Periodically I see top-10 book lists on Facebook, and I’m generally struck by a few things. First, such lists frequently reveal more about the extent of the individual’s reading than the quality of the books included. Second, they’re nearly always fiction, or fiction with a smattering of nonfiction books that the person obviously read in college.
Now, I’m not an authority on nonfiction, but there have absolutely been a number of books that have profoundly influenced how I think and act. They extend from fundamental views of existence, as in the first three books listed here, to political consciousness, history, religion, memory, writing, and diet. I honestly believe that reading any of these books, just once, can move you toward a more positive, constructive, and centered existence. Don’t believe me? Pick one and give it a try.
1. Remember: Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass. When I first encountered Be Here Now at age 20, it was like a bolt of lightning striking my brain. I felt like someone had finally sat me down and explained how life was, why people acted the way they did, and where to go from here. Divided into three distinct sections, Be Here Now first tells how Harvard psychologist and LSD researcher Richard Alpert became the yogi Ram Dass; then lays out the fundamentals of karma yoga and Eastern philosophy generally in hand-drawn letters and distinctive Blakean illustrations drawn by Ram Dass himself; and finally provides further resources for study and inquiry. If you haven’t read it, well, you haven’t read it.
2. Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken and The Three Pillars of Zen by Phillip Kapleau. These two books are recommended for beginning students at the Zen Center of Denver, and remain, in my opinion, the best introductions to Zen Buddhism. Aitken’s book is simple, clear and concise – deceptively so. I think often people read it and say, “Well, sure, that makes sense,” precisely because it rings so true that afterwards it all seems obvious. Partly it’s also because Aitken is careful not to introduce a ton of ideas about enlightenment that may later be a hindrance to practice. Kapleau’s book, on the other hand, includes all the bells and whistles, with lengthy accounts of sesshin (Zen retreats) and personal enlightenment stories. Critics may say that it presents enlightenment as an object to be acquired (which naturally becomes an obstacle to realization), but it certainly inspired me to pursue Zen practice, as it has inspired thousands of others.
3. The Gateless Barrier, various translations. Okay, last Zen book, I promise. But I would be remiss if I didn’t include it. The Gateless Barrier is a collection of forty-eight koans – the sayings and doings of past masters – that Zen students have studied for centuries. Rather than talk a lot about it, I’ll just include Robert Aitken’s translation of Case 19, “Ordinary Mind is the Tao”:
Chao-chou asked Nan-ch’uan, “What is the Tao?”
Nan-ch’uan said, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.”
Chao-chou asked, “Should I direct myself toward it?”
Nan-ch’uan said, “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you betray your own practice.”
Chao-chou asked, “How can I know the Tao if I don’t direct myself toward it?”
Nan-ch’uan said, “The Tao is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine Tao, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation and negation?”
With these words, Chao-chou had sudden realization.
4. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Technically this isn’t really an autobiography, since King died before he could write one; rather, it’s a collection of his writings and speeches arranged biographically. Regardless, it’s a wellspring of inspiration.
5. The UnconquerableWorld: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People by Jonathan Schell. I have a running joke that I always recommend this to people and have yet to have someone actually read it. You could be the first! Schell deconstructs historical narratives of war and revolution and shows how, since governments invariably depend on the will of the people, violence is ultimately unnecessary for political revolution. I also highly recommend his book The Fate of the Earth, a study of the likely results of nuclear war and the military insanity known as “nuclear deterrence.”
6. The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s four-book masterpiece reviews the development of mythology from primitive man to the modern creative age, and shows how all stories act as metaphors pointing to universal human truths. Along the way you get a survey of world history and culture. Pretty useful, right? If you don’t want to spend the next six months reading four dense books, though, you can just read Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is also great and a hell of a lot shorter.
7. Moonwalking with Einstein by Jonathan Foer. I just read this book, but it’s been blowing my mind. Did you know it’s possible to use a few simple techniques to memorize long lists of random numbers, or random words, or the order of a shuffled deck of cards, or just about any damn thing you want? I didn’t! And it’s not even hard! It’s fun! So far I’ve memorized the countries and capitals of Africa and Europe and the phone numbers of everyone I work with. And I’m just getting warmed up.
8. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. You writerly types have already read this and can move on. If you are reading this post and have not read The Elements of Style, however… well, I’m sorry your education has so completely failed you. Essential for writers. Useful for anyone.
9. Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even remember this book all that well, but I’m going to recommend it anyway. I read it in a flurry of books back when I was 19, along with Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Philip Kapleau’s To Cherish All Life, and Phyllis Balch’s Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Later I would read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Supersize Me by Morgan Spurlock and probably a half-dozen other books that don’t come immediately to mind. In any case, they convinced me thoroughly of a few things, namely that animals experience pain in exactly the same way we do; that needlessly killing them is wrong; that raising them as industrial commodities is unbelievably cruel; that eating meat causes enormous environmental destruction; and that eating a vegetarian diet is easy and healthy. Pick one book and read it. Even if you don’t immediately start eating vegetarian, I guarantee you’ll at least be more thoughtful about what you eat and why.
10. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins lays out the essential arguments against a belief in an all-powerful creator with crystal clarity. If you’re already atheist or agnostic, it will clarify your thoughts on the subject. If you do believe in God, then I challenge you to read it and walk away unchanged.