“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
A few months ago, I was invited to write about the top ten books that have influenced my life. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child, so attempting to narrow down the ten most significant books I’ve read was a gargantuan task. However, after pondering it over for a long time, I decided that the following books were going to be the ones to make the cut. Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable books I’ve read, and many of my favorite authors are nowhere to be found on this list. Rather, these are books that I related to on a deeply personal level, ones that took me on a journey that changed my life for the better.
Anyone who’s listened to me talk about authors for any length of time knows that C.S. Lewis is my favorite writer. I owe an extreme debt of gratitude to Lewis for writing this book, because it taught me that being a Christian and being an intellectual are not mutually exclusive things.
Ahhh, Dostoevsky. I consider Dostoevsky to not only be one of the greatest authors who ever lived, but one of humanity’s greatest sages. Although all of his books are brilliant, I consider The Brothers Karamozov to be his masterpiece. I’ve never read an author who can plumb the depths of our psychology, our humanity, and the virtues and vices that lie within our souls with the probing insight and courageous honesty that he does. In The Brothers Karamozov, Dostoevsky represents various spiritual and moral worldviews within the characters of three brothers, and illustrates how those worldviews motivate their decisions and lead them to their ultimate fates. In doing so, Dostoevsky keenly examines the most poignant questions of existence that define us as humans to this day.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a psychiatrist who intricately weaves her personal struggles with bipolar disorder into an autobiography that contains some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. A renowned psychiatrist, Jamison kept her condition a secret for years out of fear that it would compromise her professional reputation. I, for one, am grateful that she “came out of the closet” and wrote this book, because it gave me a greater understanding of my own experiences with bipolar disorder in my family.
This is an incredibly enlightening book written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and it truly opened my eyes to the plight women of many third-world countries. Women truly do hold up “half the sky,” and affording them the means to live a life comprised of dignity and hope is an integral component of any plan to achieve greater prosperity and equality in their societies.
There are many writers whose prose I greatly admire, but whenever I read anything by Sylvia Plath, I feel like I’m reading something that came from my own soul. I feel such a great kinship with Plath, and I believe that her most famous book, The Bell Jar, will forever serve as a bittersweet balm for women who have experienced the same travails as Sylvia, and a clarion call for our society to expand their empathy to include not only those who suffer from diseases of the body, but also those of the mind.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reveals once again what a stunning insight he had into human nature. The book details the correspondence between a senior demon named Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood, a junior tempter who is learning the fine art of corrupting a human’s soul. It’s wickedly funny, but also spot-on in a way that positions you face-to-face with the vices and the weaknesses you’d rather not admit you have.
I found this book to be so psychologically haunting that I was unable to sleep for almost two nights after I read it. There’s been a theory floating about the Internet as of late, that reading fiction leads to greater empathy. If that’s truly the case(and I very well believe it could be), then I think all women(and men, too) should read this book. A Thousand Splendid Suns chronicles, in vivid and excruciating detail, the plight of two Muslim women in a fundamentalist society that treats women as little more than cattle. You can read about women forced into polygamous marriages, dying in honor killings, etc. in the news as much as you want, but the greatest way to truly understand what life is like for these women, aside from traveling to their countries and seeing it for yourself, is to “become” the female protagonist in a novel such as this. I saw life through the eyes of Mariam, and I’ll never be the same.
I hesitated to add this book, because it’s so frequently found on top ten lists that it almost feels like a generic addition to my own. However, this book has reached such a height of immense popularity for a reason. Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl quickly learned through his experience in Nazi concentration camps that there was a vast difference between many of the people who survived and those who did not, and that essential difference was meaning. Frankl teaches that fundamental truth about happiness is that you can’t find through merely striving for it, rather, it can only be found as a byproduct of finding meaning in your life.
According to Myers-Briggs typology, I am an INFP, and learning that as a senior in high school was the key to discovering who I truly am. Thank you, Isabel Briggs Myers, for writing this book and leading me to a greater understand and acceptance of my unique qualities, and for leading me to wonderful friends who share my type, people who I consider to be my soul mates in this life.
Now, after writing about all of these incredibly deep and intellectual books, you might wonder why I’m ending my list with a popular series of children’s books. The simple fact of the matter is if I had never picked up a Nancy Drew book, I might never have become the reader I am today. The Nancy Drew books kindled my lifelong passion of reading and gave me a female role model who was strong, intelligent, and fully capable of solving any mystery, not to mention saving herself from any predicament that came her way. What more could a young girl ask for? The Nancy Drew series will forever hold a very special place in my heart.