as one reader puts it, ‘get into a person’s heart and soul.'”

“Compassionate and appreciative”, now there’s a value-laden view of  what“a positive change in your life” means. Apparently it is about a change in your emotions, your “heart and soul”, not your level of knowledge or your analytical capability or your actions.

So you know nothing more than you knew before, you have no better understanding of what you already knew and your actions remain unchanged but, because you feel more compassionate and appreciative, you have had a positive change in your life.

This seems to me to be a willful act of self-serving self-deception.

The books are a mixture of novels, biographies, philosophical reflections and self-help books. I’ve read a handful of them, mostly for work. None of them changed my life, positively or otherwise.

“Quiet” and “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” confirmed and codified some things I’d already observed.

“On Fear” was well written and thought-provoking (if a little repetitive) and reminded me strongly of the Litany against fear in “Dune”.

“Who Moved My Cheese” struck me as at best a silly, shallow book and at worst a tool for suppressing resistance to management stupidity. It was used at a seminar at work. My response was: “When I find who moved my cheese, I’m going to make them suffer”.

“The Secret” ended up on my DNF pile. I find the fact that this piece of silly fiction made its way onto this list deeply disquieting.

This post made me ask myself what books, if any, had changed my life positively. For me, that means books that changed the mental models I use to analyze the world and prompted me to stand by my own judgement rather than deferring to the current conventional wisdom.

I’ve listed them below. Not surprisingly, given my definition of positive, most of these are speculative fiction.

formative books

As an introvert with low needs for affiliation, “The Memoirs Of A Survivor” resonated with me because it made me confront my reaction of hiding behind the walls of my own imagination while entropy slowly erodes the world outside and whether this amounts to mental illness on my part or  to self-preservation and to what extent I need to connect with others to create enough order and meaning to survive.

I read “The Dispossessed” when I was at college and I was fascinated by the attempt to conceive of a (less-than-perfect but still functioning) anarchist culture that is based around responsibility. I was also impressed by how human and personal it was. At the heart of this book is a recognition of the importance of understanding that actions have consequences that we have to own and the promises are fundamental to change

To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.

Although I’m male, I’ve never really understood the whole male-bonding, brothers in arms thing. It’s never appealed to me but it’s so common that I felt that I perhaps had a kind of emotional colour-blindness that meant I couldn’t see what the men around me saw. “The Gate To The Women’s Country” surprisingly gave me an insight into that world and made me glad for my colour-blindness. It’s also a cool SF story with a strong feminist ethos. It centres around a conflict between a polygamist society run by warriors and a matriarchal dictatorship from which most men are excluded. It’s not perfect but is thought-provoking and it made me wonder about the way the world sets up men to die for others.

“Night Watch” is my favourite  Discworld novel. It’s broadly based around the events of the Paris Commune but set into world of Commander Vimes. Vimes is the man I’d like to be if was better than I am: a compassionate realist who pragmatically and persistently opposes misused power even though he has no expectation of changing anything. This book reminded me of the real dynamics of revolution and how unattractive they are. It is melancholy and brave and desperate and yet it fed my need for hope.

“Fahrenheit 451”serves as a personal warning to me about the risks we take in being different. I think it explains repression perfectly. It also explains the real nature of defiance – controlling what’s in your own head and passing on what you know and what you think to others.

“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” is a sometime clumsily written novel that is given to sentimentality. It’s also a simple and graphic explanation of how unfettered capitalism preys on working people. For me it was a reminder that, no matter how nice they sound, the Tories are always the enemy and that they win because people refuse to see how things really work.

I read “The Lord Of The Flies” when I was the same age as the boys in the book. I was amazed that somebody actually understood how an all-boy society works, in all it ugliness and barbarity. I was Piggy, of course.  I decided then that, given that my situation at my all-boys school was obviously not anomalous, I’d do whatever I could to put myself at a distance not just from the Rogers and the Jacks but the Ralphs as well.

Kurt Vonnegut seems to me to be one of those people who speaks the truth as I see it very plainly and yet is constantly seen as humorous. “Slaughthouse-Five” is an almost chaotic book that deals with death and love and loss and time and what it means to be sane. There are no neat answers. What I took away from it was that bad things are going to happen, I am going to fail myself and others but to stay sane, to be able to love myself and others, I need to grant myself the gift of forgetting the bad things and cherishing the good things.

So what books have positively changed your life and what do you mean by positive?



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