Books that "change the way you think"
January 4, 2010 10:05 PM   Subscribe

Recommend some books that "change the way you think." But also, good adventure stories.

I've recently inspired a friend to become an avid reader and would like to get him a few books for his birthday. I'm fairly confident he will enjoy books that are in the travel/adventure genre, like some of Bill Bryson's, John McPhee's, Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad, and also West with the Night, or Great Plains.

However, in his own words, he is a fan of books that "change the way I think," specifically citing: Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, Jack Kerouac.

I'm also debating books like Freakonomics, which certainly would fall into the above criteria. Or Cormac McCarthy for fiction. Any suggestions on similar books that he might enjoy?
posted by BradNelson to Writing & Language (70 answers total) 159 users marked this as a favorite
I think Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky might be a good fit in both categories. It is both a gripping adventure story, and, to quote an Amazon reviewer, "a rumination on the existential impact of place and space".
posted by hiteleven at 10:16 PM on January 4, 2010

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a classic in the genre of "change the way you think".
posted by fatbird at 10:18 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Valentino Braitenberg's Vehicles.
posted by equalpants at 10:26 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid all mine are a little common. But, I guess books powerful enough to invade my personality probably have that effect on many people.

Well, old standard Atlas Shrugged...a good if cold story of a boldly offensive idea (people should completely take care of themselves, extensive social programs and charity with kill a society...)) in todays world. Beware of the 80 page manifesto in the middle.

The Corrections by Franzen made me realize how easy it was to be a day-to-day jerk and helped me want to stop.

Animal Farm made me forever aware of sociology and politics.

Freakonomics taught me to look for patterns in life, understand causation vs corralation...and understand that just because ideas sound awful doesn't mean they aren't possibly true. (abortion = decrease in crime)

And Lolita, which, upon the second time I picked it up and casually flicked through it, I realized, in a sudden dawning, why it was genius. How intentional, how thorough and how BEAUTIFUL. What good writing MEANT. I never looked at literature or poetry or language the same.
posted by esereth at 10:27 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher is a book that would sit on the "Change the Way I Think" shelf. The idea is that attention (what you focus your consciousness on) is a limited commodity. There is a set number of minutes in a day that you are "thinking," and what you burn those minutes thinking about essentially determines (literally to some extent) what kind of conscious life you are apt to have. Your body reacts to your physical environment (food, disease, exercise, etc), and your brain reacts to how and what you think. Your brain "learns" and becomes "trained" based in part upon your thinking and emotional habits. There is a reason depression is tough to pull out of. And there is a physical component to that positive mental/physical state we call "flow."

Sorry, long-winded. Just mean to say that it is a good book that provides a decent insight into how what we think about matters, and in that, has the potential for changing the way one thinks.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:29 PM on January 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

If you want a great adventure story that may (or may not) change the way you think, I highly recommend Paddle to the Amazon. It's the true story of a father and son from my hometown (Winnipeg, Canada) who paddle to the Amazon River. It's a great read.

Truth and Method by Gadamer, as a philosophical text, changed the way I look at a number of things. I'll also recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, simply because it feels remiss to not mention that wonderful work.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 10:29 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

"On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill changed the way I think. But it isn't quite like the books you've mentioned.

On the other hand, it's in the public domain and can be downloaded for free.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:32 PM on January 4, 2010

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Loepold, specifically the part about how the Colorado River delta used to be. Then go look at it now. That forever changed the way I thought, in fact I worked in coastal wetlands restoration for years specifically because of that book.
posted by fshgrl at 10:43 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander will change the way one looks and interacts with architecture and community spaces on a day-to-day basis. It breaks places down into component parts and elegantly explains why some spaces are fundamentally successful in almost everyone's eyes and why those that aren't...aren't. Once acquainted with the premise of the book, it's hard to move through any space, public or private, and not recognize the quality, or lack thereof, in that space. For instance, there is a reason (partly conscious, partly not) why nearly everyone agrees which is the best seat in any room. And on and on and on.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:44 PM on January 4, 2010 [12 favorites]

The Naked and the Dead changed the way I thought about WWII being a just war, and how I thought about class and racism.

It's also a great war novel.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:21 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Everybody should have read The Dice Man and Geek Love (in that order, if you roll four or above). Time Enough For Love should keep him occupied for a while. And yes, definitely Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Throw in Jonathan Livingston Seagull for a bit of light relief. Then cross the Atlantic for The Titus Books (tell him to go slooooowly with these - the prose is dense, like an excellent Christmas pudding, and deserves to be savoured) and The Sheep Look Up: beautifully nonlinear, and manages to capture the feel of the Bush presidency almost perfectly despite being published 23 years before it. Then get back down to earth again, with Tracks, which will change the way you think about camels.
posted by flabdablet at 11:59 PM on January 4, 2010

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Both of those completely rewired my head.
posted by hypersloth at 12:09 AM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah. forgot the non-fiction. Try Games People Play and Staying Rational in an Irrational World. After those, ramming him back into fiction with two tabs of good acid, a hike in the hills and The Teachings of Don Juan should keep him nicely confused for a couple of years.
posted by flabdablet at 12:21 AM on January 5, 2010

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn will challenge a lot of your assumptions about how human society should be ordered.
posted by Grinder at 12:26 AM on January 5, 2010

-Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, if he hasn't already.
-The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
-The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
-The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
posted by surfgator at 12:27 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Irrationality and The Blank Slate are books that can change the way you think.
posted by sien at 12:31 AM on January 5, 2010

However, in his own words, he is a fan of books that "change the way I think,"

Well, you know your friend better than I do, but I'll just throw this out there: Richard Powers might be one of the best novelists of the past 25 years. I certainly think so. Most notably Galatea 2.2 and the utterly astonishing Gold Bug Variations.
posted by Skot at 12:39 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Into Thin Air is often recommended on MeFi and changed the way I think about life, the universe and everything. I mean, loads of books have done that for me, but in the travel/adventure genre, it's at the top of the list. It is, however, non-fiction; I don't know if that's an issue for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:38 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel is probably worth a recommendation, but I was mainly going to say Nausea by JP Sartre.
posted by pompomtom at 2:10 AM on January 5, 2010

I just read Surely Youre Joking, Mr. Feynman! His enthusiasm for knowledge and lack of tolerance for bullshit is very inspiring.
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 2:23 AM on January 5, 2010

The Selfish Gene probably doesn't sound like a "change the way you think" if you haven't thought about evolution since shuffling through BIO101, but it is (and is very readable/engrossing). As is The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue.
posted by K.P. at 2:27 AM on January 5, 2010

1846: The Year Of Decision is the most riveting and exciting history book I"ve ever read.
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 AM on January 5, 2010

For better or worse, Atlas Shrugged changed the way I thought when I read it. While I don't regard it too highly nowadays, it added a new perspective to my European upbringing.
posted by themel at 3:16 AM on January 5, 2010

On the Kerouac & Zen path, maybe Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity.
posted by mbrock at 3:40 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Pretty much anything by George Orwell. I would start with one of his more biographical, perhaps "Down and out in Paris and London". Political but very human.

Feynman (physics-everything) and Dawkins (biology-everything) have already been recomended and I second. Peter Atkins writes similarly excellent books on the importance of chemistry.
posted by Fiery Jack at 4:01 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend William Dalrymple as a fascinating travel writer, concentrating on India and the Middle East.
For a 'change the way you think' book, try Black Swan. It talks about how the world has always been changed by improbable, unpredictable things, so how can we prepare for them.
posted by sleepy boy at 4:43 AM on January 5, 2010

I'd probably go with "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. It is a slightly depressing book but it certainly does change the way you think and it certainly is a journey. It reads like poetry.

I gave this book to a soft hearted Christian lady (29) worried it would crush her like a pink stuffy animal. She said she had to put the book down for a few days because it was so intense it scared her. I did tell her she had to finish it if she started. She did and she like it very much, said it was one of the most intense books she's ever read.

It personally blew the wind out of me. As you may know it has won a Pulitzer for fiction and it was featured on Opera. I read it twice in a row as Opera said she did but I don't really believe her.

As depressing as it may be it does make you appreciate the things you have.
posted by Bacillus at 4:51 AM on January 5, 2010

Keep the River on Your Right. "In 1955, armed with a penknife and instructions to keep the river on his right, Brooklyn-born artist Tobias Schneebaum set off into the jungles of Peru in search of a tribe of cannibals."
posted by shothotbot at 4:56 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If Not Now, When by Primo Levi.
posted by Abiezer at 5:50 AM on January 5, 2010

Seconding Galatea 2.2; that is one of the three or four books I should really buy in bulk for all I hand it out to people. It might qualify as science fiction but really it's about whether we can ever really know another person.

The others: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helperin -- this is a fantastic rumination on courage in the context of a fictional life.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene -- weirdly, I take this one to be about what it means to pray.

Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont -- this is a fairly thick piece of literary criticism that examines the link between death and romantic love as expressed in Western literature (broadly, including movies and songs). His thesis is that our idea of romantic love is ultimately obsessed with death and failure and obstacles, and therefore our literature prepares us more to have doomed relationships than lifelong ones. It changed my life in weird ways.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck -- arguably flawed, I think it's still his best work.
posted by gauche at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Travels by Michael Crichton
Touch the Top of the World by Erik Weihenmayer
Marching Powder by Rusty Young
Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell
posted by nitsuj at 6:23 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller will teach you (amongst many other things) that they're all against you, yet there is no "they." The system is its own perpetuator, and it doesn't have the capacity to care about you nor would it be inclined to do so even if it could. Plus you'll laugh.
posted by haveanicesummer at 6:43 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

off the map
posted by gursky at 6:48 AM on January 5, 2010

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - lots of swashbuckling adventure across the globe, and some seriously deep inquiries into the history of science, culture and economics.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:52 AM on January 5, 2010

Everybody else seems to be mentioning non-adventure stories, so I'll mention The Goal, which was required reading where I used to work.
posted by cali59 at 7:09 AM on January 5, 2010

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was both for me. It's an interesting survival story, and it initiated some interesting thought about the nature of religion.
posted by uberfunk at 7:21 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I came to recommend the Baroque Cycle, so I will merely second Slap*Happy.
posted by Kwine at 7:28 AM on January 5, 2010

Your post mentions Krakauer already, so I'm assuming he's already read Into The Wild?

So how about some of the books that are mentioned in it, like Walden or a collection of Emerson?

How about Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." It may or may not make an atheist out of him - that's not my aim in suggesting it. I suggest it because its got a lot of great, challenging arguments in it, so if your friend is looking to have his thought provoked, this ought to do it. (Similar, though less "confrontational" - Dawkins' "The God Delusion."
posted by dnash at 7:44 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I gave a copy of Jaguars Ripped My Flesh to a similar friend hoping that he would quit his day job and go on wild adventures so I could live vicariously.
posted by mearls at 7:57 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Fools Progress by Edward Abbey
Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher
The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
Valis by Philip K. Dick
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

This is a tough one without knowing the reader or even some basic demographic information. One person's life-changing book is another person's adolescent trash or yawner. (See above list.)
posted by Seamus at 8:25 AM on January 5, 2010

Easy one.

Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit
Thought is Your Enemy: Conversations with U.G. Krishnamurti (not J. [Jiddu] Krishnamurti)
Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing

Turn you inside out.
posted by supremefiction at 8:38 AM on January 5, 2010

World War Z (a book about a zombie outbreak that makes you more attuned to international travel policy). Also, fast-paced and exciting. Not "deep" or "good for you," but it'd lighten up any heavier picks.
posted by salvia at 8:41 AM on January 5, 2010


Vico's Science of Imagination by Donald Phillip Verene
posted by supremefiction at 8:41 AM on January 5, 2010

The Little Prince.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:49 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Psychology of Everyday Things (also published as The Design of Everyday Things) changed the way I look at design and usability. That doesn't sound all that fascinating, but the book validated me as a human being, not a failure, for not being able to program a VCR or figure out which side of a door is hinged.
posted by workerant at 9:02 AM on January 5, 2010

Super Crunchers, in the vein of Freakonomics-style reads. Got me more interested in stats than I'd ever been. Made the topic convincingly relevant.
posted by xiaolongbao at 9:10 AM on January 5, 2010

"Not Always So"
posted by Zambrano at 9:11 AM on January 5, 2010

William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways: A Journey into America. He lost his wife and job on the same day and toured around the back roads of the country with resilience and wonder. It's a similar feel to Bill Bryson's books and Great Plains.

Tony Horwitz' Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. He travels the Eastern US with hardcore Civil War reenactors and explores contemporary attitudes towards the war. He retraces Captain Cook's voyage in Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:36 AM on January 5, 2010

Ishmael definitely changed the way I think.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2010

Seconding, thirding, fourthing The Little Prince.

I'd also recommend the works of Dostoyevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment. Pointed investigations into free will, spirituality, and the nature of evil, along with a big epic storyline and great characters like those 19th century Russians do.
posted by bookgirl18 at 10:08 AM on January 5, 2010

I will also back up the Baroque Cycle as adventure fiction with heavily researched history and potentially thought-process-altering stuff. That could also be said for Crypto or other stuff by Stephenson.

Candide, although older, also fits your criteria perfectly.

For nonfic, I'd recommend Skeletons on the Zahara or . . . hmm.
posted by dervish at 10:10 AM on January 5, 2010

Along the lines of Freakonomics but on the topic of energy, there is David MacKay's Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. It's ambitious and broad, but also fun to read and very, very sensible. It's even available for free, online, in its entirety, but sadly the site seems to have exceeded its bandwidth at the moment. Check again after midnight in Britain...
posted by tss at 10:17 AM on January 5, 2010

Sophie's World.
posted by jasondbarr at 10:20 AM on January 5, 2010

The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns really changed the way I thought about poverty in the U.S.
posted by joan cusack the second at 11:41 AM on January 5, 2010

In the adventure line, all these books fill the bill, but go way beyond their genre in literary quality:
Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.
News from Tartary by Peter Fleming.
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
posted by gudrun at 12:05 PM on January 5, 2010

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
Second Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig
Also second Guns, Germs and Steel by Diamond

Cormac MacCarthy for adventure, for sure.
Also Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
posted by cross_impact at 2:01 PM on January 5, 2010

Off the top of my head:

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (although it might cause a low-grade depression as well)
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
posted by designmartini at 2:54 PM on January 5, 2010

Some recent favorites:

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall will change the way you look at your feet, running and the human body.

Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan will change the way you look at industrial agriculture.

The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins will change the way you look at all living things around you.
posted by puloxor at 5:16 PM on January 5, 2010

I second the recommendation for Surely You're Joking, but I'd suggest pairing it with Genius, James Gleick's excellent biography of Feynman. In his own words, Feynman came across sounding like some sort of magical science pixie: impossibly energetic, untouchably lucky and instantly skilled at everything he tried. The way Gleick tells it, he was an ordinary smart man who was driven by misfortune to work very, very hard at honing his skills and seeking out tough problems.

Both versions of the story are inspiring in very different ways, and both changed the way I think.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:22 PM on January 5, 2010

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
posted by Seamus at 7:36 PM on January 5, 2010

Bad Calories, Good Calories by Gary Taubes, for nutrition. It's not a diet book, but a science, history, and politics book; it's the only one I've come across that goes into great detail about what all the dietary studies actually prove or don't prove and why bad science has become the prevailing nutrition recommendation in the U.S., and then compares the evidence for the different theories. It's one of the most well-researched, coherent, and well-argued books I've ever read on any subject, and the writing style is straightforward and easy to follow even when he gets deep into the science. I think most people have wondered why they hear so much contradictory advice about nutrition, so it definitely is a life-changer kind of book.
posted by Nattie at 9:46 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meat Market and Eating Animals changed the way I view my food.
posted by 1awesomeguy at 1:32 PM on January 6, 2010

Good suggestions, people. I will try to keep this as brief as possible, and only mention books with universal appeal (that is, I will try to steer clear of specialty books and fiction, as life-changing as they may seem to fans of their respective genres).

However, I am seconding Jonathan Livingston Seagull, as well as Illusions by the same author. These books will make you lose your footing in the physical world for a few moments, and take you floating over a deep, beautiful ocean of truths about life as old as time itself. They will change the way you think about human nature, life, morals, prophets and possibility.

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size will change the way you think about yourself and how your consciousness is constantly lying to you in the most incredible and elaborate ways. It will quite literally blow your mind and give you a completely new understanding of why we do the things we can't explain, why we are so susceptible to manipulation and advertising, and why we rarely (if ever) make use of our so-called free will.

Principles Of The Enneagram by Karen Webb is just my personal favorite among the many excellent books about the Enneagram - a system of personality typing that's far (FAR!) more accurate and practical than any other I've encountered; nigh-useless ones like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (complete bullshit) and the Five Factor Model (well-founded but sadly rather impractical) come to mind. The Enneagram will quite simply blow your mind, and definitely change the way you look at the people around you, people you meet, and yourself. It will let you understand who people really are and what makes them tick after few moments of conversation (or even simple observation from afar).

On the subject of manipulating and influencing others, a few books will turn you absolutely inside out. I will name several here, but they do overlap enough that you can pick just one and get the general idea:

1. How To Win Friends And Influence People will make you understand exactly why some people give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside every time you see them, and teach you how to make the tiny changes to become more likeable, more genuinely interested in others, and vastly more effective in most of your social interactions (though not specifically romantic ones).

2. Get Anyone To Do Anything is an in-depth, but very practical, guide to using (ie. manipulating) the psychological principles that guide people's decisions and feelings toward others. This book will take you on a journey much like How To Win Friends And Influence People, but it does so in a slightly more structured way, getting into the basic underlying principles of influence (reciprocal affection, confidence, scarcity, expectation, incentive, enthusiasm, internal consistency, etc.) and building a framework for practical manipulation. Not reading this book and then engaging in sales, marketing, political debate, negotiation, management, or networking, is like walking blindfolded into traffic. It will quite literally change the way you talk to everyone.

3. If your interest lies in the romantic aspects of manipulation ('seduction'), the book for you might be The Game (mainstream, non-technical), The Mystery Method (structured like a battle plan, and tailored to the most flashy/manic types), How To Get The Women You Desire Into Bed (short and rather bitter/misogynistic book of unfair techniques based on hypnosis and NLP) or Double Your Dating (seduction ebook emphasizing techniques for becoming a better, and therefore more attractive, man, rather than manipulating others - hard to explain but highly recommended). Which one you'll want depends entirely on your (ahem) 'style'. I won't get deeper into each of them other than to say that any one of them will definitely change the way you think about dating (and possibly shock and appall you).

The 4-Hour Workweek will change the way you think about work, entrepreneurship, being rich, living life to the fullest and not wasting it waiting for retirement. It will leave you with a feeling of enthusiasm and freedom, and probably inspire you to change the way you live your life. Many, many readers quit their day jobs after reading this book.

Think And Grow Rich is the original book on the mindset of successful people, and even though th original can feel a bit dated (and at times a bit loony), it presents an incredibly well-researched theory of how to get rich and/or successful in life. If you can get over the rhetoric and some of the quasi-spiritual parts, it will change the way you think about your goals and dreams for the future.

Few things change the way people think more radically than religion (or 'spirituality' if that's your thing). Thus, for better or worse (in some cases a lot worse), any list of 'books that change the way you think' is going to have to include a number of religious texts, from the Bible (christianity), to the Qur'an (islam), to the Vinaya Pitaka (buddhism), the four Vedas (hinduism), the Tanakh and the Talmud (judaism), Dianetics (scientology - for a lot worse IMO), and Charles Darwin's The Origin Of Species (even if it's not a religious text, it may change the way you think about religion and religious people).
posted by JensR at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dianetics completely failed to change the way I think, for what it's worth.

Mind you, it did give me a chuckle for a while - it's such earnest, enthusiastic bullshit, and contains charts and graphs whose vapid meaninglessness would make Edward Tufte's blood boil - but mostly what it did is reinforce my view that Scientology's suckers are seduced by the sizzle, not the sausage, and that if high school science were taught more effectively there would be fewer Scientologists.
posted by flabdablet at 3:24 PM on January 7, 2010

Godel Escher & Bach.
posted by empath at 3:03 PM on January 11, 2010

@flabdablet: I also read Dianetics and actually took away one good lesson from it. The parts near the start that go on about stopping reading as soon as you don't understand a word/phrase/term and looking it up resonated with me. I'd never even considered doing that before and it's good advice for dealing with complicated subject matter.
posted by wackybrit at 7:27 PM on March 3, 2010

Weird. I think I've been doing that pretty much ever since I learned to read.
posted by flabdablet at 4:49 AM on March 4, 2010

@flabdablet: I think there's a split between people who do and do not. It's like the "fold or scrunch" of reading heavy material. As I was endlessly told how smart I was as a kid (*groan*) I tended to just read stuff, pretend I knew what it all meant, and blagged my way through. Eventually you figure out that's not a great tactic and sometimes you need to take it slow..
posted by wackybrit at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2010

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