10 Books That Shaped My Life, and 40 Others I Love

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Reader Ed from Ireland recently asked:

I’m still really only a beginner into the Zen Habits lifestyle and your site as given me a great deal of helpful information instantly. Do you think there are any books, sites you could suggest that really made an impression on you?

That’s a tough one. I’m a book lover, to be honest, and to choose just a few books that have influenced me is like choosing among your babies. However, I’ve decided to share a few books that have shaped the way I think, and that I would highly recommend. These are not in order:

  1. Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James. I listed this first because it is one of the books that most influenced the simple philosophy behind this site. I began simplifying my life when I first read these books a decade ago, and though I’ve had some ups and downs, I credit my love for simplifying to these books. They’re an easy read and there are some great tips in there.
  2. Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robins. No book on money is more important. If you haven’t read this book yet, you must. It’s simply life transforming, and takes the way most people look at money and turns it on its head. My philosophy about money stems from this book.
  3. Getting Things Done by David Allen. This is not a surprise for people who read this site. When I first read about GTD, I overhauled my organizational and productivity habits, and have been refining them ever since. This book’s methods guide much of the writing on this site, even if I’ve adapted them to suit my needs.
  4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I was highly enthusiastic about this book when I first read it about 15 years ago, but then I kind of forgot about it for a long time. Until recently, when I was looking for ways to fill in gaps in GTD, and realized that Covey’s concepts are perfect. Now, my productivity/goals system is a blend of GTD, Covey, simplification and a few others.
  5. The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. Taught me more about compassion than any other book I’ve read. For that alone, the book is worth its weight in gold.
  6. Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky. This was a hard book to swallow when I was a journalist, as it cuts to the heart of the mass media (also known as corporate media). Chomsky’s writings awoke in me, as they did in many others, an awareness of the political and corporate machine that affects all of our lives. When people ask me how I can boycott reading and watching the news for two years (“You need to be aware of the world around you!”), I would point them to this book. The reading is a bit dense, but it’s powerful.
  7. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Gatsby is more highly regarded, I think because it is more compactly written and touches on themes considered more important, Tender is the book I read first and it is the book that truly awed me with the unmatchable beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing. He writes poetry and music in the form of prose, and his ear for rhythm of language is unmatched. My heart aches when I read this book.
  8. Dubliners by James Joyce. I think this book changed me because it taught me how powerful literature can be. I went on to read even more powerful stuff from Joyce, but this was the first, and it made all other literature I read before it seem like light reading. And Joyce captures beauty and sadness and humanity in the smallest things, and his mastery of the language is unmatched except by Shakespeare.
  9. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I love everything by Vonnegut. I wanted to write something on this blog when he died, but I couldn’t put my feelings into words. He became a close friend, through his books, and he was able to make fun of some of the most horrible things — things we don’t normally want to think about — and thus making them more digestible, and more absurd at the same time. Cat’s Cradle is simply my favorite, but Slaughterhouse 5 and the rest are awesome too.
  10. The Essential Gandhi. A great man captured in one little book. His words are profound and his actions even more so. Gandhi, more than anyone else, shaped my thinking about violence and politics and simplicity and the power of our actions.

Those are just the ones that I can think of that have had the most impact. Of course, there are many others.

Other books I’ve loved with all my heart: Gatsby, Watership Down, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shibumi, anything by Joyce or Vonnegut or William Gibson or Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams or Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky and most of Hemingway, Harry Potter, books by Lloyd Alexander and Shel Silverstein, the Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ann Patchett, Nick Hornby, Steinbeck, Chekhov, Beckett, Time Traveler’s Wife, Nabokov, Twain, Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Ken Kesey, Heinlein … I’m sure I could think of 50 others if I took the time.

See more book recommendations.