7 Books That Changed How I Think

MikeachimLiterature30 Comments

Seven books that wired my brain differently and made me smarter.

Yesterday, the travel blogging fundraiser Passports with Purpose met its target of $80,000 – and then kept going. Last I heard, they’d overshot by $8,000. And so for everyone who asked me to curry them (keep an eye on your post-Christmas mail, guys) and everyone who donated so generously…

That money will be building 2 libraries for Zambian children, in association with the non-profit literacy organisation Room To Read. All those donations, generated across so many travel blogs and fished out from so many pockets, will be putting books in front of young minds thirsty to learn about the world, filling heads with ideas and hearts with damnfool flights of fancy that might. just. work.Thank you. :)

I started throwing curry around the world because enlibrarying people is a cause that’s important to me – because it touches on the core of who I am. Almost everything I am today, I owe to reading.

Okay. Now, I wrote the above paragraph a few days ago, and immediately rolled my eyes.

Yes, Mike, that’s how to start a post. Revel in your Art. Maybe you can put up a photo of yourself swooning foppishly in a chaise longue, all velvet dressing gown and shinned shoes and a carefully maintained pasty pallor that speaks of an aversion to the Outdoors and its associated Common People. Maybe you can wax about your Great Calling and your desire to end your days tragically and syphilitically fighting for some Noble Cause, filching the Parthenon Marbles to return them to the Greek people before being gunned down in a cloud of wig-powder on the steps of the British Museum…

So I deleted it, and replaced it with something less true.

(Sometimes editing, like second-guessing, can make a mess of what you really meant).

The first adult book I ever read was Lord Of The Rings, and it took me 9 months. It sunk deep. Before that, I read things that taught me the basic mechanics of how to read. After that, I read things that taught me how to think.

Sometimes what I thought was “eh?”. I first fought my way through Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 14, and it might as well have been in Klingon for all the meaning I got from it. But that was part of the fun, the not-quite-understanding. It’s a delicious feeling. It’s why Haruki Murakami is so popular (that and the beautiful, strange, unpredictable way he writes). Reading above my intellectual capacity taught me the value of being baffled. When you’re baffled, your mind is perversely happy. It likes being baffled. Schools think the key to a well-tuned mind is remembering enormous amounts of stuff, but really, you just need a really good baffling on a regular basis when you’re at an impressionable age.

Good books resonate. Even if you only read a good book once, you experience it many times over. It comes back to you in strange moments, whispers in your ear about social justice and power and ingenuity and hope and faith and believing in yourself and in others, and it speaks in a language your heart understands better than your head. Good books are felt.

(Good bookmarks are also felt. Or soft leather. Failing that, try a nice big leaf).

I could go on. And in fact I intend to – just not right now. Instead, here are 7 books to read that sunk so far into me, for all sorts of reasons, in part or in whole, that I’m indistinguishable from them. They’re not necessarily the ones I found most enjoyable or thought-provoking, and I’m not claiming they’re a Top Ten of any kind. But they have influenced me, deeply. And so these books are keys to why I’m here right now, as Me.

(Paperback ; Kindle)

What’s it all about? Oh come on.

Why is it so important to me? My first adult book was an epic journey, and it intoxicated me. I gurgled happily at every page, and the story filled my mind, right to the corners. And perhaps, just perhaps, that’s why I love to travel. If that’s the case – I may end up owing a career to this book. That’s a nice thought.


What’s it all about? The way we argue.

Why is it so important to me? Arguments are important. We need a way to convey differences of opinion. Problem is, most arguments are broken. Either they’re a battle for supremacy or they’re a way of reinforcing already-held opinions. Ever done the thing where you’re not listening to someone because you’re thinking up your next clever retort? Me too. Ever replied to something with the phrase “yes, but…”? After reading this book, I noticed how people do that all the time. “Yes, but…” is usually our fear and insecurity taking over our mouth, closing an open loop in our minds without bothering to explore what’s in it.

“Yes, but…” is how dreams die.

(Paperback ; Kindle)

What’s it all about? A boy ends up in a mythical realm in the body of a full-grown knight.

Why is it so important to me? Because, as is usual with Gene Wolfe’s work, it’s effortless to read and challenging to follow. Wolfe has been described by Neil Gaiman as “the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer” – and hey, Neil Gaiman said that. So why is this book so important to me? Because it feels so utterly new in a genre so hackneyed. I’ve spent 30 years loving a genre that spent most of its time Xeroxing its master work. This is different, partly because it’s Gene Wolfe, but partly because it’s just so damn different. Read it. You’ll see.

(Just be prepared to reread it if you want to even partially understand what the hell’s going on).

(Paperback ; Kindle)

What’s it all about? What, you didn’t even read the title? FAIL.

Why is it so important to me? Because this isn’t just a series of self-help suggestions on being a more effective whatever-it-is-you-do. It covers that territory, yes, and covers it really cleverly. But the real lesson for me here is simpler, and it’s this:

It’s Smart To Be Nice To People.

This book explains, very clearly, why treating other human beings as human beings is the way to become successful at what you do. It clearly lays out arguments that illustrate this, and it understands how business people work in the real world. Forget the short-sighted nonsense you see in The Apprentice – good business is about building relationships, sparking synergy and employing the kind of leadership that inspires people instead of coercing them. (Yes, this is Seth Godin territory). And all those things require niceness in its truest, strongest, toughest, suffer-no-bullshit sense.

It’s one thing to be told that you should be good to other people because, you know, you just should.

It’s another to have it convincingly laid out as a tool for success.

And that’s what this book is for.

(Paperback ; Kindle)

What’s it all about? The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the terrible things humans can do to one another. (That’s for starters).

Why is it so important to me? Because it was the first book where I so thoroughly fell in love with the writing that I couldn’t put it down. I’d fallen into stories before – but in this case, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from what he was doing with the words, the language, the shape and the flow of it all. I went back and reread sections, again and again, poring over them like an English Lit student cramming for exams. I became infatuated with his writing (and I still am).

In fact I had to read everything twice, or else I’d have missed the story – which is devastating.

(Paperback ; Kindle)

What’s it all about? A far-future world that has forgotten its technological skills and lapsed into a futuristic medievalism is faced with a cosmic threat. The main characters get drawn into a race to reactive the “Feersum Endjinn” of the title and save their world.

Why is it so important to me? Not because it’s a brilliantly written piece of scifi (which it is). No – the reason this book really got to me is the ending, which explains what the Feersum Endjinn does in the final word of the whole book. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to end a story.


What’s it all about? Travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban takes a 35-foot boat up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, tracing the course of Captain Vancouver’s famous voyage of 1792 in the Discovery.

Why is it so important to me? I’ve never read anything better in the field of travel writing. It’s also heartbreakingly personal – by journey’s end, he’ll have attended his father’s funeral and witnessed the breakup of his marriage. It’s a soulful, sardonic, prickly and keenly felt piece of writing, and its message is unsettling: you can choose your destination, but you have little control over how you’ll get there.


A massive pile of (mostly) free reading on storytelling.

Images: Ev0luti0nary and eflon.

  • Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels was a big one for me. Having never ridden a motorbike before, the author decides to ride a Triumph 100 around the world in ’73 and ends up spending the next four years on the road. Given the subject matter you’d think it would be full of macho testicle-swinging blather but Simon is surprisingly sensitive and open to the wonder of the world. Check it out.

  • I am so, so proud and inspired by Passports with Purpose!! And I always love a good suggested reading list — and loved reading the personal meanings behind your particular choices!

    • Mikeachim

      Ta, Abby. :)

      For inspired reading lists, I can recommend @brainpicker’s site: http://www.brainpickings.org/

      I don’t know how she reads so damn much, but every book sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve only taken her up on one suggestion – Brené Brown‘s “The Gifts Of Imperfection”, which is a remarkable piece of work (about the power of letting yourself be vulnerable).

  • Every book I have ever read has changed me. To pick just a few…

    But I loved this piece so much I will make a list of sorts and post it for you later.

    • Mikeachim

      I would like to see that. :)

      • Damn..every time I think I have this, somehting else comes up for me. But I am gonna give you what what keeps rising up to the top, of what what influenced me to be a life long inquisitive catholic reader.

        I have such clear and well defined memories of being no more than 9, and walking to the downtown library every Saturday for my next week’s load of books. I wanted to read everything in that huge room. I think I got pretty far!

        1. The Little Engine That Could ( A little Golden Book, not the very first book I read, but the one that may have affected all others)
        2. The BoxCar Children (Gertrude Warner-read it and you will know why.)
        3. The Carpetbaggers ( Harold Robbins-taught me it doesn’t have to be literature to be fun-besides, my dad gave it to me.)
        4. The Prophet ( Kahlil Gilbran-enuf said)
        5. Stranger in A Strange Land (Heinlein)
        6. The Roots of Coicidence (Arthur Koestler)
        7. The Mind Parasites ( Colin Wilson)
        8. The Elements of Style (Strunk & White)

        There’s a pattern there I am sure. All of those books are questioning…

        I am sure that I will wake up in the middle of the night and remember another.

  • Jimbo

    Eagle of the Ninth; The Lantern Bearers; The Dark is Rising; Dune; Winged Victory; Guards! Guards! and as recent oddity: Too Big Too Fail.

    I’ll explain why over that whisky we’re having in Hexham.

    • Mikeachim


      Although….something to do with people in armour? It’s some kind of unwholesome armour fetish. There – you can throw that whisky in my face now.

    • rebeccazg

      dark is rising – they are all great

  • You read Zen at 14? Eek. I tried it at 16, and couldn’t keep going. Tried again at 20, and i disbelief at my failure to progress, passed it to both Dougal and my flatmate, Buddy, who were voracious readers and general consumers of ‘thinky books’. Neither finished it.

    Feersum Endjinn has always been ‘on the list’ because Dougal was reading it at the time I fell for him, and i always thought I’d better. But I once tried an Iain M, and didn’t understand what was going on AT ALL so something has always held me back. despite living with an enormous fan.

    • Mikeachim

      I read it when I was 14, and again a few years later, and again a few years after that. And sometime in my 20s I started to truly understand it. Until then, it was about a bloke on a motorbike.

      I still haven’t got my head round “Lila”, the sequel.

      Iain M. Banks is good at the gonzo space opera side of scifi, and his stories are painted on whopping canvasses. I find you only get a glimpse of the whole canvas around halfway through each book, and until then you have to hang in there as all the plot threads waggle out in apparently unrelated directions. If that was your experience, I sympathise. ;)

      What’s the last book you read that bounced around your brain long after you put it down?

  • Lan

    i haven’t read anything in recent years that has moved me. but in 5th grade i read To Kill a Mockingbird and i was riveted. now that i think about it, the books i read as a kid/teenager are what i compare books i read now to.

  • On my list are Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment. These books are on top of my head when i think of books that moved me and made me think. These books introduced me to the human condition and psyche in their darkest hours.

  • I’m about to finish the Fountainhead and I must say it has marked me. It really leads you to question yourself! Recommended read! :)

  • Amy

    I love thinking about the books that truly transformed my life.
    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott Let me know that there were families out there that were different than mine.

    Illusions by Richard Bach Introduced me to the idea that my experience of life was truly in my own hands.

    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction by JD Salinger gave me a deeper vision of the world and the divine

    On The Road by Jack Kerouac Helped me see that daily life could be pure poetry

    Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman Taught me how to transcend space and time

    The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen Deepened my appreciation for complexity

    Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace Showed me how glorious it can be when a writer leaves it all on the page.

  • rebeccazg

    I love this page, because the books are random and you have the old ‘Lord of the Rings’ edition, that I read as well when I was 10 or 11 :)

    Ones that have influenced me..

    1) The ship who sang – Anne Mccaffrey, because it is beautiful, and about love in all its ways, told against the backdrop of a universe. I don’t know when I read it first, only that it has a heart.

    2) Germinal – Emile Zola, as the first ‘foreign’ book I ever read, the ones that followed ‘Anna Karenina’ and others by Zola all went in, but this was the first, and a revelation. Also I had never really read Dickens, so this was my first social conscience book at 14.

    3) The Reprieve – Jean Paul Sartre. I dont know why I even started reading this, but it was amazing. I dont know about baffling, but it opened up a world lived in other peoples thoughts in a way I’d never experienced before. And a flow of words. Soon after starting you know who is thinking even if it skips directly from one person to another, it feels as if you are swimming within the book itself.

    I cant think of others for now, if I do I will post back, as I know there are others.

    possibly ‘Promethius Rising’ by Robert Anton Wilson :)

  • Shannon

    I love this list. I might even consider trying some space opera now.

    When I was 14 I read 1984 and Brave New World back to back. I have never forgotten them, and reread them all the time: 1984 made me re-examine the idea that ‘love conquers all” and BNW was just the ticket for a kid in a religious household, struggling with the idea of morality.

    The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro still rattles around in my head, too, reminding me to keep an eye on the subtleties of my convictions.

  • Tasha

    A Canticle for Leibowitz. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and…(from Amazon) is widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature — a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future.

    In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.

    It was written by the man who bombed the Monte Cassino abbey in WWII. He also committed suicide…but the book he left behind. Wow.

  • Alicia

    1) 1984-because George Orwell is a genius. It really made me look at society.
    2) Tess of the D’Urbervilles-Hardy is hard to read, but the things he can do with words are phenomenal and in many ways Tess reminded me of myself.
    3) Monique and the Mango Rains-Kristin Holloway; she’s experienced the world, written about it, and broken my heart for the things that are important…like that the best things in life aren’t things
    4) Kafka on the Shore-a Murakami original and I love him for making me think.
    5) To Kill A Mockingbird
    6) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits-Laila Lalami; a story of risking your life in search of a better one.
    there are more, but too many to list.

  • Bill

    1. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlen: This book combine with Atlas Shrugged profoundly influenced my 20’s, in some ways for the negative, but in a w ay that allowed me to grow, so I guess over all in the positive.

    2. Illusions by Richard Bach, as said above, wow.

    3. Illuminatus Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson, read it 5 times.

    4. Enders Game, love it.

    5. Siddartha, by Herman Hesse, taught me about the journey of life.

    6. Cryptonomicon, by Neil Stephenson, a true mind trip.

  • Hank

    Feed, by M.T. Anderson. There’s a plethora of dystopian future novels out there (1984, BNW, Canticle, The Road), but most of them feel at least slightly removed from our current existence. Not so with Feed. While you’re reading, you feel as though “this could happen… in 5 years, 10 years,” and that thought is one of the most terrifying realizations I’ve had in my life.

    Read it. Maybe if enough people did there might be some way to stop it.

    But I don’t really believe that. I really don’t.

  • This was a nice find (thanks Stumble)

    1) A Fine Balance – simply complex, funny, haunting and great
    2) Of Human Bondage – as above but English so not haunting

    I read both in my 20’s

    The Road

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  • Brandon

    1. Chant by David Cross– Not a great book by any means but I grew up in a very religious house, and the stark open violence and sex in it was a huge deal to me. I have reread it 13 or 14 times now.

    2. Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand– I have since moved way to the left of this book and think it is very much mistaken. Still, this one was a temporary life changer. I had little bits of paper bookmarks in around 20 locations in the book just so I could go back and get jazzed up again.

    3. The God Delusion Richard Dawkins– Again in my household this is straight heresy. Heresy never felt so good.

    4. The Invisible Gorilla CHRISTOPHER CHABRIS and DANIEL SIMONS– I have recently started to wonder if free will is just an illusion. This book and You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, have started to make me wonder about it even more.

  • Haley

    I think I love you! I’m just kidding but I really like your thinking. Books really do influence who we become and the way we see things. Have you ever read any Madeleine L’Engle books?

    • Murphy

      A Wrinkle In Time is probably the first book I might term sci-fi that I ever read. I was about 11 years old and the adventure was thrilling and the characters funny and fascinating. I also fell in love with the idea that things are not necessarily as they seem. An important thing to know at any age.

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  • “… syphilitically … .” Well, shit. That’s just perfect.

  • Great list. I really liked your little writeups about the books – very personal. I’m thinking of reading East Of Eden, but perhaps I should read Grapes Of Wrath first?