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16 Great Books to Change the World

I did a book list for Flashlight Worthy recently, all about my choices for books related to Unconventional Living. You can see the original list here, but in this post I’ll expand it a bit to feature books that can help you change the world.

If you’ve never read these books, I recommend you hop over to Amazon or to your local library. Barring that, you can always do what I do and spend two afternoons a week reading at Barnes & Noble. (I buy coffee and consider it “rent.”)

Meaning of Life

It’s hard to start with anything other than Man’s Search for Meaning. That pretty much has it covered. But after that, my favorite book in the world is probably Mountains Beyond Mountains, which tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and the organization he founded. And although it’s not a true autobiography (it’s compiled from various articles, sermons, and letters), The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. is as good as you’d expect it to be.

its-not-how-good-you-are

Personal Development

Wishcraft is one of the best “lifestyle design” books, published years before the industry was popular and still providing some great food for thought. I also like Finding Your Own North Star. Of course, Getting Things Done is the productivity classic, and well worth owning a copy. It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be is all about not letting the bad guys get you down, in advertising or in life.

Finally, if you want to create something (anything), check out The War of Art. Someone much wiser than me once said, “We are all artists, even if we don’t know how to draw.” This book will help you overcome the enemy of resistance and win the war of art – no matter which art form you choose.

ayn-rand-atlas-shrugged

Why Capitalism Is Good

I read three of Ayn Rand’s major books earlier this year, but I read them in backwards chronological order – Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem. Each contains similar ideas, but the writing was less polished in the beginning. If you can only read one, then Atlas Shrugged is the rightful masterpiece.

The book is 900+ pages, 60 pages of which is a single speech by one of the characters towards the end. In a nice application of abridgment, this guy has condensed it to 964 words.

endurance book

Travel

I don’t read a lot of travel books, but once in a while I find an especially good one that I really enjoy. I read Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu after getting back from many of the same places he visited.

If you’re ever stranded off the coast of Antarctica without a ship or means of communication, Endurance will help you see through the situation. Even if that’s not your exact situation, the lessons of Shackleton may help you anyway.

wind-up-bird-chronicle

Fiction

I find that reading literary fiction helps me relax. Whenever I go on a trip, I try to take two novels and two non-fiction books with me. On the last trip, I read Harbor and Then We Came to the End for the novels.

As mentioned before (a few times, probably), I love most of Haruki Murakami’s work. If you want to blend fantasy and reality and head off into the underworld of Japan, Murakami is the master. Someone asked a while back if I had read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is one of his longest books. At the time I hadn’t, but since then I’ve finished it — and I liked it almost as much as his (other) classic, A Wild Sheep Chase.

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By the Way

I read a lot of books, but those have stood out to me more than many of the others. If you’re looking for a good gift for someone this month, consider giving one of these books instead of a gift card.

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The last time we did this, I heard a lot of great recommendations from many of you. What books would you add now?

Image: Chotda

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34 Comments

  • Jess says:

    There’s something about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that did not sit well with me. I’m not sure what it is, but something unsettled me.

    I would also add John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to the list (or to my personal list). The theme of timshel is incredibly empowering and to this day remains one of my favorite books.

    On a more specific level, I would also claim Edward Said’s Orientalism as a phenomenal analysis of colonialism, imperialism, and incomprehension through classification. I am reading this currently not for its impact on Middle East history or study (though I do apply it to that field) but for what it reveals about the nature of religion and taxonomy. It’s an extremely well-written book, and says a lot about perceptions of “us” versus “them.”

  • tulasi-priya says:

    Great line-up of titles. I look forward to investigating new authors. I’m happy to say I’ve read about a third of the books on your list. I especially like The War of Art. There are many books whose influence is undeniable, but there are only a few books that have had the power to radically transform consciousness. As a student and teacher of bhakti yoga, I’d have to say the most life- and world-changing book I’ve ever read is Bhagavad-gita As It Is: http://snurl.com/7otim.

    After all, if my consciousness isn’t right, what’s to stop me from becoming just another tyrant bent on “world domination?”

  • sue bette says:

    I just finished up The Secret Life of Lobsters – it is a fascinating read and a great mix of science, history, culture and sustainability
    http://tinyurl.com/38hvev

  • Lisa L. says:

    Chris,

    I would add to “meaning of life” some books by Albert Camus: “The Myth of Sisyphus” and “Resistance, Rebellion and Death.” Camus waged a life-long war against nihilism and totalitarianism and refused all attempts to be labeled as anything. I find his prose tremendously inspiring.

  • Chris,

    Thanks for your list. I really appreciate how you have shared so many books that I have not read. I’m adding several to my “to read” list from what you share.

    I’ve also written about my top 10 list. They are all different from yours, although I do give an honorable mention to Getting Things Done.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Christy says:

    I’d add what might at first seem an odd book to your list. It’s The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell (http://artofgamedesign.com/). Yes, it’s about designing games (video and other). But it’s also about problem-solving, life design, ways of working and troubleshooting, and general life-applicable coolness. And yes, it’s still about designing games.

    Schell has managed to give a massive life resource in this book, broken down into bite-sized chapters that build on one another through to the end.

    Another cool bonus to this book is that he also developed a set of cards (like a deck of playing cards), each of which contains one of the “lenses” from the book. When you’re stuck, you pick a card, any card, and let it help you destuckify (as Havi – fluentself.com – likes to say).

    So that’s maybe an odd recommendation, but sometimes it requires thinking way outside the box to find new coolness.

  • I would definitely add “The Artist’s Way” or “The Artist’s Way at Work” to the list. Great books about using creativity in daily life.

    I have to admit that I’ve never really gotten Ayn Rand. Her writing just leaves me cold. What is it that you find inspiring in her work, Chris?

  • Love your list, Chris. THE WAR OF ART is on my all-time Top Ten List. I use it as an oracle if I’m stuck.
    This year I found a bunch of new favorites, but the top of my list for 2008 is Bill Strickland’s MAKE THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE. Wonderful storytelling because the story he lives is so inspiring.

  • Jay says:

    Great list. I will have to check out “It is not how good you are”. If you are looking for a alternative to the sometimes complex GTD, Zen Habits has a great, cheap e-book “Zen to Done”.

  • Linnea says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for the list. I’ll second you on The War of Art, Endurance, and Atlas Shrugged. Yours is the second recommendation for Man’s Search for Meaning I’ve seen in two days–must be time to read it.

    -Linnea

  • Great list, I particularly love Ayn Rand…I haven’t started Atlas Shrugged yet, but The Fountainhead is one of my favorite books.

  • Chris says:

    Wow, you guys are so fast. I haven’t even had a chance to check in yet. 🙂

    Re: Ayn Rand – well, she is generally in the love-it-or-hate-it category. Personally I really appreciate her perspective. You don’t have to adopt all of it to receive the benefits. She is also one of those writers whose books are loved by many, hated by many others, and some of both groups have actually read the books.

    I’m glad someone (Jess) mentioned Orientalism. I read that last year and also learned a lot from it. Also, The Artist’s Way and others that have been mentioned here… but you guys are doing fine on your own. Feel free to post more.

  • Glad to see Man’s Search for Meaning at the top of the list! I would add several by Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Time Enough for Love – for the different perspective they offer on relationships and interactions/contributions from men and women, family structure, and marriage. His ideas turned my assumptions upside down and forced me to view the world and myself through new eyes. Have to get a copy the The War of Art – too many recommendations here to pass that up!

    Great list!

  • Jessie says:

    I LOVE Murakami. Wind Up is my favorite.

    One another, barely related strand, what about food choice? Choosing local for the sake of the environment and for health? No better book for that than Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Really enjoyable. Or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (if you can manage her sometimes overbearing judgment of religious folk).

    Buying/checking out War of Art immediately.

    Thanks!

  • Dave says:

    Great List Chris. Thanks for reminding me about Atlas Shrugged. I always meant to read that.

    My fiction list has to include “The Skystone” by Jack Whyte and all the subsequent books in the series. It’s a quasi-historically factual story set in 4th century Britain as the Romans were abandoning the Isles. Basically Arthur’s life as a retired Roman soldier leading up to his reign as the first King of England. Great read if you’re into that sort of thing.

    On the non-fiction list, I just finished reading an interesting book “How To Have Kick-Ass Ideas” by Chris Barez-Brown. Full of practical exercises designed to stimulate creativity and help you create an extraordinary life. Fun and useful.

    Cheers.

  • The Wyman says:

    I will read The War of Art and Mans Search for Meaning. A fast read about doing your own thing and then persuading others to join you is Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

    I also finished Call Me Ted, about Ted Turner of Turner Network. I identified 50 wealth principles he practiced. I bought a copy and marked it all up. He is donating thousands of acres to preserving the environment and raising buffalo. He also donated one Billion dollars to United Nations projects. That makes up for marrying Jane Fonda.

  • Cody says:

    Not sure if there’s an unwritten rule against mentioning it here, but The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss changed my ideas of work and why we have jobs.

  • Chris says:

    @Cody,

    Not to worry, there are no unwritten rules about books. I liked 4HWW.

  • Richard says:

    The best thing Ayn Rand ever wrote was We the Living. The characters in it are must less cardboard standups who spout objectivism. The film “The Passion of Ayn Rand” is also quite good.

    The travel book about Alaska “Coming into the Country” by John Mc Phee is great, as are many of his other books.

    At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay, by John Gimlette is an excellent intro to that country, as well as a great read. It is not at all about inflatable pigs, which are barely mentioned.

    I have read nearly all of James Mitchner’s novels, and have yet to come across one that I did not really like. You learn more from one of his novels than most history books.

    Studs Terkel wrote some excellent books about Americans.

    I really liked Farley Mowat’s books, both the fiction and the non-fiction.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence and Lila by Robert J. Pirsig are great books about quality and ethics, respectively.

  • Chris,

    Got to admit you crack me up! Your statement, “Barring that, you can always do what I do and spend two afternoons a week reading at Barnes & Noble. (I buy coffee and consider it “rent.”)” is disturbing. I am one of your most avid readers since discovering Blogging over the summer, but you send a mixed message with statements like the one I mention. You’re not going to make much money with your own book if all of us decide to “rent” your knowledge for a cup of Starbucks coffee. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t occasionally read a bit in B & N, but I read to determine if I want to BUY the book, not to read the entire thing. Did you ever consider this as “theft?”

    It’s concerning that our country is raising a generation more interested in “gaming the system” than in paying their own way and rewarding others with our $$$’s when they produce something that we want. I guess it’s the same thing with sharing music downloads instead of paying for it. Call me old fashioned, but I will be one of the ones to BUY your book when you get it published and not “rent it.”

  • Chris says:

    @Pizza,

    I do buy a fair amount of books (for example, I own all of the ones I mentioned in this post), but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading for free. If there was, what would be the point of libraries? You could also say the same about used bookstores, eBay, or Half.com, since authors don’t receive any royalties from books sold in secondary markets.

    But… thanks for your promise to buy my book when it comes out. Feel free to check it out in the cafe before deciding if it’s worth the investment. 🙂

  • tulasi-priya says:

    @Pizza

    I can’t speak for Chris, but if I only read what I paid for, I’d be considerably less educated than I am.

    Book stores expect people to browse, and many authors are well aware that people often read their work for free. In addition to money, authors like appreciation, even from those who can’t afford to pay. I daresay the only thing authors want more than to be paid is to be READ. If writers are poor, it’s not because of people “renting” their books at B&N.

    As for your concern for the upcoming generation, this practice is nothing new. Read some Henry Miller if you want classic examples of someone gaming the system.

    “Renting” may not be totally fair, but that doesn’t make it immoral, as long as the book is left in pristine condition. Once while “renting” a book at a cafe table at Borders, I spilled my coffee on it. I bought it (even though I could ill afford it) and never looked at it again.

  • ABSOLUTELY “Man’s Search for Meaning”. I wish it could be required reading in school, but that would – unfortunately – make generations of people hate it.

    You may have finally convinced me to read “Atlas Shrugged”.

  • tulasi-priya says:

    This might be an unusual choice, but I recommend The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune, by Conor O’Clery. Feeney is an example of someone who made a game out of business, made a killing, and managed to remain detached from the results.

  • Zeek says:

    Please, Ayn Rand?? This kind of absolute Libertarian, everyman for themselves nonsense is exactly why we are in the economic mess we are today. Chris I have lost all respect for your economic ideas when you buy into this simplistic extremist gibberish. As is usually the case, the real world is much more nuanced than the orgy of absolute economic self indulgence that Rand fantasized about.
    I am a proud capitalist but also realistic about the need for some kind of sensible regulation; otherwise the environment is toast!

    How could you, especially at this moment be so naive? Ayn Rand espouses an extreme right wing economic theory (Objectivism) that recent events have thoroughly discredited.

    I will take the measured mixed economy that is present in most Western democracies, otherwise we more get tainted food and toys from the Tibet bashing Chinese.

    We need everyone to have equal opportunity to advance to the fullest measure of their talent; not to eliminate prudent regulation of the economy and turn everything over to a class of potentially abusive oligarchs to do everything in their absolute self interest, the rest of society be damned.

    Good accessible Health Care, a clean environment, universal Education and reasonable investment in our shared infrastructure should all be human rights in the 21st century. Rand’s ideals would deny all of these to the vast majority of people in the simplistic supposedly utopian world she envisioned.

  • Reese says:

    Zeek, what part of chris saying “Personally I really appreciate her perspective. You don’t have to adopt all of it to receive the benefits” did you not read?

    I may not be on board at all with Barack Obama, but that doesn’t mean his books don’t hold meaning and perspective that may broaden my view.

    You asked why Chris at this moment could be ‘naive.’ Frankly, I think the problem with the world aren’t the issues you cited, but the fact that so many people feel the need to look at things in absolutes, yourself included. That you cast such a negative judgement on aperson because of a book choice is reflective of a narrow and self-indulged (to borrow your words) point of view.

    Chris, I haven’t read Rand. One of my favorite life changing books was “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.

  • Angell says:

    Hey Chris,

    great list there. I was wondering if you had read “What Color is your Parachute” – I know its traditionally regarded as a job hunters manual, but it has some great sections that deal the big question of what are you meant to do with your life. I don’t know how/if it compares to Wishcraft, not having read that book.

    Any thoughts?

  • Zeek says:

    Reese, thanks for your thoughts. I was responding primarily to the source article which touted Ayn Rand’s dated and simplistic ideology as the best exemplars of “Why Capitalism is Good”. There must be hundreds of books that would make that point in a more realistic and usefully productive manner.
    Capitalism, in my opinion is good but using the most extreme ideologue (Rand) to the exclusion of all others to make that point is counter productive.

    I am not against reading Rand since I have done so myself and so should you, but her work is not a primer to a modern view of “Why Capitalism is Good” or certainly not close to the best example supporting this position.

    Chris’ point that he made in the comments thread is well taken but extraneous to the main idea of books that are the best examples of “unconventional living” which I assume must be sustainable as well as accessible to the largest number of people who wish to adopt that lifestyle. I am sure that somewhere even in “Mein Kampf” there may be some morsel, however tiny, that has some semblance of validity but that does not mean I would recommend it to my friends as a great book on achieving your goals due to the vile and repugnant nature of the overall book. I do not intend to compare Rand to Hitler but only illustrate with an extreme example that certainly almost any book has some prospective that someone can find to respect but that hardly places them in the best of category arena.

    I do not condemn Chris but I do not hold much regard for his recommendations for economic reading or thinking in light of his Ayn Rand fascination. Your point about being an absolutist fits Rand to a “T” but by contrast, I am the one proposing a more balanced and nuanced view of economic thought hardly an “absolute” stance. Again, look at Rand’s writings in view of what they would mean in today’s world. Especially in light of the recent economic melt down and with particular emphasis on what unbridled self interest of some short sighted capitalists (not all capitalist) would mean for the environment. I think most would agree that Rand is not a good model and certainly not the best model, for modern Capitalism.

    By the way, since you brought it up, Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” is excellent and most certainly a better example of modern thinking regarding economic issues (along with many other topics) than Rand. I hope that no one thinks any of this is a personal attack on any one, but is intended solely to provoke thoughtfulness in complicated times. Simplicity is a great lifestyle but simplistic thinking is hardly a virtue in regards to economic theory as Rand’s misguided and dated utopian ideas so clearly illustrate.

  • raj says:

    I have also read Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu, and I am fascinated by it. Kathmandu is a place full of life. It is a beautiful place to visit.

  • Chris says:

    A few quick replies from DFW airport (heading out for the annual goal-setting week, more on Monday) —

    @Zeek,

    Sorry to have disappointed you.

    @Reese,

    Chinua Achebe is great! That should have been on my list. Good call. I also like his other books on corruption.

    @Angell,

    The Parachute book — yes, I’ve read it, or at least skimmed it. It is really in its own category. I prefer some others like Wishcraft (different style, etc.) but I certainly admire the way the parachute guy has done his own thing while ignoring the advice of publishers.

    See you all later!

  • Melissa says:

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for the suggestions! I’m looking forward to reading some of the books on this list. Just got back from a trip myself (one thing I love about traveling is that I actually have time to read while I’m away) and finished The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama. Great advice on how to lead a more fulfilling life. I’m buying a copy for everyone on my Christmas list.

    Melissa

  • mr-crash says:

    I have no idea how I missed this post.
    But I appear to have found it at an oddly appropriate time.

    There’s a few things in here i’m yet to read, but have had screamed at me from many directions for quite some time. The other day, I got a nicely little bonus from work and for the first time in a while I feel the urge to read again (hundreds of psychology research papers a year will turn you off all material). Thank you for sharing with me a good place to start again.

    Many thanks as well, to all who’ve recommended things in the comments. I appreciate all these too 🙂

  • Vinodh says:

    Great list of titles… Have ordered the first few online already!

    My personal favorite is “Veronica decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho.

  • Oh, these are all great. I am also a huge The War of Art fan. Have you read any Mark Helprin? If you like Murakami, you might like him.

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