There are, of course, more than five. This list omits the many, many children’s books that continue to shape me, and several “grown-up” ones that are influential. But here are five that changed my thinking and living. Some of them I read in university, one I read this year, all are worth checking out.
Adam Bede, George Eliot. Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) apostatized after translating a work of German theological liberalism. But her novels are full of religion, and Adam Bede co-stars a female, Methodist lay preacher. “Dinah” travels around the country side, preaches in fields, visits the sick, befriends the lonely, and helps the poor. Eliot’s grasp of how people work emotionally, mentally, and socially is staggering. Her storytelling is a lesson on humanity. When I read this book over ten years ago, it was like a punch in the gut and an arm around my shoulder at the same time: I suddenly understood how shallow my understanding of people was and that I could change that.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. If you are looking for a chipper women’s book, this isn’t it. Essentially, this is an autobiography that chronicles one year of intense grief. The suddenness at which life can change is a refrain throughout: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.” In this case, the instant was the moment that Didion lost her husband when her only child was in ICU. If you want to understand grieving, in this case, as one who has no hope, this is a good start.
French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano. I did not think about fat until I read this book. I realized that some people were fat, some people were paranoid about fat, but that was as far as my thinking went. (Obviously, I read it before I had children.) Having categories for healthy weight gain (puberty, pregnancy) and bad weight gain (menopause, eating American style like the author) and a lifestyle that enjoys food and movement has made me care for my body better. It’s nothing profound: eating soups, taking the stairs, shopping at farmer’s markets, and enjoying the occasional homemade croissant. But this tent of mine groans less, thanks to one French woman (2 Cor. 5:2).
Sadler Report, Michael Sadler. The cliché first year paper on the Industrial Revolution introduced me to some people I will never forget. In the bowels of the university library I read through heavy folio editions of Sadler’s report and other Parliamentary reports and acts. Though some of the more extreme examples were later disproven by royal inquiry, some situations happened to multiple people: women who went into labour in the mines; girls who were maimed or scalped when they got to close to factory spinning machines; men with “buttons down the back” (permanent scabs on each vertebrae because they had to walk bent over in tunnels that were too small), etc. The kinds of abuse described in the government reports did not end in Victorian England. They happen today in every country where citizens are not protected by reasonable labour laws, and in workplaces where employers and masters are unconcerned with human life when stewarding it might lessen profits.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown. “Less, but better,” to be specific. Like a pair of glasses, McKeown’s book clarifies what is right in front of us. Why do we do what we do? Are we being deliberate, or doing things by default? What does a routine actually do? How can you say “no” without making people hate you? The answers he helps readers arrive at can also lift a burden of guilt that many of us carry for not doing even more than we are. Chapter 3, “The Unimportance of Practically Everything”, is a reminder we all need. The ability to identify one, worthy goal and focus our lives on it (without physical or mental breakdown) is something the Apostle Paul excelled at (Phil. 3:13-14). It’s something that most modern Americans don’t really understand.