Books That Changed Me

For any thinking person, there are bound to be a handful of books that had such a powerful impact on them that they have returned to them again and again throughout their lives. I thought it would be interesting to hear what books my readers would identify for them, so I’ll start by reposting something I wrote a few years ago on the subject at my old blog, with a few updates.

A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing by HL Mencken. I recently had to reorder a new copy of this book as the old one was so worn out from reading and rereading. It’s a book that I still return to again and again and continue to find new insight in. Many of the things he wrote about America nearly a century ago are as fresh and accurate today as the day he wrote them. Mencken may well be the single finest wordsmith this country has ever produced. Like Christopher Hitchens, he was capable of producing a staggering amount of work in a very short time frame, each sentence absolutely perfect, with not a word out of place.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. The book that shaped my political views more than any other. The book that gave me the single axiomatic core of my entire view of the world, both morally and politically — the notion that we must protect for others the very liberty that we cherish for ourselves and that it is profoundly immoral to do otherwise. If this heathen felt the need to have an equivalent to the Bible, it would be this book.

Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff. Another book I have returned to again and again — and another book that has helped form the very core of my political beliefs. I was lucky enough to have Nat on my radio show twice, once talking about the Bill of Rights and once talking about jazz. At the end of the second show, he called me his “soul brother.” Nat has his heresies that leave me baffled (he is anti-choice on abortion, for example), but few have done as much to the meaning of the Bill of Rights to life over the last six decades plus.

These first three books all have something very much in common, of course, and it is from them that I derive my overriding passion for human liberty. When I first read this passage from Mencken, I felt as though I had finally found the perfect expression of my own views:

What do I primarily believe in, as a Puritan believes in Hell? I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty, I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense – liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and the tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him – any more than a Christian pretends to be just to the Devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world – of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major-general in the Army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.

This simple and childlike faith in the freedom and dignity of man – here, perhaps, stated with undue rhetoric – should be obvious, I should think, to every critic above the mental backwardness of a Federal judge. Nevertheless, very few of them, anatomizing my books, have ever showed any sign of detecting it…

For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins. Since reading this book, I have met Dawkins several times, shared amiable conversation and had a dispute or two. But this book remains as one of the best books ever written on the subject of evolution and common descent.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. One of the best popular treatments of science and rational thinking ever written. And even before that, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science had a similar influence on me.

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi. I read this not long after seeing Randi on the Tonight Show exposing Peter Popoff as a fraud. It was already several years old at the time, but this was my first real introduction to skepticism.

Okay, your turn.

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  • Reginald Selkirk

    My Pet Goat.

  • dingojack

    What no Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Penthouse Forum?

    🙂 Dingo

  • erichoug

    I would add

    Why People Believe Weird Things


    Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do

    I seem to think that Shermer has turned out to be some kind of asshole but can’t remember the details. In any case, it is an interesting look at why people love to be lied to. And the latter book has been co-opted by the libertard party but it still has some excellent essays on consensual crimes.

  • erichoug

    @Dingo Jack

    Catcher in the Rye = BLEAGH! The most singularly over-rated book in human history. But at least we can agree on the other two you recommend.

  • flex

    Without additional comment as these probably don’t need it;


    Extra-ordinary Popular delusions and the Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay

    Psychology of Intelligence Analysis – Richards J. Heuer, Jr

    The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell

    Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus – Martin Gardner

    Seven Nights – Jorge Luis Borges


    Lyonesse Trilogy – Jack Vance

    Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny

    Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner

    The Penal Colony – Franz Kafka

    Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

    These are in no particular order.

  • Dunc

    Catcher in the Rye = BLEAGH! The most singularly over-rated book in human history. But at least we can agree on the other two you recommend.

    Second most singularly over-rated book (OK, novel) in human history, IMHO, behind the absolutely dreadful On The Road

  • scienceavenger

    The Transandental Temptation by Paul Kurtz

    Guns Germs and Steel by Jarod Diamond

  • dingojack

    To be fair, when I was told recently that it had been banned in America due to it’s sex scenes, my reaction was ‘what sex scenes?’ Guess I wasn’t paying that close attention.


  • erichoug

    OOH, The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. If you haven’t read A Distant Mirror you are missing out. Vastly better than any historical fiction that I have ever read.

  • roggg

    Slaughterhouse-five. By a mile. Vonnegut’s perspective seemed to match my own in so many ways, and his whit and delivery are unmatched. My first exposure to the term humanism was in connection to Vonnegut. This book still runs me through a gamut of emotions.

    In non-fiction, I would say “Godel, Escher, Bach”. Accessible and thought provoking exploration of cognition and determinism. After reading GEB, I read everything I could find on the subject, and still do when time allows.

  • erichoug


    The Catcher in the Rye is one of many books that come up regularly in the banned and challenged books list. You can see a list here: link

    I typically read any book that someone has tried to ban. They are often, but not always the best books out there. Plus, I love pissing off the idiots that try to censor people.

  • wscott

    Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) – Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson


    The Better Angels Of Our Natures – Steven Pinker


    And I’ll second Guns Germs & Steel!

  • erichoug


    Slaughter house 5 is actually my least favorite Vonnegut book. I read nearly everything else he had years ago but waited to read that one until I was nearly out. His last book, that was published just after his death, was actually pretty good. Even when you consider that it was cobbled together from notes that his heirs found on his desk. Anything after that one, don’t bother.

  • TGAP Dad

    Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan.

    The Faith Healers by James Randi (the first definitive takedown of James van Praagh)

  • Rando

    Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H P Lovecraft. Call of Cthulhu was the first time I ever read about cults: how they behave, what drives their ideals, and how easy it was to be driven to violence because of it. Call of Cthulhu made me examine my own beliefs and it made me reconsider how I accepted claims made by other “cults” that existed in my life.

  • savagemutt

    I’ll second Flim Flam which I read several times.

    My introduction to Vonnegut was Galapagos which may not be his best work but was miles away from the pedestrian sci-fi and fantasy I’d been reading before then.

    Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 was part of my earlier existence as a politics junkie and it also made me a fan of George McGovern who I was entirely unfamiliar with at the time. Oh, and it also made me want to be a problem-drinker, chain-smoking journalist. I at least achieved two of the three for awhile.

  • TGAP Dad

    Oh yeah, one more: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

  • Catch-22, Brave New World, and Amusing Ourselves to Death all seem to resonate with me.

  • A third on Gun Germs and Steel as well. It is absolutely brilliant.

  • Cat’s Cradle was my intro to Vonnegut. I went looking for Slaughterhouse Five but they were out. However, I find myself returning time and again to Sirens of Titan as my favorite. I am sure I am in the minority.

    Non-fiction, I second Demon-Haunted World. For me, Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker was the book that pushed me over the line from religious skeptic/agnostic to atheist. Or rather, made me realize I already was one. It covered so many different bases and arguments, which was exactly what I needed at that point in my life.

  • The Communist Manifesto, by you-know-who, which gave me a useful framework on which to organize most of my subsequent knowledge of history, politics and economics. Mao’s Little Red Book seemed edgy and ground-breaking at the time, but it didn’t end up being all that relevant after I finished reading it.

    Some of Isaac Asimov’s writings were a good way to learn about the sciences when I was in my teens.

    Aside from that, though, it’s hard to think of which of the many books I’ve read actually “changed” me. Not saying they haven’t, just that maybe the changes were so deep it’s hard to pick them out. The Chronicles of Narnia were memorable and enjoyable when I was 13, but I can’t think of how they changed me — they didn’t make me less of an atheist, but they may have given me a view of Christianity that other sources didn’t.

    I guess “Neuromancer” was a good hint that our future wasn’t going to be as rosy for all as we’d thought in the ’60s.

    “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins got me started toward paganism. That and a few hits of LSD around that time…

  • fyreflye

    Doctor Dolittle’s Island, by Hugh Lofting. The first book I read through all by myself.

    Slan, by A E Van Vogt. Confirmed me as a life long science fiction fan.

    Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. The book that taught me what being a serious person meant.

    Man For Himself, by Erich Fromm. The book that showed me how and why to live without religion or resort to authoritarian domination.

    King Solomon’s Ring, by Konrad Lorenz. The book that showed me how to do science.

    The Books of Charles Fort, by Charles Fort. The volume that showed me that the world is far weirder than I had thought.

  • jcarr

    The God Delusion by Dawkins (naturally)

    The Psychology of Religion by Hood, Hill, & Spilka

    The Bible, by numerous unknown authors

    Alive, by Piers Paul Read

    Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin

    The Odyssey, by Homer

    The Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner

    Animal Farm, by George Orwell

    As you can see, I’m drawn to religion/mythology and the hows and whys of what people think.

  • To be fair, when I was told recently that it had been banned in America due to it’s sex scenes, my reaction was ‘what sex scenes?’ Guess I wasn’t paying that close attention.

    There was one bit where Holden had invited a hooker to his hotel room, but nothing happened (then he got beat up by her pimp). There was another bit where he was sleeping on some middle-aged guy’s sofa and woke up to find said guy patting his head or something, and freaked out because he thought (rightly or not, I don’t remember) the guy was trying to get in his pants. Other than that, no sex scenes at all that I can remember.

    Then again, we’re talking about the kind of people who aren’t really known for reading ANY of the books they claim to hate…

  • Johnny Vector

    The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: SOLVED by Lawrence David Kusche. The Bermuda Triangle was big business when I was a young teen, and I was basically on the “maybe [by which I really meant ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’] there is something out there.” Then I read this book, which, by simple research that anyone with access to a library could do, completely demolished every. single. story. about the Bermuda Triangle. That ship that “vanished without a trace”? Might have been related to the huge oil slick seen the next day, along with the bits of floating debris with the ship’s name on it. The rescue plane that was “never heard from again”? Could conceivably be explained by the enormous explosion and subsequent debris field reported in the local paper.

    It was my first exposure to both the realization that the people selling the Bermuda Triangle were willing to just make shit up, and that, like Feynman “fixing radios by thinking“, you could solve these kind of woo-woo “mysteries” by the simple expedient of going to the library and looking things up.

  • cottonnero

    I think Guns, Germs, and Steel is a flawed book, but it’s still the one that came to mind for me.

    And let me second Under the Banner of Heaven. I’m astonished at how neutral Krakauer manages to be, and how mundane the evil he describes is; how those murders flow naturally from the sort of religious behaviour that tends to get considered harmless.

  • Then there’s “Gods from Outer Space,” by Von Daniken, which I believed long enough to realize that religious folktales might just be (at best) exaggerations or misunderstandings of things that actually happened.

  • Calculus, by George Thomas

    University Physics , David Halliday and Robert Resnick

    The Sotweed Factor, John Barth

    The Bible, various authors

  • Reginald Selkirk

    erichoug #3: Why People Believe Weird Things

    I seem to think that Shermer has turned out to be some kind of asshole but can’t remember the details.

    Check Comment #40 in this thread for my Shermer anecdote.

  • slc1

    Martin Gardner: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

  • 1984

  • Nepenthe

    Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, Morning in the Burned House, all by Margaret Atwood

    To a lesser extent, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir.

    Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer

  • Also, “About Face” (Hackworth) and “The Best and Brightest” (Halberstam)

    When I was a kid I read Joinville and Villehardoin’s chronicles of the crusades; that was probably what made me a political cynic.

  • Nepenthe “Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer”

    “Son,” said Modusoperandi, “you’ve got issues.”

  • sailor1031

    Asgard and the Norse heroes; first time I questioned christianity at age eight

    The wind in the Willows; always a truly delightful read even for adults

    Cat’s Cradle; more non-christianity

    Mein Kampf; eye-opening historical revisionism; awful warning not to believe what people say. Plus it made me realize that Hitler had a lot (I mean a LOT) of help.

  • theguy

    2001: A Space Odyssey, mainly because it got me interested in “hard” science-fiction, whereas before my only interest in sci-fi was Star Wars.

  • suttkus

    I couldn’t think of a book that had really changed me. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of the books listed above, but I came to most of them at a time when they reaffirmed what I believed rather than shook my beliefs to their core. There had to be a book, though, right?

    And then I remembered.

    I grew up in a massively conservative household. Like most people, I accepted the prejudices and philosophies I grew up with readily. All of that lasted… until the Internet.

    The Internet let me encounter people with different beliefs in a forum that pushed communication and understanding. It expanded my horizons Places like this have made me a better, more thoughtful person.

    Thank you.

  • Nepenthe


    If it hadn’t been for that book, I would probably be working on a Ph.D. in the humanities right now. Saved my life, it did.

    … on the other hand, it’s a fair cop.

  • Without a doubt, “Catch-22.” Reading it for the first time at 13 it introduced — well, not really introduced but made me aware that they were already well developed in me — the ideas of religious skepticism and whether the “adults” who were telling all of us what to do and think knew what the hell they were talking about.

    “All the King’s Men” for the pure power of language and description that Penn Warren could cram into a sentence and for paving the way to Faulkner. And “Slaughterhouse Five” because it was the polor opposite style of writing and best antiwar statement I’ve ever run across.

    “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because it removed the scales from my eyes at a young age about the institutionalized racism that was the norm in the small Southern town I grew up in with a passage that to this day gives me goosebumps.

    And as a kid but something I now detest reading, “The Catcher in the Rye.” As a teenager I discovered that there seemed to be a division between those who were enchanted by that book and those who embraced “Atlas Shrugged.” After hearing the praises of the latter I got a copy and could only read a short bit before realizing it was utter dreck, purely for the writing itself that was not aided in any way by the philosophy espoused.

  • Michael Heath

    The Bible (For the better, I remain impressed with the idea of grace rather than mere justice).

    Mark Twain’s books also taught me that critical thinking was good and possible even in pre-modern times.

    Late teens/early-twenties Slaughterhouse-Five and all other Kurt Vonnegut books. It’s good to think and react to observations rather than retreat into ideology which demands you submit to the hierarchy.

    Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins. One can be happy being free, the personal pursuit of happiness is a feature of humanity, not a bug. Happiness was not blind submission to hierarchy.

    Freshman year in college (I was 25): introduction to macroeconomics along with an intro to human anthropology. Growing up in a rural cloistered anti-intellectual Christianist environment – think Sarah Palin, I was shocked to learn how rigorous the sciences were and how much information they’d garnered.

    Later university years – Plato’s Dialogues. Plato (Socrates) revealed there was difference between raw intelligence and emotional maturity and wisdom. (As did some of the biblical teachings attributed to Jesus). I had a new objective beyond becoming better informed and learning to think critically, but instead to also aspire to be an emotionally mature person (which is why I gag so much on PZ’s comment threads and that crowd when they spew here.)

    John Updike’s Rabbit series of books (my second introduction to non-conservative religious people, the first was many of my Michigan State U. profs and classmates). Those books also helped me learn to accept and celebrate my being of this world (Many fundies spent a lot of energy arguing to not be of this world, though not as much since the 1980s as they’ve become politically powerful and now seek to control worldly institutions.)

    A couple of books on climate change I’ve recently read or am currently reading. I’ll report back later on those.

  • The Bible, various authors

    Don’t forget the various editors, cult leaders, and politicians who were probably just as instrumental in “writing” that book as the actual writers (those writers whose works were chosen by the editors, cult leaders and politicians, that is).

    Oh, and +1 to “2001,” which did turn me on to hard SF.

    Also “Tao Te Ching” and some bits of Confucius.

    And some of CJ Cherryh’s books for hard POLITICAL SF.

  • erichoug


    If you have not read “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” also by Margaret Atwood, you should IMMEDIATELY get both of them.

    They are both set in the same universe and surround nearly the same events. I read them in reverse order and it didn’t really affect anything. It even seemed like it was better that way.

  • Oh, yeah, “Norse Gods and Heroes,” which I read in grade-school, and which first turned me on to other religions — religions whose folktales and legends were MUCH cooler than the ones in the Bible.

  • Raging Bee,

    Don’t forget the various editors, cult leaders, and politicians who were probably just as instrumental in “writing” that book as the actual writers (those writers whose works were chosen by the editors, cult leaders and politicians, that is).

    No one else felt obligated to editorialize about anyone else’s selections. Except you. You must be so proud.

  • Nepenthe


    I’ve read all her novels, the good ones at least twice. As has been discussed, I have issues.

    A new Flood novel is coming out later this year focusing on MaddAdam!

  • Actually, heddle, the editorializing starts at #4.

  • In no particular order:

    A Treatise on Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume

    Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

    Gateway, Frederick Pohl

    The Land of Oz and Lost Princess of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

    A Legend of Wolf Song, George Stone

    The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins

    Some book on subatomic particles I checked out of the library when I was 12, which changed my view of the world and myself.

    The collected works of Isaac Asimov, both fiction and non-fiction.

  • kantalope


    Have a hate relationship as I go through Stewart’s calculus….Is Calculus, by George Thomas – because it does a better job at teaching calculus or just because calculus changed your life?

  • otrame

    I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou) and the Autobiography of Malcolm X.

    The Flim Flam Man

    And not a book but the episode of Nova that debunked the Bermuda Triangle. That single 1 hour taught me how and why to be a skeptic.

  • kantalope,

    I was a mediocre student/trouble-maker in high school until senior year when I took calculus (using Thomas’s book) and Physics (using Halliday and Resnick.) It did change my life– I suddenly understood the beauty of math and science. (The beauty of math struck me hard while doing “related rate” problems–those were so cool.) To this day, having used a bazillion text books since then, I still think Thomas’s calculus (that edition–it, like other text books, has since become a bloated monstrosity) is, IMO, the best textbook ever written.

  • brucegee1962

    Fiction: Little, Big by John Crowley

    The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers


    Flatlandby E.A. Abbott, for imagining beyond our frame of reference,

    and the Planiverse by A.K. Dewdney, ditto

  • greg1466

    I’ll add a ‘me too’ to several already mentioned. In particular, “Demon Haunted World” and ” Guns, Germs and Steel”. I think the top of my list though is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series.

  • drizzt

    Let’s see… The God Delusion, 1st book I read about atheism (and I was already an atheist) ; 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm, I do love dystopias… and the Bible of course, hard to read at 15 but it opened my eyes and turned me from meh/who cares to an atheist 🙂

  • thisisaturingtest

    @#47, nigelTheBold- Gateway. Yes! The whole series, really, but it really took off for me with Beyond The Blue Event Horizon.

    Also, in fiction, A Canticle For Leibowitz. A Stephen King book that really resonated with me was Hearts In Atlantis.

    In non-fiction, I second the Barbara Tuchman books, especially A Distant Mirror, The Proud Tower, The March Of Folly, and The Guns Of August. (Well, that’s damn near all of them, isn’t it?) Also David McCullough’s The Great Bridge and The Patch Between the Seas. Robert Caro’s LBJ series. Robert Massie’s Dreadnought.

    If you’re a civil war buff, you need William Frassanito’s series on photography at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Grant’s 1864 campaign in Virginia- these give a clearer picture of the progresses of those battles than anything else I’ve seen.

    One book that shaped my thinking was one that, paradoxically, was trying for an effect the opposite of what was achieved. I was, in the late 70’s, pretty convinced that the JFK assassination was a conspiracy of some sort- until I read David Lifton’s Best Evidence. That one book, by itself, made me realize the silly lengths to which conspiracy-theorists will go, the hairs they’ll split, the shadows they’ll see as realities, than anything else, and made me see the absurdities of not only conspiracy-theory “thinking,” but also of organized religion; the “thought” processes are almost the same.

  • mikeym

    +1 for Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The Beanie Babies mania of the mid-1990s followed almost exactly Mackay’s description of the Dutch tulip mania.

    The Warfare of Science With Theology – Andrew D. White (founder of Cornell University). I read this one and the Mackay book after reading a magazine feature about Steve Allen that mentioned that the two books were on his desk.

    Atheism: the Case against God – George H. Smith. First book that really laid out the reasons for nonbelief for me.

    All three books are available free online.

  • thisisaturingtest: does Lifton’s book discuss the possibility of a Mafia conspiracy to kill JFK? That’s the only JFK conspiracy theory I find plausible.

  • erichoug


    A new Flood novel is coming out later this year focusing on MaddAdam

    You just made my day. Even though Maddadam is not one of my favorite characters.

  • JustaTech

    The Source by James A Michener. Showed me that a lot of history is cyclic, (same song, same verse).

    The Handmaid’s Tale taught me that I really could be too young to understand what I was reading. It was ten times more frightening the second time through.

  • hypatiasdaughter

    #40 Michael Heath

    Later university years – Plato’s Dialogues. Plato (Socrates) revealed there was difference between raw intelligence and emotional maturity and wisdom. (As did some of the biblical teachings attributed to Jesus). I had a new objective beyond becoming better informed and learning to think critically, but instead to also aspire to be an emotionally mature person (which is why I gag so much on PZ’s comment threads and that crowd when they spew here.)

    Perhaps you should reread them. I think you could use a refresher.

  • Captain Mike


    – Stranger in a Strange Land

    – Always Coming Home


    – The Authoritarians

    – How the Irish Saved Civilization

    – The Ethical Slut

  • Aaron

    My first dose of disbelief, although unorganized, came from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. I loved that big yellow book. After I got that book as a present I moved on to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology which much later in life I was amused to pick up again for college.

    Sadly, Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game turned me on to Sci Fi, and I still love the book, but the author is another matter entirely.

    Although commonly read in highschool and college, Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart were very important in opening my eyes to other cultures.

    Robin McKinley’s Blue Sword, Ursulua K Leguinn’s Left hand of Darkness, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaidens Tale have all been influential on my thoughts about sexism. (and other issues as we scale up in challenging material and my age).

    Man there are so many more.

  • peterh

    Many excellent titles above; I’ve even read & been influenced by some of them! 🙂

    For someone to have a fairly decent self-generated world view, hand them any of the all-too-numerous banned book lists; that’s where one will find much of the world’s great writings.

    Quick glance at my own suggestions (the ones I think of quickly):

    The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

    Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

    The Dancing Wu-Li Masters – Gary Zukav

    Dune – Frank Herbert

    Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

    A Sand County Almanac – Aldo Leopold

    The Immense Journey – Loren Eiseley

    The Ascent of Man – Jacob Bronowski

    Tomato Can Chronicles – Edmund Ware Smith

  • peterh

    Yep – ought to have included The Source.

  • reddiaperbaby1942

    When I was a kid (back in the early fifties) my mother mother gave me Paul de Kruif’s The Microbe Hunters — a highly idealized and romanticized picture of the scientific mind; when I was a teenager, i read Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers. Later I became a historian of science, partly due to these two books (along with many others, including the Bronowski book mentioned by the previous poster).

    In fiction, I remember as a young woman being overwhelmed by Doris Lessing’s work, in particular The Golden Notebook when it first came out. As soon as I finished it I started to read it all over again from the beginning, and then once again. (Its cyclical structure lends itself to this lind of reading.) And I reread it often over the next twenty years. Strangely, when I went back to it a few years ago (in my sixties) it didn’t seem so impressive; partly I suppose because so many of the ideas that were radical in Lessing’s time are now more or less everyday reality — partly due to the work of women like Lessing.

    And I suppose I should confess, with some embarrassment, to a great love for the Lord of the Rings and the world created by Tolkien. We all need some vices!

    Most importantly, I’ve spent my life reading books; and I’ve been fortunate, as a scholar, to have had a job where they actually paid me for doing so. Now that I’m retired I can read more broadly than before: I very much recommend Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a novel dealing with life as a Jew in the Soviet Union under Stalin and with the battle of Stalingrad; it’s a very powerful work, with an excellent translation into English by Robert Chandler. Also Tony Judt’s Postwar; or for that matter pretty much anything by Judt.

    I’m getting carried away here, I gotta stop.

  • “Dune?” YAWWWN. The only thing I can say about “Dune” is that it’s the OPEC story, told almost exactly ten years before it happened in real life. I’m amazed I finished the thing, given that the Muad-Dib-propagandist history textbook that’s quoted at the beginning of each chapter tells you how it ends from page 1 onward. Actually, I really don’t remember whether I finished that book or not.

    Frank Herbert is a lot like Heinlein: really interesting ideas, lousy writing.

  • And I suppose I should confess, with some embarrassment, to a great love for the Lord of the Rings and the world created by Tolkien.

    Yeah, +1 to that. I read the trilogy twice from ages 12-14. Not sure if it “changed” me, but it sure did give me an appreciation for good epic storytelling — and prevented me wasting any more time on any of his mediocre imitators. I think what “changed” me most about Tolkein was when I raved about it to my mom, and she just got this disapproving look on her face and started complaining about stories where 100%-good characters did noble no-holds-barred battle with 100%-evil characters, and how real life was NEVER like that.

  • naturalcynic

    Demon Haunted World

    and almost anything else by Sagan

    A Sand County Almanac – the best book I read as an undergrad

    Guns, Germs & Steel

    Stranger in a Strange Land

    Childhood’s End

    Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle

    Earth Abides by George Stewart

  • jufulu

    The were two books that I read in high school (1969) that shaped the way I looked at the world. One was Paul Ehrlich’s Population bomb (flawed though it was) and a book on the tidal basin interface between land and sea (I don’t remember the author or title). Those two books bought understanding that people can have significant effects on the world and led me to try to leave as few footprints as possible.

  • lancifer

    Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat” – It revealed that reading could be a world of chaotic fun.

    Joseph’s Heller’s “Catch-22,” – Helped form my distrust of authority and hierarchical organizations.

    Robert A. Heinlein, “Stranger in a Strange Land” – As a perpetual “new kid” I could relate to the main character.

    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” – Pure genius.

    Richard P. Feynman, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character – Gave me insights into the life of a brilliant scientist. Showed the human side of being a scientist.

    Richard P. Feynman, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics I, II and III” – Straight forward, yet rigorous explanation of the basic concepts of Physics. I learned more from these books than from nearly all of my undergraduate physics courses.

  • lancifer


    I see we have a few in common. I also loved Childhood’s End. I read it in one day as a kid, couldn’t put it down.

  • erichoug

    It’s interesting to see this list. I think most of the books listed here are on my bookshelf or were at one point.

    It might be interesting to see what our religious/conservative friends read as I suspect it would be very different from this list. Although, I cannot be sure.

  • Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, plus others (A Canticle For Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, Cat’s Cradle) that have already been mentioned.


    Raging Bee “‘Dune?’ YAWWWN. The only thing I can say about ‘Dune’ is that it’s the OPEC story, told almost exactly ten years before it happened in real life. I’m amazed I finished the thing, given that the Muad-Dib-propagandist history textbook that’s quoted at the beginning of each chapter tells you how it ends from page 1 onward. Actually, I really don’t remember whether I finished that book or not. Frank Herbert is a lot like Heinlein: really interesting ideas, lousy writing.”

    I know that the internet is where hyperbole comes from, but you’re the wrongest person who has ever been wrong. If anything, the Platonic ideal of “wrong” should swap realms with you. And furthermore…

  • slc1

    Re Sir Lancelot @ #69

    I wonder what Feynman would think of Sir Lancelot’s climate change denial? I suspect not much.

  • kermit.

    As a teenager immersed in the Southern Baptist milieu, 1960 & early 70s:

    All science fiction I read.

    All the pop science I read.

    Joseph Campbell (Myths aren’t necessarily stupid?)

    The True Believer – Eric Hoffer

    For Your Own Good – Alice Miller

    Sun and Steel – Yukio Mishima

    An Introduction to Zen Buddhism – D. T. Suzuki

    The Wisdom of Insecurity & The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

    There were others I can’t think of right now, and many other very, very good ones in the 30-some years since, but they have served largely to illuminate or clarify the way I see the world, without really changing me so much. Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”, for example, is terrific, and one of my favorites, but I can’t say that it has influenced me nor how I understand evolution.

  • slc1

    Re Raging Bee @ #56

    Mafia, shmafia. Everybody knows that Castro ordered the hit on Kennedy.

  • typecaster

    Most of mine have been mentioned at one point or another. I’d add Bertrand Russel’s Why I’m Not a Christian as an introduction to skepticism, and his Western Philosophy as a survey course in all the different ways someone can look at the world.

    All of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections, of course, and The Mismeasure of Man.

    Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (edited version) for a visceral appreciation of evil. Don’t read it late at night in an empty house.

    Godel, Escher, Bach has been mentioned before, but should be mentioned again. [smug] My copy is signed. [/smug] Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also deserves another callout.

    I grew up on science fiction, from Asimov to Zelazny. I just listened to Canticle for Leibowicz on my iPod – it gains from being read, with all that sonorous Latin.

    And I’m sure I’m forgetting some important works.

  • Doug Little

    Add a +1 for “Catch 22”

    The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene

    The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes

    Sex, Lies and Politics – Larry Flynt.

    Among The Thugs – Bill Buford

    The Complete Poems – John Keats

    Guinness Book Of World Records

    The C Programming Language – Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie

    Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software – Ralph Johnson, John Vlissides, Richard Helm, Erich Gamma

  • Scott Hanley

    I’m going to give a shout-out to James P. Ronda’s Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, even though it’s not something I return to time and again. When I started grad school I began encountering a sloppy cultural relativism that reveled in the unfamiliarity and inability to know about other cultures. Ronda’s book did a terrific job of persuading me that, while L&C misunderstood much that they saw because they couldn’t interpret unfamiliar cultures; but at the same time, the more rational and comprehensible they began to seem.

    More important than anything I ever read, though, were the several instructors who taught me to critique the views I agreed with and to be fair to those I disliked. There’s nothing I’ve ever learned more valuable than that.

  • kantalope

    Heddle – what edition or approximate year for Thomas? Hopefully amazon with have one!


  • mildlymagnificent

    Feminism – was also my introduction to philosophy 30+ years ago. Most of which I now don’t bother with, but there were a few necessary readings which stuck. John Stuart Mill being one. On Liberty is still there on the bookshelf somewhere.

    Stand-outs from the last 20-30 years.

    The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry by Janet Radcliffe Richards Terrific stuff.

    Other non-fiction.

    The Face of Battle by John Keegan

    The Myth of Ability by John Mighton

    The Subversive Family: An Alternative history of Love and Marriage by Ferdinand Mount (Anyone with a lingering affection for christianity as a “civilising” influence should read the blistering attack in chapter 1 as well as the comments in the introduction.)

    Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. (A man whose politics are deplorable IMNSHO but who takes a really interesting look at several things as well as the history of the South in USA. All sorts of cultures from a particular view of why some groups – traders, the “middleman” – are regarded as outsiders, and treated badly in consequence.)


    Nothing much different from those above. Though I must say The Left Hand of Darkness followed a couple of years later by the Little Fuzzy series lets sci fi pull together some ideas on sexual identity/relationships and political power over other kinds of people without being directly challenging to a person’s sense of self. Didn’t stop people from calling H Beam Piper a dangerous radical though.

  • Michael Heath

    JustaTech writes:

    The Source by James A Michener. Showed me that a lot of history is cyclic, (same song, same verse).

    Michener’s historical novels about Afghanistan, Hawaii, Colorado, and Chesapeake Bay were the transitional books that moved me from the fiction I was constantly reading since I can remember to non-fiction books that I’ve almost exclusively read since my late-thirties. Particularly biographies, history, and science. Not that we can’t learn from great novelists.

    Michener’s repeated and varied illustrations of how place impacts culture was also a great prelude to reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. Which I also liked quite a bit though I found the promotion of Jared Diamond’s partisan style of liberal politics off-putting in the context of this book, which Prof. Diamond amplifies at his speaking engagements.

  • Michael Heath

    The single book I would recommend a bright teen-ager with an aptitude for science read would be Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body [my review]. Not because of it’s argument about the evidence of evolution, it’s a peripheral topic, but instead how it combines adventure, discovery (Tiktaalik Rosae), sacrifice, and celebration of the scientific process. Celebration by application and results, not by rhetoric.

    A more recent story that could recruit young people to science is James B. McClintock’s Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land.

  • Michael Heath

    I have hopes that twenty years from now, such threads would contain Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.

    This book didn’t change me. I developed my positions on reality many years ago. But I would think this powerful argument would have an incredible and beneficial impact on young people. It also achieves a rare double, a passionate yet still incredibly cogent argument. Few can pull off both at the same time; Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan being two others I think can pull this off.

    I like Richard Dawkins as a teacher but I find him to be a sloppy thinker where I prefer more airtight arguments like those by Sam Harris. However Christina’s takes a good argument beyond Harris’ because she’s able to engage readers in a way that I think makes them more committed to being right.

  • Michael Heath

    Another book that changed me, here in middle life, is Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

    For me Harris clarified why I already thought of the practice of morality as an objective exercise. His argument we can apply objective moral standards by way of science resonated greatly with me. It also provides a way forward for non-theist societies to create a productive framework to debate public policy on issues revolving around morality, e.g., corporal punishment by parents or authority figures towards their children (which is one of Harris’ first case studies).

    Previous to this book I read Society without God. Probably the most interesting finding to emerge in this book was that those western influenced societies that were no longer religious and largely non-theist and even atheist were still referencing and depending on the remnants of holy dogma to create their current framework for what is moral and immoral. An example would be the golden rule on how to treat others; that’s because of the existence of the golden rule (circular thinking).

    Atheists relying on religious teaching and thinking on how to behave and promote how others should behave; I found this very ironic and eye-opening. Nones have a ways to go before they’re standing on their own with a moral framework. Harris provides a way forward.

  • Michael Heath

    Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science put me on the path in the mid-2000s to leave the Republican party; which I did in 2008*; as did Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.

    I got really enthusiastic about listening and collecting music by way of the first volume of The Rolling Stone Record Guide. I bought the next two as well, both were much better due to better organization; but the first one was a book I read countless times, as did the guys I lived with in my late-teens to late-twenties. Endless discussions about music and life skimming through the pages in the presence of others. Very boring for those who didn’t care. This book really expanded my musical horizons though I still don’t get Captain Beefheart’s Troutmask Replica.

    An introductory textbook on environmental science when I took the class in 1986. It was very prescient on AGW; soon after got off the ground I was reading nearly every climate change article they published, because of the findings and predictions reported in that book which directed my attention on this critical matter.

    James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren; it reveals the nihilistic insanity of denialism; as imperfect as that book is. Hansen further committed me to speaking out.

    *I was never a loyal GOP voter. I never voted straight ticket and frequently voted for Democrats and independents, like presidential candidate John Anderson in 1980 and always being a loyal Carl Levin voter (U.S. Senator from MI-D). However I predominately voted for Republicans at the local level except for judges where I always voted for the liberals. Now I rarely do given the insanity of locals as well, like their antipathy towards Agenda 21.

  • beezlebubby

    Peter McWilliams, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do”

  • Johnny Au Gratin

    Rather than choose among the many books that have had a profound effect on me, I am going to reflect on the origin of my love for books. My parents were devout Catholics who conceived a child every eighteen months whether they needed it or not. After the first five, they must have had a falling out because it was nearly twelve years before I came along. I was followed eighteen months later by a sister and then they gave up breeding for good.

    As a result of this arrangement by the time I was learning to read my older siblings were all in high school or college and I would occupy myself by reading their textbooks and the novels they were assigned in English classes. I would often quote them passages and ask them to explain things i didn’t understand. Sometimes they would oblige me. My oldest sister in particular seemed to think of me as a sort of pet and started teaching me to read her books when I was three or four years old. I think this changed me and did more to foster my fascination with reading and learning than any particular book.

  • conway

    I was a devout Catholic until I read a book that turned me atheist. You guessed it… The Bible.

  • aluchko

    Hmm, only book I can think of off hand is Atlas Shrugged, it taught me both what the stringent anti-tax folks were talking about and to remember that any philosophy on how to live needs to be grounded in human nature.

    It didn’t convince me to embrace objectivism in the slightest but I felt I learned a lot more by reading a book I disagreed with than one to which I’d mostly be nodding along.

  • fwtbc

    Seconding wscott @ #12

    “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” is awesome and should be read by everyone.

  • mildlymagnificent

    Uh oh. One I missed. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Most people know Silent Spring, fewer have actually read it.

    But The Sea Around Us is one of those rare, glorious books with a mix of impeccable natural history written by an experienced scientist who is also a truly gifted writer. Poetic.

  • khms

    Most of what changed me seems to have either not been a book, or only changed me a little bit at a time. I can only think of one book that changed me enough to remember:

    Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

    It made me realize how much of our morals are pretty much arbitrary. And when (quite a bit later) I read some people on Usenet going on about “victim-less crime”, that pretty much cemented my ideas about how we should decide what rules to have.

    That book was also the first English-language, untranslated, SF book I read in my life. It also changed my ideas about what was important wrt. learning English. (Can you spell “cultural references”?)

  • thisisaturingtest

    @#56, Raging Bee- it’s been a long while since I read the book, but, IIRC, no, the Mafia is not mentioned (hell, Oswald is only mentioned once or twice). The thing is, Lifton doesn’t (in this book) seem to have any over-arching, coherent theory at all- in his zeal to focus on the excruciating minutiae of damaged caskets, body bags, and who saw what at Bethesda, the closest he ever comes to saying “whodunit” (again, as I recall) is some vague reference to shadowy government figures; this book is a case study in someone zooming in so tightly on grains of sand that he never sees the beach.

  • slc1

    Re raging bee @ #56 & thisisaturnigntest @ #93

    IMHO, the biggest contributor to the various controversies over the Kennedy assassination was the late Arlen Specter, who was a consultant to the Warren Commission. Specter was the author of the one bullet hypothesis, which is the starting point for most of the conspiracy theories involving multiple gunman. The late New York City chief medical examiner, Milton Helpern, opined that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the neck could have been fired as much as a second and a half earlier then assumed by the Warren Commission, in the person of the aforementioned Specter. The importance of this opinion is that it negates the necessity of the one bullet hypothesis, as it now opens up a time interval of 3 1/2 seconds between the Kennedy wound and the Connolly wound, instead of the Warren Commission’s 2 second interval, which means that Oswald could have fired two shots, the first one hitting Kennedy in the neck and the second one hitting Connally in the back. No one bullet hypothesis, no multiple gunman hypothesis. Experiments with the rifle used by Oswald showed that an interval of a minimum of 2 1/2 sec is required to fire off two shots, meaning that Specter’s theory, based on the 2 second interval, requires either one bullet causing both wounds or more then one gunman.

  • kantalope,

    It was this edition

  • kantalope

    Heddle – done and done thanks — $4 well spent i’m sure

    could have gone for the 4 penny version but thought I would splurge.

  • Eric O

    I’m currently reading Better Angels of our Nature and finding it fascinating. Not sure if I’d call it life-changing, but it’s too soon to tell. I didn’t think Guns, Germs, and Steel was life-changing at the time either, but in hindsight, it sparked an interest in anthropology and there’s probably a direct causal relation between me reading it and me becoming an archaeologist.

    Another life-changing book was Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves. I read it when I was a child and it made me quite skeptical of religion from an early age. It seemed obvious to me that there really wasn’t much of a difference between the stories from that book and the stories from the Bible (except the Bible was a much dryer read).