Our Reading Lives

The Books That Changed My Life The Most Weren’t Very Good

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

I have been a reader my whole life, devouring hundreds (thousands?) of stories as far back as I can remember. I’ve read some truly incredible books in my life, ones that have stuck with me years later, that have inspired me and unsettled me, that have brought me to tears and laughter. There are only a small handful of books that have noticeably altered my behavior, though. It takes more than a 5-star read for me to make a real change. What does it take? Well, I’m not quite sure — because the three books that changed my life the most were far from the best books I’ve ever read. They’re also all nonfiction and all by white authors, which isn’t reflective of the books I prioritize. I’m not sure what that says about me — but we’ll circle back on that.

The first book I remember instilling a new habit was one I read as a child. I was an anxious kid, prone to lying awake at night imagining what I would do if someone broke into the house. Despite being a perennial loudmouth in class, I was consumed by social anxiety and would spend the majority of every social interaction second-guessing anything I’d said or done, analyzing all the possible ways it could be misinterpreted. I clearly remember heading off one day to walk the same path I took every day to get to school and getting overwhelmed by a tidal wave of unspecified, almost existential terror that I turned around and went home. I was superstitious and paranoid, especially when alone: every creak in the house was a threat. It’s not a surprise that I buried myself in books and the internet (thank you, Neopets).

I had a myriad of book series and authors that I loved as a preteen, including comfort reads that were now well below my reading level, like The Baby-Sitters Club and Animal Ark. One series that I really grabbed onto at that time, though, was Chicken Soup for the Soul, especially Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul or Preteen Soul. Even back then I had the feeling these weren’t, uh, Great Literature. I even felt a little bit guilty reading them, because the reason I felt drawn to these stories was mostly because reading about someone else’s suffering made me feel better about my own life. Sure, they all had happy endings, but I tended to walk away from those stories thinking, “See? You can’t feel bad, because at least you don’t have a terrible illness.” (In retrospect, yikes!)

One of the stories I read in a Chicken Soup collection — and I have no idea the context of this story anymore — concluded with lines saying something to the effect of: “And that’s why you should always say I love you to your family before leaving the room, because you never know when that will be the last time you see them.” Did I mention that I was an anxious and superstitious child? I took this very literally. My family has never been stingy with affection: we’ve always been an “I love you” and hugging type. After reading this book, though, I began saying “I love you” to them (especially my mom) literally every time I left the room. Going the bathroom? “Okay, bye, love you!” Going to get a sweater? “Be right back, I love you!” I continue to have to end every conversation with my spouse or family by saying I love you, which leads to phone exchanges like this:

“Okay, see you tomorrow, I love you!”
“Love you!”
“Oh, wait! When are we meeting?”
“11:30. See you tomorrow! Bye!”

There are definitely worse habits to pick up, but I do find it odd that this is one of the stories I’ve read that has materially changed my life. It has altered how I communicate. Why that story? Why not any of the heartbreaking works of staggering genius that I’ve read?

The next was one that I picked up randomly: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. Ah, back in my teenage years of reading, before my extensive spreadsheets, when I would pick up a book because it sounded vaguely interesting and not because it slots into my strict reading schedule. I have never been a religious person: it took me until I was almost an adult before I even realized my mom had spiritual beliefs. Still, I was interested to see how this stunt memoir would turn out! It was an educational read about Biblical literalism, something I’m not familiar with, but there was one piece that stuck out. Jacobs starts tithing: donating a portion of his earnings (theoretically to the church, but I believe he gives to charity). In his reflection at the end of the book, he says that this is one of the things he wants to take with him moving forward, that he found it meaningful.

At the time I was reading that, I was settling into my first real job (post-babysitting) as a gourmet dog treat baker/pet accessories shop clerk. While I made very little money (they paid me below minimum wage as a “training wage” despite me opening and closing the store by myself — but that’s a rant for a different day), I also had no expenses. I saved half of my money for college, but the rest I spent frivolously. It wasn’t difficult to put aside 10% of my money for charity, and as a newly vegetarian teenager with a strict moral compass, it just felt right. Since then, I have had lean times where I had to dip into this tithing money, but I’ve tried to keep up with it. Like going vegan, it’s a lot harder to justify stopping now that I’ve started.

The last book on this list is simultaneous that most and least random choice. I keep a giant list of books I want to read — actually, I keep three: ones available through the library, through inter-library loan, and ones I’d have to buy to read. These have been steadily growing for decades now, and there are thousands of books on them. I also almost never consult them?? They seem to exist just so I can believe that one day I will read them all.

One day, I decide that I’m going to use a random number generator to select a book off my inter-library loan list. I generate the first book: one I’m no longer interested in. I delete and repeat. Same thing. On the third try, though, I feel a cold shock when I look at the title: Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond. I must have added this to the list years ago. At the time I randomly selected it, though, I had just fallen in love with a guy for the first time after a decade of IDing as a lesbian. Being a lesbian was a big part of my identity. It was the core of my online life and something I prioritized in my real life. I was in free fall, questioning who I was now, what I could call myself, what this meant to me — it was even more confusing and terrifying than the first time I fell for girl.

I requested the book, and when I began reading it, my mind was blown. Here was a completely different way of understanding desire and identity. Diamond laid out the incredible complexity of the biological components of sexual attraction, and the book included multiple accounts of women who had gone through the same journey as I had. It rewrote my relationship to my queerness, my identity, my understanding of the basic building blocks of desire. It’s also…not a perfect read. It’s cissexist and has a small sample size. It can be incredibly dry. But it changed my life. It made me realize there was a word for what I was going through (and what I had gone through before), and that other people felt that way, too. It helped me to make a pattern out of what seemed like disparate events in my life.

So those are the three books that have changed my life the most: Chicken Soup for the Soul, which gave me a verbal postscript to every conversation; A Year of Living Biblically, which spurred me to start regularly giving to charity; and Sexual Fluidity, which changed how I identify and how I understand sexuality. These are all books that have a purpose and are good in their own ways, but they’re also far from the best books I’ve ever read. I think the books that change us the most tend to be the ones we read when we’re young, so this being an all-white collection of authors is likely a reflection of how homogenous my reading was as a kid and teen. I hope I can add some other, more diverse books to this list in the future — but there’s no telling which books will have an impact like that.

Something about these books being completely random is comforting. We readers usually pick up a book hoping it will be something extraordinary, but this shows that it’s not only the exceptional books that make a mark on us. Even silly, limited, or flawed stories can change us for the better. Every book we read, no matter the content or quality, may be life changing.