9 must-read books that changed my life

One of the most fun things I did last year was to sum up some cool parts of our family’s life as part of the iHomeschool Network’s 10 * in * 10 series, where we shared some top-10 lists each week in the spring.

I’m thrilled to be taking part again this year with some new topics and some changes in my own mindset and experiences to share!

This week, a bunch of us are talking about our favorite non-homeschooling books.

This was kind of a “gimme” for me – as I’ve written on one of my professional blogs about five books I consider life-changers – but it was a great chance to revisit and expand on the idea, and to show some of my eclectic favorites through the years.

10 books that changed my life

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 things 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.

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.

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.

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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 enriched my world 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.

3. Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley, aka the Flylady

When Ashar 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 Ashar’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 Ashar 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. 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 – so much so that I led off with it when I shared my Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling as a Working Mom!

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. This book is a great read even if you are not particularly religious or spiritual, because that lesson applies to everyone.

5. 29 Gifts by Cami Walker

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.

In my case, I 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.

I’ve personally taken the 29 Gifts challenge and have three complete “cycles,” or set of gifts, so far.  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.

6. The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

One of my primary jobs for many years was as writer and editor for Man Vs. Debt, a personal-finance site.

The founders, Adam and Courtney Baker, had their own get-out-of-debt course, You Vs. Debt, which was hugely successful for me and which I went on to facilitate.

But before I found them, I was floundering. I knew we had “money issues,” but I just couldn’t seem to get out of the cycle of paying off some debt, running into an “emergency” of some sort, and running the debt back up.

That’s where The Total Money Makeover was such a huge help. While You Vs. Debt is the system that has gotten us out of $34,000 in debt so far (with more to go!), Dave Ramsey is who made me start to think differently about debt.

That’s when we started our emergency fund, and that action alone has had the most lasting financial benefit in our lives.

7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is actually the newest book on my list – in fact, I just finished reading it about a week ago.

It’s also one of relatively few fiction selections to make the cut. But it’s that good if you, like me, grew up in the ’80s and are a technology-lover.

It’s not for everyone – there are some slightly off-color parts, for sure – but it is the sort of book I will read again and again, in part because it was just interesting, but in part because it paints a picture of what I truly believe our future on Earth will be like – both good and bad.

It describes a real-world America that’s depleted its natural resources and ruined its environment, and a matching virtual world where almost everyone goes to escape. The plot of the book, a search for some “keys” hidden by the creator of OASIS, that virtual world, is intriguing, but the story of our technological future is even more fascinating.

In a world where my daughter’s self-proclaimed best friend (who she’s never met in person) lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and where my blog reaches people in Korea, Alaska and beyond, the future predictions in Ready Player One seem pretty spot-on to me.

8. Moneyball by Michael Lewis

OK, don’t laugh, but I cried during Moneyball the book (and the accompanying movie).

If you’re not familiar, it’s a book about baseball statistics and how the Oakland A’s, under the direction of manager Billy Beane, used stats to do something unheard-of in the MLB – field a winning team based on all sorts of nontraditional ideas.

I’m not the hugest baseball fan, though I enjoy the game. (And of course I enjoy math.)

But I’m a huge, passionate, cry-tears-of-joy fan when I see someone have a truly new idea.

The birth of a thought – the creativity it entails, the absolute leap of faith to make it a reality – that just rocks my world.

9. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

I don’t know if “life-changer” is a fair description for this book, but The Hot Zone certainly fueled a lifelong interest of mine when I read it in early high school.

This book documents the spread – and containment – of the lethal Ebola and Marburg viruses, which came from Africa and made an all-too-close home in Reston, Virginia.

Since I read it (multiple times), I’ve also read dozens of other medical close-call stories, both factual and fictionalized, and I was thisclose to going pre-med in college to pursue a career in epidemiology, the study of epidemics.

While the career choice didn’t materialize, it fascinates me to read about tiny viruses, and the awe-inspiring ways (good and bad) they affect humankind.

In fact, two of my upcoming Coursera online courses are in epidemiology – proving that learning really does come full-circle!


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8 thoughts on “9 must-read books that changed my life

  1. I had Peppermint as a child! Loved that book! The first book I ever read though was “Windy Day” a little reader that I also took to Kindergarten and read to the class on the first day. Yah – I was kind of a show off. 🙂

    • Hahahaha, that’s awesome. I was an early reader, and when my mom asked me if I could go to school, I asked if they would have “real books” or “baby books.” As it turned out, I had to go to the first-grade room to read because I was also a show-off and told the kindergarten teacher I already could read her books and they were boring. It’s amazing I have any friends, isn’t it?! 🙂

  2. Oh Peppermint sounds delightful. I loved The Hot Zone too! Then again, I WAS premed in college and had an interest in overseas medical and mission work. lol. And as I survey my house, I’m seeing a huge need to get on the flylady bandwagon again. 🙂

  3. Loved your list, I have only read one of those books, but I will look for a few of them. I was not an early reader. I was extremely slow and am still a slow reader today, so the books I read have to really grab hold of me or I just don’t find it worth my time. I have a mild dyslexia and was only ever diagnosed by myself, I was out of school when I found out that others had a situation where letters moved and reversed on them as they read, it is still a joke in my family that I get my b’s and d’s mixed up, not when I type though. When I helped with my daughter’s reading program in kindergarten and 1st grade, I was so nervous because of this, but it was great, and to see how they work with kids now, take them out of class and make sure they know how to read but also understand what they are reading. My father devoured books, I remember him calling in sick to work more then once to finish a book. He use to make me read for an hour a day because he thought it would make me quicker, all it did was teach me how to check out while turning pages. If only we had known, the good thing is, as I have gotten older I have learned to deal with it, and I go to be most nights with a few pages.

    • I love that you have found a love of reading despite all that! I feel like I am really lucky in that I never struggled with reading, but at the same time I have plenty of other areas that I feel the same way in, that I have found ways around. I love that you volunteered at your daughter’s school even though you were nervous about it – that shows me just how much you love her!!

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