Looking back over a decade of reading is kind of fun. Each book is like a snapshot back to a time and place of life and a reminder of what I was facing at the time. Why do I read? Partly because it’s essential to the work of writing and editing. But also because books are one of the most practical tools for shaping your mind, character, actions, and ultimately, your life. In one of the books I read the author made the point (I’m paraphrasing and piecing together a couple of different thoughts from the book Truthful Living):
Your subconscious mind builds a mental picture out of the material you permit to reach it, “Like a wax plate recording everything,” even shaping your sense of right and wrong.
I’ve noticed that for me, TV/Movies of any kind dilute the processing occurring in the subconscious, but good books tend to fuel a productive mind. The Truthful Living author also said that whatever appears in your dreams is some amalgamation and your brain’s attempt at an interpretation of all the inputs you’ve allowed to shape the way you view the world.
I started this new decade with the book Deep Work and it absolutely infuriated me, because it painfully highlighted the reality that although I was complaining about being distracted, I was the one who had invited, dare I say, welcomed most of those very distractions. I had willingly welcomed so many trivial things in to my mind and all of those are shaping who I am. EVERYTHING that comes into your mind through your senses plays a role in shaping who you are. Of course you can consume anything you want, but do not ignore the truth that everything has some effect on your mind. Nothing is neutral.
So, with that being said, are you going to take charge of this process of shaping your mind and life for this new decade? Take control of what enters your mind and shapes who you are by choosing good books and avoiding the trivial chatter that dominates just about every media source. This isn’t the only book list in the world, but it is a place to start. And yes this message is for me as much as anyone else.
I’m linking to some of the books below, but not all. Most are easily found by searching Amazon or the Library.
Which Books Had the Biggest Influence on me this Decade?
How We Love by Yerkovich. We met with this couple over lunch when they came in town to host a seminar. I’m still unpacking some of the questions they asked during that conversation. This book is paradigm-shifting. Once you read it you’ll start to see the central idea at play in almost every relationship. Premise: We all learned how to give and gain love at a very young age, in particular those first five years of life, much of which we do not recall. Those patterns are hard to break – the good ones and the bad ones. The bad ones take all sorts of forms (control, manipulation, people pleasing, withdrawal, etc). When others use these tactics against you, you can let this drive you to anger, or you can move toward compassion. Though a medium size book, it can be read quickly: start by reading the first couple of chapters that give an overview of the four main love-styles (take the online love-style quiz here). Then read the chapter most pertaining to you and the one for your spouse (assuming they are different, and they most likely are), then read the chapter written for your specific combination (i.e. “controller” married to an “avoider”). You can skim the rest (though it’s all valuable). This book will help you move past falling into old patterns and move toward “genuine love” (Romans 12:9)
Be Obsessed or Be Average by Grant Cardone. This book re-ignited my passion for many things in life that I once held dear but had let fade. The author said much of the challenges he faced in life were due to not being passionate enough about the things he most valued.
Atomic Habits by James Clear: This book had the biggest influence over my professional life over the last few years. So many phrases and ideas from the book come to mind almost every day. Things like: make your habits identity based instead of activity based, i.e. “I’m the kind of person who never misses a workout,” instead of “I need to exercise”; Start a habit with a step that’s so small you can’t not get started (i.e. just one push-up, one word, one call, etc.); Environment shapes habits more than we would admit; Start by showing up; You’re most likely to keep a habit if you do it with someone, same time, same place. Make it automatic. Remove obstacles. The power of systems vs. (or over) goals. So many nuggets!
Feeding the Mouth that Bites You by Kenneth Wilgus- Helped me see that parenting is not some game where I’m stacking up strategies to help me win against my teen. That might have been a strategy for toddlers, but they’ve grown up and things have changed. Instead, the teen years are a season for us to work together, with our teens, to help set them up to win. The strategies make a ton of sense and are so incredibly practical and actionable. And it helped changed my mindset from survival-mode to one of loving and serving. They will be out the door so soon. Are you actively preparing them to succeed?
Words on Target by Sue Nichols- When I was going through a public speaking course, one of the trainers said, “you need to read this book, especially the chapter on subtlety” (a not so subtle suggestion). He was right. I also read this book before going into the second round of edits on my book (not subtle plug) and helped me to make some hard decisions and cut about 1,000 words. Her other two words were Energy and Economy. A short and potent book.
Re-read Most Often?
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I’ve read it most every year for the last five to ten years. Pairs so well with what seems to be its non-fiction counterpart, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
My Reading Life – Pat Conroy’s series of short essays on his love of reading and writing is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in terms of spurring me on to read and write more. I usually listen to the audio book every other year or so. This version is read by the author and I love his voice.
Atomic Habits: On my third read through. And it won’t be the last.
What are People For? By Wendell Berry – I read this probably five times during this decade. Author tries to move us past an industrial mindset of persons and toward a community based love of land and culture.
Books I Couldn’t Stop Talking About
Tribe by Sebastian Junger – The couple of months I was nibbling on this book (it’s actually a short read), it seemed that I was talking about it at every turn. Topics like: The relationship between the strength of community at home and the speed at which a returning soldier recovers from PTSD, the power of environment to dictate behavior (Vietnam vets didn’t continue with Heroin use after returning home), How lonely Americans are and how that affects overall health. Every pastor should read this book. Every person involved in community building should read this book. Every business leader seeking to build a strong culture should read this book. Much to be gained.
C.S.Lewis’s Letters: I read all three volumes of his letters (about 4,000 pages) during this decade and there was no more rewarding reading experience. I mention something from his letters at least once a month.
Books I’ve Gifted to Others Most Often
Atomic Habits – I’ve had multiple group discussions with this book, I’ve read it multiple times, and I keep recommending it over and over. It’s the perfect book to give anyone – because every single person can benefit from it.
Feeding the Mouth that Bites You – There’s plenty of times I mention books to a group and no one moves a muscle of interest. But every time I’m around parents of teens and mention this book, there’s a scurry of noise as people reach for pen, paper or phone to capture the title. Of all the books I’ve recommended, it’s probably the one most often actually read. That shows how hungry parents are for help in this season!
How We Love – I’ve had some amazing conversations about this book this year. When guys read it and finally start to see their spouse through this lens, it really can unlock some big time barriers. I’ve handed it out like candy.
Words on Target – I’ve not given it away but every time I’m in a setting where there’s some kind of conversation or training related to public communication, I recommend it.
Extreme Ownership – I’ve mentioned this book to thousands of men. It’s a must read. Listen to this interview (Tim Ferriss) with the author to get an overview of the book.
Art of Non-Conformity – It’s easy to just go along with the flow of the culture when it comes to finding your job and purpose in life. But this book shows you can flourish following a non-traditional path. Mostly given to High School Seniors or college-age.
Bonhoeffer – This book inspired me at so many levels. I gave away probably a dozen copies the first year it came out. A true man of courage and conviction.
Others by Year
Her are some other books that stood out to me in 2010-2019.
Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere: powerful reminders of God at work today.
Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis – One of my favorite books of all time. Auto-biography of Lewis’ childhood.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry – when I grow up I want to be like Jayber. So much of his approach to life makes me step back and evaluate my own.
Musashi – This book is epic. It’s 1200-ish pages. It’s about a Samurai warrior, so there’s tons of violence. What took hold of me was his absolute commitment to focusing every part of life around the sword. If it did not help him be better with the sword, it was discarded from his life. And things that didn’t normally seem essential to a life of the sword (art, meditation), he readily embraced. Check out this summary/discussion of the book on Jocko’s podcast (FOUR hours long!). Another warning: the book mentions prostitution, though I don’t recall it being graphic at any point.
The Story of Christianity by Just Gonzalez – I’ve read and discussed this with two different groups. It’s the best two volumes (or any volumes) on Church History I’ve read. I’d pick it up again tomorrow if anyone else wanted to discuss it.
J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter – You just have to read this one. No words to describe the complexity and mind of Tolkien. Maybe this anecdote will do: For fun in college he started a club. It was a club to discuss an ancient Icelandic language. Of course.
Defiance by Nechama Tec – If you haven’t read this book – holy smokes put it near the top of your list. True story of two brothers in Poland fight back against the German invasion in WWII and build a secret hiding place for Jews in the Prussian forest. By the end of the War they have around 1,500 Jews in protection. The movie is good too, but this story is so mind blowing and the main character’s depth of leadership and character is one of the more inspiring things I’ve ever read. I closed the cover and thought, in a good way, “and what have I done with my life?”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – Author tells the story of his struggle with mental illness while wrapping it within a motorcycle road trip with his son. Also intersperses a philosophical attempt to define “quality.” This book doesn’t strike everyone the same way – but it was so unique – I’ve never read anything like it – and his story is fascinating. If anything, read it and skim over the philosophical ramblings if you find yourself bogged down.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. TV promotes, even demands, triviality. The medium is the message.
All books already mentioned somewhere in lists above.
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris – The author of this monumental three volume biography on Teddy Roosevelt passed away this year. Colonel Roosevelt is volume three, and all three volumes are must-reads about one of the most fascinating characters of any kind in American history.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – the famous 10,000 hour rule was new for me. Also appears in Mastery by Robert Greene. Both worth reading.
Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – had to read this after reading the Bonhoeffer bio. Great to read along side a study of the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7).