Ten Books, Four Words Each: Most Influential

The latest booklovers’ chain-letter going around Facebook seems to be a challenge to list (without too much agonising) your ten most ‘influential’ books.


To stay in the spirit of the challenge I’ve tried to write this in one sitting, presumably missing a lot of worthy contenders, but hopefully capturing some kind of truth. And this is also your invitation to join in and do the same. (You can also do a general or a childhood faves version, if you get on a roll.)

What books have made you who you are? Check out these lists and add yours | Sacraparental.com

Paul Windsor, my preaching teacher when I was at Carey, says that sermons are like meals. Not every one will be memorable forever, but you do need to be fed regularly to keep going, so ‘memorable’ isn’t always the main criterion.

I think the same is true for books for me. There are a lot of books whose themes and characters (for fiction) or findings or lessons (for non-fiction) have been part of making me who I am, but that doesn’t mean that I could name them all.

The books that made the list mostly have clear connections to some turning point in my thinking or acting. It’s not a list of ‘best’ books, necessarily, but ones that have changed and shaped me. I seem to have already blogged about half of them over the last few years (see the links in the list itself), which perhaps shows something of how central they are for me.

Also, the most influential pieces of writing I’ve engaged with in the last few years are mostly web articles, blogs and blog posts. That’s another story, though, so here are some books, roughly in order of when I read them or they first became influential.

I started with the challenging four words format, but decided to compromise and add a note to each one about its place in my life.

I’d very much like to have you add your lists in the comments (cut and pasted from Facebook if you like!). Feel free to invite your friends to join in – everyone loves a good book list challenge, right?

Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Grit, self-sufficiency, pushing boundaries.
(A mentor from across the ocean and century.)

The Bible
Depth, love, weirdness, witness.
(The most re-read, influential, under-my-skin, companionable, mysterious set of writing in my life.)

Obadiah’s Little Book: Hell, Jeff Obadiah Simmonds
Beginners’ theology: no hell.
(A little booklet on annihilationism from a local prophet and renegade theologian that was part of the beginning of my critical engagement with theology, when I was about 18.)

The Pelican Brief, John Grisham
Why I studied law.
(Seriously, this is why I went to law school, along with lots of LA Law growing up.)

The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf
Rejecting the Third Shift
(The first major feminist book I read, and still hugely influential in how I think about gender and ‘beauty’.)

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
Apartheid lament, a revelation.
(One of a great many books I read in my teens and twenties that pulled my heart towards downtrodden people in all sorts of places and times.)

Cry the beloved country

Homiletic, David Buttrick
Sermons, move by move
(The biggest (written) influence on how I preach: in one-point sermons.)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
Eat food*. Mostly plants.
(One of a bunch of slow-living, thoughtful-eating, what-the-hell-are-we-doing-to-ourselves-and-our-world books I read in my late twenties and early thirties, that shaped what I now prioritise in daily practicalities.)

Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann
Solidarity + Jesus’ future = Hope
(The biggest piece of the puzzle for how I understand Jesus’ place in the world and our place with him.)

Master and Commander (series), Patrick O’Brian
Leadership, friendship, hilarity, principle.
(I can’t rave enough about these books that let us inside the friendship between two extraordinary, very different men, and all that is most important to them as they live through the Napoleonic wars. Read them.)

Kiss Me, Carlos Gonzalez
Just love your kids.
(Key influence in how I parent, giving permission to connect affectionately with your children and treat them as real people.)

This is part of an occasional series of book lists. You can see some more here.

I tell you, I’m everywhere these days. Follow me on Facebook for daily links, resources and Sacraparentalish tidbits, on Pinterest for link-plantations and on Twitter for ranting.

What books have made you who you are? Check out these lists and add yours | Sacraparental.com

Do you want to use one of these shiny sharing buttons?

9 comments on “Ten Books, Four Words Each: Most Influential”

  1. Matt W Reply

    Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon. Mind-blowingly surreal, took me on a real trip.

    Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape – Jaclyn Friedman, Jessica Valenti. Gave me a hell of an “oh, this is what the world is like for other people” shock, and lots of helpful ways to think about and approach some big issues.

    A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry. Another “oh, this is what the world is like.” Especially heartbreaking as I read it while staying on the edge of Calcutta’s biggest slum (it’s set in India), so it was particularly real to me.

    Catch 22 – Joseph Heller. This was the first book I read of its kind, and it was a revelation to realise books could even do that. Such delicious farce!

    Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood. A terrifyingly convincing picture of a pretty unfriendly near-future, never losing sight (unlike a lot of scifi) of the human and personal impact.

    The Last Battle – C.S. Lewis. Had quite an impact on my Eschatology. One of those books that make you wonder, have people actually read this? Have they not noticed how wonderfully heretical it is?

    Crash – J.G. Ballard. Quite… transgressive, yet somehow still beautiful and human.

    Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut. Another “people are essentially alright, despite their cumulative best efforts to wreck everything” book. Somehow warm and heartening despite the end of the world as we know it.

    The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula K. Le Guin. Fantasy firmly focussed on diverse real people rather than heroic archetypes. The world saved by small personal drama rather than ferocious battle.

    Nation – Terry Pratchett. A (slightly preachy) book about an island boy raging against his gods; a book about humanism and staring reality in the face.

  2. Anna S Reply

    Ah, Jeff Obadiah Simmonds and his little books. Yup, he had a big impact on me too 🙂

  3. Rhett Reply

    The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien. Gave me an imagination.

    Hey Nostradamus! – Douglas Coupland. Humour, satire, and pathos which had a formative effect on how I see the world.

    King’s Cross – Timothy Keller.
    The Cross of Christ – John Stott. I’ll put these two together because they largely set the foundations of the shape of my faith.

    The Pursuit of God – A.W. Tozer. Ensured that there will always be a (healthy, hopefully) experiential edge to my relationship with God.

    Ill Fares The Land – Tony Judt. Helped me to understand that (and why) I was a social democrat.

    The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald. Because I avoided reading it in school and discovered it as an adult, and it taught me what beautiful prose should look like.

    To Change The World – James Davison Hunter. Shaped how I see Christian engagement with culture and steered me away from extremes.

    The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis. Still running on the inspirational fuel of this one.

    Surprised By Hope – Tom Wright. Crowbarred open my theological worldview.  

  4. Darren Reply

    So, in response to the same challenge on Fb here are my ten most influential books (well, today anyway)

    My Side of the Mountain-Jean Craighead George- read and re-read as a kid growing up in New York- adventures of a boy who runs away to the Catskill Mountains and makes a go of it.

    Voyage of the Dawn Treader- C S Lewis (would include Last Battle as well) I was drawn in to the story like Lucy and Edmund and Eustace are drawn into the painting.

    The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat- Oliver Sacks, inspired me as a Speech Language Therapy student.

    The Bible-a lifelong exercise with nearly equal amounts of formation and frustration.

    To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee- I remember as a teenager being so impressed with the character Atticus possessed and demonstrated- and still wish I could be a little like him.

    The Mystery of Marriage- Michael Mason, an incredibly honest and beautifully written exploration of marriage.

    The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver- what a storyteller, and a story that still disturbs.

    Life Together- Dietrich Bonhoeffer at his pastorally polemic best.

    Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics -Samuel Wells- if only we had the freedom and guts to practice ethics in the way Wells imagines.

    The Great Divorce- C S Lewis an amazing way of mixing story, theology and imagination.

  5. Rochelle Gribble Reply

    Heh – I’m in a pickle over whether these were influential or whether I just liked them. I decided to post them on the general list but forgot that I’d already done that one…Well, here’s another list… some cross-over, it seems… couldn’t get to 10… can barely remember what I’m reading at the moment… maybe I’ll add some more another day 🙂

    Life After Life – Kate Atkinson. So, so beautifully written. An exploration of ‘what if?’

    The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver Such rich, complex characters and such gaspingly good writing.

    The Bible – A constant companion that has perplexed, puzzled, comforted and infuriated.

    Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery -My recent revisit has been a welcome return to much time spent in childhood.

    The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf – Brave ideas for suburban Christchurch in the 90s!

    Bossypants – Tina Fey – Am reading this now but it’s superbly funny and also really challenging. I’d like to invite her to dinner.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge