Great Books for Inspiration and Knowledge Part 1 – Literature

Success in thinking requires knowledge, both depth and breadth.  The depth of knowledge can only be defined by your personal interests and needs.  However, to get a large breadth of knowledge requires weeding through the millions of published books to find the true gems.  This six-part series is designed to help you with finding those gems.

Below are the key books that have had the biggest impact on my life.  They are the books that inspired, intrigued, and captured my attention – and not always in a good way.   Some of these books I violently disagree with, but I include them because helped shape who I am, what I think, and why.  You might call them “The Great Books of Drake”.

In part one of this series, I delve into the inspiring and intriguing world of literature.  My passion for literature has left me with 2 full bookcases of fiction – from classics, to poetry, to sci-fi, to horror, to mystery.  Although I had the temptation to include “classics” in this list, not all classics impacted me in meaningful ways.  Often good books were left off this list simply because it had little impact on my life when I read it.  Here are my top picks.

“The world was hers for the reading.” ― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Atlas Shrugged

I must start with the book that has had the greatest impact on my life, Atlas Shrugged.  In Rand’s magnum opus, she clearly articulates a fictional world where her philosophy of Objectivism comes to life.  Railroad executives, pirates, scientists, inventors, musical composers, industrial tycoons, and playboys experience love affairs, prison escapes, secrete societies, plane chases, mysterious disappearances, and more, all wrapped in an intricate story about living in a world with people intent on producing great things and with people intent on tearing those things down.

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead is Rand’s other full length novel.  Another amazing adventure centered around the life of an architect, depicting the individualism of the soul at it’s finest.  Howard Roark shows the highest form of self-esteem as he struggles to design and build the buildings he dreams.  He never wavers from his belief of his self-worth even when reduced to a day laborer working in a quarry.  Truly inspiring.

The Giants Novels

Can the scientific method be used as a plot device?  In James P. Hogan’s The Giants Novels (actually a series of three books combined into one), I see this technique for the first time – and done brilliantly.  A mix of science and mystery rolled into a heroic story of a scientist trying to make sense of an incredible find – a dead man found on the moon that dates from over 50,000 years ago.  While I enjoyed many of Hogan’s later books, this first book is by far my favorite as it demonstrates science at its best.


While all of Shakespeare’s works are marvelous reads, Hamlet is the one that has most captivated me.  In it, Hamlet goes on a quest for answers to his father’s death.  Although the answers are not pretty, the quest is captivating.  Perhaps my fascination with Hamlet is an artifact of a stage in my life, but for some reason this one Shakespeare play has always been dear to me.

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is dark and disturbing, but written with excellence by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  While I can’t say I loved the characters, it did show the heart of evil and helped me to identify what to avoid.  Philosophic themes examine the throes of love, the nature of irrationality, and the passions of hate – culminating in the murder of the father and trial of the son.  This certainly not a book to read if you need to be cheered up, but is definitely one I recommend you read at least once.

Ender’s Game

I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as a teenager and immediately identifying with the main character “Ender”.  In a world controlled by adults, Ender finds himself manipulated to be a war strategist in spite of his young age.  As much a psychological thriller, we follow Ender as struggles to make friends when the adults around him position him to have none.  How he deals with these manipulations is a fascinating read.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

There is no doubt that the Lord of the Rings captured the imagination of millions of readers – myself included.  Tolkien painted a picture with words that was truly fascinating.  The story of friendship and passionate pursuit of goals in the face of evil is inspiring to say the least.  A modern day equivalent is the Harry Potter series.

The Best of the Rest:

We the Living – Ayn Rand

Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Clan of the Cave Bear series – Jean Auel

Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling

The Sword of Truth series – Terry Goodkind

Dystopian stories

Anthem – Ayn Rand

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Animal Farm – George Orwell

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Code of the Lifemaker – James P. Hogan

Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton

Historical fiction

Hawaii and Centennial by James Michener

Sparrowhawk series – Edward Cline


I would love to hear about more great books.  If you think I missed something, please add them to the comments below.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at

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