Has anyone ever asked you to read books to change your life? I would go as far as to say reading is one of the synonyms of personal growth.
I started reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, sincerely only for the last five years. But during this time, I read some books that shifted the course of my life. They exposed me to unbelievable facts. They laid open the science I didn’t know exist. They told me stories I could never imagine. They made me cry like I hadn’t before. They made me laugh as if I had nothing to worry about. They accompanied me when I was lonely. They told me life can be lived in many ways. They reassured me it was okay to be who I was. But that I could learn, too.
By a life changing book, I don’t necessarily mean a bestseller.
By life changing books I mean those in which the most obvious things have been said in the simplest form; or those that tell the history of life not as how people want us to know but how it happened; or those that show life writhing out of the mouth of suffering with full force; or those that remind us of adventures we had as little children that give sense to our today, too; or those that seem long and convoluted but essentially they talk about things we have always ignored; or those that make us reconsider if the thing is worth beating ourselves about; or those that make us look at life with a child’s eyes again; or those that make us ask questions we were too scared to even think about; or those that unravel the science behind all this and help us be a little less clueless; or those that give us hope that change is nothing but little things done every day; or those that show us compassion and tell us we are okay as who we are.
Here are some of my best books about life that not only taught me and entertained me but also made me ask what if I was looking at it all wrong (and other life lessons for 30s).
Because for some of us books are as important as almost anything on earth.
Best Life-Changing Books to Read
Please Note: All the below quotes are from the respective books. (I also have a collection of powerful quotes on everything in life you may like to read through.)
1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
[Highly recommended on the list of books that change your life.]
“The real question is not what do we want to become, but what do we want to want?”
In Sapiens, Yuval has not only told the story of the evolution of the planet and homo sapiens but he has also exposed our conduct on earth.
Sapiens will tell you all about the great grandmother we shared with chimpanzees, how our brain and body developed, the power of stories in uniting sapiens, how we made all other animals extinct, why we eat wheat, the reality of the agricultural and industrial revolution, systems behind capitalism and marital rape laws, why our religious and cultural values are hypocritical, humanity’s biggest frauds, the impact of money, the first usage of chloroform, steam engines, Buddhism, and the latest but the scariest technological advancements including the advent of cyborgs.
Sapiens is the story of everything. Read this one to know what has been happening since fourteen billion years aka day zero. (It is also a great book for new writers to understand the importance of story-telling.)
If a preserved mummy wakes up and says, “Who am I? Where am I?” Give him a copy of Sapiens and he will know everything that has happened and would be able to predict an event or two in the future, too. But he might just say, “Could you please put me back to sleep? The world of my unconscious was better than this one.”
Reading Sapiens is like going through our family’s black and white photo albums, at least if we think of the whole world as one.
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”
Get your copy here.
2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
When I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning — a remarkable journey of an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor — the author Victor himself, life took another meaning.
I had been asking some hard and deep questions about life. Why are we here, what is space, why do we live on, why do we do the same things every day?
When I read this book I was assured humans don’t have a grand reason to live or go on despite the suffering. The author was a bit too familiar with agony; he had been in the Auschwitz concentration camp for many years. His wife died in the women’s camp. Victor’s father, mother, and brother were also captured and killed. He lost everything. But he didn’t lose hope.
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”
Every sentence in the book builds towards the idea that a human’s purpose is to act upon what is in front of her. Do what the time calls for. Even the tiniest of goals can keep us going even in the darkest hour.
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
This is a mind-opening book that would remind you of the magic in being here and breathing and living in the first place. Now we go on fulfilling what is asked of us. (This is mostly the definition of a fulfilling, happy, and healthy life.)
3. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
[On every list of best books to read in life.]
“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”
“In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.”
“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.”
“Those who have courage and faith shall never perish in misery.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t include another book on the holocaust. But the diary of Anne Frank, a 13-year-old girl who was in hiding in German-occupied Amsterdam and was later sent to the Auschwitz death camp where she died, is a book of hope, and one of the best books for life.
When I visited Amsterdam in July 2015, I went to see Anne Frank’s museum. It was the building where she had written her diary while hiding. But by the time I arrived, the museum was closed.
I gazed at the building from the road, thought about Anne, and went onto one of the busiest streets to eat the famous Dutch potato wedges. But as years have passed, I have started to appreciate young Anne Frank’s words more and more.
This heartbreaking diary of a young girl who seems too mature for her age is filled with the positive ideas of love, freedom of opinion, and goodness. Even if we can’t go out or meet our friends or live in abysmal conditions not knowing when death might knock at our door, we can still be present, appreciate the beauty around us at this moment, and live on.
“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”
“There’s only one rule you need to remember: laugh at everything and forget everybody else! It sounds egotistical, but it’s actually the only cure for those suffering from self-pity.”
The next time you see a friend upset over a promotion or a sister fretting about a canceled trip, give them this book (and 46 other ideas on making someone happy). Or read it when you feel hopeless yourself. This one book will change you more than many combined.
4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer By Mark Twain
“Tom had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
“Well, everybody does it that way.” — Huck.
“I am not everybody.” — Tom
“They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.”
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a classic children’s book, and I read it in ninth grade. Whether I read this book at a young age or whether the fun adventures of Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn (two clever orphans growing up in Missouri near river Mississippi) introduced me to classic English stories, the book impacted me deeply.
A cultural and social satire, the adventures take us through the growing-up years and minds of young boys. The book shows how we become who we are. If treated with goodness, we respond with goodness. When strangled, we try to break free. The stories illustrate how we get fitted into the system and that nothing makes sense without questioning.
“Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”
Find Print copy in the link.
Please note: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too, imparts similar life lessons and entertained me even more than Tom Sawyer’s adventures. But I read Tom Sawyer when I was a little girl, and I am a little biased toward it.
A young girl reading a book, by Fritz von Uhde / Public domain
5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig — sitting at the top of the pile of books that changed my life.
“Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself. The One can only be described allegorically, through the use of analogy, of figures of imagination and speech.”
“The Buddha resides as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain.”
“The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is neither an easy read nor a short book. It is a classic dovetail of travel, philosophy, psychology, and the nature of things.
The book narrates the author’s bike ride with his son through the US. The journey is interweaved with ideas on what is life and what is important. Why we shouldn’t run away from systems and machines, that technology is part of all art and art is inside all technology, what is Quality and why is it important, the imitation propaganda of our education system, how humans run away from the truth, and other ideas about the nature of universe form the core of the book.
“Making… art out of your technological life is the way to solve the problem of technology.”
“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”
“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a transcendental journey encompassing and penetrating through everything living and dead. Want a book that will change your life? Pick up this one.
“You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.”
6. The Buddha Said— Meeting the Challenges of Life’s Difficulties by Osho
“If you cannot trust life who are you going to trust? If you cannot allow life to flow through you, you will be missing this tremendous opportunity to be alive. Then you will get worried, then you will be caught in your own mind, and then misery is the natural outcome.”
I bought this book in the Himalayas in 2014. The Buddha said is Osho’s interpretation of the Sutra of forty-two chapters: a collection of Buddha’s quotations compiled by a Chinese emperor in the first century CE.
Divided into twenty-two chapters and filled with hilarious anecdotes, the book talks about why humans are always worried, how we can connect with ourselves and the universe (non-duality), how to be happy, how to think better, and the meaning of meditation and mindfulness. A lot of thought is given to what’s important and what’s not and how to differentiate between the two.
“The basic thing has to be understood: man wants happiness, that’s why he is miserable. The more you want to be happy the more miserable you will be.”
“You cannot stop desire, you can only understand it. In the very understanding is the stopping of it. Remember, nobody can stop desiring, and the reality happens only when the desire stops.”
On any hard day, I read one chapter of this book and I find myself renewed.
7. The Little Prince (originally published in French as Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden… Yet they don’t find what they’re looking for… And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose.”
The Little Prince is a being and book of joy.
Written as a children’s book, the Little Prince later became one of the most influential, philosophical, and best books on life. It is based on the author’s real experiences in the Sahara desert in which he crashed along with his faulty plane. In the desert, the narrator met the little prince who said he had come from a star.
The Little Prince says that adults are confused about life and are always rooting for things of consequences. He grows tiresome seeing adults never playing for fun or living simply but always working toward an irrational goal hoping that would make them happy or successful.
Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
Just being and playing around and soaking in the natural order of things and not always running after more money or possessing more things was the intended way of life is only one of the lessons inspired by the book.
“What matters most are the simple pleasures so abundant that we can all enjoy them…Happiness doesn’t lie in the objects we gather around us. To find it, all we need to do is open our eyes.”
If you read one book from this list, let it be The Little Prince.
8. The Boyhood Days by Rabindranath Tagore
“The terrace, for me, was the desert I had read of in books, its bleak desolation stretching in every direction, the hot breeze stirring up a cloud of dust, as the blue of the sky grew dim.”
Like Tagore, I also felt free on the terrace of my parents’ house in our small town. We couldn’t go out into the town often but our second-floor roof was our view into the world.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote The Boyhood Days , a book about his childhood and growing up as a boy in Kolkata , a little before his death. In the book Tagore talked about his journey through Kolkata, how lonely he felt in his big home with only his sisters-in-law for company, how absurd he found the closed caravans for women, his inhibition toward the formal education system, the melancholy he went through, and what could change.
“The special appropriateness of presenting this entire narrative as an account of ones boyhood days’ lies in the fact that the growth of the child also signals the evolution of his spirits.”
“Nowadays, people seem suddenly mature, in every respect, than those who belonged to those earlier times. Those days, everyone, old or young, was youthful at heart.” — Have you ever wondered?
9. Stumbling Upon Happiness By Daniel Gilbert [One of the most important science book to change your life]
“We don’t remember our past well so we don’t know if we were happy or not. Or how we really felt at a certain moment. We don’t know what would make us happy in the future. Our feelings and desires change with time. What we know is only the now that doesn’t have to be steered to make our future happy for we really don’t know what’s up with that future time. We can also incorrectly predict how we feel right now. Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.”
The book states that happiness is a subjective experience. The best person to talk about her happiness is that person and that person only. And that we don’t remember our past well enough and we can’t predict our futures. We can only live in the present.
“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.”
“People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end. Even when people forgo happiness in the moment–by dieting when they could be eating, or working late when they could be sleeping–they are usually doing so in order to increase its future yield.”
“For two thousand years philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they think we ought to want. And maybe they’re right. But if living one’s life virtuously is a cause of happiness, it is not happiness itself, and it does us no good to obfuscate a discussion by calling both the cause and the consequence by the same name.”
Read this book to understand the science of happiness. I highly recommend it to those who want to look at happiness and emotions more objectively.
10. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
“Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier. Every night, millions of people scrub their teeth in order to get a tingling feeling; every morning, millions put on their jogging shoes to capture an endorphin rush they’ve learned to crave.”
The Power of Habit has been one of the most life-changing books for me. We talk about the importance of habits all the time. But Charles Duhigg lays out the science, research, and studies that show why we do what we do, how habits automate our day, and how to put in our bad practices to get some good daily habits.
The Power of Habit (quite literally) can be overwhelming.
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
If you want to do better or understand your own behavior — then the Power of Habit is your book.
I’m a fan of habits and linked above and listed below are my important articles on the topic:
- How to Sleep in a Storm
- Creative Rituals to Dream and Create Consistently
- Break the Routine, Sometimes
- Living Healthy, Mindfully, and Happily
- 12 Principles to Achieve Goals That Has Never Failed Me
- Work From Home Routines and Ideas
11. The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin
“What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning. This book is the story of my method.”
Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and an international Tai Chi champion, shows through this autobiographical book that process leads to result and we should focus on the method rather than hurrying toward the destination. He sketches his journey to the championship to show that success is an inevitable byproduct of learning and gives practical insights into the art of learning any skill (linked are my articles inspired by his ideas).
“The fact of the matter is that there will be nothing learned from any challenge in which we don’t try our hardest. Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”
“We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.”
12. The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciples into Massive Success and Happiness by Jeff Olsen
“Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do; they put the slight edge to work for them, rather than against them, every day. They refuse to let themselves be swayed by their feelings, moods, or attitudes; they rule their lives by their philosophies and do what it takes to get the job done, whether they feel like it or not.”
The Slight Edge deftly shows us how small things done over a prolonged period of time can shift our lives. That people don’t become great magically, but by doing the simplest things over and over again. All we have to do is to show up regularly and do a tiny bit.
“Successful people show up consistently with a good attitude over a long period of time, with a burning desire backed by faith. They are willing to pay the price and practice slight edge integrity.
Successful people understand that the funk gets everyone, and when it comes for them they embrace it, knowing it is refining them and deepening their appreciation of the rhythm of life. They take baby steps out of the funk and step back into positivity.”
13. The Outsider by Albert Camus [My Best Book For Life]
“My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”
In this classic existentialist narration, the protagonist neither showed remorse nor gave into social norms. He did not just do something to make others like him or accept him. He did what he had to do — whether anyone was looking at him or not.
The books emphasizes everything is alright as long as we are breathing, but if we cannot go on it must be the end for sure.
“I replied that you can never really change your life and that, in any case, every life was more or less the same and that my life here wasn’t bad at all.”
“I often thought that if I’d been forced to live inside the hollow trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do except look up at the sky flowering above my head, I would have eventually got used to that as well. I would have looked forward to the birds flying by or the clouds drifting into one another, just as I looked forward to seeing the odd ties my lawyer wore, just as in another time and place, I’d waited eagerly for Saturdays so I could press Marie’s body close to mine. Although, when I really thought about it, I wasn’t living in a dead tree. There were people who were worse off than me. It was an idea of Mama’s that people could eventually get used to anything, and she often talked about it.”
Read this small book to understand that not many things matter, that most of us don’t behave as ourselves but act up in front of society, and that we should be okay with what we have. This is one of the best books on life.
14. A Short History of Nearly Everything: A Journey Through Space and Time by Bill Bryson
“Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”
If you want to read a book on science while laughing all the while, read A Short History of Nearly Everything. Or if you feel sad or angry, pick up this book to see how tiny and transient we are in the bigger picture.
“Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms — up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested — probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.”
15. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”
The autobiography of Ben Franklin is a deep insight into great minds. It shows that achievers care and dare to think for themselves and make their own path. The passion to learn shines throughout the book ensuring the reader that greatness doesn’t necessarily come to those who are talented or special, but is attracted to those who can dream, work, and persevere. I have listed many more lessons to learn from Mr. Franklin in the linked write-up.
“I had begun in 1733 to study languages; I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the books with ease. I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance, who was also learning often to tempt me to play chess with him. Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refused to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have a right to impose a task, either in parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, etc., which tasks the vanquished was to perform upon honor, before our next meeting. As we played pretty equally, we thus beat one another into that language. I afterward with a little painstaking, acquired as much of the Spanish as to read their books also.”
16. Time Machine By H.G.Wells
‘It is a law of nature we overlook— that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.”
Time Machine is about a man who builds a time machine and travels into the far future. But when he arrives in the future, he sees that humankind has deteriorated in the absence of challenges. Once we achieved perfection we stopped doing anything at all.
Written in 1895, the book is a great commentary on the importance of the need to strive while providing an interesting perspective on the future. Thanks to Time Machine, I have started to appreciate imperfection.
“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.”
Post Office was Bukowski’s first novel.
I love Post Office because it is real, raw, and written in simple language. Bukowski didn’t sugarcoat anything and such honesty is rare even in the world of fiction.
“They brought in the flower, some kind of red-orange thing on a green stem. It made a lot more sense than many things, except that it had been murdered. I found a bowl, put the flower in, brought out a jug of wine and put it on the coffee table.”
How many times in a day are you not pretending?
18. Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
I stumbled upon Bird by Bird years ago when I had just started writing more
seriously sincerely. In this book, Anne Lamott gives instructions on writing and life and asks the writers to be patient.
Though the book is for writers, its ideas about taking it day by day, working hard, believing in ourselves, not pondering about the results, being good, living, and enjoying life can help us all.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Read this one to become a better human, if not a better writer. (If you are a beginner writer, these 27 tips on writing might help.)
19. Gora by Rabindra Nath Tagore
“…those in this world who have the courage to try and solve in their own lives new problems of life are the ones who raise society to greatness! Those who merely live according to rule do not advance society, they only carry it along.”
Gora is a fine book of Tagore, and it beautifully sings the tale of the repressed and colonized India and of the Kolkata youth being divided over religion.
Tagore wrote simply. In Gora, he unfolded human beings like a chef peels an onion. I didn’t love the book so much for the story but I cherished it because it taught me a lot about human nature.
20. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“You may like or dislike my way of life, that’s a matter of the most perfect indifference to me; you will have to treat me with respect if you want to know me.”
I started reading when I was a little girl (and then stopped until I picked up books a few years ago again). As a little girl I spent my pocket money on books about animals, Mark Twain’s classics, and Ruskin Bond’s adventures. In my small hometown, I didn’t hear about Tolstoy or Keats or Nietzsche for the longest time.
I assumed that Tolstoy would be tough to read. But when I picked up Anna Karenina I was amazed by the simplicity of his words.
Set in the late 19th Century Moscow, Petersburg, and the Russian countryside, Anna Karenina is a story of contemporary and privileged Russian life. Tolstoy’s unfurling of characters in Anna Karenina’s reminded me of Tagore’s Gora.
“Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated. She is oppressed, humiliated by the consciousness of her disabilities.”
“It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realization of their desires. But it is hard for anyone who is dissatisfied not to blame someone else, and especially the person nearest of all to him, for the ground of his dissatisfaction.”
One of the must read books in life, Anna Karenina tells the most obvious things in the most beautiful manner.
21. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act — a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”
I love to climb. But I am not sure if I would climb a mountain knowing that the hike could kill me.
Into Thin Air is a story of the 1996 Mount Everest climb that turned into a tragedy killing eight climbers. It is also a story of outrageous grit and perseverance.
The book shows that people can’t rest until they get what they want. That we can train our bodies and minds to do anything. And that nature is the supreme power.
“This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die.”
“We were too tired to help. Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality”
“My hunger to climb had been blunted, in short, by a bunch of small satisfactions that added up to something like happiness.”
Now not a book but one of my favorite authors.
“It’s courage, not luck, that takes us through to the end of the road.”
Ruskin Bond is one of my favorite authors. Dipped in the free mountain wind and suffused with children’s giggles, his stories can bring a smile to anyone’s face. All his adult and children’s books remind me that if life could not be easy, it still could be simple, fun, and full of love (Bond inspired me to have fun at work, too).
“Some of us are born sensitive. And if, on top of that, we are pulled about in different directions (both emotionally and physically), we might just end up becoming writers.”
“No, we don’t become writers in schools of creative writing. We become writers before we learn to write. The rest is simply learning how to put it all together.”
Few More of My Favorite Books About Life
Update July 2022 – Since I have written the article I have read many more books that changed me. Here I am adding them all with a short note.
It is not that these books aren’t as good (or more) as the above ones. But the 21 life-changing books built the foundation of my understanding of life. And the ones I am sharing ahead are branches shooting out of this life tree.
Along with the titles, I have also linked the lessons, meditations, and essays inspired by the books.
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerrald Durrell — This book encouraged my inner child to kneel in the mud, watch squirrels and birds for hours, and consider the world outside the house as our home and not the enclosed space. My Family and Other Animals is a fun, engaging, and compassionate read that reminds us of the nature of life and make us reconsider our priorities (much like the Little Prince).
- The Stranger in The Woods by Michael Finkel — One day Cristopher Knight drove to the Maine woods, left his car behind – with keys in and all, took the essentials, walked into the woods, and didn’t come out for 27 years. In those decades Knight didn’t meet anyone, didn’t have a cell phone, didn’t call his family or friends, never talked with anyone except saying hi to a hiker, and lived by stealing food and fuel from the nearby summer cabins. This book stirred up something inside me. Perhaps the primal need to live in the woods away from all the human noise and tragedy. The thing he liked the best in those long years was the stillness of the forest in winter when Knight would lie down in his bed and feel the cold penetrating his bones. This is the most unusual but poetic book about life I have come across.
- Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles — Ikigai inspired me to write this guide on meaningful and healthy living (the article has ideas driven by simple and Ayurvedic living in India, too). Often misunderstood, Ikigai is less about one’s passion but more about awareness of life, what we want from it, and appreciation for what it is. The book has brilliant ideas and research on how to live a healthy, happy, fulfilling, connected, and long life. This one will make you change at least some of your ways.
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport — So Good They Can’t Ignore You not only inspired me to reconsider my ideas on following one’s passion but also enriched me with the understanding that we can follow the trail of our curiosity, work hard to develop the skills, and create a loving, fulfilling, and successful career of our own. Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor and writer, has popularized the concept of Deep Work: diving deep into one’s craft for long, undisturbed hours. Everyone should read this book. (I have linked one article on work and through it, you can find all my pieces on the topic.)
- How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett — My long piece on Emotional Intelligence: Why We Aren’t the Emotional Fool We Think We Are is founded on Feldman Barrett’s book. A Neuroscientist, Lisa has changed our understanding of the brain and emotions. If you want to understand how human beings function, get How Emotions Are Made.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf — My article Woolf on writing, life, and women was inspired by A Room of One’s Own. In addition to being a seminal work on feminism, it is an infinite pool of wisdom on making sense of our life and writing about it. In the essay, Virginia argued passionately and statistically about how cultural, spiritual, and financial restrictions may limit our creative freedom. A must-read.
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie — Some of Dale’s examples didn’t go well with me because his idea of worrying was often a wife nagging a husband or so on. But after reading this book, I changed how I look at problems, situations, and things I used to anticipate. Carnegie essentially asks us to try our best to solve a problem, prepare for the worst, and then move on. He emphasizes most things we worry about never even come to happen and asks how much are we ready to give out of our life for that one thing. Read the first few chapters and skim through the repetitive stuff. [I don’t have an essay dedicated to this book but write-ups such as keeping it together in a storm and letter to my younger self are suffused with its inspirations.]
- No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, Original in Kannada, Translation by Tejaswini Niranjana — No Presents Please is a collection of short stories by the Kannada author Jayant Kaikini. He spent two decades in Mumbai and wrote about the city as his own. Set in the chawls, slums, streets, and roadside shops of Mumbai, the book has simple and real stories. But often the characters do something so out of their norms even their closest people are shocked. This book reminds me human beings are unpredictable (one thing to remember to maintain a happy relationship), and now when an acquaintance suddenly stops seeing me or the hospitality staff at my guesthouse smiles at me one day but smirks the next morning, I don’t take these things too seriously.
- The Swann’s Way by Proust — No matter how late to the party, I feel fortunate to finally discover Proust in all his abundant vulnerability, passion, tenderness, anxiety, and vigor. I’ve benefited from his writing and understanding of human emotions as much as I have gained from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 43 Human Observations of Proust From Swann’s Way and 42 Marcel Proust Quotes are my first two Proust collections, and I know I have a long journey with Proust.
- The School of Life: An Emotional Education by The School of Life and Alain De Botton — A visionary, philosopher, and psychoanalyst, Alain De Botton not only catches the zeitgeist of being a human today but also guides us toward a compassionate, hopeful, and adaptive path. His ideas on love, relationships, emotional health, and belonging make this book an essential read for anyone who wants to understand. Botton has completely changed the way I perceive human beings and the world around us. I refer to him throughout my blog (in the piece on understanding emotions too) so there isn’t a specific essay I want to share here.
- Reading Daily Rituals Women at Work by Mason Currey — I have not been able to publish my draft on the best lessons from this book because the publication denied my request to publish its quotes online. In the book, Mason Currey has put together the daily rituals of 143 women artists. The practices, perseverance, and outlook of those women at work have changed my attitude towards writing. We keep our head down and we do and then something magical might or might not happen. And that’s all there is. (Find all my articles on a creative life in the link.)
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert — This book taught me to look at my work, beliefs, relationships, and practices the way I want to. Do what you have to do, steal little time for things you care about, be imperfect, experiment, trust yourself, scrap an old project to get started on a new one, and have fun while at it. I suggest Big Magic to those who are ready to go beyond the formula, but more to those who aren’t.
- Letters to the Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke — My ideas about letting life flow and questioning our doubts are inspired by Rilke’s letters to the young poet who reached out to him for advice. This thin book is full of big magic, trust, compassion, belief, love, and hope. On days when I need more light, I pick it up and read a letter or two and find myself renewed.
- Ever Yours: The Essential Letters by Vincent van Gogh — Ever Yours contains a broad selection of 265 from a total of 820 letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo and his friends. A self-taught painter, Vincent not only needed paint, canvases, brushes, paper, models, and chalk every day but also needed boundless patience to slowly persevere. Like every other person who decides to do things his way, Vincent was also judged and ridiculed by those around him. While he was alive he could only sell one painting and struggled to put two meals together all his life. Every letter of Van Gogh is a glowing cosmic of self-reflection, determination, endurance, and practice — and could change your perspective on hardships and sticking it through despite them (linked is an inspiration on one of Vincent’s letters).
- The Heroine and Other Stories by D. Jayakanthan (The English translation by the author’s daughter) — The veteran Tamil writer D.Jayakanthan’s short stories explore the depth of a human being’s existence. Through the people of his simple stories revolving around the simplest things of life, the author proves we are much more than what can be seen on the surface.
- My Uncle Silas by H.E. Bates — My Uncle Silas by H.E.Bates — When I read My Uncle Silas, tears came to my eyes. I could have been living fifty years ago in an idyllic English town. Mending my garden, collecting flowers for wine, bickering with the housemaid, baking bread, and doing things that needed to be done with natural joy and eagerness. By appreciating the sweetness of such daily living, the short stories in My Uncle Silas tell us to get out of our heads and take things the way they come. It is a beautiful, nature book that can be your best friend on any day.
- The Drinking Well by Neil M. Gunn — The Drinking Well is based in the Scottish Highlands. The way Gunn writes about people, their countenance, and what they say, think, hear, and feel has put him quite close to the writers I read to know the nuances of being human (Proust, Tagore, Tolstoy, and many more). The bucolic setting of the book and the hard-working, genteel, and kind nature of the characters make it a classic.
Over the years I will continue to update this collection to not only inform the readers but also to make a record of the books that made me question a belief, inspired a life-changing habit, or brought me joy. I will share the edited article in my free weekly newsletter “Looking Inwards.” If you like, you can subscribe to it. (I never spam, and I never share your email.)
Once you have read a good book you have traveled a world that doesn’t exist outside that book. You have been inside someone else’s body and mind, seen a world different from your own, and felt someone else’s suffering, pain, and joy.
After a good book, you cannot go back to being the same person anymore and everything makes a little more sense.
And as Pirsig says, “The more you read, the more you calm down.”
I hope these books help you relax and breathe more easily than before. And I am sure they would open many doors for you to walk out of and explore life.
Did you like this list of best books to change your life? What is your favorite book? Let me know in the comments.
Feature Image Courtesy: Augustus Egg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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