4 Books That Changed My Life

I am a reader of non-fiction. (A post about the most influential work of fiction that I ever read can be found here.) Reading the statistics on the back of baseball cards and the facts and figures in The World Almanac were virtual obsessions when I was a kid. Even then my affinity for data was greater than to imaginative fiction.

Since a list of all the non-fiction books I’ve read would be quite long—literally thousands— I would like to briefly mention four books that changed my life before I was a professional philosopher. (In tomorrow’s post I will discuss four books that changed my life after I became a professional philosopher.) This doesn’t mean these are the best or most important books by some objective standard, or that other books might have had a greater influence on me if I had read them. But these are the ones that I found that changed me. Their message resonates within me still.

As a college freshman the most memorable book I read was not one assigned for my classes, but one I stumbled upon in the college library—Will Durant’s The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny. The book did bear the imprint of a 1920s American view of women, much to my dismay, but the rest of the book has stood the test of time. Its prose is glorious and its philosophical insights still fresh today. I have reprinted parts of its beautiful introduction as well as its conclusion in previous posts. What most drew me to the book was that it was so unlike the foreboding philosophy I was reading in my classes. It seemed Professor Durant was speaking directly to me in plain, clear language about important topics that I had not previously encountered. On the first page he says of his book: “I send it forth … on the seas of ink to find here and there a kindred soul in the Country of the Mind.” I thank him for sending it to my kindred soul.

That same year in another library I happened upon Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. I have made my affinity for the depth and breadth of Russell’s philosophy in a number of my essays, as well as my belief that he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. While professional philosophers will not rank this popular book with his classics in the philosophy of mathematics and logic—W.V.O Quine famously said that Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was “one of the great intellectual monuments of all time”—this was the Russell book that affected me most. I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in a small public library in south St. Louis county in 1974 when I read it.

And while sophisticated defenders of religion may quibble with Russell’s arguments—as they do with any arguments that challenge their preconceived beliefs—the fact is that religion stands on the wrong side of history and will be, as I have argued often in this website, ultimately relegated to the dustbin of history. For as Russell knew, rational persons could never believe its fantastic claims unless they were indoctrinated, immature, irrational, fearful or feeble-minded. Of course more sophisticated believers don’t accept the supernatural elements of their religious literally, but hide their nonsense behind esoteric language and obscurantism. To this day I find it astonishing that any marginally intelligent person can take religion seriously, but then perhaps I just don’t get it. I thank Russell for awakening me from my dogmatic slumber more than forty years ago.

Shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, a friend gave me a copy of another book, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, whose very first lines I’ll never forget. “Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise … ” I have written previously about this small but powerful book and its effect on me. I have not successfully put into practice the its message, but I have never forgotten this book or its fundamental lesson—that love is something you have to work at. Its insights have always remained in my subconscious, no matter how many times I may have unable to summon them to affect my behavior. There are very few books that say something new and profound about  a topic that everybody talks about. This book did that.

While sitting in the dealer’s room in Las Vegas as I prepared to enter graduate school I read Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Already familiar with Durant, I was determined to read this classic, one of the best-selling philosophy books of all time. From the book I learned that the history of philosophy was a long, continual dialogue. Moreover I was excited to think that in graduate school I might learn enough to be part of that dialogue. It wasn’t so much the philosophers in the book that inspired me, but Durant’s love of them. Today this book is the single most prized possession in my library, for I have a copy of it signed by Will Durant himself on December 12, 1933. (Thanks to my son-in-law for the gift.) And this book contains the most beautiful dedication I have ever read from Will to his beloved Ariel. She was thirteen years his junior and he expected her to outlive him:

TO MY WIFE

“Grow strong, my comrade … that you may stand
Unshaken when I fall; that I may know
The shattered fragments of my song will come
At last to finer melody in you;
That I may tell my heart that you begin
Where passing I leave off, and fathom more.”

Will and Ariel Durant were married almost 70 years and died a few days apart. You can read about their intellectual development, world travels and wondrous love story in Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography.

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