The Most Influential Books I’ve Ever Read
Back in December, a friend of mine asked me to list my top ten books which had done the most to shape and inform my philosophy, outlook, and worldview. I originally intended to compile a list and reply to him via text, but he’d asked another mutual friend of ours for the same and she wrote up a wonderful blog post you can read here. I felt compelled to match her effort, but it’s just taken me months to get around to it.
A couple caveats are in order. First, this list would be radically different at different points in my life, and so there were many that shaped me I know longer ascribe to, and many recently read books which will likely be on this list in five or ten years. Also, many of my genuinely top ten books will be books you’d find on many other people’s top tens, particularly those who share my values or life experience. For example, even Melody and I share four of our top ten, which would make for pretty boring reading.
So I will include my “Top 10 Most Influential Unique Books,” followed by a section which is “My Actual Top 10 Books, Including Widely Common Choices,” followed by an honorable mention section. Here we go:
- Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis – I consider Lewis to be one of our most brilliant thinkers and authors of the past millennia. His ability to take complex philosophical, metaphysical, and theological concepts and discuss them simply and concisely so the common person can understand them is without peer. I would consider this examination of the fundamental elements of Christianity to be the most essential extra-Biblical book worth reading, whether a believer or merely curious about the Christian faith. I could have easily included a collection of Lewis’ works that includes this one, as other works such as The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce are equally brilliant.
- Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis – Lewis strikes again, with his semi-allegorical series of high-fantasy novels about an alternate world called Narnia. As the series follows of children from our world and their adventures in discovering and participating in the events of Narnia, Lewis weaves a tale that manifests the creation, salvation, and glorification stories of Christian theology as they might occur in a world far different from our own. The result is the communication of profound truths through art that are far more impactful than they might have been in a textbook of Christian theology.
- The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman – I read this book in my early twenties, and it had a two-fold effect. The first was that I learned the thesis of the book, that there are five primary ways in which individuals are wired to give and receive love and affection (words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, physical touch, and quality time). The second was a more general and profound realization of how different individuals can be, and how hard we must work to understand others as they actually are, rather than lazily transposing our values and motivations onto every one around us. This book and the concepts it introduced to me made me a better follower, leader, husband, and father.
- Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein – I had a difficult time choosing a single Heinlein work for this list, but settled on this one because of how meaningfully it impacted my life philosophy, and because of how misunderstood and misinterpreted it is. A sci-fi novel about a distant future with a single, global federated government in which there are civilians and citizens, the voting franchise and political power must be earned through work and demonstration of one’s willingness to subordinate the interests oneself to the whole of one’s society through difficult, dangerous service. The vote is an act of political force, exercising authority over not only one’s own destiny, but over the destiny of one’s neighbors as well. While we in America view voting as a natural right, I am unsure what natural right I have to determine how much of your wages and earnings you keep and how much you are forced to surrender to the state. A quick read, this book is entertaining, a prescient imagining of future military technology, and an insightful examination of the friction between liberty and authority on one hand, and responsibility on the other.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee – This might be my most cliche entry on the list. The character of Atticus Finch is one of my favorite protagonists in all of fiction, and since I read the book as a boy has been the kind of man I would like to emulate. Atticus is brave, just, compassionate, and resolute in his principles in the face of any and all popular condemnation. A good dad, and a man who serves virtue and tries to do what he thinks is right no matter the consequences. This is the man I hope to become.
- Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield – This historical fiction novel takes place in Ancient Greece during the second invasion by the Persian Empire. It fills in the blanks around historical events with imagined narratives of the characters, some real and some imagined. I read this book at 25 years old and in the middle of my own series of wars in the US Army, and the novels examination of war, the relationship between soldiers, and the general ethos of those who fight and face mortal danger together had a profound impact on my thoughts and feelings on my wartime service. Pressfield touches on many eternal truths known by men and women at war who’ve wondered if they would live to see the next day. Candidly, this is the book they should have made into a film, rather than the graphic novel 300.
- Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – George Orwell’s 1984 imagined a future where the masses would be controlled through pain and fear in a Leviathan of a surveillance state. While we certainly seem to have the surveillance state part, Huxley’s earlier novel has come closer to the reality we now inhabit in the US in the 21st Century. Namely, Huxley imagined a world where people would be controlled through pleasure. The characters of Brave New World go through their lives distracted by sex and frivolous entertainment, with their critical thinking dulled by a drug called “soma.” Rather than controlling by instilling fear and obedience, the masters in Huxley’s world control by instilling apathy and distraction. Rather than rewriting books, they rulers create a society where no one is interested in reading them anyway. Rather than frightening the people enough so they do not question what their political masters are up to, Huxley’s villains distract the populace so they don’t really care what is happening beyond their own bubble of hedonistic pleasures and entertainment. Of dystopian fiction, we certainly have a combination of Orwell and Huxley’s visions, but Huxley was closer to the reality of where 21st Century North America and Western Europe ended up.
- Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, by T.R. Fehrenbach – The prideful Texan has become a cliche, and I can poke fun at Texans with the best of them. That said, I am earnestly and unrepentantly a proud Texan myself. I am not blind to the faults of Texans or the uniquely tribal culture of Texas, but like patriotism in America writ large I am primarily interested in the idea of the Texan ideal based on our history and the positive cultural values we can learn from it. Fehrenbach’s work deeply and thoroughly examines the history of Texas and how events and people shaped this place and the unique people whom inhabit it. I look to this book for examples of members of my tribe who came before me who best exhibit the principles I aspire to and whom I can emulate in my journey to be a better man.
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – One of my favorite authors of all time, and I choose this book because of the beautiful relationship between a father and his son in the most ugly and terrifying of worlds (Seriously, this is one of the darkest and most disturbing books I’ve ever read). I know many people who say they could not reread this novel now that they have become fathers, and I understand the sentiment. For me it is actually the opposite. In reading this novel, I am reminded of my primarily responsibility as a father: To safeguard my family, and specifically my kids. While we still enjoy a wonderful world that, in spite of its considerable structural flaws, provides us the highest standard of living the world has ever seen, that could all change starting tomorrow. If it does, have I prepared myself to protect and provide for my family regardless of how bad the world gets? Can I protect them against any and all of the most unimaginable, dystopian horrors that could one day befall us? If not, what am I doing to change that? A beautiful story of hope in a world seemingly without hope, The Road forces me to ask myself if I am the kind of man my wife and kids would need in that world?
- The Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay – Originally written as anonymous letters to the editor or New York newspapers as New York debated ratifying the United Stated Constitution, The Federalist Papers contain the most holistic examination of the principles upon which our republic was founded of which I am aware. Many might conclude that the ideas of these men so long ago have no relevance to governing in the 21st Century, but I couldn’t disagree more. This book is a masterclass in republican enlightenment thinking, and anyone who considers themselves a serious student of political thought and discourse should read them.
Common Book Choices In My Top 10
Here’s the books I omitted from my top ten in the interest of not having 50% of my list match that of virtually everyone else in my friend and professional peer circles:
- The Bible, New American Standard Bible 2020 – This book is the foundation for all that I am, and has informed my worldview more than any other. Specifically, Jesus Christ and his life and teachings represent the perfection of man and it is he is whom we all should strive to emulate. I love Aslan from Chronicles of Narnia and Atticus Finch, but Jesus of Nazareth stands alone as my model for whom I want to follow and become more like. If you can only read one book of the Bible, I would be torn between Paul’s letter to the Romans, or his letter to the Corinthians. You can’t go wrong with either one. I like the NASB translation for its combination of accuracy and readability, although I often enjoy the Psalms and Proverbs in the King James translation.
- Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius – Over the course of the last couple decades, I’ve tried my best to read two books daily: One chapter a day of the Book of Proverbs (of which there are 31, making for a tidy monthly cyclical reading), and Meditations. This work was essentially the diary of the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, and is full of practical, simple wisdom that can help us lead a life well lived.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie – Whenever I teach firearms and self-defense classes, I invariably mention that the single most impactful thing you can do to enhance your personal security is to read this book. To put a random, non-scientific number on it, I’d venture that 70% of all interpersonal violence is the result of avoidable conflict over perceived disrespect and clashes of ego. By reading this book and practicing the principles contained therein, we can get along better with folks and, in eliminating the 70% of avoidable danger of violence we only have to worry about the remaining 30%, which makes life much easier. Beyond that, these principles have stood the test of nearly a century, and can help us improve our relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and strangers we meet as we go about our daily lives.
- The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien – There’s little I can say here that most readers aren’t already at least faintly aware of. This book is a masterpiece of world building and high fantasy, examining universal themes of the human experience such as friendship, bravery, love, service, and sacrifice.
- Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan – Written as a Christian allegory in 1648, Bunyan’s work is similar to the Narnia series in that it uses allegory to reveal deep truths about the Christian theology. Bunyan began writing Pilgrim’s Progress when imprisoned for preaching outside the approved orthodoxy. It contains some of my favorite imagery of Christian concepts. Here’s one example: “Off to the side sits a man with a pen and inkhorn on the table before him, ready to register in a book the names of those deemed worthy to enter the palace. A man of ‘very stout countenance’ approaches and says: ‘Set down my name, sir.’ That done, the man draws his sword, puts on his helmet, and rushes upon the soldiers in the doorway, who wound him many times. But the man, ‘cutting and hacking most fiercely,’ finally presses through the soldiers and into the palace, and those outside hear a pleasant voice welcoming him: ‘Come in, come in; Eternal glory thou shalt win.'”
- Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville – In the 1830s Tocqueville was sent to America by the French government to study American prisons as France sought prison reform, and he used the opportunity to study American society instead. As an outside observer, he chronicled what he thought was unique and useful or harmful about American society, and compared and contraster American culture with European society at the time. The book is long and a dry read from those with short attention spans, but tremendously illuminating in regards to what principles separated America during its ascent and growth in power and prestige among the global community.
- The Generals, by Thomas Ricks – This book examines the history of American generalship from World War II to the present day, and is critical of the culture of general officers in the post-war era. While the prevailing wisdom is to attribute failures in war to political considerations and mistakes by politicians, Ricks posits that the general officer ranks in the US military, and their drastically changed relationship with politicians, are largely culpable to the diminishing military success of America following WWII. A must read for those who think seriously about foreign policy and war.
- The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli – Machiavelli was a 16th Century author, diplomat, and political advisor and theorist, whose very name has become synonymous with political deceit, intrigue, and realpolitik (ie “Machiavellian”). The Prince is written as advice to a prince in how to govern effectively and essentially advises a purely amoral and pragmatic view of political rule. Many historians believe that The Prince was written as satire actually critiquing rulers at the time, though I am not sure if I accept that view. For myself, I believe the book raises the question as to whether individual moral behavior can or should be transposed to the government of nation-states. I find The Prince to be a fascinating examination of competing viewpoints on how to best exercise power and to what purpose.
- Christian Apologetics, by Dr. Norman Geisler – This book is essentially a textbook of Christian Apologetics. In this context, the word comes from “apologia,” or an argument or written defense of one’s opinions and claims. Christian Apologetics seeks to defend the Christian faith on logical, philosophical grounds (and can and should be supported with evidence from other disciplines). Remember above when I said that Lewis could make complex subjects sound simple? Well, that is not necessarily Geisler’s aim or strong suit. Certainly none of this book is unnecessarily dense, but the subject matter itself is complicated enough to make comprehension difficult. I consider myself a passably intelligent guy, but with this book multiple readings of the same paragraph are often necessary. Still, if someone wants to dig into the logical arguments for theism generally and Christianity in particular, this book is worth the effort.
- Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry – My favorite American Western-themed novel of all time. The characters themselves are vivid and fully formed, and the story of friendship and loyalty is tremendously meaningful to me. The two primary characters, Woodrow Call and Augustus McRae, are rightfully two of the most beloved characters in Western fiction. Their combative but symbiotic relationship is realistic and beautiful, and there is much worthy of emulation in both characters. Fascinatingly, author McMurtry intended to write an unromantic novel that showed how pitiless and ugly the Old West really, was, and was forever perplexed at how beloved and inspiring the novel was received. Once you’ve finished the novel, go watch the 1989 mini-series, which still holds up.
There you have it, friends. I’ve no doubt omitted numerous books simply because after a lifetime of reading it feels like a Herculean task to summarize my favorite or most influential books into such a brief list. No doubt others will occur to me as time goes on, and I may either come back and add them here or write a whole new post. What about you? What are some of your books not listed here that made a profound impact on you? Let me know in the comments.
One thought on “My Top 10 Books”
I started reading Heinlein when my mom introduced me to Tunnel in the Sky and Glory Road when I was 10. By the time I read Starship Troopers at 15, I was already sincerely considering service as several of the surrogate father figures I had in my life came from that background.
Without realizing it at the time, ST cemented my decision to do so, I just needed to choose a specific branch. In the decades since, I’ve re-read it probably a dozen more times, since I’m not the quickest study when it comes to philosophical content, and I’ve gleaned more from the subsequent readings each time.
I do love these blogs, please keep them coming.