Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

7 Books That Changed My Life

Sometimes, I think we throw around the words “life changing” with regards to books a bit too casually. A book can be brilliant, challenging, wonderful, and enjoyable without necessarily actually changing your life. When I took a look back over all the books I’ve read (as best I can recall), there are only a handful that I can pinpoint as having materially affected the direction of my life, and the choices that I subsequently made. So, today I bring you an honest-to-goodness list of books that changed my life.

Books That Changed My Life - Text Overlaid Above Image Of Leaves Pegged To Line - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. That sounds trite and cliche (almost as trite and cliche as calling Nietzche life-changing), but I promised you honesty and that’s what you’re getting. On the face of it, we didn’t have a lot in common in those early days: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sometimes, I wonder whether things might’ve worked out differently if he’d handed me another book – The Road, perhaps, or his beloved John Berryman collection. But this was the one he pressed into my hands, and so it went. To this day, we still share book recommendations and argue happily for hours about the merits of a given work of literature – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Looking further back in my reading archive, there’s this memoir: In My Skin by Kate Holden. I must’ve read and re-read and re-read this book dozens of times in my late teens. I remember sprawling out across the foam mattress on my rickety bed in my teeny-tiny dorm room in my final year of boarding school, and devouring it cover to cover. Holden wrote of a world that was recognisable, but still so completely foreign to my own that it fascinated me: she was a heroin addict, a sex worker, and lived a life of instability and risk that I could hardly fathom. And yet, she and I shared so much in common: moodiness, determination, a love of literature… I credit this book, and Holden’s incredible evocative writing, with my emotional development and my capacity to feel deep empathy for people who live lives different to my own. I think it also helped form my interest in activism, particularly in areas of feminism and sex work.

Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest Hemingway - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, technically Hills Like White Elephants isn’t a book, it’s a short story (ironically, I didn’t really like Hemingway’s novel-length work and it made zero impression on me, but that’s for another time). Still, its impact on me was so significant that I include it here. I read Hills Like White Elephants in an elective course in the first year of my undergraduate degree. We read dozens of short stories for that class – Gogol’s The Overcoat, of course, and Virginia Woolf’s The Mark On The Wall – but none moved, challenged, or changed me more than this one. It’s tough to pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time I recall realising the levels and layers that can exist in literature, how stories change upon close inspection, how intimation and veiled subtext can tell us more than the words on the page. Perhaps it’s the loaded subject matter, the kaleidescope of perspectives offered on the topic of abortion (and, by extension, the agency of women) in so few words. It introduced me to the idea of writing as a craft, like carpentry or mosaic tiling. I don’t think I’d ever been particularly interested in short stories before reading this one – I figured they were like teething husks for writers before they started on the “real” work of novels – but all that changed with this gem from Hemingway. That bastard.


Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll try not to harp on about this one too much, because long-time Keeper Upperers have heard me talk about it a lot, but no list of books that changed my life would be complete without Nineteen Eighty Four. My father handed me a copy when I was about thirteen (it’s hard to remember exactly), and I think I’ve read it about twenty times over since. This book changed everything for me: without it, I might never have developed an interest in politics, a passion for advocacy, a dedication to active resistance. Every time I show up to a protest, or write to a Member for Parliament, or sign a petition, I’m doing so because this book so affected me and changed my understanding of the world. I’m forever grateful to my father for sensing the right moment in my life to hand it to me; the gift wasn’t the book, it was the opening of my eyes to the realities of oppression and power.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

All of the other books that changed my life I’ve listed here so far are ones I read before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins. So, here’s one that I’ve actually read and reviewed for the purposes of this blog: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Like the Hemingway story, it’s hard for me to pin down exactly why or how it changed me. I think, perhaps, it’s the way it challenged me to question my own assumptions. The plot twist of this book (about seventy pages in) pulled the rug out from underneath me like no book ever had before. So, it’s set the bar for all future plot twists pretty damn high! But above and beyond the masterful writing, this story poked some serious holes in everything I thought I understood about personhood, humanity, and the lines that demarcate us. I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into the hands of every reader I can (and so far, I’m doing pretty good, I think!). Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

The Islanders by F J Campbell

The Islanders - F J Campbell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of all the books that changed my life on this list, this one is probably the most self-indulgent, so I hope you’ll forgive me – but I can’t deny that it was life-changing in the most wonderful way. The Islanders is the first book that an author ever sent to me, in the hopes that I would review it and share my thoughts with Keeper Upperers. Until Fiona reached out to me, I had no idea that there would be writers out there who would think that my opinions on their books were worth having (indeed, most of the authors I’d reviewed up until that point were long dead!). It was reading The Islanders, and Fiona’s very kind encouragement, that opened up a door to a whole new world for me: “real” book reviewing, where I could say what I thought about books on a public platform and people would care (and sometimes even pay me for my efforts!). It’s now my life’s work, and I’ve reviewed hundreds of books since, but I’ll never forget this one (you know what they say…).

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How weird is it that one of the books that changed my life is one that I didn’t even like that much? Moby Dick was a real slog to read, I’m not going to lie. I would drift off in the middle of endless chapters about whale sperm and oil paintings, wondering what the heck Melville was getting at. But this was the book I was reading when I decided to quit my job at the bank, to pursue a life of writing and reading and creativity. This was the book that inspired me to make a “proper go” of Keeping Up With The Penguins, and various other projects. This was the book that made me realise a classic need not be “readable” in order to be extraordinarily important and beneficial to have read. My tattered copy of Moby Dick (another one “borrowed” from my now-husband’s collection actually, ha! We’ve come full circle!) is talismanic, now, and it’s probably the first thing I would grab in the event of a fire. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

So, there you have it: the seven books that changed my life, and how! I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t read any one of them… What about you? What books have changed your life? Let me know in the comments!

5 Comments

  1. What an awesome post! Without going into detail, my seven books might look like:
    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
    The Bible (there’s a whole load of philosophical ‘stuff’ for me that goes with this listing and I think you’d actually find it interesting, but in a nutshell, for a few years in my late teens, I examined this book in great detail with a view to understanding all the things I had to that point been told to take for granted)
    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
    Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
    Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

    • ShereeKUWTP

      May 23, 2020 at 1:27 PM

      Oh, yes, Charlotte’s Web! Perhaps I didn’t look back far enough with my list – books like CW and Matilda definitely made a strong impression on my young mind about the importance and power of literacy ❤️ And I’ve still got The Poisonwood Bible waiting for me on my to-be-read shelf, I must get to it soon!

  2. I was trying to think if a book ever changed my life. I’m not certain that it ever has. I suppose there have been books that have changed my thinking but a number of those would be non-fiction. The only fiction book that I can remember changing my thinking was Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. But that was such a long time ago.

  3. My reaction to the Karen Joy Fowler was nowhere as enthusiastic as you sorry.

    Love the story about the role of Nietzsche in your love life – it’s an unusual way to form a relationship!

    My life changing books? I did something similar as a guest post a few years ago and ended up also choosing Orwell, but an entirely different book. I chose a collection of his essays which awoke in my an appreciation of good journalism and led, eventually to my selection of that as a career. I also included a book loaned from the guy who became my husband – it was a style guide written by a newspaper columnist. It changed how I wrote and invoked a life-long detestation of cliches…

    • ShereeKUWTP

      June 11, 2020 at 8:59 PM

      Yes!! I have that recommendation of Orwell’s – “never use a phrase that you’re used to seeing in print” – on a post-it on the wall above my desk 😁 Great pick!!

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