Uncovering the Books That Will Change Your Life

Excerpted from

The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life


Choosing books to read can seem an overwhelming task. Each week thousands of additional titles are added to the imponderable number already weighing down libraries and cramming bookstores.

Feeling oppressed by the number of books is nothing new. In the 1700s, Voltaire worried that "the multitude of books is making us ignorant." John Ruskin, the eminent English essayist and critic who died in 1900, complained of "these days of book deluge."

Yet most people I've talked to don't put a lot of time into developing a list of books they'd like to read. It's not something they plan, particularly. They may have a few books at home they intend to read-some they bought, some were gifts perhaps. It's usually kind of accidental and ad hoc.

So casual an approach is unfortunate when you think about how much a great book can mean. A single right book at the right time can change our views dramatically, give a quantum boost to our knowledge, help us to construct a whole new outlook on the world and our life. Isn't it odd that we don't seek those experiences more systematically?

What's more, when you read a book that deeply pleases you, it sets up a momentum. If it's the author who touched you, you then often seek out more of his or her books. If it's the topic, often the author will recommend further good reading, and you're off on a new adventure.

Conversely, an unfulfilling reading experience-say, of a book someone gave you-may dampen your enthusiasm, causing your reading to languish, sometimes for long periods.

While we have the freedom to have no plan, we also have the freedom to plan-to take control of our reading lives. For most people, this is a different way of thinking about books, and the results can be transforming.

The self-taught reader

It is said by wise teachers that the most important thing to learn in school is how to teach oneself -to learn how to learn. The embodiment of this concept is taking control over your own reading.

No matter how good a book may be judged by people in general, now or in years past, readers aren't general, they're particular. Books can be good only to the extent that a reader becomes involved in them. As Emerson said, "Tis the good reader that makes the good book." And this happens one reader at a time. Only when you choose to read a book and are enthusiastic about it does it have a chance to be a good book for you.

Having a living list of books to read is a critical part of getting the most from your reading life, and it must be your own list, one you create. This cannot be left to someone else. Not only will your list be far more likely to please you, but much benefit lies in making the list. That is where your adventure begins.

Developing your List of Candidates

I like to call this list that you make for yourself a List of Candidates rather than a reading list. Most of us had assigned reading lists in school, and hence the term carries a tweed-jacketed pall of obligation. It is more helpful to consider the books you place on your list as candidates for your attention rather than obligations. Creating a List of Candidates engenders an open-ended, exploratory process rather than a closed, prescriptive solution.

Begin by choosing a method for keeping your list-a list that will grow and continuously evolve. It will not be a single list of books but rather, groupings of books under different headings. You will decide on the headings as you go along, adding more, deleting some, rearranging others.

Some people will prefer a paper journal, others an electronic one. Choose whatever is comfortable for you. It's the process of making and keeping the list that's important.

One easy way to start is with the authors or books you already know you want to read. Write them down under headings that make sense to you. Perhaps there are a few business or professional books you've been meaning to read, books about your next career, and books on places you plan to visit. Write these down. It is helpful to have access to an online bookseller (of new, used, and out-of-print books), where you can quickly check authors, titles, and subjects.

This list will also be where you write down the recommendations you receive from various sources. When you add these books, include a note on how you came to add them and when. Name the friend who recommended the book, the book review you read, or the movie you saw and then heard that the book was better. These comments will be helpful reminders in the future as you weigh the importance of various titles.

Looking back to go forward: your Bookography

Do you have a list of what you've already read? Most people I've talked to do not but wish they did. Part of this wish is purely pragmatic, in order to avoid buying or borrowing the same book again, but there is more to it. Such a list is like a diary, offering us perhaps even more insights into ourselves than the conventional kind. A list of books that meant something to you becomes a sort of book biography, or Bookography. Try to reconstruct such a list and you'll be in store for some rewarding self-knowledge.

It would probably be overwhelming to try to record every book that was important to you, so don't aim for completeness-just begin with any of the books you're really glad you read. List what you can remember of the title and author, and the approximate date when you read the book. The idea is to be exploratory-to look back at your reading for clues to what you'll most enjoy as you go forward. Your Bookography becomes an important way of adding new titles to your List of Candidates.

As you list the books you've enjoyed, ask yourself why the book was important to you. Was it the author's style that you liked so much? If so, perhaps you'd like other books by that author. Make the author a heading in your List of Candidates. Was it the topic that meant so much? Make that a heading. Perhaps a classic you read in school touched you. The classics, too, can be a heading.

Digging deep into yourself

In making your List of Candidates, cast your net wide. Be liberal with categories and interests. If you are trying to advance in your career or evolve into a new one, these will lead to certain obvious categories, but look for the not-so-obvious categories, too. Listen to those whispers within you. Recall your youth. Was there a subject you didn't study but wanted to? What interests did you defer because they were not likely to lead to a job? Perhaps you will list musical theater or sports history. Or the botany of alpine meadows or the South Pacific of James Cook. Maybe you've always wanted to learn Greek philosophy or to read in Italian. Your interests are still there. What do you hear calling?

Write down your ideas and categories no matter how evanescent they appear in your mind s eye, and even if they aren't part of what you think your future will bring. If they seem unlikely, so much the better; your adventures will contain that many more surprises.

For most of your subjects, you won't know what the great books are that cover those areas. That's the idea. This is what it means to direct your reading actively rather than passively. You can now enjoy finding the best books in your areas of interest. In nearly every subject area conceivable, books have been written by remarkable souls with loving care. If you will find your books, they will flower in your hands. They were written for a reader like you.

Don't expect to come up with all your categories of interest in one sitting-or even many sittings. It can be hard mental work as you reflect and imagine and plan. Do expect your list to evolve and expand and become ever more valuable to you. Feel free to follow new paths without feeling any obligation to read the books. Remember, these are candidates.

Tags: Personal Growth

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