20 Books That Have Been Most Influential in My Life

Daniel Pink put together a list of the 20 books that have mattered most in his life. That inspired me to do the same. I started listing books that have been important to me throughout my life so far and had a difficult time sticking to just 20. You’ll also notice that I kind of cheated on a couple by including multiple books by the same author. The list below is what I came up with, but there are a bunch more I could include that helped me feel and see differently. I’ve read many on the list more than a few times.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

By Stephen Ambrose

Something calls to me from wilderness. I try to spend as much time in it as possible, and this detailed account of the Lewis and Clark expedition is a something I read almost every spring.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

By Joseph Ellis

Historical context matters when making choices in today’s world. This is a very readable account of those early Americans that started our republic, exploring their motivations, interactions, foibles, and courage. 

The Bean Trees

By Barbara Kingsolver

I read this in college for the first time. It helped me understand what empathy is (I mean … I’ll never be a single mother). I think this book helped me feel the plight of folks just trying to make it in the world (which is pretty much what we all are). 

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

By Mark Manson

Applying philosophies like those of Buddhism, this book helps me clarify in my own mind what’s important. It includes great tactics on how to eliminate the rest, and not even worry about it.

Never Sniff a Gift Fish

By Patrick F. McManus

I’m an introvert. I didn’t realize it as I was growing up, but I did know that the library at school was my favorite place to be. One day I stumbled on this book and found the joy of reading light-hearted humor. McManus’ books pretty much got me through high school. 

David and Goliath

By Malcolm Gladwell

We all look at the world and take too much for granted. Gladwell helps his readers look at the world from a different perspective and makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. I like that. 

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

By J.R.R Tolkein

I’ve read this trilogy almost every spring since middle school. It’s all about the daily struggle of good and evil, flawed and hesitant heroes, and growing through hardship.


By Greg McKeown

Too often we live our lives telling others and ourselves how busy we are, and for some reason finding value in that. Essentialism dispels the myth of busy-ness. Quiet, self-reflecting mornings filled with mediation and reading, followed by purpose-driven action days have been the result of me reading this book.


By Susan Cain

For most of my adult life I’ve felt somewhat ashamed of the anxiety I get when I’m at large social events. The idea of networking dinners repulses me. Quiet taught me that I shouldn’t feel bad about that and, even more, that I should embrace my introversion. Some of the most influential people in the world were introverts (Abraham Lincoln, to name just one).


By Angela Duckworth

I’m often frustrated when I hear people – strangers and those close to me – complain that their situation is something they can’t fix, either because of perceived inherent shortcomings or even social underprivilege. Grit explains the why and how of people standing up and being actors for themselves, not objects to be acted on.

Deep Work

By Cal Newport

I could have listed one of Cal Newport’s other books here just as easily – Digital Minimalism. We’re so distracted nowadays and many of us are losing the ability to focus on what’s important. These books give concrete proof of why it’s a problem and simple ways to change for the better.

A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities

By Charles Dickens

I cheated on this one, but both of these take a hard look at the human condition and how we can overcome ignorance, greed, and anger. 

You Come Too

By Robert Frost

There are obvious themes of outdoors, solitude, and struggle in many of the books I’ve listed here and the poetry of Robert Frost certainly fits in that category.

Neighbor Rosicky

By Willa Cather

Technically this is a short story by Willa Cather. It’s about an old farmer, his life and sacrifices. I grew up among old farmers and have aspired to emulate many of the traits I saw in them and this short story brings those to life, even as my memory becomes more distant.

The Book of Mormon

I often find myself feeling like a wanderer in a strange land and The Book of Mormon helps me feel closer to the spiritual – something bigger than myself. 

The Holy Bible

I started a habit of reading some ancient scripture each morning to start my day. The Bible is one of my favorites. It reminds me of what’s truly important before I get into the day-to-day soup.


By Daniel Pink

What truly motivates people? It’s not what most managers think – or what most HR organizations implement. Drive dives into what truly motivates people.


By Alfred Lansing

I’ve always loved stories – true and fictional – of exploration and adventure. Endurance is the account of how Ernest Shakleton and his crew survived being shipwrecked near the south pole and how Shakleton and a few men mounted a rescue effort. 


Marcus Aurelius

I’ve long been intrigued by ancient philosophers and Marcus Aurelius seems to be the stoic that packs the biggest punch.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein

Empathy, love, patience, and what it means to be human are some of the major themes covered in this book. And I love dogs.