Books that changed my life

January 28, 2020

Don't want to read the entire article? Here's the list of life-changing books:

To be fair, most highly-acclaimed books are somewhat of a rollercoaster ride. They manipulate you to feel a lot for a short time. I've been on hundreds of rides. Sometimes, just sometimes, one of these rides will change you, but it doesn't mean it will change me. Everyone is different, so take all of my recommendations with a grain of salt.

I tried my best to sort these books in order from easiest to hardest.

George Orwell's 1984

1984 was the first book ever that had a significant impact on me.

I read a few pages, and I got hooked up instantly. The love affair between Winston Smith and Julia was exactly what I needed at that time. The dystopian reality was terrifying. Orwell's writing and mastery of words were something that I haven’t experienced before. I admired how straight to the point, yet profound the book was.

So what 1984 is about? I think there is a powerful practical message in 1984. That we should fight the state before it becomes completely totalitarian. In the fictional world of the book, there is no hope of tearing the system from inside anymore. The resistance is a joke.

1984’s society was controlled by the state, but, ultimately, the people—brainwashed and compliant—were the ones who kept the state in power.

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How 1984 relates to today? When reading 1984, I felt like it was an obvious reflection on what Soviet Russia would become. But as I got older I realized I was wrong. It was actually a cautionary tale for what the West might become.

Think about today's China. They created their own version of the Internet and the ability to shut out any outside voices or curate their own version of Wikipedia.

The people won't rebel anymore because they don't have a comparison with the outside world thanks to constant propaganda and censorship. Unless the state runs out of steam, only outside forces can put it down now. Fortunately, as history shows, every empire falls one day.

I think the book is more relevant now than ever because many of the specific tactics described are technologically and economically viable today.

Cameras are ubiquitous, and people are openly accepting them in their lives.

The ability to monitor people's social media posts is the last step before you start scanning people's brains for thought crimes. While in the US, we have freedom of speech, many other countries don't, and it's theoretically possible to be prosecuted for things you say that's against the state.

George Orwell

We might be going in the direction of a 1984-kind-of-world, or not, but we should know what to do when Big Brother starts snooping too much in our lives.

1984 made me realize that good books do exist, and I started reading them like crazy.

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"Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood."
George Orwell, 1984

J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

What's The Catcher in the Rye about? It’s a book about a real phony if there ever was one. Holden struggles with nihilism, alienation, and the general disillusionment with our boring capitalist reality.

It was edgy at the time because the writing revealed innermost thoughts that many other books would leave out from their character's narrative. It helped give the original hipsters and beatniks a leaping point for the introspective thoughts just like On The Road did.

I think the best place to start the book is with Salinger himself. While WWII's long-term effects on him can only be speculated upon, it is an absolute fact that he was emotionally scarred by the war. Shortly after Germany was defeated, he was treated in a hospital for CRS (Combat Stress Reaction).

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Many people have drawn a parallel between soldiers having trouble re-entering society after the war, and Holden having trouble re-entering society after expulsion.

I don't bring this up to push any sort of narrative of Holden as symbolizing soldiers. I think he represents what he is, a teenager. I bring it up because this, as well as the fact that Salinger writes an entire book from Holden's perspective, makes me doubt that his work was intended to be solely a criticism of Holden. As someone told me once: "Salinger seems very sympathetic to his loser."

I think that the book is about how we look at people with mental problems. We often think that, for some reason, we can ignore the pain of people who are unpleasant to be around.

Did Salinger write Holden to be likeable? More often than not, we are supposed to laugh at him as opposed to with him. The reality is that Holden's brother is dead, he has witnessed a friend die, and he has possibly been the victim of sexual abuse.

Holden is undoubtedly an ass, and as you say, cannot seem to reconcile his behavior with his trauma. Is it surprising? Should he possess unusual mental strength and resistance? He's a teenager.

The book was banned for a long time in the US for multiple reasons. It features vulgar language, sexual scenes, excessive violence, and general moral reltivity, which the state isn't fond of.

The Catcher in the Rye to me is a test: can you see beyond the superficial unpleasantries and locate the beautiful character study of a teenager trapped between multiples axes of trauma (sexual abuse, unreasonable parental expectations, sibling death, friend death, stunted sexual development)? If not, you're likely to find the novel shallow and annoying.

I've never before identified with a book as strongly as I did with this one. I was a fragile white kid from an upper-middle-class neighborhood who saw a psychologist on Wednesdays and an extra-curricular maths/algorithmics tutor on Fridays. I haven't realized why I was trying so hard to be successful even though it wasn't making me happy. Holden's idea of happiness helped me understand how to reshape myself into my own person.

I tore down most of my preconceived ideas that were there just to cover up for the darkness that had to be dealt with. Not much was left, but it was a good start. Exceptional writing can transform you.

For what it's worth, it's one of my favorite books, especially when I first read it in my teens.

J. D. Salinger

Yes, I can identify with Holden, and yes, I know he can come across as spoiled and annoying. But those feelings, his worldview, his feeling of utter detachment, bewilderment and being intimidated by the outside world when at the same time being disappointed in adulthood: I know that feeling. I knew it then, and I know it now.

I guess that means that there's a spoiled, lonely, and somewhat whiny brat somewhere inside me, and... it's fine.

This book is a book you read and hate, then you remember it. You feel it. Experience it. In a very strange way, it changes your view on growing up. Years later, I think it is one of the best-written coming-of-age books.

Millennials hate this book because in the millennial culture, complaining and being angsty is stigmatized. It's a book about being dissatisfied and unhappy and restless. It's not cool to be dissatisfied. Apparently - you're supposed to be positive and not be a hater.

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"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though."
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha

I first read Siddhartha when I was still a teenager. I related to how the protagonist tried to find his own path despite what the society had ready for him.

Everybody is looking for the answer to the big question. We want to discover our individual raison d'etre — a reason to live. Nobody wants to find themselves on their deathbed to realize that they wasted their lives. So what does the book teach us about all of this?

Siddhartha is a good entry to Hesse. He can really resonate with the reader. Everyone can identify with the shit Siddhartha goes through, and the insights they gain can be applied by anyone.

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What is Siddhartha about? Siddhartha is a very loose retelling of the story of Buddha -- ie, a wealthy, fortunate boy gives up his life of privilege and tries a series of different ways of living in search of some sort of enlightenment. He follows a few spiritual teachers, tries having no spirituality and focusing on business, and ultimately finds a sort of peace after experiencing many different approaches to searching for it. It's not actually the story of Buddha (in fact, Buddha shows up in it early on, as Siddhartha follows him for a while), but it follows a similar path.

The book explores different paths as he pursues a lifelong quest for enlightenment. Most of these paths were not the correct ones. He's making a ton of mistakes upon which he's building a foundation of true wisdom.

Hermann Hesse

Western thought offers a more fragmented approach to understanding the world. Everything is always good or evil, black or white. Eastern thought is more holistic and involved.

Because of this book, I realized that most of my problems come from external expectations. Instead of finding my own truth, I was fixated on social constructs that were forced upon me by other people.

When it comes to writing, Siddhartha is probably the worst book on this list. Hesse always seemed like a glorified Coehlo to me, but because of it, I became interested in Eastern philosophies, which opened me up to a multitude of new possibilities.

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"Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else... Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it."
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

What is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about? It's neither about Zen nor motorcycles.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for a class and many times thereafter. We were asked to replace the word "motorcycle" with whatever we do like programming, hiking, or whatever to make it relate to our own experience as we read.

The takeaway is that you and everyone else knows care and quality when they see it. People will sense your care and quality in the work you do after you leave this class. It was a fun way to take in the book's message - one of them anyway.

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I read it without any expectations and I enjoyed it. I didn't read it because it was touted as a philosophical treaty. I read it because it was recommended to me at a time when I was at a crossroads in my life.

The cover depicts a crescent wrench with leaves growing out of it. The whole intersection of the natural and the mechanical that the book deals with so well.

You'll also notice, no doubt, that the wrench is essentially "sprouting" from those leaves. It grows from them, making a single organism as is, to a not unremarkable extent, what Pirsig's sort of working at throughout the book.

Robert M. Pirsig and his motorcycle

If you really like learning about philosophers without resorting to dry academic books, I highly recommend Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. It's about a high school girl going from ancient greek philosophy (pre-socratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristoteles) to renesance (Decarts), enlightenment (Kant, Hobbs) to early modern (Nietsche, Freud).

It's explained in a simple to understand way. Some topics I found a bit boring but usually its a chapter for every topic and none of the chapters are long, so it easy to keep reading.

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“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being

What is The Unbearable Lightness of Being about? Sex and relationships are the core areas of interest here. How does one person decide to devote their life to another? What if the other person has a different concept of love? How different people display emotions using sex?

The book also challenges Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence — the idea that everything happens in cycles, which was a perfect metaphorical background for his ubermensch. Hence the lightness of being.

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As I get older, the novel is getting closer to my heart, and I tend to agree more with Kundera's views. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is meant to be read several times. Preferably with a few years gap between readings. It's one of these books that will set your life in perspective.

I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and The Joke. While I absolutely love and agree with most things said about them, I find it odd and slightly disjointing that no one ever mentions the political nature inherent within each.

Milan Kundera

Wonderful narratives about human relationships as they are, they are also such magnificent allusions, allegories, and blatant references to the political situation the author encountered under an oppressive regime.

There's a decent movie starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis.

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"Anyone whose goal is something higher must expect someday to suffer Vertigo. What is Vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves"
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert Camus' The Stranger

In January 1955, Camus said, "I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: In our society, any man who does not weep at his mother's funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death."

I read The Stranger for the first time about a year after my mother's funeral. It was the first time I understood that it's okay not to feel what I'm supposed to feel. And that sometimes it's better to pretend.

I strongly related to the protagonist's general disconnection from society and alienation. If you're not crying when you're supposed to cry, you get strange looks from friends and family. It turns out, we all unknowingly agreed with many rules of the society, and we have to abide by them. If you don't play by these rules, you will be condemned.

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What is The Stranger about? The book is supposed to show the absurdity of social constructs — and specifically, how little they matter. The protagonist represents one of the few real human beings in the story, a Nietzschean ubermensch, so to say, who always takes things at their face value and never lies. Telling the truth all the time doesn't end well in our society.

The novel is about fitting in and the predictable consequences of not doing so. If your natural reaction to the death of your mother doesn't seem normal, then you are "The Other," and people strangers to one another. Take that very human condition to its logical extreme, and you have the novel. The irony is that so many readers can't get past considering the narrator as someone who "isn't one of us."

Mersault is the only sane person in a crazy society. We are not supposed to take him literally. Nobody is extreme to this extent all the time. Camus used his persona to make a statement.

Everybody that interacts with Mersault judges him for not behaving in an expected way. Still, the rules of human conduct they are following are often based on prejudice, ignorance, and vanity.

Albert Camus

Interestingly, Charles Bukowski once said about Camus: "Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he…wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and french fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned."

The world is absurd. There are no rewards for being good. In the end, death can come at any time for anyone. There's no reason behind anything either. You're here, you live, and you die. After you die, likely nobody will remember you. And does it really matter if they do remember you?

After all, you've become nothing. There is nothing in this world that cares for you. There's no big power to give you a hug and make things better. To me, Mersault has always represented this aspect of the absurd. He is the absurd.

But Earth would be a rather sad planet if everyone just lived out their days obeying rules, doing what they are told to, always with a straight face, busy, working like ants until they perish.

The Cure made a really cool song as an homage to The Stranger:

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"I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world."
Albert Camus, The Stranger

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

Another book that struck a chord with me was about the infinite absurdity of our existence and the necessity to find a way to cope with that.

So what is Slaughterhouse-Five about? It was one of the original depictions of the Dresden bombings during World War 2. The raids were a huge atrocity committed by the allies. Dresden was a city with little strategic significance. When Americans realized their crimes, not much information about these events was released to the public. Vonnegut wrote the book because he wanted to show an honest depiction of what went on during the war.

It is an anti-war book with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder that is dealt with in a pretty novel way. PTSD as a term was not invented in his time, so it is partly inaccurate to say that's what the book is 'about', but the psychological ramifications that surround the condition still existed in his time.

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I don't know where he drew the Sci-Fi material, but I do know that most of the war aspect was, in fact, nonfiction. Seeing that firebombing was no doubt a profoundly disturbing, life-changing experience for him that he tried to process through his writing.

Kurt Vonnegut

There's also the story of him encountering an Air Force general in real life who asks if Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, and when Vonnegut tells him, yes, the general says, "you might as well write an anti-glacier book." Vonnegut pointed this fact out to explicitly say it was an anti-war book, and if so, we can fairly infer that something drove him to write it.

It's one of the greatest books in the world because Kurt Vonnegut created a coherent piece, full of wit, that also has an incredibly strong message that did, in some ways, change the world.

And so it goes... It's about living. It's about dying. It's about the perpetual cycle of violence which keeps happening throughout our history. It tells a tale of sticking to your values in the face of atrocities and discovering purpose somewhere in that overwhelming sadness. We can never undo our mistakes. Its powerful anti-war message has formed me into who I am today.

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"There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Sun Tzu's The Art of War

So what is The Art of War about? People say it's not about war at all and that it can be applied to any area of life. It's a book about military strategy written by a general. The intended audience of the work were Chinese military commanders during a bloody period of history.

Sun Tzu never expected or intended it to be read by 21st century Western civilians while they sip their soy chai lattes and ponder on the meaning of life. But we do. Honestly, this book is amazing and its ideas can be applied to almost all situations in life.

All warfare can be reduced to a stalemate through ethical and verifiable expressions of the truth. You can disempower anyone who's trying to war with you by ensuring your peers and potential witnesses/spectators have access to the truth.

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People who rely on deception have massive, glaring weaknesses where they'd lie — the truth can be used to disempower rivals completely, forcing opponents to either commit to being demonstrable liars (weakening their status), or forcing them to work uncomfortably under conditions where they need to seem equal to you.

The real lesson of the Art of War is that you need to take the whole of a battlefield into account before engaging your enemies. It'd be impossible to win every battle through deception, with there just being times where the truth is just the best (and most ambitious) tool you can use to fight.

Sun Tzu

To be able to use the truth as ably as a liar tells lies and to have the reputation of having a strong virtue of ethics, leaves future potential allies and witnesses to take considerations in your favor.

Heaven and Earth, the commander, method and discipline, and moral law. It's on you to take everything into consideration, including ethics, where your battlegrounds are ethical. Know yourself and know your enemy, and not in ten thousand battles can you be defeated.

I think this is probably the most important thing in the book. It's repeated several times with varying contexts. The thesis of it is so simple but so often overlooked when encountering everyday work problems.

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“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

If Albert Camus caused me to start drinking, Marcus Aurelius helped me to get sober.

What is Meditations about? We are given the option to sleep or work at life, and even if my logic, being disconnected from my emotions, cannot give motion to my spirit. I will get up anyway. And if not today, then bloody tomorrow. Failing will not stop me. The more you do something, the easier it gets. So I'm getting up earlier tomorrow. It is the ultimate motivational read.

Know that if you can't think with your emotions, you are only half thinking. I know that I do not know the worth of the world. I have tasted a bit of life before and have become drunk and mad with pleasure. I will taste it again, only more refined within myself. Have you not tasted life before? Look for what is good, be open, and know that the good, when it first begins, begins slowly. Just like waking.

It is astonishing to read Marcus Aurelius, one of the go-to philosophers currently celebrated by young atheists, making an appeal to natural law. "What I was born for", "the things I was brought into the world to do", animals working in concert to "put the world in order"?

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How can destiny exist in a random self-established existence? And then he dares to ask, "Is helping others less valuable to you?" Of course, it is, and the backstabbings throughout Roman history itself prove it! I wonder if some that celebrate him have never read him.

On one hand, I can see how a sense of purpose and a belief in a positive destiny could help someone push through tough times. But what anchors those things? Is there any proof that I am destined for something great? And if I am, if it's destined to happen anyway, wouldn't that demotivate me to act? "Get out of bed, you were made to do this"?

I mean, I'm kind of a skeptic, but I guess I can be guided by everyone else here if you all think there are natural laws and destiny and purpose. But wouldn't natural laws be limiting rather than enabling? If he's reluctant to get out of bed to do things, how does he know that's not destiny trying to keep him from burning out? How does he know that's not a conflict caused by his sense of purpose telling him he's not supposed to be doing what he's committed himself to do?

Marcus Aurelius

Nihilistic, sure. But comforting somehow. Although, the fact that we're still reading and discussing what amounts to a man's private bedside notes from almost 2,000 years ago is amazing. But, as Marcus says: "Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?"

So why is this book on my list if I have so many doubts about its philosophy? That's exactly why. Aurelius made me question everything and the book itself. Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

It's kind of trippy having one of Rome's greatest emperors telling me to get my ass out of bed.

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“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Marcus Aurelius , Meditations

Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Disclaimer: I've read Nietzsche for the first time when I was way too young. If you want to start with Western philosophy, choose a more straightforward book like Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

Ahh, Nietzsche. The guy that introduced me to the idea that good and evil are often false prophets.

So what is Thus Spoke Zarathustra about? It's an esoteric book. It takes significant time to read and understand it, but it's worth it. The guy pretty much single-handedly set off postmodernism, relativism, and existentialism. Some people think that by the time he was writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he's already lost all his marbles. The book is his magnus opus.

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Putting morality down for a second, it's just a brilliant work of fiction. The evolution from a camel to a lion to a child is an elegant metaphor of becoming a real, independent human being.

Zarathustra claims that the power of will alone can liberate us. It pushes us to the outside world where true purpose can be discovered.

The concept that really stuck to me is honoring your enemy. It's a central premise of the book, outlined in an even larger scope in On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche disregards the slave mentality as a stance of hating your enemy. To respect your opponent means displaying a high degree of ethical creativity. The end goal being — realizing the need for a strong opposition, which is a driving force for defining ourselves.

Somebody once asked me why is Zarathustra such an asshole and if this is intentional. Yes, it is intentional. Nietzsche was a polemicist, meaning he made intentionally inflammatory remarks and arguments for pretty much no other reason than to get a rise out of the reader in the hopes that it would force them to think about things differently.

Friedrich Nietzsche

I would advise against taking things too literally in the book. There's another passage where Zarathustra states, "one must have chaos within one's self to give birth to a dancing star." "Chaos" here probably doesn't mean a literal chaos, but a general conflict or hardship because, according to Nietzsche, it's through struggle that we become better.

The book is also supposed to be an antithesis to nihilism. Nietzsche's concept of ubermensch is a clever play on religious dogmas of moral absolutism and eternal joy that can be attained without the help of fairy tales.

Btw, Kanye West didn't coin "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Nietzsche did.

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"I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

What is Man's Search for Meaning about? It's a recollection of the author's time in Nazi concentration camps. He described how there were three kinds of guards and two kinds of prisoners. For guards, the good ones who shared food, the ones who did it as a job, and the malevolent ones who gained pleasure from the suffering around them.

As well as the prisoners, most were just there, but then you had the kapos, and holy hell those guys were crooks. Basically they were prisoners who more or less sold out to the command structure of the camp and were brutal people who oversaw the forced labor done by the prisoners. They were members of the oppressed who turned against their own people and would beat them, berate them, dehumanize them.

It was utterly fascinating to hear of this man, who faced arguably the most oppressive circumstances experienced by anyone come out and say that they were not all victims, that wickedness is a trait encountered in all classes of people.

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This book made me feel as if life is absolutely absurd, that human cruelty has no limits, and that maybe at the end of the day humans are less than animals fighting for survival of the fittest. Of course, I don't wish for it to be that way, but that's how it looked to me when I read this book. There was also a glimmer of hope.

The most memorable line was something along the lines of "rest assured, the best of us did not make it out." What does that say about those who did? It sends shivers down my spine. I can not get past the fact that yes, he did survive what most people shouldn't have gone through, but at the same time he had the privilege of being a doctor-a privilege and hope the others in the camp didn't have. At the end of the day all I saw was that people who have privileges come out alive, and those who did not do not and suffered the consequences.

Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'. So are you saying that all those who died didn't have a why? We all have a why. They all had a why. But there are unfortunate great forces of man-made cruelty that won't make it possible for some of them to bear the how.

Viktor E. Frankl

I understand this book was meant to be like, "It could be worse and if I could survive this you can also survive anything," but I also think "Everything could also be a thousand times better, too." I'm not the type to think, "Let me feel better about my life by reading other people's horrible situation." That doesn't make me feel better, it makes me feel worse that to know that it has been worse for someone else and to know that humans have this capability to fuck things over so badly-to create war, to cause death of millions, to cause so much suffering and to be endlessly and relentlessly cruel. For absolutely no fucking logical reason whatsoever. It kind of makes me hate being a human.

"Finding your own meaning" means that you, as an individual, determine what your life means. You determine what is good (you seek it out) and what is bad (you avoid it). You determine what kinds of things are "worth" doing and what kinds of things are not. These are inherently moral decisions, so "finding our own meaning" is an inherently subjective moral stance, incompatible with an objective moral stance.

I was shocked by the part where he shaved by scraping a piece of glass against his skin so he’d appear more rugged and strong and less likely to be executed by the guards. I took my first break on page 3 when he wrote something along the lines of “the best of us did not survive.” I spent a great deal of time thinking about that. I won’t elaborate on my reflection since I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure of formulating your own thoughts, but this book provides a lot to think about.

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"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Henry David Thoreau's Walden

I'm a fan of the transcendentalists. If Whitman is my favorite poet, Thoreau is my favorite novelist.

What is Walden about? People tend to point toward Walden as an example of completely self-reliant living, which it definitely wasn't. Thoreau wasn't too far from town, he visited friends and family, and people visited him. He used the resources of the town when he needed them.

But is Walden an example of simple living? Definitely. Small house, simple food that he largely gathered or grew himself, very few material needs or possessions, and entertainment derived from either the natural world or by being with friends and family.

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Americans especially tend to equate simple living with complete self-reliance, which is weird. People who want to live more simply sometimes think it means moving onto a homestead and being able to provide absolutely everything you need from your own land, without needing anyone else.

When you remove the community factor from the equation, everything gets much harder and much more difficult to achieve, but it seems to be the only version of "simple living" that some people will accept.

I don't think Thoreau works at all as a do-it-yourself manual for completely independent living. I do think it works very well as an exploration of simple living. Thoreau thought a lot about what he really needed and why during his experiment, and the book is a record of what he discovered and his thoughts about it.

I was introduced to Thoreau in my early 20s. There is a spot along the Appalachian Trail that is called Walden by the people that set it up. It has some seats with shade, a water cache, and a small bookshelf filled with books, lots of printed and strung together copies of Walden.

The bookshelf has a sticker that says, "Books you don't need in a place you can't find." There's a giant cut-out picture of Thoreau, with this quote on it: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I stood there, in the middle of the forest, during a hot summer — dirty, smelly, drenched in sweat, 100 miles from civilization, reading this quote. And I broke the fuck down. It was epiphanous. I had finally figured out the real reason I gave away all of my shit and started hiking that trail.

This book is powerful. And now, I will not go back to the regular rat race. Ever. You will find no incentive to persuade me to do so.

Finally, I recommend going for a swim in Thoreau's pond.

It's $15 for parking. Thoreau is probably turning in his grave.

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“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

What is The Karamazov Brothers about? This single book contains within its pages a complete explanation of how people think, act, and what motivates them. It probably contains the highest number of utterly brilliant lines out of any books in existence.

Vonnegut once said, "There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life... it's The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that's not enough anymore."

It's a tough read. Sometimes it's slow and boring. If you can only read a single book from my list, read this one.

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Nietzsche once said, "Dostoevsky is the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn." And I think we all have a lot to learn from the Russian literary master.

Our actions do not only affect us. All things in this world are directly or indirectly related to each other. Because of this and relativity of it all, suffering can never be entirely eradicated. Trying to make out any sense of our existence is the sum of human condition. So... live, truly live, but be aware that the effects of your actions are beyond your understanding and control.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is a genius when it comes to explaining human behavior and emotions while being honest. He even shows compassion for the evil characters that murder and rape. Thanks to his outlook, we can achieve an understanding of a broader scope of humanity.

My only regret is that the author didn't live long enough to write the entire trilogy, to which The Brothers Karamazov was merely a short introduction.

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"Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love."
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude

What is One Hundred Years of Solitude about? I read it in my late 20s. It's one of the best books I've read in that time. I knew next to nothing about it when I started, just "Colombia" and "magical realism."

It felt like very few other books I've ever read. The prose was incredible, and because of a mix of that and the magical realism, almost every moment of the book had a weird aching beauty to it, even the many very dark events depicted.

One of the things that struck me the most was the sheer density of plot. The book doesn't dwell on events at length, it barrels forward through decades of history in a blur, and with all the strange characters often with similar names and characteristics, everything eventually becomes a blur. Not in a bad way at all though, the entire book has a very fleeting, ethereal dream-like feel because of it.

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Would I want every book to be like that? No. It doesn't mean one book like that can't be fantastic.

I'm always amazed that despite its reach, so many people I know have not heard of this novel, or even the author. Admittedly, it took me several attempts to complete it. This is one of those books you need to find at the right time in your life; I just didn't see the appeal in my early 20's, but coming at it again in my 30's, I consider it one of the most important books I've ever read.

Gabriel García Márquez

Firstly, in case I even have to say it: NOTHING is universally loved. Nothing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is an experience. When I read it, I was so completely swept up in the world Garcia Marquez created. I was thinking about it nonstop for like a month after finishing it.

Fun fact: Márquez was a friend of singer Shakira, and wrote an essay about her for his magazine. There is a translation printed in The Guardian.

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"It's enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment."
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

What is Infinite Jest about? The book has some of the best explanations of addicts and their problems I've ever read. It's fucking fantastic.

Not many things make my jaw drop anymore. Infinite Jest did.

The book focuses mainly on addiction. It doesn't read like some shitty D.A.R.E. anti-drug pamphlet. It is an excellent look at addiction from someone who was an addict and got sober.

I'm going to read it again, this time with a notebook, post-it notes, and a calendar. The book uses Subsidized Time, and I want to see for myself the chronology of events. David Foster Wallace put a lot of time and effort into the book, and I really want to figure it properly. By the time I finished it the first time I had forgotten some things from the beginning.

I am a big fan of his work. He wrote crazy ambitious books that defy everything I thought literature was supposed to be. His insights were often spot-on in a scary way. There's a scene in infinite Jest when a women is being interviewed while sitting on a bed in a psychiatric hospital and it's such an accurate portrayal of that experience.

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The only way you can write that is if you've been on that bed yourself. His characters are very well written. And he could pack the full range of emotions into a single book. His books were just messy, and I mean that in the best way possible. One page he's narrating in faux Ebonics and the next he's taking you through the history of a made-up video calling system.

A lot of it sounds ridiculous because it is. It shouldn't work, but you find yourself reading it, and you become immersed in this world. And it's not through worldbuilding. Infinite Jest goes through so many characters, plots, and seemingly useless digressions that you feel like you know this world like the back of your hand.

It's my favorite book. I don't care how "hipster" that makes me sound - I'm a married middle-aged man who first read this book a decade ago and fell in love with the work long before it was "cool" to reference David Foster Wallace.

I have read the book cover to cover three times now, once after purchase in 2008, once in 2012, and most recently during the 2016 "Infinite Winter" event. Each time took at least three months of almost daily reading, including breaks.

The book is dense but much more approachable than say "Interviews With Hideous Men." It takes a long slog in the beginning to get the gist of what is going on in the parallel storylines. I think it helps me immensely that I first completed it a decade ago when some of the reference points made a little more sense.

There is no obligation to "love" this book, or any book for that matter. If it's not your cup of tea, stop reading it. I also appreciate the hatred the book gets from folks, many of whom I assume have never been able to endure the 1,100 pages of random internal dialog and fictional setting.

I think something needs to be said about the generalizations about Wallace fans and fans of other similar authors. Every time someone calls all fans pretentious or calls the book overrated crap, they create a more and more hostile environment for the genuine fans. To say you love infinite Jest is to risk being called disingenuous and a snob.

It's a pretty unfortunate situation when you are assumed to have ulterior motives when you want to discuss work that really touched you — just something to consider before anyone makes any comments.

The people who find it difficult often come unprepared. It's not only a long read; it's also a little complicated. But that's only for the average reader, that is, the one whose hardest book they've ever read is Hamlet.

If you're familiar with Ulysses, or, God forbid, Finnegans Wake, then you won't have any trouble.

David Foster Wallace

If, however, the hardest book you have ever read is indeed Hamlet, then I suggest you read the book carefully; don't skim, ever. As I said, it's quite a shock for people that dive into it unprepared, but it's still not that difficult of a book and has a very discernible, although convoluted, plot.

If you enjoy witty commentary and humorous narrative in general, and if you're interested in a little discussion on how humans have become dependent on entertainment, then you'll most likely enjoy it.

It's not good because it's difficult, it's good but also difficult. It's incredibly written, funny, moving, ambitious, well-researched, and interesting. I think it's best if you approach Infinite Jest as a comedy, at first, and don't worry too much about the deep-philosophical aspects of it.

It's brilliant, outrageously funny, and it contains some of the most heart-wrenching depictions of what it's like to be clinically depressed. It's uplifting and relatable. Infuriating. All over the place. Mother-fucking-genius.

Btw, there's a decent Hollywood movie about David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour.

Addendum: It might help if you learn a little bit about tennis. Good luck.

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"I do things like get in a taxi and say, 'The library, and step on it.'"
David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest

And which book changed your life? Share your experience in the comments below!

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One comment on “Books that changed my life”

  1. Great list!

    Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid changed me the most.

    It changed my way of thinking.

    The common theme throughout the book is 'meta-'. Thinking about thinking, programs that write other programs, genes that encode other genes, rationally deciding whether to think rationally, that sort of things.

    After you read this book, it becomes very natural, even habitual, to just go meta on everything, from math to politics. It's difficult to describe, but it's enlightening - your perspective on almost everything automatically expands. I look at answers to this question, "what book did you read that changed your life", and I just notice the pattern - what kinds of books change people's lives? obviously, one person's enlightening experience is not going to work for everyone, right? how can I decide what would work for me?

    Here's a good quote (from a prominent AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky):

    "You see where this is going. If you don't see where this is going, then you haven't read Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which makes you incomplete as a human being."

    It sounded bigoted to me when I first heard it, but it got me curious. Well, let me just say that this man is absolutely right.

    Also, it's also the funniest book I've ever read, and I'm saying that as a Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams fan.

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