1. Guns, Germs, and Steel; Jared Diamond
Some books simply tell a story; others impart a fundamental understanding of how history works, In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond examines the success and failure of various civilizations as the result of geography and local resources, drawing on multiple disciplines; the result is a fantastic read that draws as much from science as it does from history.
2. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
Think philosophy is academic fluff with no relevance to your life? Hardly! Throughout human history, the concerns of philosophers have always hit close to home; it's only recently that they've acquired a poor reputation. Alain de Botton shows the value of a considered life by examining the thoughts of Seneca on anger, Epicures on simple living and anti-consumerism, Schopenhauer on broken hearts, and more. A similar title is Plato's Podcasts: the Ancients' Guide to Modern Living.
3. Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science, various authors (National Geographic)
While I've enjoyed learning about nature all my life, I didn't become passionate about science until 2006 or so. In 2007 I read this, and it along with Dan Falk's Universe on a T-Shirt provided the introduction and foundation of my on-going zeal for science and its history.
4. Amusing Ourselves to Death and/or Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman
These two books are on the short list of works which have changed my life. Both share a general theme in that they address the unexpected consequences of technology and forced me to think about the way I use certain media. Amusing Ourselves to Death deals primarily with television and its poisonous effect on politics, religion, education, and journalism, as all are hijacked by impulses toward sensationalist entertainment devoid of actual content.
6. A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (William Irvine), The Emperor's Handbook (Marcus Aurelius, trans. David and Scott Hicks), or The Art of Living (Sharon Lebell)
While I reccommend philosophical reflection in general to everyone, one philosophical school in particular has proven a boon to me: Stoicism, which is enjoying a curious modern rebirth. Don't believe me? Edmund Kern penned The Wisdom of Harry Potter a few years ago and identifies Harry as a Stoic hero. Stoicism is an ancient school of Greek philosophy which focused on virtue as the sole good in life, and emphasized developing strength of character and offers freedom from the petty disturbances of life. I like to call it Buddhism for the western world. Of the books listed: the first is an introduction to the philosophy for modern minds, the second is a contemporary translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, a primary source for Stoics, and the third is an interpretation of Epictetus' Handbook, which sold me on the school to begin with.
7. The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy , Michael Foley
8. A People's History of America, Howard Zinn
Imagine a history written from the perspective of the powerless, the losers. That's what Howard Zinn provided, and his narrative prompts readers to not only reconsider traditional versions of history, but to consider that the power to effect change lies not in the hands of Great Men, but in themselves. It is both history and a call to political activism much needed in these days.
9. In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honore
This is one I intend on re-reading soon..
In Praise of Slowness is a book that incorporates simple living, New Urbanism, and the philosophical life into its text. I will summarize as it as being written to make human lives human and livable once more. Where our way of life has reduced us to living passively, consuming unthinkingly, and bouncing from one task to the next without ever really enjoying anything, Slowness asserts that we should slow down and think about what it is we’re doing.
10. A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles.
This was required reading for a European history class I took a few years ago, and I responded with it with such enthusiasm that I think I made my professor uncomfortable by gushing with thanks. It's the biography of a French peasant woman who, despite her highly isolated and conservative environment in an alpine farming village, matures into an independent thinker whose political passions are formed in the early years of the 20th century. Reading this not only encouraged me -- if she could flourish despite that environment, anyone can -- but it added significantly to my understanding of political philosophy.
11. The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler
Were this list written just for American readers, I would have mentioned the Stoic books along with The Consolations of Philosophy, for The Geography of Nowhere is a must-read for American readers. In it, Kunstler attacks the land-use patterns of cheap oil (surburbanization and urban sprawl), decrying them as not only wasteful and doomed to extinction, but physically and spiritually degrading. It's become one of my favorite books, which sounds odd if you haven't read Kunstler; his history is enlightening and his sharp criticism a joy to read.