Books That Change Lives: A Logical Approach

71writersI just finished reading The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them. 

Many people have strong opinions about whether or not books can change lives. I’ve heard fellow readers vehemently exclaim everything from “Books don’t change lives; people change lives!” to “I was never the same after reading this book.” So, which is it? Can books change lives?

If you think about it logically, books in some capacity change most people’s lives. Even if you’re one of those people who never willingly picks up a book, you probably learned to read when you were a kid by gradually working your way up through books for early readers. And I’m willing to bet that learning to read really did change your life. Boom. There you go.

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But can you pinpoint a single book and say that book changed your life in such and such a way? And what exactly does it mean to “change” one’s life? Consider this: I learned to do some juggling tricks by reading a Klutz book of juggling. Has my life been changed by the fact that I can occasionally impress people at parties with this hidden skill? Well, yes, but not in a particularly substantial way. Now, consider this: I passed my English senior seminar in college by reading (and writing about) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. My life would’ve been a lot different if I hadn’t ever gotten that final grade. So did Leaves of Grass change my life? I think not—at least, not that book in particular. The fact that that book was Leaves of Grass did not affect how it changed my life. It was just the fact that I read a required book and wrote a required paper on it.

So, we have established that books as a whole change lives and also that reading a book can directly cause a change in one’s life (i.e. learning a new skill), but neither of these things is what is meant by “the book that changed my life,” is it?

To better examine what it means for a book to “change one’s life,” I’ll have to consider the books that, for me, are in the running: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens; Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters; and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

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When I was a child, I had an oversized, abridged and beautifully illustrated version of Oliver Twist that my mom brought home one day. When I asked her what it was about, she told me that it was about a boy who gets in trouble for asking for more food. Intrigued, I opened it up and read the first few pages. There were a lot of words in small type, but I slowly and steadily worked my way through the long column of text on each page. Right away I was engrossed in the story. I was so surprised that a book like that could actually be good—a grown-up book, a classic. I read it many, many times as a child, and when I was old enough, I read the unabridged version and loved it, too. Oliver Twist taught me that there was a whole world of books out there beyond the children’s books to which I was accustomed. It taught me that classics aren’t just stuffy old volumes of boredom-inducing hemming and hawing; they can be exciting, too! Oliver Twist is where my love of reading truly began—and reading is one of my greatest joys in life.

Keeping You a Secret was a YA book that I picked out in a bookstore when I was about thirteen years old. Mom had offered to buy my sister and me one book each, and I found this one on a shelf and tentatively showed it to her. To my dismay, she read the inside flap, where the story was revealed to be about the romance between two girls. I told her nonchalantly, palms sweating, that I just, you know, found that kind of stuff interesting. I took it home, removed and hid the dust jacket, and devoured it dozens of times over the next couple of years. I was not alone. I could read (and write!) about people like me.

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The final book, Angela’s Ashes, was  passed on to me by my mom when I was in college. Fascinated by his story of Irish poverty, she had read all three of McCourt’s memoirs and also tracked down DVD interviews and shows about McCourt and his brothers. So of course, I read Angela’s Ashes for myself. It ended up being a large part of the reason I chose to study abroad in Limerick, Ireland—which has changed my life in many ways, including introducing me to lifelong friends and instilling in me an insatiable love of travel.

So there you have it: the three books that substantially changed my life. They are not even necessarily my favorites: I have read more engrossing books, books that made me think more, and books I’ve felt stronger connections with than these three. But I can say that if I hadn’t read these three books, my life might have been quite different.

Which book, if any, has changed your life, and how?

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3 thoughts on “Books That Change Lives: A Logical Approach

  1. I’ve been thinking about this since I first read your post two days ago. If I had to pick one book, I would say House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. It convinced me that I could read “grown-up books,” in English, and helped me decide to study literature and history in college, which brought me to where I am today.

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