Top Five Books That Changed Our Lives

Top Five is a show where the hosts categorize, rank, compare, and stratify everything… from cars to gadgets to people and movies. From stuff that is hot, and things that are not nearly as interesting – it’s Top Five.

Time to look back and see what things influenced our lives (for good or bad) as we take a look at the top five books that changed our lives.

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About Author

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment. You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...


  1. Native Son by Richard Wright – I was blown away by the analogy of the “rat” in the very beginning of the book representing Bigger Thomas.

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X – all people should read this book and don’t go by the ‘movie’, which leaves out a lot of his life experiences. (Maybe Spike should have made 3 movies like Lord of the Rings?) El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) went through a hell of lot before he joined the Nation of Islam and AFTER he left.

    Why Black People Tend to Shout: Cold Facts and Wry Views from a Black Man’s World by Ralph Wiley – thought provoking and sometimes humorous look at the world through the eyes (and words) of Ralph Wiley

    What Black People Should Do Now: Dispatches From Near the Vanguard by Ralph Wiley – a follow up to Why Black People Tend to Shout – “collection of essays…presents a searing overview of contemporary African American society and issues a scathing indictment of racism in America” (from Amazon)

    Lord of the Flies – another one of my favorite that provides a view of humans without law and order as represented by a group of young boys stranded on an island. Never saw the movie…but found the book to be amazing

  2. Dune – I’m the youngest of 4 kids. My father always read to me when I was really little, once I had learned to read on my own he would bring me home books from the library. I can still see him opening his briefcase and handing me a book like it was a bar of gold. I remember when he handed me Dune I couldn’t get over the size of it or why there was a giant worm on the cover. I was probably 9 or so at the time, the book blew my mind and my Dad and I talked about it for a long time after. He got me all the sequels and anything that Frank Herbert wrote (to this day Herbert is my favorite author). So beyond continuing to feed my love of books and imagination, it was one of the first times I realized that my Dad really loved me, he really wanted to have things that were just between the two of us and really liked being around me. He wanted me to think and explore. I think it also helped the main motivation in the book is the love between father and son and a father’s desire for his son to become his own man and something beyond the father. It was quite a revelation for a 70’s kid to have wearing brown plaid.

    Treasure Island – again one that came to me from my Dad. Another aspect of my childhood is I was a latchkey kid as they called us back then, nowadays they call them kids :) Anyway, from 1st grade on I was home alone often and used to get pretty lonely at times. Treasure Island was a book my dad read to me when I was like two and he gave to me when I was in 1st grade. I think I’ve read it 2000 times or so. It just helped me be at peace with being alone because it really triggered my imagination.

    The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller – some special collection sold in a blue leather book with silver gilded pages. Bought it at Walden Books. I was into comics as a kid but as a teenager I wasn’t into them and Batman to my group was Adam West and not cool. This book changed all that. Batman was really cool and brought me back to comics a bit. The panel of a wounded Batman next to a dead joker with a batterang in his eye is still one I bring up in my mind’s eye.

    Hitchkiker’s Guide – like you guys my experience was weird, blew your mind away, was just so different I gravitated to it. All my friends in high school read it. We watched the show, listened to the radio shows. It turned into a Doctor Who subversive nerd thing that was just fun.

    The Sun Also Rises by Hemmingway. Terse, masculine, alcoholic. Really fell in love with it around 18 years old. One of the first books I read that displayed adults for what they are: a bunch of wounded people constantly seeking happiness and meaning, being afraid of both. Love it.

  3. 5. A Game of Thrones. Because after the series, everyone that heard me talk about these books before the show went “OMG this is so good, what else can I read?” , and that was a really cool moment. People seeing that my tastes weren’t so childish after all made me a lot more open about my tastes (Marvel movies have helped too).

    4. Mygrandpa’s cookbook. The cover and first pages are gone, so I don’t know the author, but I love the content. That boo and my aunt tought me the basics of cooking and drinking wine and now those are two of my favorite things in life.

    3. I’m throwing the Hitchikers Guide in there too, but for different reasons. You can’t read this book translated, in spanish would make no sense, it would be ridiculous, so reading this in english, understing it (even most of the subtleties) and loving it changed the way I think of humor, of life’s ridiculous situations and most of all, the way I think of laguages. Now, I can mumble and stumble my way to a beer in english, german, french and italian, wich is fun. I’m learning japanese next.

    2. And old Dungeon Master’s Guide of and edition I long ago forgot. Because it made me realize that there was no way I could ever run a campaign wih the friends I had, but I still homebrewed something to play in the midle of language class and to this day I remember the wonderment in my players faces when they started running though the map. That tought me the wonder of creating something and now I do that for a living.

    Now, I try to keep a variety on topics in reading and not just stick to nerd subjects, but…

    1. THE HOBBIT. Not because of the content of the book itself, but because of the way I got it. See I grew up in a really small town and books were rare items, but one day I found The Hobbit in the back of a bookstore that mostly sold magazines, and I looked at the yellowish pages (back then JRR Tolkien books were printed in spanish by La Sociedad Tolkien Española, in cheap paper and with missaligned pages), I read it and loved it The thing is they had to special order them from me and from then on, I didn’t just got into books but into anything that peaked my curiosity, I simply had to found a way to get to import them or bootleg them, that’s how I got into Magic, RPG’s, anime and lots and lots of sci fi and fantasy books.
    This book just opened my mind to the possibilities I had even from that little town. I will always be grateful o this book for giving me that perspective of infinite possibilities and “let’s figure out how…”

  4. Here’s my list. I couldn’t figure out how to put it in order:

    1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    This book hit me at the perfect age (13). The narrative structure of the book was unlike anything I had read to that point. The characters were very engaging becasue they were all around my age. The visuals were mesmerizing to my hyperactive imagination at the time. The plot was so engrossing because many of the characters were flawed and challenged my opinions on the normal protagonist/antagonist relationship.
    The most important part of this book that has remained with me for years is that I have identified with different characters and their motivations as I aged.
    I look forward to introducing my eventual child to this book.

    2. Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein
    I had read a few Heinlein novels before this and I was having quite a difficult time understanding why people made such a big deal about the author. This is another book that hit me at about the perfect age (22, I think.)
    This book challenged me on a number of levels, most notably on the purpose of Speculative Fiction as a whole. This book taught me that some of the greatest sci-fi stories use tropes like space ships and blasty-rays as a “palatable veneer” to hide some very challenging opinions and arguments about the issues plaguing current society.
    This book will also challenge your opinions on immortality, a person’s right to die, gender and sexual identity, amongst other things.
    It also will unlock understanding of a huge part of Heinlein’s other novels, which is very convenient.

    3. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
    This is a very dense read. It was given to me by a friend when I was about 16 and I was forced to put this book back on the shelf because I wasn’t able to pierce the dense language and get into the story.
    I am so thankful to have given it a second shot two years later because this is one of the best books I have read about aliens. The writer takes a particular care in presenting the alien race (based on wolves, fyi) as utterly strange, with a different way of processing information and dealing with technology. This was a Really Big Deal for a kid whose experience to aliens was mostly informed by Star Trek and Star Wars, where the aliens were basically human in nature with a slightly different paint job.
    This book taught me that some books are challenging reads but the rewards are generally worth it.

    4. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
    Hyperion was a book that I heard a lot about when I was a younger but never had the guts to pick up. I was so wrapped up enjoying my Star Wars and D&D stories that I felt a strange barrier to entry around something new and something that couldn’t be easily explained on the back of a book.
    I ended up finding a used copy in a store when I was 18-19 and I finally decided to give it a shot. The rich detail and visuals, combined with a narrative structure I had never encountered completely floored me. This was my first time reading a book that introduces a myriad of super-interesting plot threads that DO NOT pay off by the end of the book. Researching the author afterwards, I found out that it was his first SF novel and his second novel ever. It won all of the awards that year.
    This novel was my first experience with literary “Lightning in a bottle”, meaning a first-time novel that completely engrosses all who read it. (Another great example of this is “Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss)

    5. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (Book 1 of the Fionavar Tapestry)
    This is a beautiful example of a book that use the trappings of very well-established settings and story traditions (in this case Tolkien-esque fantasy) and manages to craft something beautiful, new and – to me – very important.
    Most writers wanting to write a fantasy epic would naturally shy away from treading in Tolkien’s wheelhouse, for fear of being dismissed as derivative. But not Kay.
    For those who don’t know, Guy Gavriel Kay was the person brought in by Christopher Tolkien to condense and revise the reams of JRR Tolkien’s notes to synthesize what we know as the Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales. Kay knows the Tolkien stories better than almost anyone alive. He knows that his readers have read and love Tolkien and uses that literacy to his advantage.
    This book (along with the rest of the Fionavar Tapestry) is important to me because it shows that new stories can be created and thrive amongst some of the most played-out tropes in literature. Also, Kay and his protagonists are Canadian. From Toronto, precisely. This was very inspiring to a young me, the fact that in a world dominated by an American point of view, a Canadian voice can achieve so much worldwide.

  5. 5. Matilda (Roald Dahl): I was a nerdy kid and felt like people didn’t understand me. This is a story about a nerdy kid who people don’t understand who ends up getting over on the people who don’t understand her. That and the writing is fantastic.

    4. Johnny Lion’s Book (Edith Thatcher Hurd): First book I read by myself. I’m not a hugely voracious reader, but I used to be. My wife found me a copy of this book for Christmas a few years ago, and I cried like a baby.

    3. Dubliners (James Joyce): I had a gung-ho English teacher in 8th grade, and he had us read some hardcore books. He just expected we would read them and didn’t really entertain the thought that we couldn’t. We really got into the language and sociopolitical commentary that Joyce was giving about Irish history, and it was pretty awesome for 13 year old me. I read it again as a senior in high school with ANOTHER gung-ho English teacher, and we continued to peel back layers and dig even deeper.

    2. Scientific Progress Goes Boink (Bill Watterson): So much of what I know about comedy is due to Calvin and Hobbes. This book opened the floodgates.

    1. The Word on the Street (John McWhorter): Like Rodrigo talks about this episode, I took a linguistics class freshman year of college. I had come from a totally white high school in the north to a college in the south where there were actually people of different colors. Whoa. Actually learning about linguistic diversity was what kind of turned me into a total and utter lefty. I also went on to major in linguistics and I’m almost done with a PhD and have a job as a linguist. McWhorter talks about the same issues that Rodrigo talks about: there are so many ways we discriminate against people, and though it’s not OK to talk about a lot of them in public as much anymore, we can and do make fun of the way people talk. If anyone’s into this kind of thing, Rosina Lippi-Green’s “English With An Accent” is awesome.


    Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)
    The White Boy Shuffle (Paul Beatty)
    Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
    Misery (Stephen King)

  6. So first I have note that I have three of Steven’s top five books SIGNED by the authors (both books by Douglas Adams – in fact I have nearly every book Douglas Adams wrote signed – I was really luck to have met him on a couple book tours many years ago) and I have two copies of the Illuminatus Trilogy each signed by one of the authors. In high school I helped found and run a small science fiction convention at my high school (which is still ongoing – over 20 years later) and one of our first author guests was Robert Shea who at the time lived outside of Chicago. I had the pleasure of by virtue of being one of seniors who had a car having the opportunity to drive up to his house, sit at his kitchen table and have coffee and then drive him down to the convention! I have copies of nearly every book he every wrote signed by him).

    That summer (1991) I volunteered at ChiCon which was the worldcon that year held in downtown Chicago. There I had the fortune to attend a panel which included Timothy Leary, Phillip Jose Farmer, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (plus some other random guy from a publisher who wasn’t entirely sure why he was on that very weird panel). Perhaps the most amazing panel I have ever attended at any convention. I was fortunate to then be able to get Robert Anton Wilson to sign a copy of the Illuminatus Trilogy as well.

    So for my list in no particular order:

    The Illumnatus Trilogy (for many of the same reasons as Steven but with the added reason that I actually got to know the authors to some degree)

    Manual of Chess by Emanuel Lasker. Not just because this is an amazing book on how to play chess (and really how to learn) but also because embedded within it is an amazing book of philosophy that has shaped my entire life. I first bought this from a used bookstore near my home in a battered copy that some previous owner had filled with clippings of chess puzzles and games. I’ve since bought it many more times both for myself to have an easier to read copy and to give as a gift. The approach it takes to learning chess now nearly 100 years later is still unusual – it starts with the endgame and only by the end of the book does it discuss the opening (which is almost exactly the opposite of how every other book on chess teaches you to play).

    The Flavor Principle Cookbook by Elizabeth Rozin. Another book that I have bought many many times (I literally buy nearly every copy of this book I ever encounter in used bookstores). This is a book that thought me how to cook – not because it has amazing recipes (it has good ones but it is a book from the 1970’s and the recipes are dated) but because it is a book that teaches you how flavors are made. Which spices and techniques combine to create the flavors of cuisines around the world. My parents had a copy and getting my own copy was one of the first things I did when I moved out of the house. Reading this book over the years has given me the confidence to cook without a cookbook much of the time – to know how to combine flavors to achieve a desired effect and how to be confident while doing so.

    The Minds I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet – not just because this is a great book but because reading it (along with a bunch of other books) is what shaped my lifelong core philosophy of life – which is Existentialism (and though I was told decades ago that Existentialism is a philosophy for teenagers and I would “grow out” of it – it is still how I live my life and think about the world. This book which I first encountered in a variety of classes in high school was a core part of that love of philosophy which I have pursued since.

    Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) – by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – another book I first read in high school where I read it multiple times in multiple classes in both English and in French. A book that I love and recall very fondly as again it helped shape who I am and how I view and think about the world.

    Honorable mentions would include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I’ve loved in every format (book, radioplay script, tv show and movie) and the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide which was among the many core books of my childhood and shaped my love of gaming (and GMing) that has lasted 30+ years.

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