Five Life-Changing Books

In my previous post, I talked about how my daughter’s Honors Reading List got me thinking about how we define texts these days and how I think that definition has expanded with advances in technology.  You can kind of think of this post as part two of that discussion.  I’m going to talk about what I’d put on a list like that, although I’m not about to list 15 texts, mostly because I’ve got some crud that’s making my head ache.

So, to review: as part of receiving an Honors degree at her college, my daughter has to defend what is known as the Honors Reading List, an annotated list (or narrative essay) that consists of 12-15 texts that demonstrate how she has grown as a critical thinker and as a person during her college career.

The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl

I graduated from college 30 years ago this May, and I’ve changed a lot since then.  My list is more The Five Books That Have Changed Me in some way:

1. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: I first read this when I was around 12, and I reread it to this day, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself.  This was the first thing, book or otherwise, that made me realize that whatever problems I might think I have, they are nothing compared to what other people endure.  It was the first book that made me realize the world was a much bigger place than my own little corner of it.  And it also made me see that without hope, you’ve got nothing.  Those are all big lessons for a 12 year old girl to learn.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

I should note that Anne Frank’s diary is also on my daughter’s Honors List, and for exactly the same reasons.

2.  Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers: I first encountered Lord Peter literally at the end of my high school days (I read Murder Must Advertise during my high school graduation) and this novel at a time when I was still struggling with the idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  This is the book that made me want to teach; its idealistic view of academia and the scholarly life had a tremendous impact on me—it was like a siren song.  I quickly learned that the view was idealistic once I actually started teaching, which in some ways made me really resent the book.  But there was a second component to Gaudy Night that really influenced me, and that was the struggle between Peter and Harriet to find a way toward a relationship that enhanced them both and took nothing from either of them.  I’d been through some half-hearted relationships by then and was thinking there was no one out there for me.  Peter and Harriet’s struggles showed me why I shouldn’t settle for just anyone and modeled what a marriage should be—a true partnership of the minds.  I met my husband about a year after I read this.  28 years later I can honestly say that teaching turned out to not be my proper job, really, but my marriage’s success owes a lot to Peter and Harriet’s difficult courtship.



3. M*A*S*H:  Not the book (which isn’t all that great, to be honest) or the movie (not that I do not love it), but the television series.  There are a number of things about M*A*S*H that stand out to me and for me and helped me become me: its anti-war themes and its refusal to whitewash what war is—a slaughter over a conflict of boundaries or philosophies, all romanticized by tales of glory and bravery—is just one.  If you ever get a chance to watch the episode titled “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet”, you’ll get the idea.  But as M*A*S*H began to last longer than the Korean War did, you got an expansion of that basic theme: the effects of long-term deployment on the unit’s psyches, on their families and the time they can never get back with them, on how the war shaped and changed them.  The most startling transformation was with the Hot Lips character, who starts out as a sex kitten interested only in climbing the military ladder through the only means available to her, sex, and grows into a strong woman not willing to compromise herself even with a general who offers her promotion.  Hot Lips becomes Margaret, proud of her accomplishments and the value she brings to the unit as a nurse and a woman.  It’s quite a transformation, and one I took a great lesson away from.  At a time when feminism was still in its toddler years, Margaret became a great role model for me.  And 30 years after M*A*S*H ended, it still holds up in all of the above ways and more.  It’s still funny, and it’s still relevant to our lives.

The Complete Poems, John Donne

The Complete Poems, John Donne

4. The Complete Poems, John Donne: my first encounters with Donne were not happy ones, and I probably would have happily left him behind when my course in early English lit was over, but I happened to be in choir in college, and our choir director set one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets (#7, “At the round earth’s imagined corners”) to music, and it all suddenly clicked.  I became something of a Donne devotee after that, spending years reading and rereading his works and mining them for meaning.  Through him I learned about balance more than anything: that humor can be used to make a serious point, that the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive, that relationships should be complimentary, not struggles.  I read a lot of poetry, and at one time I wrote a great deal of it; many other poets influenced me as a writer, but Donne alone shaped me as a person.  I still read this book on a regular basis—it’s almost a spiritual guide for me at this point.

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

5. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher: Penelope Keeling is such a great character, and I’ll tell you why.  Because she is who she is.  She makes no excuses for who she is.  She does not expect others to be like her, nor does she expect them to like her.  She cannot be bullied or guilted into anything, and she takes responsibility for her actions.  She is kind and generous, even when those around her don’t deserve such things.  She reminds me of how I ought to be when I’m at my worst.  And she taught me that it’s always better to be myself than to be what others want me to be—that that’s where true happiness lies.  She’s not wrong.

I’d love to hear what books shaped you—tell me about them in the comments if you’re so inclined.


  1. says

    Two books that come right to mind are A.S. Byatt’s Posession and Michael Malone’s Foolscap. Both are books about the academic life one serious and one satirical, but both contributed to my going back to grad school for English. Both showed that learning and words and reading were adventures of life and could lead to unknown places of great satisfaction. Nothing else pops up right now, may be later. Oh not true, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology–it turned my tastes to the fantastic long ago–a taste that I still have :-)

  2. donna says

    I actually found this easier to do than I thought I would when I planned this series. I suspect probably the only blatantly obvious thing on that list is the Sayers, though :)

  3. DrMM says

    Although I doubt this was what you were thinking of when you wrote that post, the book I automatically think of is a kids board book called “Jenny Goes to the Hospital” that I was read by my parents and then read myself when I learned how to read. That book (about a girl who breaks her arm and ends up in the hospital) inspired my fascination with the medical field and is why I’m in the medical field now.

    Other books – Heart of Darkness, which I had to read FOUR times for four different classes in college showed me how your perspective can change on a book throughout time. My first time reading it I loathed it. By the fourth time … Well, while I will never love it, I was in awe at how a well written story can evoke such a sense of menace and darkness in a supposedly bright setting. From that book, I learned that you can appreciate a story without neccisarily liking it.

    Also, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie was probably one of the first books I read that really made me think about what life was like from another cultural POV. It wasn’t the first book I’d read from another POV but it was the first one that resonated with me.

  4. says

    “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie is good stuff. I’d heard of it, and then a sister gave it to me for Christmas one year. Very good stories in there, and lots of different POVs.

  5. donna says

    I shall have to look for that once the feds loosen their chokehold on my book budget. I’m trying to read more short fiction and expand my usual boundries for what I’d normally read. Two trusted recommendations=read it.

    Also, DrMM, that’s exactly the kind of thing I was talking about–books that made you think about who you are, why you are, or what you’d like to be :)