The 25 Books That Changed Each of Our Lives (And Why We Recommend Them)

From memoirs to fiction, and yes, Harry Potter.
Author:
Publish date:
Artboard 14

While I consider myself to be a fairly voracious reader, any time I close the cover on a book, I forget about it almost entirely, which is why I'm surprised anytime anyone in our office mentions a "favorite" or "life-changing" book. I can't remember a book I read yesterday, which made me all the more intrigued to learn about the books my team has carried in their hearts for months or even years. Add to that the fact that they all gravitate towards different genres: Leslie's list is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction, Katie loves the classics, Jess embraces fiction, and Kelly wrote about her love of science fiction. Read on for the books that changed my team's life. xEmily

Artboard 2 copy 8

If you asked me which genre I enjoy reading most, I'd immediately reply, "fiction." I love being absorbed into a completely imaginary world (my favorite book is the novel, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara). But when I sat down to write a list of the books that have been most life-changing to me, nearly every one that came to mind was non-fiction, from memoirs to self-help to an environmental policy manifesto. These are books that have forever changed the way I see the world:

1. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: When my friend saw Taddeo speak at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, she told me that Taddeo said her goal in documenting the sexual lives of three women was to portray normally unsympathetic situations in a way that made the reader understand them without judgment. She endows each of the situations—a woman who cheats on her husband, another who sleeps with her high school teacher, and another whose husband watches her have sex—with empathy and zero judgment. I'm not sure why it affected me as much as it did, but I've thought of the women portrayed countless times since reading it early this year. 

2. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: While a 'self-help' book can feel a bit wishy-washy or cheesy, Gilbert's belief that creativity doesn't have to involve a struggle is enlightening, to say the least. As a writer, I'd assumed for years that you have the die at the stake to create something meaningful, or at least memorable. Gilbert points out that's far from the case—and we could all benefit from a little more creativity in our lives. I wrote more about her idea of "creative living" here!

3. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells: This is a no-nonsense manifesto about the state of our Earth (spoiler: It's not looking good for us humans). It helped me get my head out of the if-I-recycle-everything-will-be-okay clouds, and take a realistic view of just how badly we've been hurting our home. 

4. The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy: This memoir, about Ariel's struggles as a writer, with alcohol, and with fertility, was deeply touching. You really never know what someone else is going through unless you're living in their shoes (or reading their poignant memoir). 

5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: After visiting the South earlier this year, I became obsessed with reading more first-hand accounts of slavery (until seeing a plantation firsthand, the idea of slavery had always existed more as a concept than the seething reality it was, and continues in many ways to be). Whitehead's novel is part-fantasy but beautifully embodies the very real terrors so many hundreds of thousands of people experienced.

Artboard 2 copy 9

Since college, I've gravitated towards fiction books, mainly because I felt that, as a journalism major and then subsequently working as a journalist after graduating, I read my fair share of non-fiction, researching throughout a typical workday. I needed books to be an escape, and I like to get lost in worlds I'm unfamiliar with or captivated by (biiiiiig Harry Potter nerd over here). Eventually, I discovered that some very special non-fiction can satisfy that craving and curiosity – here are my five books that have changed me in one way or another: 

1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: I want to say this book left me speechless, but it did quite the opposite. Once I closed it, I was itching to talk to anyone about it. While as an office we're quite divided (Kelly and I spent an entire lunch debating if it was worth reading), my opinion hasn't changed: The Immortalists will force you to face subjects you may not be inclined to on your own. You'll think about your own mortality, your sibling relationships, and whether or not you believe in fate. As someone who likes to constantly be in control, it was a stunning example of how knowing the future isn't always the desired way to live.

2. Night by Elie Wiesel: My twisted fascination with World War II and the Holocaust started with The Diary of a Young Girl and Night. Anne Frank's book naturally resonated with me seeing as I was also a young Jewish girl while reading it, but Elie Wiesel's account of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald haunted me. I became obsessed with watching, learning, and reading everything I could about the concentration camp experience, and eventually asked my parents if we could visit Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum just outside of Krakow while I was studying abroad. 

3. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: I've previously sung this book's praises on the blog, and it has stayed with me since. I love a light and fluffy novel – but An American Marriage is not that. Though the book is fiction, it portrays some very real social injustices and made me check my privilege more than a few times while and since reading it. I personally believe it should be required reading for everyone currently living in the U.S. as it's an eye-opening, relevant, and compelling story. 

4. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: Everyone remembers their first Gladwell. I felt like the head exploding emoji as I devoured this (...though it was before emojis even existed), and it led me to realize I enjoyed books that weren't strictly fantasy (more specifically to works that focus on sociology). I felt like I finished this book a more critical thinker, and I've since become such a fan that I read nearly everything else he's written. And this post was truly timely – Kelly and I attended an event yesterday to see him speak!

5. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Our culture loves a good label, and one of my favorites I proudly use to describe myself is "feminist" – but like Roxane Gay, I'm an imperfect one. I felt like this book saw through me and the internal debates I have about some of my contradictory thoughts and behaviors. Examples? I love my independence but also crave security in my relationship. I find a lot of rap to be misogynistic yet dance to it at every opportunity. I think women are held to unrealistic beauty standards yet I shave my legs every other day. Gay acknowledges all of those (and more), and helped me understand that "feminist" isn't a single archetype – and to quote her, "I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all."

Artboard 2 copy 5

My list of books that most changed my life easily looks like an AP English reading list. It's not that I don't enjoy new fiction; on the contrary, I love reading new releases and picking them up first thing. But, without a doubt, I always turn to the classics when I want to read a good, memory-filled book. Reading has always been a passion for me, whether the books were assigned or picked up from my local library. I was always that girl who cried during powerful moments of in-class readings (think John Proctor's monologue in The Crucible) and actively sought out opportunities to further discuss the novel, even after the bell rung. 

1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling: I always loved to read, but my love for Harry Potter was far more of a passion and an obsession. The second I started the series, I was completely addicted. I waited in Barnes & Noble for the midnight releases and wouldn't sleep until I read each book cover to cover. I saw myself in Hermione more than any character I had read about ever, and savored every intricate detail from the Latin naming to the subtle plot hints. I've even read the entire series in French and listened to the audiotapes. I think it's pretty safe to say that it's changed my life immensely...

2. Cheri and The Last of Cheri by Colette: Colette is one of my favorite French writers because she went years being known for having little talent. It was only later that audiences recognized her brilliant insight into the female psyche and her powerful ability to highlight the insecurities and strengths that come with being a woman. This story tells the tale of the romance between an older woman and a much younger man, touching on topics of devotion and desire. I like to read it every few years of my life to see how my views on it have changed, from the writing to the romantic relationship itself.  

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: I wouldn't be a classics lover if I didn't include a Brontë sister in this list. Growing up and attending an all-girls school, all of my reading lists were filled with female-written, female-led novels, and I couldn't be more grateful. Jane Eyre was bold, spunky, and brilliant. It reminded me of why it was important to break societal norms and persist against hardship, all while sprinkling in an excellent horror plotline. I could never get sick of this novel. 

4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: This book is the reason why I decided I eventually want to become a lawyer. The courtroom monologue alone haunts me to this day. I didn't love the sequel as much, but I think Harper Lee is one of the best writers of the past 100 years. 

5. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: I know this is now an award-winning movie, but I read the book years before it came out (humble brag). I've always loved Toibin's ability to get inside the mind of women even though he is not one himself. Ellis' silent sadness was a beautiful testament to growth, coming of age, and family, and touched on an era of history that I'm fascinated by. 

Artboard 2 copy 11

When I was young, I loved to read novels that were predictable and consistent—I knew what I liked, and it was soothing to have my nightly read feature characters I was already familiar with (hence my obsession with serialized novels that featured girls in clubs). I like to think that my tastes have changed (emphasize 'like' and 'think'....and 'changed'), as I have branched out to read non-fiction and like it! Here is a list of novels that helped to both fuel and adjust my reading habits, and books that I return to when I need that sense of familiarity without the all-girl clubs.

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a basic woman in possession of this book will love it, and it will give them relationship and boundary issues for life. Yes, that is me: once I aged out of Babysitter Club books, I found myself drawn to classic romance, and my introductory novel was Pride and Prejudice. I probably don’t need to convince you to read this novel, but if you haven’t yet seen the ‘90s BBC/A&E adaptation, please add that to your streaming queue today to add some visuals to your reading experience (two words: wet Darcy).

2. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: This is just one of my absolute favorite novels, and it felt wrong not to include it on this list. It has one of my favorite protagonists in Becky Sharp, the satire is biting (if you love ironic characterizations that focus on the Victorian class system and etiquette, like me). This novel helped to expand my love of classic novels from romantic (authors note: please see above) to comedic, including another favorite of mine Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

3. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: I love graphic novels and wish I could find the time and money to read them more often. This was one of my first and remains my absolute favorite. Chris Ware writes about moments of discomfort and loneliness in a way that is somehow both refreshing and repulsive, and his impeccable, detailed art adds to his storytelling in a way that I love. I have read all of his works and always look forward to his New Yorker covers. For those who are new to graphic novels, I also recommend Blankets—it was a close runner up for this list!

4. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: This novel is not one of my favorites, but instead, one that challenged how I think about the act of reading and the expected fluidity of a fictional novel. Although this novel can have a linear timeline (and has a semi-truncated Amazon description to match), you have to work for it by reading between the lines—almost literally—and reading footnotes, all from different 'authors' of the novel. If this sounds confusing, it can be: I would suggest reading this recent review to see if this book is for you.

5. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: I reference this novel a lot, often in a pedantic, annoying manner during lunch hour (ask the other people in this article)—but of all the non-fiction books I have read, this one has most strongly impacted the way I think about making decisions and the way I approach ‘thinking’ about everyday situations, which has been especially interesting with the influx of fake news in recent years. Definitely the kind of book you buy, read and then can't wait to share with a friend so you have someone to discuss it with—outside of your designated lunch hour.

Artboard 2 copy 7

Give me aaaaaaalllll the science fiction and fantasy you can throw at me—bonus points for including time travel elements or a dystopian future setting. I've never been one for the classics, but I've learned to broaden my horizons since joining a book club (historical fiction is a new favorite genre). When I'm not diving headfirst into a brand-new world or jumping into a wormhole to travel in-between planets, I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book about ideas, psychology, or a real-world story that I can learn from.

1. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman: Let's be honest, the Harry Potter series is on my list too, but I'm pretty sure I actually read this series first (although this was like 20 years ago now, so who can actually remember??) This series (along with HP) is responsible for my love of the fantasy genre, and introduced me to strong female characters at a really young age. HBO is currently making it into a TV series, which I CAN'T WAIT to watch.

2. Brand Failures by Matt Haig: This is the book that convinced me I wanted to pursue a career in marketing and branding. It tells 100 short stories about big mistakes brands have made throughout history (think New Coke, Kodak, Sony Betamax, etc.) and I honestly found each and every one completely fascinating. I've read this book many times over the years, especially when I need to remind myself why I chose this industry in the first place.

3. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: This book reinvigorated my love for reading after years of barely cracking a book in my early 20's. I think I read it cover to cover on a single Saturday when I was considering applying to grad school. It blends my three favorite genres (science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian literature) and convinced me not only to start reading again, but also that I do actually LOVE reading. After this book, I knew I was ready for the insane amount of reading that comes with grad school.

4. The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov: This list would not be complete without my favorite book of all time. This book basically split my brain open, and I do not think I'd be the person I am today without having read it. I already knew I loved books about time travel, but I hadn't really considered the ideas of destiny, free will, and evolution that Asimov explores in this novel (and the political/social implications of these ideas) on such a big-picture scale. This book was written in 1955 and still feels completely relevant to so many issues happening today. 

5. Contagious by Jonah Berger: I read so many things in grad school, but this book was my favorite. I tore through it mostly for fun and it has definitely changed the way I think about my industry. This book explores why ideas catch on and tells stories in a way that's easy to digest. If you've ever seen something go viral and wondered why, this book may be for you.

If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.