Can a Book Change Your Mind?

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education Review asked 12 scholars what book had most changed their mind. The list was interesting, mostly for the fact that I had not heard of most of the books. But what caught my attention was one of the commenters who raised the question of whether books can “change our minds.”  Part of the commenter’s discussion was what we mean by “mind” (typical academic question!) and what it means to “change” this.

Partly, I was grateful for these comments because, surprisingly, I had a hard time with this question as well. My initial thought was that although I cannot think of a book that “changed” my mind, I can certainly think of books that have expanded my mind, or opened up new avenues of thinking about a question. I suppose this can be labelled as change in an incremental sense. But I cannot say there is a single book I think of that has caused a profound revolution in my thinking–at least overnight or in a single reading.

That said, I do think there have been books that have shaped core convictions and the way I live my life. Perhaps one mark of their significance is that they are books to which I return that seem to yield new depths with each reading. It seems with these books that it is not so much that they “change” my mind, but that they “make sense” of my world and give words to what I sense is real and true about life.

Of course for me, The Bible would be at the top of my list. In my youth, it was the stirring language of Romans 8 and a God whose love I could not be separated from. In more recent years, it has been the psalms of lament as I’ve faced loss and seen the evil of the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together continues to speak compellingly to me about the character of Christian community and the possibilities of two people meeting each other uniquely through their common faith in Christ.

I am in the midst of a re-reading of John Stott’s profound work on The Cross of Christ and reminded how “cross-shaped” a truly Christian life is.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August persuaded me more than any other book of the follies of war and the great responsibility those in power have for such folly.

Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Wendell Berry’s Port William stories helped me understand how important a sense of place and a love of place is to our lives.

Books like Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac reminded me of the intricate ecosystems of our places.

I could go on, but I guess what books have done for me is not so much “change” my mind but rather have given words to make sense of my life and enlarged my view of the world in which I live it.

So what do you think about this question? Is there a book  that has changed your mind? How would you describe the significance of important books to your life?

Keeping a List of Books Read (and What This Says About Us)

Rebecca Mead recently published a delightful article in The New Yorker titled “The Pleasure of Reading to Impress Yourself.” She describes unearthing an old notebook in which she recorded the books she had read for several during the 1980s. What she particularly noticed was how heavily it was weighted toward classics of English literature and the pleasure derived from not only having read these books but being pleased with oneself as becoming “a well-read person.”

True confessions time. I’ve kept a list of books I’ve read since 1993, when a colleague made a remark about being deliberate in our choices of good literature since “there are so many books and so little time” and how he recorded not only the books he read but a summary of those books and his response. So I began keeping a list which I’ve kept up to this day, now numbering over 1600 books. Back around 2008, I started supplementing this with reviews posted on an app on Facebook, and when I had problems with this because of one of Facebook’s interminable changes, I started posting those reviews on Goodreads in late 2011, and linking them to this blog, which I began last year. Here was my list from 1993:

1993 Reading List

My 1993 Reading List (click to enlarge)

What strikes me as I look back on this list is that my reading choices were probably driven by a similar motivation–not only to read for information or pleasure but to have the pleasure of being impressed with being well-read.  I remember that it was around this time that I picked up an edition of Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and started looking for books that I didn’t have. I notice on the list for that year reading Dickens, Dreiser, Forster, Hardy, and both The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.

It was probably a few years later that I supplemented Fadiman with Eugene Peterson’s book, Take and Read (I just found it on my list for 1996), focusing on spiritual reading. But even in 1993, I noticed taking on Calvin’s Institutes, Newman’s Idea of a University (which I re-read last year) and books by Lewis and Chesterton.

I also noticed that then as now, I was reading lots of history and biographies, including a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, another of Teddy Roosevelt, a history of the battle of Antietam, Landscape Turned Red, and more.

I’m reminded of the good memory of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s A Long Winter as a family as the winter of 1993-94 began as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

I see some of the books I read for issues we were wrestling with then and (and now) including I Suffer Not a Woman on women in the church and books on race by Cornel West and Perkins and Rice.

As I reflect on this list, I’m struck over and over by the continuity of reading interests, and even authors. I see a book on this list by Jaroslav Pelikan, and I just recently completed another book by this author. Likewise, I am currenly reading James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I note that I read his book Culture Wars in 1993. Of course authors like Lewis and Chesterton turn up on my lists again and again, as do authors like Dickens and Hardy. I also seem fascinated with books on Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Sometimes I give an author a second chance. I thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of strange in 1993. I still thought he was kind of odd when I read him last year, when I discovered that either people absolutely love his stuff, or just don’t get him–I confess I’m in the latter category.

It is fascinating to me how our book lists, if we keep them, serve as a kind of narrative of our lives, and a window into the things that matter to us. These days, I’m not so much into following book lists which, when transferred to my books read, leave me impressed with myself. My book choices reflect curiosity, sometimes serendipity, and sometimes simply returning to authors that have given me pleasure and insight in the past. But they also often remind me where I was when I read a particular book or who I was reading it with as is the case of some from our Dead Theologians reading group, which has met since the late 90’s.

So while it may seem compulsive (which my wife says I can be!) my book lists remind me not only of the books I’ve read but the events of life associated with these. Some evening soon, I need to just sit down with the list and take a walk down memory lane.

Do you keep a reading list or post the books you’ve read on something like Goodreads? What has keeping such lists meant for you?


Twenty-five Favorite Books

Being new at this blog thing, I still feel I’m introducing myself to potential readers.  I see lots of top 25 book lists.  I’m not sure that this is my TOP 25 nor are these necessarily in any priority order.  I might generate a different list tomorrow.  But at least for today, these are some of my favorite books.

1.  The Bible. Certainly, I’ve read this more than any other and reading this has been more transformative than any other book.

2.  J R R Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Read through this at least four times and love for the picture of how the ordinary and insignificant defeat the great power of evil.

3.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together. Probably the most profound book on Christian community I’ve read.

4.  Homer.  The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Foundational narratives that explore the human condition.

5.  John Calvin. The Institutes. Bought the Ford Lewis Battles edition with a graduation award from seminary.  A model of rigorous thought, clarity and devotion to the sovereign God.  Don’t judge Calvin by his successors until you’ve read him.

6.  Shelby Foote. The Civil War. Bruce Catton comes close, but for sheer readability and sweeping narrative, nothing beats Foote.

7.  John R W Stott. The Cross of Christ. I am indebted to so much of Stott’s writing but this is his magnum opus in my opinion.

8.  Alan Paton. Cry the Beloved Country. I love the economy of his writing, his love of place and this compelling tale of reconciliation.

9.  J I Packer. Knowing God. Read, ponder, and pray this book and you will at least a bit more.

10.  Barbara Tuchman. The Guns of August. She later wrote of war as the “march of folly”.  She chronicles at length the folly behind the beginnings of World War I.

11.  C S Lewis. Mere Christianity. Hard to pick a single title but this is perhaps the book that most reasonably and clearly articulates what it means to be a mere Christian–apart from all the cultural trappings and denominational idiosyncracies.

12. Wendell Berry. Hannah Coulter. One of his “Port William” novels that deeply captures a sense of place, the passage of time, and the deep woundedness that many bear who fight our nation’s wars.

13. James Sire. The Universe Next Door. Jim has done more than anyone I know to introduce the idea of “worldview” into Christian discourse and this is the book that started it all.

14. Walter M Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Possibly one of the very best science fiction works that explores what a post-nuclear holocaust world might be like.

15. Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace. Volf explores how we overcome the pervasive alienation from the “other” in the human community.

16. David McCullough. Truman.  I’ve loved everything McCullough has written but I still think of this as his best, introducing me to the last man to be president before I was born.

17. Eugene Peterson. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.  Peterson begins this book by decrying the ways American pastors have forsaken their calling and then focuses on prayer, the ministry of the word, and spiritual direction as the core of pastoral work.

18. Stephen Jay Gould. Wonderful Life.  Gould was simply a magnificent science writer!

19. Augustine. The Confessions.  Simply the best narrative of conversion out there.

20. Fyodor Doestoevsky. Crime and Punishment.  Glad I waited until adulthood to read this profound work on human nature.

21. George Marsden. The Soul of the American University.  Simply the best history tracing the foundation of American universities out of the life of the church to the present disestablishment of religion from the intellectual life of universities.

22. John Steinbeck. East of Eden. Magnificent writing retelling the Cain and Abel story in early 20th century California.

23. G K Chesterton. Orthodoxy.  He is wonderful for turning ideas on their head, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek!

24. Winston Churchill. A History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Churchill may not have been the best historian but he could write and he certainly gives one an appreciation for our shared democratic institutions.

25. Francis Schaeffer. The God Who Is There.  Going back, I find ways the book is flawed and dated, yet I am profoundly grateful for having this book in hand during my freshman intro to philosophy to have some framework to think Christianly about western thought since the enlightenment.

As I come to “25” I realize so many I could have included (such as Manchester’s biography of Churchill) and something by Wallace Stegner.  I’ve also omitted the witty writings and drawings of Columbus native James Thurber.

I’d love to hear some of your favorites.  Don’t worry if they are very different than mine.  Booklovers always love hearing about good books and tastes for books are as individual as tastes for ice cream!