What are the great life changing books no one has ever heard of?
July 19, 2009 5:02 PM   Subscribe

What are some underrated but mind altering books?

It's hard to explain what I'm looking for but the best I can describe is "the best books they don't want you to know about."

I'm curious in finding books that are relatively obscure yet so profound and mind altering. I'd like to try and find some books that come close to the Necronomicon or some book L Ron Hubbard supposedly wrote which are suppose to drive the readers to the point of insanity because they have such an impact.

I say obscure because I'm pretty familiar with the list of books that change people's life - The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Atlas Shrugged are a few that come to mind. I'm more looking for a list of books that have the same effect but you never see on any sort of list like that. While not the best example, for me personally, Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning had a profound impact and I only found out about the book from a co-worker. Another case I found while looking in books about life changing books is this book which apparently had a tremendous influence on some guy's life.

So, what are the most personally influential books, the books that change lives, that are relatively unknown?
posted by champthom to Media & Arts (56 answers total) 185 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Stan Grof's books -- start with Beyond the Brain, or The Cosmic Game.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:07 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nightwood by Juna Barnes.
posted by gregb1007 at 5:09 PM on July 19, 2009

The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom
posted by Grundlebug at 5:17 PM on July 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

there are two books i've read that demonstrate the "once you know it, you can't un-know it" principle:

Ishmael (this one, not any of the others by Daniel Quinn)

Expect Resistance (this book changed my life, seriously)
posted by gursky at 5:20 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mount Analogue (by Rene Daumal) comes to mind.
posted by The_Auditor at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Somehow, the books that "change your life," mind and way altering books, will come forth because each reaches out to you and what you are or what you might become. In my case, it was over many years and over and over the works of Edmund Wilson. Why? His sense of deep involvement in what he was doing, his ability to be so often an authority in pointing out that which was important, his gift for sentence construction, his important lesson that one should go to the primary source, always, and first, and then, perhaps, turn to secondary sources, but not get bogged down in them. His impatience with academic claptrap, his care and love of the past, the classics, and yet an ability to recognize what is of merit in contemporary life.

But then, as he found his way you too have to find yours and fall in love with this or that writer, work...all we making comments can do is suggest what has appealed to us.
posted by Postroad at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2009

If you're an artist you probably know about Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. If you're not, you probably don't.
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances blew my mind, but it's a challenging read.
posted by Nattie at 5:42 PM on July 19, 2009

Seconding Ishmael. Quite an eye-opener.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:48 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Borrowed Time, by Paul Monette. I learned everything I know about loving someone from that book.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:50 PM on July 19, 2009

Best answer: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Etenal Golden Braid.
posted by condour75 at 5:53 PM on July 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think you have to move away from the mild paranoia of "they don't want you to know about." There are a lot of books with unusual viewpoints. If they're not household names it's because they're not easy reads, not because somebody is keeping them under wraps.

A classic in this area is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by zadcat at 6:02 PM on July 19, 2009

After reading this book, I never really looked at neighborhoods and where people chose to live in the same way again. It brought about an irreversible paradigm shift.
posted by DrGail at 6:09 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here are a couple of relatively obscure books that have had significant impact on my perspectives. I'll try to think of some more.

Radical Man
Science and Sanity
posted by TheOtherSide at 6:28 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a really interesting question. This is going to sound kind of crazy, but Richard Holmes' biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley has haunted me profoundly since I read it a year or so ago. (I say it sounds crazy because you don't typically think of a literary biography as being a life-changing book.) The book captures, with profound insight, the fever pitch of a brilliant writer's life in a way that was mind-blowing.
posted by jayder at 6:30 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, don't read Steps by Jerzy Kosinski.
posted by Bron at 6:40 PM on July 19, 2009

Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy, and seconding Douglas Hofstadter (GEB or "I am a Strange Loop).
posted by rikschell at 6:40 PM on July 19, 2009

I love this question! And, I have a project proposal for someone who wants to make a little bit of money. I would love to have a web site that mines Amazon for unpopular or out-of-print books that have statistically significant positive ratings. For example, I want to see all the books published before 1970 that have average ratings above 4.85.

Also, I don't agree that the question is mildly paranoid. Many areas of knowledge are controlled by power hierarchies that are territorial about their ideas. Rare is the power hierarchy that accepts or even promotes unconventional idea that challenges their existing structure and importance.
posted by TheOtherSide at 6:49 PM on July 19, 2009

The Planiverse
posted by jkaczor at 7:06 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here are a few of my favorites:
posted by GatorDavid at 7:20 PM on July 19, 2009

Einstein's Dreams.
posted by macadamiaranch at 7:31 PM on July 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:33 PM on July 19, 2009

Yes, definitely read Ishmael.

Also check out The Four Agreements.
posted by bengarland at 7:59 PM on July 19, 2009

Toxic Sludge is Good For You!
posted by jkaczor at 9:08 PM on July 19, 2009

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century
Skip the first section (and come back to it later), unless you are a huge Sex Pistols fan.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:17 PM on July 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

My recommendations may seem archaic, not exactly unknown but no longer as well known as they were. Almost anything by Nelson Algren -- sex was never the same for me after reading A Walk on the Wild Side. Two other books like that for me were The Story of O and Last Exit to Brooklyn; I'm actually not recommending these if you're very young... in a different vein, The Lord of the Flies had a big effect on me many years ago, and yes, Jerzy, especially The Painted Bird and to a lesser extent his Cockpit, Blind Date and Passion Play.
posted by Rash at 9:18 PM on July 19, 2009

In the non-fiction realm I suggest:

About Time by physicist and science communicator Richard Davies. It will open your mind about space, time, metaphysics, scales of vastness, probabilities and more.

Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. It covers evolution, but was written after The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker and does a better job at rebutting the more popular criticisms of evolution, while opening your mind to how fantastic the natural universe really is. If nothing else, grab it from the library to read the last chapter "A Garden Inclosed" which is about the fig tree. It will blow your mind.
posted by furtive at 9:20 PM on July 19, 2009

the Gods of Eden by William Bramley, The Secret Teaching of All Ages by Manly P. Hall. Though not all that obscure, I still like Robert Anton Wilson's stuff
posted by Redhush at 9:40 PM on July 19, 2009

How Children Fail by John Holt. It's not very rigorous or research-based — in fact I like to think of it more as a work of philosophy — but it's almost impossible to look at a classroom the same way after reading this book. Personally, it's the closest a book has ever come to "changing my life."
posted by Bizurke at 9:44 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder how I'd react to reading it over 10 years later, but The Cosmic Trigger Vol. 1 was exactly what I needed at the time. Helped me look at the world with a different worldview.

The sequels aren't nearly as good as the first; Wilson takes up a big chunk of them explaining an obscure but boring conspiracy involving the Catholic Church. If you try the sequels, feel free to skip certain chapters.
posted by zardoz at 11:16 PM on July 19, 2009

The Selfish Gene
posted by ZaneJ. at 12:28 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Chaos, Catastrophe, and Human Affairs: Applications of Nonlinear Dynamics To Work, Organizations, and Social Evolution by Stephen Guastello is an oft cited textbook on chaos and catastrophe theory from the social sciences perspective, that is written well enough to be a resource for the general reader. Enough descriptive math to introduce the Mandelbrot set, catastrophe theory as folded probability plane geometry, etc., yet retains a focus on applications and explanations of human activity that is best modeled by such non-linear mathematics.

A "Damn, why didn't I think of that?" moment on nearly every page...
posted by paulsc at 4:39 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Going for the morbid, I suppose, but:

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
posted by elfgirl at 5:23 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Read this and then Mary Renault's The King Must Die. Renault's book came first.

Also some of the lesser known Aldous Huxley-- Point Counter Point and especially Island
posted by nax at 6:11 AM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: Design For Dying by Timothy Leary

The Function of the Orgasm by Wilhelm Reich

The Chicken Qabalah by Lon Milo Duquette

The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes translation

Promethea by Alan Moore

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Philip K. Dick's Valis trilogy
posted by hermitosis at 6:31 AM on July 20, 2009

God's Debris by Scott Adams is a pretty intense work of metaphysics from an unexpected source.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:18 AM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: The Dice Man
posted by nitsuj at 8:11 AM on July 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler speaks about the modern condition as being one of acceleration. It has relevance to social conditions, technological conditions, and even the human psyche. I really enjoyed it, while appreciating that, having been written 40 years ago some of his predictions were dated - it's the essence of what he says that's really striking.

I'd also recommend I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, it's a conception of how the mind (not the brain) operates that is incredibly refreshing, and quite relevant to the everyday.
posted by tybeet at 8:12 AM on July 20, 2009

Infinity and the Mind
The Selfish Gene
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Edward Tuffte all four of his books.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, way better than 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:33 AM on July 20, 2009

The Hour of the Star
posted by changeling at 9:57 AM on July 20, 2009

Michael Chrichton's essay Why Speculate? had a worldview-shattering effect on me when I first read it in 2003 or so.
posted by renovatio1 at 2:31 PM on July 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

We must have had one of these threads before - and a book I got from it really did sort of pop me in the head pretty good. Leadership and the Art of Self Deception. I ended up getting about 3 copies and handing them out.
posted by jopreacher at 9:33 PM on July 21, 2009

Lives of a Cell By Lewis Thomas.
posted by Freen at 8:25 PM on July 22, 2009

The Significance of Theory by Terry Eagleton
posted by safran at 8:51 PM on July 23, 2009

Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Consciousness
posted by thecolor12 at 11:17 PM on July 25, 2009

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
posted by milquetoast at 10:06 AM on July 26, 2009

So far the only book that has prompted a true paradigm shift for me was Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down. Read the intro chapter here.

It uses an immigrant Laotian hill tribe family's experience with the American health care system to illustrate not only the innumerable practical pitfalls of culture clash, not only how little we can understand the worldviews of cultures not our own, but also how our most basic view of reality filters through a lens of seemingly inviolate assumptions that are actually largely replaceable with very different ones. It shows how we interpret other people's actions within the context of our framework of reality under the unconscious and flawed assumption that everyone shares that framework. Thus, conflict or misunderstanding when those actions blindly violate some invisible rule of ours.

This book caused me to release some of my unquestioned certainty about The Way Things Are, to allow for more possibilities, to shed some inborn egocentrism. I feel like a fuller and more mature person having read it.
posted by Askr at 5:36 PM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Carl Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. You might not be ready for it yet, in which case just put it on your bookshelf and try again in a couple years.
posted by the_bone at 12:04 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

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