What’s a Book That Changed Your Life? (I’ll Go First)

book club campbells tomato soup what doctors feel color purple breath becomes air

Isn’t it fascinating that, while sitting on a couch and staring at a piece of paper, we can laugh, sob, traverse continents and eras, and come out changed? Books stick with me more than any other form of media. I can’t remember the plot of the movie I saw last weekend, but I can remember, in specific detail, why the end of Walk Two Moons made my mom bawl in our living room when I was 12, and how it made me bawl a month later. I especially remember the books that served as a sort of hinge for the direction of my life. That either inspired or coincided with some kind of plate tectonic shift of my point of view. Books can be life partners like that.

For this round of MR Book Club, I asked the team to share one that served that purpose for them. Below, read about nine books that changed us, and then tell us yours.

“Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing” by Jaime Holmes

Recommended by Haley

I read this book when I was 24, right around the time I realized I was deathly afraid of uncertainty of any kind, and had shaped much of my personality and approach to decision-making around the avoidance of it. This book explores the human relationship with uncertainty — especially our inability to avoid it without boxing in our own ears. I’ve changed a lot since I read it, so can’t guarantee I’d feel the same way now, but it taught me so much that I never forgot, like how we all have an elastic tolerance for uncertainty (we have less tolerance when experiencing other life stresses, like an injury or a sick parent) and how learning to be comfortable with and even embrace the unknowability of life is a muscle we can build. The book changed me on a deep level (especially in how it shaped my thoughts in the years following its reading) by allowing me to loosen up my approach to life and better understand when I was making a decision out of fear versus gumption.

“The Remains of The Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Recommended by Leandra

I can’t think of a book I’ve finished that hasn’t in some way changed me — reading adds a new, slightly removed but still deeply personal layer of dimension to your perspective, which is the real power of a writer. But I’m choosing The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to answer this question because this book represents the first time I think I realized that the surface layer of a story — that is, the words on a page, are really just that. I read this book in a 7th grade classroom, and could have very easily absorbed it as an English butler’s recount of unique discipline and care for his work, but that would have missed all the auxiliary stories that are not unlike yours or mine — rooted in human experience and tethered to love and loss and heartbreak and suppression and perspective and integrity and fear.

I started taking recreational book clubs/buddy reading systems pretty seriously after I read it, so maybe in some indirect ways, it also taught me the value of communities like the one we’ve built together here on Man Repeller. You’re not in 7th grade, so the very obvious contextual themes will probably hit you over the head, but it’s still very much worth reading, if not because Anthony Hopkins plays the protagonist in the movie adaptation (so you can use his voice to narrate as you read), then certainly because if nothing else, The Remains of The Day is a sparkling reminder that everyone has a story that is urgently worth being heard, you’ve just got to be willing to listen.

“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

Recommended by Patty

I’ve been rereading The Color Purple every few years for the past decade, most recently this year, because I experience new revelations each time. It’s a book I feel through and absorb, and always emerge from it changed in the sense that I’ve shaken off something that I’ve attached myself to at that point in my life but don’t actually need or want, and lean in deeper to the places that I’m freshly reminded matter.

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Recommended by Harling

Paul Kalanithi was inspired to write a memoir after receiving a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis just as he was about to complete a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon. I get a lump in my throat when I think about the book that resulted, in part because it is a true story written by a dying man, but also because it explores some of life’s weightiest topics (mortality, legacy, faith, family, purpose, identity) in such a delicate way. Tragic and affirming all at once, you can’t read it without considering how existence itself is weird and heavy and spectacular in equal measure. It’s the kind of book that somehow guts you and fills you up — my favorite kind.

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Recommended by Starling

I have never come across a piece of literature that is able to capture the unique experience of attending a boarding school as much as Ishiguro’s novel does. While reading the book for the first time, it was comforting to see my own emotions about my educational experiences reflected on paper. As the novel went on, that comfort derailed in a dark plot twist, which left me to reexamine my understanding of mortality and how our perception of it changes as we grow older. I know that’s vague, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers! On that note: read the book before you see the movie. You’ll thank me, I promise.

“How Do You Like Me Now?” by Holly Bourne

Recommended by Jasmin

I heard about this from Pandora Syke’s Instagram. She had a great reading recs that I highly recommend taking a look at. I took it on holiday with me this summer and couldn’t put it down. I wouldn’t say it was “life-changing,” per se, but it touched on so many home truths that women experience that easily get swept under the carpet — from wanting to be liked, to saying you’re fine when you’re not, to trying to look effortless, etc., but the thing that really got me was how the story of the main character’s relationship unravels. She’s so deeply unhappy but tries to make excuses for why things aren’t his fault and instead places the blame on herself. It’s really raw and honest and also really quite funny in parts. For how different the main character is to me, I felt so connected to how she was feeling and how she regained clarity around who she was and what she truly wanted.

“What Doctors Feel” by Dr. Danielle Ofri

Recommended by Louisiana

I picked up this book on a whim while browsing the basement at Strand. It covers medicine in a way I’d never previously thought to ponder. Specifically about how big of a role empathy, language and communication play in the role of being a doctor. It made me rethink healthcare and view my own relationship with empathy through an entirely new lens. I still think about it all the time.

“The Salamander Room” by Anne Mazer

Recommended by Celia

Although this is a lighthearted children’s book about a boy’s imagination of his room being converted into the forest and all it holds, it’s the only book I salvaged from the donate pile my father had when he sold our childhood home. Growing up, it was one of my favorite books that my parents would read to me and, 25-ish years later, that still remains true. It’s nestled nicely with all the plants in my NYC apartment, always visible and at the ready to flip through. I enjoy it because it speaks to the endless world of our imaginations and all that is possible within it. As a child, imaging my room as a world beyond was almost easy, normal and of course magical. However, as I grow older and my everyday is filled more with the harsh realities of life than it is imagination, I find myself struggling to safely and freely imagine the impossible. In addition to the realities of everyday life, I’m a creative and being imaginative is so vital to my job. Having this book is a physical reminder for me to never lose my connection with my imagination, and the endless possibilities that live within it.

“White Teeth” by Zadie Smith

Recommended by Nora

I read White Teeth my senior year of high school and I so distinctly remember the feeling of actually seeing myself in literature for the first time. The protagonist, Irie, was a tall, awkward, chubby biracial teenager navigating her identity and self-worth and life in general in a major city. It was funny and insightful and I remember being amazed that a book like that could exist.

I return to the other book that changed my life, The Bluest Eye, which I first read around the same time, every few years to see how I’ve changed as a person and discover something new in the text (there’s always something new). But I’ve never read White Teeth again and I don’t think I ever will. I want it to stay as it was for me, a sign that a story like mine is worth sharing and that a person like me could tell it.

“The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

Recommended by Amelia

This book is exactly the kind of thing I used to roll my eyes at because it’s very self-help-y, and talks about your inner child/inner artist a lot. I’m also reluctant to list this as like, THE BOOK THAT FOREVER ROCKED ME, given all the beautiful books there are in this world. But I think this book is helping me to change. My mom got me into it, and in short, the book’s goal is to help anyone who reads it “discover” (or rediscover) their creativity — whether or not you think of yourself as a creative person.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve barely gotten through the second week of the program. I have, however, reread parts of the first few chapters a few different times because I keep forgetting the instructions, but the first few chapters alone have already changed the way I approach my days, so that’s something. So much so that I keep recommending this book to anyone who will listen, whether or not they have artistic/creative aspirations.

I’m oversimplifying this, but the first few chapters essentially teach you how to journal in a way that helps unlock blocks and insecurities, that works through fears and anxieties, that affirms positive messages about yourself, to yourself. I haven’t had any huge breakthroughs with this book. That which ails me still ails me. But, it has helped me start each day with a bit of a clearer head, and a little more quiet before slinging myself into the whirlwind of this city. I genuinely think it is helping loosen some of the blocks that clog my brain. It can also be fun, or just nice to sit down and write in the mornings, uninterrupted, for 15 minutes. I do it almost every day, and when I don’t do it, I feel the effects of not doing it.

Photo by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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