I’ve always loved reading non-fiction as much as fiction, and have a particular attraction to all things philosophy and psychology. I always manage to take something away from every book I read and feed it into my worldview, so I thought it would be an interesting exercise to write a little bit about the ones that have had the biggest impact on me over the years. I’ve chosen my top 5, listed in the order I read them.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
When I was 15, I wrote an essay on my typewriter called ‘The Personal God’. It wasn’t for school, and it wasn’t really planned out; it just sort of wrote itself. In it, I set out my reasons for believing that God was created subjectively in the minds of men, and that the concept of a mythical overlord was becoming less relevant as we developed as a species. It wasn’t great: I was 15. But it meant that when I saw a documentary about Nietzsche on TV a few months later – the first time I’d ever heard of him – I was immediately drawn to his ideas. I got a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as soon as I could, devoured it, and covered it in pencil notes.
Apart from the opinions on women he expresses in the book, which frankly seem primitive compared to his other musings, there are many themes that made a big impression on me. The will to power, the bowels of existence; herd morality. His succinct descriptions of the suffering that is so very human and rooted in the self. The idea that the only meaning we can create in this absurdity we call life is that which we make for ourselves. His existentialism set my mindset up nicely to understand the ideas of Thelema a couple of years later, and I have continued to return to this book and his others many times. I think there is an appropriate Nietzsche quote for every situation in life.
2. C.G. Jung – The Essential
Jung’s psychology has had a profound impact on the way I see the world. Generally, a major criticism of his work is that he was swayed too readily by mystical fancies, yet the very fact he was not afraid to face the metaphysical and the unknown is one of the reasons he appeals to me so much. His thought attempts to bridge the gap between science and religion, the rational and the irrational, and had he been around to see modern developments in neuroscience I think he’d have had a lot more to give.
Science or pseudoscience, Jung’s model of the psyche works very well for me. I use it to analyse my mental states, my dreams, my path to individuation (which is remarkably similar to both alchemy and, at times, taoism), and the way I interact with others. His thoughts on the collective unconscious and personal myth constantly feed into my creative work.
I chose this book as the one that shaped me simply because it is the first one of his I read. I borrowed it from my local library when I was about 16 or 17, and was hooked on Jung’s style straight away. Since then I have been working my way through all of his books, including the stunning Red Book, the full folio version of which sits pride of place on my bookshelf.
3. Aleister Crowley – The Book of Thoth
There was something about the tarot and astrology that interested me from an early age, and yet also something that didn’t quite sit right. I knew the alignment of the planets had no literal effect on the daily lives of individuals, and I knew the future could no be told outright by a pack of cards. But I also knew that they held hidden knowledge for me: some way of coming to an understanding about myself.
On a visit to York, I bought my first deck of tarot cards: the medieval deck. I bought a little lockable wooden box to keep them in, and I bought The Book of Thoth. The Book of Thoth is not about the medieval deck, but I bought it anyway because I liked anything to do with ancient Egypt, and on thumbing through I could see it went into the kind of symbolic depth I was really after.
I started to read it in the car on my way home, and was stunned by it. Firstly, it made me see that the tarot was a way to free up a stuck mind: in response to my questioning, the cards could force me to think about a problem in a new way. They could make me see connections where I thought there were none, and they could act as a vehicle for my own unconscious mind to give me advice. Secondly, it was an introduction to the Kabbalah which I have studied extensively since. And thirdly, it was an introduction to the philosophy of Aleister Crowley and the system of mysticism he inspired which has been another long term fascination for me.
4. Robert Anton Wilson – Prometheus Rising
In my early twenties, Prometheus Rising made something click in my mind that has stuck with me ever since. It made me understand that our brains are like software, programmed by imprints made at important points of development in life. Wilson explains with skill and humour the levels of brain functioning in us all, and the way most of us get stuck in one mode of thinking never to develop further. Perhaps the most important message in the book though, is that our software can be reprogrammed, and we can do it ourselves. We can take control of our situation by recognising what is social conditioning, what is instinct and what is intuition, and teaching ourselves to think in ways that are more beneficial to us.
Another big take away from Prometheus Rising is the phenomenon of confirmation bias and the way it appears to be caught up with the universe and synchronicity. Wilson’s simple explanation of ‘what the thinker thinks the prover proves’ has impacted on the way I have seen the world since, along with ‘whatever we teach ourselves to believe becomes true in our version of reality’. To live by these two statements is to learn to believe with conviction in whatever we consider to be beneficial for us to believe in at the time, and yet underlying it is always this idea that no belief is permanent. This instils a readiness for change and a healthy acceptance of events as they come and go.
Wilson has written many other books that have impacted upon my worldview, including his SFF trilogies ‘Illuminatus!’ And ‘Schrodingers Cat’.
5. Carlos Castaneda – The Teachings of Don Juan
A friend introduced me to the writings of Carlos Castaneda about 12 years ago, and this is the first book I read. It is never clear whether the books are fact, fiction or somewhere in between, but they are presented as personal memoir. According to the books, Castaneda spent years of his life in an apprenticeship with a Yacqui Indian shaman called Don Juan Matus. When I first read this it seemed so fantastical, so unbelievable. But the more I read, and the more I learned about the possibilities of the human mind from elsewhere, the more I began to see just how much of his account was actually possible.
There are recurring themes across the books: lessons that come round again and again, each time adding more clarity and perspective. I write about this phenomenon in my book review here. From Castaneda’s books I have learned a great many things about the role of death, the games we play as social creatures, the depth of the unconscious mind, and the power of belief. Altered states of consciousness are also described very well, and the methods by which we can hone our intuition. All of this comes in the form of beautiful storytelling, which makes the books a joy to read.
It goes without saying there are many other books I could have included here: The Kybalion, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, something by Alan Watts, Israel Regardie, or Peter Carroll: these would all feature in the longer list for sure. But I can’t help but feel the top 5 that I have chosen will always form the basis for my understanding of everything else.
What non fiction books would be on your list?