Nonfiction Books that Changed My Life

It’s hard to write about something so intricately woven into my psyche, that parsing it out seems like an autopsy. I was a shy, introverted child living in a home with a lot of challenges. I learned to read young and used to believe that books were my only friends. Teachers often wrote in my report cards, something to the effect of “Michelle needs to participate in class discussions”, never realizing that I was secretly reading a book tucked out of view on my lap.

If location is everything, I had everything. We lived half a block from the public library. I was allowed to walk, on my own, down the alley from our apartment and across the street to my second home. It was a nondescript stone building with wide concrete steps. It was my paradise. I would stroll among the stacks for hours, compulsively running my fingers across the books, settling into the smell of old wood floors and dusty volumes. The librarian, who always looked severe, treated me with kindness, never telling me that I should run along home, even when I had been there for hours.

My heroes of childhood were Abraham Lincoln, Nellie Bly, and Marie Curie. In Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance by Frances Cavanah (1959), I learned that a great sense of humor can be part and parcel of being a leader. Nellie Bly taught me that to make a difference, you have to go outside of your comfort zone. Her exposure of what was called the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in 1887, caused significant improvements in the care of the mentally ill (miles to go on that one). Marie Curie resisted gender stereotypes for her love of scientific research and eventually sacrificed her life for it. The pursuit of knowledge could be a risky, but worthy pursuit.

“A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.”  Abraham Lincoln

Desiring self-sufficiency and being poor early on led me to countless “how to” books. I loved following the directions in drawing books by Ed Emberly. I learned how to make true arts and crafts – out of scraps. I learned how to beautify things that were old and ignored. I learned to make do and make better, from the garden I painted on cinder blocks to hold up my bookshelves in college, to the homemade cards I sent to people when I could afford nothing else.

My worldview and life philosophy is constantly evolving, but here are the books that have left an impression over the years:

Being Good, A short introduction to ethics by Simon Blackburn

This tiny volume, I think, is brilliant in its ability to cover so much ground. It really gives one a lot to ponder, even if, on occasion, you disagree with the writer’s perspective.

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott

This book changed me as a parent. The key thing was that discipline is not punishment – it is teaching. This changed the nature of how I learned to interact with my child and beyond that, how to communicate better with adults.

A History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong

Critics will argue and dogmatic believers will critique, but I found this history of monotheistic traditions and religions so helpful while navigating through media reports, when religious beliefs are incorrectly characterized.

Facing West, The Metaphysics of Indian Hating & Empire Building by Richard Drinnon

Even when our history in this country is ugly, we can only benefit by understanding and tracing its origins.

A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

Unfortunately, this text is just as relevant today as it was 10 years ago in understanding America’s and the United Nations’ roles in these horrific world events.

Women & Self-Esteem, Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel About Ourselves by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan

There were a lot of great examples and concepts that made me examine my own belief system as a woman and how I moved about in the world.

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

The biggest concept here: Belief is not memorizing and proselytizing, it is doing. It helped me to shake off all the fundamentalist teachings I grew up with and focus on action. How do my actions reflect my beliefs?

When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

I’ll admit, I’m just a huge fan of Pema Chödrön. Many of her works repeat the same messages, but I don’t think I can ever be reminded enough. Her greatest hits for me are: changing negative habitual patterns, being open to experiences, cultivating compassion.

I must stop myself here – so many books, so little time! I have never wished to be immortal, except for all the books that I will not have time to read.

What nonfiction books have impacted your life?

25 Comments on “Nonfiction Books that Changed My Life

  1. I escaped into books as a young child; I remember reading, with a flashlight, under the covers, until late into the night. My father had a subscription to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and I read every one of them at the rate of one volume a week. My home life was such that fiction was a way to escape into another reality. I also read biographies; but obviously none of them made a big impact on me, because I don’t remember which ones I read then.

    The only book on your list that I have read is Facing West. It was on the required reading list for my Grad degree in American Indian Studies. At one point, the copy I had disappeared and I was devastated to learn it was out of print. But then I found a copy at a used bookstore and immediately bought it. But I digress, as usual. 🙂

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    • Digression is often the hallmark of a heavy reader! I have often gone to great lengths to attain books I reminisce about and can’t locate. If I’m lucky, I’ll still enjoy the book when I finally get it. There have been a few “what was I thinking?” moments.

      I was going to write a post about both fiction and nonfiction books, but it just got too long and I realized that as I’ve gotten older, I read more nonfiction. I wonder how that bodes for me as a writer of fiction?

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  2. Like you, reading opened worlds of opportunities to me as a child. I never really knew how poor I’d grown up until I was older.

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    • I had a pretty good idea that we were poor, but books provided luxury vacations and exciting adventures and hope – lots and lots of hope. When you have that, anything seems possible!

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  3. I used up a LOT of colored pencils in my youth thanks to Ed Emberley’s inspirational guides. From simple geometry to accomplished amateur artist in just 2 to 20 steps — how could I not be hooked?

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    • I did, too! I owe my ability to draw dogs and cats to him. They’re all made up of triangles and lines, of course, but still fun to draw!

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  4. I read a lot of biographies – not sure many of them have changed my life, but they sometimes change my thinking. In 2008 I decided to read as much about presidents as I could. I learned that Reagan was not as conservative as most people think, that Johnson was a teacher in rural Texas and had a passion for minorities that was a part of him long before he entered politics, that Washington kept exhaustive journals his entire life – always believing that someone would want to read them someday, that Lincoln was a shrewd politician who knew how to build consensus when it looked impossible. I love reading their stories, I love context.

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    • I like reading biographies as well, especially of icons such as the presidents. Too often, we get the shorthand representations that fail to show context, as you mentioned. I really enjoyed reading John Adams by David McCullough. It was funny reading about the peccadilloes and sometimes pettiness of icons like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Learning about their very human natures made what they accomplished all the more amazing.

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  5. I always read a lot of adventure and survival biographical books, they have not necessarily changed my life, but they have lit a little fire inside me for adventure.

    We didn’t have a library as close as you did growing up, but my mum drove me to the closest one every Saturday and let me get as many books as I could. (She did the same thing.) My primary school also had a wonderful library that is also partly responsible for my love of reading.

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    • We still make our trips to the library and it’s become such a resource online for us as well – we can download e-books and MP3 audiobooks, both services they added in the last few years.

      I like reading a lot of outdoors and nature writing like Artic Dreams by Barry Lopez and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, both writers I was introduced to during a lit class focused on wilderness writing.

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  6. Wow, how I wish we had a library by the corner where my kids and I can run to!
    This is a pretty good list. I’m interested in “Being Good…,” “Between Parents and Child…,” and “A Problem from Hell…”
    Recently, I have finished reading Osho’s Creativity and somehow, it calmed me and brought down my worries to a manageable level.

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    • Glad you found something to help with your anxieties. I do feel lucky to have always had a library to go to – even in the service, every post had one.

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  7. I still have, appreciate, and treasure the handmade cards you sent me years ago!

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  8. In my readings, I try to toggle between fiction and non-fiction books. It is nice to be “taken elsewhere” by fiction, but not many people realize non-fiction books can open horizons as well. My favorite non-fiction book thus far is “Culture of Narcissism” which was written in 1979 but its themes still have implications of today.

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    • I added that book to my list to read. Thanks for mentioning it! It sounds like it would be very relevant to the current social atmosphere.

      I do read fiction, but have found myself reading less as I do more writing. I haven’t found the balance of reading it without turning around and echoing another writer’s voice.

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  9. When it comes to non-fiction, I guess I like books that explain things, so I lean heavily towards science and physics books. The human state is too complex for easy explanation, so I find books that try to go there usually don’t satisfy me as much as a good quantum physics book. I never was one much for history, but the older I get the more the “how we got here” does interest me.

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    • I like nonfiction that explores concepts and ties them into a larger picture. I like being able to make those connections myself as well. I enjoy science and physics books, but I try to stick with ones that do use layman’s terms – I don’t have the focus that I used to, in order to follow complex concepts from start to finish.

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