23 October 2017

Five books that have materially changed my life

Based on a Facebook challenge from a friend of mine, Russell Arben Fox (who also blogs at In Medias Res), here is a list of five books that have materially changed my life. Some (actually, most) of them may be familiar to my gentle readers, others may come as a bit more of a surprise. But here they are, along with the reasons why they have been chosen.
  1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I devoured this book on a plane trip, at a time when I was feeling like a total failure as a human being. There is literature that medicates, that dulls pain, and then there is literature that heals. And this book was the latter: just the right book for me to read at just the right time. I wasn’t going through any of what Billy Pilgrim had to go through, but the story did help me put my struggles in perspective and got me through a bad depressive episode. So it goes.

  2. The Russian Revolution by Nikolai Berdyaev. An existentialist history that shook off the dogmatic shackles of my college-leftist thinking and opened me to a theological way of thinking about the world that would really open me up to Taylor, MacIntyre, Grant, Milbank, Cavanaugh and the rest. Ultimately played an assisting role in my conversion to Orthodoxy. Pretty big material change in my life there.

  3. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. Assigned reading. The only reason I joined the mandatory-for-graduation area studies class with Mr. Mjaanes in high school, who assigned it, was because my best friend in high school was joining it too. I came out of that class a convinced Sinophile. Would emphatically not be where I am today if not for Mr. Mjaanes or Ms. Buck.

  4. Mencius by Mencius. Helped me begin the process of winning Jessie’s heart when we were students together. ‘Nuff said.

  5. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. My parents were always insistent on my being exposed to ‘the other side’ of American history which doesn’t get taught in school, up to and including having me read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. But I think it was Zinn - which was also sitting on my parents’ bookshelf for me to read - who really gave my politics their radical bent. That book taught me to sympathise with the powerless and the downtrodden of history, which is probably most evident now in my love for the Rusiny, the Palestinians and the Yemenis.


  1. Of those, I've only read Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read when I was 17. I enjoyed it, but I think I found his writing style a bit irritating.