I turn 39 today.
I have changed a lot over the years. Maybe the biggest change came early on when I went from someone who hated to read to someone who read all the time. That shift was the domino for so many other transformations over the years.
Books have the power to change a person.
Here are 39 books that changed my life in my first 39 years. In truth every one of the 400+ books I have read in my life have changed me. These are just few that made the biggest impact.
They are organized into these groups:
- Spiritual Books
- Business Books
- Books for Writers
- Productivity Books
- Parenting Books
39 Books, 39 Years
- Bible – I read the Bible every day. When I first came to know God in a personal way, I found myself reading and studying the Bible all the time. This is more than a book. The Bible is an opportunity to experience God himself. I’ve been touched by God countless times by reading the Bible.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church – I’m a teacher and catechist. The Catechism offers a clear explanation of the Church’s teachings. The copy my mom gave to me in high school is worn out and broken apart from many searches for answers.
- Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis – Lewis offered the most creative and insightful understanding of the Christian faith I had ever experienced. He made theology fun.
- The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – I’ve reread this so many times and each time it helps me look at my life and reflect on how I can overcome my spiritual temptations.
- The Wounded Healer by Henri J.M. Nouwen – When I give talks, I tell people this is the single best book about evangelization ever written. I mean it. It transformed the way I think about ministry from serving and teaching to healing. It was one of the biggest inspirations for my book: To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach.
- Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis – This was the book that the Catholic Church needed and I needed to read when it came out. Somehow I (we) forgot that Christianity offers GOOD news, not old news.
- Man & Woman He Created Them by John Paul II / Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West – I came across the theology of the body when I was a high school theology teacher and nearly engaged to my now wife. My (now) mother-in-law gave us a set of CDs of Christopher West’s talks. This transformed the way I think about so many parts of the Catholic faith and made me a better husband.
- A Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux – I was so moved by the words of young St. Therese’s autobiography and often think about how I can practice her Little Way, but reading this work as a father about her father and her faith as a youth changed the way I practice my faith as a dad more than anything else.
- Wild at Heart by John Eldredge – Reading this book in college changed the way I saw myself as a man and made me a better Christian.
- 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator by Jared Dees – I had to throw this book in the list because it was my first published book. It changed the trajectory of my career.
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – I didn’t really like reading until I picked up The Lord of the Rings. I loved these books and they introduced me to the entire genre of fantasy and science fiction books, movies, and video games.
- Star Wars: Heir to an Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn – I was always a Star Wars fan. Along with The Lord of the Rings, I have the Del-Rey Star Wars novels, especially the Timothy Zahn trilogy, to thank for making me into a lover of reading.
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks – My aunt read this book to me and my cousins one summer as a kid and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. It was the first book to really give me a love of stories.
- The Harry Potter Series – I’m trying to think how these books changed me, but I loved them too much to leave them off the list. Reading them for the first time after college holds a special set of memories. I suppose they changed me because I got to live in the world of Hogwarts with so many other people. (It is especially fun to share in this world today with my kids as they explore these books for the first time.)
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Thanks to my high school English teacher, I realized through this book that authors use symbols to express ideas. I went on a search for symbols in every book and movie I experienced and it added so much more to my appreciation of art. It also reshaped the way I read the Bible.
- Wool by Hugh Howey – Although this wasn’t my favorite work of fiction, the story behind the book is what sticks with me the most. Howey was one of the first self-publishing success stories. It gave me hope as an amateur author and permission to experiment and later self-publish my own works.
- Tribes by Seth Godin – I’ve re-read this book more than any other business book because it offers a reminder we constantly need to read. Marketing is not about great sales copy or advertising. Marketing is about finding a tribe and leading them. I despised the idea of business when I was in college, but then as someone who worked in marketing and now owns a business, this book helped me understand that business is about leading people not profits.
- Profit First by Mike Michalowicz – This book isn’t about getting rich; it is about accounting. Accounting is boring, but I love numbers and spreadsheets. I never took a business class or seminar in my life. I didn’t know how to or how much to pay myself and our family. This book and Michalowicz’s workshops before the book’s release came right when I started to earn income from my business.
- Good to Great by Jim Collins – I have thought about the Hedgehog Concept, Flywheel, and so many ideas in this book so many times over the years. I constantly find clarity for my career and business reflecting on the ideas he wrote about in this book.
- Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller – This book summarized the many videos that Donald Miller and his team were putting out over the years about applying a story arc to your marketing. It gave me a lot of clarity about the message I wanted to get across to my audiences.
- Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath – This was one of the first business books I read and it made me both a better writer and teacher. It helped me understand how to explain things in ways that stick.
- Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port – I love practical books. This was a very practical book for a business beginner that shaped the way I looked at my website and social media persona.
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher – Ever since reading this book, I have ended my day with a list of ten ideas. That is nearly two thousand lists of ideas in a box full of notebooks. That simple practice has made me better in every single aspect of my life.
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – This is my favorite book of nonfiction. To say it has helped me overcome the obstacles to creative work is an extreme understatement. I couldn’t do what I do now without knowing how to fight Resistance.
- Do the Work by Steven Pressfield – I love practical books. This is the practical application to The War of Art and describes perfectly the experience of writing a book.
- On Writing by Stephen King – I heard this book recommended to authors for years, but when I finally read it I didn’t realized how many little bits of advice would stick with me and help me as a writer.
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder – Along with Robert McGee’s Story and Shawn Coyne’s work, Save the Cat has been a really helpful template to begin to tell a story. I’m in the middle of a three-year project to write books for kids and the Save the Cat beats have been very helpful touch points for telling a story.
- Getting Things Done by David Allen – I couldn’t be more in debt to the ideas in this book. I could never be as productive as I am if it wasn’t for the outlook on work in this book. Everything I do goes through an inbox. Every project has a next action attached to it. I don’t worry about the things I’m not working on because they are organized in such a way that I can focus.
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey – Before GTD, I tried to apply the framework of productivity in the 7 Habits book. This gave me a starting system for accomplishing the many goals I had at the beginning of my career outside of education.
- 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss – I first read 4HWW in the early days of blogging. If it wasn’t for Tim Ferriss and the many people he inspired to start businesses, I would not have seen my little blog as a path towards becoming an author and working for myself. Most important, however, was the first part of the book to increasing productivity especially the idea of the 80/20 Rule.
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown – I’m creative. I have lots of ideas for lots of different projects. I was working on a lot of different things at once. I thought that was a good thing until this book. Now, I try to focus on less with more of an impact.
- The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan – This book brought together so many ideas in productivity under one core concept: Work on one thing at a time and let success fall like dominoes. I constantly remind myself of the one thing that I should be working on right now.
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – I just read this book so the ideas are still sinking in, but I’ve been following Cal Newport for a long time and integrated the concepts as he was writing and researching the book with his audience. I’ve limited my time on various social media platforms thanks to the above books, but reading this book and understanding how many digital platforms are built to enslave attention really gave me a lot to think about regarding the state of our society.
- Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey – I knew almost nothing about personal finance before this book. We were married and in debt and we didn’t know what to do with our money. The baby steps and the many insights about money set us on the right path.
- Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez – This book was less practical, but offered an eye-opening way of looking at money. Money is time, not the other way around. I have used the Wall Chart idea in the book to track our spending vs. income every month since reading the book about ten years ago.
- The Bogleheads Guide to Investing by Taylor Larimore – I also knew nothing about investing and it wasn’t covered in-depth in the other personal finance books. I was glad to learn that I really didn’t need to learn everything because you just can’t beat index fund investing for retirement. (Thank you Jack Bogle from Vanguard.) The book wasn’t easy to read. I wish I had J. L. Collins’ Simple Path to Wealth back then.
- Mindset by Carol Dweck – I learned about Carol Dweck’s research while getting my master’s degree in education, before her book came out. The ideas dramatically shifted the way I taught in the classroom. When I read the book as a dad a few years ago, though, I realized so many ways I could improve my parenting.
- The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson – As the kids get older, parenting gets harder. This book really helped me understand how kids’ brains (okay, all human brains) work and how to balance the rational and emotional ways children act.
- Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker – I have four daughters. This book was written for me. Of the many great insights I got out of the book, the one that stands out the most: spend time with your girls.
Here is a Twitter thread version of the list. I would love to read your recommendations:
Okay, here are a few more books that earn an honorable mention:
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
- The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- The Dip by Seth Godin
- Zero to One by Peter Theil
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
- Hooked by Nir Eyal
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Plat and Johnny B. Truant
- Rebuilt by Michael White and Tom Corcoran
- Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
- Work the System by Sam Carpenter
- I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
- You Are A Writer by Jeff Goins
- Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton
- A Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell