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What 12 Books Would You Give Your 12-Year-Old Self?

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James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

Have you had moments of regret, and thought: “If I only knew then, what I know now?” Did you realize your childhood dreams? Do you ever wish for a life do-over? Here’s a playful thought experiment. If you had a time machine, and could go back to visit your twelve-year-old self for one hour, what advice would you give? Let’s imagine you could also carry a small suitcase with twelve books. Books your younger self could study in the years before college. What books would you bring? Would they be fiction or nonfiction?

We all wish we had done more with our life, made fewer mistakes, been better human beings. I never trust people who claim, “If I had my life to live over, I wouldn’t change one damn thing.” Unless reincarnation allows for reincarnating in our original bodies, we don’t get do-overs. Playing this game can be psychologically revealing. Readers often swear a great book has changed their life. Are there twelve books that could have actually changed your life if you had read them soon enough?

I’m probably older than the average Book Rioter. I have played this game often over the years, and I learn more each time it comes to mind. It would be immensely fascinating to play for real. Can books change people? This game is like playing “What would you do with three wishes.” You get better each time you play. Everyone figures out wishing for more wishes. I figured out taking books about great books. But the goal is to change the course of your life, like altering the course of the Titanic, and not how to be better bookworms.

We’re already amazing bookworms. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d read less and do more. There were three novels I considered, but ultimately rejected. The first is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, about a simplex boy learning to live in a multiplex reality. The second, Replay by Ken Grimwood, is about a man who gets to relive his life. And finally, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, because I wished I had starting reading how women think as soon as I started chasing girls. I decided nonfiction books would do the same job, and I’d eventually rediscover these novels anyway.

Because my younger self was such a voracious reader, often reading a book a day, I’d spend my hour with my younger self trying to convince him to follow these 7 Rules for Reading:

  • Read no more than one book a week, only one novel a month, and never for escape
  • Stop reading any book less than an 8 on a 10-point scale, and aim for 10s
  • Read fiction to understand people and be more empathetic (subjectivity)
  • Read nonfiction to understand reality (objectivity)
  • Read about as many types of people, places and cultures as possible
  • Read about as many subjects as possible
  • Write about everything you read

Of the twelve books I’d take myself, four would be for teaching that talent is effort, the sooner the effort is made the better, that we need mentors to help with these efforts, that we need to learn how to study, and in the long run, we need to stay healthy.

The other eight books would be examples of the kind of books I’d want the young me to learn to love, and more importantly, ones that contain transformative knowledge and wisdom. I had at least a dozen more books that desperately wanted a slot in this eight, but these are the ones that made it.

Of course this is only a game, and we can’t go back to reeducate our younger selves. But here’s the thing, this is still a good game to regularly play. We’re never to old to start over. It’s never too late to become a better person. Reading time is a limited resource, so don’t waste it. Why read an ordinary book when you can read a great one? But most importantly, if the book you’re currently reading isn’t making you a better person in a way you consciously comprehend, then you need to pick another book. Reading books to kill time is a waste of reading hours and life.

I’m always curious what twelve books people pick. Your picks are as distinctive as your fingerprint. Post them in the comments, or write about them at your blog, and leave the link in the comments.