Books/philosophical readings that have made an impact on your life
January 1, 2014 8:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm at a bit of a crossroads in my life. This New Year's has been an introspective one for me, and has had me really contemplating my life's purpose - what I have accomplished thus far, and what I wish to accomplish from this point on. I've been doing some reading on the importance of finding and nurturing a purpose in one's life, which has certainly made a positive impact on my overall attitude and outlook. I want to discover more standouts from any genre - self-help, goal-setting, philosophical or otherwise - that have helped you, my fellow mefites, see the world and your respective circumstances in in a different, more positive light.

Some books and ideas that have resonated with me:

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frank: his determination to keep a positive attitude in the midst of the most horrific of circumstances moved me to tears. Also, I can identify with his ideas of logotherapy.
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill: Had a lot of interesting ideas on personal goal-setting and pursuing your passions in life.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey: I ... ahem... have found myself to be lacking in many of these habits.
On Writing by Stephen King

The list is rather short at the moment. I would like to grow it. I haven't read much philosophy up to this point, and would like to hear suggestions of any influential works that might perhaps broaden my perspective. But like I said in the question - any book that you feel made a significant positive impact on your life, regardless of genre, is most welcome.
posted by Kamelot123 to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
Time and the Art of Living - about how to grapple with the finite amount of time we have on earth and how we spend it
The Heart Is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality - sermons by William Sloane Coffin grappling with, among other things gay marriage issues within the church
The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist - how to balance what you want the world to be with your place in it and dealing with the lonliness of being extremely principled
Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking - about what keeps us from being creative or able to create
The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity - about how to authentically experience things and what it even means to do this.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work - is on my "to read" list and I haven't gotten to it yet
posted by jessamyn at 8:45 AM on January 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
posted by txmon at 8:49 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The original self-help book, The Discourses of Epictetus, changed my life.
posted by STFUDonnie at 8:52 AM on January 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two books I really enjoyed this year:

- Jon Kabat Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (meditation/being in the moment).

-Lodro Rinzler, The Buddha Walks Into A Bar ( great intro to Buddhism and mindfulness, easy read and fun).
posted by sweetkid at 9:33 AM on January 1, 2014

oops LAST year har har.
posted by sweetkid at 9:33 AM on January 1, 2014

I found two Stoic texts were very helpful.

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.
This Hays translation is fantastic. the book has to be read in its historical context... there are ideas that are outdated, antiquated, and very "Roman" within. But there are also fantastic ideas. I have a quote from the beginning of Book Two hanging on my wall at my office, to remind me how to deal with people each day.

The Art of Living, by Sharon Lebell.
This is a very loose, very contemporary translation of Epictetus' Enchiridion. While it is a little breezier than it should be in terms of staying true to the source text, I still found it very helpful and thought-provoking.

Here are a couple of other weird, life-changing books.

L.A. Bizarro, by Anthony Lovitt and Matt Maranian.
Definitely an extremely NSFW book, but one that opened my eyes to just how much depth there was to my home city at the time, L.A. This is a bizarre, freaky guidebook that describes all kinds of off the wall places to eat, visit, and shop, all while telling some of L.A.'s seedier and hidden stories. Your hometown may have a similar book published about it. This changed my attitude toward L.A. at the time, making me more willing to explore, seek out new experiences, and learn whatever I could. Now I live in a new city, and that adventurous spirit has changed my life. It's so much more fun to be here than it would be if I was just going to Applebee's for dinner and spending all my free time at the mall, like most people do in these parts.

Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari, by Jeff Berry.
I happened on this book while exploring a store in Los Angeles that specializes in selling off the wall faux-Polynesian and Hawaiian decor. This book opened my eyes to the world of tiki culture and cocktails, probably one of the most fascinating American subcultures that has developed over the last century. It tells the story behind a number of iconic tiki drink recipes, digs into the history of the aspiring restauranteurs and bartenders that developed their recipes, talks about how people worked hard to keep their discoveries and developments secret, et cetera. Now I have my own small bar, and I have much more of an appreciation for what I drink (and the art and science behind it). Bartending is an artistic outlet that changed my life in some really fun ways. Of course, that will happen when you have your first properly made Mai Tai or Zombie.
posted by Old Man McKay at 9:47 AM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I quite liked "Tuesday's with Morrie" I'd be lying if I said this triggered some deep shift in my glass more empty general outlook, but it's a younger man learning from an older man what he felt has really mattered. Just to warn you.. the people I lent it to thought it was crap and cliched but I personally found it gentle and thoughtful... without being heavy.

I also really like American Splendour and stuff by Charles Bukowski.. whilst I can't claim either social commentator was exactly optimistic... both note the sharp beauty in moments which sometimes make all the shit worthwhile :-s / ;)
posted by tanktop at 9:47 AM on January 1, 2014

Like you, I also really enjoyed Man's Search for Meaning. Here are some others I found in the last year:

The Denial of Death

The Happiness Trap


The Art of Living
posted by Ouisch at 9:48 AM on January 1, 2014

I read William James this year, and his philosophical writings changed my life and gave me a new perspective on the world and my place in it. I highly recommend Essays in Radical Empiricism, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Principles of Psychology.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:53 AM on January 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I emphatically second William James. He writes on Pragmatism, which centers around ideas as tools and servants of the mind, rather than great things waiting to be found. It's also a solid Western basis for the idea that "the truth is what serves you," which as an analytical person who still has a lot of faith in what the "Universe" might arbitrarily want for me I found very satisfying and settling.
posted by sweetkid at 10:00 AM on January 1, 2014

I'm going through a course right now called "Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions." From the link, you can see the titles and descriptions of each class, which can give you an idea of the books discussed. The actual reading list is really long (54 books!) -- if you're interested, let me know and I can email the reading list to you.
posted by Houstonian at 10:02 AM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload has had a positive impact on my everyday life, in the form of how I interact with journalism and information/content distributors. It's a pretty practical book, but I really loved it for its philosophical focus on the goal of understanding being "a process, not a product." This approach has basically kept me from falling into an abyss of cynical misanthropy about both the events covered by the news and the news industry itself. Encountering, reading, and analyzing the news--an everyday activity that usually engendered dread and spite in me--is something more purposeful now, and I feel more empowered and less despairing. (I still avoid cable news like the plague, though.) Definitely a positive influence, and one I wasn't expecting to find in a book about journalism.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 10:07 AM on January 1, 2014

The Plague by Albert Camus. I read this book as a teenager and it changed my life. It is a story of the strength of humanity in the face of conflict. Perhaps you are past this point in your philosophical inquiry, but I will always recommend this book to people for the large amount of compassion it managed to dredge up in my wounded, cynical, young self. I strongly feel I would be on a different path in my life if not for this book.

A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis. It is a guide to examining your internal thought process and realizing what assumptions you have about yourself and others that might be really incorrect and detrimental to your life. I found it very illuminating and applicable in my own life when I had read it.


When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron. It is sort of an introduction to Buddhist thinking, but it gives a different perspective on difficulties and struggles one might be having in their life. This book also was a kind of jumping point for me to think critically about my own values and whether my actions were matching up to my beliefs.
posted by sevenofspades at 10:41 AM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is an important work for my understanding the positive value of an empirical viewpoint (as opposed to understanding naturalism as positivist or reductionist).
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:13 AM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson
posted by decathexis at 11:16 AM on January 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Breathing Under Water by Richard Rohr -talks about seeing reality for what it is and our alternatives
The Gift of Therapy by Irving Yalom- talks about removing obstacles to growth and the importance of the here and now
And as mentioned above, the Meditations.
posted by SyraCarol at 12:18 PM on January 1, 2014

Reason's Grief by George W. Harris. Ambitious scope and not exactly something you can read on the bus, but definitely worthwhile!
posted by wavelette at 12:31 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anything by Barbara Sher.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:08 PM on January 1, 2014

Works that made a big impact on me:

Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard Really helpful in thinking about the limits of rationality in ethics.

Introducing… Roland Barthes The "Introducing" series is really great in general. The quasi-comic format works well, and their graphic representation of continental philosophers helped me parse a lot.

On the Origin of Inequality by Rousseau He's not always right, but the way we still struggle with a lot of these questions makes him worthwhile.

On the Political by Chantal Mouffe The idea of antagonistic politics needing zones of contention mediated by institutions has been really helpful for me when I need to step back from partisan politics.

Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky Alinsky always makes you feel like you can do something with the problems all around you.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill I really appreciated Mill as an ethical system (utilitarianism, which has limits better explored elsewhere) that provides a case for liberalism in the absence of God.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke Thinking about the limits of what can be known has made me better at evaluating claims and making good decisions.

Husserl's Phenomenology by Dan Zahavi The twin notions of epoche and rigorous phenomenology made my drug time a lot more interesting.

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus Connecting Situationism to pop culture has helped me engage with a lot of stuff that I would have dismissed before, and reminds me to lighten the fuck up.
posted by klangklangston at 2:15 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The philosophy of Gary Francione has made a huge impact on me. When I started volunteering at an animal shelter about twelve years ago, my compassion extended only to cats and dogs. After thinking about it, though, and after encountering Francione's writings, I extended my compassion to farm animals -- and to all sentient beings. That is the reason why I am a vegan.
posted by alex1965 at 2:43 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Heart of The Soul by Gary Zukov.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:01 PM on January 1, 2014

How to be Idle. by Tom Hodgkinson

and his follow up:

How to be Free.

Also, for me, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

All three of the aforementioned owe a lot, I believe to Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness.

There are many more works of fiction that have helped me make sense of the world, including my place in it, but I felt from your post you were looking for non-fiction title suggestions. I hope you find what you are looking for.
posted by evil_esto at 1:08 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

As to the 7 Habits of Highly [insert positive adverb here] People I would draw your attention to a parodic list from Mcsweeney's by Brendon Lloyd:


Although I swear it's changed; it used to contain i: Cocaine and ii: Champagne or I'll be damned. (Snorkelling? Not really a tell-tale sign of success, unless you do it in or about the Andaman Isles whenever you damn choose...).
posted by evil_esto at 1:38 AM on January 2, 2014

I was going to suggest Man's Search For Meaning, but since you have that listed first, here are a couple of others:

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

Living Buddha Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (though this one is fiction)

If You Have to Cry, Go Outside by Kelly Cutrone Not on par with the others, but there was something that really resonated with me in this personal memoir of PR Maven Kelly Cutrone and inspired me to start my own side business.

I just started this one so I can't really comment other than that everyone in my yoga class says it's "amazing", and so far I am enjoying it: The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 6:35 AM on January 2, 2014

AGE OF WONDER by Richard Holmes
A historical book about science in the Romantic Era. This book was big for me just because it went through the lives of all these different thinkers, showing how free and open their perspectives were on their own lives (in other words, they pursued a variety of projects that gave them satisfaction but weren't really pigeonholed in specific fields - people considered themselves "natural philosophers" rather than being a part of a more limited career).

Kind of a big book that's not superaccessible, but really reinforced for me this idea that we are not limited in what we can do, and that this realization - that of being limitless - is truly emancipatory and opens up the possibilities of life.
posted by mrmanvir at 7:27 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Both are books intended to help you make better art, but which had a very profound impact on me outside of art:

How to Stop Acting - Harold Guskin
Guskin teaches you to maintain a certain loose, open, receptive disposition that he sees as ideal for an actor, and I've started using this disposition throughout my life. I find that I often censor myself less, and as a result, people find me funnier and more entertaining to be around. I also think I've become a more effective listener, and I ask better questions as a result.

Keys to Drawing - Bert Dodson
This book is really a how-to book for draftsmanship, but it's totally worth it for the first chapter alone, wherein Dodson describes how most people negate themselves while drawing ("This line sucks; I'm making the figure look too fat; this line doesn't look right"), and he shows you how to turn that little voice off. It's something we all do outside of drawing, and it's very useful to know how to turn that off.
posted by sidi hamet at 7:54 AM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, by Paul Gorman and Ram Dass changed my life.

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton gave me food for thought on how to be a better person, in the nicest way possible

Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, by Stephen and Ondrea Levine gave me insight and perspective on death and, therefore, on how I want to live.

Causing Death and Saving Lives by Jonathan Glover gave me a framework in which to formulate my personal views and philosophy on all kinds of serious issues like euthanasia, abortion, suicide, death penalty, etc.
posted by janey47 at 10:17 AM on January 2, 2014

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