This Writer-Approved Reading List Might Change Your Life
photo by Sera Lindsey
Behind every good writer is a good book — or several. It's safe to say that most of us who make a living composing thoughts, sentences, and stories have been inspired by the words of others before them, whether it be a tale that always stuck with them as a child, a memoir that so adequately described their own heartbreak, or anything in between. I can personally say that as a writer, there's no better way to spark my creativity than reading something I connect to. But what makes a book life-changing versus simply a favorite? Sometimes they're one in the same but often, a text that transforms you might not necessarily be one you return to again and again. It may or may not be something you recommend to all your family and friends. Books that change us can often do so for reasons we can't fully explain.
Recently I was thinking about what I've read in my past that's shaped me as a writer, and that got me thinking about the ones that may have done the same for others. In an effort to create an ultimate reading list for anyone looking for something that — ready or not — just might change their life, I asked a handful of LA-based writers and editors about the five books that moved them more than all the others. Take this list to your local bookstore and let it help you pick your next read. Warning: we're not responsible for any tears, laughing out loud while reading in public, or long-lasting transformative effects. And if you're got your own suggestions, let us know in the comments below.
1. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
"I read this book in high school for an assignment on 20th century American authors. My sister, who's always been a very advanced reader, helped me choose it and I was thoroughly intimidated for the first three chapters. The unsignaled flashbacks and change of narrators frustrated and confused me so much that I wanted to throw the book against a wall until I got to the final chapter, where everything beautifully revealed itself. Ultimately the fact that it was so challenging made it incredibly rewarding to finish as a young reader. I was certainly changed after completing it."
2. Life Life by Lorrie Moore
"I could easily make all my top picks Lorrie Moore books, and I've been in love with her writing since reading one of her short stories in another text. Like Life is the one I go back to over and over again. Her short stories always beautifully illustrate such relatable emotions and experiences — especially the ones we've never been able to put into words ourselves. I buy a copy every time I come upon one in a used book store and give them away."
3. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
"I would read the alphabet in print if Miranda July released it. Her stories, including the ones in this book, are almost always about loneliness, yet she always manages to find ways that are at very least subversive and at most downright surreal — but the sentiment is incredibly tangible. I don't know how she does it. Miranda changed what I though was possible as a writer and gave me the freedom to share things that may seem odd or mundane, knowing they're also worthwhile."
4. Tai Pei by Tao Lin
"Tao Lin's books and stories are not always easy to get into. I'd read a few and never fully connected until Tai Pei. The deceptively plain prose and seemingly uneventful plot are actually powerfully symbolic of the numb characters he follows here. I'd say that Lin and his book perfectly characterize a generation hiding behind drugs and technology, terrified of figuring out who they might actually be. No one else is writing like this."
5. Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros
"You may have heard of Cisneros' classic book of short stories, The House on Mango Street. I was introduced to that text in Women's Lit class in college and lapped up her sensuously described narratives, often about her experience as a Mexican American woman. This led me to Loose Woman, her book of poetry. She shows every shade of being a woman — or a human, for that matter: at once fragile and super-powered, hard and soft, beautiful and messy. There are a lot of pages folded in this one."
1. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
"This gorgeous, gut-wrenching book taught me about the world in the gentle type of way that a mother does, and in doing so introduced me to the kind of mother that I'd like to be. I think I bought about 12 copies for the women in my life the year I read it."
2. The BFG by Roald Dahl
"This book introduced me to the unabashed joy that writing could both be and effect in its reader."
3. After Rain: Stories by William Trevor
"A collection of short stories about the small heroisms and quiet beauty behind the unassuming characters of rural Ireland."
4. Cat's Eye and Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
"Margaret Atwood's poetry made me fall in love with her, but these two books sent me into a lifelong love affair. I wrote my master's thesis on her writing, so you could kind of say we're INVOLVED."
5. Ulysses by James Joyce
"My favorite passage in this beast of a breathtaking book is the last, where Leopold's wife Molly has a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy about the thoughts that swirled around in her head when she said 'yes' to Leopold's proposal. Knowing my love for this passage and the ethos behind saying 'yes' to the world, my husband proposed to me underneath the Brooklyn bridge using this passage. 'And his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.'”
1. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
"Author Bryan Stevenson weaves together stories from his career as a legal advocate and founder of Equal Justice Initiative to paint a picture of mass incarceration in America. In the most vivid, mind shattering detail, Stevenson shows how our justice system has been designed to disadvantage African Americans and has often resulted in wrongful capital punishment. If you have a yen for justice, this book is 100% necessary, although painful."
2. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
"The book is even better than the movie. It conveys the experience of first love in a visceral way. The story helps you understand how two people can truly shape and complete one another, even if they aren't meant to be together forever. "
3. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
"This is a fascinating, science-backed explanation of just how important sleep is for you. Beyond the known benefits of reducing stress, improving energy, and moderating weight, sleep is also crucial to prevent premature aging and disease. This book will change how you prioritize sleep."
4. It Starts with Food by Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig
"This helped me understand food in an entirely different, non-restrictive way. Whether or not you do the program (which I've never completed), it educates you about food in the most clear cut, realistic, helpful way. Everything you put in your body will either help it or harm it—this book taught me what to eat and what to ditch without making me feel bad about yourself."
5. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
"This book helped me strip away the clutter in my life and develop effective strategies to prioritize the important stuff. I reread it every year or so."
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling
"My grandmother was a teacher and a genius at child-rearing, and my cousins and I would spend a few weeks each summer at her house in the high desert. She also happened to be ahead of the curve on Harry Potter. She bought one copy the summer it came out (before it was cool, I would guess), and made the five of us read it out loud to each other. It's such a sweet memory for me — I can still see us passing the book around to each other as we stood in the shallow end of the pool, crowded around the A/C during midday heatwaves, and sat cramped in the backseat of her Volkswagen. That enforced my love of reading, and the magic of sharing a world with others."
2. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
"This is one of those books that I always buy multiple copies of because I end up giving mine away to friends. It's a small, short read that mixes fiction, non-fiction, and quantum theory. Every chapter feels like a love letter to science and the human experience."
3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
"This was the last book that absolutely gutted me. I'm a hopeless romantic that hates romance novels, and this book was one of those that just makes you simultaneously pine for love and fear it with every inch of your heart."
4. Love in The Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
"You know those books that you go back to and use a bit like a yard stick for your own personal growth? I have two. I remember going through a terrible breakup — in which I played the innocent, betrayed lover — and empathizing with the protagonist of The Lover's Dictionary so much. Half a year later, I read it again after trying on the role of heartbreaker for a while, and had a completely different reading experience. And GGM is just a must-have on your bookshelf."
5. Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss
"OK, this one is purely for entertainment. It's about past-life regression, and even though it's written at a 2nd-grade reading level, OHMYGOT it will blow your damn mind."
1. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
"I have read this book so many times over the last five years that it's starting to creep me out. Her comedic pacing, her ability to be so nonplussed by the depraved that it becomes commonplace, and the ache of longing all of her characters seem to share — all of it makes me feel relieved that I am not alone in my perverse sense of humor. I could've stopped here, but I'm trying to be cool about it."
2. How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
"This book was so formative to me because I grew up in Toronto and my best friend is a painter as well, so I kept finding so many eerie parallels in our narratives, it gave me a naive hope in being a writer — it was like I was seeing it all unfold in front of me. That's the thing about good writing it just makes it seem so easy, so 'of course!' except it's not easy at all."
3. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
"Ottessa Moshfegh is the only true artist I know. No one writes or thinks like her, you can tell from her writing and also from her interviews of which I've read all of them. She scares the shit out of me, and I think that's a good thing. Sweetness, especially in women artists, is overrated. She's the real deal. Her stories will destroy you, and she might argue that destruction is necessary."
4. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
"If you love food and cults, and food cults, this book is for you! The universe that Alexandra Kleeman creates in this book is unsettling and darkly funny. She writes with precision about the many bizarre ways hunger and obsession are the defining maladies of society."
5. You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale
"I loved every single one of Amie's stories, each of them, trying to connect with one another and failing. She's like Miranda July in this way, generously allowing space for dysfunction to breed, to make a home where it's not welcome."
1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
"Surprisingly, I came to this book as an adult. I’ve always loved the 1994 movie, but had never read the actual book until about 5 years ago (embarrassing). Now, each read teaches me something new about myself, about sisterhood about priority and I always find it increasingly modern, despite it’s 19th century setting."
2. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
"This is my go-to read; whenever I’m between books or feeling blue, I can open to any page and instantly be fully engaged in the cinematic world of Salinger. Reading this book makes me want to be a writer, it reminds me of what writing can do."
3. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
"Joseph Campbell changed my life and this was the first book of his that I read. It’s a transcription of a long-form interview, so you can listen to it or read it or do both, as I have probably too many times."
4. Another Country by James Baldwin
"This is a new favorite of mine and Baldwin’s voice feels more relevant than ever. He so delicately captures perspective and self-perception in a way that allows you, as the reader, to not just listen, but to truly hear the struggles and celebrations of people who are different than you."
5. 100 Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Reading this book feels like living—its pace won’t allow for too much precious dwelling on sentiment, yet it’s scenes stick with you like memories for years after you finish."
1. The Stranger by Albert Camus
"Not the most nuanced choice, I admit. So it goes! Nevertheless, I can't overstate how much I probably needed to read this book when I read it. The big thing my sophomore-or-so year of high school was missing was a heavy dose of absurdism and existentialism, amiright?! In the book's air of alien and inviting emotional detachment, that 'gentle indifference' and matter-of-factness, I found both a reflection and a foil of myself and it resonated for whatever cast of reasons. It made me feel quite cool, if a little hopeless — even wise, which for a sophomore-or-so in high school in New Jersey, is something."
2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
"You know those people you see walking on the street in New York, nose buried into the pages of a book? They seem to float through the messy crowds, pulsing with some sort of very directed energy and somehow, they're quite alone even on the screaming subway platform. With amazement and a none-too-small tinge of jealousy, I always wondered about these people, and wondered how this was possible at all. What were they reading?! I had to know! Then, one summer while I was living in New York just after graduating college, I found myself silently weeping on the 6 train as I turned the last pages of this book. With its constellation of characters set in and around New York in the 1970s, I suspect the impact of it is extra right if you find yourself there — something to do with all of that bodily closeness with other people and other people's stories. Still, it's affecting and earnest and soulful no matter what/where."
3. Just Kids by Patti Smith
"Until I'd read this book, it really never occurred to me (or it had, but only intellectually — I hadn't really believed it) that successful artists — yeah man, even the Patti Smiths of the world — were also 'just kids' once, and that they too were a 'lil bit lost and aimless and just trying to figure out which neck scarf to wear to the bar, damnit. I ate this up while living in a sweaty 5 floor walk-up in New York and it was kind to me—relatable and inspiring and helpful. I guess I read more when I lived in New York. I think it's because you sort of can't help but feel like a character in a book, you know?"
4. Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard
"I read this one in LA! And what a sweet treat it was. Sometimes a book is so rich, so well-told, so truth-gushing-good that you hope it never ends because it will be like losing a teacher or a mentor or a friend you secretly regard as such. Sam Shepard is known mostly for his plays (he was also a close friend of Patti Smith's), but this book of short stories is a forever favorite. The time I spent with it this past summer was so enriched by its presence in my life. I experienced it as instruction to living life more deeply — and also writing more simply and honestly. Still working on it."
5. The mother-fucking-Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
"Whoa whoa, I almost freaking left Harry Potter off of this list!! For shame. I honestly believe I would not be the person I am today if not for this series. Aside from proper childhood books (I love/d Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl), this is where I fell in love with and really became acutely aware of how powerful and necessary and transformative the experience of being carried away by a story is. I am nearly in tears writing this, ha! I came to the wizarding world a bit late: one winter, on a snow day, school cancelled, age 12-ish. I guess I was bored with the igloo building scene and decided to read the first two books. For one reason or another, someone (Mom? Dad? Thank you?) had tucked the first two volumes onto my bookshelf, even though at the time I was more interested in soccer and hamsters. Anyway, I read those first two books that snow day and girl, the rest is history. I guess Prisoner of Azkaban had just come out a few months before, which meant a wintry trip to the local Barnes & Noble felt like the most successful book mission of all time. I am so thankful to this series for introducing to my life that irresistible spark of magic, and for providing such steadfast depictions of friendship, goodness, and grit. Amen."
Barbara Sueko McGuire
1. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
"If you want to broaden your understanding of the United States of America’s history with slavery, and understand how that all translates for present-day black citizens of this country, you’ll be unable to put this book down. It's a page and life turner that I think should be required reading for all humans."
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
"In the same vein as the above, this is one of the most poetically beautiful and tragic retellings of slavery in Africa and the U.S. Historical fiction is a vital and necessary means by which we can begin to be aware of what often seems so impossible to comprehend."
3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
"I love weird, magical tales that dive deep into a character’s very atomic structure. This is one of those special books that compelled me to look at the people populating that world around me with utter fascination. What do the insides of their lives look like? Being reminded that I can never truly know or understand was humbling."
4. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön
"When I was left with nothing but the dust of a life that had momentarily felt so rich with possibility, Pema Chödrön’s wisdom told me that it was not only okay, but also highly necessary to sit with my pain. Her book allowed me to deepen my breath, be still, and heal, something I didn’t think would ever happen."
5. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
"Organized religion in general, and especially those founded in America, are fascinating and fantastical wonders. Under the Banner of Heaven blew my mind. There’s nothing better and more eye opening than when the truth is stranger than fiction."
1. Everything by Roald Dahl
"Maybe this is cheating, but I can't pick just one. I owe my love of reading to countless children's book authors (Hi Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Samuel Clemens!), but Dahl's worlds and characters blew my imagination wide open, and have stuck with me most vividly. He also writes some rather unsettling and equally incredible adult fiction."
2. Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
"I was a teenager and I'd never read something so silly, sexy, sassy or self-righteous. It's one of those I can't pick up again as an adult — it's not the writing itself that's cringeworthy, but the feeling of reading an old journal and remembering what a tender, impressionable dummy you were when you wrote (or in this case, read) it."
3. The Power of One by Bryce Courtney
"Another one I read in my teen years; a coming-of-age story about a young boy named Peekay living in South Africa during apartheid. I've reread it a few times, and each time it's just as heartbreaking and hopeful and lovely."
4. A People's Guide to Los Angeles by Laura Pulido, Barraclough and Wendy Cheng
"A transitioning friend gave me this guidebook to 115 sites across this city where struggles related to race, class, gender and sexuality occurred—though most have no markers. Aside from teaching me a staggering amount about L.A.'s history and helping me see the city in a whole new light, this book serves as an important reminder that those who hold the power shape the place, for better or worse."
5. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
"Okay, roll your eyes; but before I read these books (which I did long before the HBO series, for. the. record.) I thought all fantasy fiction was crap (now I'm way into it—need any recs??). Not only is this series amazingly rich in detail and character development (the television show pales in comparison), it taught me to be much less judgmental about what's "worth" reading. If you like it (or in my case, love it so much you read the whole series twice and then listen to it on tape...), that's all that matters."