The three books that changed my view of life

Last night as I was perusing my bookshelves, I came upon my copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the Edward FitzGerald translation. It was given to me by my Uncle Moe when I was just a tyke, inscribed in green ink this way: “To Jerry: Live, love, and laugh, for life is short enough in itself. Uncle Moe.”  Since then I must have read that poem a hundred times, and the combination of the Persian Khayyam’s aphorisms and FitzGerald’s translation seven centuries later, couched in appealing AABA quatrains, has been immensely appealing—and life-altering.

Now I know that FitzGerald’s translation is controversial and has been said to misrepresent Khayyam’s views, but it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that, in its present form, the poem is a denigration of religious austerity and a paean to hedonism. And it’s one of the three books that has had the greatest influence on my views about life. This post is about those works, ending with a request for readers to share their own life-altering literature.

Now when I describe these three works, I am not saying they’re the greatest works of literature, or the works that I most admire. They’re not, and some might see the three even as sophomoric. I’ve written before about what I consider the greatest works of literature, including Dubliners, Ulysses, Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Sun Also Rises, and so on. What I’m saying is that the works I’ll discuss gave me “brainworms,” forever affecting my attitude towards life.

In the case of the Rubaiyat, it was hedonism, or rather the view that the enjoyment of life is the goal of life: life is short. And by hedonism, I don’t mean the carousing and wine-drinking espoused by the Persian. Rather, I mean the view that we should live each day as if it were our last, and try to expunge regrets. My own view of “pleasure” includes not just wine, but effort: I’ve realized, late in life, that I don’t enjoy myself unless I’m facing a challenge, a challenge that involves mastering (or trying to master) something I’ve never done before.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The idea that life should be lived in the moment, and that time is fleeting, became more pressing when I became an atheist at age 16. Then I began to embrace the view of St. Bede:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.

Well, I am pretty sure of something: the sparrow came from oblivion and likely goes back to oblivion.

The second of the three books that influenced me also limns the message of the shortness of life and the need to keep that in mind while living: Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. Zorba, also a drinker and carouser, constantly reminds his “boss” (my alter ego) to loosen up and enjoy himself, for we won’t get back the time we spend on the planet. When Zorba, old but still chasing women and adventures, is on his deathbed, he gets up, grips the windowsill, and utters his last words: “A man like me should live a thousand years.” How can one forget that?

I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful in my aspiration to be more like Zorba or Khayyam: I’m a workaholic who still goes to the office at 5:30 am, even when retired. But that’s because I get pleasure from working; and when the work wears me out, I head to some faraway clime for adventures. But at least I have the aspiration rather than the Thoreau-ian quiet desperation.

The last “influencing” book I’ll mention is Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis. It’s the only fully realized novel about a scientist that I’ve read, and it’s a good one. Yes, it’s sappy in bits, but it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Lewis turned it down) and played a role in the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded in 1930.

The book, based largely on the experiences of Lewis’s microbiologist collaborator Paul de Kruif (not listed as an author), has characters loosely based on real scientists de Kruif knew throughout his career. Martin Arrowsmith, starting off as a small-town Midwesterner, works his way up to being a scientist at a prestigious school (modeled on the Rockefeller Institute), adhering all the while to the purest aims of the scientist. And at the end he throws much of his scientific trappings away to adhere to his principles, retiring to a cabin-laboratory in Vermont with his scientific BFF to do research on his own.

Arrowsmith is at some odds with the other two books in that it praises hard work, austerity, and the abnegation of worldly pleasure in favor of science. (At the end, Arrowsmith leaves his wealthy wife because she’d slow down his research.) But what it did for me, as it has done for other scientists, is to present an ideal toward which we should strive: an ideal of unsullied pursuit of the truth leavened with a good measure of doubt and self-criticism. The book didn’t make me a scientist, but it surely conditioned my attitude towards science.

At one point Arrowsmith, steeling himself for tedious research, utters what he calls “the prayer of the scientist”:

God give me unclouded eyes and freedom from haste. God give me a quiet and relentless anger against all pretence and all pretentious work and all work left slack and unfinished. God give me a restlessness whereby I may neither sleep nor accept praise till my observed results equal my calculated results or in pious glee I discover and assault my error. God give me strength not to trust to God!

Arrowsmith was not religious, and this prayer is still a model for any scientist.

I’ve had my say, and others may feel that my choices are sappy. So be it: these others may be right, but these books did influence the way I look at life.

Now it’s the turn of readers: which works of literature (or art or music) have most changed your life, or the way your view your existence?


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I’ve been trying to read Rubaiyat but not very hard.

    A couple from me:

    Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
    Tao Te Ching

    …. parting comment is : books that you loved but have had lots of holes poked in it since. Zen would be my example.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Agree on Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance…food for thought there. Siddhartha was a big one for me as well.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        The Glass Bead Game

        Ok I won’t add anymore now!

    • David Coxill
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Zen ,is a useless book .Not a thing in it about tracing a electric fault on a MZ 251.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Zen and the Art… I’ve read that about a dozen times or more. That’s one book I’ve lived in. I think he’s right about Quality.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      “It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

      Robert Persig
      Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

    • chrism
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      It’s right we remember Omar Khayyam for the Rubaiyat (though FitzGerald probably deserves equal credit), but few now know what a mathematician he was. Cubic equations for conic sections, irrational numbers, and even helping sort out Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, opening the door for the non-Euclidean geometry of Lovecraft!

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “My own view of “pleasure” includes not just wine, but effort: I’ve realized, late in life, that I don’t enjoy myself unless I’m facing a challenge, a challenge that involves mastering (or trying to master) something I’ve never done before.”

    I have felt this way most of my life. I am retired but my latest self-challenge was being recently elected as a director of my HOA and became the treasurer (a lot to learn for a former software engineer and manager)

    Arrowsmith – I, also found reading this book to be a profound experience. It has been decades and I should re-read Sinclair Lewis’ books.

  3. Dave137
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    The works of Robert Green Ingersoll; Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction (e.g., The Roving Mind); and the poetry of Charles Bukowski.

    • Doug
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Asimov’s non-fiction made me love science and history. James Randi’s Flim-Flam, which I read because Asimov wrote the introduction, was a real eye-opener and was my introduction to skepticism. After that, I read everything I could find on the subject, such as books by Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan.

  4. Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    For those interested, the Lab Lit list by UCL’s own Jenny Rohn is here –

    Arrowsmith (I have not read) is third… Now it is true that many on the list are only slightly sciencey, like The Essex Serpent which we read at the RI Fiction Lab this month, but it is as good a list as you will find of books with science or scientists.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I forgot to answer the question!
      I think Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative – I read bits of it in the mid 70s in our school library. Man really WAS just another animal… I think his books being popular were really important, like those of Desmond Morris (still going strong).

      Then there were two archaeology books in the late 70s about megaliths, I still have, but can only remember the title of one, The Megalith Builders. They each had very different views of the same phenomena, which made me realise that more than one interpretation could be considered & there might be more than one possible theory to account for the same outcome (one diffusionist I think, one ‘nativist’ for want of a better term).

      Eye opening.

  5. Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I’ll go along with Zorba the Greek. While I love the Rubaiyat/Fitzgerald (I’ve read some other translations — not the same thing), I can’t say it changed my life, maybe because of when I read it.

    I would cite rather a more modern poem, The Waste Land. That may seem odd, but the key line there for me is “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”, which illustrates that one can give some sense to life without having some sort of grand story behind it.

    My 3rd is Camus’s “Le mythe de Sysiphe”, which my wife-to-be and I discussed by exchanging aerogrammes across the Atlantic during a prolonged separation. It inspired my own (probably incorrect, I don’t care) version of existentialism. I still try to imagine Sysiphus happy.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Forgot to point out that a great French biologist, Jacques Monod, was a friend of Camus and used the last paragraph of Sysiphe for the introductory quote to his own great book Le hasard et la nécessité.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        …Monod is staring at me at home from a top shelf, in English translation, saying “Read Me!”

  6. Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Atheism: The Case Against God (George Smith) – I was already an atheist by the time I read this, but this book deeply clarified for me why, and provided an amazing example of clear reasoning. The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) – this book is ultimately responsible for my becoming an evolutionary biologist, I think. Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch) – this history of the Civil Rights movement was deeply moving and profoundly influenced my politics. I read all three when I was a teenager, and in no small part they made me who I am today.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      The Case Against God is possibly the best philosophical argument for atheism I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a LOT. It attacks the epistemic foundations of religion, the very idea that God even deserves to be considered worthy of argument in the first place. It’s absolutely brilliant.

  7. Scott
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    1] “One Two Three.Infinity” by George Gamow — My best introduction to science and logic!

    2] “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” by Ries and Trout — Marketing is applied psychology and everything we buy is through psychological manipulation. This changed the way I view the world, and run my video game company (which because VERY successful).

    3] “The Paleo Diet” by Dr. Loren Cordain — Finally a book that gave a scientific foundation for a healthy human diet, which I’ve successfully followed for 18 years with great results.

    One of Dr. Cordain’s earliest articles:

  8. docbill1351
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    My junior year in high school was a period of awakening. I had an inspirational English teacher who introduced us to life-changing (for me, at least) literature.

    “The Wisdom of Laotse” by Lin Yutang. It was the Age of Aquarius, Transcendental Meditation and Sock-it-to-me; it all made perfect sense. I recently gave my original copy to my son (and bought myself a replacement).

    “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Davis actually read a few chapters to us in class like we were in the 5th grade. It had just come out in paperback and I rushed out to get a copy for 50-cents. Read it twice, totally captivated, then years later read it aloud to my kids.

    “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. My favorite Dickens, an exciting story of love, drama and sacrifice. Never get tired of reading it.

    Bonus books: “On the Origin of Species” and “Voyage of the Beagle” by Charles Darwin. Simply inspiring reads; where did he get the energy!

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      You like Dickens? Do you know The Bookshop Sketch?!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Here’s a fine version of that Cleese/Chapman authored sketch:

        • rickflick
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink


        • Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          Thanks! John Junkin & Marty Feldman – brill!

          • docbill1351
            Posted January 29, 2019 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            Life is good!

            Brian’s life, that is.

  9. Richard Bond
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    The book that drastically changed my views was The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs by Desmond Morris, which I read in my early thirties. With typical physics arrogance, I had previously considered biology to be a “soft” science. Morris’s powerful and coherent argument for dinosaurian endothermy opened my eyes. With that to kick off my interest, I next read The Selfish Gene and was hooked on an enduring desire to learn more and more about evolution, and on an enduring hatred of creationism.

  10. freiner
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Thoreau: Walden and Civil Disobedience (I remember thinking in high school: “They’re actually having us read this? What if we were to take this stuff to heart?”)
    Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich(encountered much later)
    A movie: 2001 (encountered at just the right time, in high school)
    And finally, less profoundly, but very helpfully for dealing with school administrations, academia at large and pretentiousness in general: Lucky Jim (how I envy him)

    • freiner
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Comment 7 reminded me of Gamow’s 1, 2, 3 … Infinity. Important in other ways than the above.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I also met Walden and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience at just the right time, as a child, and it changed me forever, steering me away from materialism and respect for authority. Slaughterhouse Five was another. The Naked Ape, for all its flaws, showed me as a young Catholic kid that humans are just animals. And On the Origin of Species finished off that Catholic kid.

  11. Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I am delighted that you chose Arrowsmith. I read it while in high school, and it made a very strong impression much along the lines that you describe. That and The Microbe Hunters made very strong impressions on me at a young age. I had read Arrowsmith again several years ago and found it surprisingly stilted, but I fully understand your points about its impactfullness since they are still true. The movie is also quite good as it adheres to the dialogue in the book very closely. I recommend the movie if it can be found.

  12. Blue
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    As stated here before thus and each easily
    self – explanatory ( and, as deemed unworthy, likely not read by … … very many ___ ):

    ( my ) scripture by Ms Matilda Joslyn ( Gage ):

    ( my ) scripture by Prophetess Dr Rosalind Miles:

    ( my ) scripture by Prophetess Dr Mary Daly:


    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I’m definitely going to find “Who Cooked the Last Supper.” I was attracted to it by the title alone; perusing the table of contents sold me on it.

      • Blue
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Page 1, Introduction: ” On every primary school chart of ‘the Dawn of Time,’ primitive man strode purposefully in to The Future with never A Female in sight. ”

        … … and not unlike what authors are
        actually read.


  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    If we are restricted to books as most influence on my views it would be hard because I am primarily a reader of American History. To pick out specific books is very hard because there are many good historians out there and some still writing their best stuff. Reading history often leads to reading other books on politics. Any book by Joseph Ellis will be up there and his latest, American Dialogue, is as good as it gets. Andrew Bacevich is very good for military history and political comment but there are so many good historians.

    When thinking of most influence over all, it would not be my education or career because I think of them as history, they are over and past. Most influencing to me were a couple of people, my grandfather and father. Besides your DNA and genetics the other most influencing factor is your life experience from birth to adult. If you did not see the show on CNN just last night about the triplets and the secret study done on identical twins, you should try to catch it.

  14. A C Harper
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

    Although this is a fantasy story involving destinies, saints, and gods (sniff) it particularly appealed to me… in the world of 4 ‘main’ gods (Father, Mother, Son, Daughter) there is also another extra god (The Bastard).

    The Bastard is the god of balance, of all disasters out of season, of bastard children and orphans, of executioners and many other dirty jobs, and the god of odd loves, such as sodomy. In other words the bits of life that don’t fit into neat categories.

    It struck me that whether you were talking politics, economy, philosophy, religion, psychological types, definitions of ‘species’ or scientific experiments you should always allow for The Bastard Option. The world is messy and not everything fits into neatly defined boxes; my opinions should always be subject to revision.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      Not on my list of influential books, but I will say that The Curse of Chalion is the best-written fantasy novel I’ve ever read. The way Bujold struck and maintained what I refer to as a “high style” has stuck with me since I read the book close to ten years ago.

  15. rom
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    For me it would the works of Douglas Adams … a sense of the ridiculousness of it all.

    The Power Myth – Joseph Campbell. An alternative way at looking at religion.

    The interesting thing some books can have a temporary effect. eg the God Delusion, I was a little more strident after I read it, but the effect wore off.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      He pointed out a lot of things that I hadn’t thought of on my own despite decades of atheist reading before reading that book. Likewise, Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.

      Also, not really a book, but “Why I am Not A Christian” has some essential points that have become part of my belief system & thinking.

      I almost never go back and re-read something, but it’s amazing how often I’ll see where I’ve written “Wow!” in the margin of something that on second reading seems obvious. So that first reading had changed me and I didn’t realize it.

      • rom
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Yep I like Russell’s succinctness in his essays.

        And also I agree with your post below … the imperceptible effects.

        My first thought (slightly tongue in cheek) would have been The Chemical Rubber Company Handbook

  16. ladyatheist
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I think every book changes the reader’s life in some way, but it’s often imperceptible.

    Several self-help books have actually helped me, like the Road Not Taken, Dance of Anger, and 7 Habits of Successful People. My take-aways from each could fit into a TED talk today, though.

    If I can count Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear influenced me the most. Actually, I have been thinking often about that play since 2016.

    The novels that have affected me the most were about characters whose lives I could not have imagined otherwise: Crime and Punishment, and The Color Purple.

  17. Charlie
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I hate to say it, but the first is the Bible. I grew up in rural Wisconsin where seemingly everyone was very religious. I always feared I was missing out on eternity because I found faith hard. In college I joined a Bible study, where close reading led me to conclude that if the God of the Bible was perfection, I wanted nothing to do with him. The Bible has provided a deep well of reasons to NOT believe, and to not fear not believing. I haven’t worried about my lack of faith since I was about 20.

    The second is “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”. Starting in childhood he never assumed that he would not be able to understand something simply because he lacked the background. (The first example is fixing the family radio as a kid.) The big lesson for me is that is it always worth taking a look to see if you can calmly and patiently work something out. Darwin’s biography might have had a similar impact had I read it when I was younger.

    I wish I had a more literary example that transformed me in a more fundament “seize the moment” way, but alas, no.

  18. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    When I was 12 yo I fell over Electric Ladyland double album, vinyl, 1968. Supposedly it had this inside picture of 19 naked women, but I don’t recall that at all:

    My cousin had it & I bought my own copy three days later. How I managed that is also lost to me – I didn’t get presents or money for my birthdays. I used to work odd jobs & hide the proceeds – I think I told my folks the record was my cousins that I’d borrowed. The music was something I’d never heard before in my restricted life. STUNNING.

    No 2nd or 3rd object comes close so I’ll not bother thinking what they might be.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      That was the album cover for the British edition. My copy has that on the outside. The American edition has a different photo on the outside.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        I’m a Brit. I was in England when I bought the album – I don’t recall the women on the two copies I saw & my copy wasn’t brown paper wrapped like some albums of the time.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      My dad’s copy had that same image on the inside. BELIEVE me, I know – I was teenage boy when I found it.

      He had a great record collection, which I regret not luxuriating in now that we’ve drifted apart.

  19. mfdempsey1946
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink


    “The Blind Watchmaker” (Richard Dawkins)– my first immersion in an atheist perspective on life and meaning.

    “The Dead” (James Joyce), for its meticulous buildup to its culminating sentence, which seems the most resonant one I have ever read.

    “The Death Of Ivan Ilych” (Leo Tolstoy)– my first doorway into to some grasp of what death really means and how no more than anyone else can I hope to evade it.

    “The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich” (William Shirer)– read as teenager, my first true literary plunge into the depths that human evil can reach.


    “Eclipse” (Michelangelo Antonioni) — the first time a film made me feel as though I had truly entered the consciousness (I would once have said the soul) of its main character, a woman named Vitoria played by Monica Vitti.

    “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock)– the last word on the commingled ecstasy and madness that longing for love in a world that makes no sense can induce.

    “Day Of Wrath) (Carl Th. Dreyer) — the same for the alluring insidiousness of destructive religious illusions.

    “Barry Lyndon” (Stanley Kubrick) — cinema’s finest meditation on the sheer mysteriousness of the fact that humanity exists at all.

    A sampling, with many other companions for whose existence I am extremely grateful.

    • rustybrown
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Yes! “The Dead”. That story is like a body blow. I’m also a huge Kubrick fan but for some reason had never seen Barry Lyndon. I guess I was just avoiding a 3+ hour period piece, go figure. But I just watched it recently and now it’s one of my favorite films! It resonated so much that I watched it again after a couple days. Some literary notables for me:

      Charles Bukowski
      Hunter Thompson
      John Steinbeck
      Aldous Huxley
      E.A. Poe

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Not the reading list I’d expect of a reactionary. 🙂 (I kid!)

        • rustybrown
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

          I forgot Ayn Rand! (Just kidding, I never read her)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      I’d echo Blind Watchmaker. I was already de facto an atheist because the God ‘explanation’ made no sense at all. I knew of evolution without really understanding it. After reading Blind Watchmaker I felt all those niggling questions had been answered for me; it was intellectually defensible to be an atheist.


  20. Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Sinclair Lewis’s book “It Can’t Happen Here”, which was written in 1935, was just re-published. It is similar to Animal Farm as it follows what happens to a country when the signs of socialism turn the gov’t into a fascist state. I definitely recommend reading it!

  21. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Back in my college days, I was at a girlfriend’s apartment — in the early check-out-the-other-person’s-books-and-records stage of a blossoming romance — and spotted the Rubaiyat in her bookshelf. I asked her about it, and she said I should read and was welcome to hers.

    Next time I was alone at her place while she was at class, and was looking for something to read, I plucked the Rubaiyat outta her bookshelf and plopped in an easy chair to give it a read. There, written on the frontispiece, was a note from an old boyfriend back home who had given it to her before she went off to school. It was all lovey-dovey and airy-fairy and brimming with woo.

    I was tempted to grab a red pen and correct his punctuation and syntax, but demurred. Soured me on reading it, though. My loss, I ‘spoze, lookin’ back.

    • Larry Smith
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Your tale sounds like a much less successful version of Norwegian Wood!

      • W.T. Effingham
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Isn’t it good?

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          Never crawled off to sleep in the bath (at her place anyway).

        • Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:58 am | Permalink

          Norwegian wood?

  22. GBJames
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    For me, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, I think, had a profound effect on me when it came out.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Despite a college course on the subject, I did not really understand evolution until I read The Selfish Gene. Like you, I read it when it first came out. TSG made me fully realize the stark mechanistic nature of evolution. I can say that more than any book, The Selfish Gene changed my world view.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

        Its impact was magnified by the fact it lead me to read The Extended Phenotype and The Blind Watchmaker.

  23. Larry Smith
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Although looking at the previous entries made me reconsider my choices somewhat, I’ll stick with my first thoughts.

    1) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. My recollection is that I read this book several times in the third grade. Being able to tackle and enjoy a pretty thick book at that age led to a lifelong love of reading.

    2) Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre. The scene in the bar/eatery where Roquentin looks around and sees how absurd all of life is has always stuck with me. This was heady stuff for a teenager who, like all teenagers, pretty much felt the same way about the world. But this scene also enabled me later on to realize that none of life is absurd except in relation to one’s expectations of what life should be. Deep…

    3) Nature and Man’s Fate, Garrett Hardin. Assigned for a college course, most everyone in the class hated it, but I loved it. It really fired up my interest in science and non-fiction reading.

  24. curtislendin
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The books that changed my life did not change my philosophy but led to me different genres and interests.

    Three Survived by Robert Silverberg – the book is totally forgettable but it got me into science fiction.
    Midsummer Night’s Dream – my first Shakespeare.
    Panda’s Thumb which directly led me to evolutionary biology and later to science books.

  25. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I am a little older than our host, but with a somewhat similar background. Adolescent readings that set me on my life’s course also included “Arrowsmith” and, of course, Paul de Kruif’s “Microbe Hunters”. At the same stage, Czeslaw Milosz’s brilliant “The Captive Mind” vaporized the fellow-traveling credulity about state socialism I had absorbed from my family, and instilled a permanent suspicion of anything resembling that attitude. A little later, I was much influenced by Camus’ “The Rebel” and “The Plague”. BTW, a nice joint biography of Camus and Monod can be read in Sean B. Carroll’s “Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize”.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I second Carrol’s book. (That the evo-devo biologist, not the site physicist.) Very good read.

    • Posted January 29, 2019 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      That Carroll book is also sitting in a pile waiting to be read!

  26. KD33
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Great topic, great post. Scientifically and world-wonder wise, a combination of the Feynman Lectures (truthfully I only read part of Vol 1, but the approach leaves an impression) and Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, which also gives a dose of wonder of the world, along with the importance of having fun. No books had any influence on me religion-wise since I was “naturally” an atheist, and will forever thank my parents for not inflicting dogma on me.
    I will have to check out the Lewis.
    As to a non-dogmatic and “live life” philosophy, check out The Swerve, which tracks the path of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things (De rerum natura) through the middle ages, and its impact on the Renaissance. “Nature” may be the first full-bodied articulation of the philosophy you describe.

  27. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ll choose a book, a film and an album, and like Jerry these aren’t necessarily my favourite examples of the media, they’re the ones that affected me most…

    The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins.
    It isn’t his best book and there are many more thorough dismantlings of religion out there, but the precision and rigour of its arguments was unlike anything I’d ever come across before. It gave me license to recognise bad arguments for what they were, rather than defend them simply because they had reputations for being ‘mysterious’. My interest in politics, philosophy, science, atheism…I owe ALL of that to the God Delusion. The extent to which this one book changed me is almost embarrassing.

    Heat – Michael Mann.
    I saw this when I was twelve or thirteen, in the cinema with my dad, and was immediately enraptured by it. It’s a gorgeous film, the most romantic ‘man’s film’ ever made, and there is something about it that resonated with me.
    It’s not a ‘clever’ film and much of it is assembled from cliches and timeworn tropes, but it’s imbued with an emotional intensity and self-seriousness that pulls you into its world – and it’s achingly romantic, as I said. If you accept its limits I think it’s pretty much a perfect film, and I notice that much of the cinema and television I’ve loved since I saw it is similarly swoonsome, lush and emotional.

    Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space – Spiritualized.
    I first heard this when I was around fourteen or fifteen. It’s an album without a wasted second in its seventy minute run time, and it defined the kind of music I’ve loved ever since. Its title rock is the single most exquisite piece of music I’ve ever heard – It’s also the primary reason why I taught myself guitar(very badly).

    Honorable mentions would go to:

    The Sopranos,

    Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth and

    The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

    …and Final Fantasy 6, which I didn’t include because you lot still tend to look down on games as a medium, for shame.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Nice! That album is a sonic ear feast & mental roller coaster – that Kate Radley? Wot a trouble maker. I’ve yet to hear the Elvis version they did that got stopped.

      I agree about HEAT – once one gets past the emotional deadness of a Mann film there’s a lot of treasure to be dug.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        You can get the Elvis version pretty much everywhere on YouTube. I think they settled with the Elvis estate and now they can incorporate it into the song on current releases of the album. I have to say I will never forgive the person who told me of the resemblance between LAGWAFIS and the song ‘Grandad’ from the seventies.

        I’m a Spiritualized(and Spacemen 3) nut I confess. They’ve tailed off pretty badly over the years, and the recent album was deeply disappointing imo, but that’s always the way. I don’t know of any artist who’s still producing truly great stuff three decades after they first started though.

        I do love Heat, but remember these are not necessarily the works I think best, they’re the ones that affected me most. So I’d say I’ve very slightly grown out of Michael Mann’s stuff as much as I will argue for Heat’s brilliance.

        (I absolutely loved, and still love, The Last Of The Mohicans too. I saw that when I was eleven and spent an entire summer imagining myself as Daniel Day Lewis, running through the tall grass to save some random female schoolmate that I fancied from being killed by native Americans.)

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      The Third Policeman!

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        My dad gave me the book a few years ago. I read it, half amused by the weirdness of the plot and, after a certain point, not really expecting anything to make sense. I just thought it was slightly pointless absurdism, throwaway and meaningless, until I reached the end and discovered the true meaning of everything that had happened. It’s the only story I’ve read that has been completely redeemed by the ending.

        It’s just a really strange, startlingly existential little folk tale and yet you can see its influence in the Coen Brothers, in David Lynch, and in a bunch of other storytellers’ works. I don’t know why it’s not more famous.

        • Mark R.
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

          I’ve given the book to at least 3 friends. None of them could finish it. One stopped even before he got killed and went to “hell” because he thought it was too violent or disturbing or something. Scratches head. Yeah, that ending. I also found it uproariously funny. At Swim Two Birds was good too, but not nearly imo.

          • Mark R.
            Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

            I should have said At Swim Two Birds was not as interesting a pancake. 😉

          • Mark R.
            Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            And my friend didn’t get killed or go to “hell”…where’s the English teacher in me?

            • The Sprawl
              Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:23 am | Permalink

              I understood what you meant, don’t worry.

              …Except for the pancake bit.

  28. Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I find it hard to really answer in life-changing terms since I have no way to test alternatives. But seriously, it is hard to know.

    So instead I’ll list three books that come to mind as most important. In no particular order:

    1) “Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy” by Jostein Gaarder. Someone on Twitter asked for recommendations for an introductory philosophy book so this was recently brought to mind. It is the story of a bright 14-year-old girl who is introduced to philosophy via notes left by a mystery helper who suggests she look into certain things. Such a gentle introduction with an intriguing mood.

    2) The Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. This is actually 20 books. (I guess there is a 21st issued posthumously but I haven’t read it.) I have read them several times and find it amazing how they transport be back to a time when a totally different technology, language, and point of view reigned.

    3) “The Dinosauria”, edited by Weishampel, Dodson, and Osmolska. I have always been fascinated by dinosaurs and this is basically an encyclopedia. The first edition is 724 pages and is basically the size of a phone book. I haven’t seen the second edition. This will refute the idea that there were only a few kinds of dinosaur, such as those we see in “Jurassic Park”. They occupied virtually every ecological niche. And now they’re gone! Except for birds, of course.

    If I had answered this question on a different day, the results would likely also be different.

  29. Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    • Bulfinch’s Mythology/ read to my brother and me at breakfast before going off to school each morning. (Much more interesting than the later-read Bible.)

    • Dick and Jane, the Scott Foresman series to teach children to read. My older brother had taught me to read, pre-kindergarten, and I hated the cloying, mindless, repetition of ”See Dick run. Run Dick run.” But it made me determined to choose what I wanted to read.

    • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, my first book checked out at the library. Taught me disgust for people who treat animals cruelly in the name of fashion.

    • curtislendin
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I almost included Hop on Pop because it let me show my daughter that she could read a book on her own. The first book was the tough one. It seemed that she was reading chapter book a few months later.

      • Christopher
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        I could have chosen Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton for all the joy it brought my son when I’d read it to him. We would make reading part of our nightly routine until around age 13. We read about Harry Potter, Lemony Snickett, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Zoro, various dragons, vampires, hobbits, and so much more but it all began with some cows, sheep, and three singing pigs.

    • Posted January 29, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I still remember sounding out the word “put” myself in a Dick and Jane book. After that, I knew I could do this reading thing on my own, and I did. A lot.

    • cyan
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders was even more poignant to me than Black Beauty. Both of those books were the first times that I had encountered people who thought the way I did, that other animals were beings, not “things”, and who felt pain every bit as harshly as humans.

  30. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I guess the book that had that kinda impact on me was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Read it my freshman year of college, must’ve been 1971, a decade or so after it was written, a half decade before Milos Forman made a movie out of it.

    Got it from a girlfriend (not the same one) for whom it was a class reading assignment. She made the mistake of reading me a couple passages she liked out loud. I grabbed it from her on the spot, refused to give it back until I’d read the whole damn thing myself. Only took about a day and half. (Same thing happened to my mom. I had it with me on a school break; she saw it and asked me about it. Started reading it immediately herself. Next morning I woke up to find her asleep on the couch with the book on her tummy, opened to the last page; she’d been up all night finishing it.)

    I’d never come across anything quite like it before. I mean, the three-act structure of the story is pretty standard, but I didn’t know that then. The unreliable narrator was new to me, as was the rhythm and feel of the prose. But what really grabbed me hard was the goddamn indomitable spirit of the thing, McMurphy’s obdurate refusal to give in to the forces of conformity.

    I read the Beats at about the same time (as one was wont to do in those days), and I knew then and there that it was the Bohemian life for me. Made some concessions along the way, (of necessity, I like to think), but never surrendered completely to conformity’s pull.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest broke my heart. It was the first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read and loved, and it’s the only book that ever made me cry, until I read The Road and sobbed like a baby for about an hour afterwards.

  31. Steve Kern
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Ronald Pine’s “Science and the Human Prospect” weaves together the histories of both science and philosophy. Characters from Socrates to Galileo, David Hume to Carl Sagan, and Nietsche to Darwin appear across the centuries and take their rightful places in these disciplines that are much more closely related than most people are aware.

  32. Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Gödel Escher Bach is the book that made me aware that maths and computing is interesting.

    The Selfish Gene is the book that made me an atheist.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I was already an atheist when I read TSG, but I didn’t think about it much. For me the great value of that book was the shift from seeing evolution as a mainly a story about creatures to one about replicating bits of information. I loved it.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I tried to find a copy of Godel Escher Bach on Amazon – the only one available was something like thirty quid. Apart from that there was a cheaper paperback copy – in Spanish. Then I tried to find it to download for my iphone and it’s not available there either. I don’t understand it as it’s an incredibly influential book by an incredibly influential writer.

  33. Christopher
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d have to say that Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel were life-changing for a very young me. They gave me a warmth, a feeling that everything was ok (and things in real life for me weren’t very often) and they were among the first books I read myself. To this day I love them, especially the artwork.

    Stephen King’s Four Past Midnight was another one, but for different reasons, obviously. It was the first “grown up” book I read.

    I’m at a loss for further books that changed my life, I just love to read and wouldn’t be able to put one important book over another.

  34. MP
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    “God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins – tipped me over to atheism

    “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild – gave new window into world history, including how US politics could be influenced even in 19th century.

  35. Frank Bath
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I too am so taken with Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam. It’s far less well known than it should be.
    Also the early Plato dialogues which opened my eyes to the wonders of the lost classical world.
    By far the most enjoyable book(s) I have read are Patrick O’Brien’s 20 wooden Royal Navy novels.
    (Darwin’s great book too of course. An epiphany.)

  36. Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Fiction (“literature”), and restricted to print (rather than movies or TV) from the time of life Jerry talks about:

    – Hamlet, by that Bill Shakespeare guy
    – All the fiction by Douglas Adams
    – The Lord of the Rings

  37. Mark R.
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    The short stories of D.H. Lawrence had a profound influence on me as a college student. Like PCC(E) it was the carpe diem aspect of these works that appealed to me: live life, be passionate about it, no regrets. Not to mention his beautiful writing style.

    The Plague destroyed me as a young man. I’ll never forget the scene where Father Paneloux is wailing at the side of a dying child, imploring God to save him. Of course, the child dies. Later, the priest dies having lost his faith. Also Jean Tarrou was simply the most interesting character I’d ever “met” in literature.

    The Beats had a big influence as did Hunter S. Thompson.

    Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris definitely made me a more thoughtful and strident atheist. I had been an atheist for some time before reading The God Delusion, and Hitchens’ and Harris’ works, but their clear arguments provided me with the best reasons of ‘why’ being an atheist was the most honest way to live one’s life.

    On a lighter side, the Dune series stands out, as well as Tolkien’s works. I also enjoyed King’s The Stand.

    Influential movies: Blade Runner (the non-narrated version), Seven Samurai, Pulp Fiction, Spirited Away, The Matrix.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      The book that did it for Hunter was Gatsby. He taught himself to type by copying it word for word, just to get the feel of the language down.

      • Mark R.
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Ken for that interesting tidbit. If you’re going to get language down, I can’t think of many better than Fitzgerald. I still can’t believe Gatsby wasn’t a success during his lifetime.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          The initial sales of Gatsby may have been disappointing, but it was a succès d’estime among Fitzgerald’s fellow writers and at least some of the critics.

          • Mark R.
            Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            Yes, that’s a good point.

  38. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    The book that definitively healed me of, inoculated me against, any smooching with New Age, magic and the supernatural was in Dutch: “Het avondrood der magiërs” (loosely translated by ‘The twilight of the magicians’) by Rudy Kousbroek. Definitely no 1 in changing my view of life. I don’t think it was ever translated into English.
    I think that Jean-Paul Sartre, particularly his play ‘Les mains sales’ (‘Dirty hands’) was instrumental in -paradoxically- weaning me of any communist sympathies. I think Sartre was a much worse philosopher than play, btw.
    And then Steve Gould’s ‘Ever since Darwin’ put be on the evolutionary trail, with probably ‘the selfish gene’ as the early definitive one.
    The Judge Dee ‘thrillers’, by Robert van Gulik gave me a first glimpse in a completely different culture (Chinese during the Tang dynasty) I could empathise with
    There are many others , of course, but those are the ones I can think of right now.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Oh yes, ‘O rei da terra’ (The king of the Earth) by Dalton Trevisan.

  39. Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Early childhood gems:
    Cosmos – Carl Sagan
    Tao te Ching
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull

    Most re-read-never-tired-of:
    Hamlet – the bard
    Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
    God is not Great – Hitchens (never forgotten)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Catch-22 is one of the ones I never tire of. I’ve read it three or four times straight through, and at least that many more by picking it up and reading at random.

      There are many others, but that’s the one that jumped to mind when I read your comment.

    • rustybrown
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Blood Meridian is an awesome book. I’ll have to re-read. The Judge was based on an actual person, wish we knew more about him.

  40. Serendipitydawg
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I found the entire oeuvre of Erich von Daniken truly inspirational… it set my tolerance of BS low, my demand of evidence high, and gave me considerable hilarity. The only thing that bothered me was how well they sold.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      He was still lecturing in Germany a couple of years ago! I also saw Uri Geller on TV here (in Germany) a few years ago.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Gee, you could have heard the goofy guy on Coast to Coast AM, this past weekend. I was station surfing and the announcer said that we’d be a guest. I did not bother to listen. I thought he’d died years and years ago, but he’s still alive and kicking and propagating his idiotic ideas.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Rather like Kent Hovind, Erich von Daniken has done time for tax shenanigans, and their operations are rather similar – shifting product to the gullible. Erich is supposedly worth $30M.

        • The Sprawl
          Posted January 29, 2019 at 7:35 am | Permalink

          I’ve always thought people like Von Daniken, Hovind, Trump, constitute one of the strongest arguments against the idea of natural justice – indeed, against the idea of any overarching moral scheme at all.

          Just have a look at the utter scumbags of the world and the complete, anxiety-free lives of enjoyment many of them have. Does anyone really think Putin is wringing his hands with Woody Allen-esque guilt every day, telling himself ‘I have all this money and power but I just can’t enjoy it’?
          No, he’s loving it. By definition, the kind of person who does the appalling things he does doesn’t feel guilt for doing them. If he did feel any kind of guilt he wouldn’t do them in the first place, and certainly wouldn’t build a career out of having people locked up for saying he looks like Dobby from Harry Potter.

          We have a suite of rationalisations that allow us to believe that deep down people like Putin and Trump are actually incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled. The truth is they’re generally pretty content, and feel no kind of karmic psychological pain. Now does that sound like a just universe?
          I suppose Christians would say hell is their punishment…but afaict all Vladimir has to do is mumble a few words of devotion to that Jesus chap and he’s let off the hook. What a swizz!

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            I agree with every word you’ve written.

          • Posted January 30, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

            As usual, there is an appropriate classic comedy to quote —

            Rainer Wolfcastle : [Cut back to Rainer and Jay] The film is just me in front of a brick wall for an hour and a half. It cost $80 million.

            Jay Sherman : [contemptuous] How do you sleep at night?

            Rainer Wolfcastle : On top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.

            Jay Sherman : Just asking. Yeesh!

  41. genotypical
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Two contenders off the top of my head:

    “Gentlemen’s Agreement” by Laura Hobson, about polite society’s anti-Semitism in the 1950’s. Like the protagonist, I grew up in an ethnically diverse part of California, and as a kid I naively thought that sort of thing had died with Hitler.

    “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsyn. Opened my eyes to how much our emotions and perceptions can be dependent on our expectations.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read the book, but Gentleman’s Agreement was adapted into a great film by Elia Kazan, one of Gregory Peck’s iconic roles, in the late ’40s, so must concern antisemitism even earlier than the ’50s.

      Agree about Solzhenitsyn.

  42. Marou
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature stopped me being an embarrassed optimist.
    John Williams’ Stoner made realise there’s no success like failure
    The Klemperer Diaries revealed that it takes a kind of heroism not to be reality’s Slavic

  43. Marou
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Or reality’s slave

  44. revelator60
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “I’m a workaholic who still goes to the office at 5:30 am, even when retired. But that’s because I get pleasure from working”

    What form does your work take, now that you’re retired? Are you still writing researching and writing scientific papers, or reviewing them? Are you still working with students? Any books in the pipeline?

    • GBJames
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Seems to me that running/writing WEIT is a full time job!

      • revelator60
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        You have a point there!

  45. Robert Bray
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    In my early teens: Asimov’s ‘Foundation Trilogy’

    A little later: Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

    And two poets, passim: Emily Dickinson and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

  46. John Dentinger
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    When I was in 6th grade, my (much) older brother gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. This changed my persona from shy introvert to arrogant introvert, which is what I’ve been ever since. Thanks, J.D.

  47. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    The Tropic of Cancer had a big impact on me when I read it in the Seventies (as did the rest of Henry Miller’s oeuvre). I don’t know if people are still reading Miller much anymore — if they are, I’m not hearing about it — but back then he was an icon of mental liberation.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      ToC was banned in the US for 27 years; the first sales here were in 1961. Perhaps its reputation as an obscene novel caused a buzz with young people at the time. I could see how this could have continued into the 70’s. I don’t hear much about it nowadays either. Mental liberation doesn’t seem to be a part of contemporary America’s zeitgeist.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      It was Henry Miller’s ‘other’ books that changed my life: Wisdom of the Heart, The Books in My Life, Colossus of Marousi, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, To Paint is to Love Again…I could go on. Most people don’t know of these books, are ignorant of this side of Miller. I was profoundly changed by Wisdom of the Heart, the first of his books that I read. At first, I thought it must be a completely different Henry Miller, not the libertine who wrote books that were banned.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, Jenny. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, too.

        For a few years, I consumed everything of Miller’s I could get my hands on.

        Even read Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer’s book-length essay on Miller’s writing.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          How could I forget that one! I’ll have to look for Genius and Lust, too. He had an omnivorously curious mind. Way, way back in the day, I was at a performance of Peking Opera by a Taiwanese opera company at a small theatre in Chinatown in LA; who should show up but Henry Miller! He dug it as much as I did.

          Off topic, and not Henry Miller but I just went to the library and checked out Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal, by Michael Meeshaw. I can hardly wait to crack it.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

            Great title! Let me know if it’s any good. Vidal curdled into kind of an anti-Semitic asshole late in life, but he was a great wit and writer. I enjoyed the hell out of the documentary released a few years back about his feud with Bill Buckley, Best of Enemies.

            Reminds me, I remember when Vidal was on Dick Cavett with Norman Mailer and the two of them were feuding. At one point Vidal called Mailer, Henry Miller, and Charlie Manson “the 3M boys.”

            Celebrities had more éclat in those days, or at least so it seemed. 🙂

            • Jenny Haniver
              Posted January 29, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              Late reply. I didn’t know of “Best of Enemies.” Will look for it. Just don’t tell the celebrities of today that they lack the éclat than their forebears. I remember when Vidal was on Johnny Carson touting a composting toilet and giving an elegant and hilarious very learned lecture on aspects of scatology. That took chutzpah. Here’s an audio, too bad no video because I recall him displaying the contraption, though, alas, he didn’t give a demonstration. I’ll report on the book; can’t imagine it’d be a boring read.

          • jeff Kessen
            Posted January 30, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            The Meeshaw book is alright, but it’s pretty much what one would have expected of Vidal’s last days. Check out, “Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal”, for vintage Vidal—also, the various collections of his essays from, say, 1961 through 1980. All else, afterwards, begins to cloy.

  48. jeff Kessen
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Howard Gardner’s, The Mind’s New Science”, turned me from philosophy to cognitive science. Jerry Fodor’s, Psycho-semantics”, turned from cognitive science back to philosophy. E.O. Wilson’s, “The Ants”, turned me from philosophy to entomology.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      That comment wins some kind of prize on this thread!

      • jeff Kessen
        Posted January 30, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Stay tuned for my philosophy of entomology.

  49. Marta
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    When I was much too young to process them properly, I read two books that lead me to deep thoughts for decades. The first I read when I was ten–“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and the second when I was 14, “The Fountainhead”. (I subsequently read all of Rand’s work, which required some deprogramming later. Ssh, that’s a secret.)

    I’ve read other books that have been influential (not always positively), but a small book I read in the 90’s titled “Fuzzy Thinking” completely ended my then tendency to think in absolutes.

  50. Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Crime and Punishment – Dostoyevsky
    The God Delusion – Dawkins
    Better Angels – Pinker

  51. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Bertrand Russell – Why I am not a Christian, History of Western Philosophy.

    Alfred Jules Ayer – Language, Truth and Logic.

    Upton Sinclair – The Jungle

    Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front.

    John Hersey – Hiroshima

    Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle

    W.E.B. DuBois = The Souls of Black Folk

    John J. Fitzgerald

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      History of Western Philosophy is also a great history of Christianity if you just skip the chapters on the philosophers and just read the the connecting ones about historical context.

  52. Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read many influential books in my 72 years but to choose which one had the greatest effect on my psyche is now difficult. So I’ll just say the next great one is the most important, maybe.


  53. Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Some books that were important to me were listed above by others. The most important single one maybe was Stanislaw Lem’s “Return from the Stars”. I read it when I was 13 or 14, troubled by the built-in evil in humans and wondering how to eliminate it. That sci-fi book explored this possibility and showed that it was not so great an idea.

  54. Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    1. Arthur Koestler’s autobiographical writings, especially The Invisible Writing, covering his time in Europe from 1925 to 1945 — a Jew, communist, and then anti-communist.

    It is worth noting that the original German manuscript of his great novel, Darkness at Noon was published for the first time last year. It had been missing since 1939, after Koestler left it on a kitchen table of a French farmhouse, in the chaos of fleeing the Nazis. Luckily his girlfriend had already finished a very rough translation and already sent it off to London. This effectively became the original. Despite its literary deficits, and despite missing a great deal of the original, Koestler’s narrative was so compelling and hard hitting, that it is often listed in the top ten great English language novels.

    In 2016, a PhD student researching Koestler’s time in Spain (where Koestler had been incarcerated for 90 days in Seville, with an execution order signed by Franco) stumbled upon the original manuscript, typed and corrected by Koestler. Somehow it had found its way to Switzerland. No one knows how or who rescued it. It was published last year for the first time. The translation, despite being a classic, does indeed pale in comparison to the original.

    I can’t resist adding a bit more. In 1946, the English translation was translated back into German. But this classic of anti-communist literature was suppressed by the Allies, who didn’t want to upset Stalin. Koestler at this time had hoped to emigrate to the US, but he’d been rejected because of his communist background. (There is a fine biography of him by Michael Scammell. For a shorter ‘hit’ of Koestler, his 100 page book Dialogue With Death covers his arrest and imprisonment and is an extraordinary document.)

    2.Heinrich Böll: And Never Said a Word

    3. William Blake — saying you’ve never read Blake is like saying you’ve never stood on a mountain top and felt the wind in your hair.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I should add, I’m reading Rushdie’s 1001 nights novel at the moment and find it completely and utterly wonderful.

  55. Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Huckleberry Finn read at age twelve
    Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – age twelve

    Their five books convinced me not to put stock in or follow established rules

    From Here to Eternity – more rebels

    Rudyard Kipling – various poems

    Those are the few that stand out

  56. Jenny Haniver
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Like “Charlie,” who commented above, but for different reasons, the bible was and is most influential in my life (because I’m an atheist who thinks about belief a lot, not questioning except to wonder how on earth can people believe such things). I was brought up atheist but from a very early age, I was cognizant that damned near everybody else in the world believed in something supernatural, and our society as a whole (in fact, Western Civilization) was steeped in things biblical. I had no idea what all that stuff was about but thought I’d better learn about it so I could know what ‘everybody else’ was talking about. So I began to read the bible. I couldn’t understand much of the bible as a child — I don’t mean as a book of faith, but it was just strange, starting with the syntax. Hard going.

    And rather like “SA Gould” who also commented above, I was introduced to classical mythology, also very early on, from my earliest remembrance, even before I could read, because at bedtime, among other things, my father would read to me from a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis; other books and stories as well, but I drank deep from that well, and ever since have been drawn to classical mythology, so it was almost like mother’s milk. Much more fun and interesting than the bible. I could also say that Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” also influenced my life at an early age, read to me by my father before I could read. I learned about religion, controversy, and racism from that poem. Vachel Lindsay was clueless to the racist content of his poem (shades of Alice Walker?). At least I was introduced to the poem in historical context.

  57. Mark Clements
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ll name one book that fired me up on science…but not in the way it was intended to, I suspect. The book is “Wonderful Life,” by Stephen Jay Gould. When I read it I was delighted by Gould’s clear, evocative prose and fascinated by the topic of the Burgess Shale animals. But the more I read the more I began to feel that something was wrong. Even though at the time I knew nothing of Gould, he seemed to be far more interested in promoting a political stance on the interpretation of the fossils than he was in the fossils themselves. This suspicion got stronger as I read–a gut version of good old skepticism, which subsequent wider readings showed to be justified. Hence my subsequent increasing involvement in rational thinking, atheism, science, the culture wars, etc…. So thanks, Steve, in a backhanded sort of way.

  58. ubernez
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – the FitzGerald translation (3rd edition!) – is indispensible.
    It is beautiful. The other translations are literal, but lack the inherent poetry.
    (I have a dozen editions, with illustrations, and tiny pocket ones for travelling).
    Same with Dante’s Inferno. So many translations are ‘literal’ – but only Dorothy Sayers (yes, the Crime Writer!) captures the poetry and beauty.
    I studied it in the original ancient Florentine, and can vouch that her translation is the best.
    Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
    In dark woods, the right road lost.


    Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood
    Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

    (If only I could describe the original rhyming and verse patterns to you, and how Dorothy captures them…)

  59. Mark R.
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Wanted to add that right now I’m half-way through The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. I was actually tipped off by readers here on WEIT. I doubt it will change my life, but it sure is scaring the shit out of me.

  60. Heather Hastie
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    From earliest childhood (age 4) I’ve read a lot of history, mainly British and European. My fiction reading has always been mostly historical too. So, despite being a devout and committed Christian, I hated religion – especially the way it treated women and minorities. So I was aware of such issues much earlier than most kids. I still believed in God, but I decided very early that all religions had it wrong. Of course, because of my reading, there was plenty of evidence of religious corruption to back up my thoughts.

    Then Douglas Adams was the next big influence for me. I read the first one in my early 20s, and couldn’t get enough. I decided Adams was a brilliant philosopher, and I laughed out loud often while reading it (and as one of the nights I read it I spent in a cabin with my parents and siblings, to the extreme annoyance of others).

    It was watching a TV documentary including Richard Dawkins that I finally clicked there was no God. I then got hold of ‘The God Delusion’ and loved it. He crystallized thoughts I’d had since childhood. Before that, I wasn’t even really aware of atheism as I’d grown up thinking it was a synonym for devil worship and that was something I would never do. Now I knew I was an atheist and I became as excited about it as a born-again Christian. (I’ve calmed down a bit since then, but my opinions are as strong as ever.)

  61. Posted January 28, 2019 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Literature:The Origin of Species (Darwin);
    The Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley); poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins; Nabokov; Marquez.

    Art: Pietro da Cortona frescoes; Caravaggio;

    Music: Die Meistersinger (Wagner); Brahms; Handel operas plua Water Music; Schumann piano suites and songs; Marriage of Figaro.

    Films: Jesus of Montreal; Children of Paradise; The Seventh Seal; Burnt by the Sun.

    Structures: Fallingwater; Sagrada Familia;
    English cathedrals; Campidoglio;

    Living things: Bowerbirds; Hermit Thrush;
    Giraffes; Sloths; Sea Horses; Ocean Sunfish;

  62. Stephen Caldwell
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    I can think of three books:
    -Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Caught the interest of a bored eighth grader and turned me toward a greater love of science, history and philosophy.
    -E.E. Cummings’ Is 5.
    -Dante’s Inferno. Read it every couple of years, and it’s become more significant to me as I get older.

    • ubernez
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      I posted on Dante earlier.
      Do you have a particular translation you like?
      I swear by the Dorothy L Sayers.
      (Since you do like Dante – even if you don’t like or haven’t read the Sayers, I can recommend one thing: read the Introduction that Sayers wrote to her translation. I learned more about literary devices and Dante and ‘everything'(!!)from this than anywhere else – and made me want to learn more).

  63. Mark Joseph
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Well, the first two are easy:

    The Phantom Tollbooth, which has given me my life’s philosophy, the search for rhyme and reason.

    Something for Nothing, a short story by Robert Sheckley, which instilled in me a lifelong fear of debt.

    For third place, I’ll pick Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which is the best presentation that I know of what science is and how it works. However, I’d kind of like this book to stand in for all the science and anti-religion I’ve read since escaping from fundamentalism—the usual suspects like Dawkins, Coyne, Hitchens, Gould, Jacoby, as well as many other authors of whom I’ve only read one book, but which in each case contributed heavily to my true education; Ingersoll’s Essays, Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Sean B. Carroll’s The Making of the Fittest, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch, Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen, Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex, Ayaan Hirsi-Ali’s Infidel, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, and the standard anti-creationist books that everyone on this website already knows. Oh yes, also a little-known volume titled Origin of Species, by some dude named Chuck.

    • ubernez
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      YES! The Phantom Tollbooth!!!!!
      I still re-read it often.

      For all the high-falutin’ books that affected me, more attention to those childhood books of real substance.

      It’s all coming back to me now…I read:
      The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit, The Silver Sword, Watership Down, The Lion the Witch & th Wardrobe…

      But it is Tollbooth that had that play on words, and a unique take on reality vs fantasy.
      Loved it.
      Love it.

      • Mark R.
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think my wife would have married me had I not read (on her insistence) The Phantom Tollbooth. What a wonderful read.

        For one of her birthdays, I bought her a first edition signed by both Juster and his illustrator Jules Feiffer. I think it’s the best present I’ve ever given her and she would agree. And I’ve bought her a car! Books are magical (or as Jerry posed, life changing) especially when they capture the imagination of a young and curious mind.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

          One of the first things I did on meeting my daughter’s then-fiancé (they’ve now been married for over 10 years) was to give him a copy and tell him to read it. Which he did. He passed the test! So did you! 😉

          I cringe to ask, but how much did that signed copy cost??

  64. Gary
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. It gave me a way to understand why some built spaces just feel right, and others don’t. I think about it every time I visit a new bulding or travel to new town.

    Cells into Organs, by J.P. Trinkaus. This is a book about developmental morphology and how cell movements shape animal embryos. I read it as an undergraduate, and because of it decided to switch from ecology to developmental biology for graduate school. I ended up working with Trinkaus as my PhD advisor, and that led to the rest of my whole scientific career.

    I’ve loved many books, but these two changed my life.

  65. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Another cheer for “The Phantom Tollbooth”, although I don’t recall whether we read it to our kids, or just read it ourselves. A book we loved and DID read to our kids was about the misadventures of a family of incompetent bears, who did everything wrong; I can’t remember its name. And a book I admire so much that I reread it every few years is John Gardner’s magnificent “Grendel”, which is the Beowulf saga as told by the monster.

  66. Posted January 29, 2019 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    I suppose if there’s one book that’s influenced me the greatest (in the 19 years of my life) it would be Rationality: From AI to Zombies, by Eliezer Yudkowsky. It started out as a series of essays online, so that’s where I’ve read it. It covers a lot, from cognitive biases to Bayesian probability to evolution and quantum mechanics, and is basically a guide to thinking rationally. Highly recommended.


    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book; thank you for the recommendation.

      • Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        You can find the essays on Less Wrong.

  67. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    A big Yes to Omar Khayyam (or Fitzgerald).

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Sage, and heard great argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same door as in I went.

    Or, even more cynically –

    And those who husbanded the golden grain,
    And those who flung it to the winds like Rain,
    Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d
    As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

    Oddly, my father also liked Omar, which makes it one of the very few things we had in common (generally, if my father liked something, I liked the exact opposite).

    I can’t say any books have changed my view of life. Probably the nearest to that was Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker – which made it intellectually tenable to be an atheist. (I thought God was unbelievable anyway; Blind Watchmaker just made God superfluous).

    And there was a Robert Sheckley short story – The Store of the Worlds. With a typical Sheckley twist in the tail. But what it made me realise was – appreciate what you’ve got and make the most of it.
    Here it is, it’s quite short:


    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 29, 2019 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read more or less everything by Sheckley. I see from my list that I’d read this story, and rated it 4 (out of 5), but didn’t remember it, so I just read it again. Yes, it does make you think…

      There’s another, even shorter story that I think you’ll also like, which is kinda sorta similar, depending on how you squint at it. It’s Ken Liu’s The Tome of Tourmaline, and you can find it here.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Mark. Interesting and, as you say, similar in some ways. I do like the ending, even though it’s foreshadowed.


  68. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    I’d like to give a late nod to:

    – The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen(and all of alan Garner’s books really, with the exception of Red Shift which I was too small and thick to understand).

    I’ve since discovered that it wasn’t just me in the whole of the world who had read it, and that whenever I mention its name people either look at me blankly or catch their breath and start babbling about how much they loved it when they were younger.

    I was still shameless enough at late primary school to crib the whole of the book’s prologue and pass it off as my own, for which I got excellent marks and an unfamiliar smile of satisfaction and respect from my long-suffering English teacher.

  69. Posted January 29, 2019 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    A couple years ago I picked up Anna Karenina, years after the last time I read it. I was surprised by how appropriate was Levin’s philosophy of life — you go, Tolstoy! And then I realized that this philosophy matched mine because I’d first read the book when I was about twenty, introduced to it by a young man I admired. I reread it every year or two for many years. So the appropriate reaction was — you go Barb! You learned something.

    Note: At the time I would never have picked this out as a book that changed me.

  70. TJR
    Posted January 29, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Late to the party but I’ll chip in anyway.

    The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin

    I didn’t enjoy it much at the time, but in retrospect it heavily influenced my political thinking. The dramatisation of the two systems really sticks with you.

    Monty Python Live At Drury Lane

    Pure, concentrated comedy. I’ve been looking for that hit ever since.

    No More Heroes by The Stranglers

    Fast and aggressive but melodic – and as a result I now think that all music should be like that.

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