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Life-changing books are rare, but they are the books that change your heart, your mind, and your very way of living. Fiction and nonfiction alike have the power to shape and change our lives. Here are some that have done just that.
If you’re a devoted reader, you most likely have books that have changed your life. These are the books you can’t stop thinking about, even years after the fact. The stories stay with you, the characters become a part of you, and the books keep offering new things each time you read them.
In some cases, these books simply turn you into a reader (life-changing in itself), but in others, they change your perspective and bring you a new understanding of some facet of the world.
These new understandings may simply prompt empathy. They may prompt action or change. You may vote differently. You might travel differently, or teach your children differently. You may change your job, or how and where you spend your money.
Books that change lives aren’t just personal; they have the potential to be world-changing, because they reach many readers who are also touched by them.
While many lists of life-changing books are filled with nonfiction self-help, inspiration, or even financial tips, very few of those books make my list.
The books that have changed my life tend to be centered on story: big, gut-wrenching, memorable stories that have stayed with me forever.
These are the books that I return to again and again–in my thoughts, as I consider my values, in how I live, and of course, in my regular reading. I admit; few of these are light reads, but each time I pick them up, I come away with something new.
Here’s my list; I’d love to hear about the books that have changed your life.
Life-Changing Books that Will Stay with You Forever
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
There is so much to this book: its unique literary devices; the immersive writing; the friendships between four men, just out of college and living in New York; and, not least, Jude’s unspeakable trauma.
Of all books I’ve discussed on this site, I and other readers have had the strongest reactions to this one. Because of the difficult subject matter, it’s not one for everybody, but the deep-dives into trauma and suffering and empathy are life-changing.
So many readers agree, this is a book that stays with you forever. For more on this book, see 15 Things You Didn’t Know About A Little Life.
Author: Margaret Atwood
If you haven’t yet read The Handmaid’s Tale (or watched the phenomenal Hulu series), now is the time. This book was my first introduction to dystopic fiction as a teen, and it was truly eye-opening. Read it for the riveting story, but also for perspectives on women’s rights, oppression, and government abuses of power. It’s fiction, but Atwood based every act of oppression on real events that happened somewhere in the world.
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
This tale of Louis Zamperini’s trials during World War II is so harrowing, you’ll have to remind yourself that it’s not fiction—because you won’t believe that one person could survive all that he did: a plane crash, months at sea on a raft, shark encounters…and that’s just the start.
We’ve all been struggling through world events recently, and those struggles are real and valid. But sometimes a little perspective on suffering and what can truly be endured can also be helpful in getting through the day.
Author: Chanel Miller
Chanel Miller was the unnamed victim in the Stanford sexual assault case against Brock Turner. In this memoir, she details the assault and the aftermath when the justice system gave more consideration to the effects on Turner than on her. Miller’s writing is achingly raw. She puts to words how the assault and ongoing violations affected her in ways that feel both intimate and universal to so many women.
A true testament to bravery and the ability to turn pain into beauty.
Author: Richard Powers
The Overstory begins with a series of stories about people and trees. Eventually, these disparate characters come together in a larger-than-life narrative that becomes a call to activism, a meditation on our place in the world, and an awe-stricken view into the complex and impressive lives and resilience of trees.
Author: Angie Thomas
If the many news images and stories of Black people being killed by police officers hasn’t prompted some real examination of values, beliefs, and how to be anti-racist, riding in the car with Starr as her friend is shot just might. As Starr grieves, you’ll feel the pain of the injustice, the glare of the national spotlight, and the intimidation of the police and local gangs. Angie Thomas’s powerful YA novel is a must-read for everyone–adult and teen alike.
Author: Tara Westover
Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho with a family driven by paranoid survivalism, religious extremism, abuse, and possibly mental illness. This memoir details her path to awareness, a sense of self that wasn’t allowed in her mountaintop life, and her eventual education at eventual education at BYU, Cambridge, and Harvard.
An incredible exploration of boundaries, self-examination, and acceptance that you won’t be able to stop thinking about.
Author: Janice Kaplan
Kaplan’s one-year experiment in focusing on gratitude in different areas of her life will have you thinking about ways to work gratitude into your own life. As she explores gratitude, she enlists experts who share how gratitude rewires our brains, improves our health, and even leads us to greater success and “luck.”
Gratitude can be difficult to come by when it feels like the world is falling apart, but it can also help get us through times that feel hopeless. More on The Gratitude Diaries.
Author: Georgia Hunter
We Were the Lucky Ones is the incredible story of the members of one Jewish family in Poland during World War II–parents, five grown children and their spouses, and their young children–each struggling for survival as the world crumbles around them, sometimes ripping them from their family at a moment’s notice.
Their stories of survival will stay with you forever, and have you thinking about the power of family, the horror of World War II, and the importance of gratitude. Must-read historical fiction.
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is the ultimate fictional education on systemic racism and the generational trauma it creates. In Ghana 300 years ago, two half sisters are born. One is sold into slavery, while the other marries a slave trader. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the women, illustrating how events and injustices of the past reverberate through the lives and struggles of future generations.
Read this as part of your anti-racist education, and because it’s an incredible book you won’t want to put down.
Author: Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about his early years as a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which defends death row inmates, the poor, and others trapped by an unjust criminal justice system, including children. Stevenson recounts numerous cases in which he is stonewalled by a system stacked against his clients, bound by red tape, and filled with corruption.
You’ll have new perspectives on poverty, race, and criminal justice in the United States.
Author: Cormac McCarthy
The Road is a classic dystopia that presents the bleakest of futures. In it, a man and his son walk the stark landscape toward the coast–not sure if they will find anything better than what they’ve left. It is a tough read, but it will prompt any reader to consider the paths that could take us to such a future–and what’s next when we we get there.
The imagery in this book will stay with you forever, and the stark beauty and odd hopefulness bring a particular poignance to the darkness.
Author: Ted Kerasote
Who hasn’t gotten comfort from the dogs of the internet? Merle is another dog that’s full of wisdom and lives life on his own terms. Merle’s independent life in the mountains of Wyoming will charm you–and dog lovers may wonder what their own pets would do with such freedoms. In addition to Merle’s life lessons, you’ll just love reading about him.
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
I love fictional takes on Biblical stories because they allow women to come to the fore–something that almost never happened in my childhood church education. This imagining of the life Jesus’ wife will get you thinking about the possible domestic life of Jesus the man–as well as the type of woman he may have married. There is no proof that Jesus ever married, but also none that he didn’t, and Kidd’s case is compelling.
Also try The Red Tent for another female-centered Biblical novel. They’ll both have you noticing the stories NOT told in the Bible.
Author: Rebecca Makkai
This fantastic book focuses on a group of friends in Chicago and the devastation of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In the midst of a pandemic when “we’re all in this together,” this book tells about a modern pandemic when the victims were shunned, shamed, and left to die. This novel about the power of friendship was my favorite book of 2018.
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
If you haven’t read Never Let Me Go, it’s best to go in blind. Just know that this book about a group of boarding school friends who come back together later in life will have you questioning what you thought you knew, what’s to come, and the ethics of many of our societal decisions.
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is masterful, but his sophomore novel affected me even more. This is the story of two women, Mariam and Layla, brought together in Kabul, Afghanistan, in lives filled with dangers: at home, from the war outside, and from the daily oppressions of life as a woman. Eye-opening, heartbreaking, and uncomfortable, this book will also give you hope in the power and importance of women’s endurance, friendship, and education.
What are the books that have changed your life?
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- Books for Your Anti-Racist Reading List
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- The Best Books of 2020