You’re a reader. You love books. I’m assuming this because I tend to attract people who do. If you don’t consider yourself much of a reader, that’s okay. You don’t have to read a lot of books. You just have to read a few really great ones.
Here are five of my absolute favorite books that altered my worldview forever. Once I read each of these, not only had my mind evolved, but I knew my mind had evolved. I could identify the change and it blew me away.
1. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-François Lyotard
If you’re familiar with the term “postmodernism” but don’t really know what it means, this is the place to go. Lyotard introduced this word to popular culture in this highly influential (but rather short) book and linked it to the way knowledge is legitimized in computerized societies.
My big takeaway from Lyotard’s book was that all knowledge that has been received (i.e. what you’ve been taught versus what you’ve experienced for yourself) must be questioned. He’s not saying it’s wrong. He’s saying that it’s not necessarily right just because you heard it from a recognized authority.
This book gave me the language to express something lingering in my subconscious about where I derived my spiritual beliefs. Why does someone believe in God? Is it because she has experienced God in some way, or because she has been taught since birth that there is a God? How does anyone gain spiritual beliefs? How do we identify and practice what we believe to be true? If we deconstruct our entire spiritual belief system, do we enter despair? Or does it make us free?
Start by reading the appendix. It’s a fantastic, frequently cited summary of Lyotard’s giant theory. If it turns you on, read the rest.
2. Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
My sister (a planetary scientist) and I frequently talk about how the boundary between art and science is an illusory construct, something people invented to distinguish different ways of learning and knowing. In modern society, a polarity exists between the two, with many believing that science is the only method of finding truth, and others believing the same about art.
In this book, Lehrer makes a case for how artists discovered something crucial about how the brain works that science is only now beginning to understand and quantify. He uses Marcel Proust, who is famous for his book Remembrance of Things Past, as one example. By examining, analyzing, and ruminating on his memories, Proust discovered how fluid and unreliable memory can be–that it changes over time.
Scientists have only recently begun to understand how right Proust was. It turns out that a memory is formed only after the first time we recall it, and the very act of recollection alters the memory. From a spiritual perspective, this is key, especially when you practice mindfulness–living in the present–and want to leave the past in the past. Whatever pain or pleasure one derives from memory is an illusion, and staying attached to that illusion means grounding oneself in something fundamentally untrue.
Lehrer also discusses Cézanne’s insight into how the brain perceives visual signals, how George Elliott discovered the brain’s ability to grow and adapt, how Gertrude Stein understood the nature of language long before linguists did, and several more. This book makes a case for something I’ve long believed: that art and science are each valid ways of discovering and exploring truth.
3. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Read the pdf with translation by Gia Fu Feng & Jane English. Includes nice pictures and extra info.
The Tao is the the Tao, but it can’t be named. This is the first and primary idea put forth in Lao Tzu’s text (Lao Tzu possibly being a group of several authors), and the first example of how he uses polarities to explore truth. In the second chapter, he writes:
The ideas “difficult” and “easy” support each other.
“Long” and “short” define each other.
“High” creates “low”
“Tone” creates “noise”
“Before” creates “after”
“Have” creates “don’t have”
This section is called “Making Things Ugly.” By naming some things as beautiful, we then believe that other things are ugly; therefore, ugliness only exists as a consequence of naming its polar opposite. This is an essential method Taoists use: define the opposites of an idea (man/woman, adult/child, black/white, past/future) as a way of getting at the truth that lies between them.
Lyotard says essentially the same thing in The Postmodern Condition: truth exists, but we cannot grasp it, we can only allude to it. As soon as we attempt to define or pin down truth, we create something at least a little false, since it is filtered through our fallible and subjective perception. Taoists deal with this by naming the polarities as a way of alluding to truth.
I find this utterly amazing. Spiritually speaking, my eyes opened way up when I first read The Tao, which I read more as a work of philosophy than a sacred text. I understood that I didn’t need to seek for spiritual truth per se. I could trust my own experience and view spirituality as a process, a thing in flux, a creative endeavor, not a static belief or tenet. Once I learned something in my spiritual life, it simply propelled me forward to some new spiritual idea.
4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Ender is a boy who is genetically designed to be not just a military leader, but hopefully the military leader who will lead a preemptive invasion against an alien race called the Formics. As Ender is trained alongside his fellow classmates at the Battle School, his teachers identify him as having the perfect balance of tactical ability and moral flexibility that would enable him to lead a full-scale, violent invasion against the alien planet.
This book is on this list for a few reasons, one of which is it’s just a damn good book. It’s engrossing, well-written, has fantastic characters, and is all-around great science fiction. The main reason it’s on this list is how Ender responds psychologically and emotionally as he comes to realize the purpose for which he was born. Even as he performs his military tasks brilliantly, he questions the reasoning behind his actions, and even his existence.
The end of the novel touches on themes of meaning, purpose, how fear can shape our actions, how we can learn from even our most significant mistakes, and ultimately, forgiveness and rebirth. It is a surprisingly spiritual book and a lot of fun.
P.S. I just found out they’re making a movie of Ender’s Game, which is exciting and scary, because they better not mess it up.
5. “Keeping Things Whole” by Mark Strand
This is a poem that appears in Mark Strand’s book Selected Poems. If you don’t read poetry or feel you don’t “get” it, this poem may give you a way into a whole new literary world. It’s a short poem, and it will take you less than a minute to read.
Here’s the first stanza:
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
This one stanza alone touches upon questions of identity, purpose, and the boundaries between self and other. I resonate with the sense of angst about not being able to be still, but instead always moving as a way of “keeping it together.”
How do we define ourselves? Can we do it without considering what we are not? Do we exist only to fill a gap, to passively move along with the flow of existence, or do we have an active choice in our destinies? Can we even contemplate our existence without our environment to contextualize our experience?
This is what poetry does at its best: ask the big questions, allude to truth, but let the reader’s mind take it from there.
What books have you read that blew your mind? Which novels, memoirs, poems, or works of nonfiction do you keep coming back to? Which have changed the way you view the world forever?
P.S. I just want to give a shout-out to A Prayer for Own Meany by John Irving, which is an honorary number 6.