A friend posed the challenge: which 12 books have impacted me the most? (Note, not those I enjoyed the most or am most proud to have read). So here it is, in the approximate time order. On a different day, the list might be different. I am a little surprised at the list, myself.
1. (1960's) The King James Bible, by (various authors): I was required to read this in church from about the age of 8 years old, and read much of it again later in life out of sheer fascination for its beautiful language and varied content, as well as to help fend off attacks by my near-ultra-religious relatives. Though I am no Biblical scholar or an expert, I've also read several books about The Bible, and during my graduate studies, I translated several fragments of the old testament written in Old High German and Middle High German. I've even read about the history of the Bible and its myriad translations and all the politics surrounding that. It's a pretty fascinating and raucous history.
2. (1970's) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: I didn't exactly enjoy this book, but it expressed so much of my own frustration that had never before been uttered,ranging from whether having children should be the entire focus of a woman's life to why women shave their legs and dress as they do. This book was, for me and many others of my generation, sane-making. It helped rescue us from a deep sea of expectations surrounding our femaleness.
3. (1970's) Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) by Rainer Maria Rilke: This rambling novelette is, among other things a retelling of the prodigal son tale; it contains an unforgettable description of death by illness, as well as many thought-provoking, poetic sequences. There exists no more thorough an exploration of how people live than this. All of Rilke's writings remains on my bookshelf in both English and German. Read it in German if at all possible.
4. (1980's) Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane: This haunting novel is not generally available in English, though one can find (with difficulty) an out-of-print British translation entitled "Beyond Recall". The title literally means "Unbringbackable". The plot is deceptively simple: a religious and serious-minded woman marries a responsible but light-hearted nobleman, they have two kids and live by the sea peacefully for years, until the husband becomes infatuated with a young woman at court and leaves the wife (only to be rejected immediately by his young girlfriend). Husband and wife eventually reunite, but soon afterwards, she commits suicide. The novel has linguistic motifs in the same way that "Peter and the Wolf" has musical motifs. Reams have been written about this book, and it has been televised and made into movies (in German) more than once. The German text is available free for electronic readers.
5. (1980's) The complete set of books by George Ohsawa and Herman Aihara about food and health: These two authors first explained to English speakers how to eat (seasonally, locally, and by other measures) for good health per the philosophy of traditional oriental medicine. In this crazy world, it's still probably the best food advice to be had. I forgave the authors some excesses and distilled the best of their writings for my own use, with good results.
6. (1990's) The Religions of Man by Huston Smith: Smith was a well-known professor of religious studies, and he wrote this book as a teaching aid. The first dozen pages of Smith's two chapters on Jesus and the Buddha are without parallel; Smith presented Jesus and Gautama as great and compassionate radicals with much in common with each other. Because of this book, I did a bunch of additional reading about Buddhism and Taoism, in particular.
7. (1990's) Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill. This description of a woman who started out life penniless and homeless, and who in her middle years founded a religion which is still going strong decades after her death, is astonishing. It is also well documented due to the Christian Science church having given the author unprecedented access to their archives. The wealthy, elderly Ms. Eddy ended up becoming the nemesis of Mark Twain, of all people on earth--which only goes to prove that reality is stranger than fiction.
8. (2000's) Lincoln Reader, by various; edited by Paul M. Angle. This dog-eared old book, dated 1947, was found in my father-in-law's library. Like many before me, I found myself glued to this book, rereading parts of it many times, and then I read several additional books about Lincoln, whose life defied all expectations.
9. (2000's) Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. This book by a bug expert spoke to the bird lover in me, and as a result, I completely changed my gardening habits and which trees and plants I would tolerate in my yard. Bug-eaten plants which I had formerly rejected started to look good because I realized they were "in the food chain" of wildlife and thus helped the native flora and fauna, as opposed to imported plants which are resistant to local pests and also quite often dangerously invasive.
10. (1990's) Jesus, A Life by A. N. Wilson: This iconoclastic "biography" of Jesus sifts through the morass of myth surrounding this historical figure and discusses what is knowable--and not knowable--about Jesus as a man.
11. (2000's) Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. The war on junk, materialism, and stuff is endless in American society. I already knew I needed less stuff and more meaning in my life. This practical how-to manual, filled with humor, helped me know how to go about it. I ignored a lot of the Feng Shui part, but the clutter-clearing advice in this book is unsurpassed. And, she will make you laugh.
12. (2010's) The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This book by a modest and honest man impressed me and reminded me what is important. Tolle has studied all over the world in order to distill out the best parts from many traditions in an attempt to suffer less emotionally and to know how to live.