A Reading List for Planet, Plant, and Inner Peace Lovers - Six Powerful Books that Changed My Life
Lately I’ve been on a kick discussing motivation, self-exploration, and mindfulness. Most of this probably stems from the changes I’m going through right now, moving to a new island and testing the waters of a new job; I find change sparks quite a bit of internal reflection. I think it’s appropriate to mention some of the books that have changed my way of thinking and played an influential role in helping me develop new perspectives and trains of thought. I’ve always been a total book nerd. Every single time I go visit home, I go to the library and 1) spend a couple hours just devouring book covers and sleeves and then 2) checking out more books than I could possibly hope to read in a year, with the ambition of finishing all of them in the few weeks I am spending at home. I just love that the entire world is at your fingertips in a library! You can learn literally anything. You pick your lesson. Does it get better than that? Life is one big classroom; you might as well show up having devoured as many books as you can.
So, surprise, surprise, most of the books that have been most influential in my life have either been about food or mindfulness, and of course, a few on environmentalism and biology. I’ve realized that mindfulness ties all of these topics together and is probably the way to save the world (maybe be a lofty claim coming from little ole me, but I feel what I feel).
So without further ado, let me dive right in to the books that have influenced me, my writing, my thoughts, and my ways of life. They aren’t going to be listed in any particular order, by the way, so just take them as they come. If you’re looking for reading list or just another book to add to your “up next” queue, consider one of these. There’s not really anything to lose!
1) The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
I have had a steady crush on Michael Pollan and his views on food production and food policy in the United States since college. I first read this book after reading excerpts in a senior-year class at Notre Dame called The Theological Ethics of Food Co-operatives. That class alone was amazing, but this book blew me out of the frigid Indiana air. Pollan doesn’t waste any time in diving into the complexity of the human relationship with food and how it evolved to be as it is today - which is so complicated. On a daily basis (three times a day, for many of us fortunate ones), we have an opportunity to speak with our food choices. What do we eat? How do we decide? What factors do we take into consideration?
Many of us in western society are bombarded with options upon options about what to fill up our plate with, an issue (and a luxury) that our ancestors simply didn’t need to deal with and still most around the world today don’t have the luxury of facing. Our ancestors were the hippest environmentalists way before we entered planet crisis-mode; they ate what was local, what was fresh, what they could get their hands on. They grew it themselves, or they hunted and gathered. They didn’t necessarily worry about eating what they felt would make their body look or feel the best, because health was a natural result of eating locally and in-season.
Pollan has a way of bringing out the harshest truths of our domestic and global food production systems, where we went wrong, and what we can do to fix it. He’s humorous, enlightening, and practical. And he’s done so much of his investigative research himself, so he really knows what he’s talking about. I promise once you finish this read, you’ll be ordering the rest of his impressive pieces of writing.
2) The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas Campbell
About 10 months ago, I decided to follow a 95% vegan diet. I say 95% because there are some situations where I choose to eat some animal products and some items I still choose to eat that are not plant-based. I’m not perfect in following a vegan diet, but that was never my goal. I adopted this way of eating because I found it all of a sudden so much simpler to make food choices that were both healthy for me and good for the planet when you’re “plant-based,” without needing to overthink too much. Going vegan truly is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home and in your day-to-day life.
About two weeks after making that decision, I arrived in Australia for work last winter and saw that my friend Sarah was toting around this book. She said her brother described it as one of the best books he’d ever read. I also remembered my dad talking about it recently and so took this as a sign to start reading. I was hooked by page one. All of a sudden my plant-based diet went from being purely focused on environmentalism to encompassing a holistic approach to health. I started to see the implications of how what we eat affects our bodies, our society, and the planet. The interconnectedness that Michael Pollan discusses started to make even more sense.
This is not purely a diet book. It’s not about losing weight, or eating to make yourself bulk up or look good in your swimsuit. It delves into (surprise) societal issues with our food system and the power of propaganda and the media to influence and shape our decision around eating. Government organizations, lobbyists, and opportunistic scientists have created so much nutritional confusion for our country (and the world) and it’s something we’ve been exposed to for decades. Can we really blame ourselves for being so confused and so sick?
The New York Times calls this one of the “most comprehensive large studies ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” The authors draw connections between nutrition and diabetes, cancer, aging, and heart disease. And, I won’t ruin all of the delicious tidbits of information, but according to the findings of the Campbells, a whole foods, plant-based diet is one of the best ways you can treat your cells with love and set yourself up for a lifetime of health.
3) A New Earth, Eckart Tolle
I first heard about this German spiritual guru during my yoga teacher training on Maui. One of my friends in the class told me stories of how influential this writer had been for his personal and spiritual development. I’ll admit right away that I was scared of reading anything too spiritually enlightening, because I was worried about rocking my entire belief system. It was scary to read about how we are not our thoughts, our personality, our favorite things. So I delayed reading any of Tolle’s books, because spirituality was still a new realm for me. I felt like I was resisting it.
But the Universe decided to present me with the world’s most adorable book shop on Salt Spring Island while I was spending the summer working up on the San Juan Islands. I was on a solo bike trip to go and check out the legendary farmer’s market on this magical hippie island in the middle of the Canadian Gulf Islands, and I decided to ask the bookkeeper if she had any of Tolle’s books. She found me A New Earth, and I reverently tucked it away inside my backpack and pedaled myself back to my campsite, where I proceeded to nap, read, nap, read, and nap.
It took me a couple of weeks to finish the book, but it was the start of something big for me. I thought more about spirituality and mindfulness and started dabbling in quieting my monkey mind so I could enjoy the present moment. Since reading this book, my self-care regimes and patience with myself have blossomed. I’m absolutely not perfect (duh), but I am a lot more forgiving of myself and a lot less judgmental (most of the time).
4) The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
This is a throw-back to high school. I adore this book. I remember feeling enamored and fascinated by the Taoist philosophies, specifically when we read the Tao de Ching in my third-year English class. The concept of the Uncarved Block (who we truly are before any sort of societal shaping), following the paths of least resistance (stop swimming upstream!), feeling the interconnectedness and mutual energy flowing through everything on the planet…it was all so peaceful. It made things seem simple. I loved that. And then this book, the Tao of Pooh, came along (pretty sure I found it on my brother’s bookshelf), and explained all of the Taoist ways of thinking in a very easy-to-understand, Pooh-centric way. The characters brought the philosophies to life. It’s charming, easy-to-read, and quick. And full of amazing quotes!
5) Swell, Liz Clarke
I can’t spend all my time reading about food production and spirituality, right? I’d go crazy. The wild child within me loves to read travel novels and anything ocean-related, and lately I’ve been completely enamored with sailing. Also, I’m completely in love with Patagonia and their ethos (such an incredible company!), and Liz Clarke is sponsored by them. So I knew this book would be a good read. I’d first encountered it at an outdoor clothing shop somewhere in New Zealand, picked it up, and knew that this would book would basically be about a soul sister.
At its core, Swell is a story about a surfer and her voyage to learn more about herself and the planet we call home. She has an opportunity that most only fantasize about - to captain a friend’s sailboat and embark on an epic journey to Central America and the South Pacific and simply experience the waves of new surf breaks and the cultures she encounters along the way.
But beyond it’s core, Swell is about awakening to the issues that rock our core and the disasters that are plaguing our planet and our oceans. The stories that flow from the page speak about love, relationships, colorful cultures, nature’s magic and wild beauty, and the pain and isolation often felt by humans. Her tales grip you and draw you in, and you can’t help but contemplate your own concerns and fears when you read about Liz’s. Chances are, like me, you’ll feel very connected to her and her journey. She strives to find connection to the planet and commits to living in harmony with it as much as she possibly can.
I’m all, “Me too!”
6) Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, Brooke Bessesen
I read this book about 6 months ago after fortuitously coming across it on one of those afore-mentioned hometown library wanderings. I picked it up because of the cute little porpoise on the cover, but I was drawn in by the intrigue of how this porpoise and it’s survival somehow got twisted up in crimes and politics. Whoa - there is more going on down in Mexico than I even anticipated. I’d heard of a vaquita before, but didn’t know much about them. That’s the saddest part - this animal (and many, many others) are going extinct right under our noses, and because it’s not on the news or on our social media feeds when we scroll as we do, we don’t know.
The vaquita earned the title of the most endangered marine mammal in 2006; they are only found in the Upper Gulf of California. These beautiful porpoises have been in decline for decades, dying by the hundreds thanks to a dangerous totoaba fishing industry that is also highly illegal. Gillnets are used to catch these valuable fish, whose swim bladders have a huge value on the black market, and the poor little vaquitas have become quite prone to getting caught in those nets.
Brooke does an incredible job of telling the story of this little porpoise and how stopping its fast path to extinction involves so much more than just putting in rules for their protection. It involves disrupting ways of life, money, and involvement from numerous governmental and non-governmental agencies. It’s an excellent read to give you perspective on our relationship with nature and how our values as a society need to shift, fast.
So there you have it - six of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years. I hope they bring you some level of enlightenment, whether that be on an environmental level, a spiritual level, or a level of personal health. We all have a journey to make, and it’s nice when it’s accompanied by some inspiring reads.
I’d love to hear about what’s been on your bedside table lately! Leave me a comment or send me an e-mail, and we can be book nerds together.