We tend to think of reading as a cerebral endeavor, but every once in a while, it can spur action. The following books — ranging from inspiring biographies to evocative fiction to instructional guides — motivated us to step out of our comfort zones and make significant, lasting changes in our lives.
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Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerney
When I first moved at age 20 from Boise, Idaho, to New York for college, I was a quiet, shy kid who admittedly thought New York City was one of those places where, when walking around, you didn't want to look anyone directly in the eye, you should always know where your wallet is, and you should only go out in the daylight. Then I read Bright Lights, Big City
. The novel inspired me to wander, often alone, and take subways through Brooklyn at 3 a.m.; get into musical shows where I wasn't even old enough to be there; and go dancing at African jazz clubs and find myself falling asleep on the shoulder of a new friend and then ride the Long Island Rail Road back to my dorm just as the sun was rising. Ultimately, the adventures of the main character in this novel inspired me to take risks, not be afraid of new places, and really experience everything that makes the Big Apple what it is.
– Nick Y.
Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall
McDougall's story about a tribe of superathletes is probably the bestselling running book of all time. This book launched the minimalist running boom and was responsible for a cultural shift that changed the way we view this popular recreational activity. For me and for many other readers, the book also had another effect. It served as inspiration and motivation to push our preconceived limits. I used to think of the 26.2-mile marathon distance as the ultimate running goal, but because of this book, I've now completed several 50-mile and 100-mile races. If you're not careful, Born to Run
will subtly trick you into running faster and farther than you ever thought possible.
Just to be clear, I lean toward the academic rather than fitness-intensive side of life. That being said, McDougall's book captured the intellectual side of me with its multiple angles on running. Imagine my surprise when, as I finished the book, I found myself inspired to turn my daily walks into runs. I even ran in Portland's half marathon, and I'm planning on signing up for the full marathon this year. Talk about born to run, man!
– Rachel G.
Becoming a Man
by Paul Monette
This book inspired me like no other. Through Monette's bravery, honesty, and aching tragicomic journey toward accepting his homosexuality, I found the courage to accept myself. I reread it annually because it's the reason that I am now true to myself, and happy about it.
– Jordan G.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
I read this book in 1970. I was 12 years old and a few months away from my Bar Mitzvah. One of the things I had to do for the occasion was write a speech to say what I wanted to do with my new adulthood. Inspired by Malcolm X, I wrote that I planned to be a civil rights leader. My rabbi had no problem with my speech, so I stood there in front of the congregation, new tallis on my shoulders, hair just starting to get hippie-long, telling my parents and siblings and all those old Jewish men and women I didn't know that I'd be leading marches in the Deep South for racial equality.
I never made it to the Deep South, but I have marched for civil rights and workers' rights and against wars all the way from age 12 to now. I don't enjoy standing with a crowd chanting slogans, and I hate confrontation. But it has to be done and, at least some of the time, I need to be there. So, not quite as fearless or eloquent as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. or pretty much anyone, but I do show up.
– Doug C.
The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices
by Michael Brower and Warren Leon
I read this book years ago, and it inspired me to go carless. I found it very empowering since environmental issues can feel so overwhelming that they induce paralysis. Sadly there's no revised edition yet, but I suspect a lot of the analysis — Paper or plastic? Old house or new? Cloth diapers or disposables? — still holds true.
by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin
Yes, this is a ridiculous pick for a book that changed my life... but it did. I only read it for work: all those customers asking me over and over what the book was about. I thought, it's short; just read it
... so I did. But the "bitches'" straight talk about veganism struck home with me, and I became vegan (several years ago, now), even though I was always one of those people who said they could never give up cheese. For someone who hates change and greets it kicking and screaming, Barnouin and Freedman made completely changing my life probably the least complicated it could have been. And, so far, no regrets!
Trixie Belden: The Secret of the Mansion
by Julie Campbell
On the first day of the sixth grade, I impulsively changed my name to Trixie, patterned after the fictional tomboy-girl-sleuth Trixie Belden, an outspoken and honest preteen heroine. Unwittingly, I incurred the wrath of a then-unknown-to-me classmate: Pixie. Worse, I attracted the attention of one of her slavish pals, a bully who spent the entire school year tormenting me for daring to be Trixie. It was a year of skirmishes and degradations. At last, I had an epiphany during one of our daily verbal battles, this one over the clothes I was wearing ("Pink doesn't go with gray." "Yes, it does." "No, it doesn't." "It does, too!" "It does not!). The ridiculous back-and-forth made me realize that I would never win an argument with her. Bullies are brutes and the playing field belongs to them. I didn't have it in me to sink to her level, and I couldn't raise her to mine. Bullying children often grow up to be bullying adults. Thanks to having been Trixie for a year, these louts don't bother me much. Nowadays, I only occasionally go by Trixie, but I still wear pink with gray clothes.
– Tracey T.
by Rita Mae Brown
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
by Jeanette Winterson
I'm writing about two books that inspired me to "stay the course," if you will — to follow my heart and my longings and to be true to myself as best I could. Both Rubyfruit Jungle
and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
were the first books I read with lesbian main characters who were coming out and struggling with their sexual identity. Though they are set in very different worlds (American South and Industrial England), they're both well written, funny, and inspiring. I recommend them to anyone, gay or straight. But as a young person growing up in Kentucky in the pre-Ellen
'80s, I had a lot of internalized homophobia. I wrestled fiercely with my desires and emotions in my late teens and early 20s, and I wondered whether Hell really existed and if I might be headed there. These books gave me the "it gets better" kind of comfort (before there were blogs and the Internet to provide it!), and they widened my world view.
While it's corny to say, "I never thought I'd see the day"... I have to say that my 19-year-old self never thought I'd see the day when I'd work in a bookstore full of gay and lesbian authors and titles of all stripes, when I'd be able to walk down the streets of my city holding the hand of the woman I love, and when we'd be able to get legally married: amazing!
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book Four
by Alan Moore
I had a spiritual experience while reading Swamp Thing
. It sounds silly. Spiritual experiences are supposed to happen to godly people in holy places. But Moore's musings on the nature of evil deeply moved me at a time when I was picking myself up off the floor and asking "Why?" It helped me find reason in chaos and kept me going when I wanted to give up.
Shogun: A Novel of Japan
by James Clavell
This action-adventure story set in 16th-century Japan made me love everything Japanese — I watched samurai flicks, ate raw fish, drank sake, took aikido, all because of this wonderful book. Oh, and you've got to know I was a meat, potatoes, and beer kinda gal, and I never did anything physical. The experience was awesome and the bruises soooo colorful. For me, this book started an adventure.
100 Days of Real Food
by Lisa Leake
Leake's 100 Days of Real Food
kicked an eating transformation into gear for my family and me. First I purged our kitchen of anything that was not real food. Out went all the processed white flour and sugar items beloved by my children, including (horrors!) their Goldfish crackers. They were replaced by 100 percent whole grains, honey, and maple syrup as sweeteners (in moderation), and unrefined olive and coconut oil, or butter instead of vegetable oil. For the first few weeks, grocery shopping became a challenge, as most packaged foods contain one or more processed ingredients. But after a while I found new staples or just started to make my own. The adjustment was most difficult for my five-year-old, but Leake's family-friendly recipes (Pumpkin Spelt Muffins!) and full-color photos are slowly winning over my pickiest cracker junkie, especially when she can pick out a recipe and help me whip it up!
– April C.
by Robin McKinley
A beautiful retelling of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale, Rose Daughter
taught me that it's okay to make the choice that your heart wants but everyone else tells you not to make. In this version, Beauty chooses to keep her Beast just as he is — as she fell in love with him — and not change him to suit society.
– Erin D.
The Age of Spiritual Machines
by Ray Kurzweil
I went on a kick recommending Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines
to everyone, and my girlfriend was not spared. Taking the long view of historical progress in order to map the future, with many predictions that are still hitting home (even if some are off by a few years), Kurzweil helped my girlfriend recognize that she was working in a dying industry. The book prompted her to think about what skills would still be valued in the future. Soon after, she left work, went back to school, and is now much happier (and better paid) working in Web design. (And it's nice to think I helped.)
– Benjamin H.
The Big Tiny
by Dee Williams
In The Big Tiny
, tiny house pioneer Dee Williams chronicles her decision to build herself an 84-square-foot house on wheels. Despite having no previous interest in construction, before I was even done with the book I decided I would build my own tiny house. In the time since, I've designed plans for the house and started saving to live the tiny life as soon as possible!