Essential Readings

Posted June 14th, 2010

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise. — Henry D. Thoreau

Entertainment for man, but not for his beast. Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seek the right road. — Henry D. Thoreau

Talent alone can not make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which, by birth and quality, is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise; holding things because they are things. It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence, whether there be a man behind it, or no. In the learned journal, in the influential newspaper, I discern no form; only some irresponsible shadow; oftener some monied corporation, or some dangler, who hopes, in the mask and robes of his paragraph, to pass for somebody. But, through every clause and part of speech of a right book, I meet the eyes of the most determined of men: his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble,–can go far and live long. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is no luck in literary reputation. They who make up the final verdict upon every book are not the partial and noisy readers of the hour when it appears; but a court as of angels, a public not to be bribed, not to be entreated, and not to be overawed, decides upon every man’s title to fame. Only those books come down which deserve to last. Gilt edges, vellum, and morocco, and presentation-copies to all the libraries, will not preserve a book in circulation beyond its intrinsic date. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

However, I would say that at present responsibility must be defined as selectivity. We are living in an affluent society, and this is an affluence not only of material goods but of various sorts of stimuli as well. We are bombarded by the mass media. We are bombarded by sexual stimuli. And, last but not least, the information explosion represents a further, new affluence. Heaps of books and journals pile up on our desks. Unless we wish to drown in total (not only sexual) promiscuity, we have to choose between what is important and what is not, what is meaningful and what is not. We have to become selective and discriminating. — Viktor E. Frankl

Question: What are the two books that made the biggest impact on your life and you consider “must reads” for everybody?

A few sample answers given by friends and acquaintances from vastly different backgrounds:


My first recommendation would be The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I fell in love with this particular book because it opened my mind to human differences and human condition, our personal struggles and the continuous search for meaning, choices we take in life and how they affect who we are as well as our relationship with the world around us. My second choice would be anything by Herman Hesse. His insightful writing about happiness and sorrow, love and hate, life and death, and continuity of life has always inspired me to embrace good and bad things in life, to accept the contradictions and to be a little less judgmental or a little more aware of my own stereotypes and pre-judgments. Most of his writing has made me aware of socially constructed ideas and beliefs that we all hold, how to recognize them and challenge them for the benefit of the society as a whole and our own little world. My all time favorites by Hesse are Demian, Glass Beat Game, Steppenwolf, etc.


I highly recommend the following two titles:  Night, by Elie Wiesel; and Shake Hands with the Devil, by Romeo Dallaire. I read these two books as part of a course requirement for graduate studies. Fortunately, I have never lived through the horrors of war and this is as close as it will get – these two personal first-hand accounts.


The two books I recommend are “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (as told to Alex Haley) and “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins.

As a part of my personal investigation to learn more about the evolution-religion controversy, I picked up Dawkins’ book, “The Blind Watchmaker,” and it just floored me. But then it picked me up. While the book’s main argument shook the foundations of the supreme trust I had hitherto placed in the prophet of my religion (who rejected Darwin), the beauty of nature conveyed by Dawkins’ accessible language struck me as profoundly elegant and simple. From that one book, I have learned the invaluable lesson that, to do science properly, humanity must interpret–not anticipate–nature. This sense of humility has guided me ever since then.

Haley’s book was also deeply impactful on me. He tells the story of a poor, drug addicted, street hustler named “Detroit Red” who goes to jail ready to die but emerges a self-made man with a mission answering to the post-slave name “Malcolm X.” The autobiography gives a dramatically new rendition of the Civil Rights movement than the happy story of sure-and-steady peaceful struggle that is told to students in American high schools (which is where I grew up). It also imbued me with a deep longing for greater social justice and it inspired me to strive for more meaningful goals in life.


1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Ah, to begin to talk about this book’s impact on my life is the beginning of a long story.  Briefly, though, upon my first reading of this book I turned down a “great and promising” job offer as a result of reading the book. It has been the benchmark text, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” of my life. It is metaphysical and an allegory, just the type of reading that inspires me to live my life in a better way.

2.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Every time I read this book it gets richer and richer.  I read this book on summer when I worked on a farm in New Hampshire. My days were spent thinking of characters and events in the book.  Few texts show the complexity of cultural conflicts that I imagine a missionary family must undergo.  1-2 of the characters provided me with examples of the best advice for education that I’ve ever read or heard.  I taught this book as well and learned more about it teaching it than I had the first time I read it.


The two books I recommend are:

Anna Karenina (Tolstoy): A beautifully written classic, filled with many philosophical notes: “All happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

Masnavi (Rumi): Six rich volumes of poetry, illuminating light on who we are:

“A fellow man asked ‘what is love?’

I answered ‘you would know once you become WE’ ”


If I were to open up the category to which two books were the most enlightening to me in my life, then the answer is simple. The first is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which is probably the reason I became a philosopher, and one of the books I never tire of reading or teaching. The second is Dante’s Inferno, which is one of the few works of literary genius that I think I may come close to understanding. I reread each book probably once every couple of years.


I read both fiction and non fiction as long as it appeals to my sense of life. I value liberty, individuality, personal responsibility, integrity, courage and the ability to withstand any difficulty in life while staying true to one’s principles. I have read different books but Both Victor Hugo and Ayn Rand Have been most important authors and their books made the greatest impression on me. English is my second language. These books opened new windows and my life was not same anymore. These books are like an anchor in my life. I would highly recommend The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and The Toilers of The Sea by Victor Hugo any time.

3 Responses to “Essential Readings”

  1. Alexey says:

    Dear Amy, Thank you very much for your interesting articles.
    I wonder, what two chinese books made a deep impact on your life?
    Thank you!
    Best regards,

    • Amy says:

      Hi Alexey, I’ve been thinking about your question. It is quite impossible to name two, or even a few.

      Chinese literature as a whole, from ancient to modern, shaped part of my life. This includes poetry, prose, fiction, etc. The ancient ones probably had a deeper impact than the modern ones, especially poetry. I can still recite many of the classical poems, though I have been living abroad for decades and working in totally unrelated professions.

      Chinese philosophy and history are also vast treasures. All the philosophers from the Eastern Zhou period (770 to 256 BCE) are worth reading. Wang Yangming is also very good. For history, there are masterpieces such as 史記 by Sima Qian. If you know the humiliation and hardship in which he persevered, you will appreciate the work even more.

      • Alexey says:

        Hi Amy,

        Thank you very much for your kind responce!

        Sima Qian is one of the greatest writer not only because of it writing style and the or the content of his book, i know the history of his life and the price of his masterpiece and the motivation which made him not to stop.

        Wang Shouren is regarded as the most important Neo-Confucian thinker after Confucius, Mencius and Zhu Xi and his interpretation of Confucianism has been influential in China into modern times.

        Actually, i think that my question about two chinese books is a bit incorrect, and i truly got your point about impossibility of naming.

        For me, i think, the Book of changes is one of the best books i ve ever read and which made a deep impression on me. Of cause, the reading of this book is not easy, or exactely saying it is complitely hard to do it, but, there are lots of commentators, especially from Song dynasty (Cheng,Zhu Xi,Su Shi etc.).
        The second one is Confucius, and Lunyu. In my opinion Lunyu is one of the best book which teach how to teach and how to learn.

        So i would like to recommend this two books first)

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