A friend recently texted me and asked me for a list of my top 10 books that I felt represented my philosophy for life along with a sentence or two to explain what chapters or ideas spoke to me the most. This was challenging for me as well as timely. While I have always been a reader, I am a notoriously slow reader and much of my philosophy on life has come from conversation and teaching more so than books. But in the last couple of years I have developed a deliberate practice of reading along with solidifying my own beliefs and opinions.
I went to my bookshelf and started pulling books and separating those I thought were interesting from those I felt influenced my core beliefs about myself, my behavior, my faith, or my outlook on life.
While the first pile was fun to examine from the perspective of what I’ve learned about the body, the mind, physics, science, art, construction, birds, psychology, or philosophy, there lacked a certain emotional weight to them. I learned from them, of course, but they didn’t speak to me the way those in the second pile had.
The books in the second pile could be grouped by themes, many of them referenced one another (which is what inspired me to buy them in the first place), and the copious amounts of notes and highlights were evidence of their impact on me. Combined, and juxtaposed against each other they started to paint a picture of the person I am striving to be, what I believe about myself, and my thoughts on life in general. This seemed like the perfect place to start my list of most influential books.
1. The Bible (KJV)
The Bible is, by far, the most influential book on my list and not just because it so happens to be one of the most influential books in the history. Its influence in my life is deeply personal.
Those who would venture to pick up one of the many Bibles in my home will find it filled with underlined passages, notes, and references. Even though the challenge was to write a sentence or two about how the book has influenced me, I already feel as though I’m doing it an injustice by stopping at paragraphs.
Within is the basis upon which I view humanity.
Romans 3, in the New Testament, is probably the most poignant commentaries on the nature of mankind. In short, we are all sinners, flawed, imperfect. We all fall short of ideal. We lie, covet, hate, lust, destroy, hurt and disappoint. Understanding that all men (and women) are imperfect (including myself) allows me to neither hold any man or woman in too high of regard, but also reminds me to have compassion for them as fellow flawed beings. Their hope (as well as my own) is found in the latter half of the chapter; in “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” (Romans 3:22)
I’m not a philosopher. I don’t have an answer for what works or what doesn’t. I only know that left to our own devices human beings are pretty terrible creatures. Those left to their own devices are left to build conflicting moralities that cause conflict, or collapse into nihilism and despair. An argument can be made (and has been), that holding one’s self to the highest of standard only sets one up for a lifetime of guilt and shame. But even there I find the Bible to have an answer in Romans 5.
“But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:”
I already run the risk of becoming theological as well as philosophical, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that my ability to comprehend concepts like grace, mercy, and forgiveness are found only in my ability to see all of us as in desperate need of them. Through that equality of humanity and a standard of holiness, I can set my aim on striving toward a life of purpose and meaning while forgiving myself and others when we fall short.
The Bible is the source of my greatest ambition.
When I was a girl, the story of Solomon spoke to me like no other. The Lord loved Solomon and in 1 Kings, chapter 3, the Lord came to Solomon in a dream and told him he could ask for anything and it would be given to him. In verses 7-9, Solomon answers the Lord,
“And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?”
This humble request speaks of a man who loves his people, understands the weight of his responsibility, and has a genuine desire to do good. This is my own heart’s cry. I want to have eyes that see my responsibility, a heart that yearns for good, and the knowledge and wisdom to act justly in all things. I have not always acted with discernment and wisdom, and I am most aware of my failings, but each failure has made me more eager to right my wrongs and do better the next time.
This drive for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is a large part of what makes me so passionate about every topic that interests me. I do not simply want to know things, I want to understand them, their place in life and how I can use them appropriately.
The Bible is also the root of the four guiding principles for how I attempt to interact with the world.
The first can be found in Matthew 7:12.
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Above all, I want grace, forgiveness, mercy, and a chance at restoration when I invariably screw up (which I do often). If that is what I want from others than who I am to deny that to them? This philosophy of treating others and I would be treated me has not only prevented me from saying and doing some of the most vile and hateful things, but has also inspired me to try to do good when it was in my power to do so.
The second in Galatians 5:22-23.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
When I am in a position wherein I don’t know what to do, I sometimes find myself reciting these verses. If I can act out of one of these principles, even if it is not perfect, I will probably not do more harm. Sometimes, when I find that I have been impatient, aggressive, angry, or haughty, these verses come in like a bulldozer to remind me how I have failed, and teach me where I need to make amends.
The third is found in James 3:17.
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
When there is a decision to be made, a discerning heart will seek a resolution that is not only right, but one that is delivered in a way that can be acceptable, fair and without hypocrisy.
The fourth is Romans 12.
The entire chapter is worth reading, but verse 18 sums it up nicely.
“If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”
Now, I am flawed. I do not always live up to these principles, but I can look back on my life and easily point out several times where they have kept me from making matters so much worse.
I could go on and write several more paragraphs about how the Bible shapes my philosophy and outlook, but for now I will leave it to these. For even the stories of King David and his reverence for a King who hunted him; the three Hebrew boys who would not bow to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar; Joseph and his forgiveness of his brothers selling him into slavery, and his fortitude in the face of being imprisoned innocently; the self-doubt of Moses; and the courage of Esther all inspire me to remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge.
2. The CS Lewis Signature Classics
Yes, I know I’m cheating here by including several books in one, but it’s my list!
My father gave me the book, Mere Christianity, when I was roughly 14 years old. I read it then, but it didn’t quite have the impact it would have when I read it again as an adult. When I was a child raised in a Christian household under the doctrine of Christian morality, any argument for Christian morality seemed redundant as I saw no other means to live.
At several different moments throughout my youth and young adulthood I have seen and tested life without the morality of my youth. I can find no better way to sum it up my feelings on the matter than with the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:
The Book Our Mothers Read
We search the world for truth; we cull
The good, the pure, the beautiful,
From graven stone and written scroll,
From all old flower-fields of the soul;
And, weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from the quest,
To find that all the sages said
Is in the Book our mothers read.
And CS Lewis does a fine job of arguing for morality.
3. How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Even if you’re doing the best you can to be gracious, kind, thoughtful, and honest, occasionally communication styles and personalities simply clash. I was raised in a fairly blunt household. Both my father and my mother (though more my father) had a penchant for direct commentary that could easily be misinterpreted as insulting, rude, or hurtful. To this day, if I am not careful, I can be too direct and abrasive. The head-shakes and sighs of my family and friends lets me know I have probably said something in a way I shouldn’t have.
I’ll be honest, being decorous in my spoken language is sometimes physically exhausting to me. I’d much rather say what’s on my mind and be done with it or not speak at all, but that would go against my principle of dealing with people wisely and in ways that they are most likely to receive. And so I make a habit of reading this book every so often and trying again to speak and interact with people in ways that make them feel attended to, honored, and respected.
4. The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism by Matthew J. Van Natta
The philosophy of Stoicism has been around since roughly 300 BCE and has influenced everything from Christianity to modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and addiction recovery programs.
I’m not an anxious person. My outlook toward the future is fairly optimistic. But if ruminating on past mistakes was an olympic sport I’d be a metalist for sure!
I battle with shame and regret on an almost daily basis. And when I find myself circling the drain of my own self-contempt it is often Stoicism that pulls me out of it. The Disciplines of Desire, Assent, and Action help focus my attention on what I can control and away from the things I can no longer change. The Virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice align with my Biblical guiding principles and guide or chastise me appropriately as I move through my life.
The ability to separate how I feel from how I think and how I act has been a direct result of practicing Stoicism and has served me well many times when I have been compelled to act emotionally.
5. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Which brings us to Meditations, the journal of a Roman Emperor and practicing Stoic.
Marcus Aurelius was a master at examining his place in the world as a human being and reminding himself of his purpose–to be of service to other people. His meditations are not only insightful but a fantastic guide on how to commune with oneself: honestly, openly, without judgment, and without shame. When I feel like beating myself up too badly, I like to read how Marcus Aurelius showed himself mercy, grace, patience, and forgiveness.
6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson
Because I am so consumed with a genuine desire to understand, attend, care, and respond well in every situation I can be quite hard on myself and care too much about the opinions and thoughts of others. I have spent too much time considering or even trying ideas that have been counter to my own values and suffered because I thought I was being fair or respectful.
The entire book, but particularly the chapter on the power of “No,” is a good lesson for someone like myself. There is no making everyone happy. True wisdom is not trying to please everyone but doing the right thing, even if it means pissing someone off.
7. Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend
This leads us nicely to Boundaries.
I’ll be honest, the book itself is an annoying read. I find the writing style to be a bit childish and preachy, but I’m fairly good at not throwing babies out with bathwater.
In some ways I was raised with amazing boundaries. In other ways, not at all. This confused delineation between what was mine and my responsibility vs what was not, combined with abusive people who simply had no respect for boundaries whatsoever resulted in one heck of a messed up teenage and early adult life.
I determined that even if you were raised with amazing boundaries, unless you have been expressly taught what boundaries are, how to define and defend them, and the ways in which people can attempt to violate them, you are open to attacks and harm.
This book has helped me better understand where I can shore up my own boundaries and how I can better prepare my children for an independent life filled with responsibility and respect–not only for themselves, but others.
8. Dare To Lead by Brené Brown
In every job interview I’ve ever had, when asked for my weaknesses I have said, “I’m not a leader. I am bad at anticipating needs and directing people.” And it is true. I am not a leader.
Yet throughout my life I have found myself in at least a few positions where I was expected to lead despite my protestation. I have failed at it. Miserably. This has reinforced my belief that I am forever doomed as a terrible leader.
Only recently have I had the courage to truly examine those failures for what they are: 1) ignorance in what it means to lead, 2) fear of failure, 3) shame, and 4) laziness. I may not be a natural-born leader, but if life gives me moments wherein I must lead, then I owe it to myself and especially those under my leadership to be the best leader I know how to be.
But Dare To Lead is so much more than a book on leadership. Its chapters on shame and how that produces people (and therefore leaders) who are more concerned with preserving ego than being honest and vulnerable has spoken to me as an individual as well as a mother, a wife, a friend, a coworker, and an employee.
9. 12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson
I can’t remember where I first heard of Jordan Peterson or why I bought his book, but I remember reading his full list of rules for life and thinking they seemed pretty straight forward. I was curious how much more one could have to say about simple rules such as, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” or “Tell the truth–or at least don’t lie,” and my curiosity was rewarded.
I feel what makes this book special is not that it is a pep talk about how to make your life better, but rather an empathetic understanding and explanation for why it might be so hard for people to live their best life. That empathy, for me anyway, allowed me to see myself with more compassion. It has challenged me not to merely stoically ignore my past, but to exhume it, feel it, work through it, forgive my failings within it, and set reasonable goals toward a better future.
We’ll see how it goes.
10. Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche
Okay, another collection of books, but whatever.
I’ll admit, I’ve not fully read through all of the books represented in this collection, and what I have read has been difficult for me to fully process. When other Christians find out I’m reading Nietzsche I sometimes get funny looks as Nietzsche was notoriously anti-Christian. That being said, I strongly believe that entertaining opposition to your beliefs is the best way to solidify what you truly believe. I’m also not a fan of dismissing something or someone just because you don’t believe everything they say. Nietzsche saw the end of Christianity as a good thing, but cautioned that without it mankind would lose the meaning found from it and fall fall into despair and nihilism. He believed that it would be up to the individual to find the meaning that sustained the reason for his or her existence and come up with their own morality.
Free spirits and Übermensch aside, as difficult as I find Nietzsche to read from time to time, I find his arrogance to be downright delightful and humorous. He is unapologetic, direct, and abrasive, which, to me, is refreshing (see “How To Win Friends And Influence People” above).
Most importantly, however, he has inspired me to stop being so damned afraid of my own opinion.
I will never know everything. I will never have all of the information. I will never have enough knowledge to make the right decision in every situation, but that does not make me unworthy to hold an opinion, propose a solution, disagree with someone, or make a decision that I stand by as my own. I need to have the humility to be wrong, of course, but it’s time to give myself permission to trust myself and enjoy what follows, the good and the bad.
I also find his formula for greatness from Ecce Homo to be one of the more celebratory acceptances of life and all of its messiness as well as a philosophy worth embracing.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
I’m working on it, Freddy.
- The Choice by Dr Edith Eva Eger
- A testimony to the power of forgiveness.
- Emotional by Leonard Mlodinow
- A deeper understanding of our emotions and how vital they are to life.
- The 48 Laws Of Power by by Robert Greene
- A guide to the darker motivations of man.
- On Anger by Seneca
- An ancient commentary on one of humanity’s most destructive emotions.
- Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- A discussion on what makes life worth living.
- Justice by Michael J. Sandel
- Different philosophies on what is right and wrong and what we owe each other.