Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ten Books That Will Change Your Life

I thought I'd make sure that the last blog post didn't come across as too pedantic (and because boychik tells me people like to be told what to think), I thought I'd provide a list of 10 books to change your life. Let me begin by making it clear that this isn't going to be a list of self-help books. I'm not a huge fan of the plethora of self-help books which will tell you how to do everything and anything better (and I'm sure there are plenty of lenses out there to provide that information). To me, the only kind of self-help that really works is something that begins and ends with you. That isn't to say that books don't make excellent tools, or that you won't find advice that it worthwhile in a self-help book. However, for me, real life changing is the kind of epiphany that comes when you start to understand something about yourself. And the best books for inspiring that in me have always been fiction. Why is that? Probably because the best kind of fiction opens a door -- providing words that weren't there before to allow me to see my world in a broader light. The best kind of fiction is scary, intense, beautiful, funny, but above all, it's about the reader, about humanity, about the way in which we choose to live. It doesn't teach through prescription. It teaches by taking us there -- by showing rather than telling -- by allowing us the insight of experience. So herewith is my list of 10 life-changing books. Most of them are novels of one sort or another. Most of them (but not all) have won great critical acclaim. I've probably (definitely) left something important out. Forgive me for that. There are great books coming out all the time, and I haven't read everything (but I'm working on it!).

  • Ulysses by James Joyce What else. Everytime I read this I find something new, and am inspired to write more, to explore more, to think about my own life (and my family) in broader terms. This is the book of books. It isn't easy, but unlike a quick easy "airport novel" or "beach read" it keeps repaying the effort of reading.
  • Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco Forget about Dan Brown. When it comes to the mysteries inherent in religious orders like the Templars or the Rosiecrucians, Eco is impossible to beat. Add a dash of literary panache, and more erudition than you ever encountered in one renaissance man, and a great, engaging story that raises as many questions as it answers. I've read it three times and that just isn't enough.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Okay, this isn't fiction. It isn't self-help either, but by god Bryson has a way with words. He's a true master at turning science into poetry and illuminating the absolute beauty, mystery and richness inherent in the universe around us. I wrote a whole poetry book after reading this I was so inspired.
  • Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan You need to read this one in full colour. This is a big, funny, sprawling, heady, monster of a novel masquerading as historical fiction. It's not. It's literature pure and simple, and will leave you breathless at its alchemy. Also a rocking good story set in a Tasmania prison.
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey Does this one surprise you? It won a Booker Prize, and well deserved too. I read it during my first labour, so was a little emotional, but it was so beautifully written I only stopped when the contractions were 3 minutes apart! Despite having a wonderful cast, a great director, and a lovely setting, the film was awful, but the book is magnificent. A true testimony to the literary power of one of our greatest modern authors. Reads like a romance. But its about so much more than this one relationship -- it's about real love, about loss, about hunger and addiction. All of Carey's work is good, but this one is beyond good.
  • History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes Like Carey, Barnes is one of our modern literary masters. Everything he's written is worth reading, but this book is life-changing. Like every book on the list here, it's very funny, and often challenging, innovative, and linguistically rich. The book works on multiple levels -- and tells a number of disparate stories (including Noah's Ark from the point of view of a woodworm) which come together in a kind of firework display of meaning.
  • Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood or maybe The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale, or Alias Grace. But I really liked Orxy and Crake because, despite being a distopia, bordering on sci fi (which I normally wouldn't like), there's so much here about who we are now. Also I couldn't stop laughing, but it was never ridiculous, and always moving, intense and scary.
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie but this could also be The Satanic Verses or The Moor's Last Sigh. Rushdie is so heady -- his work is full of sensual, almost purple richness -- the characters speak a language which is near made up and the scenes border on magical realism, but always rooted in great, almost epic heroines and heroes, and a kind of Bollywood humour. Always, always, the work is underscored by a great love for humanity in all its quirky freedoms.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Picking and choosing now that I'm near the end of my list is hard -- there are so many good books out there. But Marquez' work is so distinctive. In many ways, it follows Rushdie's in illuminating just how vast the human potential is. But the sensuality is of a very different kind. More fruit and less spice.
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens Dickens is a wildcard here and deliberately so, but there's something so modern about Great Expectations. Perhaps it's the maturity of his narration, or the way in which the Magwitch's pain is tranformed into something glittery. Like the other books on this list, the humanism, the love of the quirky, and the absolute clarity of the writing to say things it never said before makes all of Dickens worth reading (but I have a particular fondness for this book -- you could also check out Peter Carey's Jack Maggs as a follow up).

Of course there are many more life changing books out there, and I've just thought of 10 more while pausing to sip my coffee. But don't just think of truth in terms of 'what really happened'. Truth is something much deeper -- something that only art can get at. Great literature is art.


  1. Thanks for posting. Will print and keep, and try to get to them sooner or later!- Joan Zia Kahn, Israel

  2. I've read the ten
    and now and then
    I search within
    to find my way
    alone as I started this journey.