life perpective

7 Books That Changed My Perspective on Life

Though you may read anywhere between one and 200 books this year, only a few will really stay with you. Very rarely do you read a book that shifts the bedrock of your mind. We start building our outlook on life when we’re very young. It’s not easy for new ideas to come along and be retrofitted into our worldview. It’s sort of like pulling the bottom brick from Jenga. You just don’t mess with it.


But, sometimes, you do come across words on a page that change you. When you look at the paper, you’re one person. When you lift your head up, you’re another. It’s scary, but also exhilarating. This should be why we read, after all—to give us something new to carry with us in life. Here are some of the books that did that for me.


1. The Tibetan Book of the Dead


Tibetan Book of the Dead

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Okay, I will admit that I wasn’t able to finish the whole thing. Also, I only took it out of the library after reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. While my feeble intellect was not prepared for the enormous amount of discipline it requires to make the most of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I did glean some new perspectives on perceiving the world. One of my favorite quotes was:


If, upon looking outwards towards the external expanse of the sky, there are no projections emanated by the mind, and if, on looking inwards at one’s own mind, there is no projectionist who projects thoughts by thinking them, then, one’s own mind, completely free from conceptual projections, will become luminously clear.


2. The Stranger by Albert Camus


The Stranger book cover

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It’s a book that famously opens with the death of the protagonist’s mother. He’s indifferent. He then kills someone and is sentenced to death. The book is about a lot of things, but it’s usually read through the lens of Camus’ absurdist philosophy, which is related to the existentialist philosophies popular when the book was written in the 1940s.


In some sense, it’s about the pointlessness of life, which, instead of inciting despair, should elate the reader. It’s liberating. Camus himself subscribed to this philosophy, as he wasn’t the mopey philosopher you might suspect. He was actually an accomplished athlete, and a bit of a womanizer. He also had a great sense of style, and was once asked to pose for Vogue. So even though you might see brooding sixteen-year-olds reading The Stranger (i.e. me), smoking a cigarette in a cafe, know that it’s a book that is, in some sense, cheerful.


3. The Peregrine by J. A. Baker


The Peregrine cover

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Watching BBC’s Planet Earth is what people of this generation do when they need to meditate and reconnect with nature from the comfort of their couch. J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine is, I imagine, the closest prose version of Planet Earth as we’ll get.


The book follows Baker over the period of one year as he leaves his English home and watches and records the flight of a peregrine falcon. The attentiveness and lyricism of Baker’s prose reads less like nature writing and more like a very long, very good Wordsworth poem. Not only does he capture the changing of the seasons and the falcon’s life, but also his own transformation. There’s something meditative and bare about Baker’s narrative. Everything seems very simple after reading The Peregrine, and that’s sometimes what a book needs to do.


4. Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino


Six Memos for the Next Millennium

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Calvino’s memos were originally meant to be lectures given at Harvard. Sadly, Calvino passed away before he was able to deliver them. The lectures were meant to cover six, essentially, literary virtues Calvino wanted the next millennium’s writers to keep in mind. Again, sadly, Calvino only made it to five.


The five memos are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The unfinished sixth memo would have covered consistency. Though these may seem obvious, Calvino’s definitions are heavily based in classical and renaissance literature, particularly from Italy. For example, Calvino’s lightness has several connotations other than what may seem most obvious. He’s speaking of a physical lightness, but also of a more abstract lightness. Though I won’t claim to fully grasp his meaning, he touched upon lightness as a writer’s tool of sorting through life’s excessive heaviness. Which leads to the next book on the list…


5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


Unbearable Lightness

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Kundera’ books are, like Calvino’s, always experimental and fresh. His classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being does not just possess the greatest title, but it also has some of the lightest, most tender prose I’ve ever read. Like the best writers on this list, his perspective cuts through social conventions and displays to the reader the bare truths of human life.


For Kundera, we only live once (indeed, YOLO), and that’s one of the biggest jokes on Earth. In one section of the book, Kundera writes:


There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.


6. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein


Tender Buttons cover

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I cannot promise you’ll enjoy Stein’s deconstructed syntax and wordplay (if you can call it that), but once you’ve spent enough time with it, it will change the way you perceive language. It will make you a better speaker, a better writer, and a better listener. Once you’ve given Tender Buttons the time it deserves (and it deserves your time, whether you love it or despise it), it will reward you by making you hear language, for possibly the first time, as the music that it is. Stein’s poetry teaches you that words are nothing but sounds, and sometimes those sounds, once emptied of their arbitrarily-given definitions, can communicate more primitive, more visceral feelings. This book’s a killer.


7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas


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Dumas’ epic revenge story is a masterclass in writing and, basically, in life. Dantes is the original superhero, cutdown by several capable archnemeses. Despite spending years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit, Dantes reenters society as a mysterious stranger.


Thus, Dumas marries two classic plot strategies: a stranger comes to town, and a person goes on a journey. Dantes is both the stranger and the person on a journey. Because Dumas is outstanding at plotting his stories, he makes a 1,000+ page book feel like it moves too quickly. He shifts perspectives when needed, but the reader never loses sight of Dantes’ ultimate goal. And when his elaborate scheme pays off, the feeling it leaves in the reader is unlike any other. It gives the illusion, unlike every other book on this list, that there’s some order to things. Still, careful not to leave his readers with a false sense of order, Dumas ends the novel in the only suitable way: “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.’”


Feature Photo by Rob Mulally Via Unsplash