Many books have touched my life. These are a few that have helped me better understand who I am, why I’m here and what I’m capable of.
These books opened up worlds to me that I didn’t know existed. Eyes may be windows into the soul—but so are books.
1) Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
Harriet rides her bike around, peeking in on her quirky neighbors and writing about them. She likes to wear jeans and her dad’s blocky glasses frames. Her best friend, a boy named Scout, wears an apron when he cooks for his widowed father. I first read this book at age eight. When I re-read it 30 years later, I saw many things I care about contained in its pages: the love of traveling and writing, the rejection of gender straight-jackets and the fascination with how other people do this thing we call living.
Favorite quote: “Life is a great mystery. Is everybody a different person when they are with someone else?”
2) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
In seventh grade, my science teacher read to us every Friday from this book about humans colonizing Mars. While I may not have grasped the social criticism, I was bowled over by the gripping writing and by how the stories offered deep insights into life. That a book could give me (existential) goosebumps helped me internalize the power of the written word.
Favorite quote: “Why life? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life as possible.”
3) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
I was in my twenties when I first encountered Whitman, whose work became my bible. He wrote about how we are connected to each other and all of nature, how the body is to be praised, how equality should be a given, and how what matters most is love in all its forms. His long, rhythmic lines crackle with life more than 150 years since they first appeared in print.
Favorite quote: “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”
4) Journal of Solitude by May Sarton.
At age 29, I sold everything I owned and moved alone to Japan to teach. There, I devoured all of Sarton’s soulful and insightful journals, starting with this one. I was spending a lot of time alone, and she helped me see how I didn’t have to be scared of solitude; alone, I could plumb my depths.
Favorite quote: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.”
5) Wild Mind: Living the Writers’ Life by Natalie Goldberg.
With her pragmatic, soulful wit, Goldberg helped me free my inner creator. As a young expat living in Japan, I tried out her writing methods and turned myself over to my dream of being a writer.
Favorite quote: “Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes everything is an emergency.”
6) When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron.
When I was going through a devastating divorce, a good friend gave me this book. My lifeline to sanity, Pema’s book was the start of my journey to better understand how to deal with suffering. I think I saved thousands of dollars in therapy bills by reading this book again and again.
Favorite quote: “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
7) Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed.
As I read this book, I found myself wishing over and over again I’d had it in my hands when I was younger. It just might have helped me change course—or at least be kinder to myself. Her advice and voice wrap their arms around you and help you stand up straight.
Favorite quote: “You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
The final four books fit in the category of “Badass Women.” All of these women overcame great odds to claim their power—and at some level, to change the world. These books ignited my inner flame so that I more deeply appreciated my freedom, my voice and my capacity to inspire and be inspired.
8) Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In this memoir, a Somalian woman follows a harrowing and unlikely path and ultimately becomes a political figure in the Netherlands. In the face of death threats, she fearlessly champions free speech, women’s rights and the banning of female genital mutilation.
Favorite quote: “It takes a long time to dissolve the bars of a mental cage.”
9) Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik by Cathleen Miller.
An incredibly inspirational example of a woman who has affected millions of lives. A Pakistani national, she bucked tradition and became a physician and eventually a leader of the U.N. population fund, fighting for women’s health and reproductive rights. Now in her 80s, she is still working to make the world a better place.
Favorite quote: “We must be courageous in speaking out on the issues that concern us… We will not allow ourselves to be silenced.”
10) She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan.
With humor and intelligence, Boylan tells the poignant story of her transition from Jim to Jenny. As with all the other “badass women” books, I developed new understandings and deeper compassion reading this.
Favorite quote: “As it turns out, we’re all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves.”
11) Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls.
This novel is based on the life of Jeanette’s extraordinary grandmother, Lila Casey Smith, who, at age 15, left home on a pony to ride 500 miles for a teaching job in a frontier town. She learned to fly a plane and ran a ranch in Arizona, surviving droughts, tornadoes, the Great Depression and personal tragedy. Like the other badass women, she stood up for the underdog and spoke out against injustice.
Favorite quote: “Nobody’s perfect. We’re all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.”
What’s a book that changed your life?
Author: Kate Evans
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Joel Valve/Unsplash