I started off 2015 with a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation course, one of the hardest things I’ve ever chosen to do. I wasn’t a meditator. I had never even meditated before. My friends, appalled that I was taking this on, told me that it was like running a marathon before ever trying to run. I likened it to getting a personal trainer instead of going to the gym alone. On the first day, I realized that they were right. But I refused to leave and I somehow made it to the end.
This post isn’t about the Vipassana. It is about what happened after I emerged.
When I left the meditation course, I decided that I would ask the people close to me about their picks for life changing books, and then read them one by one. My mind was profoundly shaken by the course, so why not add new ideas to the mix? That was January. By the end of that year, I read dozens and dozens of books. Some of them were good, some of them didn’t resonate, but all of them were important because they impacted people who matter to me.
Earlier this month, I extended this question to my readers via Facebook, curious about what would surface. I know that many people who read this site are interested in travel, but to be a frequent Legal Nomads reader you also have to love words. My posts are long! As I explained on the thread, when I said “life changing books” I meant the books that jarred you into seeing the world differently.
Those books that inspired you to modify destructive patterns, or to embark on an honest spate of self-work despite how tough it is to do so.
For some these are self-help books, for others they are travel stories that paint what we know a little differently, and of course there is also plenty to be learned through fiction.
I wanted the books that spoke to your souls.
And wow, did you deliver.
Due to the sprawling nature of the thread I promised that I would put them all in one place, which I’ve done below. As with the recommendations on my World Travel Resources page, these are Amazon links where I receive a commission on the sale. I’ve linked to the Kindle versions since many of you are travelers but the paperback editions are, of course, easily found on the same landing page.
First: my list of books that changed my life:
I wanted to share some of the books that were recommended to me this year that I found really compelling. It’s hard to choose between the list of great suggestions, but these are the ones that I think spoke to me the most.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig: I have read this many times over the course of my life but its message is one that affected quite a few of my friends since they recommended it as well. Originally published in 1974, the book tells the story of a long motorcycle trip, using it to frame a deep discussion about how best to live our lives and make the most of them. Borrowing from the East and the West, the book was over my head when I first read it as a kid, but I’ve found that every time I’ve picked it up, I notice something new about its narrative form.
Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen: I’ve recommended Difficult Conversations multiple times since I read it. Per its fans, the book has proven useful in the boardroom and at home, as well as in high-stress negotiations. For me, it was a really interesting read into the psychology of tense conversations, as well as providing really useful ways to diffuse them when they escalate. We are often taught to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes, but I think some people are more empathetic than others. Or, for some, empathy and sympathy are conflated and it is more difficult to see things from another angle. For almost all of us, when stakes are high and emotions run rampant, having an objective discussion becomes really tough. When we feel threatened, or when we feel like we are taken advantage of, our discussion techniques almost always make the tension worse. This book provides tools to listen to what the other person is saying and respond in ways that helps actually solve the problem instead of assuage ego. I can’t recommend it enough.
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. As the creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction programmes, Zinn focuses on mind-body strategies derived from meditation and yoga to counteract stress, establish greater balance of body and mind, and help you get out of the rut of fearing pain. A friend recommended this book when I first got dengue fever and my body unspooled; it has been a book I recommend often and refer back to over the years. This book directly led to my decision to try a Vipassana course, something I’m very grateful I did.
Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff. Self-esteem work isn’t the fix to perfectionism, argues Neff. Accepting the present, being kind and compassionate to ourselves and still striving to do better is. The book offers exercises and questions in each chapter to help.
If this book resonates, you can also try the self-compassion meditations, which I’ve shared on my meditation resources page here. These meditations focus on a compassionate body scan, one that starts at the crown of the head and moves downward, “treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling”.
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. I picked this book up a few years ago, but wasn’t really ready to read it. Or rather, I was not yet willing to accept the pain and change my perspective about it. I was still looking for a fix.
Chodron writes that when we are continually overcome by fear, anxiety, and pain, the way out is to stop bracing against it and learning to stay open. Not easy, and you have to be willing to read her words without judgement, but I’ve found them very helpful.
The Brain’s Way of Healing, by Norman Doidge. This is more about neuroplasticity and coping with pain, but the entire first chapter delves into just how incredibly adaptable the brain is, and how we can harness its plasticity to help downregulate our pain loops, be they neurogenic or nociceptive. One of the more important books I’ve read for my own journey, and one I recommend all the time. It changed my life because it taught me that despite becoming disabled, my brain is far more adaptable than I think and feel. It gave me hope.
The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman: Friends recommended The Antidote to me when I was complaining that many of the book recommendations from the year were about learned optimism, and while I understood how it could be useful it really didn’t do much for me. (For what it’s worth those books also talked about how lawyers are pretty terrible at being optimistic, so maybe I’m just too textbook for my own good.) The subtitle of the book is “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. SOLD. In it, the author argues that self-help and forced optimism can do more harm than good, that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy. Instead, he suggests the “negative path”, one that has roots in Stoicism and Buddhism and essentially boils down to acceptance and letting things go. Some of us are better at this than others, but if you’re a Type A personality and a perfectionist, it’s one of the harder things to put into practice! Enjoyably written and entertaining.
Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach: I used to think “acceptance” was a strange way of confusing yourself, of deluding yourself into believing that it was ok to be angry or anxious or upset. For those who might see themselves in this statement, Tara’s book is a good place to read about an alternate viewpoint. Per Brach, radical acceptance has two elements: it is an honest acknowledgment of what is going on inside you, and a courageous willingness to be with life in the present moment, just as it is. Basically, to recognize what is going on and be sufficiently self-aware in order to parse through it, and to look at those feelings with self-compassion. Tying into Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame, albeit in more Buddhist terms, this book was one that challenged the ways I saw myself and the world, and I found to be a really valuable read.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield: A really worthwhile book that addresses what you really want out of the work you do, and how to craft a career that feels authentic and successful to you. If your work or hobbies involve the act of creation, this book will be a really interesting and likely compelling read. Less of a how to about the work itself, and more about retraining your brain to be in the right mindset to thrive in a creative field.
Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Existing in a true state of “flow” is an impossibility for a prolonged period of time, but what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to in this famous book are those moments of optimal living, when we are our best selves. Each of these episodes drives us to live more meaningful lives. It refers to those moments where we forget about ourselves, where we are working hard toward something larger, and we lose sense of time and place. In the book, he discusses the eight components of flow and how to try to bring them into work and play in our own lives. At its heart, flow is a bit of a dichotomy, because it requires cooperation between some disparate states. A really interesting way of looking at work and thought patterns.
For more of my favourite books, please see my post on the best books I read during my travels, here.
Your submissions: books that changed your life
I come from a family of obsessive readers, and was even grounded as a kid for reading under the covers past my bedtime. Even today, I tend to avoid movies and prefer to read, wrapping myself in prose and learning via text. My friend Cheryl donated at a small TV to me in New York when I was working there, something she had replaced in her own house with a larger screen. It was 13 inches large and I referred to it as my picture box, then turned it on only to watch football and promptly forgot about it at all other times.
When I have free hours, I read. When I take walks, I think about the books I’ve read. The fact that I can travel around the world with a portable device that serves as a home for thousands and thousands of words is a gleeful thing. Words are what ties all the disparate parts of my Legal Nomads empire together: the pieces about food, curating what other people have written from around the web on Twitter, the beautiful hand-drawn maps of food that are now in my store. I am honoured that you have all shared so many of the words that moved you. I’m suspicious of anyone who says they don’t read because it’s the best way to keep learning, and to me at least that’s the most valuable self-work we have.
A big thank you to those of you who participated in this thread. There are many great suggestions, some books I have read and others ones I have never heard of. I am publishing them alphabetically so that you can easily search the list. As with the above few books, there are links to the Kindle editions.
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer (From Draca: “For 30 years, every two weeks, he’s interviewed someone outside of his field. As a traveler, I love meeting random people who end up expanding my view of the world. At home, it’s more routine and less serendipity. Brain’s book made me take on the challenge– reaching out to people outside of my circle and learning from them. What drives their passion? Since I’ve read the book, I’ve met with an astronomer, a man who is retracing Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery, the guy behind a NYT best-selling author (he runs the business side), a journalist tackling food waste, an artist who works with kids who have been involved in trauma, etc. It’s amazing how it’s opened my eyes. A Curious Mind was the spark.”)
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
A Path to Love by Deepak Chopra
A Problem from Hell by Samantha Power
A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (From reader Alexis: “This book saved my life, and made me into a better person.”)
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (From reader Hannah: This book “taught me that I don’t just love learning about astronomy, but I actually like physics, science and learning in general and has led to finally get serious about doing a physics degree and to discover that I like maths after all.”)
A Soldier of The Great War by Mark Helprin
A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
Adesso Basta by Simone Perotti (Note: this is in Italian)
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler (From Angela: This book “totally changed the way I cook and think about food.”)
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das
Becoming Your Own Therapist by Lama Thubten Yeshe
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris (From reader Johanna: “Helps you see magic in the ordinary. Fiction, beautiful fiction.”)
Born to Win by Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward
Boundaries by Henry Cloud & Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey
Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (From Bethany: “There is beauty in all things. Even things most of us don’t understand. And so I never, ever kill spiders.”)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch
Dancing With Life by Phillip Moffit
Dazzle Gradually by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan
Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era by Giacomo D’alisa, Federico Demaria and Giorgos Kallis
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Five Decades: Poems 1925 – 1970 by Pablo Neruda.
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Getting to Yes by Bruce Patton, Roger Fisher and William Ury
Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure by Elaine Lee
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Half the Sky by Nick Kristof
Hills like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
I Do Again by Cheryl Scruggs
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach
In the Shadow of Crows by David Charles Manners
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julio Alvarez
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (From Jeff: “A good fiction book about the way humans have changed the earth & natural cycles. It opened my eyes to environmental problems that us as humans have created.” And from Carlo: “When I read it in my mid 20s it really blew my mind, the idea that things could be different than what they are, that it didn’t/doesn’t need to be like this.”)
It Starts with Food by Melissa Hartwig
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Jonathan Livingston
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Limitless Sky by David Charles Manners
Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Man’s search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Meditation: A Way to take charge of Your Life by Arun “Yogi” Parekh.
Mind and Nature by Gregory Bateson
Moon Palace by Paul Auster
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (From Joseph: this book “challenged my notion of social justice and what an individual can do to make an impact.”)
My Years with General Motors by Alfred Sloan
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwells (From Claire: “Makes you look at your life and place in the world and not to stress about all the if, buts and maybes. Love the 10,000 hours part about being a master.”)
Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver
Pedagogy Of The Oppressed by Paulo Friere (From Ana: “It changed my views on how and what to teach my ELLs as he questions how traditional education feeds into universal social justice issues and struggles between power.”)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (From reader Harshi: “beautiful prose about the world we live in”)
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (From Lauren: “It inspired my initial trip to Iran and the rest of the world. When anyone would ask me why I was traveling to Iran, I would say it was because of that book. My mom was like “Gosh, couldn’t you have just read a book about Germany or something?!””)
Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem
Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav
Self by Yann Martel
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan (From reader Pierre-Yves: “While it might sound like reading about death and what is beyond is pointless to live one’s life, I have come to believe that the way we live our life will change what awaits beyond. Our earthly endeavor is to prepare us for what lies in the reality of existence, not just in our 3D life. And knowing all of this helps in not fearing death, and understand that it is only part of the whole of our existence and spiritual growth.”)
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (From Tony: “When I feel like I can’t do something that book shows me otherwise.”)
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (From Carly: “It changed my perspective on creativity, asking for help and communicating with your loved ones about money and your needs, guilt free. Also, handy tips on building community, the push and pull of artistic living and fun stuff like Kickstarter, Patreon etc”)
The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir
The Book by Alan Watts
The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (From Sarah: “It woke me up to things I’d been taking for granted and reminded me the value of healing. I feel like I’ve carried that book with me ever since I read it.”)
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (From Clare: “Still makes me think about people and how lives cross and intertwine.”)
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
The Fool’s Progress by Edward Abbey
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruitz
The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss
The Gift by Lewis Hyde
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
The Guest House, a poem by Rumi. (Available in The Essential Rumi by Jalal al-Din Rumi. From Penny: “A life altering perspective on perception of life events.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Healing Code by Alexandra Loyd and Ben Johnson
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Knight in the Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Lost Art of Compassion by Lorne Ladner
The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (From Tahlee: “ It jars you into recognizing that accepting and living in the now doesn’t mean you are trapped and nothing will change – instead it’s the opposite – the negative thoughts telling you that you will be trapped if you accept things are what is keeping you trapped. When that realization hit me a huge sense of ease came over me and for the first time I was able to laugh at what I was thinking rather than letting the thoughts get me down.”)
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz
The Rebel by Albert Camus
The Red Tree by Shuan Tans
The Selected Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Shack by William P. Young (From Joey: “ A short novel, about a man spending a weekend with the Holy Trinity in human form (God is an African American Lady with a large belly laugh). It had loads of really cool one liners that I really enjoyed that weren’t nessecarily religious, just cool put-it-in-perspective summarizations.”)
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (From Katharine: “Made me rethink the American notion that capitalism = democracy.”)
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, found in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway
The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erhlich
The Story of A Seagull and The Cat Who Taught Her To Fly by Luis Sepulveda
The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kindera
The Unforgiving Minute by Craig M. Mullaney
The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
The Walk of the Spirit – The Walk of Power by Dave Roberson
The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (From John: “It completely awakened me to the perilous state of the planet and flipped my world upside down.”)
The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs
There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem by Wayne Dyer
Think like a Freak by Stephen J. Dubner and Stephen D. Levitt
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (From reader Hannah: “It taught me that other people think like I do, and that fictional characters can be truly inspiring figures in real life.”)
Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce (From Rebecca: “Young adult fantasy books about strong, independent female heroines and their own stories of growth and finding themselves in a world not always containing a place for them”)
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Veronika Decides To Die by Paolo Coelho
Volkwagen Blues by Jacques Poulin
Waiting For The Barbarians by J. M Coetzee.
War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Water Margin by Shi Nai’an
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (From Steve: “This book has everything. The best and the worst of humanity. Poetry and prose. The most and the least powerful. It will stay with you forever.”)
What Is The What By David Eggers
What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany by Eric A. Johnson
When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron
Wild Swans by Jung Chang (From Krista – “An autobiography by the author & recounted biographies of her mother & grandmother. It’s fascinating look into pre-Mao China and how women’s lives are still being affected.”)
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever
Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood
You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hahn
Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss