Did anyone ever tell you that you should read books to change your life? Actually I would go as far as to say one of the synonyms of personal growth is reading.
I started reading non-fiction and fiction books sincerely only for the last four-five years. But in this duration, I read some books that shifted the course of my life. They exposed me to unbelievable facts. They laid open the science that 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 unfurled the greatest lives. They told me life can be lived in many ways. They reassured me that it was okay to be who I was. But also that I could grow.
You don’t know what is out there until you read. And then the ghosts don’t leave you alone, ever.
By John Lavery / Public domain
Here are some of the greatest books that not only taught me, entertained me, hooked me onto them but that changed my interpretation of the meaning of life.
Because for some of us books are as important as almost anything on earth — Anne Lamott.
Books to Change Life.
Please Note: All the below quotes are from the respective books.
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 a story of the evolution of the planet and homo sapiens but he has 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 agricultural and industrial revolution and capitalism in their rawest sense, marital rape laws, why our religion 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 14 billion years ago aka Day Zero.
If a 40-year-old person wakes up and says, hey, I don’t know who I am. Where am I? You can give him Sapiens so that he knows everything that has ever happened and also the probabilistic events of the future. But after reading humans’ doings and plans he may say, Could you please put me back to sleep?
Like you look through your grandparents’ black and white photo albums, read through Sapiens for it is our history after all.
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”
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 have been searching for the purpose of 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 that humans don’t have a grand reason to live or go on despite the suffering. The author knew agony well for he was 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 still 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 and do what the time calls for. Even the tiniest of the 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 one of those mind-opening books that will make you appreciate that it is magical enough we are here and breathing and living and now we should just go on.
A Woman Reading, by Pieter Janssens Elinga / Public domain
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
[On every list of the best books that will change your 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 holocaust book so soon. 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 to read about life.
When I was traveling in Amsterdam in July 2015, I had gone to see Anne Frank’s museum (where she had written the diary while hiding). But by the time I arrived the museum was already closed.
I watched the building from the outside, thought about Anne, and went onto one of the busiest streets to eat the famous Dutch potato wedges. As years pass by I have started to appreciate what she said at that young age 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 on our door, we can still be in our present, appreciate the beauty around us, 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. Or read it when you can’t find meaning. This is one of those books that will change your perspective on life.
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. Tom, I am not everybody.”
“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 and the fun adventures of Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn (two clever orphans growing up in Missouri near river Mississippi) introduced me to good English writing, or whatever might be the reason, the book impacted me deeply.
A cultural and social satire, the adventures take through the growing up years and minds of young boys and show how we become who we are. If treated with goodness, we respond with goodness. When strangled, we try to break free. The book illustrates how we get fitted into the system and that nothing makes sense without questioning.
Read this fun book if you like fiction, adventure, and satire.
“Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”
A young girl reading a book, by Fritz von Uhde / Public domain
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig — Sitting right 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 it is a short book. It is a classic dovetail of travel, philosophy, and psychology.
The book narrates the author’s bike ride with his son through the US interweaved with ideas about what life is 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 it’s important, the imitation propaganda of our education system, how humans run away from the truth, and other philosophical and day to day ideas 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 to make you think? 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.”
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 on a trip to the Himalayas in 2014. The book is Osho’s interpretation of the Sutra of forty-two chapters— a scripture derived from Buddha’s quotations and 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, how to be happy, how to manage our thoughts, the meaning of meditation and mindfulness, and what to run after, what to ignore, and how to do it.
“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 find myself at peace.
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 big wonder.
Written as a children’s book and later becoming one of the most influential, philosophical, top life changing books to read, The Little Prince is based on the author’s real experiences when his plane crashed in the Sahara desert and he got lost there for several days.
In the story, the narrator met the little prince, who said he had come from a star, in the desert.
The prince says that adults are confused about life and are always rooting for things of consequences. Counting an uncountable number of stars just to possess them or acting as kings when there is no one to rule or punishing people for sins when there is no one to be punished — No one was playing for fun or lived simply but everyone was working towards an irrational goal hoping that 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.”
Living and playing around and soaking in the natural things around us and not always running after more money or possessing more things will make us happier 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 entire list, let it be The Little Prince.
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 really 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, only surrounded by his boudidis (his brother’s wives), how absurd he found the closed men-driven caravans for women, his inhibition towards studying in a formal system, a melancholy he felt for the world, and what he thought 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?
Stumbling Upon Happiness By Daniel Gilbert [One of the most important science books that can 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 narrates how 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.
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, at least). Even though we all talk about the importance of habits all the time, Charles Duhigg holds our finger and takes us on that journey where we clearly see why we do what we do, how much we decide on a daily basis, and how habits can automate our day.
Once you read this book, the realization of the power of habits will overwhelm you.
“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 change your life or improve your work and personal life and relationships and health — then the Power of Habit is your book.
I’m a fan of habits and linked above and listed below are some of my important articles on the topic:
- Daily Creative Routine and Rituals to Dream and Create Consistently
- 23 Tiny Habits to Build Your Best Life
- 12 Principles I Have Followed to Achieve My Goals
- Work From Home Routines and Ideas
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 the process is more important than the result, emphasizes 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.”
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.”
The Outsider by Albert Camus
“My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”
In this classic existentialist narration, Meursault, the protagonist, neither ever showed remorse nor adjusted as per social norms. He did not just do something to make others like him or accept him. He did what he had to do ignoring society’s reactions, and sometimes even while unknowingly putting himself into danger.
We should be okay about who we are and that life is all the more same for all of us form the essence of The Outsider.
“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 how much does not matter, how people do most of the things just to stick with the society, and how to be okay with our situation and say what we have to say. This is one of the best books to read to change your life.
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 time, read A Short History of Nearly Everything. Or if you feel sad or angry then pick up this book to realize how small the things we are fretting over 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.”
By Jean-Honoré Fragonard / Public domain
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 gives a deep insight into great minds. It shows that people who achieve a lot care and dare to use their vision while constantly improving themselves. Perseverance and attention to detail are sometimes enough.
“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.”
The fire to learn rages throughout the book.
You can read some of my most impressionable life lessons from Franklin’s autobiography here.
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.”
The narrator of the book builds a time machine and travels into the far future. He then shares his experience of seeing the too-perfect future life in which the fragile humankind just lulled around and growth had stopped for nothing challenged us anymore.
The book is a great comment on how progress happens when we solve things and also by our desire to discover the undiscovered.
Written in 1895, the book gives an interesting perspective on the future. Thanks to the book, 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 this book because it is real and raw and written in simple language. Bukowski didn’t sugarcoat anything and such honesty is rare even in the fictional world.
“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? — This book will make you think.
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. Anne Lamott gives instructions on writing and life and ask 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.
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 the Kolkata youth getting divided over religion.
Tagore wrote in a simple language. He unfolded people in Gora like a chef peels the many layers of an onion.
I didn’t love the book so much for the story but I cherished it because I got to learn a lot about people while reading Gora.
You would love this book if you love history, people, and culture.
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) and spent most of my pocket money on books about wildlife, Mother Teresa, and Tom Sawyer’s adventures. In my small Indian hometown(where I studied until I was 15), I didn’t hear about Tolstoy or Keats or Nietzsche for the longest time.
Given my limited knowledge, I assumed that Tolstoy would be tough to read. But 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.
Anna Karenina’s unfurling of characters reminded me of Gora. Oh, the Anna Karenina movie is disappointing.
“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.”
This book can teach a lot about life.
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 have the courage to 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 8 climbers. It is also a story of outrageous grit and perseverance.
The book shows that people can’t rest until they get what they really 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. His writings dipped in the free mountain wind and children’s giggles can bring a smile to anyone’s face. All his adult and children’s books remind how simple and easy life is.
“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.”
As Pirsig says, “The more you read, the more you calm down.”
I hope these books help you calm down. And I am sure they would make you look at life in a new light.
by Reza Abbasi / Public domain