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5 Simple Profound Books

Shanel Yang

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Most people don't like to read. I don't blame them. Books can be boring. They don't jump off the screen at you, scene after scene, with Dolby surround sound blasting at your ears from all sides of the theater.

No. Books are quiet. But, some books are worth their weight in gold for the insights they can give us about us, people in general, and the entire world around us. No movie can stimulate your imagination to come to life as when you take the time to read-really read-and digest the rich language and imagery found only in good old-fashioned books.

Of the books that I have come across in my life, these five stand out as the simplest yet most profound books I have ever had the good fortune to read.

1. The Giving Tree (1964) by Shel Silverstein: A morality story about a boy and a tree. When the boy is young, he and the tree are very happy. They spend hours playing together, and the tree loves the boy unconditionally. But, the boy grows older and, one by one, takes everything from the tree, its apples, leaves, branches, and, ultimately, even, its trunk-all eagerly volunteered by the tree. Then, he abandons the tree, leaving it lonely and sad, for many years. When the “boy" returns as an old man, the tree is thrilled to see him but sad that it has nothing left to offer him. He says he is an old man now and needs nothing but a place to sit. With that, the tree is overjoyed because it can still offer its stump as a sitting place and, thus, become useful to the “boy" once again.

I first read this book in the third grade. I mostly loved the drawings that were delightful to me. Of course, I had no appreciation of the complex messages about parent-child love, codependence, self-sacrifice, and any environmental issues that might lay behind the simple story. Over the years, I kept changing my mind from admiring the tree, pitying the tree, or despising the tree, for selflessly giving to the boy who gave little to nothing back to the tree. But, now I accept the tree's decisions as its own. Live and let live.

2. The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine du Saint Exupery: Another deep “children's" story about relationships, the meaning of life, and different ways to live one's life. A pilot stranded in the middle of the Sahara Desert meets an adorable little prince from another planet. He looks like a boy, but he is proud and full of life lessons. Through their conversations, they each learn about the other's worlds, the follies of adults, and the things we take for granted.

My favorite lessons are the ones taught by the fox about friendships. For example, that one must not rush into friendships because time is needed to gain the other's trust. Also, rituals should be created and respected to make the meetings more special. The charm of this book lies in the simplicity and directness in teaching difficult lessons. No wonder it's translated into more than 180 languages (from its original French), sold more than 50 million copies around the world, and is one of the top 50 bestselling books of all time!

3. Flowers for Algernon (1966) by Daniel Keyes: Science fiction story about a good natured but mentally retarded man named Charlie. Charlie has a simple life, including a job sweeping floors at a bakery, where he is happy to spend time with coworkers whom he considers his friends. He also tries very hard to learn how to read and write because, more than anything, he wants to be smart. Then, one day, he gets his chance when local university researchers pick him as the first human subject to undergo an experimental brain operation that has seemingly transformed Algernon, an ordinary mouse, into a genius, able to run through mazes at record speeds to get to the cheese.

The entire book is presented in diary form, in a series of Progress Reports that Charlie is asked to keep as part of the experiment. These dramatically show his rapid mental and social transformation from a happy but ignorant man to an increasingly intelligent but tortured man. He awakens to the shocking realities of his past, his present, and, even, his inevitable tragic future when he realizes that his little friend Algernon is not only losing all the gains from the operation but must die soon. The “flowers for Algernon" are for its grave. Charlie's changes could be an analogy for all humans. We start life as happy, ignorant babies but must grow up into an increasingly complicated world. Then, as we approach the end of our lives, some say we return to a more blissful, ignorant state.

Although you could read this book and find only the dark messages in it, I see it as a celebration of knowledge and of life. Yes, it's painful to learn the truth sometimes. But, to me, it's still better than ignorance. Charlie and Algernon experienced more life in a short time than we or normal mice do most our lives. That's not a bad thing. Importantly, Charlie didn't regret any of it. A modern version of this concept might be “The Matrix" where Neo chooses whatever terrible truths might be real to the safe, “happy" existence of his previous life. We all have to die sometime. The question is what we choose to do with our time while we're still alive.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey: The most difficult to read from this list, but well worth the effort. Definitely NOT a children's book. Very adult themes, including sex, drugs, and graphic violence. Nevertheless, this story is a tribute to the human soul and spirit. McMurphy is a tough, blue-collar guy who loves women, gambling, alcohol, and, most of all, his freedom. Sentenced to a short stint on a work farm for statutory rape, he tried to beat the system by acting crazy enough to get sent to a mental hospital instead. Once there, he finds himself fighting for the rights of the adult male patients who have been systematically emasculated by calm, cool, and collected head of the ward, Nurse Ratched. Will Nurse Ratched succeed in beating McMurphy down like she did all the other men in her hospital? Or, will McMurphy teach these men how to stand up for themselves (or at least escape) a world that tries to take away everything vital to human existence: hope, desire, and self-respect?

I won't spoil it for you because the story is too good to miss. Read it or watch it. A young Jack Nicholson stars in the 1975 movie that won five Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay).

5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith: This is the story of an Irish immigrant family as told by a little girl, Francie Nolan. She shares her daily struggles of growing up poor in tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s. Her stories are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always brutally honest. She has a younger brother she feels very protective toward but also intensely jealous of sometimes because their mother prefers him. Her father is charming and handsome but unable to support the family and, thus, cycles downward into alcoholism. Her mother, who was a vivacious, pretty girl when she fell in love with and married Francie's father, has become as hard as nails to provide for her family since her husband could not.

Francie herself is transformed from a dreamy little girl, who loves nothing more than escaping into her library books on the fire escape, hidden from the world by the branches and leaves of the hardy trees that have taken over all the local, poor neighborhoods, to a strong young woman determined to endure and work hard for what she wants most, education and knowledge, that will open doors to greater opportunities for her future.


This entire website is inspired by the Francie Nolans in the world who not only dare to dream but take action to make their dreams come true-to those of you whose courage and strength are strong enough to withstand every obstacle that life throws at you but still get up and keep going. Francie's burning desire for an education was delayed many years because her family forced her to quit school and start working to help support the family. But, she never gives up that dream.

In real life, the author Betty Smith, like her heroine Francie Nolan, was unable to finish high school. She was finally awarded an honorary high school diploma after she became a famous novelist with her first book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Despite having many setbacks in her own life, Smith eventually succeeded in her lifelong dream to go to college and become a famous writer, after she was married and her two daughters were both in school. So, you see, it's never too late!

Copyright © Shanel Yang

Shanel Yang
Easy Steps to Success (blog) (archive)

Shanel Yang shares the Easy Steps to Success that she has distilled after trial and error since 1971, when she came to the U. S. from South Korea with her parents and three younger sisters. Her parents had no education, no marketable skills, knew no English, and only $50 when they landed at LAX with absolutely no idea how they would survive in this new country. The responsibilities were divided between the parents and Shanel like this: The parents earned as much money as they could with odd jobs, like janitorial work in a church, dishwashing in a restaurant, and sewing in a downtown sweatshop, while Shanel learned as much as she could about how to do everything else in this country and taught it to the entire family.

All of that responsibility from such an early age left Shanel with a lifelong desire to help others similarly in need of all the important lessons she had to learn to help her family survive-and eventually thrive-in this great country. She went to UCLA Law School and practiced law for 10 years in Los Angeles. Now, she has begun her second career as a writer to provide self help advice to help others succeed in their lives. Her formula is People, Work, and Money. And, for immigrants who are struggling now as her family once did, she adds English and Law. Shanel believes that success in life can be simple if you focus on people first, work second, and money third. To simplify it further, if you have great relationships-especially the most important one, which is with yourself-the rest will naturally follow. Dare to be awesome! Strive to be your own hero!


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