Tomorrow, I will turning thirty years old. I’d expected to be one of those people who freak out, but I’m actually excited. My twenties were kind of awful, and thirty feels like a fresh start. Since it’s kind of a milestone birthday, I thought it might be interesting to look back on the books that shaped who I am, both as a reader and a person, in the past thirty years. These are the books that feel like they’re written on my soul, the books that changed who I am or how I see the world. And they’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Here are the thirty books that most shaped who I am as a person and as a reader (in no particular order):
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’m pretty sure this is the first Gaiman novel I ever read (and the first he wrote) and I immediately fell in love. I distinctly remember how I felt when I read the phrase “aural wallpaper”, as a description of the “mind the gap” announcement in Underground stations. It seems mundane, but it felt like pure magic. This book reminded me what it feels like to read a book written by someone who can craft words into worlds. I loved it. I still love it. (The Graveyard Book is a close second.)
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. I know a lot of my readers are a bit younger than I am, and I don’t think I can accurately describe how much of an impact Harry Potter had when I was a teenager. The last few books came out when I was around the same age as the main characters. I was fifteen when Order of the Phoenix was released. And I’d just turned eighteen when we got Deathly Hallows. So to say I grew up with Harry Potter is almost an understatement. I went to midnight book release parties, I listened to wizard rock (it was a thing) and even went to a Harry and the Potters concert, I scoured the Harry Potter news sites, I woke my sister up crying at 2am the day after Half-Blood Prince was released because Dumbledore died and I couldn’t cope, I once (or twice, maybe three times) waited in line for twelve hours to see a midnight showing of one of the movies. This was a such a MASSIVE part of my life that I can’t even begin to fathom my life without Harry Potter. And I’m completely okay with that.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think Pride and Prejudice was the first classic that I ever actually finished. And enjoyed. It made me realize reading classic literature didn’t have to feel like a chore. It might take a little longer to get through, but it’s always worth it. Plus, I think Mr. Darcy helped counteract some of the Disney princess ideas about relationships we idolize as kids.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The classic that cemented my love of Victorian literature. I’ve read this at least twice, and loved it both times. Dark and romantic is my favorite combination, and Jane Eyre is the perfect example.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. While I did enjoy Anne’s Agnes Grey when I read it in college, this is the book that cemented her as my favorite of the Brontë sisters. I know Emily and Charlotte are far more well-known, but Anne is seriously underrated. The Tenant of Wildfell Hal is one of the first feminist novels. Where Charlotte and Emily definitely leaned feminist, Anne was not shy about her opinions on the patriarchy. I think this book was the inspiration for a lot of papers I wrote in grad school.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is just one of those books that just reminds me magic is real. It may not be the kind of magic in this story. But it’s the magic of being able to turn marks on a page into a beautiful story that can be shared with a limitless number of people.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. I have been a Stephen King fan for close to two decades now (way before I should have been reading King). This was my first. And it was a great introduction to both Stephen King and horror. There are some King books I like more – The Green Mile, 11/22/63, Misery – but this one still holds a special place for me. It’s creepy in all the right ways, and made a big impact on me as a book that essentially has a single character. Psychological horror is the best kind of horror.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I did not have very high expectations for this book. But I am so glad I read it, because these characters felt so real. I loved them, and still think about them fairly often. Like old friends. This book made me cry, but it also made me feel warm and fuzzy. It’s the best kind of book.
A Nation of Immigrants by John F. Kennedy. Once upon a time, I was a history major in college. I even minored in American Studies (which is cooler than it probably sounds). And, especially in the current political climate. I think this book provides great insight into not just the values our country was founded on, but also how they evolved.
Beowulf. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know I’m a bit of a medieval literature nerd (I took classes on it in both college and grad school). Beowulf (literally) started it all. This book taught me not just about medieval literature, but also fantasy and classic story structure. It’s the text that spawned The Lord of the Rings (which would probably be on this list if I’d started it before a week ago). I’m actually planning on reading Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf very soon, and I am a little too excited about it.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book destroyed me. But in the best way. So much so that these characters just feel like a part of me. I can’t think of any other characters that impacted me the way these did. I read this three years ago, and I still think about it on a regular basis. I have to keep talking myself out of rereading it, because I am not emotionally prepared to go through that again.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This book is a classic. I’ve read hundreds of books, and this is probably the source of most of the quotes that pop into my head at random moments. Particularly, “so long, and thanks for all the fish”. It’s also one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Marvin the depressed robot is my spirit animal. And if you don’t know the Earth is a massive computer designed to calculate the meaning of life, which is 42, you should fix that. Hitchhiker’s Guide is probably the catalyst of my love for both sci-fi and weird fiction.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Looking back, I think this was the book that introduced me to how creative contemporary fiction can be. It was also probably one of the first adult novels I read (after It and The Other Boleyn Girl – which probably weren’t the best books to be reading at twelve or thirteen). I have very visceral memories associated with books, and this one brings be back to high school. It’s one of my only memories from that time that feels purely good. I think this book is one that made me start to really fall in love with literature, even if I didn’t realize it was happening at the time.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I’m realizing quite a few of these are books that made me sob. This book is absolutely beautiful and I loved the story. I read it at a time when I desperately needed a good cry. So many terrible things happened in my life all at once that I kind of went numb. This book broke my shell and forced me to be okay. I think I would have loved this book regardless, but I’m forever grateful to it for letting me deal with a very difficult time in my life.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I was not brought up in a family that values feminism. So I became a feminist a bit later in life than I would have liked, but I’m happy that I first learned from the Mother of Feminism herself, Mary Wollstonecraft (yes, Mary Shelley’s mom). I’ve read this so many times (mostly to use as a resource in academic papers), but every time, I’m astonished by how relevant this still is. Everyone should read it.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If I could afford it, I would buy a box of these and hand them out to everyone I know. It’s a great look at how sexism still affects our everyday lives. I loved how Adichie looks at the behaviors that pull down women that we might not even be aware of. Books like this are a good step to change, and not only should we all be feminists, we should all read this book.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read this a few years ago, and loved it. It had such an impact on the way I see things, and was interesting to read as a history major. It’s also a book that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past couple of years. I wish more people could read this so they would see just how close we are to heading in a very bad direction.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Not only is Woolf almost as much of a feminist icon as Wollstonecraft, she focuses on learning and reading and writing, all of which are hugely important to me. One of my favorite quotes is from this essay: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
1984 by George Orwell. This is a great classic. That said, I’m so glad I read this after college, because I could better understand it. And, just like The Handmaid’s Tale, this kind of freaked me out, but also made me think more critically about the world we live in.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was younger. Well, except for books. One summer, instead of hanging out wither other kids my age (in my defense, they were mean and annoying), I stayed home and read the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia. In one massive volume. It’s honestly one of the best memories I have from my childhood. And it was probably what helped me realize I could escape into books when life sucked. Something I definitely still do.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. No, I’m not quite pretentious enough to claim this story changed my life. In fact, I will admit to it being pretty boring. But, not only is this something fun to brag about, it also gave me the courage to read the things that scared me. Moby Dick? Sure, can’t be harder to get through than War and Peace. I read War and Peace, so what’s stopping me from reading Vanity Fair? This set the bar for what books scare me, and it changed the way I approach reading big books.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This is a fairly recent read, but it had a huge impact on me. I never thought I would be so obsessed with a novel about a cathedral, but Follett proved me wrong. I honestly still can’t really articulate how much I loved this book and these characters. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever stop thinking about this book. Like most of the other books on this list, I think it’s just part of me now.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. My first experience with Shakespeare, freshman year of high school, was Romeo and Juliet. And I think we all know how much I dislike that one (they writing is beautiful, but the story is everything I hate about YA). Macbeth is one of the plays that made me realize how fun Shakespeare could be. It also kind of represents my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, which was a big accomplishment for me.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown. I really love this story. I think it’s one of the few books during the dystopian craze a few years back that still holds up. But that’s not why it’s on this list. I remember reading this book and marveling at how well-written it was. And then I Googled the author and discovered he’s just a year older than I am. Which of course kind of freaked me out. I had this moment of “what am I even doing with my life?” A month later, I applied to grad school and ended up with a masters in English and creative writing. I haven’t used that degree yet (unfortunately), but, for me, taking such a huge leap to do something just for me, not something I was “supposed to do” or was pressured into, was life-changing.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I had read a few biographies prior to reading about da Vinci. But this one is still the best I’ve read by far. Not only is it a great overview of da Vinci’s life, it’s also incredibly inspiring. I still remember one of da Vinci’s notes scrawled in a notebook. Included in one of his to-do lists: “describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” That curiosity about everything just made me want to explore more about the world. Maybe this is the reason I now know the jaw force of a T. rex or how jewel wasps perform neurosurgery on cockroaches.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This is a classic for a reason. It’s such a brilliant and heartbreaking story. I realized after reading this that while I was aware of slavery and racism, I never truly paid much attention to what life was like for African Americans during the early 20th century. I think this is definitely one of the books that helped make me a more empathetic person.
Hunger by Roxane Gay. It’s not something I talk about on my blog, but I’ve had self-image and body issues for most of my life. I’ve never felt comfortable in my own skin. And I have never felt as seen as I did when I read this book. It made me realize a lot about myself and how I see myself and choose to let others see me. And while I still have a lot to work on, I feel better about dealing with it, instead of ignoring it.
A Wrinkle in Time by Margaret L’Engle. Before I discovered Harry Potter – okay, before I was allowed to read Harry Potter – there was Madeline L’Engle. I read pretty much all of her books when I was around eight or nine, and I think they definitely shaped who I am. Looking back, I can see how these are the first books that taught me empathy and creativity. They weren’t just fun stories, they’re so much more. And A Wrinkle in Time was my favorite.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. This book taught me two very important lessons: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible” and “What you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do”.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The book that started it all. There are so many children’s books I adore, but Where the Wild Things Are will always be my favorite. Maybe it was my desire to escape as a child, but I spent many nights imagining the places I could sail off to.
If you stuck through to the end, thank you so much for reading! I know this was a very long post, but I hope you enjoyed it!
What book or books have most shaped your life so far?