When my editor asked me for some favorite books, I started thinking about the stories that have had the biggest influence on my life.
Next was a collection of twenty-some volumes – my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica, which introduced me to the breadth of knowledge in the world. Where else could I have learned about armadillos, armor, spacecraft, steamships, dinosaurs, domiciles, and zebras? I’m sad to think that wonder of the print world is about to vanish after 240 years of continuous publication, though it will continue online.
As I became a teenager, I entered a period where I read more for entertainment than knowledge. I devoured the novels of Rex Stout and Graham Greene and discovered science fiction like Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. James Clavell’s Tai-Pan and Shogun stories got me through several rainy weekends, and I thought of them as I watched ships inbound from Asia in Boston Harbor.
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The Millionaire Next Door came out in 1996, just as I was moving my automobile business to its present location in Springfield, Massachusetts. Tom Stanley’s insights totally reshaped how I saw work, myself, and the worth of my labors. Its messages – including the fact that most millionaires are ordinary small business people, not fancy corporate executives – are just as meaningful today as they were then.
A short while later, I learned about my own mind and how I differ from most other people by reading Dr. Tony Attwood’s Asperger’s Syndrome. His explanations of how people on the autism spectrum see the world transformed my life as much as anything before or since. Even now, I could not recommend a better first book for someone learning about Asperger’s syndrome.
A few years after that, my brother Augusten took up the book writing trade. When his second book, Running with Scissors, came along, I was almost afraid to show it to friends or clients at my company. After growing up in an abusive and dysfunctional home, I had worked hard to conceal the less savory aspects of my youth. With no warning, my brother put it all out there for the world to see, and I was terrified. Would I have any friends left after they read his account of our childhood?
To my amazement, friends and clients alike embraced his story. Instead of reacting with horror, they showed warmth, compassion, and a sense of wonder that we’d both turned out so well. The acceptance of RWS helped free me of the shame of my past, and set me on the track that led to my own memoir, Look Me in the Eye.
Most recently, I’ve enjoyed the controversial new book from Charles Murray, Coming Apart. I’m always fascinated by sociological studies and this one gave me a lot to ponder.
Before that, I enjoyed Donovan Hohn’s Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea, which led me to spend several evenings researching drift, ocean currents, and manufacturing in China. The story made me want to cast away my own message in a bottle, but I’m nowhere near an ocean at this moment.
Tonight I’m partway through William Broad’s The Science of Yoga. I was interested in this book because my wife has gained great benefit from yoga, and I’m hoping to find out why in its pages.
Like everyone else, I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, and I followed that by re-reading Bukowski’s timeless novel, Post Office. Of the leading characters in these two books, I have to say that Bukowski’s drunk, lecherous, and mostly autobiographical mailman was by far the more sympathetic and entertaining. Jobs may have been a wonderful visionary and tremendously successful, but he wasn’t very likeable at all. It just goes to show that nice guys can still finish last, in fiction and in real life.
What will I read tomorrow? Whatever catches my eye at our local bookseller, I suppose. I’m lucky to live in a college town, where books are still treasured and dogs run free in the yard.
JOHN ELDER ROBISON lives with his wife and son in Amherst, Massachusetts. His company, J E Robison Service, repairs and restores fine European automobiles.