In discussions with a colleague about his aspirations to switch careers and dive into user experience, he asked me to recommend some UX books. Given the frequency with which I am asked this question, I now develop some alkaline-laden frustration and a nickel taste in my mouth, and I simply grimace.
This physiological response occurs because not one book I have read about UX, the exceptions being Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think and Whitney Quesenbery and Daniel Szuc's Global UX, has been essential to my career. If you are talented enough, there are plenty of books to read along the way in order to enhance your career, but I do not see any value in reading about Lean UX when you have not even immersed yourself into practice. Conventional wisdom and a dash of ADD suggest that those chapter headings in a business how-to book are there so that you can skim and refer to them as necessary. They are not really meant to be cover-to-cover journeys.
My background is very unconventional. What is a guy with two English degrees (one in literature and the other one in English Education) doing in UX? I chuckle when I see myopic job descriptions that include HCI or Interaction Design degrees. I think that such degrees are very useful for some very focused user interface designers, but when you are thinking about ecosystems and the user's gestalt, you must go beyond just the task. It is, and will be, about the journey because UX is simply qualified (measured) creative. Great user experience must include empathy, an anthropological understanding of human behavior, and transaction.
Now, when I mention transaction, I am not suggesting financial transactions, although that might be the case if you are working in e-commerce. However, a bigger transaction with much more value needs to happen well before a user taps on "buy now." That transaction is a human connection between experience and the user; some might call this value.
Like great writers, filmmakers, and artists, craftsmen cannot be taught to be talented. No, if you are to be great at crafting experiences, you have to be born with a certain love of narrative. When audiences find the narrative, they are willing to be led.
So, dear friend, here are some non-UX books worthy of your time and a cozy fire this winter. They are far superior to anything written by some designer who has worked on a handful of lackluster brands:
- It Chooses You, Miranda July. Perhaps I am a bit nostalgic about this book, which I read on my flight to and from Katmandu, which was an awakening experience in and of itself, but this is truly a worthy read. July writes about her research in making The Future, but she finds something deeper in her field research as she weaves a tapestry from each of her interviews. This book not only personally affected my own understanding of the world, but it taught me much more about user research and the power of rhetoric. (I highly recommend getting the e-book version with video interviews.)
- Rhetoric, Aristotle. All too often I need to remind copywriters and art directors that we are in the business of making money. We are making experiences in order to encourage our audience to do something. We also now live in a world where the feedback loop with that audience is there, whether we want it to be or not. The great-grandfather of feedback loops pretty much lays out anything you will ever need to know about community management and key performance indicators (KPIs).
- The Reader, the Text, the Poem, Louise M. Rosenblatt. Before I read this required book in my Teaching of Reading course at Teachers College, I used to firmly believe that readers should search for an author's intent. Many an undergrad paper was built on essays about intent, yet this transformative read introduces the notion that readers transact with an experience independent of intent. While simple to understand, all too often intention is imposed on an experience by the naïve forces that are developing it. In this book, you will learn that ALL transactions, positive or negative, are valid.
- The Structure of Behavior, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. "The mouse in The Metropolitan Museum of Art is affected by the crumbs of cookies on the floor, but not by the Velázquez painting on the wall." Enough said. 
- Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino. Something about this opus inspires thoughts about meta-data and structural and non-structural forms and forces the reader to transact. It is a great exercise in building and engaging narrative from something written in terms adversarial to such forms. A good complement to this is the Brian Eno Oblique Strategies card set. This is a great mind hack and something you need to be able to do in order to expand outward from any broken experience and redraw it fresh.
- Feed, M.T. Anderson. This dystopian young adult novel was written a decade ago, yet it remains a frightening, prescient look into advertising and media within a digital ecosystem unleashed upon consumers without realizing the need to disconnect. Predating Google Glass, Edward Snowden revelations, and location-based push notifications, this novel is a must, albeit quick, read for anyone developing experiences for our, and the next, generation. It's 1984 meets now.
Again, not to disparage prodigiously complementary UX books such as Designing for Sustainability or Storytelling for User Experience, but there is something to be said for stepping outside of one's self in order to gain more indirect insight into the craft of UX.
What do you say? Tweet me back @griffopolis and we can have some rhetorical fun. I am eager to add to my own winter reading list!
(An honorable mention: Kafka's The Castle would have made this list, but it may just be all too depressing to suggest reading. In fact, if you're thinking about leaving the UX discipline, or quitting UX on a corporate or advertising level, this is one painful read if you replace "land surveyor" with "UX practitioner," you'll get the idea.)
 Actual translated quote from Stanford.
Denis Griffith (@griffopolis) recently led global UX initiatives for Emirates Airline, launching iteratively this year, while XCD/head of UX at Atmosphere Proximity. Denis also served as director of UX with Havas Life, helping to create one of the first presentation builder and sales aid iPad apps. He is also an avid gamer and just recently created educational experiences for learning using the Kinect as part of a National Science Foundation grant application.