UPDATE February 1, 2012: For the past two years, this has been an article like my links page where I keep adding content as I get around to it. Now I’m going to call it finished! Of course, I expect to read additional mind-blowing books during my visit to Earth, but this list now includes all the qualifying books I have discovered so far. [Um, and I added one more on February 2!] [Further updates, mostly formatting and links, in June 2015.]
This is a list of books that made a big difference to me at the time I first read them, and in some cases forever afterward, by giving me many new things to think about and/or a completely different angle on an old favorite topic. I highly recommend them all. They’re in approximately chronological order according to when I first read them, but that doesn’t mean anyone else needs to read them in this particular order, and where I mention ages please take into account that I was a very precocious reader–many kids will not be able to read these books to themselves until they are several years older. (Check out these great chapter books for kids!)
I am not linking these book titles to their listings on Amazon, mainly because that’s unnecessary annoyance for me but also because I encourage you to resist ordering new books to be shipped to you at your slightest whim! Look for them at your local public library, consider requesting them via inter-library loan, wait for them to turn up used, buy them from a real-life bookstore . . . or if you must, as a last resort, order online, consider Better World Books which I’ve found superior to Amazon in accuracy of order-filling, environmentally friendly packaging, visual clarity of Website, social responsibility, and general vibe.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
This was the first book to fill my head with ideas so rapidly and excitingly that I had to set it down between chapters just to catch my breath and give my neurons a chance to settle down. This children’s science fiction novel first caught my attention as a radio drama when I was in kindergarten, and I read the book soon after that. It’s about time travel, weird mathematical concepts, the powers of wacky women and misfit kids, aliens who are fascinatingly different from us spiritually as well as physically, the horrors of conformity, the nature of equality, and the triumph of love. The dialogue and narrative flow are excellent. It’s complex and intriguing enough to hook adults, even those who’ve read it twenty-some times like I have!
Worlds to Explore
This was the handbook for Girl Scout Brownies and Juniors in the 1970s. I happened to find a copy in a used-book store when I was in kindergarten. Reading it overwhelmed me with the desire to become a Girl Scout, to adopt and live by those principles while doing all that cool stuff! I joined Girl Scouts at my first opportunity, in second grade, and I was a Scout clear through high school, worked as a camp cook and counselor, and later became a troop leader for six years. Worlds to Explore has been one of my favorite references throughout, despite my ownership of newer handbooks, because of its welcoming, inspiring tone and its perfect balance of well-organized reference materials with fun little tangents. Its Suzy Safety section taught me first-aid skills and a sense of competence in an emergency that have served me well many times.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
George Orr, who lives in a future dystopia, is able to have dreams that come true. He seeks therapy, and his corrupt therapist tries to use his dreams to improve the world, with many unexpected results. I didn’t actually read this book until college, but it’s early in my list because I saw the made-for-PBS movie when I was six or seven and experienced the mind-blowing of this story then. The book is even better! I particularly like the ending, with its subtle messages about the true nature of contentment.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
This “puzzle-mystery” has so many twists and turns that I’m still not sure I understand the whole thing. There are many characters, all keeping secrets from each other and from the reader, and they’re all potential heirs named in the will of an eccentric mastermind who forces them (and you) to play his crazy game. Let me publicly thank my childhood friend Helen Dover, who was not so much of a reader as I was, for happening to choose this book as my Christmas gift in fourth grade! [Note: I’ve read other books by Ellen Raskin that pretty much sucked, so don’t bother with them. The Westing Game is the good one!] UPDATE: Here’s my ten-year-old son’s review.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Reuven is an ordinary Jewish teenaged boy in 1940s Brooklyn whose accidental injury leads to his friendship with Danny, a super-Orthodox Hasidic Jew the same age. Although the two boys have lived within walking distance of each other all their lives, they’ve lived in separate worlds and have a lot to learn about each other and life in general. That sounds trite, but it isn’t, because of the compelling writing. This book conveys such a vivid sense of place and time that it draws you into both boys’ worlds and holds a part of you there. It’s the book I chose to re-read both on the plane when I left for college the first time and in the hospital when my newborn son was being treated for jaundice, because I knew I could rely on those worlds to provide just the right amount of distraction and (after so many readings) comfortable familiarity.
Houses by Mail by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl
This book gives a brief history of the house-building kits sold through the Sears catalog in the early twentieth century and includes plans and exterior photos or drawings of a large number of the houses. My uncle Ken chose it when I asked for “floor plan books” for Christmas at age twelve. I’d been interested in architecture for a couple of years and had been looking at magazines and even meeting with a local architect through a mentor program, but my focus had been entirely on new buildings. Houses by Mail opened my eyes to the design features of earlier eras and helped me to understand why I found houses built before World War II so much more pleasant to occupy than newer houses. It revolutionized my own amateur designs and informed my critiques of new buildings. And it placed me firmly on the road toward an aesthetic sensibility that would render me unable to survive in a cutting-edge architecture school of the early 1990s–but that’s just fine, as it turns out! I’m not an architect now, but I still spend hours at a time gazing at Houses by Mail and taking off on related flights of imagination.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
This novel plays with time but isn’t science fiction. It’s the story of Elaine, a middle-aged painter who has some complicated memories to work through, and it jumps back and forth between the present and the past, moving in sequence along each time-line but hopping between them frequently. The past is every bit as real and vivid as the present. Sensory details, in particular, are so perfectly described that I now feel as if I have been an eight-year-old girl in 1940s Ontario.
Unfortunately, this book’s engrossing narrative and perfectly structured mood ravel apart toward the end, when the central conflict of Elaine’s past has been told but for some reason the story goes on, as if Atwood had a collection of memories she wanted to work in there. Not all of these are irrelevant, and they’re interesting to read, but Elaine’s apparent psychological health in her young adulthood doesn’t quite make sense, and many parts of the story are unresolved and left hanging. At first I read this as a comment on what life is really like, but with repeated readings it’s come to bother me more. Still, this is an excellent novel, one that really makes you think about the natures of time and memory. It’s ideal for a long trip or illness when you want to really sink into a book.
Experiencing Architecture by Steen Eiler Rasmussen
This book was required reading in my first year of architecture school, and I agree that it should be required for every architect, maybe even for every person! It explains how constructed spaces “work” aesthetically, in a way that’s very clear and easy to understand. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel smarter as you realize just how much you know but didn’t know you knew!
Snow Crash and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
These two science-fiction novels, tightly packed with ideas and interesting characters, are set a few decades apart in a rapidly changing not-too-distant future. (You don’t have to read them in order; The Diamond Age makes sense on its own.) Both of them are a bit too violent for my tastes, but I forgive them because of all the cool stuff that happens in between the mayhem. Both books include strong female characters, clever use of psychology to change the world, and overwhelming inundations of both future technology and ironically-derived future culture.
Snow Crash is about a drug, or maybe it’s a computer virus, or maybe it’s a religion, or maybe it’s a human virus, or maybe it’s all of the above.
The Diamond Age is about the power of a book to change a little girl’s life, about a proper gentleman who accidentally joins an undersea nude drumming cult, about the Mouse Army of Chinese orphan girls, and more.
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell
In my well-informed opinion, this is the very best of the many excellent books by this author. (Barbara Vine is a pen name used by the prolific Ruth Rendell for her more novel-like books; you may find this book shelved under either name. Here are reviews of 7 more Rendell mysteries.) It’s about a woman who knows that one of her aunts killed the other but doesn’t know why and doesn’t know which of them was the biological mother of the baby they were fighting over. The story is filled with twists and turns, extremely well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions of time and place and sensory experience, and the kind of Britishly suppressed tension that makes for excellent suspense. My favorite thing about it is that, even after reading it six times, I can’t quite remember exactly how it turns out!
The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris
I love this book despite disagreeing with its fundamental premise! Morris is a zoologist who, in this book, explains humans as animals. He has many fascinating insights into how we work and why we do some of the things we do. He’s particularly skilled in breaking down some kinds of behaviors into categories, for example seven different kinds of sex–the different reasons people have sex to fulfill different needs. It’s another of these books that spells out things you didn’t know you knew. The one thing that bugs me is that his central thesis is that human beings are wild animals who ought by nature to be roaming the savannas, so living in cities or even towns is like being incarcerated in a zoo, and this explains all human deviance and misery. I’ll probably rant all about this in another article someday, but briefly: It seems to me that humans are not wild but domesticated animals and that we have domesticated ourselves. While not all of our built environments are ideal and some do have zoo-like effects, in general urban living is healthy and functional for many humans and does not equate to being imprisoned by a more powerful species. So reading The Human Zoo causes me to have an ongoing mental argument with the author, but it’s still a great book!
How Like a God by Brenda W. Clough
Rob Lewis is an ordinary suburban daddy who gradually develops the power to read minds and make others do his will. He runs away from home, is kind of crazy for a while, and then makes a new friend who helps him figure out what to do next. This ultimately results in a trip to Kazakhstan, where all kinds of interesting stuff goes down. I love this book but find it very hard to describe! The best things about it are that the main weird thing (the part that makes it science fiction) is different from any other story I know, and that the experience of being Rob Lewis as he goes through this weird thing is so vivid and real.
The next three books came my way when a neighbor moved out and left a bunch of unwanted stuff on her porch. Laura Schatzkamer, wherever you are now, I thank you!
In the Country of the Young by John W. Aldridge
This book was written in 1969, so the Young he’s talking about are Baby Boomers. He explains why his own generation had so many children so rapidly, why they raised them the way they did, and why they built the style of suburbs they did. He goes on to analyze the values, behavior, and logic of the Young. What’s so striking about this book is that his characterization of the Young is so accurate and chillingly insightful, even to a Generation X person who’s always known the Young as “adults not quite as old as my parents” and who first read this book more than 30 years after it was written. It explains the Young’s formative influences and the exact direction of their diversion from previous generations, in a different way from anything else I’ve read. The really mind-blowing realization for me was that we’re now living in the Country of the Young, much more so than in the ’60s, because the Young are running the government and the economy and the advertising and the entertainment industry, so their influence pervades our whole society now. And the fact that they’re no longer young is everybody’s problem.
How Children Learn by John Holt
This is a teacher’s observations of young children, both in the classroom and in more casual settings. Much of the book is diary entries and other vignettes. It makes very clear that children are their own best teachers and can learn from all kinds of everyday objects and experiences, not just from formal lessons. It’s very inspiring and has been fun to reread as I watch my own children learn.
The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin
This earnest book explains why sleeping near the mother is good for babies. I’m so glad I read this book several years before becoming a mother, because it completely changed my mind about co-sleeping! I haven’t read the newer edition (although I have read other recent reviews of research on co-sleeping) but the 1970s edition has a charming spirit of having been put together by an impassioned mother who really wanted to help people with her experiences, her library research, and the stories she collected from other families, so that we would not suffer even a moment of the self-doubt she felt when her instincts cried out that her baby should not be left alone.
The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz
This is a history professor’s extremely thorough and readable explanation of what is and is not true about “the traditional American family.” Unlike some of the other books I’ve mentioned, this one tells you that a lot of what you thought you knew is wrong! It’s full of useful factoids and statistics, but it goes beyond that to explore the trajectories of different trends in society and their effects on one another. Basically, there never has been a time when most families consisted of father, mother, their children, and nobody else and most families were completely supported by the father’s income alone with no government assistance. It’s hard to meet that ideal these days not because we’ve gone off on the wrong track but because it always has been hard.
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein
This guide to architecture and city planning explores the goal of meeting real human needs in a simple yet effective way. It’s full of interesting details (many of them documenting real places) that show so clearly how our built environments could be arranged on a human scale to create more comforting and social experiences. Each short section is about one main idea, either for a type of place or for a specific feature such as sidewalks. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and flip through for a few minutes, over and over and over again. And it’s not just eye candy! It has practical applications not only for people who design and build big projects but also for ordinary folks arranging our homes and workplaces. We’ve used some of the ideas when arranging our furniture, deciding what spaces we needed (a much less rigid idea than what rooms we needed) when we were shopping for a home, our bathroom renovation, and creating space for our second child.
The Plug-in Drug by Marie Winn
This book explains just how insidious television is, particularly for children. It’s a little bit overstated and melodramatic, but it brings up excellent points about societal trends that correlate with the introduction of television and particularly with increases in television viewing by very young children, and about research indicating that television may affect the viewer’s brain, eyes, and metabolism just because of the way the picture works–regardless of the content of the program. I’m glad I read this book before I became a parent so that I was motivated to be cautious about my baby’s exposure to television and, later, the role of television in my child’s life. It is kind of like a drug!
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
This book is as jam-packed with difficult ideas as its title suggests, and I have not actually read the entire book, though I have read most of it over the course of the past decade, a small section at a time. The idea is that when human beings evolved to our present physical form, our minds were not yet the way they are now: People weren’t fully conscious in the way we know consciousness now. (It seems to me we may still not be fully conscious, what with all those parts of the brain we aren’t using at all….) Early humans seem to have been sort of half conscious of themselves and half controlled by voices in their heads. It sounds totally wacky at first, but Jaynes makes a really good case, heavily supported with evidence from ancient texts. Oddly enough, although I think he means to argue that people like Moses who thought God was speaking to them were “just” experiencing their bicameral minds and that this proves God is imaginary, to me it reads like an explanation of why God related so differently to people back in the Old Testament days. The really fascinating part of this book is its chronicling of the transition from the bicameral mind to modern consciousness and what the almost-conscious people of the time had to say about it!
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This is the first book in a series of historical fiction with elements of romance, medical thriller, science fiction, and erotica mixed in! Claire was a British battlefield nurse in World War II and is vacationing in Scotland with her husband after the war when she accidentally walks through a stone circle and finds herself in 1743. She is immediately swept into the adventures of a band of Highlanders, winds up having to marry one of them for political purposes, then falls in love with him and doesn’t know whether she wants to go home or stay. In subsequent books–all of them very long yet very difficult to put down!–Claire and her family have scads of adventures in two centuries on two continents and a bunch of islands, surviving so many ordeals and meeting so many historical figures that it would be preposterous except that it’s so well written, with details researched to an extent that delights even my finicky mind! Here are reviews of books 7 and 8 in the series.
The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff
The author spent some time living with primitive tribes in the South American jungle and began to feel that we supposedly-civilized humans have come to misunderstand human nature. She then wrote this insightful explanation of how the mainstream modern way of life works against our health and happiness. This interview with the author discusses many of the main ideas, but I really recommend reading the book! It’s not a parenting manual, but it offers lots of inspiration for raising a kid with his inborn skills intact. It also offers some ideas for adults struggling with work-pleasure balance or a vague dissatisfaction with life in general. I don’t agree with all of Liedloff’s conclusions, but this is a really cool book that makes you think!
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
This one combines two of my favorite genres: architecture and murder mystery! The most astonishing thing about this book is that it’s not fiction; there really was a psychopathic serial killer who gathered an astonishing number of victims into his unbelievably custom-built home during the 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. The story of the murders and the story of the fair are woven together into a very intriguing narrative. Oddly enough, I have to credit this book with helping me establish a healthy breastfeeding relationship with my son: I happened to receive it as a Christmas gift just after he was born, and I was happy to spend hours on the couch with a nursing baby in one hand and this book in the other!
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
This is a cartoon book, but don’t let that fool you–these illustrated stories address very serious subjects. Barry was inspired by reading about an ancient Chinese tradition of gaining control over your “demons”–the ideas that bother you and interfere with your life–by painting them. Being a cartoonist, she turned each of her “demons” into a comic strip. One is about the loss of her childhood favorite blankie. One is about the “girlishness” her mother mysteriously denied young Lynda so she could reserve it for herself. One is about her horrible first job. They’re all fascinating, poignant, and sometimes hilarious.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
The author was an atheist until his early thirties. He lays out a logical explanation of why the most foundational Christian beliefs make sense, targeted particularly toward people who think, “There can’t be any God because….” However, for someone like me, who has always felt certain that God is real but has trouble explaining this certainty (“If there’s no God, what’s THAT? You can’t feel THAT?! What’s wrong with you?!”), his explanation helps me understand it in words. The only part of this book that bugs me is the two chapters on sex and marriage–I’ll write more about that sometime.
The Hite Report on Male Sexuality by Shere Hite
This enormous book summarizes what Hite learned from thousands of men who responded to a very lengthy questionnaire about sexual feelings, sexual activities, and gender roles. There are percentages and tables and some analysis of the findings, but most of the text is direct quotes from the men. Men of a very wide variety of ages and life situations responded, and their answers are really interesting–at least if, like me, you are a social scientist and a lover of men and very interested in sex! The diversity of opinions shows that there are very few absolutes about “how men are,” so what’s useful about this book is that it gives me some ideas about what my man might feel about certain aspects of sex and some questions to ask him. (Hite also did an earlier study of female sexuality, but I find that one less interesting because it’s angled more toward supporting particular ideas than toward just learning stuff and because I personally have no interest in having sex with women, so when I read about what other women feel it often seems to be about what I “should” feel, so where it doesn’t match my personal experience I begin to feel defensive and weird!)
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
This graphic novel is also an autobiography and a biography of the author’s father. Bechdel is the author of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”, which I’ve been reading since high school, even though I’m very heterosexual myself, because her lesbian characters are such real and entertaining people! Her own family, though, turns out to have a story almost stranger than fiction: Her father channeled his intellect and aesthetic sensibilities into a narrow life as a high-school English teacher, obsessive home renovator and flower gardener, married father of three, and proprietor of an inherited funeral home in a small town–but his attraction to men wouldn’t be sublimated, and he ended up having affairs with several of his teenaged students. Alison wasn’t consciously aware of this until after she went away to college and came out as a lesbian. She was still trying to work out a relationship with her father in which they could talk about this aspect of themselves, when he was hit by a truck and killed. The book also deals with her childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder and other family neuroses. It’s all meticulously illustrated and shares two decades of her insights on this very interesting story.
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
This is the most insightful of many books I’ve read about how and why America’s built landscape got so trashy and horrible. It explains the influences of cars, misguided zoning laws, the Baby Boom, and many other factors on decisions about what got built and where. Kunstler turns this sad story into an interesting narrative that really pulls you along. He also hones in on exactly what had gone so wrong with Saratoga Springs, New York, at the time when he wrote the book (early 1990s)–and although he’s going into specific detail about that one place, many of those exact disasters have happened thousands of times all over America. He also gets into detail about the wrongness of some urban renewal schemes, such as downtown Detroit, and he even features a few places that are doing things right! Aside from my interest in the topic, this book inspires me because it does such a great job of explaining visual phenomena in words, without pictures.