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Poll: Books That Change Your Life

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtHow many times have you heard someone say that a book changed their life? In how many of those instances were you able to observe that a change had actually taken place? The question’s not entirely fair–after all, some changes take a long time to arise, and tracing what we now view as a profound change back to to a book isn’t the epitome of scientific rigor.

There’s also the pesky notion, which I believe in, that every book we read changes us. Ditto every person we speak with, movie we watch, breath we take, and thought that we think. We are never exactly who we were one second ago.

Still, I do believe that books can change people in the way that I think they mean when they say “This book changed my life.” The best books for me make me want to be a better person, or help bring my ideas about what being a “better person” actually means more clarity.

I’ll give you some concrete examples. Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions made me want to be a writer. As a smug teenager it was so simple that I thought anyone would be able to replicate that style, at typing speed, and become rich and famous as a writer. I had no idea what level of craftsmanship Kurt was actually working at. I’ll never come close to his Vonnegut’s ability to say things better than anyone else, or write the way he did but he inspired me to start writing. For better or worse, I never quit.

Gargantua and Pantagruel, along with Candide, taught me about satire. It is my favorite form of writing when it is done well, and it is unbearable when it fails. It also made me feel less alone as a giant. You’ll have to read it to understand that.

Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates taught me that writing did not have to make any sense at all to be beautiful, and that absurdity and literary craftsmanship were not mutually exclusive.

Alices’ Adventures in Wonderland taught me to suspect that there is more than meets the eye to many kid’s books.

The Fortress of Solitude convinced me that I couldn’t really write about a city without having lived in it.

Stranger Things Happen made me mourn for the current state of the short story and wish that Kelly Link would put out a book every day.

A Confederacy of Dunces has taught me that I can always laugh about a man dressed in a pirate costume while pushing a hot dog cart, no matter how crappy I’m feeling. I still haven’t reviewed it here on the blog because I don’t know how to express what it has meant to me.

Don Quixote taught me that I would never quit reading, even if my brains dried up. My addiction to books is a weakness I cherish.

Blood Meridian taught me that I can simultaneously love and hate a book above all others. Geek Love is a close second there.

Slaughterhouse Five – I’ve never been more convinced that I was never cut out for the military.

The Bible taught me that people were just as weird a few thousand year ago.

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court made me hope there was a Heaven just so I could tell Mark Twain how much I enjoyed the scene where he’s putting on his armor.

The Far Side (I’m counting this because I reviewed the complete Far Side books) still teaches me things every single time I open it. It changes my moods instantly. I can’t explain it.

The Naked Warrior led me to kettlebells and the world of physical culture.

Man’s Search For Meaning taught me to question memories–especially my own.

I’m sitting in my study, looking from shelf to shelf. Old friends line the walls. Most of their authors are dead. There is nowhere else I would rather be, although now that I look more closely, I could use a few thousand more volumes on the shelves. I suspect my next house will be chosen solely for its potential as a library.

So, if you’re up for it: books that have changed your life, for better or worse. Really think about this. What books actually provoked lasting changes in your lives, thoughts, and actions?


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  • Lindsey January 30, 2011, 6:43 pm

    Dani Shapiro’s Devotion made me want to be a writer. It also made me take seriously the notion of a spiritual quest and made me feel that what I was experiencing, a crisis of sorts, was legitimate and that I was not alone in it. Katrina Kenison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day put into words a feeling I’d long had, that there was something hugely holy in the most mundane moments of my life, and helped me recommit to noticing them.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 31, 2011, 11:53 am

      I’ll look both of those up, thanks. How are things going for you, Lindsey?

  • Jeanie January 30, 2011, 6:49 pm

    Oh my…
    You want me to pick apart the pieces of me and trace it back to a definitive book? Wow. 🙂

    The look on my grandmother’s face when she gave me Eat, Pray, Love, and told me to go do it now.

    The article in Reader’s Digest in 2nd grade telling me specifically which parts of the brain are damaged by cocaine use.

    Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist for many reasons.

    “The Stranger Beside Me” –Ann Rule, gave me nightmares and chills thinking of what great beauty and evil is in each of us.

    “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen” –a professional book for my therapist career.

    Truthfully though? PEOPLE are what inspire me. Their perceptions, their blog posts, their stories…it makes me want to share their dreams with what little skill I have with words…and maybe help them come true.

    I am an avid reader…I even read…toothpaste tubes in the bathroom if I don’t have a book. I’ve been known to drench poor Jane Eyre in the tub as a small child…and I’m so thankful that I can carry my library with me now thanks to Kindle/and apps.

    Thank you, Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 31, 2011, 11:53 am

      I will start sending you my used toothpaste tubes if you need more.

    • Jen H January 31, 2011, 3:39 pm

      I read the toothpaste tubes too, Jeanie: doesn’t everybody? The text on the back of the shampoo bottles can make for entertaining reading in a pinch. : )

      • Heather February 1, 2011, 7:18 am

        Yup–shampoo bottles–guilty–it has also helped me with my Spanish and French. The stuff from Tigi/BedHead is good if you want to improve your German (Besserun Sie Duetsche–und Sie HAAR!)

  • Gustavo January 30, 2011, 7:49 pm

    Among many, “Eyeless in Gaza”.

    One small part in it –a long time ago- made me realize that I was OK to be shy and that nobody really cares if you are.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 31, 2011, 11:52 am

      Thanks Gustavo! My favorite part of these discussion is that I have never heard of so many of these books.

  • hoong yee January 30, 2011, 8:39 pm

    if the Fortress of Solitude makes you believe you must live and linger along the streets of a city in order to write about it, read the breathtaking Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk and let yourself be swept away in the city in awe of the city suspended between Europe and Asia.

  • Big Will January 30, 2011, 9:20 pm

    Again, you come to my inbox with a theme similar to what has been circulating in my own brain housing group as of late.

    “Harrison Bergeron”, by KV. I went to public school and we had to read this in ninth grade, followed immediately by “Animal Farm”. At age 13 reading those two tales back to back was of an impact only fully realized when i spoke with a pal about it 11 years later.

    “1984”. My Alpha and Omega.

    “The Road”, simply because it turned me onto my main motherlover, McCarthy, and allowed me to dive deep. So deep in fact, that i look back at my 2004-2005 obsession with Faulkner and laugh, thinking, ‘goodness, i really don’t like that pretentious, inflated drunk’. McCarthy: rugged, austere, sparsely prosaic, most of all, for me, coherent.

    “Wise Blood” by Flannery O”Connor. It was the first story i had ever read which terrified me more than any intentional horror fare. This was not a horror-novel. It is simply a horrific tale. Also, it got me ‘off’ Faulkner, and pointed me from O’Connor back to KV and then onto Pynchon.

    Awesome post Josh, i love the way you include your readers in your posts. I hope i can grab a coffee or a more adult beverage with you when i travel to SLC in June for the Staley seminar.


  • Johan January 31, 2011, 8:32 am

    A recently read book that changed my life, or at least my view on things, is Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. I thought I had a pretty good understanding on how scientific studies can be misinterpreted, twisted beyond recognition, abused, sidetracked, … to suit financial purposes, but apparently I still had a lot to learn. Guess I am still an aspiring skeptic. Very well written for a lay audience, witty, and shocking. Recommended reading for anyone with an interest in science, medicine, and health.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 31, 2011, 11:52 am

      Thanks Johan. Much appreciated. Have you ever heard of the book “Mistakes were made, but not by me?” Sounds similar and it was fantastic.

  • Heather January 31, 2011, 10:10 am

    On the Road taught me that Beat is beautiful, and most college lit professors are wrong.

    The Town and the City taught me that Beat is still beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with being from a small town.

    Look Homeward, Angel taught me that there is more to death, life, mourning, and food than anyone will ever really know.

    Burial to Follow taught me to be wary of funeral food.

    Young Adult Novel taught me to watch waht you wish for, because you just might get it. . . and it may not be as cool as you’d expect. THWONK! taught me the same thing.

    • Josh Hanagarne January 31, 2011, 11:51 am

      On The Road is the only one of those I’ve read. Off to the hold shelf.

  • Anders Ronnau January 31, 2011, 2:23 pm

    I am right there with you on Fierce Invalids. Dan Millmans Way of the Peaceful Warrior has changed my life every time I have read it. The first time it got me out of bed fighting to get better after a bike crash sent me down.

    • Heather February 1, 2011, 7:19 am

      HAH! Thank you, Anders, am adding Way of the Peaceful Warrior to the “must-read” list. . . am hitting Amazon to find the downloadable! Woo-hoo!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jen H January 31, 2011, 3:38 pm

    Blood Meridian and Geek Love: excellent additions to your list! I would put them on mine, as well. Never thought I’d meet another person who had read Geek Love, or that would admit it.

    A couple of others:
    Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute: for showing me poverty on an intimate level
    Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’engle : for introducing me to a girl as geeky and awkward as myself who still got to experience fantastic things

    So many more I could list! You are right: every book we read changes us, I can’t imagine living in a time when there was no recorded literature to read/listen to/experience somehow. Have humans always created literary experiences for themselves and their community? The answer has to be YES.

  • Demond Thompson January 31, 2011, 4:21 pm

    Wow! I could list quite a few books. Here’s just a few:

    Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
    Power To The People by Pavel — let me to strength training
    Bhagavad Gītā…the first spiritual book I liked reading

    I’m sure there are more, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

    Cool blog post!

  • Ryan J Pitts January 31, 2011, 5:05 pm

    Josh, nothing makes a home like a library. Or having a library with a home in it. Books have changed me into what I am today and will make me into who I am tomorrow as well. The written word and what sinks into the subconscious has always fascinated me. I was an extremely shy kid/person growing up. I looked to books for answers and found many, many books that changed my thoughts and actions. David Schwartz “Magic of Thinking Big”, “The Power of your subconscious mind” by Joseph Murphy and so many others that planted seeds that grew into powerful life changing decisions and choices. These all led me to pursuing my dream.
    I LOVE BOOKS! And when read with an open mind, the sky’s the limit!

    • Heather February 1, 2011, 7:20 am

      Ryan, your opening sentence should be my next tattoo–or maybe it should be a cross-stitched wall hanging or a poster. THAT is an AWESOME QUOTE! A library with a home in it! That rocks! 🙂

  • Diego Hernandez January 31, 2011, 11:57 pm

    First post. Love the site.

    Another Roadside Attraction by Robbins: Read it every year to remind myself that keeping an open mind is one of the most important traits that a person can have.

    Ham on Rye by Bukowski: Because, well, It’s Bukowski. In all honesty, its a story about overcoming the crummy hand that life deals us sometimes.

    Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Mother Night get overlooked as well when discussing his masterpieces.

  • Allen February 1, 2011, 9:25 pm

    The Bible continues to change my life everday. Here are the others:

    Think and Grow Rich
    The Science of Getting Rich
    The 5,000 Year Leap
    The Creature from Jekyll Island