We all have those books that we read that have stuck with us forever, for whatever reason. Perhaps we read them while we were in a vulnerable place, or while we were young, and pieces of those stories are caught in our heart forever. I’m sure all of us could write a different list of transformative books, but if you’re looking for something to read that will touch you deeply, here is some literature – some spiritual, some not – that has been integral to my life journey.
Zen and the Art of Knitting: Exploring the Links Between Knitting, Spirituality, and Creativity – Bernadette Murphy
I’ve been knitting since I was 13, but it was only when I picked this book up in an Atlanta second-hand bookstore that I realized the meditative power of knitting. Murphy discusses how knitting can feed our spirits, calming our minds and moving us beyond difficulties in our lives by helping us to focus on the present. I was especially touched by the chapter where Murphy visits a Montessori school and learns how knitting helps to teach children about mathematics while also improving their motor control. Who knew that this ancient skill could be so integral to mental health!
I read both this book and The Alchemist while in a psychiatric ward as a teenager, struggling from the prodomal symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Bipolar I. In the book, a former doctor with terminal cancer sets out on what he imagines as his final journey – only to find that life is worth living, no matter how little time you may have left. The beautiful atmospheric writing, moving the story along vista by vista and interaction by interaction, helped me realize that humans need each other, and we all have the potential to change each others’ lives if only we reach out.
Many who read The Alchemist are turned off by its simplistic moral and the fairy tale-esque form of its writing, but as a teenager simply seeking confirmation that life was worth living, the realization that we are the story – we are what we’re seeking – was truly comforting to me. It would make a great book to read to children, as its narrative is easy to understand and it has some very lovely writing.
I was assigned this book multiple times during my undergrad as an English major, and I loved it so much that when I visited Toronto, I wanted to drive by Michael Ondaatje’s house! It’s one of the five novels, including Cloud Atlas, that I wrote my thesis on. This is definitely a book that you shouldn’t judge by the movie. With multiple narratives seamlessly thread into one, I feel like I get an entirely different story every time I read it. The English Patient forcefully reminds you that we are all connected, with our actions having consequences that change others for good or ill.
Another book I loved during my undergrad days, this is, again, a book that you should not judge by its movie, no matter how cute Ben Whishaw is. Like The English Patient, this novel is a series of interwoven narratives, but instead of the characters encountering one another, the stories are spaced throughout time, leading you to examine your place in the greater narrative of the universe and how our lives echo, both in the past and in the future. What will the world be in 1,000 years? What can we do today to change those possibilities? Cloud Atlas invites you to find out.
How many of you have actually read Moby Dick beyond “Call me Ishmael?” Be honest! I’ve read it twice – once on paper and once on audiobook (while knitting – you’d be proud, Bernadette Murphy!). I fall deeper in love with the story line by line. Don’t be scared away by its length: it’s definitely a book you can pick up and put down as you please, and with short chapters, you won’t feel trapped in your chair for hours. In fact, it’s honestly a joy to draw it out, as you will be thinking about Ishmael and his love of the sea all day. I really don’t want to spoil the story for you if you haven’t experienced this wonderful book, because it truly is an experience. It makes you consider your place in history, what you would have been had you been born in a different age, and the sacrifices we all make in order to survive.
It’s disappointing that this is one of only two books on my list that were written by women, and in my next list of literature I will try to remedy that. Regardless, this is an incredible book about colonialism that will have you questioning your understanding of history: reminding you that the “truth” about the past is written by the victors. Expanding the story of “the mad wife in the attic” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Rhys imagines the life of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, offering her the autonomy and voice denied her in Bronte’s work.
This is a book that will stick with you, and maybe not for the reasons you expect. There’s truly no way to describe this book, or explain it – like Moby Dick, you simply have to experience it for yourself. It makes you uncomfortable, shocks you, and leaves an aftertaste for years afterward. It’s been half a decade since I first read this book and I still think about it often, wondering what I would do in the protagonist’s place and questioning my own conceptions of nostalgia, freedom, and power.
This book actually helped to launch my spiritual journey about five years ago, when I was very curious about the anthropological history of spirituality and wanted to better understand why humans are so inclined to spirituality. This goes back to the Neolithic period in Europe and the Middle East and discusses the symbolism present in Neolithic archaeological sites in terms of neurobiology. It argues, essentially, that the rituals that our ancestors did are connected to biological states, like ecstasis, and were also critical in terms of social development. It’s a really fascinating book for a spiritual seeker and I really encourage everyone interested in spirituality read it, regardless of path.
I would describe this book as “Buddhist Lite,” in that it’s a very good way to introduce Westerners to Buddhist conceptions and philosophy. John explains all of his theories very clearly and concisely, and if you follow all of the arguments all the way through, it will absolutely change your life, VERY quickly. He recommends that you read it multiple times, and I completely agree. Make sure you understand everything and then continue. It’s a book that you’ll want to return to in times of uncertainty, and each time you’ll feel more invigorated in your search for the truth.
If you’re at all interested in Buddhism (regardless of sect), I fully recommend that you start with The Dhammapada. This is a collection of verses, usually in twos, that are simple to remember and explain Buddhist philosophy quickly and simply. Despite seeming mundane, they unfold themselves the more you consider them. It’s good to pick one or two and meditate on them until you fully understand their meaning, and then look at supplemental literature to get more of the background about Buddhist philosophy. Even if you don’t do any further reading, though, keeping these verses in mind throughout your daily life will help you stay calm and truly consider your actions.
Daisaku Ikeda is the current president of Soka Gokkai International and has tons of literature available about Nichiren Buddhism that is incredibly helpful if you want to understand more. While it’s difficult to find Nichiren’s original texts, this book, which is based on Nichiren’s text “The Opening of the Eyes,” goes step by step through his arguments and provides a lot of context that explains what everything means. It’s a great beginning if you want to get into the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism.
Like above, this is a text that explains Nichiren’s interpretation of the Lotus Sutra, which is the sutra that Nichiren Buddhism is based on. It goes line by line through Chapter 2 and 16 of the Lotus Sutra (the two chapters that Soka Gokkai members chant each day) and explains the meaning of each part based on Nichiren’s original texts. Again, if you want to go beyond just doing gongyo and want to practice gosho (reading of doctrinal texts) this is a great option and is very thorough. It’s definitely a book that you want to go through carefully and is a wonderful reference text for your practice.
The Dalai Lama is the leader in exile of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a well-respected scholar of Buddhism. This book works to bridge the gap between science and spirituality, and narrates his fascinating discussions with physicists, engineers, and other scientists throughout the years. Buddhism in general is very disposed to appreciate and respect the scientific quest, something I really appreciate, and the Dalai Lama’s gentle writing style is so calming and encouraging. I’m glad I don’t have to ignore my analytical mind in order to be a spiritual person!
There you have it! I hope you enjoy these books and that they bring as much joy to you as they have to me.
What are some books that have wrought radical change in your life?