17 Powerful Books that Will Change Your Life

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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

A Liittle Life by Hanya Yanagihara, a life-changing fiction book

A Little Life

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.

Related: 11 Devastating Books Like A Little Life


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale

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.


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, a book that may change your perspective on life

Unbroken

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.


Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name

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.


The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory

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.

You will marvel at both the literary feat and wonder of trees and the natural world. Try Underland as a good companion read.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give

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.


Educated by Tara Westover, a great choice for readers looking for books on life

Educated

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.


The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

The Gratitude Diaries

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.


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We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones

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.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

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.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy

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.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road

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. 


Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote

Merle’s Door

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.


The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Book of Longings

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.


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

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.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

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.


A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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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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. 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. #books #booklist

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5 Comments

  1. I would add American Dirt. I KNOW there is a lot of controversy around this book, but I just loved it. It really stuck with me and DEFINITELY created space for more empathy for those who are trying to get across the US border. I think it’s easy to not focus on issues that don’t directly affect us. But!….when you take the time to hear one person’s story, it’s possible to make a connection and learn on an intimate level what people are up against. This is a fictional story that touched me for the better.

  2. Four of these I didn’t enjoy at all. Just so much angst in the world I think I don’t want to read about other people’s?? Maybe?

  3. My hobby is reading books and writing short stories .I m 16 years old and I live in a city were there is too much noise but still in the evening and also at bed time I like to read books .
    The book that changes my life is
    As a Man thinker
    It is one of such a best book you can read that really changes your thoughts , character and also your thinking

  4. My hobby is reading books and writing short stories .I m 16 years old and I live in a city were there is too much noise but still in the evening and also at bed time I like to read books .
    The book that changes my life is
    Power of positive thinking
    It is one of such a best book you can read that really changes your thoughts , character and also your thinking

  5. Solid list Allison! I am about 90% though The Overstory right now. I cannot yet give the verdict as I haven’t finished it, but I suspect it’s the best novel I have ever read. Holy wow. Unbroken is an utmost testament to the human spirit. Big fan of Cormac McCarthy’s comma-less writing as well.

    Anywho, I just published my own fifteen books that changed my life list and am beaming it out into the universe and hope you don’t mind I drop a portal through the world wide web to it at the bottom of your list: https://ethanmaurice.com/blog/15-books-that-changed-my-life

    P.S. I love the mind joggling quote! That is a superb word for the effect of books.

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