I read a lot. Since 2009 my acquired disability has obliged me to rely more on Kindle and audiobooks. At the time of writing, my list of audiobooks, kept from early December 2020, stands at 219 (the latest being Tom Fort’s wonderful The Book of Eels). That’s better than 5 a month. I am not boasting, just providing evidence to back up my claim. Academics will wonder what I am talking about – but I had a fulltime job until June last year. As a hobby reader, its okay. Add Kindle books and podcasts to the list, and I have to confess I am a bit of an ideas junkie.
So, I thought it might be fun to share my top books that blew my mind. There aren’t a lot. In fact, at the time of drafting this essay I could think on only 6. In the end I got to 11 – and decided to quit there.
That does not mean there are only 11 books I would recommend. No, these are books that flipped my thinking on its head and obliged me to reimagine what was possible to think.
Back, around 1990, my life was in a period of crisis on many levels. I was talking to a colleague who had decided she had a need to explore the spiritual dimension. She was aware of my interest. I was dismayed to discover that nothing I said made any sense to her. I had spent the past 12 years immersed in esoterica; and had developed no capacity to communicate anything of meaning to anybody outside the jargon bubble.
Worse, I had been concerned for a few years that even among my fellow devotees of the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca, few had any ideas that went beyond devotion and into speculation and inquiry. We recited jargon and dogma to each other. But we could not move into critical inquiry.
What alarmed me most was the realisation that I was in a community which had no incisive critique of the contemporary world. I loved Wicca. I retain a deep affection for it. But if it talked twaddle about contemporary reality, it wasn’t useful to me. As a personal practice it is fine, but as a mode of interpreting contemporary human reality it lacked what I needed.
It is quite clear that the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca satisfy the needs of adherents. I offer no criticism of either. I am explaining why they didn’t meet my needs. This may help others.
I was attracted to both, because I needed an explanatory model that helped me make sense of my experiences in the contemporary world. I wasn’t looking for absolute answers, just a tool to help me make sense. I suspect this motive drives others to ‘belief systems’. What I needed was an ‘inquiry system’.
This became clear when I had the opportunity to engage with discarnate teacher. Now before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am aware of all the objections to such an idea. It was a subject I researched intensely. I am satisfied that what I am about to say is grounded in reality.
After being ejected from 2 esoteric groups for asking too many questions and not consenting to agree to believe what was demanded, I was concerned that I was the one with ‘the problem’.
The advice I received was that I was on a different path, more like doing a PhD as opposed to coursework. Back then, I had no idea what that meant, but at the time I was happy for the affirmation of apparent intellectual superiority. What an idiot I was. Just over 2 decades later I was to discover my own weaknesses in performing a formal research project. I started my research degree in 2002; and finished it in 2009. That was a very difficult and painful time. I nearly quit several times.
Now that advice makes perfect sense. That guidance also was very clear about something else. He was not there to tell us stuff, but to teach us how to learn. Around 40 years on, that’s starting to make sense.
At the time there was a growing passion for people having contact with their own guides. That led to a bunch of sentimental claptrap being passed off as messages from Pleiadians, and archangels. Most of it was delusional nonsense perpetrated by gentle souls who did not understand their limits of their ability to transmit messages – nearly all of which germinated in their innocent conceits and gentle follies.
I am not dismissing the idea of contact from the metaphysical dimensions, just asserting a need for a strong critical assessment of claimed contact. Most of it is BS.
There’s a reason there are no ‘new age’ texts on my list. But works by discarnate teachers are. They are challenging and demanding – confronting my conceits. Whether they really are from discarnate teachers isn’t the point. Being challenged by coherent, surprising and disturbingly plausible ideas is.
My Top 11 Books
1. Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, Paul Brunton, published in 1900
I started to read this book when I was 16. It took me nearly 18 months to finish it. I’d read a paragraph or 2 and fall asleep. It wasn’t that I was tired, or bored – just overwhelmed by the ideas. This book changed my life. Because of it, I quit school and gave up plans to go to university and study geology. Depending on your perspective it either ruined or made my lifepath.
I bought a copy a few years ago with the intent to revisit it, but I haven’t opened it. Not sure I will.
2. The Betty Book, Stewart Edward White, published 1937
I can’t recall how I came across this book – probably found it in a bookshop. Because of my direct experience with ‘channelling’ in the late 1970s I needed to do some research – to get my head around the phenomenon.
This was a foundational read for me. White’s The Unobstructed Universe is a companion piece. Both opened me up to a new source of ideas. The Betty of the title dies and speaks through Joan. The ideas are challenging, sophisticated, and coherent. This is what ‘channelled’ material should be. Otherwise, it’s of no use.
3. Journeys Out of the Body, Robert Monroe, published in 1971
I read this in the late 70s. My girlfriend had bought it after she had a series of spontaneous out of body experiences. I had one several months after. Monroe has unwelcome spontaneous out of body experiences, fears he is ill or going mad, and then discovers he is neither. Being consciously one of one’s body is quite something. It suddenly hammers home the proposition that we are more than our bodies in a veery empirical way.
4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Persig, published in 1974
I read this in the early 80s and bought the audiobook in 2019. I had a memory of being deeply moved by the book, but when I listened to the audiobook it was as if I had never read it.
The book triggered strong self-reflection, both times. Even now I struggle to recall details. I have no doubt it would seem unfamiliar again; when I choose to listen to it again (it’s on my modest bucket list). It remains one of the most extraordinary books I have encountered.
5. Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick, published in 1987
I read this in the mid 1990s. Chaos theory just blew my mind. I saw the world differently thereafter.
6. Out of Control, Kevin Kelly, published in 1994
The mid 90s was a great time for ideas, for me. Kelly’s book added a dimension of complexity and subtlety to thinking about Chaos. It was a heady and wild ride into a blizzard of ideas.
7. Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, published in 1995
Another mid to late 90s read. The title drew me in. This was when I began to properly appreciate the value of emotions. I had been head focused until then, and this corrective was essential.
8. The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals, William D. Gairdner, published in 2009.
I read this in 2010. It’s a book I must revisit. The idea of universal values is powerful, and Gairdner’s arguments were compelling. He wrote it as an antidote to relativism.
9. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop, published in 2014
This is the most extraordinary book. Siedentop explores the evolution of the idea of the individual in European culture – arguing that it arises out of Christianity – perhaps in an unintended way. It is a masterpiece of scholarship and critical thought.
10. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan, published in 2015
History, as we see it, it centred on Europe. Frankopan moves that ‘centre’ to the ‘Middle East’ and obliges us to rethink what we thought we understood. It’s a powerful transformation, and I loved every minute of it. He has a follow up as well.
11. Rita’s World, Frank DeMarco, published 2017
DeMarco is, in a way, a new version of White. The Rita of the title and DeMarco are both associated with the Monroe Institute. Rita dies and she and DeMarco talk, and that becomes a book (well, one of several). I have read 6 of DeMarco’s books. As with White, the ideas are coherent, sophisticated and challenging.
While all 11 books profoundly impacted my thinking, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Inventing the Individual and The Silk Roads also stand out as masterpieces as reading experiences. Engaging with them was an intellectually and spiritually sensuous experience. I can’t ask for more than that from any book.
I love books. I have had to give up the 3D versions for ebooks and audiobooks because my manual disabilities have turned the pleasure turning pages from a loving caress into a chore. I still have books on the shelves in front of me. But they are more fond reminders and silent companions than sources. To be honest, ebooks and audiobooks are way cheaper by a huge margin.
It took me 18 months to get through Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga when I was 16-17. My second reading of Inventing the Individual took me just under 12 months. Brunton taxed my 16 year old consciousness. A paragraph could knock me out. Siedentop was such sheer pleasure I sipped him slowly, like a 20-year old single malt.
Reading is transformative in ways other forms of engaging with ideas cannot be. This is because each paragraph is an intimate encounter an idea that can challenge and transform in a way the reader can manage.
For me the best books are about challenging what I think. They confront me and oblige me to wrestle with ideas, which may be difficult, novel, or ideas that make me uncomfortable. In the privacy of my mind and imagination I can have that struggle on my own terms – fast or slow – so long as I honour the challenge.