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Kentucky by Heart: Impactful books change lives, a look at some Kentucky-connected game-changers

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

The power of a good book can change the course of individual lives. Many people I know will mention the Bible as their most powerful influence, and that’s what you would expect in areas of Bible Belt such as in Kentucky. But what about other books in the Commonwealth that have the “it” factor, or something about them has an abiding effect—and might even cause behavior change?

I have been positively affected by reading Stanley and Danko’s The Millionaire Next Door. Not because attaining millionaire status is a driving force for me, but the book demonstrates that by applying some smart money habits, one can be on the long-term path to financial independence — even with only an average income. John Egerton’s Generations has helped me to appreciate the importance of living with an abiding sense of place and belonging—and shows it by featuring the generations of the Ledford family from eastern Kentucky.

I reached out to several dozen Facebook friends to find out their personal books of high impact. Not surprisingly, at least four mentioned Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird. Julia Adams, a retired, long-term judge from Winchester, was stirred to say this regarding the iconic novel: “Everything is not as it seems. Everyone is not as they seem. Systems are flawed by their very nature. I wanted to find those flaws, and work to correct them.”

Griffin Ryan, a former fourth-grade student of mine and now the minister of First Presbyterian Church, in London, called Kill “one of the first books I read, and it’s what hooked me on a love for reading—and a feeling of care for people based on the theme and message.” Nicholasville resident Rita Setness has read Lee’s book “many times and continue to gain insight from the multi-dimensional characters and plot lines… a masterpiece.” As a young high school student living in the western Kentucky town of Providence in the 1960s, Roy Pullam checked out the novel from the public library. As he read it, Roy said that he “began to see Black people as people,” which was contrary to the racist myths he’d heard about the Blacks who lived in the nearby area of Lincoln City, and it “started an evolution in (my) behavior that continues to this day.”

And there were plenty of other books mentioned, too. Randall Wright shared his love of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. “It opened my eyes to the terrible impact communism has on the human spirit by a woman who witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution first-hand and how it destroys that spirit and ambition.” Berea author Jim Tomlinson praised Studs Terkel’s Working because it “argues persuasively through in-depth interviews for the dignity of labor and the corrosive effects of unfettered free enterprise,” adding that it “has informed both my fiction and my life.”

Whitnee Thorpe, another of my former students, prefers Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. “It was one of the first books I read that portrayed women fully as characters, both flaws and attributes, all the while centering a storyline around day-to-day life,” she said. “Jo March will always be my most admired literary character.”

Long-time educator Tom Shelton called Leadership on the Line the “best secular book on leadership ever written. It completely changes and improved my approach to leadership and style of leadership,” he said. He added that the book gives explanations and examples of both technical versus adaptive leadership. For Bettie Ockerman appears to have received strong personal leadership from Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World. “As a young mother of four children, the principles in this book changed the way I viewed life,” she said. Andy Stephenson’s go-to leadership resource is On Fire: 7 Choices to Live a Radically Inspired Life, by John O’Leary.

The Little Engine that Could is the choice of Foster Ockerman, Jr., an attorney and historian. “The core issue was that if you keep working at it, and try hard, you will succeed. I wish I had the well-worn copy from my grandmother’s house,” he said. “She kept a basket of books for me on the floor of the hall closet so I could get to them.”

How about The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding for a game-changer? Kim Thornberry, of Gardnersville, Kentucky, stated: “If it were not for this book, my babies would have starved.”

Roger Guffey remarked that reading If You Beat the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, by Sheldon Kopp, “made me aware I am responsible for my own happiness.” Eric Fruge read Black Like Me and said it “permanently shaped my views on race. A white journalist, John Howard Griffin, put himself in the shoes of a black man. His book put me in those same shoes, and I’ve never gotten out of them.”

The Hobbit reminds Madison Pretzel to “look for light and humor in the darkness” and Donna Ison noted that Einstein’s Dreams “beautifully reminds us of the magic and mystery of the universe.” Debbie Perry praised Watchman Nee’s Sit, Walk, Stand as the “best commentary on Ephesians I’ve ever read.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

For writer Georgia Green Stamper, Huckleberry Finn says it all. “I consider it the great American novel,” she said. “It also taught me how to write ‘in voice’ and how to use humor in writing to make an important point.” Sally Crenshaw said that Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom, “showed me the importance of relationships and staying connected.” Beth Garrord-Logsdon, a minister in Wilmore, likes Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton because “it was the first novel that really opened my eyes and my heart to injustice and the human condition. I had heard about apartheid, but this book helped me realize the physical and emotional toll that such a law has on lives. I couldn’t know it at the time, but it continues to impact my faith, calling, and ministry to this day.”

David Fannin mentioned a very old book (from 1871), Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes, by William Dick. “I avidly read it at age 5 because of a July 4th, 1955, display on the Ohio River, (in) Ashland. (I) went on to study science and electronics (and) eventually physics, math, and minored in chemistry. I still have the book.”

Same Kind of Different as Me is the choice of Jill Snyder. The book “kindly paints a picture of the fact that ‘most of us are like the rest of us,’” she said.

Here is a list of other books deemed “impactful” by Kentuckians or who have Kentucky connections. Perhaps they will arouse your interest:

• Betraying Spinoza, by Rebecca Goldstein
• Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
• Invisible Cities, by Italio Calvino
• The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
• How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Andrew Carnegie
• Timothy Zahn novels
• Little Golden Books (ones about nature)
• Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach
• Jean Stanton Porter books
• The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
• Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert
• Keep a Quiet Heart, by Elisabeth Elliott
• The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz
• Think Like a Monk, by Jay Sheddy
• The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
• Dear and Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell
• Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
• Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
• Insanity of God, by Nik Ripkin
• Leading by the Heart, by Coach K
• A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
• The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow
• The Quare Woman, by Lucy Furman
• Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, by Ben Montgomery

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