I read a book recently that really spoke to me. It GOT me. It connected with me.
Which made me start thinking about all the books I’ve read through the years that have caused a similar reaction in me. Some have been influential because I’ve been able to relate to them, some have been influential because they’ve inspired me in some way, some have been influential because they’ve hauntingly stuck with me. Regardless, they were all important. So I thought I’d share some of those here.
A few notes about this list:
- In looking back on the influence of these books, timing was important, of course. Who I was and where I was in my life at the time played into things in a big way.
- This doesn’t mean all of these are great works of literature, but that’s not what I’m going for here: These are books that meant something to me, that stuck with me, that touched me deeply.
- I know I’m leaving some out, so I might add on to this list as others come to mind.
Okay, here goes, in no particular order:
- A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry: This list has to begin with this book. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but I do know that I’ve read it enough to be able to quote the first few lines (“It was Molly who drew the line. She did it with chalk — a fat piece of white chalk left over from when we lived in town…”). This coming-of-age book about a girl learning to love herself and realize her own strengths and beauty — along with experiencing death and birth up close — spoke to me so very deeply during my pre-teen and teenage years. I should read it again, in fact. It’s been too long.
“It was because someone who was a real friend was having the exact same feelings I was having, about something that was more important to me than anything else. I bet there are people who go through a whole life and never experience that.”
- Letting Go of Leo: How I Broke Up with Perfection by Simi Botic: This one gets to come next, since it’s the one that inspired this list. I just finished reading this book, and firmly believe anyone who’s ever been a middle school girl should read it. Anyone who’s had a less-than-ideal relationship with food should read it. And if you’ve straight up had an eating disorder, like me? Consider it required reading. Thankfully, I was able to relate to ALL the stages of this book: the in-the-midst-of-it portion, the transition portion, and the recovered/healthy portion. So many of Simi’s experiences with her body and food and self worth resonated with me because I’d felt them, too, and I’d wager many of you will feel the same way.
“The fact that it was hard didn’t mean I was failing. These were growing pains. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have sped up a second of it. I needed every second of the challenge to make me who I am today.”
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: This is, hands down, my favorite book of all time. It’s a beautiful love story that’s so very human, yet with the element of time travel woven in. This was the book that taught me how relatable and, well, human sci fi can actually be. (Oh, and if you’ve seen the movie and didn’t love it, please read the book! It’s a million times better.) It’s beautifully written, and speaks to the power of being present.
“When we met I was wrecked, blasted, and damned, and I am slowly pulling myself together because I can see that you are a human being and I would like to be one, too.”
- Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson: Another childhood favorite, this is a book I’ve read at least a half-dozen times that deals with the themes of friendship, belonging, and loss, with a healthy dose of imagination woven in.
“‘We need a place,’ she said, ‘just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.’ … She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. ‘It might be a whole secret country,’ she continued, ‘and you and I would be the rulers of it.'”
- Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman: I think this book should be required reading for all Americans — especially middle and upper class Americans. I’ve been a fan of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black since it was released, but found this book to be much more relatable than the show. It’s much more approachable and less dramatic than the show, although it’s easy to see how the show was born from the book. Kerman — thanks to her first-person perspective — is able to give readers a clear and honest view of what the state of prisons in America is. (Spoiler: It’s not great.) She combines compelling stats with stories of people she came into contact with during her 15 months in prison, making the story wonderfully human and strikingly memorable.
“Every human being makes mistakes and does things they’re not proud of. They can be everyday, or they can be catastrophic. And the unfortunate truth of being human is that we all have moments of indifference to other people’s suffering. To me, that’s the central thing that allows crime to happen: indifference to other people’s suffering. If you’re stealing from someone, if you’re hurting them physically, if you’re selling them a product that you know will hurt them—the thing that allows a person to do that is that they somehow convince themselves that that’s not relevant to them. We all do things that we’re not proud of, even though they might not have as terrible consequences.”
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance: I found this book to be so timely in its release, and a wonderful one for those of us trying to make sense of where our political system went so wrong. Vance is able to articulately share his experiences growing up the offspring of Appalachian hillbillies and how that so dramatically influenced how he saw the world and what he thought was available to him. It came out at the perfect time, given the recent presidential election, and gives readers a peek into the working class population that helped to put Trump in the White House in a way that adds critical context to this group of people.
“Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.'”
- The Giver by Lois Lowry: I’m most certainly not alone in adding this to my “most influential books” list, as I know so many other people — especially those growing up in the 90s — would put on their list as well. But it’s there for good reason. This book helps to introduce the importance of what it means to be truly and fully human — and all the pain, fear, happiness, and other emotion and awareness that comes with it.
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: A book I sometimes call “The Giver for adults,” this was the first book I read by Margaret Atwood, and it remains my favorite. With heavy themes around women’s rights, but more just around HUMAN rights, this book (and the amazingly produced corresponding Hulu series) are heavy yet so very important.
“Freedom, like everything else, is relative.”
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown: I should really just say “anything by Brené Brown, including TED Talks, podcast appearances, books, etc.,” but we’ll go with this one if I have to distill it. She’s amazing, and has taught me so very much about the importance of vulnerability and how worth it doing the hard work to get there is.
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
- Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life by Anna Quindlen: Anna Quindlen has been my writing spirit animal for a couple of decades now, and so her memoir most definitely makes my “most influential books” list. I first discovered her writing when Anna was still penning “The Last Word” every other week (the opinion piece on the last page of Newsweek). I was immediately drawn to her writing, which was always measured yet strong in a way that I — as a Southerner taught to always be nice — admired and craved. This woman knew who she was and knew what she believed and why. I wanted that, too. And now, thanks to women like Anna and Brené and Simi and so many others like them, I DO feel like I can be confident in both knowing and sharing who I am with the world. I’ve come a long way, Anna Quindlen. Thanks for being there for much of the journey.
“I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.”
What books have made a lasting impression on your life?