Patterico's Pontifications


Books That Have Changed My Life

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 12:02 am

A reader recently asked me about books that have affected my outlook on life. I’m sure I can’t remember them all, but here are a few that have had a real impact on the way I view certain topics:

  • Thomas Sowell: Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy. This book made me realize that capitalism isn’t just the best economic system; it’s the only one compatible with freedom. Government controls on the free market are nothing more than an attempt to take away your freedom to make choices for yourself.
  • James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time. Everyone knows that racism has had a huge effect on black people in this country. But I think that while white folks know this intellectually, it’s not always easy for us to feel it in our bones. No book can change that entirely, but this book helped me truly internalize how our history of racism has affected black people.
  • Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I spent hours and hours and hours with this book as a kid. I internalized the wisdom of the ancient philosophers at a young age — all in pithy little quotes.

There are many others, but these came to me off the top of my head. Feel free to list yours in the comments.

58 Responses to “Books That Have Changed My Life”

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell – A satire on communism, especially Stalin, but strong parallels to today’s MSM and Democrat Party. Best line: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  2. “Citizen Hughes” – The incredible (but 100% true) biography of Howard Hughes written by Michael Drosnin. His source for information on Hughes was a professional burglar who stole a vanload of stuff from one of Hughes’ warehouses. Part of the haul was several footlockers full of documentation – some written in Hughes’ own hand. If you want to know what true power is, read this book. It will also give you a window into mental illness and paranoia.

    Bryan Frymire (90f5d8)

  3. “The Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes

    Its copyright expired about 300 years ago, so its available for free now:

    alphie (015011)

  4. “Darkness at Noon” by Arther Koestler. Written by a Hungarian born British novelist, this is a walk through the depressing reality of Socialism. This book helped me understand how statist governments deaden the human spirit and destroy us as individuals by turning us into pawns for furthering state interests.

    Michael Swan (a556a7)

  5. Government controls on the free market are nothing more than an attempt to take away your freedom to make choices for yourself.

    Nothing more? Did you ever try reading an economics textbook instead?

    amarc (9c4cb9)

  6. Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State completely changed my understanding of Christian Zionism.

    aunursa (5cdea9)

  7. George Orwell’s “1984.” A dark, terrifying nightmare of a malevolent, omniscient government which controls life at every level. Is there anyone who doesn’t know who Big Brother is?

    Best lines:

    “Two plus two does not equal four. Sometimes it equals three, or five, or all of them at once.”

    You want a picture of the future, Winston? Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”

    John Simpson (3992c6)

  8. AF,

    From the article you cited: But CUFI has an ulterior agenda: its support for Israel derives from the belief of Hagee and his flock that Jesus will return to Jerusalem after the battle of Armageddon and cleanse the earth of evil.

    In Standing With Israel, author David Brog examines and thoroughly refutes that very claim — that Evangelical support for Israel is based on a Christian vision of the end times.

    aunursa (5cdea9)

  9. watch the video

    AF (4a3fa6)

  10. Which is a better book? “Here’s John Hagee” or “watch the video”?

    Patterico (8a1f8b)

  11. Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
    Plutarch’s Lives

    Vatar (c70795)

  12. Not a book, a photograph of the Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1991 when it was more than 4 Billion miles away, looking back and showing the Earth as a tiny pale blue dot, almost impossible to make out — just a “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam,” and yet, the place where “everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives,” as Carl Sagan put it.

    JayHub` (8ba390)

  13. “Of making books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh. … In much wisdom there is much vexation and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” [smile]

    I’m glad you qualified the title to “outlook on life” in the body of the post, Patterico. I would qualify it further to “and outlook on book knowledge” in my case. I read Dostoevski’s “The Brothers Karamazov” relatively late but it had a significant impact on ideas I had acquired and continues to be a filter for things I hear and read now. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories also influenced me and continue to influence me. His themes, among others, of loyalty and respect for the society in which we live, neither over-idealistic nor cynical, practical and pragmatic, accepting that even good people sometimes do bad things including ourselves.

    nk (173e2a)

  14. The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. Didn’t “change my life” in the sense of “altered fundamental beliefs or viewpoints”, but did make my life much more enjoyable for having read it. Gully Foyle is da bomb!!!

    1984. ‘Nuff said.

    Understanding Genesis, by Nahum Sarna. Helped my “religion” and “science” brains co-exist in a way they really hadn’t before.

    The Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler. If you think Galileo was tried by Rome because he said the Earth went around the sun, you’ll think differently after reading this. Oh yeah, and learn about how Johannes Kepler was one of the first, if not the first, people to apply rules of modern science to his work (he dumped 17 years of work on defining the circular orbit of Mars because two data points didn’t fit the theory). And that Nikolas Copernicus’s book about the heliocentric model of the solar system was more complicated than Ptolemy’s geocentric model. Cool stuff.

    Tons of new books to read now, and old friends to revisit. Thanks a lot for raising this topic, Patterico. Now I have to slack off around the house to get more reading time in. When my wife starts bitching at me, you’re to blame.

    I'm Geekier (a110bc)

  15. The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo

    JD (26820f)

  16. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk (my mother’s uncle)

    JD (26820f)

  17. Well, I can think of three histories, so here they are:

    Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. A voice speaking from thousands of years past, yet understandable, and relevant.

    Modern Times by Paul Johnson. A survey of the 20th century, with musings on the ideologies that animated people. A springboard for exploration.

    Battle Cry of Freedom. The Civil War in one volume.

    AMac (c822c9)

  18. The Fatal Conceit by Hayek

    Robin Roberts (6c18fd)

  19. Another I recommend is Death by Government by R.J. Rummel.

    Robin Roberts (6c18fd)

  20. Diary of Anne Frank

    Pablo (99243e)

  21. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

    Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

    Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

    The Iliad by Homer (Lattimore translation).

    Russell (a32796)

  22. Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy by Richard Posner. This book has not attracted the attention as Posner’s other books on dealing with terrorism and the Clinton impeachment. But I think people who read this blog will find it interesting and challenging.

    I’ll second the suggestions above for Paul Johnson’s Modern Times and David Brog’s Standing With Israel.

    A History of Israel: From Zionism to Our Time, by Howard M. Sahcar is long, detailed, and honest. Alan Dershowitz’ The Case For Israel is much shorter easier to read, and as you can tell from the title, a work of advocacy.

    Stu707 (adbb5a)

  23. Anarchy, State and Utopia
    Robert Nozick

    gavagai (27f927)

  24. Hmm… Patrick, why no fiction? Just asking.

    In my case the most “influential” book was the one that started a life-long addiction to reading: “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sure, utter trash, but for a precocious 10-year-old who had been bored to death by school-provided reading it completely changed my mind about books.

    Kevin Murphy (0b2493)

  25. “The Rage and the Pride” by Oriana Fallaci, because a brilliant female should be represented in this list of predominantly male authors, and because she passionately and boldly stripped away the ignorant veil, presenting a blunt and brutal enemy stripped down, no holds barred, that we collectively face. America at its best and polarized worst are brilliantly reflected in this small but mighty book. Freedom in the hands of this woman was something to behold.

    >”As I shall never tire of repeating, we did not need September 11 to see that the cancer was there. September 11 was the excruciating confirmation of a reality which had been burning for decades, the indisputable diagnosis of a doctor who waves an X-ray and brutally snaps: “My dear Sir, you have cancer.”

    Dana (b4a26c)

  26. The following are books that have had varying degrees of influence on me. Many of them I read when I was very young. For those of you interested in the black experience, I highly recommend the three books I’ve listed here, Manchild In the Promised Land, Native Son, and The Autobiography of Malcom X.

    While the books I’ve listed here did influence me in many ways, the only thing that I can say was literally life-changing was a film I saw when I was fifteen years old. My mom and I were visiting my older sister at college in Middlebury, VT, and one night we went to see a movie put on by one of the various film societies on campus. They showed a couple of short films before the feature, and one of them was a documentary on the Holocaust. It had footage of hundreds and hundreds of emaciated bodies piled like cordwood ten, fifteen, twenty feet high being bulldozed into a gigantic pit. That changed me forever.

    Catcher In the Rye, J.D. Salinger
    1984, George Orwell
    Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
    Lord of the Flies, William Golding
    Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown
    Autobiography of Malcom X
    Native Son, Richard Wright
    Autobiography of Lenny Bruce
    Diary of Anne Frank
    The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
    The Republic, Plato
    The Odyssey, Homer (doh!)
    The Iliad, Homer (mmmmmmm, Duff Beer…..)
    The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, Plutarch
    Leviathan (not The Leviathan, alphie) Thomas Hobbes
    Why I Am Not a Muslim, Ibn Warraq
    The Sword of the Prophet, Serge Trifkovic
    Anything on WWII by Stephen Ambrose
    Anything on the Civil War by Stephen W. Sears
    Dresden: Tuesday, February 13th, 1945, Frederick Taylor

    CraigC (c4ea17)

  27. It’s not a “changed my life” book but I recommend “The Skeptical Environmentalist.”

    DRJ (bea74b)

  28. Several excellent suggestions above. I read Modern Times last month and his History of the Jews is also great.

    As for being influenced, when I was a kid of 16, I read Fall of a Titan a novel by Igor Gouzenko. He was the Soviet code clerk who defected in 1945 and exposed a huge Soviet spy ring in the US and Canada. The novel is about a Tolstoy-like figure who is slowly corrupted by the communists. It’s been 50 years since I read it but it still stays in my memory as the beginning of understanding. The other book that almost knocked me for a loop was On the Beach by Neville Shute. I was a college student and became convinced that this was prophetic. I went into a tailspin for a year or two. Finally pulled out so the effect wasn’t lasting. What made it really scary was that he had written two other prophetic novels that came true; one was “Ordeal”, which predicted the battle of Britain, and the other was “No Highway”, which predicted the Comet crashes the year after it came out. I have read all his novels but cannot reread On the Beach. Too sad.

    Mike K (6d4fc3)

  29. Sowell is great, isn’t he?

    I think people will still be reading him fifty or a hundred years from now.

    If I were a big conservative foundation like Heritage, I would try to pass out copies of A Conflict of Vision to college students.

    See Dubya (334999)

  30. Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan

    Hinges of History series by Thomas Cahill

    Henry IV & V by William Shakespeare

    Ender/Shadow series by Orson Scott Card

    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

    H2U (81b7bd)

  31. 1 – Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged of course, which, according to an old survey conducted by the Lirbrary of Congress, is the second most influential book after The Bible, and still sells thousands of copies worldwide each year

    2 – F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom

    3 – Practically everything by Robert A. Heinlein, but most especially Starship Troopers

    4 – Milton & Rose Friedman, Free to Choose

    Horatio (a549f7)

  32. Yes, yes, Atlas Shrugged. How could I forget that?

    CraigC (c4ea17)

  33. “The Caine Mutiny.”
    If you’ve only seen the movie(s), you may think the book is about ‘crazy’ Captain Queeg. But the far superior novel is actually about the maturing of Willis Keith, who learns the most important lessons of life through adversity and example. An absorbing page-turner that teaches the achievements of what we now call “The Greatest Generation.”

    gp (72be5d)

  34. Kevin Murphy – That is a great point. Richard Bach and his books on flying (One, Jonathon Livingston Seagull, A Gift of Wings, etc …) were the ones that got me hooked on reading, and flying.

    JD (26820f)

  35. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: instilled the dangers of pidgeon-holing people based on their reputations

    Anthem: made individualism feel like not just a virtue, but a moral imperative

    roy (3a744a)

  36. CraigC, I also like

    The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
    The Republic, Plato


    The Art of War – by Sun Tzu

    Vatar (c70795)

  37. How Democracies Perish – Jean Francois Revel.

    The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt.

    Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe.

    Justin Levine (20f2b5)

  38. I had a course at the University of Illinois where the required texts were The Prince, The Art of War, and The Tao Te Jing.

    The Inferno is one hell of a book too.

    JD (26820f)

  39. The Grapes of Wrath.

    amarc (5eb8c7)

  40. Let me add Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia, and Oriana Falaci’s The Force of Reason

    Horatio (a549f7)

  41. I’m going to add The Source by James Michener. Awesome book.

    H2U (81b7bd)

  42. Good list all.

    I will always remember The Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing. I guess I felt at 16 she was writing about me, and knew me far better than I knew myself. (She lost me on the last volume, though, The Four-Gated City.)

    Patricia (549779)

  43. Sowell is great, isn’t he?

    I think people will still be reading him fifty or a hundred years from now.

    Everything you need to know about Oprah Winfrey is that Sowell, to my knowledge, has never been on her show. On the other hand, rap impresario Russell Simmons was recently on twice within two weeks.

    L.N. Smithee (810432)

  44. Hmm… Patrick, why no fiction? Just asking.

    I can’t speak for Pat, but personally, it irks me when people assign demigod status to novelists such that they will often quote them before they would dare quote scripture. “Shakespeare said…” “Orwell wrote…” “In the words of Ernest Hemingway…” Academians and historians pump them up as if they were prophets or eons-old and unworldly wise visitors to our inferior sphere. One wonders who will be so inflated in the future: E.L. Doctorow? L. Ron Hubbard?

    L.N. Smithee (a4abde)

  45. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.

    Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. (I would almost add The Door into Summer and Farnham’s Freehold, but how much can one man change me?)

    The Iliad (but not, for some reason, The Odyssey)

    Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. (And The Possessed, and the greatest novel ever written, The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky pile-on!)

    The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn (one volume abridged edition)

    Life and Fate, by Vassily Grossman.

    The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

    Modern Times by Paul Johnson (and then I have to add Birth of the Modern and The History of Christianity)

    Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre (don’t ask)

    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

    The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

    Hamlet (Since other people are throwing in plays, too)

    Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.

    Jean Anouilh’s Antigone.

    Glen Wishard (b1987d)

  46. it irks me when people assign demigod status to novelists such that they will often quote them before they would dare quote scripture.

    Fiction is only a medium. Its ability to convey things of worth is limited only by the talent of it author. Does it also irk you that Leonardo DaVinci’s paintings are valued more than any photograph?

    nk (173e2a)

  47. Mr. Smithee – Some of those writers, well, they can just write a sentence, well.

    JD (26820f)

  48. Heinlein, of course

    Ender’s Game

    To that add anything by Cicero if it’s in Latin

    Almost everything by Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral

    Micheal Z Williamson’s Hero is a terrifyingly good examination of the justification for state sponsored terrorism.

    Discipline and Punish is my favorite work by Foucault. It changed the way I understood power structures.

    Of Mice and Men

    Finally Anything by Terry Pratchett I’ve never seen a writer who can present difficult concepts so painlessly

    Dr, T (b1f404)

  49. Bored of the Rings by Douglas C. Kenny and Henry Beard for showing me that nothing is (or should be) above parody.

    Alan Kellogg (7cc4c4)

  50. Here’s one, Pat!
    “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA”
    From a nice review:

    Perhaps the most comical of all CIA clandestine activities — unfortunately all too typical of its covert operations over the last 60 years — was the spying it did in 1994 on the newly appointed American ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee, who sought to promote policies of human rights and justice in that country. Loyal to the murderous Guatemalan intelligence service, the CIA had bugged her bedroom and picked up sounds that led their agents to conclude that the ambassador was having a lesbian love affair with her secretary, Carol Murphy. The CIA station chief “recorded her cooing endearments to Murphy.” The agency spread the word in Washington that the liberal ambassador was a lesbian without realizing that “Murphy” was also the name of her two-year-old black standard poodle. The bug in her bedroom had recorded her petting her dog. She was actually a married woman from a conservative family. [p. 459]


    “The historical record is unequivocal. The United States is ham-handed and brutal in conceiving and executing clandestine operations, and it is simply no good at espionage; its operatives never have enough linguistic and cultural knowledge of target countries to recruit spies effectively. The CIA also appears to be one of the most easily penetrated espionage organizations on the planet. From the beginning, it repeatedly lost its assets to double agents.”

    This is good too:

    Nothing has done more to undercut the reputation of the United States than the CIA’s “clandestine” (only in terms of the American people) murders of the presidents of South Vietnam and the Congo, its ravishing of the governments of Iran, Indonesia (three times), South Korea (twice), all of the Indochinese states, virtually every government in Latin America, and Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The deaths from these armed assaults run into the millions. After 9/11, President Bush asked “Why do they hate us?” From Iran (1953) to Iraq (2003), the better question would be, “Who does not?”

    AF (4a3fa6)

  51. I know I’m late to the party although I read Patterico’s post the moment it went up.

    I’ve been thinking about it deeply since then.

    The answer, hands down, is a book written by a Californian, David Allen, called “Getting Things Done.

    I’ve only recently started this book and in fact have gotten a lot of my info from a podcast (free if you’re interested… 8-chapters, 90-minutes in all, of time-and-life management gold) called “Getting Things Done.”

    You see, I’m a fairly smart person and often get paralyzed by wanting to do so much, but not knowing what of the things I should do I’ll do first.

    And wanting to plan everything before doing. Also, worrying about what to do with the inputs I’ll get when I start action and knowing in advance I’ll get overwhelmed by it and have no realistic plan to follow through.

    This book has solved all THOSE problems for me.

    Oh, as the author makes clear you’ll never get rid of problems. Successful people have problems most of us only dream of.

    But I’m not caught up in the doing and wondering if I’ll take action when I have a goal, project, or problem.


    This book is really about managing work flow. Creating a system. The details are left up to you and it works both with electronic and paper systems or hybrid… it’s really the principles he teaches that allow you to handle complexity.

    Before this book I was always trying to find simple answers to complex problems and not doing anything until I figured which of all the myriad actions was most important.

    Allen teaches not to try necessarily try to divide a project into 100-pieces and prioritize them… but to find the next action, do that, and choose the next action once that’s done.

    Before I listened to the podcasts (twice) I thought it was a bunch of BS and prioritizing in advance was the key, now I realize it was holding me back.

    By recording what I need to do on different lists sorted by context (@home, @errands, @office, @Bill, etc.) I can pick and choose the tasks that make most sense, deal easily with interruptions and opportunities, and get back to getting things done!

    It is a phenomenal difference.

    Yes, he teaches “natural planning” and mind mapping for sketching out more complex projects and there’s a reason for it.

    But it’s all about clearing your inboxes (email, paper, house and home, whatever), turning problems into projects, doing the next action, filing certain things away for reference so you can find them again, and treating your calendar for hard tasks only.

    That plus tickler files, which I use for home and email now. I can’t believe I have empty inboxes EVERYWHERE for the first time ever and am doing projects I’ve been planning for months, but haven’t done anything all.

    The best part is the subtitle: “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”

    I can’t describe just how much this book reduces stress. It’s incredibly popular among knowledge workers, for example, because of the complexity of the inputs and projects they work with… and it makes you feel good about everything because even if you can’t do it now, you know it’s properly catalogued for action later so you don’t have to worry about it.

    It allows you to clarify problems that matter, rather than focusing on self-organization.

    In short, this is the best book I have ever read (and I’ve read thousands).

    If you’re stressed at all or feel you’re not getting done what you know you should do, I beg you to read this book.

    And anyone whose ever read my comments knows I’ve never “begged” before.

    I just get down on my hands and knees and urge you to consider adding this thin, inexpensive, paperback book to your reading list.

    If you want to get a free taste, you can download 90-minutes of NON-sales, pure-info podcasts here.

    Christoph (24f655)

  52. nk wrote: Does it also irk you that Leonardo DaVinci’s paintings are valued more than any photograph?

    In the case of DaVinci, no, because not only were his drawings of near-photographic quality, he was a bonafide genius on many levels whose legacy far pre-dates the industrial revolution. An original from the master’s own hand ought to be worth millions.

    OTOH, don’t get me started on Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Vincent Van Gogh.

    I just don’t think much of people who imply that one is somehow deficient as a human being if they haven’t read, say, Moby Dick. Often times, such people treat “classic” works of fiction as if they are more profound and accurate than history itself.

    L.N. Smithee (f00bfe)

  53. One of mine is also by Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone, but the differences I had with the liberals with whom I worked and lived at the time I read it were so perfectly explained by that book that it’s changed me forever.

    Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose, The Situation in Flushing by Edmund Love, and The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. This last is actually a collection of essays but two stand out for me: Why I am Not a Pacifist and On Forgiveness. I think even the non-religious would get something out of them (particularly the first). Changed my outlook on dealing with other people and my tendency to be judgmental.

    Linus (cc24db)

  54. Dune – first read it at 16… and I’ve re-read it probably 10 times over the past 30 years. While fiction (sci-fi in fact) it sent me on a long sojourn examining what is professed verses what is intended in personal, governmental and societal realms.

    …and Plato’s Republic.

    bains (ae8034)

  55. The Bible. NIV

    patrick (5903bd)

  56. Just finished Atlas Shrugged this weekend, so that’s at the top of my list for a while. This is the kind of thinking that makes one a prick at dinner parties. Ditto Sowell or Solzhenitsyn, but the story in Atlas Shrugged just made the concepts more alive somehow.

    carlitos (b38ae1)

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