January 27, 2021

My “Most Influential” Books (1)

The other day Scot McKnight posted this:

'Old hermit Roy Ozmer reading a book at his house: Pelican Key, Florida' photo (c) 1957, Florida Memory - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/A reader asked me to post my Top Five favorite, most influential, book list.

What is yours?

Here is my list:

Martin Buber, I and Thou
Augustine, Confessions
Dante, Divine Comedy
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

It got me thinking. I responded in the comments with a list right off the top of my head, and limited the books I included to contemporary ones that had shaped my faith in various ways over the years. But the more I have thought about it, I believe this idea would form the basis for a good series of posts here on IM reflecting on the various people, experiences, books, movies, music, etc., that have been influential in my life.

Today, we’ll start with five books (or groups of books) I read before I went to seminary.

1. The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

No works have shaped my imagination like Tolkien’s masterpieces. I loved them so much that I had a great deal of hesitation about whether or not I wanted to see the films. Great literature not only creates worlds upon the page but in the reader’s mind, and I was afraid what I saw on the screen would not fit the Middle Earth of my imagination. In the end, I came to appreciate the movies as a complementary vision of Tolkien’s saga, great in their own way, but incapable of matching the creative genius of the master storyteller.

Thinking back, I think these books gave me not only a set of thrilling adventure yarns and unforgettable characters, but they also did for me what C.S. Lewis and Tolkien said good fairy tales do — they sound forth echoes of other worlds and shape our moral vision for this world.

2. The Normal Christian Life/Changed into His Likeness, by Watchman Nee

The writings of Watchman Nee were extremely popular in the 1970’s, when the Jesus movement was growing and fresh winds of the Spirit seemed to be blowing across the land. I think I first heard of him in a recorded message by Larry Norman, the pioneer of contemporary Christian music. Nee died in 1972 after a twenty-year imprisonment in China for his faith.

Nee’s books were the first “serious” devotional writings I read as a young adult Christian. They breathed the spirit of primitive, apostolic Christianity. He wrote of deep spiritual experience, the Cross, unity and love in the Body of Christ, simplicity of life, and suffering. His most popular book, The Normal Christian Life, introduced me to the epistle of Romans, and my favorite, Changed into His Likeness, had as its thesis that the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are foundational for understanding God and his ways with people. It was my first in-depth exposure to Genesis and the patriarchal narratives, and I carry spiritual lessons from his book within me to this day.

3. The Pursuit of God, by A.W. Tozer

Tozer ministered in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, most notably as pastor of Southside Alliance Church in Chicago for thirty years until 1959 and as editor of the Alliance Weekly magazine. He was idiosyncratic and an iconoclast, who spoke and wrote with simple directness to issues of the faith and the church. Tozer was the prophetic voice who challenged me while in Bible college, warning me against religiosity and churchianity, urging spiritual authenticity and a deeper knowledge of God.

One night at a flea market bookstall in Lancaster County, PA, I found a hardbound copy of The Pursuit of God, which I treasure to this day. Tozer had a way of integrating theological depth, mystical insight from the spiritual classics, prayerful personal reflection, and a prophet’s zeal for holiness that made this book and his other writings essential reading for me.

4. Shadow of the Almighty, by Elisabeth Elliot

During my first year in Bible college, I took an introductory missions class that was dreadful. The professor had been a pioneer missionary in Papua New Guinea and I’m sure he was outstanding in that setting, but teaching in a classroom was not his thing. However, he did one thing in that class that changed my life. Every week, we were to read a missionary biography and write a report on it. And so I entered the worlds of people like Hudson Taylor, John and Betty Stam, and most importantly, Jim Elliot. I first learned of him by reading Through Gates of Splendor, which told the story of the five missionaries killed in 1956 as they sought to reach a remote tribe in Ecuador.

That book was eye-opening, but Elisabeth Elliot’s companion book focusing on her husband Jim rocked my world. Here was the story of a passionate, Christ-centered, yet thoroughly human and flawed young man, with intimate excerpts from his personal journals, who died for his faith while giving Jesus to others. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” were his most memorable words. Much of the book records his college career, which made it immediately applicable to what I was thinking and experiencing during those days. I had found a hero and role model.

5. Romans, by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones

After Bible college, I served as a pastor in a small village church in Vermont for nearly five years. I read many books that were important to me during that time: books by Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and others. But when it comes to books that caught my imagination as a preacher and teacher and student of the Bible, nothing can compare to the influence Lloyd-Jones’s studies of Romans had on me. I bought the set when it contained seven volumes, I believe, from Romans 1-8, and I devoured them.

For thirteen years (!) Dr. Lloyd-Jones had led his London congregation at Westminster Chapel in a Friday evening Bible expositional study of the epistle to the Romans. Those are the studies captured in these volumes, and they are deep, passionate, and edifying. A “Calvinistic-Methodist,” he struck me at the time as having a wonderful balance of solid Reformed theology and Wesleyan piety. Mind afire with the Spirit! Heart rejoicing in profound truth! He taught me to think, to reason. Lloyd-Jones was literally a doctor — a trained physician — and he was as thorough as they come in examining and analyzing and thinking through the text. But he also remembered the Welsh Revivals of the early 20th century and believed that the only hope for the church and the world was that God’s Spirit would once more fall in power to awaken his people.


  1. I whole-heartedly agree with McKnight including Buber on his list. I recall you briefly discussing Nee a while ago. I’d like to hear more about him. I know he has his critics.

  2. Craig Peterson says

    Raymond Carver: Collected Stories – Raymond Carver
    A Good Man is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
    Ward 6 and other stories – Anton Chekhov
    The Brothers Karamozov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    Ulysses – James Joyce

    • Ulysses? Really? I found that book near impenetrable. What was it about it that had such an impact on you?

      • Craig Peterson says

        Indeed Glenn, so impenetrable that I cheated and ended up reading along while listening to it on tape. I was tempted at the first to quit, but found, like in many things, that as I kept going I fell in love with the characters in their normal, workaday lives and wanted to know how that one day would turn out for them. Eugene Peterson once said in an interview that he grew to love his first congregation when he realized they were all characters in Ulysses.

    • Interesting that you have picked mostly short stories. People should read them more often; they can be read or reread in one sitting and don’t require the investment of a long novel.

      Something I’ve been thinking, about: are modern short stories well-adapted to portraying spiritual experiences? Stories like Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ seem to encapsulate a moment; some experience or epiphany that is far removed from the ordinariness of the character’s lives. The effect of a good short stories are very difficult to summarise; unlike a novel, they work as a single organism, all of whose constituent parts seem vital to the story. A good short story resonates in the mind long after the story has been read, and cannot often be explained satisfactorily.

      Read Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ (the story and the collection) to see how it happens


      • Craig Peterson says

        I agree Ben. That’s why I like short stories. From what I understand Chekhov was the first to do this, thus a kind of father of the modern short story.

  3. Cannery Row (& lots more) – John Steinbeck
    Evangelism & The Sovereingty of God – JI Packer
    The Knowledge of the Holy – AW Tozer
    The Holiness of God – RC Sproul
    Preaching The Whole Bible As Christian Scripture – Graeme Goldsworthy


    • DSY…I looked up The Knowledge of the Holy at Amazon and one of the reviewers says, “Beware — to open the covers of this book and search its pages is to tread upon holy ground. It is to walk in the cloud at Sinai with Moses; it is to be standing at Horeb in the mouth of the cave with Elijah as the Lord passes by in a gentle breeze; it is to be with Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, and it is to feel the earth shake beneath your feet with the guards at the Garden Tomb as the stone is rolled away.”

      Sounds great! I put it on my list of books to read.

  4. I’ll run with the theme….before I turned 21, the books were

    Mere Christianity by Lewis
    A text book on logic and logical falicies
    The Screwtape Letters (Lewis)
    A biography of Teiland de Chardin
    On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

    • ps…the fact that some were college assignments doesn’t change their impact, and remember I was at a Catholic College, [But we had to take a course on world relgions (2 semesters) and philosophy (2 semesters….I only got into the Logic course as an Honors student)]

  5. Books I read from college or before? Okay.

    1. “The Prophet,” by Khalil Gibran Gibran.
    2. “Edgar Cayce on Jesus.”
    3. “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah,” by Richard Bach.
    4. “Easy Journey to Other Planets,” by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
    5. “The Satanic Bible,” by Anton Szandor LaVey.

  6. Lilith / Phantastes by George MacDonald – something akin to proto-fantasy, these novels opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature. They made me begin to see mystery in the world, as opposed to black and white modernity.

    Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky – I think I gained my love of psychology from Dostoevsky. He wrote such interesting and complicated people, it made me want to get to know them. And I think “the inquisitor” is maybe the most human criticism of Christ I know.

    Dune by Frank Herbert – My love of Sci-Fi can be traced directly to Dune. The messiah complex may seem immature to me now, and I find his misogyny frustrating, nothing else sparked my imagination quite the same.

    Atonement by Ian McKellen – Sure the twist is cool, but something about the struggle of feeling guilty for things no one else would blame you for, or of a small transgression that punches above its weight, brings me to tears every time.

    Blankets by Craig Thompson – Say what you will about comic books, Blankets is worth your time. A somewhat autobiography about growing up in an overbearing Christian house and questioning/ loosing his faith, I think everyone here might get as much from reading it as I did. He tells the story with humility and openness, and the artwork is astounding.

    • I’ll admit that I kind of cheated because I only graduated from college 3 years ago. The majority of my life was spent before college 😀

  7. Pre-College
    1. Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsay
    2. Real Christian’s Don’t Dance (Don’t is X’ed out), John Fisher
    3. Power of Prayer, Andrew Murray
    4. The Knowledge of the Holy – AW Tozer
    5. Perelandra Trilogy – CS Lewis

    • Ooh, I almost put Perelandra. Hideous Strength is an amazingly dense book, I feel like I miss half of the references on the page. Kind of like watching Community, except that I know my TV shows pretty well and so I actually understand that one better.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Late Great Planet Earth?

      Poor sod…

      • Totally drank the cool aid. My parents owned all his books.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          How long did it take you to get over the Rapturitis Flashbacks? I got immersed in the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay back in the early Seventies and didn’t stop freaking out and flashing back until 1988.

  8. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
    The Sparrow/Children of God – Mary Doria Russell
    The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
    The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
    Gospel – JD Greear

  9. In keeping with the theme of pre-college / early collegedays:

    The Chronicles of Narnia — C.S. Lewis (I’m still finding treasures in those books.)

    A Tale of Two Cities — Charles Dickens (The first full work of classic literature I ever read and still one of my favorites — Sydney Carton trumps Mr. Darcy any day in my book!)

    POW — Kenneth Hubbell (I think) & the editors of Reader’s Digest (a definitive account of the Vietnam-era POWs and my first awakening to the true horrors of war)

    Watership Down — Richard Adams (Read it my freshman year of college. Still a favorite.)

    How Then Shall We LIve? — Francis Schaeffer (Required reading my senior year of high school. Can’t say I understood very much of it at the time, but it was my first exposure to deep Christian thought.)

  10. Dan Crawford says

    Books I loved before going to college: I liked novels and loved Caryll Houselander

    The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
    Crime and Punishment Fyoder Dostoevsky
    A Burnt-Out Case Graham Greene
    A Canticle for Lebowitz Walter Miller
    Guilt Caryll Houselander

  11. Here’s my list of pre-age 35 books, in no particular order…

    1) Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Tokien (read’em over and over throughout junior high and high school)
    2) God’s Little Acre & Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell (gothic Southern Lit at it’s best; for spiritual theme, God’s Little Acre is a good read…a man gives an acre of his land to God, promising everything that is produced from it…then proceeds to constantly move the acre around from place to place, to avoid the requirements of his covenant agreement…there’s more than one sermon in this book!)
    3) Mountain Singer: The Life and Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece (complete collection of poems by a wonderful North Georgia writer, agrarian, and Christ-haunted believer)
    4) I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Traditions, Twelve Southerners (collection of essays on Southern life and culture by great authors, including Robert Penn Warren, Herman Clarence Nixon, etc. Commentary on everything from agricultural economy to dialect from great minds of Vanderbilt U and beyond)
    5) The Book of Luke (read it over and over from the time I was about 9 years old…still my favorite…)

    I really never read any “Christian” books until I was past age 30, and the ones that really matter to me were read post-35. Can’t wait to discuss that list.

    • Can’t wait…Post-35 list…

      1) Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning (read it at least once a year..the binding is giving way! Caught more than a little flack from my good Baptist pastor friends for liking this book…they couldn’t digest the scandalous grace)
      2) Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (actually left my career of 18 years to serve completely after reading this)
      3) The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen (when Christian leadership books were popular, this one wasn’t…written by a humble and contrite spirit)
      4) The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis (not the most popular Lewis work, but amazing, nonetheless…first time I read it, I read the first three pages over and over for a solid week)
      5) The Younger Evangelicals, Robert Webber (I read it as I was figuring out where I belonged, and found that I was “on the Canterbury Trail”, without even realizing it)

      • hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to pick a favorite devotional, it would be Reflections for Ragamuffins; Brennan really gets the gospel: I’ll wear that sucker out.

      • Great list, Lee! The only one I haven’t read and loved on your list is the Cost of Discipleship. I have to get around to reading some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works. Oh, and I see you added The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter after. I loved that too.

    • Lee, I’m always on the lookout for essay collections like “I’ll Take My Stand.” That sounds like one I’d like. Have you read any of Wendell Berry’s books? You might also like “Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers.”

      • I’m a fan of Berry’s writings. I’ll have to check that work out.

        The “Twelve Southerners” had a really different flavor to their writing than Berry, in some regard. They were folk who had grown up in the post-Civil War South, saw the growth of industrialism, and were pained by it. There were some ideas in there…that we would value family and closeness less as our society became less agricultural, that we would lose language and become more transient as a society…ideas that have definitely become truth in our time.

        • As far as the differences…their thoughts were more “South” focused. They had a grand vision of what the region had been, and what it should be.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Wendell Berry is fabulous. I’m most familiar with his novels and essays; less so with his poetry. His novel
        Jayber Crow” is one of the best I’ve ever read.

    • Left off a great one…The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter…who also penned the book that became the movie “Outlaw Josey Wales”.

  12. That Other Jean says

    Oy. College was so long ago that I hardly remember what I read before it. Things I read that changed my outlook on life while I was still relatively young:

    The Hobbit — JRR Tolkien

    Last Chance to See — Douglas Adams Really sparked an interest in environmentalism.

    The Egyptian – Mika Waltari Gave a boost to a life-long interest in life in ancient Egypt.

    Weird Sisters — Terry Pratchett Ignited a love for his particular sort of fantasy.

    The Medusa and the Snail –Lewis Thomas The best co-mingling of science and philosophy ever.

    And a book for which I can remember neither the title nor the author, but was a philosophical musing on the evolution of man which began in the Olduvai Gorge and changed the way I looked at the world. Anybody who knows what I’m talking about, please tell me.

    • That Other Jean says

      I remembered the author, and thanks to Google, found the name of the book: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eisley!

      • That Other Jean says

        Spelled that wrong, in my joy at finding it: Loren Eiseley

      • Dan Crawford says

        I love Loren Eiseley – what a wonderful and thoughtful writer. I read everything he wrote and still go back to the books from time to time.

  13. Randy Thompson says

    Pre-seminary list (not in any particular order, by the way):

    1. C.S. Lewis sci fi trilogy
    2. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit & Lord of the Rings
    3. C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”
    4. C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”
    5. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles”

    Another interesting list of books for sometime in the future: Books I’ve read and wish I hadn’t.

    • ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ would definitely be on your second list for me. Couldn’t get enough of it when I was about 15 or 16. Kind of embarrassing now. On the other hand, I suppose it did awaken an interest in geopolitics, so there’s that.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Oh yea. . .

      I need to add Francis Schaeffer’s “Escape from Reason” and “The God Who is There” to my list.

      I gradually lost interest in Schaeffer, and I don’t recall reading anything else by him after my sophomore year in college. But these two books inspired me to do a lot further thinking that I probably would not otherwise have done. Whether you like him or not, he inspired a generation of young Christians to think, read, and be informed. For that, we should be grateful to him. (The later, cranky Francis Schaeffer didn’t interest me at all, though.)

      • Franky’s books have been some of my favorite: Sham Pearls Before Real Swine, Crazy for God, and his Becker Trilogy. Partially because I knew some of the characters in his books personally. Still deeply respect his folks, warts and all.

  14. Just 5? Yikes.

    The Silmarillion
    Ethics, by Bonhoeffer
    God in Search of Man, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
    God, Freedom and Evil, by Alvin Plantinga
    Tractatus-Logicus-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein

    • Rabbi Heschel’s book God in Search of Man is one of the most important (and highly readable!) books that most Christians have never read.

  15. “The Epistle to the Romans” – God (through Paul)

    “The Bondage of the Will” – Luther

    “Where God Meets Man” – Gerhard Forde

    “Commentary on Galatians” – Luther

    “Green Eggs and Ham” – Seuss (haven’t finished it yet)

  16. Pre-university. Alright then..

    1. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings & the Silmarillion. I can still remember the smell of the pages as I opened up ‘Fellowship’ for the first time, and the sense of grand, unexplored vistas. It had 529 pages (I remember the exact number for some reason) and I had it finished within the week. On the Saturday, I stopped reading only for meals. As for The Silmarillion, I read it a couple of years later and found it utterly intoxicating.
    2. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables. I hold the dubious distinction of belonging to that small class of people who read Les Miserables before having any acquaintance with the musical. It was the thickest non-reference book in our school library and, being a geeky sort of youth and looking for a challenge, I borrowed it, having no idea what it was about. Best gamble I ever took. I got my first idea that there were saints living in the world and that it was possible to be one from the Bishop of Digne. His act of mercy struck me between the eyes no less than it did Jean Valjean. Also impressed my young and idealistic outlook with the sense that suffering is inevitable and that it’s how you face it that matters.
    3. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. My first encounter with the numinous, and a sense that God was bigger than proof-texts and expository sermons.
    4. Augustine, Confessions. Another brush with a genuine saint, and the revelation that God could be desired for Himself, instead of being Someone for Whom I lived well and evangelised my classmates.
    5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. This one influenced me for what might seem an unusual reason: it was the first time I had encountered the idea that morality could be approached rationally. Lewis’ writing about the virtues was compelling and completely new to me. In a context in which, if one wanted to show that something should be done or should not be done, one had to provide a proof-text, the very concept of moral theology and ethics opened up a whole new intellectual perspective.

  17. David Cornwell says

    Wonderful subject for this Monday morning. I’ve been stretching my memory attempting to remember just what books were so influential in my life before graduating from college. So far three stand out. I read voraciously in my youth. Sometimes it created problems with school, both high school and college, because rather than studying my assignments, I found something else to read that interested me. English Lit and history courses were an exception, because they help feed my never satisfied appetite.

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple of these books before. And these three do not complete the list, but on quick notice they will do:

    “Horatio Hornblower” by C. S. Forester. These stories first grabbed my attention in my early teens and some of them came in serialized form in the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine to which my mother subscribed. They consist of several books, all in the Napoleonic era and were about British dominance of the high seas and the strong naval leaders that were produced. I first read the serials, then had to read the books as a whole. This was wonderful fiction for a young boy (well, I still love it!)

    “Pilgrims Progress” by John Bunyan. I read a piece of this in high school English Lit class in my senior year. Then got the book from the library and consumed it on my lunch hours and at home. It’s another book that stays fresh in my memory.

    “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” by William L. Shirer. I read this between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I was going to summer school and just taking a limited load. In the afternoons I’d go to the park-like front lawn of the college, find a bench and read. The book was over a thousand pages. It documented in a very readable fashion how this man was able to undo a great nation, corrupting its leaders, worming its way into the church, and destabilizing the minds of its people. It stands to this day as a stark warning of the power of Evil and how it masks itself in garment of avenging and delivering angel. Fascism still scares the hell out of me.

  18. My before college list:

    Escape from Reason, F Schaeffer – Sparked an interest in Philosophy and Art
    Lord of The Rings, JR Tolkien – Created a love for good fantasy
    Roots, A Haley – Sparked a lifelong interest in genealogy
    Late Great Planet Earth, Lindsey – an unhealthy obsession with biblical prophecy
    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, D. Adams – An appreciation of British humor.

  19. If it’s just from before college, my list would be:
    The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Perelandra, Lord of the Rings, David Copperfield, The Odyssey.
    I read way more fiction back then and was far happier for it.

  20. Witness, Whittaker Chambers
    East of Eden, John Steinbeck
    Macbeth, W. Shakespeare
    History of Art, H.W. Janson
    The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

    Of the 5, I am far more critical of Witness today that I was when I first picked it up in 1977, but Chambers’s story is unforgettably written, if politically hyperbolic.

  21. I keep with the theme of earliest influences

    Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (this started it all off at 15 years old)
    beginning trilogy by Francis Schaeffer
    Discipleship by Bonhoeffer
    Mere Christianity (and more) C.S. Lewis
    book by John Dean on Watergate (I later earned a BA in Political Science)

  22. I was a voracious reader so it’s hard to narrow it down. Instead, I will point out some that seem to have been missed, though I did enjoy Tolkien from 4th grade on. Also from late childhood, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine l’Engle and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by ? I did not discover C.S. Lewis until college, along with Schaeffer and Bonhoeffer, which I used as a counter to a certain marxist/athiest professor.

    • From Joan Aiken, Narnia and Madeleine L’Engle books I was challenged to read “The Inferno” and “Paradise Lost” (at a public high school). Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” made a bit impact. I’d read and memorized most of Luther’s Small Catechism along the way.

    • Ah, yes, how could I have forgetten “A Wrinkle in Time”????

      I read this at about age 12, and it gave me feeling I couldn’t really place at the time, which I now would call awe, reverence, and a lightbulb moment of “WOW…there really is more to this world that what can be sensed!”

      ….this also launched a long period of star-gazing and contemplating my own place in this immense universe.

  23. Berkeleybear says

    Recent semi-regular lurker here. I didn’t become a Christian until college and was raised in an agnostic/indifferent spiritual environment. My pre-college 5, in no particular order:

    1. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov)
    2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (Douglas Adams)
    3. The Winds of War / War and Remembrance (Herman Wouk)
    4. The Lord of the Rings series (JRR Tolkien)
    5. After 20 Years (O. Henry) – this is a short story, not technically a “book”. But it has stuck with me all these years.

  24. No one said “The Bible” yet? For shame. The reformed police are going to swoop in and shut this whole place down.

  25. Interesting that you have picked mostly short stories. People should read them more often; they can be read or reread in one sitting and don’t require the investment of a long novel.

    Something I’ve been thinking, about: are modern short stories well-adapted to portraying spiritual experiences? Stories like Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ seem to encapsulate a moment; some experience or epiphany that is far removed from the ordinariness of the character’s lives. The effect of a good short stories are very difficult to summarise; unlike a novel, they work as a single organism, all of whose constituent parts seem vital to the story. A good short story resonates in the mind long after the story has been read, and cannot often be explained satisfactorily.

    Read Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ (the story and the collection) to see how it happens

  26. Kelby Carlson says

    Since I’ve recently entered college, I figure i should have a stab at this.

    1. Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling (my generation grew up with these books)

    2. The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander (I listened to these on tape when I was young; the series is simple but profound and highly underrated.)

    3. Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating (this book introduced me to centering prayer and the Christian mystical tradition)

    4. Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus (probably the best book on the cross I’ve read until now.)

    5. The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship by Jeffrey J. Myers (this book was the culmination of a lot of thinking of mine about liturgy)

    6. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton (seriously, Horton is amazing and I’m putting this here because I like to be able to brag that I read a 1000-page systematics text in high school.)

  27. I only got into C.S. Lewis and Chesterton after College. I am a History Teacher, and I read a lot of history books before going to the University and majoring in History Education.

    Exodus by Leon Uris

    We Were Soldiers Once…and Young: Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. True Story: my sister gave me the book for my 18th birthday (1996) and as I read it, I thought “Mel Gibson ought to play Gen. Moore in the movie adaptation.

    Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers and D-Day by Stephen Ambrose

  28. Pre-college, eh? Considering that I’m in college, and that I read quite a bit, this will be hard, but I’ll try. First, I will just say that the Bible has had its due impact upon me, and I consider it to be in a class all its own. Thus, it will not “make the list”, so to speak.

    That being said, here we go:

    1) “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling: This was the set of books that really, truly sparked within me a yearning for reading. I credit them for not only helping me learn to read, but teaching me to enjoy reading. It opened my already huge imagination to even bigger realms. And now that I’m older, I find myself learning more and more from the books. I find deep truths and symbolism everywhere within those stories. I could go on and on, but you probably get the point.
    2) “The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/The Simarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien: Consider it cheating if you wish, but I’m lumping these together as one whole. Tolkien introduced me to epic high fantasy, and to wonderfully complex and fleshed-out worlds. I have been all the better since.
    3) “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’Engle: I’m not quite sure what it was about this book. It holds, in my mind, a rather mystical quality about it, and I love it all the more because of said quality. Not only did I really have to start thinking about time paradoxes and all sorts of other bizarre conundrums, but I also began to contemplate just how mystical Creation really is, and that there are many things which we will never understand, though they are here in front of us.
    4) “The Heavenly Man”: The story of Brother Yun, who is an exiled Chinese pastor. It, for the first time, gave me a real sense of persecution for the Faith, and that our brothers and sisters are suffering for the sake of Christ. It also reminded me that God still works His marvelous wonders even today, even if we do not always see them.
    5) “Church History in Plain Language” by Bruce Shelley: Before I read this, I was already an amateur historian, and loved history. However, this book had a huge impact upon my person- it invigorated within me a love and need for church history. Without it, I doubt I would consider church history to be as important as I do, and therefore there would be so many things that I would not know, and many things I would have not experienced.

    • A Swiftly Tilting Planet was the first Madeleine L’Engle book I read, and still my favorite one of her novels. Love her devotional writing, too.

  29. petrushka1611 says

    1. Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago. I read the cycle twice in my teen years, and it gave me a good loathing of tyranny and abuse of authority.

    2. Lin Yu-Tang: The Importance of Living. I think a lot of iMonk readers would like this book. It had good things to say about idleness, the enjoyment of everyday things, and smoking pipes. I read it a few years before coming across iMonk and getting treated for wretched urgency from various places, and I think it plowed the ground for that a little, if more in an intellectual than spiritual way.

    3. Gary Larson: The Complete Far Side. ‘Nuff said.

    4. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita. This one introduced me to quality fiction (I read about 95% non-fiction) and ruined me for things like Michael Crichton’s two-dimensional characters. I had no idea a work of fiction could be as poetic and self-referential as the Bible at its best. It also brought home to me the evil of treating others as objects; of course, I knew that already, but this described the effects more intensely than I’d ever read.

    5. Peter Jenkins: A Walk across America. I’ve read this more than any other book. It was probably the first book that opened my horizons to America (and turned me into an insatiable armchair traveler), and, I think, sowed some good seed: that not all Christians were like the IFBX movement I grew up in, and that they didn’t have to be.

  30. 1. “The Plague” by Albert Camus (I was actually inspired to read it after reading Sire’s “Universe Next Door”.
    2. “Walden” by H.D. Thoreau.
    3. “Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton (“TommyMertonHead” probably would have liked that one).
    4. “History of Christian Thought” by Paul Tillich (largely why I briefly became a Lutheran).
    5. “Winnie the Pooh” by A.A. Milne.

  31. Before I went through college? How about grad school can I start there? 😀

    So this was before I read and consumed the John Piper kool-aide… (YUCK!!)

    1. Fawn Brodie “No Man Knows My History”
    2. Margaret Thatcher “the Path to Power” (Bio…)
    3. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein “All The Presidents Men” (Watergate)
    4. Steven Ambrose “D-Day June 6, 1944” (D Day)
    5. Barbara Tuchmann “The Guns of August” (WWI)

    The book by Fawn Brodie helped keep me out of Mormonism. I’m so glad that I didn’t follow the LDS Church rules on not reading non-approved material. The LDS missionaries tried to discourage me from reading “anti-Mormon” material. I read that book and on top of LDS deception i was starting to see, it was game over. I couldn’t believe Joseph Smith.

    Lastly….as I like Margaret Thatcher I really want to see John Piper try and tell her that she cant be an Elder at Bethleham Baptist. Another great rouse would be Tim Challis telling her that she can’t read scripture in front of him. Oh…I love British politics 😀 and I’d love to see Margaret Thatcher put John Piper in his place. 😀

    Finally on a side note I’m stunned no one has Philip Yancey….

    • Eagle,

      Don’t you realize that the Word of God is hindered by the fact that someone is wearing a skirt and has breasts?


      So glad you didn’t fall for that Mormon stuff.

    • I probably would have Philip Yancey in a “top” list – but he was more post-school years than during school years. (And for the record, Soul Survivor and What’s So Amazing About Grace? are tops for me on reading lists).

    • I see JI Packer “Knowing God” I started to read that and then gave up. I found it while cleaning the other day. Oops..

  32. So interesting to see what everyone was reading before college. My own list, several of which have already been mentioned:

    The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis (3 for the price of 1!)
    The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
    The Stranger by Albert Camus
    The Emancipation of Robert Sadler by Robert Sadler
    The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
    Wonderful Fool by Shusaku Endo

  33. College and before:

    1. Real Christians Don’t Dance – John Fischer
    2. The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning
    3. The Source of My Strength – Charles Stanley
    4. Abba’s Child – Brennan Manning
    5. Sham Pearls for Real Swine – Franky Schaeffer

    The Fischer and Schaeffer books would probably not have the same impact were I to re-read them now, but at the time they were instrumental in getting me to think beyond the Christian subculture.

  34. Nothing remotely religious before college (and into college).

    Mostly scifi – fantasy and any kind of history:

    Tolkien – everything
    Herbert – Dune Series
    Asimov- Foundation Series
    Eddings Belgeriad series
    Zalazny – Amber Series
    Niven and Pounelle – Lucifer’s Hammer, A Mote in God’s Eye

    It wasn’t until my thirties before I began reading the Christian Mystics, Church History, Theologians and Scripture

  35. My pre-age-23 list:

    Rich Christians in an age of Hunger – validated my feeling that addressing wealth/poverty issues should be a priority in today’s Church.

    No Compromise – a favourite among my cohort of young adults at church.
    I could also add other exciting stories of God at work that I read then, such as the stories from L’Abri.

    I read lots of books when I was young, but I can’t point to many as strongly shaping me.

  36. Only five? Well, here goes in no particular order (from the ages of about twelve up to late teens/early twenties)

    1. Ray Bradbury – “The Hallowe’en Tree”. I got this out of the children’s section in the library and loved it so much I copied it all out by hand into a hardback copybook my father had given me (um – that’s against copyright law, isn’t it? Shhhh! Don’t tell the publishers!). This started me devouring everything by Bradbury I could get my hands on, and to this day I still remember the look and feel of the two short story collections “R is for Rocket” and “S is for Space” that, again, I borrowed from the children’s section: I had to wait until I was fifteen to join the adult library, which at the time I felt was extremely unfair 😉

    2. G.K. Chesterton – “The Man Who Was Thursday”. Everyone knows the Fr. Brown detective stories, or the apologetics, but this is the one book of his that I am always raving over and telling people to read (to the point of making them back away slowly with nervous smiles on their faces).

    3. C.S. Lewis – The “Narnia” series, (come on, you can’t divide these up). Again, I went on a rampage of getting everything of his that I could get my hands on, which was not so easy in the early 80s in small-town Ireland. Again, I still remember the look and feel of the light-yellow covers and the front cover illustrations of the Pan volumes issued as a series.

    4. Dante – The Divine Comedy (really, you shouldn’t be surprised by this one).

    5. J.R.R. Tolkien – “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Silmarillion” and the later volumes collected as “The History of Middle-earth” by Christopher Tolkien. Read “The Hobbit” as a twelve year old, had to wait till I was fifteen to get my hands on “The Lord of the Rings” from the library (first use of my newly-minted adult lending card!) and stayed up all night over the weekend reading it (literally could not put it down) to the point where at some ungodly hour of the early morning, my mother came downstairs to know if I was sick or why I wasn’t in bed.

    Tons of SF, fantasy, horror, detective fiction. A fair bit of proper literature (though mostly 19th and early to mid 20th century), including poetry. A good amount of history and science, with a sprinkling of literary criticism thrown in. Some biographies and autobiographies. Apart from the Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis apologetics, not too much specifically religious or theological works.

    • And if I was allowed No. 6 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the “Sherlock Holmes” short stories and novels. I still remember the frisson I felt on reading the first pages of “The Sign of Four” which I had just taken out of the bookcase in my convent school, aged fourteen, and in the very first paragraph the detective was shooting up cocaine!

      Remember, this was back in the early 80s when “Just Say No” and ‘drugs are bad, mmmkay?’ were the messages being hammered home to young people, and here was the representative of law and order from a respectable 19th century author breaking the law at the very start of the novel! And that was my introduction to the unique genius of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and the long-suffering Dr. John H. Watson, and the beginning of a fannish obsession which has lasted to this day 🙂

      • I am SHOCKED!

        No, no, not about the book, but how young you are!!! With your wisdom and maturity, plus your immense knowledge of the Church, I assumed you were well my elder. Clearly you are, just not in years!!


    • My favorites list would look a lot like this. Only swap Brave New World for Dante, and Kipling for Bradbury.

  37. I have often wondered why Francis Schaeffer is not mentioned much anymore.

    I am under the impression he actually spoke deeply to a whole generation, and his cultural analysis was incisive.
    He influenced a lot of young Christians in that he modeled and taught engagement with both Art and Culture. When you consider that he was around the time of Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth and the plethora of books on prophecy that were sensationalistic and very thin on content and serious biblical work.

    In the Evangelical world he was one of the deepest around, and probably influenced many Christians who later became scholars.

  38. Two more if that is OK:
    The Clowns of God – Morris West: a remarkable, unforgettable novel that deserves a wide reading, even today.
    A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving: an ingenious, well crafted story.


  39. Great post. I love discussing books with like minded folk. BTW if you guys haven’t heard of goodreads.com (hopefully you will forgive the shameless insertion of a link) I would recommend it. It combines social media with books. Anyways top 5 from before college graduation.

    1. The Bruised Reed – Richard Sibbes [excellent book to those who are down and out. He speaks clearly and consciley (for a Puritan) about the mercy and upholding grace of God.]

    2.Power Through Prayer – E.M. Bounds [ouch this book brings a punch, but has altered my life probably more than any other book]

    3. The Apostolic Fathers – Compiled by Mark Galli [this book introduces you to source literature and forces you to deal with it on your own. Reading the church Fathers brings so much delight and so much sorrow simultaneously it is unbelievable. To see them in agreement with me is great and to see them saying something i disagree with is so challenging. This book started me down the road of in-depth patristic study. ]

    4. Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God – D.A. Carson [Here he wrestles with what does it mean for God to love humanity. How does the practical details of that play out? What about texts that says God hate humanity? For the systematizer this is a classic. He doesn’t always try to resolve the questions and that is so helpful as well. We don’t have to have all of the answers.]

    5.Confessions – St. Augustine [ I have to say I enjoyed this most because of the way it is written. I write in the same manner as I am praying. I also have to include this as it was my first introduction to Augustine who has become a close friend of mine. I loved the portion on him wrestling with singing in the churches. I was also amazed by his desire to take every thought captive to God even those thoughts where he watches a spider catch prey. I don’t even think I finished it on my first read through as I had too high of hopes, but Augustine really grew on me after that]

  40. I would have a very difficult time selecting five of my most influential books. I have over the years read so many wonderful and meaningful books that have enriched my life which I discovered I needed to read at that paricular stage of my life. I would have to say that my most five influential books would be the last five I just finished reading. What I read tends to match what I need at this particular point in my spiritual journey. That said, I am eagerly looking forward to the next one, I will read, probably beginning this afternoon.

  41. Gee, I had a hard time trying to remember what my list should be…five books that influenced me prior to or early in college. (I started college in 1972.) My cousin told me I always had my nose in a book. Well, here are some that come to mind:

    Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
    Remember, Be Here Now by Ram Dass
    The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
    Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
    Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

    • I just read on wikipedia about Kahlil Gibran: “Gibran is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.”


  42. This is hard for me basically because I don’t remember exactly when I read the books.

    For sure, Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, revisited as an adult, a major life changer.
    Arthur C. Clarke’s “If I forget Thee, O earth” (short story)

    I’ve read a lot of science fiction, including over dosing on H. G. Wells to the point of being unable to read him again.
    Horatio Hornblower series
    Anne McCaffery

  43. This was surprisingly hard. My memory is shot.

    My Pre-35 List

    The Chosen by Chaim Potok
    White Fang by Jack London
    Lord of the Rings by JRR
    Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    Baseball Abstract by Bill James

  44. Tolkien – The Hobbit, LotR, and The Silmarillion. And we might as well add some parts of Unfinished Tales too since we’re already cheating. I’d like to call particiular attention to The Sil. Yes, it’s somewhat patchy and a little intimidating for some people. Still, this is a work of breathtaking scope and beauty once it gets going.

    Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment. This is the book that made me realize how great literature could be. Before this my fiction reading mostly consisted of Tolkien ripoffs and low-grade sci-fi. Brothers Karamazov is just as good and maybe better, but Crime and Punishment was more influential in my life.

    Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day. A brilliantly subtle yet heartbreaking work. He’s the best fiction author alive today, in my opinion. The Unconsoled might be even better, but that one is so bizarre and off the wall that it turns some people off and might require a second read to appreciate.

    Flannery O’Connor – The Complete Stories. She was a master of black humor and social/religious commentary. I think “The Displaced Person” is my favorite. Even with her very limited work, she’s in the top tier of American authors. Had she lived longer, she might be the best one period.

    Timothy Snyder – Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I thought about putting a theological work here, but I decided to put this historical work instead because few books have ever given me such a visceral reaction. Snyder elucidates the systematic killing of both regimes in terrifying detail. He includes many of their lesser-known crimes, shows how both regimes’ mass murders fed off each other, and never lets you forget that these were real people being murdered, not just numbers.

    • Berkeleybear says

      Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day goes on my list too – post-college and all time. Great film adaptation as well. The Unconsoled spun my head around in a million different directions. Confusing; I’ll have to try a re-read someday. I also have When We Were Orphans on my bookshelf but haven’t read it yet.

  45. Unfinished Tales – Tells us who the wizards, like Gandalf and Radaghast, actually were… had it for a time….

  46. I know that I would not be a Christian today (baring some other means) if it were not for Schaeffer. The first time I read him (all his books) it was simply an academic exercise and I didn’t understand them. The second time, 10 years later, I was desperate and ate every word. I listened to about 150 of his lectures via tape and ended up moving to the US LAbri for help (for six years). That was the only thing that saved me from the corrosive form of evangelicalism I had been taught.

  47. Len Knighton says

    It’s very hard to separate favorite books from most influential. Looking back on 25 years of ministry and 61 years of life, I would say there were 2 books that heavily influenced me and one more that I suspect will have a strong impact on my life. In the former category I would like
    Cosell by Howard Cosell and
    Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Kuschner.
    In the latter, a book I just read comes to mind:
    The Inextinguishable Synphony by Martin Goldsmith.

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