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.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!