Books That Changed My Life

Late last year I was asked to write a piece for The Sun-Herald in Victoria, Australia about the books that changed my life. I have loved so many types of books since I was a child that I found this very difficult – as though I’d been asked to say which people in my life I’d loved the best. I wouldn’t want anyone to be hurt that they’d been left out.

I also felt a little bit of pressure, as though my choices had to be especially highbrow because that’s what one might expect from an author. But I’m an omnivore. And my tastes have always been eclectic … I have loved mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, horror and the classics. I don’t discriminate. Great fiction is great fiction … it moves and transports, opens doors to the imagination, illuminates. Reading, like life, is an emotional experience. When we start attaching labels and then judging based on those labels, we rob ourselves of experience, beauty and enjoyment.

In the end I wound up choosing some of the books that influenced the course of my life in some way, either as a writer, a reader, or just a person trying to make sense of the world around her. It is a terribly incomplete list. And though I have loved all of these books, there are so many more that I have loved equal passion.

Here’s what I wrote …

Books That Changed My Life

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

I read Rebecca when I was a teenager and was swept away by the powerful voice, the gut wrenching suspense and the dark, twisted love story at its center. I was hooked, transported into the narrator’s gothic world, could visualize each room of the house, and see the awful Mrs. Danvers lurking in dim hallways of Manderley. There was something gripping about a very ordinary girl being drawn into a nightmare (a theme I find again and again in my own work.) I’ve been addicted to thrillers ever since.

The World According to Garp by John Irving

The people that populate Irving’s literary universe live and breathe. They are deeply flawed; they are silly and strange. They make terrible mistakes, atone, and move forward. In other words, they’re human. T.S. Garp is as real to me as anyone I’ve known. This book changed the way I think about character — I never again saw them as people a writer imagines but as people a writer meets on her literary journey.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

A friend of mine said that after she read Atlas Shrugged, she never wrote another word. She felt if she couldn’t write anything as grand, she might as well not write at all. I, on the other hand, have been inspired by this book again and again. I am awed by its scope, its depth, its characters who are not mere mortals but titans. This brilliant, sweeping masterpiece is a blend of mystery and philosophy, magnificent prose and perfect plotting. Whenever I open this book, I’m moved to write.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

I read a lot of non-fiction lately… for research and just to learn as much as I can about the world. Fast Food Nation is muckraking at its finest. I’ve never been a huge fan of fast food, but Fast Food Nation convinced me never to spend another dollar of my money on an industry that is guilty of crimes against its workers, the environment, agriculture, and the health of billions … and it opened my eyes to the way some businesses are using and abusing the world for profit.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

I never saw anything the same way after I read The Four Agreements. It changed my attitudes, many of my relationships – including the one I have with myself — and the way I move about the world. It’s amazing how four simple ideas can transform a life; that’s the power of the word. I still open this book whenever I struggle in my life, in my work or just in my own mind. A tiny book … gigantic wisdom.


I did neglect one book in the piece I wrote for The Sun-Herald – I don’t even know why; it must be like a kind of amnesia because this is by far one of the most important books in my life:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

An Australian reporter asked me to pick my favorite author and I couldn’t do it. He put me on the spot and I must admit I choked. I couldn’t imagine choosing between the brilliant people who have moved and inspired me. I declined to answer. Later, I realized that the answer was clear. I love every word written by Truman Capote. I am moved again and again by the beauty of his prose, the poignancy of his sad characters, the gauzy magical quality of his stories.

In Cold Blood is the first work of its kind — a true crime book that reads like fiction. It is a searing and disturbing account of a terrible murder and the twisted men who carried it out. It’s an absolutely engrossing, gorgeously written book, combining the unflinching account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family with a psychological profile of their killers.

I have always been attracted to the darkness, the shadow (listen to my podcasts for more on this) – not in a voyeuristic way, but with an ardent desire to understand what lives there and why. In Cold Blood explores the ugliness and horror of human nature with an odd lack of judgment, without any sensational quality at all. Writers write for the same reason that readers read — to explore, to understand, to know something they didn’t know before. Truman Capote examined his subject with a ruthless curiosity; I could almost feel his fever. In the strangest way, this book gave me permission to follow my ache to understand, to explore the things that fascinate me. It gave me permission to write about the kind of things I wanted to write about. I’ve toyed with other types of writing now and again, but I always come back to dark side.



  1. Ellen Altamore on June 14, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Ditto on “Atlas Shrugged.” I thought I would never finish it as the first 500 pages were so daunting but at the end, it was a life changer.

    Another that swept me away was “Poisonwood Bible.”

    Interestingly enough, I recently found a passage in another thriller/mystery that captured my exact sentiments as an atheist. Who would have thunk it?

  2. Callie on June 15, 2007 at 7:36 am

    About the book ” In Cold Blood”. This book is so lucid so clear minded so brilliantly written. I would call this an easy read for the above reasons.