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Seven Books That Actually Changed My Life

I'd predict that 99 percent of the small talk in the staff elevator at my library involves the following question and its answers:

"Are you reading anything good?"

Most recently I asked this of a woman holding The Poisonwood Bible, which I adored.

"Yes!" she said, waving the book in front of me. "I'm almost done. This book has changed my life."

Hearing that a book changed someone's life is one of my greatest pleasures. I can't think of a better compliment an author could hear. Unfortunately, my follow-up question doesn't always yield a satisfying answer:

"How?" I said. Meaning, how did it change your life?

"Because it was amazing!" she said.

This is a pretty typical response, and I know I do it sometimes as well.

"Because it was just so good!"

"It was incredible!"

"I loved it!"

These are all great to hear, but none of them indicate any clues about how a life might have been changed, not that anyone owes me an explanation if I ask. Still, "This changed my life!" is pretty high praise and shouldn't be interchangeable with "This book is really good!""This changed my life!" is pretty high praise and shouldn't be interchangeable with "This book is really good!"

Now, I don't go around watching everyone I talk to, so that I'll be able to pounce from dark alleys, proclaiming, "I knew your life hadn't changed!" And of course, every book you read changes your life, if only because you are now a slightly different person — the person who now has one more book kicking around in their brain.

But saying something "changed my life" really isn't something I want to note casually. So, as someone who tries (and often fails) to heed Mark Twain's admonitions about using the correct word, I've been trying to figure out if any books have actually changed my life, and how.

Here are a few:

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

I was in first grade when I brought Charlotte's Web home from the library. I instantly fell in love with Fern. I had loved books and stories before this, but this was the first time I felt a visceral, immediate connection with a character in a book. I loved her. Madly, painfully. This book taught me just how real a character can be, and how much truth fiction can have.

Misery by Stephen King

I started bringing Stephen King books home from the bookmobile in fifth grade. Misery was the book that my mom caught me reading prior to banning Stephen King from our house until I was older. I was usually an obedient kid, but I continued sneaking King's books into the house. Misery taught me that reading the books I loved, regardless of the effort the subterfuge required, was way more fun than obeying my mom.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

My favorite bookstore owner of all time — Keith Clawson from the defunct Experienced Books in Salt Lake City — recommended Motherless Brooklyn to me as soon as I told him that I had Tourette Syndrome. He wouldn't let me pay for it, either. "This one's on me," he said. The protagonist of the book has Tourette's. Mr. Clawson put this book in my hand at a very desperate time, when my condition was worsening every day and I despaired for my future. Saying "It saved my life!" would be melodramatic, but this book helped me smile at a time when I couldn't find any other reasons to do so.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

One of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite book. Confederacy was recommended to me by Mr. Clawson as well, so I owe him for this too. At the time Confederacy was the funniest book I had ever read, but it was sad, too. This book has come to define nearly all of my ideas about humor. I've reread it every year since. Each year, the book is still funny, but I'm increasingly aware of how inextricably intertwined sadness and humor often are. So much of humor is based on acknowledging a lack of something, or a brief flash of superiority. I often laugh because the alternative scares me.

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Mark Twain

Okay, this short piece by Twain isn't a book, but its quantification of the mistakes Cooper made in The Deerslayer tales and The Last of the Mohicans should make writers question whether their words are actually communicating what they're meant to. It has certainly had this effect on me. Also, this piece gets my nomination for the most hilarious piece of short writing in existence.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Depending on the mood I'm in, Blood Meridian is either my favorite or least favorite book. I say it has changed my life because I can't stop reading it. If ever a book has deserved the description of "haunting," for me, it is this book.If ever a book has deserved the description of "haunting," for me, it is this book. Each time I finish it, I shudder and think, "Okay, never again. That's enough." I rarely make it more than a month before I'm revisiting scenes, paragraphs, and pages. Why? I'm not sure, and therein lies my fascination. It could be the fact that I love Westerns, or the campfire lectures delivered by the horrific Judge Holden. It could be the archaic language or the scene on the edge of the volcano. It could be the dancing bear or the idiot and the parasol in the later chapters. It could be all of these things, or none of them. The activity of reading is itself a compulsion for me. But Blood Meridian is the only book that compels me to read it again and again. Its power is that I can't leave it alone, even though I know how shaken I'll be at the end.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Many of my ideas (ill-formed or otherwise) about how we deploy language — either to our favor or to our detriment — come from the linguistic absurdities of Catch 22. Often, when I find myself struggling to define an abstract concept, I think of the characters in Catch 22 chasing their own words around. Language can make the meaningless meaningful, or vice versa.

How about you? What books have truly changed your life? Do you know why?

÷ ÷ ÷

Josh Hanagarne is the author of the book The World's Strongest Librarian. You can follow his blog at and connect with Josh @JoshHanagarne on Twitter.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The World's Strongest Librarian: A...
    Used Hardcover $17.95
  2. The Poisonwood Bible (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. Catch-22
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  4. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening...
    Used Hardcover $12.00
  5. The Deerslayer (Bantam Classics) Used Mass Market $3.50

  6. A Confederacy of Dunces
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  7. Motherless Brooklyn
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  8. Misery
    Used Mass Market $4.95
  9. Charlotte's Web (Trophy Newbery)
    Used Trade Paper $3.50

9 Responses to "Seven Books That Actually Changed My Life"

    Jason P May 8th, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Great post. I completely agree with you on King--I had the same experience reading King in my early days--being sneaky made it so much more fun.

    Gretchen May 8th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    For me, one book that changed my life is "Up a Road Slowly" by Irene Hunt. (She's a Newberry Award winner, and this was a newberry Honor book--runner up to the grand prize.) It was the life of a girl, Julie, from the age of 7 to 17. Her mother dies--this is circa 1965, I would say, and her father brings her to live with her aunt because he can't care for her and work. Aunt Cordelia is a schoolteacher in a very small rural town, and her brother, Julie's uncle, lives in a cottage behind Cordelia's house. He's a writer who can never produce a manuscript, and an alcoholic. This book touches on mental retardation, on alcoholism, on mental illness, grief, love, and the way in which our choices frame our life.

    The thing about this book is that I read it almost every year from the age of 7 to 17, and many times since then. I'm actually jonesing for it now, just talking about it. What was incredible for me is that each year in those times Julie resonated with me most at the age which closely mirrored hers. While this is not mind-blowing for me now, as an adult, it was a pretty mind-blowing concept--that exactly the same words, the same story could be so amazingly different each time I read it.

    Because the topics were mature, even though it was a children/teen book, and because the author never varnished the truth, only exposed it, I would have been hard-pressed to explain how it changed my life when I was--say--20. In my family, we mostly didn't varnish the truth, as an only child and grandchild, I was exposed to a lot of things that many of my peers were sheltered from. So it wasn't that.

    But now, looking back, it demonstrated for me not just how--as the author of this article says--a book can be different every time one reads it. Or how one can fall in love with a character. (I fell hard for Cordelia and Haskell, the uncle.) It changed me because I learned that, as with the subsequent readings, how I see a situation in my life will be colored by who I am at that moment. How I view a person. And I think it made me less judgmental, and more forgiving and tolerant.

    PS. I'm 51. In case you think I thought I'd gleaned this wisdom when I was 23 or something. ;-)

    Chris May 9th, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I must have been about 12 when I borrowed out of the library "The Look of the Old West," by Foster-Harris, and "The Old-Time Cowhand," by Ramon F. Adams. I had always loved Westerns--being a Baby Boomee I was weaned on the TV kind--but these two books got me interested in the facts behind the stories, especially social/cultural history: how Old Westerners worked and played, how they dressed, what they ate, what their houses were like, what books they read, what songs they sang, how they rigged their horses, and on and on. They helped me create the style in which I write my own Westerns, which is to say rich with authentic background information. I wouldn't write that way--Westerns or any other genre--if notfor them.

    Sue May 9th, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Memorable books come to mind, and are at hand, as I am a public librarian. But when you mentioned rereading, I'd have to say Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. And in my mind they are one book. I read them as a child would, delighted to learn that books can be a powerful escape to a fantasy world, but reread them into college, memorizing the poems, examining the chess moves, and chuckling over the pokes at traditional British education. This is the one book for me that delivered the message: children's books can be for adults, and words about good and evil, right and wrong, even serious and silly, are powerful tools: "Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe..." thanks for asking!

    Judith May 16th, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Two novels come instantly to mind: once I read years ago--Joseph Heller's great Catch-22 which was hilarious and horrifying at the same time and made absolutely clear the absurdity of war. I read it during the early days of Vietnam and it couldn't have been more timely. More recently, Margaret Atwood's "Oxyx & Crake" made me very aware that her dystopian future could be right around the corner. Atwood is a genius--a term that cannot be applied to many authors--but she more than earns the appellation.

    RPS June 11th, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    What a good list. Have not read ‘Blood Meridian’ but all the others are near the top of my personal charts. I've read maybe 7000 or 8000 books but I think in terms of writers that influenced me rather than specific titles: Barthelme, Borges, McPhee, Murakami, Westlake, Wodehouse. (The thing that really changed my life, as far as I can tell, was not a book but a movie: ‘A Thousand Clowns.’)

    Jess Morgan December 28th, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I was greatly influenced by "The Secret Garden" when I was a young girl. My mother would "punish" me by sending me to my room when I was a kid. That was actually fine with me. I would enter into another world through the magic of books. Back to "The Secret Garden". Suffice it to say that I could so imagine escaping into this wonderful sublime place and meeting the boy who was there as well. I still feel I escape when need be with guilty pleasure, daring to step into someone else's imagination. This book gave me permission to allow myself the joy that is reading.

    E December 29th, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    The Young Wizards series, by Diane Duane, changed my life after I read the first few books in my early teens. The worldview articulated in the books, particularly its sense of mission, shaped my own. To try to summarize it off-the-cuff, the important elements were: 1. Young people with 2. specific but not unusual talents 3. commit to a job that 4. allows them to meet a network of like-minded people of many backgrounds while 5. doing terrifying, exhilarating things 6. in service of Life, 7. without lying or 8. otherwise compromising their sense of ethics.

    Elizabeth Stewart December 30th, 2013 at 9:37 am

    The book that changed my life did so because I found it just at the right moment. I was 30 years old, on my way to a divorce, and I read John Ralston Saul's 'Voltaire's Bastards,' a work of philosophy grounded in history. Saul argued that contemporary societal ills are based in technocratic corruption of Enlightenment values; it was a jeremiad in the Christopher Lasch tradition. I might not agree with Saul now, but at the time--when I was considering whether or not to go back to college--his employment of history really made a lightbulb go off in my head and helped me move forward with my next life.

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