3 Most Formative Books

3books.co is Neil Pasricha’s ambitious project to uncover and discusses the 3 most formative books of inspiring people so that he can compile a list of the 1000 most formative books in the world. I heard about the project from an interview Neil did with Dr. David Van Nuys on Shrink Rap Radio.

I quickly became a regular listener to 3 Books, and have decided to make my own list. I like the word “formative.” Not favorite or “best” books, but the ones that formed you.

What books shaped me the most? These three:

Spiral Dynamics Integral – by Don Beck, 2006 by Sounds True

The Pagan Temptation – by Thomas Molnar, 1987 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing CO

These books fall roughly into the three categories of books that I’m drawn to year after year. Books of new ideas and theories (Spiral Dynamics), books about religion or spirituality (Pagan Temptation) and books that move me with their story and prose.

As a highly sensitive person (or empath in the colloquial terminology) I exhibit the characteristics that HSP expert Elaine Aron summarizes as DOES

  • D is for Depth of Processing
  • O is for Overstimulation
  • E is for Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
  • S is for Sensing the Subtle

I particularly think about the D and S in this Acronym because what I look for in a book is one that allows me to go deep, and also to appreciate the subtle. These books do both those things and more.

The Pagan Temptation

I start with The Pagan Temptation because it has been with me the longest and sets a standard not referenced in the DOES acronym above. There is a lot of academic rigor in the book, see my earlier review of it here. I tend to like popular books written by academics. They are readable, but also reliable. This is not some flaky religious tract.

And speaking of flaky religious tracts, for over 15 years I worked at various Christian bookstores while I completed high school, went to college, and started a family. During that time I read hundreds of Christian books, beginning with C.S. Lewis as a teen, and ending with Robert Capon and Frederic Buechner in my thirties.

The theme in all those books was depth, metaphor, story telling, and the sense of wonder and mystery that kept me within a religious world view. My catch phrase in those years was, “God is bigger than we think.”

But during University, I experienced two profound things. One was a glimpse at the true scale of intellectual ability, and the other was a dawning realization of the shortcomings of the Christian world view. I met individuals there who were so much more adept at thinking than I was, it caused me actual panic. It was the “small fish in a big pond” phenomenon. I was surrounded by people who could grasp concepts and retain knowledge by simply going to class, where as I had to think and study and cram for exams. As I began to ask questions about the integration of western academic knowledge with my faith I believed I would find a modern day C.S. Lewis who could show me what I was missing and help me integrate the two views of the world. After years of searching I eventually abandoned that hope. Buechner and Capon were amazing, and the scholars of the Jesus Seminar helped me see the Bible in the right light, but ultimately, it was not enough.

My story could have been like so many who leave the church, or a religion, or turn in anger to a new fundamentalism like atheism. But Thomas Molnar kept me from rejecting Christianity and doing that.

Not because I was ultimately swayed by some argument “against pagans” but precisely because he argued so well for them.

Here was a man who clearly understood, to a profound depth, the thoughts and ideas of great minds. Great minds regardless of their world view. He understood the pagans as deeply as he understood the Christians.

Here was a man who fairly, dare I say eloquently, represented the thoughts and idea of people he disagreed with. Not just eloquently – convincingly.

On page 71 of the book Molnar introduced me to Nicholas of Cusa and I staggered with recognition as, a few pages later, Molnar laid out in one paragraph the reasons old Nick empathized with pagan thinkers while he strained towards a natural religion. I review that paragraph now and it holds no particular power for me. It is succinct and well said, but there is only mild admiration. Younger me, wrestling with the limited and limiting world view of Evangelical Christianity found himself leaping into the air and pumping his fists over his head shouting, “Yes, yes, yes. This is me, this is it exactly.”

What was the “it” that so connected with me? It was the troubling nature of three central Christian tenants: The immortality of the soul, the incarnation, and the centrality of faith. Molnar said, “…many people then, and many others since then, have found the Christian tension of faith and reason unbearable.”

Reading on, page after page, I came to a grudging realization. One of the most capable and fair minds in the western history of academia, Thomas Molnar, could understand this tension, and live with it himself, year after year, eventually writing a book about it, but never the less continuing to bear it.

What we think of as unbearable, what we quickly want to dismiss, to run from, is actually worth bearing. Later I would discover Kierkegaard, and realize that the thesis – antithesis – synthesis model was there in all my favorites. It was there in Buechner, it was there in Jesus, for crying out loud. Nicolas of Cusa lived it. So many people fell in love with it, this enlightenment via a wrestling match with apparent contradictions.

Spiral Dynamics Integral

Finding Spiral Dynamics was like finding the key to understanding people and their tribes and communities. I studied psychology at UVIC but found only behaviorism, schedules of reinforcement, and philosophical discussions about Kant and perception. Interesting, but limited.

Spiral Dynamics is practical and grand. It explains so much and with such clarity. I went on to read Ken Wilbur, but honestly, mostly, you just need Beck. Wilbur makes it complicated, Beck makes it simple.

And Don Beck tells stories of using this theory around the world. I have not gone back to read this book for this review. What I’m sharing here is the echo of a big bang. I should go back and listen to this again because people tell me it is more like listening to an evangelist than a TED Talk. “If only people really got this!” Beck seems to be saying. Well, yeah, that is exactly how i feel too.

Why is this theory so important? Based on the work of Clare W. Graves, who, by most accounts was a methodical and careful researcher, the theory arose from Graves’ frustration with not being able to answer his students questions with any confidence when they asked him about competing psychological theories. I remember my own time in Dr. Paine’s class at UVIC and hearing a student ask who was more credible, Freud or Jung. “Neither,” was Paine’s sharp response, “they essentially made up their theories from subjective observation of their patients.”

But not Graves. He was in the scientific world view, looking at the great complexity of the human behaviour. His  “Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory” is the basis for Spiral Dynamics. the idea is that there are cycles of development within individuals and groups that progress up a set of memes or fundamental concepts that organize thought and communities. If you are living within a world view you see the world differently than someone with a different world view. You actually interpret data differently. And you tend to seek out people with the same view because they make sense to you.

I saw pretty quickly that my Evangelical Christian friends were operating in the blue meme. They were people of the book, of the law, and my college friends were operating in the orange meme, the world of looking beyond the rules, being innovative, and employing the thesis/antithesis method to find more and deeper truth. And my new friends, the liberal tree-hugging empaths, had gone beyond that to the green meme. It all made so much sense and gave me great relief.

I have lived with this idea for about a decade now, eventually internalizing the model so that I can spot where a person is operating from on the spiral. I see how people move up and down the spiral depending on their perception of threat. When threat is low, they function high on the spiral, when threat is high, they slip down, looking to science, then to the law, then to powerful leader, finally to magic thinking. And I’ve come to see that all of these levels of authority are valid and useful at different times. When there is a crisis we need the innovations of science, the consistency of the rule of law, and the cohesion strong leaders bring.

But the downside is also there. Each meme or level on the spiral has a dark side, a weakness if embraced too long or when not appropriate. That was what I saw with Evangelicals. Gripping so tightly to rules they didn’t see them anymore. Thinking they were loving, when in fact lower memes had crept in to their thinking. Tribalism, the meme of the Power Gods, was draining all the life out of the religion.

But I discovered it in myself as well. Not only the dark sides of each meme, but the judgmental attitude of looking down on other memes, finding this to be normal, and pushing on for higher and higher abilities to master each one.

I find myself now mostly functioning from the individualistic orange and the collaborative green memes, and as I adjust to people, meeting them where they are at I occasionally experience the power of the second tier memes, the yellow one in particular. The experience of taking on a person’s meme, meeting them where they are at and seeing life from their perspective. This is often both frustrating and blissful. I’m frustrated to know how to help them shift perspectives, but I’m delighted to be meeting them and making a real connection. The power of perspective. I never really understood it till this book.

Spiral Dynamics Graphic

The Shipping News

The Shipping News restored my faith in writers. Prior to studying psychology I spent three years pursuing a degree in Creative Writing. I didn’t finish that degree, in part because I gave up on literature. Creative writing programs will do that to you. This is because so much of the curriculum involves studying the darkest literature known to mankind.

After subjecting myself to that stuff for three years I was done. If that was what a good writer was, I would not be a good writer. I did like Hemingway, but almost all the other writers presented there made me feel sad, hopeless, or dirty. Duddy Kravitz and Jay Gatsby stand out as particularly distasteful characters to spend time with. Yuk.

Into this mire of disgusting lead characters bumbled Quoyle, odd but lovable character from The Shipping News. My friend James B had recommended the book and to be honest the title kept me from it for years. I wasn’t keen on ships or the news. Then I heard an excerpt of the book on CBC radio as an example of a unique style of writing. Proulx was held up as someone who truly could capture the sound of a dialect and weave a narrative to match. or visa versa maybe. Anyway, I was intrigued and so ordered the audio book.

Within minutes of listening to it I was engaged, and by the end I was enthralled. Of course I went on the read or listen to other Proulx books, but none compared to this masterpiece for me. I subsequently read the book, then listened to it again on one of my 100 lakes drives, then watched the movie, then listened to the book again on audio. I’m not tired of it yet.

This books sits on my shelf with the only two other novels I re-read. The others are Fugitive Pieces, and Quite a Year for Plumbs.

Shipping News shares elements of wabi sabi with Quite a Year for Plums, and so made it into my recommended reading list for Wabi Sabi Simple, but there is so much more to the Shipping News. I think the main thing is the “everyman” quality to Quoyle. Quoyle is not an intellectual, nor a particularly spiritual person — but he is the kind of man I would want as a father or neighbour or son or son-in-law. He cares, he tries, he fails, he loves. And he is not mean. Or greedy.

There is a lot more going on in Shipping News than just Quoyle. All the other characters are finely drawn and leap off the page, but it is the abiding nature and bulk of Quoyle that carries the narrative. He is humility writ large.

The element of the narrative that impacted me most was when Quoyle visits his cousin in hospital after the man tied knots against him and scared his children. Quoyle buys him a cheap metal frame of a dog in the gift shop which chokes the cousin up. Cousin Nolan pushing away the world, pushing away Quoyle and his children. Now, the generous heart of the big man coming through in this gift. Nolan breaks, “wanted to be a pilot. Fly. I was twenty-seven when Lidbergh cross the Atlantic. You should have seen me then. I was strong!”

And with that confession, more pour out. Quoyle learns about his aunt’s trauma and shame, and about her ability to look past both to see Quoyle for who he is. There is a sudden gulp of realization that no matter what happens to us in life, we can find connection and healing in the strangest and most unexpected places. That story never gets old.

In a time of world history when even the most privileged among us are pelted with challenges large and small, and the less privilege face almost insurmountable odds, it is good to remember the power of Quoyle, the power of humility and gentleness and simple human kindness. I can never hear enough about that.

And then there is the language. Annie Proulx spins out a kind of clipped bright poetic prose that can be savored by itself. Lovely turns of phrase and captured details and poetic allusions. I delight in in every time.

So there you have them, my formative books. Books that remind me who I am, and help me be more and more myself in a world getting more and more like someone else.

Published by Richard

I am a writer, photographer, and contemplative. My highest value is beauty and excellence. I seek to find and appreciate it, and create it. My second value is truth. I try to clearly and accurately communicate what is real and true. My third value is kindness. I study religion and science to help me understand how to increase kindness in myself and others.

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