“It’ll change your life,” a good friend of mine is fond of saying, to lend a touch of credence to a recommendation. And in most cases he’s been right. Whether it’s a good meal, movie, whiskey, podcast, video, song, sermon, album, or book, most of his recommendations have been good enough that the experiences I’ve undertaken at his suggestion have left a mark beyond mere entertainment or additions to the contextual fabric of life, two otherwise worthy ends. These experiences have, to varying degrees, changed the way I think, feel, act, or abstain.
Therefore, in lieu of a “Best Books of [Fill In The Year],” I’m following in the footsteps of Matthew Kelly, an author who has maintained a list of the “top 20” books that have changed his life. Although in my case I was unable to limit that number to 20, I hereby submit 30 Books That Changed My Life, in four distinct alphabetical categories: fiction, non-fiction, spiritual, and vocational.
Fiction is the category that wouldn’t have existed on my list only 10 years ago, because I’d fallen prey to the silly notion that fictional books, by their very nature, can’t actually change our lives for the better. How foolish I was to think that!
- Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese, was recommended to me by #1 book referral friend. While most times, I wait until I’ve heard a recommendation from three credible sources, I’ll add anything she recommends to my reading list. Cutting For Stone is an epic masterpiece featuring “twin brothers born of a secret union of a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon.” I know, it sounds a bit like the start of an international soap opera, but the story and writing were good enough to keep me engaged for all 600+ pages. I may have been aided by the fact that I listened to this particular book–again based on my friend’s suggestion that the many words that were foreign to my ear would sing when well narrated–but I think I’d have stuck it out just as well in print.
- Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry, opened my mind to a whole new form of reading, writing, and living. Wendell Berry is an American philosopher, essayist, poet, and fictional author whose creation of an autobiographically-inspired town, Port William, has made me yearn for a more deliberate, tangible, and meaningful life. Jayber was Port William’s barber from 1937 until 1969…and that’s about all I can tell you, if I’m to hold myself to Berry’s “ORDER BY THE AUTHOR,” a notice written to readers in the preamble: “Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.” All I can tell you is that I’ve read and enjoyed many of the Port William series now, but none has had an impact on my like Jayber Crow, although I’m barred from attempting to tell you how or why!
- A Prayer For Owen Meany was my introduction to John Irving’s work, and I enjoyed it so much, I’m afraid to read anything else he’s written lest I spoil it. Although not on the grand scale of Cutting For Stone, I’d nonetheless refer to A Prayer For Owen Meany as an epic, too, although mostly confined to the small town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. While Irving seems much more inclined than Berry to allow his worldview to charge through the text, in this case through the lens of an often heart-wrenching confluence of coming-of-age stories, you don’t have to agree with the author’s opinions to acknowledge the brilliance of his writing.
- The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright, though a work of fiction, is based on so much eye-opening fact that it almost brought me to my knees, both in thanksgiving and repentance for lacking self-awareness. Maybe especially because my vocation is to help people of means find more meaning in their money management, this story of a family living in “the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia,” was a potent reminder that the third-world is actually most of the world–and that the incremental improvements and advantages that most of us reading this post are daily seeking, however worthwhile, are luxuries beyond the imagination of most of the world’s population. Having spent some time in a similar community on the other side of the world, La Chureca, Nicaragua, I shouldn’t have needed a reminder, but maybe that’s why The Rent Collector hit me so hard.
- The Shack, by William Young, is controversial, primarily because it fictionalizes representations of each member of the Trinity–God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit–in ways that are, well, unexpected. But it’s a work of fiction, not of doctrine. I found that it stretched and informed my faith in only helpful ways, but I will warn you in advance that if you are a parent, it’s very difficult to get through the first couple chapters.
Non-fiction is my comfort zone, but what I have found is that the most compelling non-fiction reads more like fiction. That’s where the following books and authors shine:
- 1776 is by the master of biographical non-fiction, David McCullough. It is a condensed biography of George Washington, centered on an especially pivotal year in his, and all of our, lives. I’ll never forgetting completing the book–sitting on a beach in Ocean City, New Jersey, many years ago–because I just wanted it to keep going!
- American Ulysses, by Ronald White, nearly replaced 1776 in my Top 30 collection when I finished it in 2020. While the story-telling rose nearly to the level of McCullough’s, I was even more impressed with the subject, Ulysses S. Grant. While Washington’s seemed almost as a story of destiny–a larger-than-life figure who lived up to the regularly high expectations that everyone had for him–Grant possessed almost none of those qualities and well outgrew everyone’s expectations of him. But what impressed me the most about Grant, especially during the tumultuous year of 2020 when I read it, was that he was a man willing to publicly change his mind on a highly divisive topic. Pointedly, while Washington never publicly acted on his private misgivings about the horrors of slavery during his lifetime, Grant did, and in so doing, he went from being a slave owner (by marriage) to becoming a champion for the formerly enslaved whom Frederick Douglass referred to as “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”
- How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, is like drinking a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day while eating corned beef and cabbage. Never mind the fact that the March 17th holiday and its accompanying meal are both American inventions, Cahill’s book includes the true significance of St. Patrick and tells the surprisingly untold story of how Irish monks saved much of the world’s ancient writings from the ravages of the Dark Ages.
- If I had to choose a single book to recommend from this entire list, it would have to be Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. If it was a work of fiction, we’d all accuse Hillenbrand of gratuitous hyperbole–but this is the true story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II veteran who, himself, lived several impossible lives in one. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Is this real?”
- When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, is a title that I can’t even write without a moment of pause for a deep inhale and exhale. This autobiographical story of an inspired brain surgeon who learns he has stage IV lung cancer is especially compelling because it is honest, and difficult, and especially because his wife, Lucy, had to write its final chapter.
Perhaps I don’t often write about my faith because, 46 years into this life, I still feel like such a beginner in this arena, but spiritual reading comprises a large part of my literary consumption–and, therefore, a large chunk of this list. I’ll warn my friends who are not practicing Christians that, while not all of my spiritual reading comes from Christian authors, the entirety of this list does; and I’ll warn my readers who are practicing Christians that I’ll almost surely offend your doctrinal sensibilities with the relatively ecumenical–and perhaps eccentric–collection of authors here. But at least I’ll be an equal-opportunity offender, whether your preference is more liberal or conservative theology.
- Addicted to Mediocrity, by Franky Schaeffer, is an older book (original copyright 1981), but its message may be even more prescient today. It’s a historical account of the influence of Christians and Christianity on the arts that effectively argues that Christianity in the 20th century and beyond has given up a once prominent place in the arts and settled for, as the title suggests, mediocrity. Schaeffer doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve found this book to be both a salve and a call to action for Christian artists and patrons of the arts.
- Blue Like Jazz, is an autobiographical account of a portion of Donald Miller’s life and faith walk. Like a couple other authors in this list, Miller is occasionally criticized for his theology–but he never claimed to be a theologian. And his story, an incredibly well-written story, has been freeing to many, myself included. Plus, he might win the award for the best title!
- Celebration of Discipline is written by Richard Foster, a Quaker. And while most of the authors representing the Spiritual section of this list have helped some of us free our faith from the binds of legalism and unhelpful certainty, Foster gently reminds us of the surprising freedom, even the celebration, to be found in many of the historical disciplines of the church.
- Falling Upward, by Friar Richard Rohr, is the most recent addition to this list, and a book that I expect to inspire an outsized amount of life change for me, personally–because it’s hitting me right where I am in life. He uses philosophy, mythology, Scripture, and the Christian mystic tradition to frame an understanding of “the two halves of life” through a non-dualistic lens. The highest compliment I can give the book, unlike any other on this list, is that the moment I finished it, I restarted it.
- The Mountain of Silence is written by Kyriacos Markides, a Greek national who came to the United States to study and promptly became an atheist. Then, he returned to Greece, and the monks of Mount Athos, specifically, where a charismatic Orthodox monk inspired him to discover his faith anew.
- The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was my introduction to an approach to a relationship with God that feels decidedly “Eastern,” for a faith tradition that seems to have been so heavily influenced by the Western mindset (and heart-set) for the last, oh, several hundred years or so.
- The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning, is a medicinal ode to the central tenet of the Christian faith–grace. Its inviting honesty inspired a mini-movement within the Christian realm, and has had a meaningful impact on me as well.
- The Screwtape Letters, written by the most famous atheist turned Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, is a witty, punchy, and shockingly relevant fictional discussion between an elder demon and a novice, just learning the ropes about how to waylay Christian seekers. You could almost take your pick of C.S. Lewis books and add them to this list, but Screwtape is as entertaining as it is touching and informing.
- Velvet Elvis was Rob Bell’s first book, and while some of Bell’s later work has landed him on the naughty, if not heretical, list of some other prominent Christian thought leaders, this book had more of an influence on me and my faith in my early thirties than anything other than the Good Book itself. Personally, I think Rob Bell has always been more of a provocateur than a heretic, but his invitation that God is big enough for all of our doubts and welcomes every last one of our questions created a new plane of understanding for me in my faith journey.
- You Are What You Love is a newer book by modern-day philosopher, James K. A. Smith, enlightening us on “the spiritual power of habit.” Especially well suited for fans of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Smith helps us see through the spiritual lens how we can transform habits into life-giving rituals.
One of the things in life for which I am most thankful is that my occupation is also my vocation. And how could it not? As a financial planner, my job is to help people discern what’s most important in life and then optimally position their tangible resources in support of those intangible priorities and values. It’s a craft and a calling that takes a lifetime to master, and therefore, every one of the books I’ve already listed has taught me something about how to do my job better and how to better understand my clients, readers, and students. To finish out the 30 Books that have changed my life, here are 10 that fall into the occupational–or vocational–category:
- The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker, while unfortunately paternalistic in tone (because it was written at a time when virtually all professionals were men), is the information worker’s original productivity foundation on which all others were built. I didn’t realize this until Tim Ferris, another of my favorite authors, listed it as one of the most influential books in his life and work–and in it I found the origin of most of the insight that has since been shared in all the other productivity books I’ve read. I should’ve started with Drucker!
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White, is THE definitive grammar and writing book. When I taught at my alma mater, Towson University, the first thing I realized was that I needed to go back and thank my high school English teacher (who was forced to endure my shenanigans for three out of the four years of high school)–because what I was finding was that my junior and senior college students simply couldn’t write well. So I made “Strunk and White’s” one of two *required* texts for the class. Furthermore, I insisted that no matter how smart you were, if you couldn’t write a proper email or research paper, it didn’t matter; so I graded them for their writing and style in addition to their technical aptitude. I still try to go back and read this short book every couple of years–and still anticipate that I’d get less than an “A” in Strunk and White’s class if it existed. I’ll keep working at it.
- Freakonomics, co-authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, was the first book on economics that I ever read that was a literal page turner. I know that sounds dorky, but it was both informative and entertaining. Every chapter was a thought-provoking story–like the one about how most drug dealers live with their moms and don’t make more than minimum-wage workers flipping burgers. “Eureka!” I thought. Finance and economics doesn’t have to be dry and boring.
- Give and Take is just one of multiple works of Adam Grant’s that could be on this list, but his evidence-based insistence in this book, that we can do well by doing good, was only fuel to the fire for my belief that true financial planning is a helping profession, and that this mindset could also be applied across a broad spectrum of industries.
- Leadership and Self-Deception is a “business book” written as a fictional parable, one of several authored by the Arbinger Institute. I’ve probably read it three times and have used it as a discussion topic for numerous “learning groups” comprised of 20 to 30 amazing financial advisors from across the country. The best part about this book is that it teaches you as much about life outside of work as it does inside.
- Lighting the Torch, by George Kinder, is very similar in its broad application. While written for financial advisors interested in re-engineering their practices to focus more on the qualitative drivers in our work (which is actually most of our work, however invisible), my first lesson from the book–and the many hours I’ve spent under the tutelage of the Kinder Institute–was that what I had learned should not only make me a better advisor, but a better husband, father, friend, and co-worker as well. (Unfortunately, this book is out of print and very hard to acquire at a reasonable price, so consider The Seven Stages of Money Maturity if you can’t find it.)
- The Millionaire Next Door, by Stanley and Danko, is another older book that still resonates and informs. (But isn’t that the sign of any great art or writing–that it stands the test of time?) It’s the readable research-based book that taught us that most millionaires typically don’t look like the stereotype. They’re not the lawyers driving luxury automobiles and paying for country club memberships–not that there’s anything wrong with that–but the under-the-radar regular Joes whom you’re more likely to see driving a Jeep Cherokee. This book has been an inspiration to many savers, and informative for advisors (like me) who predominantly serve a clientele made up of, you guessed it, the proverbial Millionaire Next Door.
- Nudge, by Sunstein and Thaler, is the applied version of the next book I’ll mention. It is Professor Richard Thaler, at the University of Chicago, who is credited with having dubbed the term “behavioral economics,” a hybrid of psychology and finance, and if I could go back and do college all over, I’d have majored in this field, rather than finance–because while finance helps us know what to do, it’s behavioral economics and finance that help us understand why people do–and don’t do–what they know.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is the work around which everything else that is labeled as behavioral economics revolves. Yes, there have been complements, applications (like Nudge), and reinterpretations of the work of Kahneman (and his late research partner, Amos Tversky), but they were the OGs, the pioneers of this uncharted space. Personally, this book lit a fire in me. For years, I’d been suggesting that personal finance was more personal than finance, but this observation was largely anecdotal. Once I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, I realized that it was scientific fact!
- The War of Art, written by Steven Pressfield, doesn’t have anything to do with economics, finance, or even numbers. It’s about how to “break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles.” It’s short, but very, very sweet. And without its encouragement–and occasional insistence–you wouldn’t be reading this post!
These books fuel my own writing–indeed, most of them did give me insight and inspiration to write two books: The Ultimate Financial Plan (Wiley), co-authored the best-selling author, Jim Stovall, and more recently, Simple Money (Baker)–my first solo book, and my attempt to integrate the wisdom of behavioral finance into the practice of personal finance.
I hope you find one or more–who knows, maybe one from each section–of the books listed above, and I hope they change your life for the better as well. And if you’d like to share with me YOUR list of books that have changed your life, I’d love for you to do so by emailing me at [Tim at timmaurer dot com].