Below are the books that have had the biggest impact on my thinking. They changed my values, beliefs, and feelings. They have shaped who I am in many ways and, I think, made me a better person because of it.
I tried to capture only what was most important to me and what caused an actual change in my beliefs or worldview. This list was narrowed down from the 523 total books read on my GoodReads account.
The Most Impactful Books
The books below are sorted chronologically for the most part, with the first below being the oldest book (i.e. I read it when I was youngest) and the last being the newest (i.e. I read it relatively recently).
Animorphs: This was a science fiction series I read as a kid and the first time I realized that reading could be so pleasurable. I read all of them. Sometimes twice. I attribute my love of reading today to this series. It changed my feelings about reading forever.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: This was the first book I ever felt was “too difficult” for me to read. I remember feeling like I was too stupid to understand it and that I would never be smart enough to read it. My dad sat next to me and read individual sentences with me. He simply explained every word I didn’t know. Seeing him translate the unknown words into more understandable language made me realize in a single instant that the “hard” part of reading more difficult books was just becoming more accustomed to the words. All I needed was a bigger vocabulary and that wasn’t so hard to get, nor nearly as damning of my personal intelligence and innate abilities. I was never scared of another book again.
The Nicomachean Ethics: This is the first philosophy book I can remember reading. It was 2,000 years old. It was hard. I didn’t understand all of it. I remember being presented with an answer to the question, “What is the best way to live your life?” for the first time. I didn’t even realize that people disagreed about what made for a good life or that it was a question people thought about.
The House of the Dead: This was the first time I understood that “bad” people were just people. The dangerous and insane among society have all the same feelings and anxieties as “regular” people. They often need even more compassion and empathy from others. Revenge or sadistic punishment is definitely not what they need.
The End of Poverty: I had zero idea how much poverty and suffering existed throughout the world beyond my own community. This dramatically shifted the sense of urgency I feel to help others. Right now, people are dying for no other reason than they don’t have enough money for food, medicine, or shelter.
A Nietzsche Compendium: One of the first philosophers I read in depth. Still one of my heros. His writing is energizing, enlightening, and sparks a frenzy of thoughts for me. I particularly love his phrase, “Amor fati,” which can be translated as, “Love of one’s fate.” This alternative answer to pessimistic philosophical outlooks is still the only one that makes sense to me. It is one of the best cures of existential angst and depression I’ve come across.
The Art of Happiness: My introduction to the Dalai Lama and the common currency of happiness as an end worth pursuing for its own sake. I had never thought about morality in terms of suffering and happiness, nor that specific actions could alter those states of being in very different ways. It also introduced me to modern psychology and philosophy as two fields with much to contribute in regards to figuring out how to live a good life.
The Moral Landscape: This book stripped moral relativism and its stance of tolerance from me. It no longer makes any sense to me to be tolerant of other beliefs that cause suffering simply because it is “their way”. Suffering is suffering and another person’s right to freely think and act ends when they cause others to suffer because of their beliefs.
The Life You Can Save: The introduction of effective altruism and the idea that we should do “the most good that we can”. This is a rather economic, analytical way of looking at charity and philanthropy, but also the only one that seems reasonable and congruent with the beliefs of lessening suffering as much as possible.
Better Never to Have Been: This book dramatically challenged my view of having kids. I no longer think that having kids should be the default position of adults and society as a whole. Ethically, it seems to make far more sense to not have kids as a general rule.
Less Impactful Books (But Still Important)
The books below have been sorted most recently read, to oldest. I’ve generally written much shorter descriptions.
Blood Oil: “Might makes right.” Rich countries buy stolen resources from poor countries where rulers often extract wealth through force. This practice should end.
Altruism: Amazing throughout, but particularly belief changing in regards to moving towards vegetarianism and not eating meat.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Historically, long-run growth has been very slow. It’s possible that returns from capital will continue to outpace wages and cause inequality to grow over time.
Development as Freedom: Development should be viewed with a lens of capability building. “What are you able to do or to be?” If the number of answers isn’t increasing, then development is likely not taking place.
How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place: World issues need to be prioritized and discussed openly, especially when limited funds are being spent to solve them.
Zero to One: Creation is fundamentally different from improvement.
Marriage and Morals: Many of the ideas around marriage without kids and monogamy need to be examined. They don’t seem to make sense and often cause more suffering than they prevent or at the very least allow people with personal emotions and feelings to dictate the behavior of other people due to their own immature feelings of envy or jealousy. This is fundamentally selfish. This isn’t seen as okay in most other realms of behavior and social expectations, but seems to be uniquely okay here.
Philosophy in the Flesh: Cognition is embodied. Philosophy and morality should reflect this.
On Writing: Insight into what an expert does to reach the top of a field.
Free Voluntary Reading: Free voluntary reading is probably the single best thing a person can do when trying to learn or develop knowledge.
Ungifted: People can be said to be intelligent when they are using their skills and abilities in a congruent way to achieve self-selected goals.
The Power of Full Engagement: Energy and attention are more finite than time and therefore fundamentally more limiting. Therefore, they are our most valuable resources and should be managed accordingly.
Incognito: The subconscious controls most of our behavior. This challenges freewill, which makes blame, guilt, and responsibility misguided ideas. The justice system doesn’t currently reflect this and ought to.
On Becoming a Person: Acceptance, congruence, and empathy are powerful tools for personal growth and development.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Passion can be overrated. Often, expertise allows us to trade our skills for the things we really want in life, including the option of purusing our passions.
Punished by Rewards: Attempting to manipulate people through rewards or punishments is typically counterproductive. People deserve more respect of their human dignity.
The Stress of Life: Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress is a requirement in any area of our life that we want to develop. Learning to seek stress and use it productively is an empowering lesson.
Spark: Exercise physically changes our brain. It makes us smarter, happier, more productive and resilient.
The Idiot: Society often takes kind, benevolent people as stupid and weak. This is exactly opposite of what is most likely good for us. Rather than mock and condescend toward the most kind-hearted among us, we’d all be better off trying to spend more time around them.
The Little Prince: “We are responsible for those we tame.” We all have responsibilities to those that love us.
It’s probably obvious from the books above that the topics of ethics, development, and learning are most important to me. Naturally, that is very specific to me and I don’t even really understand what it is about those topics that are so inherently interesting to me. I have no idea if this will be of any help or use to anyone else, but I found it fruitful and have been thinking about it for a some time now, so I’m sharing. Cheers.