You've Got to Read This Book!

Do you recall a book that has changed your life? This question is currently being discussed at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. Earlier this week a panel of writers was asked to describe a favorite classic that had inspired their own work and to read a passage from it.

In You’ve Got to Read This Book! 55 People Tell the Story of the Book That Changed Their Life, Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks write about the books that changed the lives of a much more diverse sample of individuals (“transformation leaders, business consultants, and authors”) who had gathered together to discuss ways to make “the world a better place.” During a break, the topic of books came up and several members spoke of the books that had a major influence on their life.

When the group reassembled, Gay Hendricks asked each person to describe a book that had changed their life. Hendricks notes, “What happened next was wonderful to behold.” Each person spoke with an enthusiasm that “absolutely glowed.” This experience led Canfield and Hendricks to conduct in-depth conversations” with 55 people about the books that had this sort of impact on their lives. In turn, the conversations were edited and reorganized by an associate into short essays about the way these books had shaped their life.

It is not entirely clear how the 55 individuals whose edited accounts are presented in You’ve Got to Read This Book! were selected. They appear to be chosen because they had some acquaintance with the authors and in one way or another because they were “all doing valuable work in the world.” They were from a variety of fields with the majority in the “self-help movement” including spiritual counselors, personal coaches, and motivational speakers. A large number came from the fields of marketing and technology and several were either writers or publishers.

It is also evident that a goodly number wore many hats, combining work in business and writing and personal training etc. For example, Pat Williams, the senior vice present of the NBA’s Orlando Magic is described as a motivational speaker, author of numerous books and marketing guru. He and his wife are also the parents of 19 children, 14 of whom have been adopted from foreign countries. Another contributor, Tim Ferriss, is characterized as “an accelerated-learning researcher, world traveler, and guest lecturer at Princeton University.” He is also said to be fluent in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, German and Spanish and holds a title in Chinese kickboxing and a Guinness world record in tango, coached more than 80 “world champion athletics and the author of several books. We should all have such talent.

Consistent with the backgrounds of the contributors, about a third (32%) of life-changing books came from the non-fiction self-help genre. That includes those intended to provide inspirational direction, overcome a personal problem, or encourage innovative business practices. Examples include The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (cited twice), Learning to Love Yourself by Gay Hendricks, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel (also cited twice), etc.

Fiction, both classical and contemporary, ranked second (22%) in the type of books chosen. That included 2 classic novels, e.g. Don Quixote, Siddhartha, and 10 contemporary novels, e.g. The Alchemist, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, etc. Clearly the great 19th Century novels of inspiration and devotion didn’t do much for these individuals, nor did the great Russian novels of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, or those modern classics of Hemingway or Joyce. Readers admired those novels, but they didn’t report they were life-changing.

The remaining collection of influential works were drawn from a variety of fields including 7 biographies, e.g. Ghandi, Veeck—As in Wreck: The Chaotic Career of Baseball’s Incorrigible Maverick, Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, etc., general science, e.g. The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau, On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz, Psycho-Cybernectics by Maxwell Maltz etc., and 1 each in History (The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas), mythology (The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell) and politics (Mein Kampf). The Bible, the most popular book of all time, was mentioned only once. And in spite of the popularity of contemporary memoirs, only one was cited, Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary by Jerry Kramer.

If a book or a set of books has changed your life, I would enjoy hearing about it.