Book Thoughts 1: Meaning of Life and Self Development, part 1


I am initiating a new feature of this blog which is nothing more ambitious than recording my thoughts about books I’m reading or have read, or sometimes, books I tried to read and gave up on.  This is an attempt to make this blog something more dynamic than a place to store chapters of my books in progress.

It’s unclear to me how I’ll incorporate this project into WordPress.  For now I’ll just start with comments on my Best Books Ever list.  At this point I don’t plan to reread each item, but just to give my current thoughts about things I’ve read and loved, in some cases decades ago.  It is my intention to be brief and to avoid expressions like “Read this book!”  All the books on my list seem to me potentially life-changing, and you neglect these gems at your peril of leading a diminished life.

Meaning of Life / Self Development

Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “Self Reliance”

Emerson’s Essays are generally rather dry and abstract, but this essay is evergreen.  The writing is exceptionally vigorous and the thoughts are forceful and, at times, extreme.  I haven’t read the essay in years, but I’ve read it many times, and it’s a short piece that I think most people will find quite amazing.

Leo Tolstoy:  Confession (also published as My Confession)

Confession is Tolstoy’s story of his crisis of faith, his confrontation with the meaning–or meaninglessness–of life.  While his solution to his dilemma may please few modern readers, especially atheists (of which I am one), the challenge is the important thing, and he presents the challenge vigorously and clearly–true of Tolstoy’s writing generally.

Leo Tolstoy:  War and Peace

If you haven’t read War and Peace, what are you waiting for?  It is certainly the most acclaimed of all novels.  I recall Percy Lubbock’s point that I am forced to paraphrase:  it has everything in it, and that’s also its weakness.  I will not add to, nor repeat, the carping of critics.  Tolstoy trained all subsequent generations of writers by his example, and this book contains many brilliant scenes.  It has multiple excellent love stories, vivid pictures of war and its consequences, and enough reflections on life to form a separate book of quotations.  To me he is never dull, even when taking his main character, Pierre Bezuhov (or Bezukhov), through the lengthy rituals of Freemasonry,   But I exaggerate:  his theory of history is beyond dull, and unpersuasive.  It seems these days that the theory is confined to an appendix or two, a choice of which I thoroughly approve.  In the list it appears under the title “Meaning of Life / Self Development” and I think that categorization is fully justified.  It can be a life-changer.

Grace Llewellyn:  The Teenage Liberation Handbook

I dearly love this book and have read it three times, starting in my forties.  It is directed at teenagers, particularly those in public school, but it’s excellent reading for persons of any age.  What are you going to do with your life?  What do you love?  The book asks such questions and provides unconventional answers that people have tried.  This approach is both entertaining and liberating, and every teen deserves to receive a copy when she enters high school, if not before.  Parents be warned:  your teenager, if she reads this book, will very likely tell you that she wants to “quit school and get a real life and education,” which is most of the subtitle of the book.  For any teen who is chafed or worse by her school experience, this book could literally be a life saver.  If you’re beyond high school yourself, this book may encourage you to change jobs and pursue what you’ve always dreamt of.  Many books talk in terms like these; this happens to be the one I’ve read and greatly agree with.

Lin Yutang:  The Importance of Living

Dr. Lin here presents his idea of the philosophy of Chinese peasant women, if I remember correctly.  The first time I read this book I thought it was about half nonsense and half stimulating, interesting, even weird, ideas.  The second time I read it I thought it about 5% nonsense and the rest just fabulously interesting ideas.  He starts with an analysis of the character of the people of various nations; this is anything but “politically correct,” but I find some unfamiliar truths here.  In any case, don’t let a distaste for this beginning to turn you off to the book as a whole.

As an aside, Dr. Lin also wrote a book late in life called From Pagan to Christian, in which he describes his change in belief.  Other books of his that I’ve read have all be interesting and entertaining, but the above is the important one.  It went through many reprintings in the 1940s and was incredibly popular at the time.  It deserves to be better known these days.  Don’t take my word for it–read the raves on  Or check out the extensive quotes in my Collected Quotations.

John C. Holt:  Freedom and Beyond

This book presents a perhaps naïve view of progressively-oriented economics; since I am not smarter or more educated in economics than Holt, I can’t really address that effectively.  I can say that this book is the first that got me excited about economic justice.  We have the world’s richest most successful economy, yet when it comes to the “blessings of society” and mere “happiness,” we are well behind other developed countries.  Holt decries this.  Here’s what I wrote about this book in 1993:  “An astonishing and important book. Full of stunning insights into American society. Especially good re education, but also mind-changing ideas about our economy and institutions. Reread this one often! Make it your own.”  The second time I read this book, in maybe 2010, I was less enthusiastic, in part because I had learned Holt’s lessons.

I’ll conclude the review of Meaning of Life / Self Development books in the next part of this, uh, thing.

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