This list of meaningful books – according to men and women – is both fascinating and funny.
My personal list is, or would be, much more close to the male version than the female. I’ve never been able to so much as finish anything by the Brontes’ or Jane Austen, The Handmaid’s Tale I understood to be important but bored me to tears nonetheless, and Toni Morrison has never done it for me. By contrast, Camus remains one of my favorite writers, The Catcher in the Rye was one of those books that I read at just the right time (I wanted to be Holden), and while I place Pynchon above Heller as far as ‘life changing’ goes, I think the two are comparable enough.
But if I were to make a list of books that had changed my life? Off the top of my head:
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence
Ken Wilber’s Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (also Grace and Grit which was about the death of his wife; also a few of his earlier books)
Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations
George Lakoff and Mark Johnsons’s Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
Earnest Becker’s The Denial of Death
I know. Only the last of these is fiction. I’m a little reluctant to recommend any of them, either, because I read these books in high school, and with the rare exception, haven’t revisited any. I want to say that they were life-changing, though, because of how powerfully I remember them all. These are the books that I literally cried over.
Pirsig’s book in particular I thought was the most beautiful thing I’d ever encountered; I think even today I’d enjoy it. The Nozick inclusion could have, I’m sure, been substituted with any other book on philosophy (in fact, I’d guess that today I’d be nowhere near so smitten with what I know now is a fundamentally libertarian approach), but it was what I had at the time and at the time it took my breath away.
I was such a sad little creature back then. I was so hungry for answers and meaning, and so utterly confused by other people. Intellect and spirituality and the structure of systems seemed so pure and beautiful and safe, and these books seemed to recognize this.