Ten books that influenced me

Updated: 1 day ago

These ten books influenced how I see the world and think about it. A few also contributed to me becoming a digital nomad.

I arranged the list more or less chronologically as I read the books, but I can't remember the exact sequence. In some cases, an author wrote several books that influenced me, but I stuck to one per author for this list.

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

Published: 1943

I read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in high school. Neither book made me an "objectivist" (Rand's term for adherents of her philosophy) but they gave me a good grounding for preferring a capitalist/freemarket-based approach to economical life over a socialist approach. They also made me wary of that wishy-washy approach where "everyone's a winner" and where all arguments in a debate should be given equal airtime and respect, no matter how idiotic and inconsistent some of those arguments are.

I chose The Fountainhead for this list because I think it is more relevant nowadays than Atlas Shrugged. The capitalist vs. socialist debate of Atlas Shrugged is more or less over, whereas there's still a proliferation of people in public life who channel Ellsworth Toohey, the wiley antagonist in The Fountainhead, by demanding respect for their ideas and beliefs irrespective of the actual content of those ideas and beliefs. The same goes for identity politics, even though I don't remember Ayn Rand predicting or commenting on this as such in her books.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Published: 1949

While Ayn Rand attacked communism and totalitarianism in her novels with monologue chainsaws that grind on and on, Orwell used the scalpel of satire. I much prefer the latter's style! I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four and then, some time later, Animal Farm (I think both when I was in high school).

I've put Nineteen Eighty-Four on the list because, again, the great communist/socialist experiment of the 20th century that Animal Farm satirises has well and truly failed, whereas Nineteen Eighty-Four is still very topical with Big Brother and newspeak proliferating. "It's not a war, it's a special military operation." "We're not firing you, we're relieving you of your duties."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Published: 1979

This is the book that I've reread the most (I think I lost count after the tenth time) and I can quote from it at length.

A friend of my father gave me his copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was about 19 or 20 years old. I grew up in a morally repressive society, and the offbeat irreverence with which Adams approaches issues such as religion and pomposity in this novel and its sequels played a big role in freeing my mind.

There's a conversation between Man and God in which God inadvertently reasons himself out of existence. It ends with, "'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic." I credit this heretical passage with setting in motion the process by which I started to subject faith to rationality and eventually became an atheist.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Published: 1961

I don't see this as an anti-war novel. It's an anti-stupidity novel that happens to have a war as its setting. The kind of thinking and behaviour that it satirises are found in all types of organisation.

Catch-22 did, however, make it easier for me to maintain my sanity when I was a conscript in the South African Defence Force a year or so after having read it, even though I did not have to fly bombing missions or even point a rifle at anyone.

For instance, it put me in the frame of mind to stay calm and laugh inwardly when a major-general went apoplectic on my arse because I had the audacity to ask him to fax me a document (those were the days!) instead of driving all the way across town to fetch the document from him in person.

The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf

Published: 1990

I felt a bit silly that I had to read a book to point out something to me that should actually be so glaringly obvious: the double standard by which women are judged not only on their skills, experience, qualifications, and so on, but also (and many times primarily or only) on their physical appearance.

I do not agree with Wolf about the extent to which this is a conscious conspiracy against women. I reckon it has much more to do with men and women carelessly and irrationally allowing their natural sexual urges to unfairly influence decisions that have nothing to do with sex. But the book did play a role in helping me to recognise and check this behaviour in myself.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

Published: 1976

Understanding that the gene is the base unit of reproduction and that organisms (including humans) are the vehicles for this reproduction process required a mind-shift as radical for me and many others as did the revelation centuries ago that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around.

Humans (and the planet we live on) are not "special" in the bigger scheme of things. This makes religious types uncomfortable, and I guess that is why there are so many haters of this book.

I find it interesting that some people freely accept that genes influence the physical characteristics as well as the behaviour of animals (think fight-or-flee, herd instinct, and so on), but they balk at the thought that genes might also influence (not determine) human behaviour. Accepting (and researching) the possibility that our genes may play a role in unacceptable behaviour such as sexism, racism, and xenophobia and not insisting that these are all 100% learned behaviours could go some way towards countering them more effectively.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman

Published: 1999

A very readable (if somewhat gushing) explainer on the rise of globalisation (the Lexus, symbolising globalised supply chains that transcend nations and cultures) and why some people are opposed to it (the olive tree, symbolising a tendency to be firmly rooted in identity and traditions).

The book was published in 1999. I read it shortly after the dot-com crash of 2000 and wondered whether it would age well. Now it seems to me that, while some of the examples are outdated, its basic premise still holds. For instance, the book helped me to understand (but definitely not sympathise with) the thinking behind the 9/11 attacks and Brexit.

An interesting and alarming development that I don't remember Friedman foreseeing or discussing in his book is olive tree-minded autocracies using the tools of globalisation to further their cause, e.g. "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" and Russian spooks using social media to spread disinformation.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter

Published: 1997

Like Kiyosaki, I grew up in a household where personal finances weren't discussed much, let alone the ins and outs of being an entrepreneur or investor. Taking out a life insurance policy with an endowment was considered high finance.

You were expected to get a degree, get a steady job, earn a salary, get promoted, and then retire. Nothing wrong with this career path, by the way.

However, this book taught me financial literacy and opened my eyes to the possibility of rather making money by being an entrepreneur and investor (Rich Dad) than earning money as a salaried employee (Poor Dad). So, I restructured my career accordingly over the course of more than a decade.

Perversely, I will probably end up poorer (or rather, less rich) than I would have been if I had stuck with my salaried, corporate career. This is not because the advice in the book is crap, it is because I enjoy the freedom not to have to work too hard and to work from anywhere in the world. Basically, I'm kinda lazy and value quality of life more than raking in more and more money.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Published: 1997

This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, uses a transdisciplinary approach to explore the rise of civilisations to figure out why those from the Eurasian continent and North Africa were able to conquer and colonise others, and not the other way around.

It explains the gaps in power and technology at the time and the ongoing Eurasian hegemony by pointing out the advantages and positive feedback loops bestowed on some civilisations by factors such as geography, climate, and the availability of natural resources, thereby dismantling the notion that Eurasians were or are inherently superior. One example: Which civilisations had access to animal species that could be domesticated to become labour-saving beasts of burden? Eurasians - you bet! South Americans - not so much.

As a white African whose paternal ancestor arrived on the continent from Europe in 1666, and having grown up in a country where race was (and is) a very contentious issue, I found this fascinating. It is also a useful lens through which to view the history of countries as I travel around the world. I sit writing this in Grenada, a former French and later British colony where the earlier inhabitants, the Caribs, were all but wiped out by the colonialists.

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

Published: 2007

Looking at synopses of the book now, it is clear that Ferriss was waaay ahead of his time with regards to remote work and being a digital nomad, although I don't remember him even using the latter term in his book.

In 2008 I lived in Kenya, working for a salary, and this made me appreciate how much richer one's experience of a country is when you live and work there, as opposed to swanning through on a two-week holiday. Over the next few years, I realised that I wanted to live and work in many, many more countries.

In spite of the extreme self-helpy style in which it is written, this book (together with Rich Dad, Poor Dad) showed me how it was feasible to make my dream come true.