Thursday, June 7, 2012

Five Books That Taught Me

"The worth of a book is measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)

My wife and I love to read.  I knew she was "the one for me" the first time she curled up contentedly with a book - and alternated between quietly savoring each word, then bubbling over with enthusiasm as she shared a passage with me.  I remember when she was reading Laura Hillenbrand's story, Seabiscuit - An American Legend,  about the "underdog" horse that inspired Americans during the Great Depression.  When Deborah would read about one of Seabiscuit's races, she would cheer and bounce up and down on the sofa while reading as if she was trackside!  I loved it!

So, with summer nearing, I look forward to reading some more.  As I began to ponder what I might read next, I began thinking about all the books I've read in my lifetime (lots!).  Reading was something that I've always done (probably explaining why I love writing too!), and was always encouraged by my parents.

What books have influenced me?  Made an impression on me?  Inspired me?  Were just plain fun to read?  That sounded interesting to write about.

Here are five books that taught me something.  After having read them, in each case just once, they changed my view of the world, or my knowledge of something, or how I thought.  They're not in any order, other than how they came to mind (though I am actually surprised at what books popped into my head!)

1.  Case Closed:  Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Gerald Posner

  • In 1994, I had the first chance to really teach my U.S. history classes about this tragic event in modern U.S. history, and this book came out at the same time.  I knew very little about Oswald or the Warren Commission, or any of the conspiracy theories, so I picked it up.  Posner's investigation thoroughly and convincingly answered all of my questions, relying on hard evidence and science to discredit all of the conspiracy theories, and prove the sad fact that a lone "nobody", desperate for attention, could indeed alter the course of history.  His chapters explaining the "magic bullet" and erasing the "mystery" of the "grass knoll" were stone convincing.   Case Closed is a masterpiece of historical research and considered the benchmark for all other books on this topic.
2.  Animal Farm, George Orwell

  • Animal Farm was the first (and only) piece of literature I ever taught in a social studies class.  I was looking to spice up a unit on Communism, so a colleague suggested this book to me.  Barely 100 pages long, I read it in an afternoon, but it completely changed my understanding of the lives of people living in the Soviet Union under the tyranny of Joseph Stalin during the 1930's and 1940's.  I had known of the events and thought I understood the history, but Orwell's allegory - telling how a sinister group of pigs led a revolution on a farm, took over, and then exploited the other naive animals on it, all in the name of "equality" - gave me a much richer understanding of it all - plus I was moved by it.  I was stirred by the courage of Snowball and Boxer, angered by the cruelty and greed of Napoleon and his cunning assistant Squealer, and saddened as the other animals are betrayed. ("All animals are equal - but some are more equal then others" was a chilling line) And when Boxer....oh wait...better not say (in case you decide to read it!).  This classic taught me the power that even a seemingly simple story has to teach a great lesson.
3.  Out West:  An American Journey, Dayton Duncan

  • I randomly picked Duncan's book off my parents' vast bookshelves one day several years ago, and discovered a genre that I've loved ever since:  travelogues that also skillfully weave history throughout them.  Out West is the story of the author's retracing of the route that Lewis and Clark took in making their historic journey westward to the Pacific Ocean.  But where the Corps of Discovery walked, rode, or poled by flatboat, Duncan putters along in a Volkswagen camper (in true Schnorenberg fashion).  His vivid recounting of the exploits and thoughts of Lewis and Clark, using excerpts from their journals, was my introduction to this epic expedition.  It led me to want to read even more about these two men; to visit the places on the Oregon coast that they visited; and to be a bit of a "pioneer" in my own small way.  To this day, whenever I'm on a road trip, I think of Duncan's advice to practice "journey travel" vs. "destination travel", and remember some of his "Road Rules" (#1: "Never stop to ask for directions or look at a map - unless you're completely defeated, or have to stop for something else")
4.  Let Go And Live In the Now, Guy Finley

  • Let Go And Live In the Now was the first one of Guy Finley's books that I read when I began attending classes at his Foundation 7 years ago.  It was my introduction to ideas that have changed my life.  The spiritual principles and exercises in self-awareness that he presented in this book were brand new to me.  Yet when I read them, a part of me immediately knew their truth and relevance for me.  I've read many other works of his since, and have heard hundreds of his talks, but this book is still one I turn to.  Learning how to be "a storm watcher",  or that I have a right at any moment to CHOOSE what thoughts I give my attention to, or the necessity of "walking the spiritual road alone" all came from here - as did this powerful idea I've never forgotten.  "We teach others whenever we refuse to psychologically defend ourselves...The world around us receives the lesson that what is true needs no defense and that what is false cannot be defended."  Priceless.
5.  Why We Buy:  The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill

  • Though this book was a little dry at times, and not one of my favorites, it definitely changed my understanding of marketing, and the subtle science clever retailers practice in order to increase profits.  I had no clue how everything in a store is deliberately placed (if the retailer is smart!), or done, all to make me more likely to spend money there then not:  from predicting which way I'll turn when I enter the store (right, most of the time); to what's put at eye level or lower; whether there's a chair for me to sit at a predicted spot that I'll want to sit;  to how nice the dressing room is (Women care A LOT!  Men - not so much!); even how long I will stand in line before I get impatient (about 90 seconds), and what clerks can do to "reset" my clock and put me at ease.  Everytime I walk into a store now, whether it's Macy's with my wife on a shoe shopping safari, or Fred Meyers to get milk, I remember something I learned from this book.

So, these are books that taught me something.  I look forward to writing about other books that inspired or entertained me.

Time to find my next book!

"There's nothing to match curling up with a good book, especially when there's a repair job to do around the house." (Joe Ryan)

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