Books That Have Changed Our Lives

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

For geeks like us, it’s easy to list our favorite books. Well, not easy -- there’s always plenty of competition between them -- but doable. We may not have an exact ranking, but we compare without even noticing we do it, and the things that we love are well-noted.

But this isn’t about favorite books. This is about books that have changed your life, which is something far different. We love some books, but can we honestly say they made a large impact on the course of our lives? It’s an exercise in hindsight and selectivity, and really depends on where we think our lives have been, and where they might be going. Without further ado:

Laura’s List:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling

If reading the first book about a boy my own age, a downtrodden, abused boy who discovers there's a world out there where he really has a home, didn't change my life, I don't know what did. Harry Potter meant a lot to a lot to a lot of people. It was not the first series I ever got immersed in. But it was the first one that was widely read, widely discussed, widely advertised. I wasn’t strange for wanting to chat about Harry Potter, in fact, people were excited to join. And to an outcast kid, that meant all the world to me. I can't imagine a world in which Harry Potter wasn't published. What would I have obsessed over?

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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

I like to think of this as, in 8th grade, my first real foray into adult reading. If so, it was a success. Not to say that I understood everything (it took me years to get the Jesus joke, not to mention the Ford Prefect gag), but it resounded. In the confusing hellhole that was middle school, the bizarre world of Vogons and Improbability Drives and mice that commissioned the Earth made as much sense as anything else did. It taught me that weird was ok, and bizarre was its own sort of fashion. Oh, and the awkward brave British soul, Arthur Dent, bewildered about everything around him, was my world.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Freshman year English made a change from middle school - I didn't necessarily like a bunch of the books we read. Except for this one, which I loved. It seemed to say everything that was important in life, all in a succinct and beautiful story, and convinced me there was always something worth hanging on to. It made me feel young and old, naive and world-weary all at the same time. It made me change my behaviors, take different paths, and look at my house from the other side of the street sometimes. And so I bought my own copy, and hung onto it. It's moved with me lots of places - it even got taken to Alaska, from which it bears visible damage of waterlogging. I like to think it's love.

Suzanne’s List:

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling. I was nine years old when I picked up Harry Potter for the first time, and I hadn't a clue what it would do to me. What it still does to me. Unlike a lot of kids my age, Harry Potter was not the book that got me excited about reading. I had been gobbling up books faster than the library could throw them at me since age six. Nor was it the first book that got me excited about fantasy--Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron wins that particular award. It was, however, the first book that I would read again, and again, and again, until the cover fell apart and I literally had to duct-tape the book back together. Harry Potter and the world of Hogwarts have been constant presences in my life for the past twelve years. I grew up with it, it grew up with me. And as Laura said, its immense popularity helped me to have one obsession that did not mark me as an outsider. I was not an oddball geek for liking Harry Potter. I was part of a generation. And it would be impossible, really, to sum up in one paragraph exactly what that means (Which is why we made an entire post about it in May). To sum it up briefly: If Hogwarts, Harry, Hermione and Jo did not change my life, I don't really know what else has.

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The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander.. I always forget how young I was when I found this book--I think I must have been only seven or eight when I first checked it out of the library. And because I was so young, it made such an enormous impression on me, in so many different ways. This was the book--before Harry Potter, before Lord of the Rings-- that introduced me to fantasy as a tiny child. I lived in this world when I read it. Prydain was real. Taran, Dallben, Coll, Adaon and Eilonwy were all real. It was magical and wonderful. Strangely, though, it was also the first book that taught me that stories have tragedy and death, not just happy endings. Horrible things happen in this book. The dead are reborn as murderous zombies, Adaon dies a horrible death, and even the "happy" ending comes as a result of terrible sacrifice. But these were important lessons to learn, and I learned them alongside characters I adored. And it sparked a love for the fantasy genre that has never, ever died. It led me to Rowling, to Tolkien, to Gaiman, to Pierce--the list goes on and on. So thank you, Lloyd Alexander, for your extraordinarily underrated Chronicles of Prydain. Don't quite think I'd be here without them.