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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

Books That Changed My Life

Incredible, mind-altering books that shifted my view of the world and changed how I lived my life.

Book spines

I read a lot, and easily go through books the same way some people go through their secret snack stash - greedily, passionately and in no time at all. In my younger days, my parents even complained that I “read too much”, to the exclusion of other things (like housework, which they were trying to get me to do). I also spend a lot of time dreamily browsing through a bookstore, and I share Hermione Granger’s methodology of problem solving: when in doubt, go to the library.

Disney's Beauty & the Beast meme

Why I wanted to be a Disney princess. Source

Throughout my reading career, there were numerous books that rocked my world. A select few, however, blew my mind so much that they actually made me pause and change the trajectory of my life. I changed slightly as a person and lived a little differently than I did before, resulting in what I believe to be a better life for me.

These books are permanent residents on my bookshelf, and I re-read them every time I feel like I’m slipping. They’ve done a lot of good for me, and I’m pretty sure they will do the same for you too. Here are a few of them by category.

Productivity: 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers by Sean Covey (originally by Stephen Covey)

7 habits of highly effective teens

This book is essentially the teenage version of Stephen Covey’s classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, adapted by his very own son, Sean Covey. While the adult version is dry and, well… adultly boring, the teenage version is bursting with juvenile jokes and cartoons to make it more palatable to the younger crowd.

I had this book from the age of 13, and even though I am an adult now and should really switch to the Stephen Covey version, I still prefer this one. (You can, of course, get the more dignified adult version for yourself.)

True to its title, the book talks about 7 habits that, if done well, can really make a huge difference in your life. I won’t go into details, as chances are, you’ve already heard of them - this book isn’t a long-time, classic best-seller just for its pretty cover.

An excerpt from one of the first pages of the book.

This book imparted to my young, impressionable mind the importance of living your life around a set of principles (as opposed to revolving your life around friends, boyfriends, parents, school, stuff…etc), and of consciously planning out your life to the best of your ability (instead of waiting around to let it get the best of you). It set the stage for how I would later run and manage my life during adulthood, and I credit what little success I’ve had to the habits it taught me.

Read this book if… you have a nagging feeling that you can do better in life, but don’t know how.


Finances: Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin, Joseph R. Dominguez & Monique Tilford

Your Money or Your Life

While money can’t buy you happiness, the lack of money can certainly affect it. I started earning and handling my own money in my late teens, and my severe lack of knowledge regarding money matters had me constantly running out and never having enough. It was frustrating, but everyone else seemed to be on the same boat, so I figured life was just like that - you just keep working more for extra money, and continue ad infinitum.

This book, however, completely shifted how I viewed money with the very first paragraph:

"Your money or your life."

If someone thrust a gun in your ribs and said that sentence, what would you do? Most of us would turn over our wallets. The threat works because we value our lives more than we value our money.

Or do we?

The book goes on to explain the concept of putting a price on your life energy, and calculating just how much of it you are giving away in order to earn more money and to own more stuff. This alone will radically impact you, even if you read nothing else from the book. But if you do continue reading, you will then be introduced to the idea of ‘the Fulfilment Curve’ and the realisation that after you get past the point of having ‘enough’, having more and more starts to work against your own well-being.

What this book doesn’t do is go into the details on what to do with your money - you’ll need to look to other resources for that. But I’d argue that you first need to understand your misconceptions about money, how to handle it, and how much of it you truly need before you get obsessed about investment returns, interest rates and alpha values. Get your mindset right, and the rest will come.

Read this book if… you have been struggling with money and want to take control of your finances and your life. Even if you’re not struggling with money, I’d still recommend a read.


Lifestyle: The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris

The 4 hour Workweek

While the title may seem gimmicky and fake, the book itself is chockfull of interesting ideas and tips to handle your workload more effectively and to arrange it in such a way that your job doesn’t become the main event of your life, but a tool that helps you do what you really want to do.

I grew up accustomed to the notion of having to work 30-40 years of my time on this planet on a 9-6 schedule day after day, with a maximum of 2-3 weeks of break annually (assuming the boss approves) to do other non-job-related things. This book introduced me to a different way of working and living, and went into excruciating details on how to make it happen.

Thanks to this book, I got inspired to design and embark on my own mini-retirement. However, not everything in the book will apply to you, and the kind of lifestyle Ferris describes may not even be to your liking. Nevertheless, it will open your mind to the various options you never even knew existed. You will also find very good tips on time management and effective habits to apply to your work. If nothing else, you can at least learn the step-by-step guide on how to persuade your boss to let you work from home more.

Read this book if… you are interested in an alternative to the 9-6, work-until-you’re-65 life path that has been set out for you by society.


Waste: Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

I became engrossed in environmental and sustainability issues from a young age, and am constantly altering and experimenting with my lifestyle and my habits in order to reduce my environmental impact. I am particularly sensitive to the garbage that we generate and dump out into holes in the ground or in the ocean, and over the years have adopted waste-reduction initiatives, such as shunning disposable items, opting into the sharing economy, and more recently, starting my own compost bin.

Despite all my efforts, I was still generating considerable waste, mostly due to modern conveniences that are full of unnecessary packaging and one-time-use disposables. Just buying one meal produced a number of plastic containers, forks, spoons, straws, napkins that all go into the trash can after approximately 10 minutes of use. It seemed impossible to stem the flow of garbage-making.

Then came Bea Johnson who not only demonstrated that it was possible to go zero waste, but who succeeded at it with a husband and 2 growing kids in tow! In this beautifully designed book, she talks about her garbage-awakening and gives detailed tips on how to remove waste from almost every aspect of your life.

Zero Waste Home

This book will make you rethink the things you thoughtlessly throw away, and shows a better and less wasteful way of living that respects the fact that we have limited resources that need to be shared with billions of other people, not to mention other species as well.

If you feel this would be a waste of time because you alone won’t make much of a dent in solving the problem: don’t be fooled. What you do individually does matter collectively (in fact, that’s the only way change ever happens: individually). Irregardless of what other people do (which are out of your control), you yourself are responsible for doing the best that you can.

Read this book if… you are concerned about your environmental impact and want to live more responsibly and gently on this planet.


Ownership & Space: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I don't yet own a physical copy (borrowed it from the library), but I will soon! Source

On a similar vein to the previous book, Marie Kondo shifts the focus from the trash can to the rest of your house. The subject of tidying up may sound trivial, and you may mistake this book as a closet-arranging manual meant for housewives, but it is so much more than that.

While it is true that the main focus is on household items, the core message of the book is about the clutter you allow to linger in your life, way beyond their usefulness and expiration date. This includes the clutter in your head, the clutter in your relationships and the clutter in your daily routines that take up way more physical and temporal space than they should. Marie argues that by tidying your space, your life will follow suit, and I believe she is completely right.

Marie Kondo quote

One of the most well-known concepts in this book is the “spark joy” concept - in which you decide what to keep or remove based on whether the item in question gives you, well, joy. Another is the idea of treating your belongings with respect, as though they are actual living things with feelings - the kind that get sad when they are buried at the back of a closet to be abandoned, and the kind that gets happy when you wear, use or interact with them.

For some of you, all this touchy-feely vagueness may be off-putting, but give the book a chance. You’ll be surprised at how much you are affected by the simple act of putting your belongings in order, and how that percolates to other areas in your life as well.

Read this book if… your mental state is as messy as your room, and you need an effective way to keep things orderly, once and for all.


Economics: Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher

Small is Beautiful

Now we’re entering subjects beyond the personal sphere and into the social sphere. I was given this book as a gift by a friend who sympathised with my frustrations at how society is structured in a way that allows and encourages excessive consumption.

In a time when we are all fixated on exponential growth and stubbornly refuse to recognise just how unsustainable that is, this book presents the idea of scaling back our economies from big, global corporate behemoths to small, community-led entities. While we presently believe that bigger is better, the book argues that “small is beautiful”, and explains why.

You may have noticed a theme that runs through several of the books previously listed above: the philosophy of ‘having enough’. It is present in this book too, but on a global scale rather than the individual scale. This is the first book I’ve read that has managed to articulate it within the context of economics, and it does so beautifully, so much so that this book was ranked among the 100 Most Influential Book Since World War II.

This book was directly and indirectly responsible for many of the movements that are now gaining traction: ‘Buy Locally’, ‘Fair Trade’, ‘Co-operatives’, ‘Farmer’s Markets’…etc - all of which focus on empowering communities at the grassroots level. I too was inspired to ‘go small’ and to rethink how I function within the current economy, which has led to my current homesteading endeavour, starting with building a house on a one-acre land that I hope to turn into a self-sustaining property.

Read this book if… you are open to considering a different way of structuring and running the national or global economy in a way that puts communities, rather than corporations, in the centre, or in other words, an economy that runs “as if people mattered”.


Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson's writings and dry wit. This book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is probably his most ambitious work yet.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

First of all, the book is not short, and second of all, it doesn't actually cover the history of nearly everything. While the title may be misleading, the contents are absolute gemstones, especially if you're a science geek like me, or you appreciate knowing how things come about and how they work.

Bryson sets out to regale you with tales of how the universe got started, how the Earth formed, how life arose from the bubbling sea of chemicals that resulted in (amongst a gazillion other things) homo sapiens... all told in a very easy-going way, interspersed with hilarious snippets of famous scientists squabbling like children that read almost like a tabloid magazine. If you don't like science, it's likely because you have never had someone like Bill Bryson explain it to you.

Every time I get a little jaded with life, or find myself bored with "the same ol' things", I re-read this book to remind myself of what an amazing world I get to live in, and how astonishingly little we know about it, even after all this time.

I'm bored is a useless thing to say...

A pretty accurate summary of my takeaway from this book

Read this book if… you are curious about the universe we live in and the atoms that come together to make you (and everything else you see), and you want an entertaining summary of what happened from the Big Bang until now.


Religion: A History of God by Karen Armstrong

A History of God

It’s extremely difficult to objectively talk about religion or God without getting all huffy about it, but I think that Karen Armstrong managed to do it in her ambitious tome. When I went on my second umrah (mini-pilgrimage in Mecca, different from the major one known as Hajj), this was the book I carried with me.

Rather than a history of God per say, it is actually a history of humans, how they relate to God and how their beliefs about Him have evolved throughout the ages. The book sweeps through 4,000 years of Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs, and also includes Buddhism and Hinduism as well. You’d think this would result in a dense, impossible-to-read book, but I found it very readable and eye-opening.

Growing up, my peers and I often studied our religion in isolation, with elders warning us against ‘exploring’ other religions in case we get ‘corrupted’. A shame, really, because there is so much to be gained from understanding how other faiths were shaped, and how yours were inevitably influenced by them. Luckily, I got the opportunity to undertake inter religious studies in college (having grown old enough to make my own decisions), and I have found this book to be the best resource thus far.

This book is not for spiritual guidance within a particular faith, and it does not criticise or defend one religion over another. It is simply an attempt at a historical account that identifies certain patterns and linkages between the different faiths from a decidedly Western perspective. If this is your first time reading about something beyond your own religion, do it with an open mind.

Read this book if… you are interested in learning about the evolution of mankind’s belief in God, the different manifestations of faith that resulted, and how it all relates to us now.

General advice: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The Prophet

While I can’t specifically pinpoint how this book changed my life, it is just too awesome to not be included.

A relatively short and easy read (especially compared to all the other books listed above), the book begins with a prophet sadly bidding goodbye to his people. The crowd sees him off, but before letting him go, they ask for any last words he has to give. Turns out he has a lot more to say. Thereafter, the book is divided into chapters addressing major themes in life, like love, pain, marriage, children… etc. And all this in what I can only describe as sublime prose.

And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life,

your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart,

even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Oh wow. After reading that, who can look at pain the same way? Bring on the winters of my grief!

Read this book if… you like good, sensible life advice written in gorgeous poetry.


So, what are your selections for books that changed your life? Let me know!

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