11 Books That Changed How You Live

Reading shapes behavior, new research shows. Here are a few Atlantic readers who attest to that fact.


Books do more than afford us a momentary escape from life's daily rigors. Good books challenge us, and help us grow. Great books reshape our worldview. If that was merely conventional wisdom before, science now has the research to prove it. Reading a first-person short story about voting just days before an election seems to have a measurable impact on an individual's likelihood of turning up at the ballot box. The pen is a mighty thing indeed.

Last week, we asked you to share with us meaningful books from your past that have changed the way you live. We've rounded up a few of the most thoughtful responses and posted them here.

When women had to "fight to have their own lives"

Fiction wise, the book that had changed my life was Christina Stead's "For Love Alone" looking at how strong women in 1920s Australia had to mentally psych themselves to prepare for a fight to have their own lives or accept fate and be married. The story was based on the author's own life and her ability to eventually leave and head overseas, and recognising her power as a woman was very strong and impressionable on me, at that time a 19 year old.

The book that inspired a career

At age 10, I read the book "Karen" written by her mother, Marie Killilea in the early 50's. Karen was born in the early 40's as a very premature baby and developed [cerebral palsy]. This book influenced my attitudes about the potential of people with disabilities and their rights to this day---both personally and professionally (I am a pediatric speech-language pathologist who has worked with people of all types and degrees of disabilities and spend a significant amount of time advocating for people with disabilities). When I read the book (early 60's) I had no experience interacting with people with disabilities. Books can introduce us to so many worlds that may have been unfamiliar to us.

What animals have to teach us about the circle of life

I read "Watership Down" every time someone close to me dies. It's a form of mourning, but also a form of celebration of a life lived.

What is fiction?

There's a 900 page epic called 'Shantaram' that is clouded in mystery as to what's fiction and what's non-fiction. The book describes the life of a man post-breaking out of prison. He travels first to India, where he is starts a free medical clinic before getting involved with organized crime, war and love. The way he describes Indian people and their culture is stunning - I gained a greater appreciation for a group of people that I was perhaps prejudiced against.

'To see myself revealed ... was therapeutic and edifying'

I was completely transformed by reading several books by black women writers as a child. These included The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar along with the books of Ntozake Shange (the best of which was Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, though For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow was Enuf was definitely transformative). When I came of age in the early 1980s, there were few other complex mirrors of the black female experience in literature that I had access to, so to see myself revealed in the characters written by Walker and Shange was therapeutic and edifying in a way that reading the characters of white writers that I also loved, like Judy Blume and Sidney Sheldon, was not.

Bad books can be good books, too

What about books with dislikable characters? It seems to me just as likely that after reading "Notes from Underground" I'll react /against/ the Underground Man and end up being nicer to people. (And if not, is this a recommendation against reading books with dangerous, despicable, or anti-social characters?)