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Books that Changed Me

by NeutralObserver Fri Mar 24th, 2006 at 04:43:27 PM EST

The smooth British broadcaster and intellectual pundit, Melvyn Bragg is publishing a new book in April, Twelve Books that Changed the World.

As the blurb at Amazon  says:

In his fascinating new book accompanying the "ITV" series, Melvyn Bragg presents a vivid reminder of the book as agent of social, political and personal revolution. "Twelve Books that Changed the World" presents a rich variety of human endeavour and a great diversity of characters. Here are famous books by Darwin, Newton and Shakespeare - but we also discover the stories behind some less well-known works, such as Marie Stopes' "Married Love", the original radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" - and even the rules to an obscure ball game that became the most popular sport in the world..

It is deliberately aimed at not just books in English, but British books.

Yes this is another diary about books.

I heard about Bragg's book this evening on a BBC Radio 4 broadcast, A Point of View, where another pundit and former MP Brian Walden, went through books that changed him. He didn't have twelve, but they included:

  • Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, Los Cuatros Jinetes del Apocalipsis or The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  • Thea von Harbou, Metropolis
  • P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Golo Mann, Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts or The History of Germany since 1789

The last one got me thinking, because when I came to Germany in 1984 I knew very little about German history from a German point of view. So I read this very book and it certainly made me more aware of the complexities of the subject.

So what other books have changed me? I will list only three.

One has got to be my first ever science-fiction book, that I bought at the tender age of 11, Fred Hoyle's A for Andromeda. This started a life-long interest in the genre and I suppose about 400 books and 25 years of the magazine Analog confirm me as a sci-fi fan.

The second was a text book at university, Donald E Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming. Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms, because, of all the books I read for my degree in Computer Science, it was the only one I ever referred to again and is probably the reason I am a software nerd rather than a hardware geek.

The third is actually two books, or volumes, Jonathan Sumption's Trial by Battle and Trial by Fire, the story of The Hundred Years War between England and France. It brought home to me that the world has not changed much, wars were started then as now out of arrogance, xenophobia, selfishness and sheer bloody mindedness, but above all for profit.

My choices are odd. No great philosophers; no great novels; and no poetry, but these books have changed my life.

So what books have changed you?

(Cross posted at DailyKos)

A topic I'm always interested in.

Perhaps we can wiki this along with this and Colman's book reviews for future reference.

Assuming anyone comments!

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri Mar 24th, 2006 at 07:19:17 PM EST
That would be a good idea. A book wiki would be tremendous.
by northsylvania on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 10:47:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Robert M. Pirsig  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  Pirsig showed me the way out of a very bad place I had wandered into.  It would be an exaggeration to say that this book saved my life, but it would not be much of an exaggeration.

Frank Herbert  Dune  I think this book will come to be seen as one of the defining books of my generation.  To anyone who has read Dune, the headlines of today out of the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular seem like a particularly bad case of deja vu.

Daniel Quinn  Ishmael  Quinn's book has been panned as "warmed over Malthus", but it was much more than that to me.  It is a look at the development of civilization from a decidedly different perspective.  I know I will never again look on "civilization" or "progress" in quite the same way.

Lao Tzu  Tao te Ching  I think we are all taoists at some level.  Reading Lao Tzu was like coming home.

Alan Watts  The Way of Zen  This delightful silly man made zen accessible in  a way no one else has to my knowledge.

Thomas Merton  Thoughts In Solitude  I was deeply moved by his accounts of the contemplative life.  His thoughts on work as a kind of prayer put some things in perspective for me.

Teilhard de Chardin  The Phenomenon of Man  In the 1930s when Europe was preparing to tear itself and the world apart and the future looked very bleak indeed, he foresaw the global village that we all share today.  In an age when the telephone and the telegraph were state of the art, he envisioned something very like the internet, fully half a century before anything like it was possible.  Sometimes the only reason I do not despair is the knowledge that de Chardin wrote in a time when the future of humankind was every bit as much in doubt as it is today and yet he found reasons for profound optimism.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Fri Mar 24th, 2006 at 11:34:47 PM EST
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a good book for me too.

Walden, By Henry Thoreau probably had the most profound effect on my life.  I'm in my 50's now and the book has meant something different to me at every stage since late adolescence and always been positive.

The Red Car, A youngsters book, by an author I don't remember kindled a love for sports cars that still remains.

The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein.  I took the Fellowship home to read one day in the late 60's from high school, started reading and didn't go back to school till that book was done then got the next two and did the same.  This was the first book that ever left me disconsolate when it was over, like a friend had moved away.

Look Homeward, Angel/Of Time and The River, Thomas Wolfe.  Really just one book- One mad, wild wonderful book that took great chances and raged and sought and bared the soul of the author with great honesty, humor and compassion.  Not for those that want their reading in little chunks.

Leaves of Grass, Whitman.  We are still waiting for our 2nd poet here.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson.  Funniest book I ever read.

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck.  What is wrong in America is nothing new.

1984, Orwell. For the obvious reasons.  And they don't just apply to the US.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson

by NearlyNormal on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 10:44:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is hard to pick only a few, isn't it?  I can plot the course of my life by the books and authors that have influenced me.

I almost included Walden myself.  I think all of us in our hearts wish we could live on Walden Pond.  And I did not include 1984 or Animal Farm only because I take those as givens.  I think you can almost divide the world into those who have read Orwell and those who have not.

I have never been able to read Grapes of Wrath.  It is a little too close to home.  I am an Okie.  Although my immediate family managed to hold onto their land right through the worst of the Dust Bowl, other family members, not to mention many friends and neighbors, did not.  For most Oklahomans of that generation, whether they left the state or not, Steinbeck's work is not really fiction.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 11:28:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is hard to pick only a few, isn't it?  I can plot the course of my life by the books and authors that have influenced me.

Yeah.  Which is one of the reasons I haven't actually answered the question yet.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 12:37:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I highly recommend In Dubious Battle by Steinbeck, also.

I agree about Orwell readers and those that lack the vaccination.  Soon as I quit posting above I started feeling guilty for not including Down and Out in Paris and London.

Emile, Rousseau one of the great books on education and a good perspective to have when you kids are small.

Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins, when it all still looked not just possible, but likely.


"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson

by NearlyNormal on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 11:29:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I will support you 100 % about Daniel Quinn and Ishmael. I read it last year but I plan to read it again very soon. I have been told, though, that I need to read Queen's other books to really appreciate his .... genius (if I can call it so).

And the weird thing about this book is that you can't just retell it to others and ask them to understand the issues.

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 12:05:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
sorry, I just saw I misspelled the name ... my mind is somewhere else when I am hungry :)

Of course it is Quinn...

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think." - BUDDHA

by JulyMorning (july_jdb(at)yahoo(dot)com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 01:07:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would recommend at least My Ishmael and The Story of B.  MI is a sequel to Ishmael while TSoB is another storyline altogether.  All three are dismal fiction, contrived to provide Quinn with a pulpit from which to expound a point of view.  That said, it is Quinn's worldview that I recommend, not his literary talent.

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 04:17:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know exactly what you mean by saying that you can't retell "Ishmael" and expect other people to understand it.  The important thing, however, is that after reading the book you get the feeling that you have understood so much, that you have gotten some answers.

By the way, several days ago I read a book which made me feel in a very similar way to how I felt after reading "Ishmael." It is called "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom.

by ccarc on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 05:04:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here are some books that changed me:

1.Confucius- Confucian Analects
2.Machiavelli- The Prince
3.Immanuel Kant- Critique of the pure reason (not that I understood a lot, but what I got was enough to change me)
4. Plutarch's "Moralia"

There are many more books not only in the field of philosophy that intrigue me, but these are very substantial as a source of abstract and practical wisdom.

I'm not ugly,but my beauty is a total creation.Hegel

by Chris on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 11:34:27 AM EST
Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling was the book that gave me my first taste of economics.

Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace and A Tract on Monetary Reform are two of my favorites, and The General Theory of Employment, Interest & Money changed everything for me.  (I had initially wanted to go into campaign management, but that book sent me straight onto the path to academic economics.)

David E. Fisher's A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain.  Wonderful book.

Bill Maher's When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden was fantastic.

Milton Friedman's Capitalism & Freedom was an important one.

Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About America? was a great read, though he's the only conservative on my list.  (Friedman is really a libertarian.)

Ross Gelbspan's Boiling Point.

Joe Trippi's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? (along with, obviously, Fahrenheit 9/11 in the movie category).

I'd put Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story up, too, but I haven't finished it yet.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 11:53:40 AM EST
Books have so shaped me, I can't say how books have changed me.

I got hooked on SF at about the same age, but for me it was Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart. I still enjoy the genre (Vernor Vinge is brilliant) but my tastes have broadened some since then.

I've come to appreciate Anthony Trollope to the point where I now prefer his work of Dicken's (big change for me). The last 3 Palliser novels are particular favorites of mine.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is a fascinating history of the science, the people and the politics of the 20th Century's most significant engineering project.

I finally got around to reading Günter Grass's Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) for the first time last year, and I definitely regret waiting.

I'd better stop now or I'll never finish this post...

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 12:15:38 PM EST
My tastes have also broadened outside SF, I think they must be only about one third of the total.

There are other books that have had an effect on me, but they haven't changed my direction.

I too prefer Trollope over Dickens.

Then there is my taste in easy reading books when travelling. I like detective stories, Chandler, Simenon, Freeling et al, but they have never changed my life.

Eats cheroots and leaves.

by NeutralObserver on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 01:15:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
SF, the laboratory of really creative thought in the 50's and 60's.  Especially all the wonderful anthologies of the short stories.  Exactly, I hadn't even given it its due.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson
by NearlyNormal on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 11:33:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo was the first book I read, which showed me that there is a lot more to reading than pleasure and enjoyment. It reveals so many aspects of the human soul, at one point of time I started identifying myself with one of the characters. I read it at least once a year, because to me, this book is a moral catharsis.

The other one is "East of Eden" by Stainbeck.

I'm reading "Dr. Zhivago" by Pasternak now, and my feelings are still mixed, but I would gladly love to have a discussion about it as soon as I finish it.

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde

by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 12:32:00 PM EST
Your comment made me smile because what you wrote about "Les Miserables" is pretty much how I feel about this book. I have read a lot of wonderful books which have influenced me in different ways but "Les Miserables" is the one which stands out in my mind because it was the first one to show me the power of a great book. Before reading "Les Miserables" I didn't really realize how powerful a book can be. That was an experience which opened a whole new world to me.
by ccarc on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 04:46:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

You know, the world of literature is infinite and I know there are so many great books and authors I will never have the chance to read, and it is such a magic to have the opportunity to become part of such a strong book's world. For me it has always been an amazing talent to be able to put so many aspects of human mind on paper, without missing even a detail.

God, I think I need to read that book again:)

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde

by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 05:17:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Väinö Linna: Täällä Pohjantähden alla. Woke up my interest in history and in politics. I still reread it every winter.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath. Made me angry; the anger is still there.

Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Made me interested in psychology, neuropsychology, and science in general.

There are probably more, but those three are at least among the books that have changed me most.

You have a normal feeling for a moment, then it passes. --More--

by tzt (tzt) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 02:15:36 PM EST
Bilbo the Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. The first book I ever read in English, in full, which convinced me that I could actually read in English

The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy. The book that showed me that I could learn lots more about the world from fiction than non fiction, even from junk literature.

Dune, by Frank Herbert.  The book that showed me that I could learn lots more about politics and economics from science fiction than from anywhere else.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 04:20:29 PM EST
I've never even seen the movie of "The Hunt for Red October".  I, honestly, had no idea it was, first, a book.  I read Bilbo the Hobbit in either high school or middle school (can't remember).  I enjoyed it.  Isn't Tolkien also the author of The Lord of the Rings series?  I think Bilbo actually appears in the movie trilogy and, therefore, probably in the books.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 04:25:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, Bilbo the Hobbit is pretty much the prelude to the Lord of the Rings.
Red October is truly a great thriller, and it put Tom Clancy on the map.

Some of his following books are truly interesting, if only for the sheer knowledge of the US military machine and the functioning of the conservative US mind (read "Executive Orders" to read simultaneously an ode to the rule of law that makes America great, and an explanation of why when America breaks the rules, it is for the good of the planet...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 03:13:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hehe, I have to agree that Clancy is a prime propagandist for USian hyperpower, but he can write well (in a trashy kind of way.)

He also plowed an airliner into Congress in one of his books well before 9/11. He structured it around different events, but it annoyed me that people would claim that no-one could have conceived of doing that before the 9/11 terrorists did.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 04:56:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just couldn't get excited about the entire "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy.  A friend made us watch all three one night, which obviously meant staying up for about ten hours, and it was just a bit much for me.  I have to draw the line at Harry Potter, even if the director slaughtered the fifth book in movie form.  Such a shame that moviegoers can't pay attention for more than two and a half hours, because it could've been a hell of a movie.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 12:17:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is The Comment for me, ladies and gentlemen.

Tolkien's books (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion - that's the order in which I read them) have made me a better man. No, seriously. Don't laugh! (Smirks are also inappropriate.) There's so much more behind these books than just fantasy, epic history, or beautiful worlds however masterfully created.

I see them as being about justice, heroism, passion, love, and, above all, hope. Hope in the goodness of our nature. Hope in the existence of a Purpose. Hope in the power of forgiveness. And so much more...

I know Tolkien was a Christian apologist. And I am aware there are obvious parallels between his and the Christian mythologies. Nevertheless, this is something to be experienced by the most unyielding of agnostics or atheists, in my opinion.

Also (just as a sidenote), the fact that in the creation of the Elvish languages Tolkien drew from Finnish primarily, explains to me why the Elves are so ... well ... solemnly sad to a degree of light depression. :) (People tended to like the Elvish languages before The Film... Now they like Legolas, for some reason.)

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey

by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 07:09:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, first read to me as a set of bedtime stories by my mother, taught me that life never goes as planned.
Lord of the Rings, which began as a bedtime treat, but ended with me reading from cover to cover all at one go when I had the mumps. I know the Shire wasn't modeled on Somerset, but it could have been.
Kit Reed's "Automatic Tiger", which is a short story about love and support, rather than a novel; but had me crying my eyes out when I read it under the desk in French class. The teacher was bemused.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and
Life of Pi because nothing is ever as it seems.
by northsylvania on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 10:44:32 AM EST
funny how much steinbeck is represented here...

the first book that made me cry: 'the red pony' by steinbeck, circa 7 years old

later: 'gormenghast' by lawrence sterne, (don't laugh!)

'steppenwolf' by herman hesse.(saved my psyche from annihalation)

' the politics of experience' by ronald laing... ditto

'the sot-weed factor' by john barth... awesome

'body and soul' by frank herbert - the best novel about life and music i ever reread and reread.

'shipping news' by annie proulx, unbelievably great writing

margaret attwood is another mistress of the craft, imo.

there, got some of the main ones!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sun Mar 26th, 2006 at 01:43:41 PM EST

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