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17 Books That Changed My Life

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by Joel Ohman in Book Reviews

I read 120 books last year. The year before that I read over 100 books as well (click here to see some of my favorites). And compared to the amount of reading I did as a kid then those years are probably on the light side. I read through the entire King James Bible when I was five. Yes, five. And yes, the King James Version. Don’t get me started. Safe to say, I’ve been a voracious reader as long as I can remember. One of the biggest competitors to my time spent writing more books is all of my reading time.

I’ll always be thankful for parents who understood the importance of reading (and the Bible!) and prioritized that in the life of our family, allowing countless trips to the library, and keeping our family bookshelves overflowing with good books. I have fond memories of stacking up library books in my arms so high that I can’t see over them—maybe an early impetus to my lifelong love of lifting weights too, now that I think about it…

All that to say, I’ve read a lot of books, and at different times in my life, different books have molded me and shaped me, changing my life in ways big and small, giving me what I needed at that particular time in my life. It’s funny sometimes, going back and re-reading books that meant so much when I first encountered them, and then years later… ehh. It works the other way too: sometimes, for whatever reason, you start to read a book, and maybe even despite the highest praise from others—”It’s perfect for you! You’ll love it!”—it just falls flat at first; you’re not ready for it. But then you pick it up years later, and its exactly what you needed. “How could I ever have not loved this book?”

But we change, and the books we read change us.

So, by way of extra-long preface, here are some books that at certain times in my life have changed me in big, noticeable, measurable ways. This list is certainly not comprehensive, or really in any type of order or priority, other than the first one. There are countless other books that have impacted my life, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the books that are not recorded on my GoodReads bookshelf. and yada, yada—disclaimer time is over, so here are some of the books that have changed my life:

#1 The Holy Bible

Come on, you had to see that one coming, right? Ever since I first read through the entire Bible (66 books) at age five, I’ve probably read through the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation, 15+ times, when counting intentional, concerted efforts to read through cover to cover under some kind of reading plan.

I read the Bible every day devotionally, and enjoy hopping around, but reading through the Bible start to finish in big chunks gives me a renewed appreciation for the grand story of the Bible: the 4-part story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration where Jesus is the Hero of the story.

Is it tough going through Leviticus and Deuteronomy? Yep. But it’s worth it. First word of advice: choose a reading plan style Bible like this one that mixes up each day’s reading with some Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs.

Second word of advice: avoid the King James Version if you can at all help it, particularly if you are trying to encourage your kids to be readers of God’s Word. Adding the extra layer of needless complexity, and often outdated/poor translation, will only frustrate young readers, and yourself. If you are a seasoned reader of Scripture then by all means enjoy the poetic beauty of Ye Olde English, but don’t forget to accompany that reading with more modern translations that fix much of the KJV’s issues (even the NKJV is good, here, though lately I’ve been really enjoying the ESV and the NLT).

#2 The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – Michael Pollan

A book about food? Really? Yep. Not only did I devour (heh) every single other book that Michael Pollan had ever written (all excellent too) once I finished this book a few years back, it gave me much to chew on (sorry, not sorry) for long after I put the book down. Pretty safe to say this book revolutionized my approach to food, my health, and my family’s health. I’ve long enjoyed cooking, but this book gave me the intellectual foundation and the emotional permission to take food/cooking seriously while also enjoying it! From a technical/craft perspective, Pollan’s writing is masterful, and his vocabulary regarding all things philosophy is superb, but those were just added bonuses, because the subject matter is so good.

His approach is simple: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” with the important caveat that most of what we call “food” today is really over processed junk, or “edible food-like substances” is his description, and that a return to cooking our own food—which I love to do—is one of the best things we can do for our health and our families.

Even though I wouldn’t consider myself too “weird” or extreme when it comes to food, my every day life of cooking, shopping, and eating has been dramatically transformed over the last few years ever since reading this book. Highly recommend.

#3 The Kingsbridge Series: The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, A Column of Fire – Ken Follett

A fiction book? Oh, yes. If anything fiction will probably be underrepresented on this list, based on the sheer quantity of fiction I’ve read and how hard it is to pinpoint exactly what/how a fiction book changes your life. But all the same, it does.

This historical fiction series is breathtaking in scope, and yet Follett is a master at creating individual characters that you deeply care about and will remain with you long after the the last page is turned.

Medieval intrigue, backstabbing politics (sometimes quite literally), romance, and more come together in this series that I’ve read numerous times. These books first gave me an explicit awareness of the power of fiction and the capacity it has to change you and shape you.

#4 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City – Matthew Desmond

Wow. This book is an absolute tour de force of, I hesitate to say “undercover journalism”, but maybe “lived journalism”, as the author lives day-to-day with eight low income families and their landlords in Milwaukee. A nuanced, breathtaking, frustrating, and heartbreaking book that deserved its Pulitzer Prize. This book will change the way you see housing, property management, renters, landlords, housing policy, and the inner city. The audiobook is also excellent.

#5 The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – John Truby

I read and re-read this book probably dozens of times prior to writing my four fiction books. Truby changed my writing, and changed my life. How’s that for a testimonial?

#6 Fools Die – Mario Puzo

I read this book so long ago and for some reason it still sticks with me. The plot meanders, many of the characters and scenes are coarse, an editor could probably have used a heavier hand, but something about this book is gold, pure gold. Don’t make me verbalize what it is exactly, because more than ten years later, I still don’t know, but if you can’t stop thinking about a book long after reading it, then whether you can describe the impact or not, it’s still there.

#7 Galatians for You – Tim Keller

Okay, so really the book in the Bible, Galatians, changed my life, through the power of the Spirit illuminating Scripture and allowing me to understand, but I believe God also used Tim Keller in writing this book and unpacking the original authorial intent of Paul and then contextualizing the application for modern audiences. I’ve since created lesson plans, presentations, taught dozens and dozens of classes and even a couple Bible conferences in Cuba on the book of Galatians and the power of the Gospel is no less life-changing. The Gospel is more than a ticket into the Christian life, it’s our power to grow, our freedom, our everything. I’ve read a number of other books and commentaries on Galatians, some from a much more academic level, and while this one is written at the popular level, it’s for me, written at the gold standard level for practical teaching and practical application. This book also prompted me to go on and read and teach on many other books in the “For You” series.

#8 Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

The characters in this book are pitch perfect—you will feel like you are in India, you really will— and the writing is at times purplish hued but when you swing for the fences sometimes that’s what you get, but you also get equal parts dazzling, breathtaking, and spellbinding. An experience. There’s an immersive trip to India waiting for you. Don’t miss it. I also have to say that this book was recommended to me by my sister, and it was a stellar recommendation, right up there with her getting me hooked on Tana French’s books.

#9 Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

Yeah, that Atlas Shrugged. I don’t agree with everything the author ever wrote or believed, yada, yada, but did this book change my life when I read it (a long time ago)? Yep. Let’s be honest though: who writes a book with a 100+ page monologue in the middle of a book? Ayn Rand, that’s who.

Ayn Rand not caring what you think

#10 Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

How about a little balance after #9, shall we? Short, but brutally, viscerally emotional. One man’s experience of living as a black man in America. The pain, the vitriol, it’s all right there on full display. Say what you will about the position Coates takes, but the depth of his feeling and experience can’t be denied. Something about the rawness of his tone spoke to me—literally, as I listened to the audiobook, performed by the author (in this rare case, a great idea)—and even informed my author’s note for Other Bodies. I would suspect the author would not approve, but that’s the thing about hard truths. They hurt, and they don’t need approval.

#11 How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work – Hugh Whelchel

This is a book I’ve probably gifted more than any other book. It’s easy for Christians to feel as if there exists a hierarchy of callings, with pastor, missionary, and other vocational ministry positions at the tip-top and “regular work” way down at the bottom. Not so. All work matters to God, and it should to us as well. This book changed my perspective on life, on work, on a number of things. Highly recommend. Honorable mention: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work – Tim Keller

#12 Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport

Here’s another life-changing book that changed my perspective on work. Specifically, how I work. Newport has written a lot of stuff well worth checking out, but this one has most clearly changed the way I plan and focus on work. This book also first got me hooked on the Pomodoro Technique, and is likely responsible for getting my four books actually written and out the door more than almost anything else. The basic premise is that quality work is deep, focused work, and that we all too often work in the shallows, constantly flitting from one task to the next, with each previous task exacting an “attention residue” that impedes our performance on our current task. This is actually a good reminder for me, because I struggle with this a lot.

#13 The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal – Jim Loehr, Tony Schwartz

Okay, another quasi self help book that changed my life. Wow, this was a revolutionary premise to me. What if you should just throw out most of the time management books you’ve read simply because they’ve begun with a flawed premise? What if, instead of focusing on time, you should be focusing on your energy? If so, how might you increase your energy? How could you take note of the natural circadian rhythms of your day/week/life and schedule tasks best suited for your energy at that particular time? Great stuff, that has led to many life-changing and schedule-changing practical implications like making time to work out every day (well, 6 days a week), doing certain types of work at certain times of day, and more. Will it require some adjustment? Yes. Will there be a focus on long term benefits and avoiding burnout more so than cheap time hacks? Also, yes.

#14 The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers – Ben Horowitz

This book powerfully represents two different things to me. First, the importance of taking all reviews with a grain of salt. I delayed buying this book for the longest time because of a number of negative Amazon reviews. Shame on me. Second, this book represented the truest, purest form of being heard, of encountering someone else who has experienced the same things you’ve experienced, struggled with the same things you’ve struggled with, had the same doubts, the same soaring feeling of creating something and “crushing it”, only to return to the same valleys that go along with being an entrepreneur/founder/CEO. This was the purest sense of not having to feel that classic trope of “lonely at the top”. This may be weird praise for a business book, though it’s written somewhat memoir style, but at times, I could have almost cried with the realization that, “Yes, YES, this is what it’s like to start a company, grow a company, and have to deal with all the pressures that go along with being the guy at the end of the day that has to come up with the answers when there are no easy answers. There’s no map, and you have to create it from scratch. Exhilarating, but exhilarating like assembling a parachute in mid-air, or building a raft in the middle of the ocean, or re-constructing a train that’s already wheeling full speed ahead on the tracks. But that’s the job. If you want to know what it feels like, then read this book.

#15 Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will – Kevin DeYoung

Another Christian book that changed my life. An oldie but a goodie, and another one of those books that I’ve given away literally dozens of copies. I’ve taught on this book, counseled people using Scriptural guidance from this book, and incorporated many elements of this teaching into my life. If you are a Christian that wants to follow God’s will for your life, then stop looking for signs, obsessing about getting it right, and instead read this book.

#16 Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant – W. Chan Kim, Renée A. Mauborgne

I read this book prior to getting my MBA and then revisited with a deep dive in one of my classes. And yet to this day this book is still highly influential in the way I evaluate potential markets and business opportunities.

#17 Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic – Sam Quinones

Absolutely spellbinding. Mesmerizing. Chilling. If you read one book about America’s recent opioid crisis, this is the book. The audiobook is also excellent.

What about you?

Well, that’s it for now. 17 books that changed my life. I’ve got a lot more I could list off, but I will save them for a future post. So, how about you: what books have changed your life? And, as always, check out my books, and let me know what you think.

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