Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.
It’s funny; my husband and I run an online used book store, but I own fewer books personally now than at any other time in my life.
As I get busier and busier, I realize that I only have time to reread books if they really matter.
Sure, I read the standard mass-market fiction for fun. But those books come from our local public library. To make it into the “Joan Otto permanent rotation,” they’ve really got to wow me – and have lasting value.
Here are five books that I truly believe have changed my life – and lessons I believe we can all learn from them.
1. Peppermint by Dorothy Grider
Notice that this is the most beat-up book on the stack above (by far)? It’s also the oldest, and it’s one of the sentimental possessions I will probably never part with, despite its being held together by an all-over coating of clear mailing tape.
This is the first book I ever remember reading on my own (after many readings by my mom and dad, of course).
It’s about a sad, skinny kitten who doesn’t get adopted from the candy shop when the rest of his littermates do, but later finds the perfect home with a little girl who can’t afford to pay for a kitten.
If you want to wax philosophical, you might say that I like this book because I was also adopted, or because I was a skinny, homely little kid who really came into my own later in life.
Nah. Honestly? This book changed my life because once I could read, I could do just about anything I wanted.
If you ask me “what” I am, after wife and mother and daughter and friend comes one thing – writer. And for me, being a writer is tied inextricably to being a reader, which thanks to Peppermint I can proudly say I am.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Dig up a copy of your favorite childhood book and read it to your kids or another young friend or family member. Barring that, read it to your spouse. Read it to yourself. Read it to your dog.
But recapture – and share – that childlike love of reading.
2. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
If Peppermint is the book that I credit with a love of reading, then Jonathan Livingston Seagull is its match in writing.
We were assigned this book in eighth-grade honors English. The teacher, a dynamo of a woman who I am proud to now call a friend, was tasked with the unenviable challenge of helping a bunch of awkward, sometimes cruel preteens and teens learn to function in a way that at least broadly resembled an adult manner.
She wanted more for us. She wanted us to soar. She had us reading all sorts of books – most around a single theme.
Be yourself, and be THE ABSOLUTE BEST at it.
Her class sparked in me a love of writing – because I came to realize that wasn’t the plot of this book (or many others) that left me unable to put it down.
This book showed me the art of the written word – the storytelling and the subtlety that come when you don’t just retell events, you make something come alive.
For more than 13 years, I’ve made my living mostly through the written word.
That has blessed me in more ways than I can count, and it humbles me, too, because most of what I write is fleeting – a newspaper article or column, a blog post, a piece of magazine prose.
But great writing – that sticks around. When I hear that my writing, however simple it might be, makes someone think a new thought, that changes my life too.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Remember that your words matter – written or spoken. Take the time today to put into words something of lasting value.
It doesn’t have to be the next great novel; a well-crafted blog comment or a short note to your child can be life-changing.
Make your words count.
3. Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley, aka The FlyLady
When my daughter, Sarah, was born, I was in my first full year of college and working a full-time job. My then-fiance and I lived with her in a small two-bedroom house we shared with my mother.
I was not doing a stellar job of keeping it all together. Thankfully, my grades were good, and I did well at work.
But to say the house was a disaster area would be kind. Once Sarah’s biological dad and I split up, I realized I needed to take action. This was not the life I wanted for my daughter.
Within two years, we’d sold and cleaned out a TON of crap, I’d graduated from college and I bought my first house, which Sarah and I moved into (with Mom in tow) in 2003; that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t cleared out the previous one and gotten it ready to show.
I owe the ability to manage all of that to Sink Reflections and its author, The FlyLady.
FlyLady is, well, she’s kind of Baker-esque. She’s got a system for getting rid of things that don’t enrich your life, and it starts by doing one thing at a time.
Her website – and this, her first book – showed me that if you build good habits, it’s a lot easier to keep things together.
The book is kind of about keeping your house uncluttered – but for me, it’s more about keeping your life from falling apart at the seams.
At the time in my life when I first read this book, that’s what I desperately needed – and I believe I owe my ability to be a good mom and, yes, a good homemaker, to Sink Reflections.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Your home, the space that surrounds you, it matters. Whether that’s a one-room apartment or a 3,000-square-foot house, you deserve to surround yourself with a space that will help you succeed.
4. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle
So I’m a reader, a writer, a woman who cares about making a home for her family. But none of those labels describe my character as a person.
That’s what the next two books on the list are for.
It’s only been a couple of years since I first read Tattoos on the Heart.
This is a story of a Jesuit priest living and working among LA’s toughest gangs, and the stories of how the “homies” and “homegirls” changed his life as he was working to change theirs.
It was hard for me to include this book on the list – not because I don’t love it, and not because it didn’t profoundly affect me.
But it was hard to put my finger on this book’s tangible impact on my life. It’s a stunning collection of personal anecdotes, some that made me laugh and others that were heartbreaking.
But what I took from those can be summed up in one way. This book inspires me to look at every single person I meet as someone of great value.
That perspective changes everything. Instead of being frustrated when I have a problem with another person, I try to think about their value. That grouchy cashier is someone’s wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. She means something to someone.
I’m no saint – and I definitely have a tendency to be easily annoyed. But instead of allowing that to make a tough situation worse, I’m trying to take a lesson from “Father Greg’s” book and treat people with respect.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Try it. Treat the next person you have a conflict with as someone of great value. At worst, you’ll feel more positive about your part of the interaction, and at best, the situation will drastically improve!
5. 29 Gifts by Cami Walker
Man Vs. Debt community members who are active in our comments won’t be surprised to see this on the list, as I’ve mentioned it in response to comments on several previous posts!
I saved this book for last because it’s having the greatest PRESENT effect on my life. I first read it about a year ago – in fact, it was a public library selection that I liked enough to find and order, as was Tattoos on the Heart.
The premise to 29 Gifts is deceptively simple – the author, Cami Walker, was challenged by a spiritual mentor to give one gift every day for 29 days and to see what changes that brought in her life.
The book, though, is about much more than that. It’s told as Cami’s personal story – and framed through her serious health struggles with depression, multiple sclerosis and more. It’s about building up positive energy in yourself and in the world.
Some people talk about the law of attraction – or karma – and suggest that what you put out into the world, you get back.
I’ve said before that I don’t really believe in luck – but I do believe that changing your perspective into one of abundance serves to make it clear to you how abundant your life really is.
Similarly, living in a perspective of lack – dwelling on what you don’t have instead of what you do – will only serve to give you the idea that your life is lacking in some way.
Cami’s book focuses on that – and on how her own mindset shifted. It also outlines how you can use the concept of giving to transform your own view.
That’s what keeps me coming back to this book, which I’ve read at least a half-dozen times.
I’ve personally taken the 29 Gifts challenge. I’m into my third “cycle,” or set of gifts, and my goal is to complete this one and two more before my 30th birthday this November, for five sets and 145 gifts in all.
Not all my “gifts” are big – or tangible. Sometimes it’s as simple as being a listening ear for a friend, or taking my daughter for ice cream. Some, though, have been life-changing.
YOUR CHALLENGE: Give a gift today. I’d love to have you officially join me in the full 29-day challenge (read more here), because the impact is astounding. But even if you give just one gift, you’ll have made the world better.
I truly believe that books (and blogs!) can change lives. And I truly believe these five books have changed mine.
Today, I have a special commenting challenge for you.
If you’ll comment with a book that has changed your life, and tell me what lesson you find most applicable from it, I’ll add it to my list of books to read this year.
I can’t promise I’ll get to it tomorrow – but I do read a lot, and frankly, I can’t think of a better group of people to get suggestions from.
So what’s your “life-changer” book?
Let us know!