Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The 123 Books that shaped my 20s: 1999-2009

As someone with books stuffed everywhere I can find room for them in my house, I am no stranger to "lists of books to read." I'm a great collector of such lists, and being a choleric, a big checker-off of such lists.

Throughout the years I have slowly accumulated a group of books that I look back to as life-changing. The phrase "it changed my life" is so hackneyed in our days, and in the mouths of careless MTV youths, it will be used to describe their reactions to cultural items like, oh say, Zach Braff's Garden State.

Yet, hackneyed as the phrase may be in our modern parlance, these books really have changed my life. At their most forceful, they have caused radical changes - like the complete cold-turkey stoppage of eating fast food after I had only read half of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation - or the "I get it" moments of Michael Gerber's E-Myth Revisited or the sick feeling of acknowledgement in Chalmers Johnson's foreign policy classic, Blowback. At their least forceful, they have stirred the waters of my soul - as Hamlet has done in the dozens of times I've read that play, or as Tolstoy did to me in Anna, or as Alphonse Ratisbonne made me weep as I read his conversion story.

Some have changed the very way I think - Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and the Tipping Point, as well as G.K. Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World, Neil Postman's Technopoly, Joseph Pieper's Leisure the Basis of Culture, Veuillot's Liberal Illusion, and Belloc's The Servile State.

Others informed my consistently skeptical attitude towards our modern utter lack of education and point in broad and fine strokes historical events that have defined the last century - Bowden's Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah, Jim Wilson's Retreat, Hell!, and Warren Carroll's The Last Crusade. Others, like the 4-part Woodward series on the Bush Presidency, threw into stark relief a thousand points of dim light regarding that failed administration.

The list is not intended to be complete. Indeed, at only 30, I hope, God willing, to continue to learn about the good, the true, and the beautiful as long as I may.

Further, this list is not supposed to be a list of the alleged "Great Books" - though I've read those. Pascal's Pensees, or Erasmus' Folly, or Calvin's Institutes or Machiavelli's The Prince or Hobbes, blah blah blah. While this may be heresy for me to say (though I doubt it), I found them interesting, but not life-changing. This is not to say you shouldn't pick up a copy of Locke's Second Treatise on Government. It may change your life.

There were obviously times I couldn't read what I wanted at all - like the 3 months I spent in boot camp, or my junior year of college when I had 4 English classes in one semester! One was a dearth - another was overmuch.

In Book 7 of the Republic Plato opines that it may be possible to learn things too soon. One particular work that made this list was Moby Dick. I remember being assigned this as a 16-year old English student and absolutely hating it. I never finished it. Then, my sophomore year of college, after I had begun to digest Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante, I came back to Moby Dick. What a world opened! Melville's ability to set a scene - to keep our attention - to play with names - to thread a narrative - overwhelmed me: How could I have been so wrong?! As I've grown older, I've realized I wasn't wrong. I just wasn't ready yet.

Books are not on this list because I have read them dozens of times, but rather because reading them at least once was enough for me to know that I had changed - even a little - and that has made all the difference.

I've grouped them by category, in no particular order - though I did make sure to list business books last. Practicality, while it has claimed ascendancy in my actions these past years, still is the servant of contemplation of the permanent things - an activity which may be incoherent in our modern age, but which is, I believe, the only way to survive our ongoing madness.

Books that changed my life – Cultural Commentary and the Permanent Things (31)
An Essay on the Restoration of Property, Hilaire Belloc - a short essay discussing the importance of private property
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Malcolm Gladwell - documentation, told in a narrative format, of why you should trust your instincts
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, David Brooks - a quite funny account of "bourgeois bohemians" and the forerunner to the hilarious "Things White People Like" blog
Catholic Manual of Civility, ed. by Dr. Marian Horvat - a short, not-dated book of etiquette
The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, James Howard Kunstler - a tour of 8 cities of the world, and their glories and shortcomings in the light of what we've always known about how humans live together
Crunchy Cons, Rod Dreher - a manifesto of what it means to not align the way you live with an ideology, but with the permanent things
The Death of Socrates, Plato - proof that conversations among friends are some of the most meaningful and enduring things in life
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser - the book that made me stop eating fast food 7 years ago
The Four Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Timothy Ferriss - a reminder that life is what you make it, not what technology might force us to be
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - a jarring contrarian view of trends in the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell
The Free Press, Hilaire Belloc - a startlingly modern view of new media - written almost 100 years ago
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscapes, James Howard Kuntsler - a history of how our towns and cities died
Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century, James Howard Kuntsler - a book that utterly destroys our myths and notions about what we've always truly known about what was wrong with our cityscapes and land
The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, Leon Kass - why food is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not picked up from a drive-through window
The Idea of a University, John Henry Cardinal Newman - a passionate defense of the place of theology in a university; indeed a treatise on a university's raison d'etre being contingent upon its pride of place
Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver - reminds us, among other things, that piety is not just something we owe to God, but to nature, each other, the past, and ourselves
The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges - "how to be an intellectual" or how to cultivate useful habits of learning
Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper - the book that taught me that leisure is not just something for the wealthy, but something that lathes our daily lives
The Liberal Illusion, Louis Veuillot - what is wrong with classic liberalism
Liberalism is a Sin, Dom Sarda y Salvany - written like the Veuillot book, but from the point of view of a priest
The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall - a shorter, broader view of the Sertillanges book
The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, James Howard Kuntsler - a book I disagree with in several parts, but which deftly weaves together the convergence of trends - that the problem isn't just oil or climate or water shortage - but a failure to come together to thoughtfully and realistically solve our problems
The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle - proof that ethical questions predate Christianity and reside in the very heart of man
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Michael Pollan - dissects the who/what/why/where/when/how of our eating habits - it doesn't make a case for an all-organic diet, but I moved to one after reading it
On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and always have) in the Future Tense, David Brooks - a companion to Home from Nowhere and a sequel to Bobos, it exposes the shallowness of our suburban dreams
Restoring the Family, Dr. Marian Horvat - a discussion of the former (and hopefully future) traditional roles and rites of the family
The Rural Solution - essays on returning to the land
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman - a prescient book that points out that technology is not evil in itself - but that it must always be considered - and at times rejected - if its benefits are outweighed by its detriments
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell - *the* book about influential trends in our society; social chaos theory
What's Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton - as always with Chesterton, a scathingly funny series of essays about the values of modern man
Witness, Whittaker Chambers - a reminder that not only was Communism not something in the distant past, but something that snaked evilly through our halls of government

Books that changed my life – Great Literature (18)
Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner - Faulkner's finest work - a sweeping commentary on what the War to Prevent Southern Independence wrought not just in Mississippi, but in individual souls
The Aeneid, Virgil - while no less than T.S. Eliot loved this book, I loved it from the first time I read it, despite my professor's almost-ruining of it for me
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy - full of the fine craft of the Russian novelist
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky - always remembered for its chapter on the Grand Inquisitor, it's worth much more than that
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer - a reminder that English as we speak it hasn't been around that long, but that humans that behave like us are timeless
The Confessions, St. Augustine - full of memorable anecdotes from one who loved God passionately
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas - "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Revenge"
The Divine Comedy, Dante - the beauty of the Italian may be lost in translation, but the beauty of the ideas transcends them
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift - talking horses, flying islands, little people, giants? Whose list is this book not on?
Hamlet, William Shakespeare - a play I've always contended was Shakespeare's best until recently; it is well worth reading over and over
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad - short, but you can feel the sweat on your neck as you go up the river
The Iliad, Homer - reading the first few lines of any translation will always give you chills to think of how connected this book can make one feel through millennia of Western civilization
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert - a tragic story about how the morality of everyday life did not appeal to Emma Bovary
Moby Dick, Herman Melville - the Great American Novel. Sorry Mr. Twain.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce - Joyce's source novel; it won't make reading Ulysses any easier, but at least you'll be pointed in the right direction
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky - what Conrad might have read before writing Heart of Darkness, it's full of memorable, tortured monologues
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut - a thoughtful commentary about time and our conceptions about life
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare - cross-dressing, true love, homoeroticism, torture - you know, Shakespeare!

Books that changed my life – Crisis in, and History, Doctrine, and Spirituality of, the Roman Catholic Church (31)
AA-1025: Memoirs of an Anti-Apostle, Marie Carre - about the communist infiltration of the Catholic Church; horrifying, but necessary reading
Against the Heresies, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre - commentaries on the encyclicals written prior to 1960; i.e. on the encyclicals worth anything
Animus Delendi, Vols I and II, Atila Sinke Guimaraes - part of Guimaraes masterwork on the Council and utter wreck it caused for the Barque of Peter
Baptism of Desire: A Patristic Commentary, Fr. Jean-Marc Rulleau - a guide to those tempted by Feeneyism, a seemingly ever-present object of affection for people with no lives
The Catechism of the Council of Trent, ed. St. Charles Borromeo - the real Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Conversion of Ratisbonne, Alphonse Ratisbonne - how the Mother of God can change hearts in an instant
Cranmer’s Godly Order, Michael Davies - an account of how the Anglicans changed the lex orandi in order to change the lex credendi; parallels in our modern age are astounding
Famine of the Spirit, Dom Hubert Van Zeller - a monk's beautiful meditations on the inner spiritual life
Hell, Fr. F.X. Schouppe - a topic no one in the modern age cares for, but everyone has to answer for
In the Murky Waters of Vatican II, Atila Sinke Guimaraes - THE work on the Council and its "meaning(s)"
Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales - a corollary to Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life, this instructs the neophyte in the love of God
Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, Romano Amerio - for those serious about studying Vatican II, this is the graduate course beyond the Guimaraes book
The Kingship of Christ according the the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Denis Fahey - a reminder that Christ's kingship must not just be over our hearts, but over our countries and planet
My Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis - a book that proves that one or two pages can cut our souls to the quick
The Ottaviani Intervention, ed. by Fr. Anthony Cekada - a timely, still-relevant document that questioned everything about the 1969 Novus Ordo Missae
Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness, Warren Carroll - Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of North America; this book will make you grateful
The Popes Against Modern Errors, ed. Anthony Mioni - an excellent collection of the most relevant papal encyclicals prior to 1960
Previews of the New Papacy, Atila Sinke Guimaraes - documentation of the degredation that John Paul II has put the Church through
The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II, Fr. Ralph Wiltgen - an objective insider/outsider view that does not even know how honest it is being; a necessary companion piece to Guimaraes' Murky Waters
The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton - Merton's best; before he went off the deep end
The Sinner's Return to God, Fr. Michael Muller - one of my absolute favorite spiritual books by a masterly author; a defense of the need and efficacy of confession
The Soul of the Apostolate, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard - a bedside book of Pius X; worthy worthwhile reading for anyone, though intended for a cleric
The Spiritual Combat, Dom Lorenzo Scupoli - the graduate course for Introduction to the Devout Life
The Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas - for those who don't think the Catechism is enough
This is the Faith, Canon Francis Ripley - a simple, systematic explanation of the Catholic Faith
True Devotion to Mary, St. Simon de Montfort - a book that reminds us that Mary is not just God's Mother
Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, Father Saint-Jure and Blessed Claude de la Colombiere - a book-length answer to the questions posed by Christ asking about whether or not grasses or flowers worry about their daily lives
Tumultuous Times: Twenty General Councils of the Catholic Church & Vatican II and its Aftermath, Frs. Francisco and Dominic Radecki - history of the Twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Church and why Vatican II is like none of them
Vatican II, Homosexuality, & Pedophilia, Atila Sinke Guimaraes - a revelation of the unfortunate problem rampant in the ranks of the Vatican II clergy

Books that changed my life – Leisure Reads that stuck with me (9)
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, Mark Bowden - if you liked the movie, you will love the book; if you didn't like the movie, you will love the book; written in a taut, multi-point-of-view narrative
Blog, Hugh Hewitt - why blogs are relevant and how to write one
Bush at War, Bob Woodward - the first of the Woodward books on President Bush, it explains the moves that led us to Afghanistan
Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, Mark Bowden - for anyone curious on why the 1977 hostage crisis went down the way it did
Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward - part two of Woodward's Bush at War series, it talks about the march to Iraq
Retreat Hell!, Jim Wilson - the story of the "Frozen Chosin," revered in Marine Corps lore
Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein - part of the Commandant's Reading List for PFCs, also a masterpiece of science fiction
State of Denial, Bob Woodward - part three of Woodward's Bush at War series; how Iraq went desperately wrong while the people who cared could not or would not do anything
Taking Down the House, Ben Mezrich - the basis for the blackjack movie 21; you'll read it in one sitting

Books that changed my life – Politics, Foreign Policy, History, & Economics (22)
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Kang Chol-Hwan - North Korea not so bad? Read this book
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, Chalmers Johnson - if you only ever read one book on U.S. foreign policy, read this one
Can Capitalism Survive? Benjamin Rogge - an exploration of the pros and cons of capitalism, with the reminder that it is not the only system that has ever worked in human history, and that maybe it doesn't actually work that well at all
City of God, St. Augustine - longer than it should be, but unmatched for its Christian take on political science
Confucius Lives Next Door, T.R. Reid - why you may learn to speak Chinese in your lifetime, if we keep giving away the store like we do
Economics for Helen, Hilaire Belloc - a short apology for Distributism
The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf - a startling jeremiad about an apathetic nation that I fear falls on the ears of a nation that can no longer hear
The Guillotine and the Cross, Warren Carroll - why the French Revolution hated Christianity
The Last Crusade, Warren Carroll - why the Spanish Civil War was about destroying Christianity
Money Manipulation and Social Order, Fr. Denis Fahey - a timely read for anyone who thinks the Fed will save us from anything
Moslems: Their beliefs, practices, and politics, Oussani and Belloc - give this to anyone who mouths the silly nostrum "Islam is a religion of peace."
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers Johnson - the third part of Johnson's "American Empire" series, it sums up where the American Empire will lead us to: ruin
Neo-Conned!: Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq - too thoughtful and thick for a neocon to read, unfortunately, but a great book to give to anyone else truly open-minded to hear why these wars are so desperately wrong
The Politics of Prudence, Russell Kirk - my first Russell Kirk book ever, and it did not disappoint; it outlines, not for the last but not for the first time either, the core principles of conservatism
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Iris Chang - why Japan must re-remember this horrific crime
Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki - while I find Kiyosaki to be an empty suit and huckster, this book is a really great "big picture" view
The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul - reading this will help you understand that despite his lack of charisma, Ron Paul inspires today's youth because he's real
The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc - a road map of where capitalism will eventually lead us: nowhere
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, Chalmers Johnson - an unbelievable accounting of the 700+ bases we have worldwide, and their effects on the civilian populations around them
The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy, Charles Fishman - the book to read about Wal-Mart, if you can stop foaming at the mouth long enough to do so
The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman - another empty suit and huckster, Friedman manages to take a 300 page book and make it 600+; but it's still well-worth reading
Three Billion New Capitalists, Clyde Prestowitz - understanding what drives our South Asian counterparts

Books that changed my life – Business and Entrepreneurship (12)
The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do about It, Michael Gerber - the book that every successful small business owner lives, even if he hasn't read it
Good to Great, Jim Collins - beyond the hype, a book that teaches you that perfect practice makes perfect
How Full is Your Bucket?, Tom Rath and Donald Clifton - want a non-cheesy way to recognize people in the office and in your life? Read this
Little Black Book of Connections, Jeffrey Gitomer - how and why to network
Little Blue Book of Advertising, Steve Lance and Jeff Woll - a beginner's guide for the uninitiated
Little Red Book of Selling, Jeffrey Gitomer - it doesn't have all the answers about selling, but it does have some really funny points
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath - this book should be taught in every marketing class ever, period
Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton - the beginning of "strengths-based" personality testing
Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell - why being successful is sometimes just inevitable
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey - how to be even better at getting things done and having your life to yourself and those you care about
Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big, Bo Burlingham - the apostle of the small business, Mr. Burlingham reminds us that it isn't always about the money
Word of Mouth Marketing, Andy Sernovitz - a companion to Made to Stick, absolutely essential for anyone who doesn't have a lot of money but who wants to get the word out about a business

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