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Do Life Changing Books Really Change Your Life?

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Maegan Donovan

Staff Writer

Maegan Donovan is a Southern-born, New England transplant raising a daughter with her husband in the Midwest. After earning her M.A. in History from the University of Rhode Island, she moved to Boston, followed by Kansas, Delaware, California and Kansas again. When she's not chasing her toddler (which is nearly always), she's reading, mentally planning European vacations, trying to learn Latin or feeling guilty about neglecting her blog, Lovely Leanings. The only two things guaranteed to be in her purse are a book and a bottle of hot sauce.

There is nothing quite like the epiphany that a uniquely powerful book can reveal. I’m not talking about the rapid heartbeat-inducing suspense of a great thriller or the lingering hope that remains after you’ve read the last page of heart-wrenching autobiography. I’m referring to that small handful of books you’ve read over the course of your life that encourages – nay, commands – you to evaluate your life and take action.

Whatever your particular brand of literature, you know the feeling of closing the final page of a book and knowing that life will never be the same. I’ve been inspired by so many books in recent years – books that melted away the fears that have held me back and bolstered my spirit to take on something new.

For instance, I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as a high school student and can still remember the page number of the most poignant description of the struggle of choosing a path in life. Fifteen years later, I still pick up this novel when the future feels a bit murky.

Then there is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I didn’t want to enjoy this book and it all sounded a little suspect to me when I purchased it. That is, right up until I binge read it in two days and walked away feeling as though every brilliant idea I had ever suppressed was worth pursuing. Fears, doubts, and critics be damned!

Born to run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall was the ultimate literary aphrodisiac that stoked a dormant desire to start running, Tarahumara style. Not so much for the physical act itself, but for the feeling of unchained freedom that accompanies pushing your body to its limits.

I’ve read The Danish Way of Parenting by Iben Sandahl and Jessica Joelle Alexander more times than I can remember, hoping to squeeze every ounce of wisdom from the Danes and apply them to my own parenting techniques. I would perfect the art of hygge. I’d learn to view temper tantrums not as a symptom of the “terrible two’s,” but rather a healthy “boundary pushing” stage. I would force myself to suppress the temptation to helicopter parent.

Most recently, Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous masterpiece When Breath Becomes Air forced me to confront my own mortality and seek meaning out of even the most quotidian of tasks – a feat we take for granted until our life takes a dramatic turn.

All of these books touched me in a special way and planted a seed to renovate my life. But this euphoria never lasted. Eventually, I would come down from my literary high, sobriety would settle back in, and the words of inspiration drifted from my memory. Sadly, I would be left with an empty shell of a book that I once took for gospel. It’s the literary equivalent of “I love you, but I’m no longer in love with you.”

So this raised a question. Once the allure to change dissipates, does what I read still qualify as a “life changing” book?

Short answer – yes. I don’t believe it’s realistic to model our future goals and aspirations after someone else’s experience because everyone’s life circumstances differ. Rather than allowing these books to dictate our lives, I view them as influential and life altering for the spoonful of inspiration they feed us. It’s muse that nourishes people and fuels our ability to make tailored changes to our individual lives, even if they are miniscule.

Though I may never be an ultra-marathoner, consistently practice the Danish art of hygge, or remind myself to find meaning in life’s triumphs and tragedies, each of these books have gifted me memories of inspiration and actionable objectives during life’s pivotal moments. When I’m stressed out, I remember the liberating euphoria that accompanies a good run and grab my shoes. When it’s rainy and cold outside, you can believe that my home will be filled with candles, jazz and freshly baked cookies. And when I’m feeling sorry for myself because something didn’t pan out, I make a gratitude list to remind myself of the blessings in my life. These reasons alone demonstrate that even though a book may not result in completely overhauling one’s life, it can still provide small pearls of joy and meaning that linger.

Which books would you say changed your life?