Once I was invited to speak to a gathering of people in the publishing business. I accepted the invitation because I thought it an excellent opportunity to publicly express my gratitude to people who had been kind to me as an author.
Accepting the invitation was easy. Selecting an appropriate topic was not. I would be talking to men and women who were experts in the business of communication and who worked with some of the finest Christian communicators in the world. What could I say that they'd not heard, and heard better, a hundred times?
Then I had a breakthrough. Why not, I asked myself, began my speech like this?
Ladies and gentlemen, as I anticipated this event and what I might say to you, I began to toy with this question: In all of my reading experiences, what book has most influenced me and set the direction of my life? Perhaps my answer might interest you.
Now I realize that this question is not really a novel one. Almost every week in the New York Times Book Review section, an interviewer asks it of some famous author. They often name books I've never heard of such as—let's say—Sigmund Trilovicholaski's Poems from a 17th Century Mongolian Barbershop.
The time for my speech to the publishers came. I began with the question I'd asked myself during my time of preparation: What has been the most influential, the most life-directing, book I have ever read?
I felt the members of the audience spring to attention. Would the book I was about to name be one that had been published by their company? Maybe each VP of marketing and sales was imagining a full-page advertisement that proclaimed, "Read the book that Gordon MacDonald described as the most …"
I confess I enjoyed this moment as everyone awaited my disclosure of the most influential book of my life. I admit to teasing the audience for a moment, just like they do on Dancing with the Stars when they prepare to announce the winning couple.
To heighten the suspense, I listed categories of possible books—biographies, spiritual life books, theological studies, instructional pieces on how to cast great visions and develop great leaders.
Then I dangled the names of a few classic authors. C.S. Lewis, for example. Doesn't everyone have him on their A-list? Dostoyevsky? Some people think you're really deep if you mention him. I named Thomas Merton because serious thinkers adore Merton-readers. Oh, I also added Annie Dillard, the darling of the edgy crowd.
I added some specific titles that might or might not be on my most-influential book list. Augustine's Confessions, for example, and Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, and Bonhoeffer's Life Together.
Suddenly, a guy in the back of the banquet hall stood up and shouted, "For crying out loud, get on with it! What is the most influential book you have ever read? Our jobs may depend on your answer." (This didn't really happen, but it should have).
Leaving the question unanswered for a further moment, I related a story from my childhood.
"One day," I said, "when I was nearly five years of age, my mother banished me to my bedroom because I had done something bad. What my mother didn't know—and I never told her—was that being sent to my room was hardly a punishment. It was actually a gift. I was an introvert—even at the age of 5—and my room was a safe and quiet place where I could explore my interior world without the intrusion of extroverts who, like my mother, often trespassed on my treasured privacy.
"Once in my room," I told the audience, "I began rummaging through a box of books someone had dropped by our home. I guess I was looking for something that might appeal to a child—a picture book, perhaps.