Eight Books That Changed Things For Me

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
by Susan Faludi

I read this in college and it completely changed my worldview. A feminist is a person who believes in equality between the sexes — so it turns out I am a feminist. This came as a surprise to me at the time. Also, it looks like there’s some seriously, concretely unfair shit going down for women, even in the U.S. I had no idea.

The Gift of Fear
by Gavin De Becker

It’s a waste of time to be afraid all the time. Trust your instincts to tell you when something is genuinely amok, and when they do, take immediate action.

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
by Thomas Lynch

This book by a poet who is also an undertaker helps me remember that being happy, or at least aware, is the best use of my time. It also gave me perspective on assisted suicide, and the ways individual anguish can eclipse you, needlessly.

Years later, this passage still sticks with me:

“Here was a young man who had killed himself, remarkably, to deliver a message to a woman he wanted to remember him. No doubt she does. I certainly do. But the message itself seemed inconsequential, purposefully vague. Did he want to be dead forever, or only absent from the pain? ‘I wanted to die,’ is all it seemed to say clearly. ‘Oh,’ is what the rest of us say.”

The Four Agreements
by Don Miguel Ruiz

I’ve mentioned this book before, and if you’re feeling adrift, it’s a good little system to help get you grounded again. I wrote more about it here.

The Wealthy Barber: Everyone’s Commonsense Guide to Becoming Financially Independent
by David Chilton

It’s not a work of literary genius, but it’s clear, it’s a quick read, and it fills you in on all the financial stuff your parents didn’t teach you.

Learning to Love You More
by Harrell Fletcher, Miranda July, Julia Bryan-Wilson, and Laura Lark

I like how Miranda July seems to have always tackled the next most interesting thing, and she’s built a pretty inspiring life that way. This book of projects reminds me that it’s always a good decision to let your interests guide you.

Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
by Judith Martin

An anthropology book on my own culture, and the reasons behind the societal contracts we’ve made. Now when I’ve pissed someone off, I usually know why.

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems
by Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon’s poems make me feel keener, like I can smell better and hear things more clearly. I read them when I’m feeling muddled to help me re-focus.

Now! Tell me which books changed things for you, because I think it will be interesting.

Do it.

76 thoughts on “Eight Books That Changed Things For Me

  1. I have many, but I read Jane Mead’s poem “Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make” when I’m in need of a nail of light to open my sometimes thick skull.

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  2. Oh yeah:
    David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. Blew my mind. Completely messed up my frame of reference when it came to story. This did for books what Pulp Fiction did for movies for me.

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  3. Oh, Melissa, I should have put Mists of Avalon on my list too, though for me the important part was the religion aspect — I wasn’t raised Christian, but I always felt like I must be by “default,” so my first experience with any other belief system besides Judaism (to which you can’t convert) was eye-opening. Plus I was 13, and thus prone to be interested in Wicca/occult-type stuff anyhow, but even though that “let’s do a spell!” phase only lasted a couple of months for me, the discussion of the spiritual forces in the natural world has been absorbed into whatever it is I actually believe. And I stopped thinking I “should” be a Christian like all my friends, when it never really fit me.

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  4. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
    I know that it sounds odd, as the book is essentially about a pedophile. It actually took me several tries to get through the book, because I was so disturbed – somewhat by the content, but also my reaction to it. The way that the language moves is beautiful and haunting (and I am forever stunned that this is not a translation – Nabokov wrote this book in English – not his native language). It was the first time that I realized how words can make one (me, in this case) truly sympathetic to a man who is, in many ways, a monster. It changed the way I look at people, and am careful not to judge based on solely on words or emotion.

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  5. 1. a handmaid’s tale, by margaret atwood
    2. oryx and crake, also by margaret atwood
    3. second sex, by simone de beauvoir
    4. the snow leopard, by peter matthiesson
    5. the folding cliffs, by w.s. merwin
    6. when i say no, i feel guilty, by some self-help guru who actually helped me.
    7. 1984, by george orwell (i LOVE future dystopias- they make me more thoughtful and critical of my life and our society)

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  6. People of the Lie by Scott M Peck (same guy who wrote the Road Less Traveled)

    Coming from a household that was like the Waltons, I had a tough time accepting that people weren’t always nice. This book explains a lot.

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  7. ~The Millionaire Next door
    Fascinating study of self made millionaires. No rich kids, no lotto winners, just people who did it the old fashioned way

    ~Suze Ormon’s Women and Money
    Every woman should read this

    ~The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennets
    This book made me realize the danger of financial dependence on anyone but myself

    ~Twinkie Deconstructed
    Most of the American diet=fake food.

    ~The Love Poems of Rumi
    He makes my soul sing

    ~All of Maya Angelou

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  8. I agree with emily and Woobs. Einstein’s Dreams and Written on the Body are two of my all time favorite books that I have worn thin reading.
    Very worthwhile.

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  9. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing

    I’m still reading this book but before I even got through the introduction I had one of the largest AHA! moments of my life to date. Each chapter brings out more of them for me and is completely eye opening.

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  10. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

    Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

    Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

    Ruth by Jane Hamilton

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  11. And I forgot to add –
    The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
    I have a son who is Hank’s age,
    and when I read the book now I realize I am the tree! Such a wonderful and sad story.

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  12. To Kill a Mockingbird– It was the perfect book for someone, age 11, trying to understand right versus wrong, racism and love. When I grew older and re-read it, I thought the book had some choppy parts in it, some preachy parts, too–but it is one I still think of as a favorite. The movie’s pretty damn amazing, too.

    Bully for Brontosaurus–I never knew other people, let alone adults, worried as much as I did about WHY things were and needed to understand the world around them, simply to be able to live in it. RIP, Stephen Jay Gould.

    The Death of Grass–Kick-started my lifelong love of GOOD sci-fi/apocolyptic fiction and led me to The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite short stories.

    A poetry anthology with ‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath and ‘Born Yesterday’ by Philip Larkin in it; it blew my mind wide open and I still have not recovered. I wish I could find that title again!

    The Family of Man–I got myself a copy a few years ago, but my mom had it when it first came out. I pored over every page when I was a kid, and as an adult, became friends (unknowingly) with someone who happens to be in it. I look through it sometimes still, and every time, I am in awe of the idea and scope of what they did with it. Sparked my own interest in photography and capturing in a split second, what is essential in a person.

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  13. 1) The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood.

    Someone said it above, but it’s so true for me too. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 12 and that was me, signed on to feminism, for good.

    2) Discipline and Punish: Michele Foucault.

    I worked in corrections education for a while. This book made articulated why all the things that felt broken or sick about the place I worked actually are sick and broken.

    I am a Happy Endings kind of reader, but these two Volumes of Dystopia are so important to me.

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  14. Tuesdays with Morrie. It is a fairly short book but it packs quite a punch – and it is definitely worth reading. It taught me so much about what it means to live a life that is actually worthy of living! I fell in love with Morrie and his sweet spirit… and I wish that I could be more like him.

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  15. -Night, by Elie Wiesel. The most transforming experience I have ever had while reading. The sadness and beauty of it still haunt me, years later.
    -Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje. His writing draws you into the autobiographical struggle of a son to understand his father and come to terms with himself. For anybody who’s ever tried to understand their parents.
    -The Russian Album, by Michael Ignatieff. Similar to Running in the Family, this book is a loving ode to Ignatieff’s history even as he tries to reconcile his maternal and paternal heritages.
    -Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. The language is just so ornate and poetic, the characters enthralling.
    -The Rights Revolution, by Michael Ignatieff. A must read for anybody who wants to come close to understanding the complex realm of rights talk in Canada.
    -Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield. Absolutely heartbreaking. Every time I read it, I weep like a baby. The first book I recommend to anybody.

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  16. I love, love, love Jane Kenyon. She manages to find power in pain.

    My list? Off the top of my head, but I’m sure it will change tomorrow:

    1. Closer by Dennis Cooper. Never has a novel actually made me feel ill before, and I love him for that.

    2. Backlash by Susan Faludi. My entry into feminism as a college freshman.

    3. Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel. If I could write, I’d write like this.

    4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. This took forever for me to read, but I’m glad I did. (Needs a re-read)

    5. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Particularly her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.”

    6. Becoming a Writer – Dorthea Brande. Still relevant, even after all these years.

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  17. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

    The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

    Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

    Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

    Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

    A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

    Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

    The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

    The Owlstone Crown by X.J. Kennedy

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  18. The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert and Gubar–I was 19 and had never read literary criticism of any sort(much less feminist lit crit), aside from the forwards to Penguin classics. For me Jane Eyre was like fire and these essays were like the rush of oxygen from an open door that sends the blaze roaring down the hallway shaft.

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  19. My picks are mostly non-fiction also. I grew up in a house full of fiction, but am now far more fascinated by information on the world itself. I still do love young-adult novels, though. Often they are so much more complex and painful than anything written for adults.

    – The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury – the loneliest book in the world
    – Sex and the Origins of Death, William R Clark – the first book to get me interested in science writing
    – Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian – I read this first when I was about 11, and still read once in awhile over 20 years later, and still cry and cry
    – Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams & Mark Cawardine – their search for species on the edge of extinction (and the best book ever written by Douglas Adams)
    – (Since Eve Ate Apples) Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser – one of the best examples of social-historical writing (and on of the earlier books about the hidden lives of the foods we eat)
    – A Summer to Die, Lois Lowry – her first book; so moving and sweet and tragic all at once
    – Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins – I don’t have much interest in his books about/against religion, but his books about biology are clearly written and easy to understand without being a biologist, but never patronize the reader
    – One-way Street/Berlin Chronicle/Berlin Childhood Around 1900/Central Park, Walter Benjamin – some of the best essays by one of the most creative minds of the 20th century; his writing is lovingly crafted, delicate, incisive, insightful and illuminates his own thought process for others to witness.

    (Nerd-o-rama list, stopping now!)

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  20. Deep in the archives, I know, but I’ve been meaning to write a post on my blog about two books that completely changed my perspective on two cultures that, while different in every way, are totally similar in that, not having been a part of it, we have a hard time relating. Those books are Maus by Art Spiegelman, a graphic novel telling the father of the author’s story of the Holocaust, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which is the story of the lives of two dynamic woman in Afghanistan. Both brilliant, heartbreaking books.

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