A List of Life Changing Books

I started off 2015 with a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course, one of the hardest things I’ve ever chosen to do. I wasn’t a meditator. I had never even meditated before. My friends, appalled that I was taking this on, told me that it was like running a marathon before ever trying to run. I likened it to getting a personal trainer instead of going to the gym alone. On the first day, I realized that they were right. But I refused to leave and I somehow made it to the end.

This post isn’t about the Vipassana. It is about what happened after I emerged.

When I left the meditation course, I decided that I would ask the people close to me about their picks for life changing books, and then read them one by one. My mind was profoundly shaken by the course, so why not add new ideas to the mix? That was January. It’s September, and I can say that I’ve read dozens and dozens of books this year. Some of them were good, some of them didn’t resonate, but all of them were important because they impacted people who matter to me.

Earlier this month, I extended this question to my readers via Facebook, curious about what would surface. I know that many people who read this site are interested in travel, but to be a frequent Legal Nomads reader you also have to love words. My posts are long!  As I explained on the thread, when I said “life changing books” I meant the books that jarred you into seeing the world differently.

Those books that inspired you to modify destructive patterns, or to embark on an honest spate of self-work despite how tough it is to do so.

For some these are self-help books, for others they are travel stories that paint what we know a little differently, and of course there is also plenty to be learned through fiction.

I wanted the books that spoke to your souls.

And holy hell did you deliver.

Due to the sprawling nature of the thread I promised that I would put them all in one place, which I’ve done below. As with the recommendations on my World Travel Resources page, these are Amazon links where I receive a commission on the sale. I’ve linked to the Kindle versions since many of you are travelers but the paperback editions are, of course, easily found on the same landing page.

First: my list of life changing books from 2015

I wanted to share some of the books that were recommended to me this year that I found really compelling. It’s hard to choose between the list of great suggestions, but these are the ones that I think spoke to me the most.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig: I have read this many times over the course of my life but its message is one that affected quite a few of my friends since they recommended it as well.  Originally published in 1974, the book tells the story of a long motorcycle trip, using it to frame a deep discussion about how best to live our lives and make the most of them. Borrowing from the East and the West, the book was over my head when I first read it as a kid, but I’ve found that every time I’ve picked it up, I notice something new about its narrative form.

Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen: I’ve recommended Difficult Conversations multiple times since I read it. Per its fans, the book has proven useful in the boardroom and at home, as well as in high-stress negotiations. For me, it was a really interesting read into the psychology of tense conversations, as well as providing really useful ways to diffuse them when they escalate. We are often taught to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes, but I think some people are more empathetic than others. Or, for some, empathy and sympathy are conflated and it is more difficult to see things from another angle. For almost all of us, when stakes are high and emotions run rampant, having an objective discussion becomes really tough. When we feel threatened, or when we feel like we are taken advantage of, our discussion techniques almost always make the tension worse. This book provides tools to listen to what the other person is saying and respond in ways that helps actually solve the problem instead of assuage ego. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Antidote

, by Oliver Burkeman: Friends recommended The Antidote to me when I was complaining that many of the book recommendations from the year were about learned optimism, and while I understood how it could be useful it really didn’t do much for me. (For what it’s worth those books also talked about how lawyers are pretty terrible at being optimistic, so maybe I’m just too textbook for my own good.) The subtitle of the book is “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. SOLD. In it, the author argues that self-help and forced optimism can do more harm than good, that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. Instead, he suggests the “negative path”, one that has roots in Stoicism and Buddhism and essentially boils down to acceptance and letting things go. Some of us are better at this than others, but if you’re a Type A personality and a perfectionist, it’s one of the harder things to put into practice! Enjoyably written and entertaining.

 Radical Acceptance

, by Tara Brach: I used to think “acceptance” was a strange way of confusing yourself, of deluding yourself into believing that it was ok to be angry or anxious or upset. For those who might see themselves in this statement, Tara’s book is a good place to read about an alternate viewpoint. Per Brach, radical acceptance has two elements: it is an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is. Basically, to recognize what is going on and be sufficiently self-aware in order to parse through it, and to look at those feelings with self-compassion. Tying into Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame, albeit in more Buddhist terms, this book was one that challenged the ways I saw myself and the world, and I found to be a really valuable read.

 The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield: A really worthwhile book that addresses what you really want out of the work you do, and how to craft a career that feels authentic and successful to you. If your work or hobbies involve the act of creation, this book will be a really interesting and likely compelling read. Less of a how to about the work itself, and more about retraining your brain to be in the right mindset to thrive in a creative field.

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Existing in a true state of “flow” is an impossibility for a prolonged period of time, but what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to in this famous book are those moments of optimal living, when we are our best selves. Each of these episodes drives us to live more meaningful lives. It refers to those moments where we forget about ourselves, where we are working hard toward something larger, and we lose sense of time and place. In the book, he discusses the eight components of flow and how to try to bring them into work and play in our own lives. At its heart, flow is a bit of a dichotomy, because it requires cooperation between some disparate states. A really interesting way of looking at work and thought patterns.

If you like longform writing, you might also want to check out my Links I Loved newsletter, featuring the best writing from around the web.

For more of my favourite books, please see my post on the best books I read during my travels, here.

Your submissions: books that change your life

I come from a family of obsessive readers, and was even grounded as a kid for reading under the covers past my bedtime. Even today, I tend to avoid movies and prefer to read, wrapping myself in prose and learning via text. My friend Cheryl donated at a small TV to me in New York when I was working there, something she had replaced in her own house with a larger screen. It was 13 inches large and I referred to it as my picture box, then turned it on only to watch football and promptly forgot about it at all other times.

When I have free hours, I read. When I take walks, I think about the books I’ve read. The fact that I can travel around the world with a portable device that serves as a home for thousands and thousands of words is a gleeful thing. Words are what ties all the disparate parts of my Legal Nomads empire together: the pieces about food, curating what other people have written from around the web on Twitter, the beautiful hand-drawn maps of food that are now in my store.  I am honoured that you have all shared so many of the words that moved you. I’m suspicious of anyone who says they don’t read because it’s the best way to keep learning, and to me at least that’s the most valuable self-work we have.

A big thank you to those of you who participated in this thread. There are many great suggestions, some books I have read and others ones I have never heard of. I am publishing them alphabetically so that you can easily search the list. As with the above few books, there are links to the Kindle editions.

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer (From Draca: “For 30 years, every two weeks, he’s interviewed someone outside of his field. As a traveler, I love meeting random people who end up expanding my view of the world. At home, it’s more routine and less serendipity. Brain’s book made me take on the challenge– reaching out to people outside of my circle and learning from them. What drives their passion? Since I’ve read the book, I’ve met with an astronomer, a man who is retracing Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery, the guy behind a NYT best-selling author (he runs the business side), a journalist tackling food waste, an artist who works with kids who have been involved in trauma, etc. It’s amazing how it’s opened my eyes. A Curious Mind was the spark.”)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

A Path to Love by Deepak Chopra

A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (From reader Alexis: “This book saved my life, and made me into a better person.”)

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (From reader Hannah: This book “taught me that I don’t just love learning about astronomy, but I actually like physics, science and learning in general and has led to finally get serious about doing a physics degree and to discover that I like maths after all.”)

A Soldier of The Great War by Mark Helprin

A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini

Adesso Basta by Simone Perotti (Note: this is in Italian)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler (From Angela: This book “totally changed the way I cook and think about food.”)

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das

Becoming Your Own Therapist by Lama Thubten Yeshe

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris (From reader Johanna: “Helps you see magic in the ordinary. Fiction, beautiful fiction.”)

Born to Win by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward

Boundaries by Henry Cloud & Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (From Bethany: “There is beauty in all things. Even things most of us don’t understand. And so I never, ever kill spiders.”)

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch

Dancing With Life by Phillip Moffit

Dazzle Gradually by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan

Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era by Giacomo D’alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Five Decades: Poems 1925 – 1970 by Pablo Neruda.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Getting to Yes by Bruce Patton, Roger Fisher and William Ury

Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure by Elaine Lee

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

Half the Sky by Nick Kristof

Hills like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

I Do Again by Cheryl Scruggs

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach

In the Shadow of Crows by David Charles Manners

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julio Alvarez

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (From Jeff: “A good fiction book about the way humans have changed the earth & natural cycles. It opened my eyes to environmental problems that us as humans have created.” And from Carlo: “When I read it in my mid 20s it really blew my mind, the idea that things could be different than what they are, that it didn’t/doesn’t need to be like this.”)

It Starts with Food by Melissa Hartwig

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Jonathan Livingston

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Limitless Sky by David Charles Manners

Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Man’s search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Meditation: A Way to take charge of Your Life by Arun “Yogi” Parekh.

Mind and Nature by Gregory Bateson

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (From Joseph: this book “challenged my notion of social justice and what an individual can do to make an impact.”)

My Years with General Motors by Alfred Sloan

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwells (From Claire: “Makes you look at your life and place in the world and not to stress about all the if, buts and maybes. Love the 10,000 hours part about being a master.”)

Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver

Pedagogy Of The Oppressed by Paulo Friere (From Ana: “It changed my views on how and what to teach my ELLs as he questions how traditional education feeds into universal social justice issues and struggles between power.”)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (From reader Harshi: “beautiful prose about the world we live in”)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (From Lauren: “It inspired my initial trip to Iran and the rest of the world. When anyone would ask me why I was traveling to Iran, I would say it was because of that book. My mom was like “Gosh, couldn’t you have just read a book about Germany or something?!””)

Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem

Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav

Self by Yann Martel

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan (From reader Pierre-Yves: “While it might sound like reading about death and what is beyond is pointless to live one’s life, I have come to believe that the way we live our life will change what awaits beyond. Our earthly endeavor is to prepare us for what lies in the reality of existence, not just in our 3D life. And knowing all of this helps in not fearing death, and understand that it is only part of the whole of our existence and spiritual growth.”)

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (From Tony: “When I feel like I can’t do something that book shows me otherwise.”)

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (From Carly: “It changed my perspective on creativity, asking for help and communicating with your loved ones about money and your needs, guilt free. Also, handy tips on building community, the push and pull of artistic living and fun stuff like Kickstarter, Patreon etc”)

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir

The Book by Alan Watts

The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (From Sarah: “It woke me up to things I’d been taking for granted and reminded me the value of healing. I feel like I’ve carried that book with me ever since I read it.”)

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (From Clare: “Still makes me think about people and how lives cross and intertwine.”)

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The Fool’s Progress by Edward Abbey

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruitz

The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss

The Gift by Lewis Hyde

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

The Guest House, a poem by Rumi. (Available in The Essential Rumi by Jalal al-Din Rumi. From Penny: “A life altering perspective on perception of life events.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Healing Code by Alexandra Loyd and Ben Johnson

The Holy Bible

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Knight in the Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Lost Art of Compassion by Lorne Ladner

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (From Tahlee: “ It jars you into recognizing that accepting and living in the now doesn’t mean you are trapped and nothing will change – instead it’s the opposite – the negative thoughts telling you that you will be trapped if you accept things are what is keeping you trapped. When that realization hit me a huge sense of ease came over me and for the first time I was able to laugh at what I was thinking rather than letting the thoughts get me down.”)

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz

The Rebel by Albert Camus

The Red Tree by Shuan Tans

The Selected Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Shack by William P. Young (From Joey: “ A short novel, about a man spending a weekend with the Holy Trinity in human form (God is an African American Lady with a large belly laugh). It had loads of really cool one liners that I really enjoyed that weren’t nessecarily religious, just cool put-it-in-perspective summarizations.”)

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (From Katharine: “Made me rethink the American notion that capitalism = democracy.”)

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, found in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erhlich

The Story of A Seagull and The Cat Who Taught Her To Fly by Luis Sepulveda

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kindera

The Unforgiving Minute by Craig M. Mullaney

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

The Walk of the Spirit – The Walk of Power by Dave Roberson

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (From John: “It completely awakened me to the perilous state of the planet and flipped my world upside down.”)

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs

There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem by Wayne Dyer

Think like a Freak by Stephen J. Dubner and Stephen D. Levitt

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (From reader Hannah: “It taught me that other people think like I do, and that fictional characters can be truly inspiring figures in real life.”)

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce (From Rebecca: “Young adult fantasy books about strong, independent female heroines and their own stories of growth and finding themselves in a world not always containing a place for them”)

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

Veronika Decides To Die by Paolo Coelho

Volkwagen Blues by Jacques Poulin

Waiting For The Barbarians by J. M Coetzee.

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Water Margin by Shi Nai’an

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (From Steve: “This book has everything. The best and the worst of humanity. Poetry and prose. The most and the least powerful. It will stay with you forever.”)

What Is The What By David Eggers

What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany by Eric A. Johnson

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Wild Swans by Jung Chang (From Krista – “An autobiography by the author & recounted biographies of her mother & grandmother. It’s fascinating look into pre-Mao China and how women’s lives are still being affected.”)

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood

You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hahn

Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss