Books Which Teach, Not Only By Being 10 of the Most Important Books In My Life

This is a list of books which I've been buying again and again, both for my personal collection and as gifts for my friends. These are the books which have shaped me over the years, books I turn to, books which in many cases I have a reading copy of as well as one or more treasured copies. My reasons for each book differ — but there is a story behind each of them. Each book has taught me much and I still turn to each for new lessons.


Lasker's Manual of Chess

by Mark Dvoretsky, Emanuel Lasker

I learned to play chess at the age of 4 from my grandfather, we played a few times but only once seriously before he died. In high school I was the captain of my school chess team and played seriously and competitively. I was (and am) also seriously interested in philosophy. Manual of Chess is both the best book on chess I have ever read and perhaps the best book of philosophy as well.

My first copy I found in a small but wonderful used bookstore in my hometown, it was a battered and well used copy, filled with annotations and clippings. Reading it I discovered not just Lasker's amazing perspective on how to play and learn chess — as well as how to think and live — but also caught glimpses into the mind of the previous owner, someone who clearly had been a serious and devoted chess player.

The only problem with my first copy, which I still own, was that it is so well worn, so well used that the spine is damaged. So years ago I bought a second copy just to be my reading copy. And then have bought many more as gifts as well as have recommended it often.

So what makes Manual of Chess special? First a bit about Emanuel Lasker, he was probably the best chess player who ever lived. He was also a serious philosopher. From 1894 until an amazing 1921 he was the world champion of chess. In his book he taught how to play chess by working backwards — starting with the endgame and working forward through to opening — the opposite of how most people still teach how to play chess.

As he teaches you how to play chess, he is also teaching a way to think about the world. A method of understanding the options, of thinking and planning ahead, of visualizing and of thinking of not just your options but those of others.

For me Manual of Chess not just significantly improved my chess game, it also changed me, changed how I think.


Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

by Natalie Goldberg

I am a writer; since high school I have written something nearly every day. For years I kept journals, for the past 7 years I have been a blogger and occasional journalist. In school I learned the technical aspects of writing — grammar, non-fiction structure, story structure. But years ago the book which really changed my writing practice. As I read it, chapter by chapter, writing as I read, in paper notebooks with a cheap pen fortified by cheap coffee at my favorite cafes in Chicago, I was learning the Practice of writing. Practice in the Zen sense of the word, not just repetition of the act, though that is part of it, but also the state of mind, the seemingly simple activities which did, indeed, help me go from a blank page to words on that page to actual works of writing. Critics are divided on Writing Down the Bones, reading the reviews on Amazon you jump from ratings of 1 star to many ratings of 5 stars. I think many of the reviewers misinterpret this work, it is not a book about the techniques of writing — about the formal structures or the grammar of the language. Nor is it a book about the business of writing, about how to sell your work, how to select your stories for greatest revenue. No, it is a book about the intensely personal Practice of writing, a book about the becoming of a writer.


The Flavor-Principle Cookbook

by Elisabeth Rozin

The Flavor Principle Cookbook is one of those books which I buy every single time I see it for sale. It has been out of print since 1973, I've seen two different editions — one of which I think was for a book club. Used copies sometimes fetch more than $50, though I've usually paid far less than that.

Every single member of my family has a copy of this cookbook and over the years I have given a copy to family and friends as they have set up their own households.

Yet, I have also never cooked a recipe from this cookbook, I've heard they are good, but the recipes themselves are not why I always recommend this book to everyone I can, why I consider it the single most important cookbook I own and one of the most influential books period on my life.

My family takes food seriously — my father's 30 year career has been as a senior food scientist — he's written many textbooks, hundreds of articles and helped nearly every single major (and countless small) food company around the world to build new factories and to develop new products and processes. My sister's boyfriend was a food critic for the New York Times and has just sold his fourth cookbook and his second with a major NYC based chef. I'm the amateur in the family — I only cook for friends, though admittedly my dinner parties often involve me making 12-15 different dishes all with locally sourced, seasonal, organic ingredients. Friends sometimes tell me I may have missed my calling, that I should open up a restaurant.

What The Flavor Principle Cookbook is all about is teaching you, via examples, how spices combine together to create flavor. How the flavors of cuisines from around the globe are created by combinations of spices, flavorings and techniques. The dishes and language does, at times, reveal the 1973 publication date, but overall this is a cookbook which was far ahead of the times. And which has been matched by very few, if any cookbooks since.

Reading it — and more importantly experimenting for yourself — you will learn how to cook as chefs do, with a strong knowledge in what combinations work well with each other, with a knowledge of how to make the flavors you want, how to balance dishes. I like to claim that I am a "simple" chef — that my focus as a chef is on doing the minimum to great ingredients highlight their flavors - but my "simplicity" is grounded in the knowledge I gained from a childhood of reading and absorbing The Flavor Principle Cookbook. It occupies of a place of honor in my kitchen as well as in the kitchens of my sister and my parents.


Autobiography: In Memory Yet Green (1920-1954) and in Joy Still Felt

by Isaac Asimov

The two volume biography of Issac Asimov was published in 1979 in hardcover, then in 1980 in paperback. Many years later Asimov also published a third volume, "I, Asimov," in 1995. But it was the original two volume autobiography which most impacted me. I've owned many copies of this over the years, in fact will probably buy yet another copy sometime soon as my last copy appears to be missing after my move to the West Coast.

These are lengthy books, nearly 1500 pages between them and perhaps this is a case where the impact may be unique for me, but still I think these are some of the best autobiographies ever written — at least for a reader like myself as a young adult. Issac Asimov is one of the most influential writers I read as a child, he's still one of my heroes and almost certainly the man whom I would travel back in time to meet were I ever to be able to obtain a working time machine.

So why do I include these lengthy books in my list of books which I learned from but not only by reading them?

Because though Asimov left gaps in his autobiography (eliding the end of his first marriage, for example), he captured in words how he had become who he was. What I took from this was most importantly how his mind, his intellect, his childhood as a prodigy and brilliant mind, as a Jew (but also as an atheist) shaped who he became. How he managed to survive, to more than survive — to prosper. To never give up learning, to never cease questioning, to believe and more than just to believe to do almost anything he set his mind to doing. In his case this meant writing books in nearly every category of the Dewey Decimal system, books on perhaps the widest range of subjects by any one author before or since. So many books, in fact, that I'm not certain anyone, even today, has a fully accurate bibliography.

Though if I ever had the funds, coming as close as I could to having most of his books in my collection would, I think, be a completely admirable task. Sure, I've since grown perhaps more fond of more modern, less "pulp" styles of writings and I greatly preferred his earlier science fiction stories and novels to the works he wrote towards the end of his life (which sadly was in 1992 from complications of AIDS which he had contracted from a blood transfusion in 1983).

Reading these autobiographies, which I've done once cover to cover, then many times again as dips into his life, helped shape how I think, how I work, how I've created my own life and meaning as an atheist and thinker, as someone interested in more topics than can easily be summarized by any single label.


Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet Boxed Set

by Benjamin Hoff

These two small, seemingly simple but anything but simple books are another of a very small set of books which I find myself buying again and again. I buy new copies as my old copies get worn or given away. These are not perfect books but they are amazing works — books which are simple yet not — which seek to illustrate Taoism (and other Chinese philosophies) via the mode of a retelling, a reuse of a classic of English childhood books. I missed the whole Disney aspect of Pooh as a child, I read the original books, then I encountered The Tao of Pooh.

This is a book that just might change your entire life. Not in any easy way, but in offering a probably new way of thinking, of engaging, of being. I do not claim to be a Taoist but there are few books which have had the impact on me as The Tao of Pooh.


Travels with Charley in Search of America

by John Steinbeck

This book is, by far, my favorite book of Steinbeck's. Yet it is a book of "non-fiction" by an author most well known for his fiction. It is the simple tale of his travels in 1960 for three months with his dog Charley. I truly think it is his best work (and yes, I know most people will think I'm crazy to say that).

But Travels with Charley in Search of America is on this list because like the other books on this list the impact of this book grows if you act on it, if you embark, as I did one summer while still in college, on your own travels in search of America. In the summer of 1993 I spent 5 weeks at end of that summer driving around most of the country west of the Mississippi (and some of the country east). My traveling companions varied over the course of the trip, starting with a college friend, a bit over a week by myself and ending with a few days with just my father driving Route 66 from LA to Chicago, but throughout all of my travels i was inspired on this journey by my appreciation of Travels with Charley in Search of America.

So buy a copy of this book at your own peril, very likely you will find yourself inspired to set off across the country yourself, to go forth and seek the country — to travel without strangers.

As importantly this is yet another book whose tone, whose outlook on life deeply shaped my own. Steinbeck writes of the world of his journey, of a point in time very different in many ways from the 1990s when I first read it or the 21st century, yet his approach, his attitude, his observational skill and underlying humanity and faith in others is still relevant today. The America he finds is by no means a perfect one but the humanity of the individuals he encounters shines through.

And though I can never have pets (serious allergies) while reading Travels with Charley I did get why many people love their dogs.


The Once and Future King

by Terence Hanbury White

I read The Once and Future King for an English class early on in high school. I read it and fell in love with history, with research and with book collecting. In class in addition to discussing what happens over the course of the novel (really the series of novels) our teacher delved into the details and hidden layers of The Once and Future King. Scattered throughout the book are quotations, some in languages other than English, as well as countless references and allusions. As we discovered and discussed these my love of the process of research as well as the process of close, textual reading (when the book is well written) was sparked. This was in the late 1980s, long before Wikipedia and Google, our research took us into many other books and reference materials. But the full impact of The Once and Future King on my life came after the class as I followed up on some of the future details I had learned in that class. Specifically my teacher had noted that The Once and Future King was originally published as individual books which had come out years before the book now famously read in English classes across the country was published. I was so inspired than I took myself to the Left Bank Bookstore, where I had previously bought my treasured copy of The Manual of Chess, and started a lifelong love of book collecting by working with the bookseller to over the course of the next few years to track down early editions (and eventually mostly first editions) of the individual books which later made up The Once and Future King. The individual books, which I would eventually own in both the American and English editions, as well as many other early works by T. H. White form the start of my serious book collection and remain among my most treasured possessions. The skills I learned making sense of the details contained within The Once and Future King continue to this day. I learned how to go from a quote or allusion to references, how to peel back layers, how to research and think about history — how to move between fiction and non-fiction, myth and history. So buy a copy and reread it, but also dive into the allusions, relish the journey of discovery, and explore for yourself the world which shaped the books.


The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, Leviathan

by Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Shea

The classic work of conspiracy theories gone wild. X-files decades before it aired. A written down drug trip. Occultism, skepticism, mysticism, 1960's craziness and much, much more (and much much less).

I have two copies. One signed by Robert Shea. The other signed by Robert Anton Wilson (actually I think I also have a third re-reading copy somewhere as well). Plus I have copies of the original books which were then later gathered together to form the trilogy.

I should mention now that after reading this book in high school, loving it and the search for which references were real and which were fiction, what was made up and what was somewhat real, I also grew to know Robert Shea personally. In high school I helped to start a science fiction convention at the school and we invited Robert Shea who then lived in the suburbs of Chicago to join us as a guest speaker. Among my other tasks that year I and a friend drove out to Robert Shea's home, sat in his kitchen and then drove him to the conference.

I have copies of nearly every book Robert Shea wrote (most inscribed by him to me personally) as well as copies of nearly all of the books Robert Anton Wilson wrote.

I also should at this point explain that I have never once used any drugs — and after reading The Illuminatus Trilogy I don't think I need to in order to have had my mind "expanded".

In speaking with the authors I learned that The Illuminatus Trilogy was written while they were both editors at Playboy Magazine. One of them would write a chapter, almost always ending it on a seemingly impossible cliffhanger and the other would pick up and continue the story. Years later they were not certain (or at least were not telling anyone) who had written which chapter, nor who had then collected and decided upon the many quotes which were included in the book between chapters.

For among many other things it is those quotes — as well as the interplay between the real and the mystical, between the historically "true" and the completely made up — which is very much for me the lasting impact The Illuminatus Trilogy had on me. Like The Once and Future King this is a book which helped shape my love of book collecting and historical research. I have many oddities in my book collection as a result of picking them up having first encountered them (or related works) in the pages of The Illuminatus Trilogy.

Equally the skepticism, the questioning of everything, very much rubbed off on me and reinforced my own philosophical outlook and my atheism.


The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul

by Daniel C. Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter

This is a collection of essays by some of the most important philosophers in history, edited and commented upon by Hofstadter and Dennett. I first encountered The Mind's I in my high school year long philosophy course. I would later be assigned this same book in college philosophy courses. I think, along with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, this is the single book I was assigned to read in the most number of classes throughout my academic career.

Yet unlike many books assigned to be read in a class this is a book I gladly turn back to time and time again. It sparked my own philosophical explorations. Explorations which took me to years of independent class work in high school and countless more classes in college, as well as an ongoing engagement with questions of philosophy as well as with the definition of the self. Like Dennett today (I'm not certain about his when he edited this work) I am an atheist.

In part as well as a result of encountering Sartre in The Minds Eye (as well as in many other works in English and in French) I also consider myself to be an existentialist in the broadest of terms.

But that is my own personal philosophy, a philosophy I formed now two decades ago and which though still challenging also still drives my every action to this day. Why I recommend The Mind's I however is that reading it today still has the power to inspire you to question your own philosophies, to explore for yourself just what is The Self (and The Soul). It is a very approachable book, but also one like so many others I am suggesting in this list will almost certainly lead you to many other works, to many other places as you look for other works by the authors and philosophers you encountered in short form inside of The Mind's I.


The Stone and the Flute

by Hans Bemmann, translated by Anthea Bell

The Stone and The Flute is probably my single favorite work of fiction — in any genre. I think it is among the best books ever written and is I'd say far and away one of the single best fantasy novels ever in any language. Personally I would say it is a better and vastly more impactful book than The Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy series or single book before or since.

When I do finally continue my study of German, started fitfully in college it would be in no small part to be able to read this book in the original German and then to read everything else I could find written by Hans Bemmann (only one other of his books as far as I know has also been translated into English).

So what makes The Stone and The Flute so great? And why is it on this list?

It is the story of Listener from the moment of his birth to the moment of his death as an old man. It is a story of a single life, richly and deeply told. It is not a simple novel, nor is it a simple "quest", it is unlike most Fantasy novels, indeed it is unlike most novels of any genre. In many ways the language and structure are evocative, quite deliberately so, of fairy tales and mythology and as you read and later reread The Stone and The Flute you will catch more and more details and layers of meaning.

This is a book about life — and about mistakes and consequences of those mistakes. It is a novel about living up to yourself about being yourself. It is a fantasy novel, set in a world with magic, yet is is not a fantasy — it is at times painfully real. When I recommend The Stone and The Flute to people, as I am doing now here — and as I have done many many times in the past — I warn them that the middle section is tough, it is not an "easy" section — it slows me down every time I read the book — but the journey is worth it.

This is a novel where the main character is literally turned into a stone statue, yet the novel continues, that is by no means the end of the tale. It is an amazing piece of writing & translation — and a tale which bears much rereading.

More so than any other book I have read The Stone and The Flute is a book which has lingered with me, a book which I would rank far towards the top of my all time favorites. It is also a book where the original reviews got it, I think, completely and utterly wrong — and it is a book which far more so than countless other books should be a well known classic work and a book that shouldn't be out of print (as it appears to currently be). Find a copy by hook or by crook and read it. Then reread it. Then share it with your friends and reread it again.

Likely you will find yourself Listening in a new way as you read and after you have read The Stone and The Flute.