There’s no shortage of books out there that promise to change the way you think… in a very sanitary, self-help-y, put-post-its-on-the-mirror kind of way. I tend to steer clear of them. The best books for changing the way you think aren’t the ones that set out to do just that; rather, they present to you a different way of thinking about some aspect of the world, and your own thinking takes you the rest of the way. These books can be from any genre, as you’ll see from this list of 32 books that will change the way you think…
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Brain That Changes Itself will change the way you think about the way your brain works, what is “ingrained” or inevitable and what can be changed or improved. So, it’s kind of meta, in that regard. We’ve somehow adopted this idea that our brains are “set in stone” by a certain point, or that damage and trauma (physical and mental) can’t be overcome once it is hardwired. Doidge has written this book to show you that our soft, squishy brains remain wonderfully malleable until the day we die, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. Read my full review of The Brain That Changes Itself here.
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton
Religion For Atheists will change the way you think about the role that religion plays in our lives (or the role it could play, if you are indeed an atheist, as the title assumes), and what we can do with what it teaches us. de Botton encourages you to steer away from “boring” questions like whether God exists or whether there’s a Heaven or a Hell, and instead focus on the actual value of religious practice. He posits that we can benefit from the wisdom and power of religion, honed over thousands of years, without having to have blind belief. Read my full review of Religion For Atheists here.
She Speaks by Yvette Cooper
She Speaks is a collection that will change the way you think about powerful speeches and their capacity to change the world (maybe that’s self-evident for any TED Talk devotee, but still). As Cooper points out in her introduction, most collections of transcribed speeches would have you believe that only wealthy white men are capable of exerting influence from behind a microphone. These forty speeches vary in subject, tone, and purpose, but they are all delivered by women who have changed the world.
Tender Is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Tender Is The Flesh will change the way you think about state-sanctioned cruelty, as well as some broader questions around desire and fulfillment. If there were ever a book that would turn you vegan, this would probably be it. Bazterrica imagines a Soylent Green-esque world, where humans are farmed for food. There is nothing unique about the appalling conditions or cruelty to which the “heads” are subjected; we sanction it every time we buy beef or pork. It’s not one for the queasy, but if you can stomach it, you’ll find this book is unforgettable.
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck will change the way you think about what you care about and what you put your energy towards. I know, you probably weren’t expecting to find actual self-help books in here, given the way I introduced this list, but I maintain that Manson is so against-the-grain in his approach that it barely counts. This book tears down all the myths we’ve built up for years, around “positive thinking” and “you can have it all”. The fact is, into every life some shit will fall, and we need to reckon with when we should give a fuck and when we needn’t bother.
No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
No Friend But The Mountains will change the way you think about “illegal” immigrants and asylum seekers, and the conditions to which our government subjects them in our name. This is the book to hand to every loud-mouth relative with a “fuck off, we’re full” bumper sticker. At the time of writing, Boochani had been incarcerated for years – all for the “crime” of fleeing his country, where he faced pain of death for his journalism. He bravely and selflessly grants us unfettered and unprecedented access to what it is truly like to be an asylum seeker under the legacy regimes of altogether too many Australian governments.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Big Magic will change the way you think about creativity (bonus points if you listen to the podcast, too!). If you’re hung up on ideas about suffering for your art, or the starving artist dying of tuberculosis in a gutter, then this is the book you need. It’s not just for full-time Professional Creatives(TM), either. Gilbert’s philosophy extends to anyone who can or wants to derive joy from creating, whether that be through writing, visual, art, music, or anything resembling those kinds of endeavours. Her approach is optimistic, but pragmatic – and who couldn’t use a bit of that?
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Library Book will change the way you think about libraries, and the role that these vital institutions play in our lives. If you only know Susan Orlean from her awesome drunk tweets, it’ll probably change the way you think about her, too. Fair warning for your friends and loved ones, though: any bibliophile who reads this book will bombard everyone they know with fun facts about books and libraries for a good month while reading it (I made the mistake of taking it along with me on a road trip, eeek!). Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics will change the way you think about… well, economics is too obvious, so let’s say human behaviour and the power of statistics. I still remember my high school economics teacher telling us one morning that murder rates tend to spike alongside ice cream sales, and challenging us to find the connection. Does dairy drive the lactose intolerant to violence? Do killers like to reward themselves with a sweet treat after a busy day’s murder? These kinds of ridiculous questions are the ones tackled by Levitt and Dubner. They make economics fun and accessible for even the most disinterested reader.
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls will change the way you think about addiction, addicts, and the people who love them. Portraits of addiction tend to focus on the user, all-too-often romanticised versions of hitting rock bottom and finding the strength and will to stay sober. But what of the people who love them? They’re more than supporting cast, they have lives and dreams and hopes of their own that may be damaged or dashed by the addict they love. Aron draws from a deep well of personal experience in balancing the narrative, telling us just what it’s like to loan your lover forty bucks, knowing just what he intends to do with it…
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History Of Nearly Everything will change the way you think about physics and evolutionary science – it’s not as boring as you might think! With his trademark folksy charm and humour, Bryson will take you from the chemistry of the Big Bang right through to what made the earliest humans walk upright. Sure, some of the content is a little dated now (is Pluto still a planet?), but for a general primer on how and why the universe exists, as well as just about everything in it, you can’t go past this popular science gem. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
The Great Pretender will change the way you think about psychology, psychiatry, and the scientific method. How can we distinguish sanity from insanity? It’s a personal question for Cahalan, who was destined for a psychiatric institution before a doctor corrected her misdiagnosis and saved her life. In this book, she takes a closer look at the one experimental study that changed psychology and psychiatry forever, when professor David Rosenhan sent ostensibly sane researchers into institutions undercover, to see whether the doctors really could discern madness. But did his results really show what we thought we saw? Apparently not…
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers will change the way you think about success and what it takes to get there. Gladwell takes a look at the best and the brightest, the tops in their field, and asks: what makes them any different to the rest of us hum-drum Joe Blows? Without talking over your head, he’ll explain to you the fallacy of assuming ingrained traits in the highly successful, and encourage you instead to look at the foundations they built upon. Maybe this book won’t make you a millionaire, but it’ll at least help you understand how millionaires got there.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Okay, this one might be a bit of a stretch, because you can’t read it in isolation, but: taken together with the careful analysis surrounding its release and subsequent controversy, American Dirt will change the way you think about the need for #OwnVoices literature and the need for diversity and representation in publishing, all the way up and all the way down. Cummins said in her afterword that she “wished someone browner than her would write this book”. The fact is, plenty of people browner than her did write this book, and better. So, why weren’t they picked for Oprah’s book club?
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime And Punishment will change the way you think about “dull” and “dreary” Russian literature. I came to this book absolutely dreading it. I assumed it was going to be bleak, and wordy, and a real slog to get through. Didn’t I get a good kick up the arse when I discovered that it is actually hilarious and a ripping page-turner?! Don’t be alarmed if you read this one and find yourself rooting for – not to mention relating to – an actual axe murderer. There’s probably a broader lesson to be learned here, not judging a book by its cover maybe, but I reckon if it encourages you to give more Russian literature a go, that’s good enough. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend will change the way you think about female friendships, especially life-long ones. Prior to reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, beginning with this (book one), I’d assumed I just wasn’t particularly good at female friendships. That competitive edge, that ebb and flow of feeling and closeness… It turns out, I’m not the only one. These struggles are beautifully captured and rendered on the page through Elenna and Lila, best friends from childhood, though forced together (and apart) through circumstance moreso than any kindred spirit. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four will change the way you think about government power and resistance. My father bought me a copy when I was thirteen years old, and it was a true awakening. It’s difficult to talk about this now without sounding like you’re at the extreme of one or the other -wings, or a nut-bar conspiracy theorist with a tin-foil hat ready to go. The fact remains, however, that surveillance is a genuine threat to freedom, and truth can be manipulated. Orwell foresaw so many of today’s dangers, decades ago, and each time you read this book you’ll find in it new wisdom as to how to resist.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will change the way you think about humanity, personhood, and family (and plot twists, into the bargain!). It’s hard to explain any further without “spoiling” this one for those who’ve not yet read it. Basically, this book will call you to reassess what you think you know, and your jaw will hit the floor at least once. There, that’s it! I can’t tell you any more than that! Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed will change the way you think about social media and our perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (bonus points if you watch his TED talk). Public shaming has become a near-daily occurrence, especially on Twitter. Sometimes, the recipients are lucky, in that their faux pas does the rounds for a day or two, then dies down. Others – like Justine, the woman who Tweeted about contracting AIDS in Africa – have their lives ruined, and their misstep follows them forever. Ronson has tracked down many victims of these worldwide pile-ons, and what he found will make you think twice before hitting retweet.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give will change the way you think about Black Lives Matter protests, the role of the police in our communities, and your convictions about “what you would do” in someone else’s shoes. As the protagonist, Starr, says herself: “I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.” It’s impossible to know what you’ll do in the face of racially-motivated violence, but this book will prompt you to think about it at least, and put you in someone else’s shoes. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House will change the way you think about domestic abuse, and – in a slightly more meta way – change the way you think about memoirs. Machado draws on all manner of literary traditions (including, notably, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel) to depict her experience of surviving an abusive partner. She puts to bed the stereotype of the battered woman cowering in the corner as her drunk husband raises his fists. There are far too few books out there about domestic abuse in queer relationships, which makes this one all the more important and timely. It is a truly innovative and riveting read.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
The Arsonist will change the way you think about guilt, innocence, and culpability. Even if you’re not Australian, and don’t recall the horror of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, you’ll find in these pages a breathtaking interrogation of how we determine that someone has committed a crime, and what happens to them as a result. I picked up this book assuming it would be a straight up-and-down true crime story about Brendan Sokaluk dropping a few lit cigarettes; instead, I came out of it with scary questions about who, why, and even whether. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air will change the way you think about living and dying. Our cultural perception of doctors – especially in the wake of the global pandemic – is that they are untouchable superheroes, capable of saving anyone and everyone. This heart-wrenching memoir reveals that they are all too human, and thus vulnerable to the same tragedies that befall us all. Kalanithi was an idealistic young neurosurgeon when he learned that he had stage IV lung cancer. In writing this book, he set out to answer the big questions: what makes life worth living? How much of a life is enough?
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Good Talk will change the way you think about microagressions and uncomfortable conversations. By presenting her memoir as a graphic novel, with moments of charm and humour, Jacob is able to draw you in before walloping you with the reality. It starts off with a child’s innocent questions about Michael Jackson’s skin tone, and stretches all the way to the federal politics of race through the conversations we have with one another. This book will make you think more carefully about what you say, and why, and how it might affect others in the context of a world that already gives them plenty of reason to fear. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
She Said will change the way you think about the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein downfall. If you think you know the story from the grabs you saw on the news, reading this book will prove you wrong. Kantor and Twohey are the New York Times journalists who worked tirelessly for months on end to outmaneuver Weinstein and his team, in order to bring you the unimpeachable story of his crimes. The lengths to which he – and subsequently other men in power – went to hide the truth are truly astonishing, and must be read to be believed.
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl will change the way you think about sex and gender fluidity. The titular character, Paul, is (among other things) a shapeshifter, capable of presenting themselves to the world any way they choose. This magical realism merges seamlessly with the politics, queer theory, and throbbing ’90s soundtrack. Sure, it’s perhaps not part of the trans-lit canon in the strictest sense, but it’s the book I’m most inclined to push into the hands of readers who want to challenge their view of the way we police bodies and gender.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will change the way you think about the Jazz Age, “gold diggers”, and the ways women can wield power. I won’t blame you if you didn’t even realise this was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film (I didn’t, until I read it!). Forget about stinkin’ Great Gatsby: this is the definitive American novel of the Jazz Age, complete with glitter and glamour and wealth and wooing. Loos plays with dialect, giving her protagonist – Lorelai Lee – a distinct and unique voice through her diaries. Despite her small-town upbringing, and her limited opportunities for education and personal advancement, Lorelai finds her way and you’ll be as enamoured with her as her suitors. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens will change the way you think about the evolution of us, the homo sapiens. Billed as a “brief history of humankind”, this book explains the conflation of historical and biological factors that have developed our concept of what it means to be human. Just one hundred thousand years ago, there were six different species of human wandering around on this planet of ours: what happened to the rest of them? Why did we survive? You don’t need to take my word for it: Harari’s book has been recommended to us by Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among many, many others.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman will change the way you think about conformity and the pursuit of true happiness. Set in Tokyo, the main character faces all of the pressures of living in contemporary Japanese society. She is expected to marry, bear children, leave behind her beloved job as a convenience store attendant, but no one in her life seems to realise or care that she’s happy with her life just as it is. This book is short, sharp, and searing in its insight. You might be able to knock it over in an afternoon, but it will stay with you for far, far longer. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age will change the way you think about “good intentions” and white guilt. If you’ve ever written off someone’s racist word or deed with the excuse that they “meant well”, this book will give you a lot to think about. The white people in this novel almost universally mean well, but they fall short in truly understanding their role in racist social structures. What’s more, when their shortcomings are pointed out to them, they put the burden of their guilt and discordant shame on others. A really provocative and timely read, packaged as a book you might take to the beach.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
The Weekend will change the way you think about the lived experience of older women (it’s not just shopping and bingo, you know). Most books portray these characters as frail and pitiable, preoccupied with their own mortality and lost youth. Wood presents a very different view, one of women with vitality and desires and ambitions, which far more accurately represents the older women I have been lucky enough to know. This is a brilliant Australian novel about friendships, memory, and connection, with characters that are as dynamic as they are multi-dimensional.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance will change the way you think about… everything, kinda? Through the narrative of a motorcycle road trip shared by father and son, this book veers into very philosophical realms. How do we reconcile science and religion? How do we reckon with our own failings, and our own capacity? How do we live, and how could we live better? Pirsig doesn’t pull any punches.