Randall Payleitner


What I Learned From the Seven Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read

I read a lot of books. This is partly because I commute on a train, partly because I love to read, and mostly because my job has me reading a lot of books! But whatever way you slice it: I believe in reading books (as evidenced by this very website and my choice of career).

What follows are the seven books* that most changed something for me. I believe they are all helpful, interesting, and worthy of high review—maybe even objectively great books. However, this list is more of a subjective two-way street. When we read certain books at certain times in our lives they smack us right in the face. Had I read some of these books a few years earlier or later, they would have objectively been just as good, but perhaps they wouldn’t have had the impact on me that they did then.

Enough preamble! Here are those seven books and the main thing I learned while reading them:

1. Truman by David McCullough (I read it when I was 27)

History and politics are way more complicated, and fascinating, than I thought. This book took me like a year to read on and off. In it I saw the first half of the 20th Century through the lens of one of our most interesting and unlikely presidents. I loved it. And I still think about some of the main characters regularly—even seven years after I first read it.

2. Adopted for Life by Russell Moore (I read it when I was 31)

I am in God’s family. I knew this truth before, but I didn’t really understand it. Dr. Moore’s story and clear understanding of how God welcomes us as His children literally re-shaped how I think about family, myself, and my own kids. I took it personally and it changed the trajectory of my life.

3. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (I read it when I was 19)

There’s more going on in the world than I can see. The format of this book is half the magic: Two demons’ correspondence with each other about human life on earth. It’s fiction, yet perfectly realistic. And it’s 75 years old, yet quite timely.

4. On Writing by Stephen King (I read it when I was 28)

Fight for the right words. I’ve only read two other Stephen King books and I don’t really like to “get scared for fun.” But this writing memoir is fantastic. It made me want to build a perfect writing room for myself and just write until dawn.

5. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster (I read it when I was 9)

The world is wonderful and fun. My first memory of loving a book is this one. My dad would read it and there would be wonder, excitement, and valor in his voice. It’s a celebration of the English language—and it was just as good when I read it again 20 years later.

6. The Incomparable Christ by J. Oswald Sanders (I read it when I was 22)

Jesus is the most interesting man in the world. Jesus Christ changed the course of human history. This book shows that He had no equal in all of time (even if you’re skeptical of Jesus’ claims to be God, this book opens you to the possibility). He isn’t just the Savior of humanity, He lived life perfectly as well. And He showed us how to live.

7. Endurance by Alfred Lansing (I read it when I was 25)

Humans can do some crazy stuff. This is a true-life adventure story of humans deciding to do something because it hadn’t been done before (e.g. cross the ocean, go to the moon, climb K2, etc.)—humans have a long history of doing amazing things because they hadn’t been done before. This story proves it out in one of the coldest, harshest environs possible. Without communication or technology. The ending is amazing.

Go read some books. The best, most important ones will inspire us toward greatness, purpose, and wonder.

What are the most important books you’ve read?


* In addition to all these “normal” books, I also read my Bible regularly. Since God wrote it (through human authors) it definitely wins the “The Most Important Book” title. Perhaps I’ll write more in the future about it on this site, but this post is not including the Bible.