book reviews, media, psychology

5 books that changed me & 5 that will

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about influence. I participated in a psych study last week in which I was asked how much I thought simple decisions–what class to take, what movie to watch, etcetera–influenced my future. At first I was certain the answer was hardly at all, but when I really thought about it I realized how wrong I was. The English class I took last quarter, for instance, had a huge impact on me and how I see myself, and if I hadn’t watched Don Jon last week I would be far less enlightened about film’s capacity to reveal double standards. (Watch that movie if you haven’t yet, please.) Books, of course, are some of the most important societal influences we have, so I thought it would be interesting to make a list of books that significantly influenced my life and my decisions.

I failed. What you see below is the product of me picking up my rambling failure of a list and narrowing it down to five, which is really quite a tiny number. I’ve tried to ignore the obvious ones (cough, Harry Potter) and focus on books that came out of nowhere and changed the way I see the world. I also made a list of five books I haven’t read yet that I hope will affect me–if I ever get around to reading them, that is. None of these are in any particular order. Oh, and don’t worry: no spoilers here.


A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I first read this when I was around eleven, and I was blown away by the vibrancy of Gene and Finny’s friendship and Knowles’ head-on tackle of cowardice and the “dark side of the human heart.” The fact that the center of the novel is Gene’s slow-burning hatred for his “best pal” was crazy to me; I had never read a book before that so frankly addressed the issue of hate, of imperfection. I felt like I was in on a secret, and I identified with Gene, and when I re-read it in high school I was even more profoundly affected. I can’t say more without giving away the end, but I highly recommend this book. I’ve read it more times than I care to count.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I read this only once, in high school, and it made such an impression on me that I’m almost afraid to read it again, for fear of what will happen the second time. It completely changed the way I think about intelligence, and it definitely made me more aware of people with mental handicaps. It hits you hard, it’s one-of-a-kind and you really won’t grok this unless you’ve read the damn thing.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. This is the first part of a phenomenal trilogy (if it can be called a trilogy; Larsson died before he could write more). Since I can’t put them all on here, I’ll settle for the first one. I saw this book everywhere for a long while before I finally picked it up. For some reason I’d assumed from the title that it was a fantasy or a teen novel and decided I wasn’t interested without even picking it up. My uncle suggested it, though, and my uncle never suggests things, so I bought a copy immediately and soon devoured it. The characters, the plot, the goddamn mystery, they’re all amazing, but beyond that, this series made me aware. I thought I knew about misogyny and women’s rights before I read it, but…well, you understand if you’ve read it, and if you haven’t, at least consider this fantastic read.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath by…guess who? This isn’t a novel, but it got me as excited as the most well-written novels do. I still haven’t finished it, and maybe I never will, but it changes me every time I pick it up. I started reading it as a senior in high school and I felt like everything I’d been thinking and feeling my whole life made sense. I had read The Bell Jar and much of Plath’s poetry and I’d read about her, but it wasn’t the same as hearing things in her own words. It depresses me a little that we seem to have so much in common, but it gives me hope too.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I read this last quarter, and it was the last thing I was expecting. I wouldn’t have thought an introductory college English course would include a modern, innovative, disturbing, mind-blowing horror-love story, but my preconceptions about college were quite far from reality. My fantastic professor Rita Raley had been teaching the book for years, and in her class, everything I ever thought about novels and writing changed. This book describes a harrowing film that doesn’t exist, and it is so meta that it creates a new kind of horror; the dark emptiness at its center will claw at you when you turn off the lights. At the same time, there’s a multitude of beautifully tender human moments throughout, and the characters pull you in as much as the crazy format of the book does. I’d definitely put this on the list of books to read before you die. It might just kill you, but the risk is worth it.


A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan. I read the first 70 pages of this last year and was hooked, but then real life came in and stopped me. I adore Egan’s writing style, but what really got me was how incredibly real her characters felt in the narration. The book itself got under my skin, and I didn’t even reach the halfway point. I’m psyched.

Looking for Alaska by John Green. I’ve been meaning to read this for so long it’s not even funny. Whenever I grab my sister’s copy and flip through it I end up reading a line that I immediately love. It’s stupid that I still haven’t read it, but there you go.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I read the first 30 pages of this a long time ago, enough to understand what a “Catch-22” is, and I haven’t picked it up since. I remember liking it and I know it will be an amazing read if I actually dig in my heels and finish the whole thing, but it’s so intimidating compared to all the light reads I usually choose in my free time that I haven’t done it yet. I swear, though, that I will read this someday, and hopefully find out why Harper Lee said it’s the only war novel that makes any sense.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Watched the 1935 movie, watched the 2012 movie, saw the play on Broadway. Have not read the book. Go figure.

Room by Emma Donaghue. I read the first few chapters this past summer and it freaked me out so much, I can’t even tell you. You’d think it would be impossible to write a good book that’s narrated by a little kid, but I’m pretty sure Donaghue does it if the reviews are anything to go by, and from what I read it’s both touching and terrifying. When I get around to reading this, I’m certain I’ll be blown away.

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