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10 Books That Changed My Life

October 21, 2009

I was not always a reader.  My mother was always trying to get me to read something other than “Tiger Beat” and “Seventeen” magazines when I was a girl, but I was having none of it.  It wasn’t until I was in my third year of college that I really fell in love with reading books for pleasure.  My roommate had read a book for a class and loved it so much she shared it with me.  That’s what kicked it off.  These aren’t inclusively my favorite books, but books that changed me fundamentally once I had finished reading them.

1) “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.  Thank you, college roommate, for sharing this book with me.  I don’t remember crying harder at the end of any other book.  I was overwhelmed with its beauty and poignancy, and it was the first in a long line of books I have since read that spoke to the African American experience.

2) “Love Medicine” by Louis Erdrich.  Complex, haunting, interwoven, heartbreaking.  I have read all of Erdrich’s works after reading this first book and have never been disappointed.  She writes about the American Indian experience in both historical and contemporary voices, but hers are always tales of human relationships.

3) “Through a Window” by Jane Goodall.  Goodall’s fascinating account of chimpanzee social structure struck up my interest in animal behavior.  The tales of the chimp families in Gombe read like tragic soap operas.  Humans can learn so much about ourselves by studying the behavior of our closest  animal relatives.  The part that stuck with me the most was the bit about trained chimps.  I can never see a trained chimp in a movie or on TV without thinking of this book.

4) “Love’s Executioner” by Irvin D. Yalom.  Yalom is a psychotherapist writing about 10 of his patients as they struggle with pyschological problems. I found his writing style to be gentle and intuitive, the individual stories fascinating, and the book only deepened interest in psychology.

5) “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen.  What needs to be said about this classic?  I fell in love with the characters, Austen’s prose, and the dramatic tale.  It doesn’t get more perfect than this.  I was never a big fan of “The Classics” but this book got me to wondering what I had been missing and set me on a course to find out.

6)  “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath.  I didn’t even know the whole morose, suicidal writer backstory to this novel when I read it:  it simply spoke to me.  For years afterward I would refer to myself as “Elly Higginbottom” when random strangers asked my name.  This book is sort of like “The Catcher in the Rye” for girls.

7) “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand.  This book was somewhat difficult to wrap my head around as I started reading it and the philosphy promoted not necessarily something I espouse, but the writing is so weighty and meaningful, it worked its way inside of me.  Every time I hear the word “egotist” I think of Rands juxtaposing its meaning with “egoist.”  This book certainly challenged my existing views of the world.

8) “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry.  I read this years before Oprah included it in her book club.  One of my top three favorite books of all time.  A former co-worker handed it to me and I don’t think I read it for weeks.  Who wants to read a novel about a bunch of poor Indian people?  When I did start in I discovered one of the funniest, most touching and original works I have ever read.  I will and do recommend this book to anyone and everyone.

9) “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones.  What a discovery.  Fresh, exciting, complex: a revelation.  This story of a Black slave owners unearthed a brand new subject for me and was written in the most subtle yet provocative of styles.  Love, love, love this book and will read anything Jones ever writes, including his grocery list.

10) “The Crimson Petal and the White” by Michael Faber. Have you ever finished a book only to wish that you had never read it just so you could read it again for the first time?  That’s how I felt about this book.  I can’t even tell you exactly why except to say that I felt as though I was part of the story.  Faber’s writing doesn’t make you feel like you are reading: it feels like you are there, in the room, watching the events unfold.  Seamless and riveting, I would happily erase that memory from my brain just so I could form a new one.

Runners up:  “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “She’s Come Undone,” “I Know This Much Is True,” “Beloved,” “ Blindness,” “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” “Into the Wild,” “Finding Fish,” “The Best Defense,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Push,” “The Right to Privacy,” “All God’s Children,” “Savage Beauty,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

How about you:  what books have you read that transformed you?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2009 7:04 pm

    Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” is my ALL TIME favorite book. Is it wrong that I identify with Ellie in so many ways?

    • October 21, 2009 7:12 pm

      Er…”Elly…” :-\

    • mjjaaska permalink*
      October 21, 2009 7:59 pm

      I don’t think it is ever wrong to identify with another character or real person: there is always at least one thing that reflects us (hopefully mostly good things!). I think Elly was very sympathetic and worthy of relating to.

  2. cwriteandtheride permalink
    October 22, 2009 2:00 am

    One book that has changed my life for certain is Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina”. From it, I got a glimpse into what it’s like to be poor and white in America.

    About three years ago, I had the opportunity to hear/see Allison at a communication studies/composition conference. She did not disappoint. My favorite quote: “Books saved my life.”

    • mjjaaska permalink*
      October 22, 2009 2:09 am

      I have that book as well, Carla Ray, and it definitely impacted me in a big way. I debated putting that on my list: so many books, so little space! The movie SUCKED though! Did not do any degree of service to the book. Allison is a strong, amazing woman. Thanks for your comment!

  3. October 28, 2009 7:52 pm

    The Known World is an amazing book. I loved it too.

    • mjjaaska permalink*
      October 29, 2009 3:04 am

      Did you also read his collection of short stories, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children?” Fabulous!

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