We are surrounded by words, and often throwaway words that don’t matter—our brains filled with buzzwords and jargon, all jumbled like the back of the coat closet. These words may get stuck in our head, but they rarely change us for the better.
But good words stick with us. A good book changes us. The right words speak out what we have hidden in the deepest of places. A good book lifts our eyes beyond the ordinary and shifts our perspective. A phrase or word picture or story immediately can lodge into our memories, and somehow becomes our own.
This is the power of good words—they are perspective-shifting, heart-understanding, life-changing. So here we offer our top ten books (with our own subtitles) that can change your life:
10: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller
aka: Get a life
“The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”
Donald Miller captures the zeitgeist of a generation with his reflections on what it means to live a bigger story. By 25, you’ve probably experienced the “who am I and what am I doing” reality of adulthood. Miller’s book will help you take the next step into a better story.
9: Let Your Life Speak, by Parker Palmer
aka: You have a calling
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”
In this small but memorable book, Palmer walks us through what it means to live out a “vocation,” capturing the essence of the call that God places in each of our lives. It’s worth reading just for the story about Palmer’s own revelation with the Quaker “clearness committee.”
8: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
aka: Making sense of suffering
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Frankl tells the true story of his survival from Auschwitz concentration camp, interspersed with his wise reflections on true meaning, suffering and love. It’s a short book, but a deep read—and you’ll be a deeper person yourself by the time you turn the last page.
7: Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
aka: How to grow up and get healthy
“With the freedom that Christ has given you, you have to be responsible for your life and existence.”
I consider this book Adulthood 101. Why you relate to others the way you do, what’s yours to “own” and how to let go of what’s not—it’s all in here. This is my most-recommended book for young adults.
6: Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
aka: Why you should care about social justice
“More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”
With this, Kristoff and WuDunn create a compelling, convicting case for the plight of women and girls throughout the developing world—and what we can do about it. If you weren’t passionate about social justice before you read this book—buckle up. Your eyes and heart are about to be opened, which is a very good thing to happen to you in your twenties.
5: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
aka: Blow-you-away writing & wisdom
“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.”
This is the only work of fiction in the list (and of course we could recommend much more!), but Robinson is a seeker of the deep places in life, and she writes brilliantly about them. Expect to read this slowly and think about what really matters in life.
4: Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
aka: As honest as you wish you could be
“Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.”
In this poignant memoir of authentic faith, Lamott will make you laugh, cry and worship God all in one paragraph. Irreverent, witty and real, Lamott is a voice that will help you own the reality of your own brokenness while coming closer to a real understanding of grace. And if there’s anything we need to sustain us through our twenties and beyond, it’s just that.
3: Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
aka: Readable, practical theology
“Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.”
It’s the quintessential modern classic on understanding and living out the Christian faith. If you’ve heard C.S. Lewis quoted time and again but never actually read his work, start here.
2: Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning
aka: You know a lot and trust a little, and that’s the problem
“Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it.”
A spiritual director once told Brennan Manning that he had all the spiritual insights to cover him for a lifetime—what he needed was to trust. This book invites you to consider what truly delights God and what your heart is longing for—to free fall into a trusting relationship with your Heavenly Father.
1: The Bible
aka: Finding God
I was talking recently with a young woman about faith. She said to me, “I get God loves me but I just don’t understand why Jesus had to die.” We talked for almost an hour. I wrote down a dozen books for her to read. I prayed for her.
And as she turned to walk away, I asked her, “Have you read the Bible?” She shrugged. “Not really.” I took back the sheet of paper I had written on, scratched out every book recommendation and wrote “Matthew. Mark. Luke. John.”
You may find the Bible complicated or confusing or terribly boring. You may think you’ve learned everything there is to know in that book, back in your VBS or Sunday School days. Or, maybe you don’t know much about it at all and the whole prospect is daunting. But if you are seeking God, seeking true life, seeking the bigger story, you have to read it. Don’t study it, don’t pick it apart, don’t tattoo it on your bicep. Just read it. Read it all the way through, read it again. Read it often and repeatedly. In it you’ll find words of life, clarity, meaning, direction, purpose. But more than anything—you’ll find in the Bible the voice of God and the closeness of real relationship with Him.
Certainly, lists can only go so far. But I would never put a cap on the number of life-formative books you should read. So what’s missing from this list? What would you add to it?