Four Books that Changed My Life

The Risc OS Programmers Reference Manual


I got into programming in the early 80s, when computer games came printed as type-in programs in magazines. I didn’t know a single person who could program, and I had no reference to refer to. When I was fifteen or so, I was on a trip to London with my parents, and I spotted this set of books in Foyles bookshop. They were really expensive. But my Mum pushed to buy them for me. I still credit them as being the point where I began to program properly, and seriously. And since programming is still the core of what I do, they hands-down win as the book that most changed my life.

Fear and Trembling. Søren Kierkegaard

This book was central to the journey I took as a theology undergraduate. In the interview for a university place, the tutor said told me that a secular theology school was not the place to learn more about my faith. Sure enough a large minority of believers on the course rapidly lost their faith. I didn’t. My faith changed, I became would now be called a ‘progressive Christian’, though I hadn’t heard the term at the time. This book was key in making that happen.

Kierkegaard revisits the Abraham and Isaac story, retelling it over and over, but each time the story goes astray. Each time he allows the characters to act in reasonable ways, and the story derails. Eventually we conclude, with him, that the story is unreasonable. But more than that, the unreasonableness is crucial – that unreasonableness is at the heart of religious belief.

The Form of the Book. Jan Tschichold

I’d considered becoming a graphic designer as an undergraduate, and when I finished my degree and went to work for the American Baptist Church I did their graphic design work (among many other things). I bought this book at that point, and it immediately captivated me. I reread it over and over, and still return to it every year or so.

Tschichold was a typographer and the designer for Penguin books in the late ’40s, when it defined the look and feel of the modern paperback. The book is ostensibly about the mechanics of book design: paper size, line height, font-choice, title page layout, and the like. But as in all good books, it is the subtext that makes it compelling. In this case the book gives a comprehensive aesthetic education. This book made me see the world differently.

The Origins of Order. Stuart Kauffman

I’d read about Kauffman’s work as I thought about doing a PhD, and I bought this book just before starting my research. A few years later, I was at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and was lucky enough to spend some time with Stuart. This book profoundly changed the way I look at the world. While I was at Santa Fe I worked on a problem in developmental paleobiology using mathematics from this book.

The book is long and technical (Kauffman’s “At Home in the Universe” is a popular science version, though I think Kauffman writes better for a technical audience). It argues that order is not an amazing, accidental byproduct of the natural world, nor a pre-condition of evolution. Self-organization arises, almost inevitably, from very general features of the universe. In my view this very under-appreciated work demolishes 90% of fine-tuning arguments, and is the main reason I am convinced there is vast amounts of life beyond the earth.


There are plenty more books that have a story for me, but are in the next tier down. Books such as Minksy’s Society of Mind, Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Paden’s Religious Worlds, Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Levy’s Artificial Life. And of course the bible, particularly the New Testament (and within that Mark’s gospel) would be high on the list, if I hadn’t excluded it under the rules of “Desert Island Disks”.

If you’re a blogger, and are up for a bit of self revelation, how about creating your own list? Or leave a comment with some of your life-changing books and how they came to effect you.


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9 responses to “Four Books that Changed My Life

  1. Fun to see your list. It is a fun eclectic list.
    Here are a few books, off the top of my head, that changed my life — for the good or the worse (it all depends on the story).

    1. Stranger in a Strange Land
    2. Diet for a Small Planet
    3. Francis Schaeffer’s Books
    4. Thomas Merton’s Books
    5. Autobiography of a Yogi
    6. Siddartha
    7. Mao’s Red Book
    8. Libertarianism (forgot the author)
    9. The Web that has No Weaver
    10. Da Free John’s Books
    11. All my Science and Math books
    12. Childhood’s End

    Hmmm, sorry, a bit long

  2. Ian

    Thanks Sabio, once you get going, it is really hard to narrow down, isn’t it? Are there any of those that particular that stand out?

  3. You see, I was fanatic vegetarian for 7 years. “Diet for a Small Planet”, which I now think is hogwash, was a big part of that. I am far from being a vegetarian today. But being a former-fantatic-vegetarian is a big part of who I am today, I guess.

    Web that has No Weaver was a huge influence on my acupuncture days. I now think acupuncture is largely hog wash –and that insight is a big part of who I am today.

    And the list goes on. So how can one book stand out when I keep changing. Each was amazing at its time. Each fanatic obsession gave me tons of amazing experiences. How can I ever choose “The Best”.

    See my post on “your favorite” here:

    Asking for “Your favorite” seems similar to asking for “One that stands out” if you see what I mean in relationship to that post and my note above.

    But maybe you meant something else.

  4. Ian

    No, I meant that. But I think I disagree with your skepticism about the “your favourite” question.

    It is a way of asking for focus.

    I could go to a restaurant and ask for everything on the menu, to be brought in one inch cubes on tiny plates. Or I could just look at the menu and imagine. But if I want to go deeper into the dining experience, I have to pick something to focus on. And, for at least the duration of that meal, the rest of the menu may as well not exist. My favourite restaurants I can sample many dishes over many visits, until I have a deep understanding of the chef. If it is my first time, I ask what the waiter would recommend. Particularly if I’m getting to know the cuisine. But I don’t assume that the one Chilean dish I’ve eaten is somehow the whole of Chilean cuisine. But I hope that the waiter chose a dish that highlighted something of Chilean character when he recommended it.

    So when I ask a friend who’s been travelling for six months what is their favourite experience, I am saying “I want some detail of an experience, I want the sights, sounds, smells, emotions — a story — but I don’t have the appetite to have a minute by minute recap of all six-months, and I don’t know which experience to focus on, so please chose a story to tell.” I assume by the time I ask that question I’ve already got an overview of the person’s feelings about their experience. Over time, other experiences will come up and we can go into detail again. For people who I am in deep relationship with we will probably go through loads of stories and I’ll get a much better sense of the whole.

    So it is with books. I know a bit about you. This exercise is a way of asking to know you better, through this lens. Choosing books is a way of saying “these stories I am most keen to tell”, or “these books tell you most about me in a concise and coherent way”. That’s more what I meant.

    Does that make sense? Have I convinced you?

  5. Ah, then perhaps to get what you want and not have that reality-filtering I spoke of in my post, we could ask:

    “Hey, could you tell me one or two stories from your trip to give me a flavor for some of your experiences.”

    Thus avoid the phrasing “favorite” which I feel really does reinforce a nasty side of common consumerism, experience-collecting and dumbing down of reality.

    So hopefully what I told you about those two books helped address your question.

  6. Ian

    Its a good point. I haven’t yet heard those conversations in the light of “common consumerism, experience-collecting and dumbing down of reality”, so the distinction seems artificial. But, as these things often go, I probably will start to notice now and get more annoyed, and more inclined to watch my own phrasing. I don’t normally need a second invitation to be skeptical 🙂

    It did address the question, very much, thanks on all fronts!

  7. Yeah, all kinds of reductionist questions bug me tremendously.

    “Why did you leave your boyfriend.”

    “Why did you leave Christianity”

    The listener wants a simple answer — as you said, they don’t want a long story. So we are tempted to filter our stories, simplify them and soon we believe them. Head nods of listeners make us into idiots. I remember your fine participation on my post called, “Re-writing history with head nods” where I address this in another way.

    My Chinese waiter the other day, on hearing places I have lived asked me “What is your favorite country”? What a stupid question!!!! But it is so normal. And when I said I liked much about all of them he said, “Well, that is politically correct!” I laughed. So I said, “Actually, I hate a lot about all of them.” And proceeded to tell him tons of stuff I hated about China — his mouth dropped. I still tipped him well. He actually came up to me before I left saying, “I really enjoyed our conversation, thanks.”

    So, who was your favorite teacher? Or which one stands out the best for you. Or which woman stands out the most to you in your life.

    Doesn’t it feel you will be doing an huge violence to all the other teachers and women if your life if you get baited into answering those sorts of questions? Doesn’t it feel you’d be lying to yourself just to make a conversation happen?

    It does to me — but I might be strange and just need to lighten up and take the Blue Pill.

    Thanks for generously entertaining my skepticism — may you never be infected by my disease !

  8. Ian

    Interesting. I feel the ‘why…’ questions far more than the ‘what is your favourite…’, I wonder why. I’ve never had a problem with the latter, but the former do bug me. Thanks for the connection.

    So, who was your favorite teacher? Or which one stands out the best for you. […snip…]

    Doesn’t it feel you will be doing an huge violence to all the other teachers and women if your life if you get baited into answering those sorts of questions? Doesn’t it feel you’d be lying to yourself just to make a conversation happen?

    Not really. Though you’re doing a good job of making me unsure that I’m right not to. I have always heard that question in the way I described, rather than as an invitation to caricature my experience: “please share a story of your educational life”. I could definitely answer, and willingly, and it would be a good icebreaker. I could imagine asking that also, if the situation were right.

    In fact, in situations where those questions are asked, and someone says “well, I don’t have a favourite… there are lots that are important in different ways….” (i.e. someone interprets the question ‘correctly’) I confess I get a bit frustrated (“yeah – no shit, Sherlock”) and silently judge their lack of conversation skills 🙂

    I would say though, that if someone asked me “which woman stands out the most to you in your life” I’d think them odd, because asking that question, seems to make it difficult for me to do my generous interpretation. The question is impertinent.


  9. LOL. Well, it seems you understand my twist of mind.

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