This post is inspired by an article from On Being, called What are the Ten Books that have Shaped Your Life?
Omid Safi shares his ten and I was struck that I had not read any of the books on his list; only heard of a few of them. No wonder we’re all so different.
Creating and sharing our lists of ten is a good way to expand our self-awareness and discover new books to read. I hope you’ll share your list with me.
Below are my ten and I probably could’ve added several more. While a few are classics, most are not literary or earth-shattering – they just arrived at the right time. In several cases, they were the first of many books read by that author.
The list is in chronological order, according to when I read them.
1. Masquerade at the Ballet – Lorna Hill
I read this book, about two cousins who long for each other’s very different lives, when I was around ten years old. And, I still have it! It inspired me to honour my own dreams, rather than the expectations of others.
Here’s the last line:
“It’s funny,” Jane said with a yawn, “but years ago, before I came to London, I stood at my window – your window now, Mariella, and I turned my back on the hills and moors and I remember saying very distinctly: I’m going to dance! I’m going to be a dancer! And, now look at me. I am!”
2. Love is Eternal – Irving Stone
Irving Stone’s historical novels brought history alive for me during my teenage years.
My favourite by far was this one, about Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln. She suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, and their relationship was challenging to say the least. The title, Love is Eternal, says it all. These two were devoted to each other, despite the challenges.
The quote below was on my dresser for many, many years. It’s served me well in my own long-term relationship.
“She must always remember that: love ebbed and flowed, now rich and shining, now shabby and disconsolate. One must survive the bad in order to realize the good. Therein lay the miracle of love, that it could eternally recreate itself. She must always be dedicated, no matter what the years held, what the hardships or disappointments, the sorrows or tragedies: she must come through them all, through the most violent and frightening storms; for at the other end, no matter how long it might take or how dark the passage, one could emerge into clear warm sunlight.” ― Irving Stone, Love is Eternal
3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
My favourite book of all time, this is a philosophical meditation on quality and our ingrained habit of thinking dualistically, told through the guise of a father/son motorcycle trip.
It’s a classic – one of the most influential books ever. I re-read it every ten years or so and get something new every time. There are so many great quotes from this book that it’s hard to pick just one, but here’s one that has special meaning for me today.
“We get blocked from our own creativity because we just repeat what we have already heard. Until we really look at things and see them freshly for ourselves, we will have nothing new to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see.”
4. Bring Me a Unicorn – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Most people know of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as the wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh and author of Gift from the Sea, her most well known book. But, she was also a pilot, a prolific writer, and someone who endured the agonizing and very public kidnapping and murder of her young son.
During my university years, my roommate Carolyn and I read many volumes of Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries and letters. The first was this one, Bring Me a Unicorn, which covered the years 1922 through 1928 – as a young adult (daughter of an ambassador) who wanted to write, and who then met and became engaged to one of the most famous men of the time.
We found her letters and diary entries to be very real, heart-wrenching and beautifully written.
“Don’t wish me happiness — I don’t expect to be happy; it’s gotten beyond that, somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humour — I will need them all.”
5. The Road Less Travelled – M. Scott Peck
Through my 20’s and 30’s, I read every book by M. Scott Peck. I still have most of them. But, the first and most influential was The Road Less Travelled, which begins “Life is difficult.” This was quite possibly my first psychology or self-help book.
At the time, it provided many insights on living as a mature adult and how to handle the difficulties that arise. Here is one passage I marked:
“The entirety of one’a adult life is a series of personal choices – decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent they do not accept this, they will forever feel themselves victims.”
6. Shadowlight – Freeman Patterson
Canadian photographer, Freeman Patterson, started me on the road to seeing. Everything I’ve done with photography stems from the first workshop I attended with him in 2001.
Shadowlight is a memoir of sorts and explains Patterson’s philosophy around photography and how it developed. I purchased a large print of the image that’s on the cover of this book and it’s framed and hanging in my living room, a constant reminder to “see the light” and pay homage to Freeman.
In reviewing some of the passages I highlighted in the book, I discovered this:
“I have long assumed that the fundamental reason anybody enrols in a workshop of any sort is to improve the quality of his or her life. Photography (dance, writing, hockey) is a passport, a means to achieving this greater end. So, while ostensibly people come to improve their visual and photographic skills, a good teacher not only will endeavour to help them learn what they want to know, but also will be cognizant of the deeper reasons for their being there.”
7. The Zen of Seeing – Frederick Franck
Another mentor in seeing is the artist, writer and activist, Frederick Franck. He was not a photographer, and actually strongly felt that the camera got in the way of seeing. For him, drawing was the portal for seeing.
This book, The Zen of Seeing, is a classic from the 1970’s for artists of all kinds.
“Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But, start to draw one and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each nerve, each vein of each leaf, but that you feel them being there. What applies to lettuces, applies equally to the all-too-familiar faces of husbands … wives …”
8. Women Who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
This essential book for women (and the men who love them), was published in 1992, but I did not read it until at least ten years later.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a gifted and authentic woman. This book was another reminder to follow my heart and instincts, not what was expected by others. It showed me the ways in which I was holding back.
She says this about “wild” women:
“The world ‘wild’ here, is not used in its modern pejorative sense, meaning out of control, but in its original sense, which means to live a natural life, one in which the creature has innate integrity and healthy boundaries.”
9. The Seven Story Mountain – Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton was a contemplative Trappist monk, who became famous for his writings, poetry and photography. He was equally at home with the solitude of his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as he was in dialogue with leaders of eastern religions. The Seven Story Mountain is one of his earliest and most well-known books. It tells the story of his upbringing and eventual conversion to Catholicism.
I relate to Merton on so many levels. My first contemplative photography workshop was held just down the road from the Abbey where Merton lived.
“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others.” Epilogue, p. 458
10. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom – John O’Donohue
John O’Donohue appeals to my Celtic heart. He was an Irish poet and writer about Celtic wisdom and spirituality; with writing so graceful and rhythmic that it’s like a dance.
I’ve also read several of O’Donohue’s books, but Anam Cara (meaning “soul friend”) was the first.
“Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.” ― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Find most of these books at my Amazon Store.
I hope this inspires you to do the exercise yourself. And, please share it with me.