A few months ago, my niece Lauren - a real book-hound - tagged me in a Facebook post entitled "Ten Books that Changed My Life,” or some such. The idea was that once you were tagged you had to write your own list and post it. Well, things got away from me (see #10 on the list to follow), and I never got back to it. But I was reading some over the weekend, New Year’s Resolutions yay, and it popped into my head again.
I think I’ve spoken of Annie Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft” concept before but if not, the idea is pretty simple. Your first draft will suck. That’s just the way it works…but without a first draft you don’t get to the second. So once I started typing this I had to get it out. Herewith.
- Bill James, “The Baseball Abstract.” – Multiple annual editions, starting in 1982. This seems silly, but Bill James shaped the way I think about two of my favorite things – baseball and statistics – in more ways than I can count. I was in high school when I started reading them, and he taught me to look at the numbers I was being presented (“Fernando Rodney has converted 47 of his last 48 save opportunities”) and ask a) whether the stat was actually meaningful, and b) whether there were some inherent biases that we weren’t seeing. In Rodney’s case, he was being placed in situations where even the lousiest closer (let’s call him ‘Schmoe Schmathan’) would have numbers in the same general range as Rodney. In many ways, Bill James taught me critical thinking.
- Douglas Hofstadter, “Godel, Escher, Bach” and “Metamagical Themas” – Hofstadter is a mathematician / computer scientist by trade, but these books – on creativity, music, and language – opened my brain up in ways I never expected it to be opened. I still pull them off the shelves periodically and dive in.
- James Joyce, “Ulysses” – No, I’ve never finished it. I’ve gotten a quarter of the way through it any number of times, but never been able to get over the hump. So how has it changed my life? By reminding me that, while I love a book that challenges me, I also read for, you know, pleasure. And this one isn’t pleasure. If I ever do finish it, it will be because I feel like I should do it. Maybe someday.
- Robert Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – I don’t know how many times I’ve read this, and I get something new every time. It’s another of those books that pokes my brain in unexpected ways and inspires me to think differently. For me, this book is like Velvet Underground records were to garage bands in the 70s; the joke is that the Velvet Underground only sold a few thousand records, but everyone that bought a copy started a band. That’s how I feel about this book. It makes me want to write.
- Jostein Gaarder, “The Christmas Mystery” and “Sophie’s World” – tasty, twisty stories about the Nativity story and the history of philosophy, respectively. The Christmas Mystery is an absolutely wonderful children’s book in which a little girl travels back in time to the birth of Christ, gathering angels and shepherds along the way, told through the eyes of a modern girl reading along via notes in a found advent calendar. Just delicious, and the advent calendar structure of the book (each day a chapter) make it a perfect book to read nightly to children during December. “Sophie” has the same sort of twistiness, in which a teenage girl learns the history of philosophy via cryptic stories delivered to her from a mysterious stranger that knows her father.
- Paulo Coelho, “The Alchemist” – Coelho does the magical quest thing as well as anyone, and this book, about a shepherd who gives up everything to follow a recurring dream of finding his personal fortune in Egypt, is a great example. He finds out (spoiler alert) that, essentially, his fortune has been within him all along…at least that’s how I remember it. It’s been a while. I sell old books from time to time, though, and this is one book I will never sell.
- William Gibson, “Neuromancer” – Gibson essentially invented cyberpunk science fiction, and while reading this (and all of his subsequent work) didn’t send me down any more sci-fi rabbit trails, this book is like a jolt of lightning. Clean, muscular writing that holds up remarkably well, all these years later.
- “The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia” – I found this in the library when I was about 12 and begged begged begged for my own copy until my parents finally broke down and spent the $35 (a huge amount for a book in those days) to get it...it’s basically just page after page of numbers, with almost zero actual "writing," but I literally wore my copy out and only kept it together with duct tape. I copied those numbers into dozens of notebooks, creating various lists and doing my own calcs on them in dozens of ways. In my first copy (I still have it), I went through all the best-of and award lists and highlighted every New York Yankee; if you held it vertically and just let it fall open, it went to the page that included Mickey Mantle.
James Fixx, “The Complete Book of Running” – I have no idea how or why I got this book. I remember running to prepare for football in high school and hating every step of it. But at some point, I read this and it touched some part of me in a long, lasting way. I still recall passages of it, almost verbatim – there’s a section on carbo-loading in which Fixx meets a friend to talk about a race to occur the following day, and his friend is eating oatmeal cookies. “Hmm…compex carbs. Interesting,” I think…and still do. In another, he talks about running downhills to try to train himself to a longer stride, mostly to point out that we tinker. Which I do. Mostly, though, I just like to think that my legs kinda look like Fixx’s on the front cover.
David Allen, “Getting Things Done” – another book I’ve read and re-read multiple times. I will probably never, ever become a real productivity killer, but this book inspires me whenever I get stuck and need a boost. It helps me break things down into small, bite-size chunks.
So that's my list. Way more non-fiction than I would have expected, but hey. First drafts, amirite?