11 Books That Changed My Life

I love words. Always have.

I'm one of those annoying people who never shuts up about books. And it's not because I've read so much (I haven't, relatively) but because words are my primary map for life. Since I can remember, I've gone to writing first. To escape, to learn, to find my way, to be entertained, to understand, to grow. 

As I considered which books to put on this list, I stuck to those I think about and return to regularly. There are hundreds of books that made a mark on me through unforgettable characters, a perfect bit of dialog, or pure ambition of the story and writing, but the ones on this list are those I return to again and again and recommend to others most often. All of them permanently sit on my desk, marked up and wrinkled from so many baths and beach days.


1. When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron

“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior.”

I call Pema “The Mothership.” I discovered her in my early 30’s when I was going through a huge internal crisis. Although I've spent far more time listening to her work than reading it (she's got dozens of amazing talks, recorded retreats and audiobooks), this is my favorite actual book. She was my introduction to Buddhism and her style is so unserious, relatable, kind and humorous. I spent about three years straight falling asleep to the lull of her soothing voice and profound teachings and return to her again whenever I need grounding.

This book in particular introduced me to the idea of softening into our hearts, to letting go of the aggression to ourselves, and to the concept of “letting everything happen to you." I learned from her to soften into the pain we feel, versus hardening against it. Maybe most of all I learned from her to take myself and my stories less seriously, and at the same time, to honor all parts of who I am. She brings a certain human perspective to our suffering by reminding us that we all experience life in much the same way.

“I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: 'Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” 

2. A Return to Love – Marianne Williamson

 “Love in your mind produces love in your life. This is the meaning of heaven. Fear in your mind produces fear in your life. This is the meaning of hell.” 

This book is sort of my bible for relationships. I return to it again and again and again--open up a page, any page, and there's a lesson waiting for me. Although that’s not all it’s about, the section on relationships is one of the most insightful, illuminating and transformative I’ve come across. The whole book (as with all her work) is her interpretation of A Course in Miracles (ACIM), a self-study book written in the 70’s containing a curriculum to bring about a spiritual transformation. It’s through Marianne’s work that I got turned on to ACIM and I find her teachings to be the most accessible.  I have Post-it notes from this book littered all over my house as reminders.

This is another book that I first “read” via audiobook and I highly recommend that version, in addition to the written text.

“In asking for miracles, we are seeking a practical goal: a return to inner peace. We’re not asking for something outside us to change, but for something inside us to change. We’re looking for a softer orientation to life.” 

3. Drinking: A Love Story – Caroline Knapp

"Trying to describe the process of becoming an alcoholic is like trying to describe air. It's a slow, gradual, insidious, elusive becoming.” 

I first read this book over ten years ago. I devoured it on a family trip, secretly. It was the first time I’d heard someone—and specifically, a woman—say the things I felt but didn’t have words for. It was like listening to the deepest, darkest secret I didn’t want, but desperately needed, to hear. I read it again a few years ago at the end of my darkest days of drinking and it buoyed me in that first long year of attempting sobriety. It still buoys me now.

Caroline lived in Boston, so there is also that connection to place, and her writing is simple and beautiful.

“The truth gnaws at you. In periodic flashes like that I’d be painfully aware that I was living badly, just plain living wrong. But I refused to completely acknowledge or act on that awareness, so the feeling just festered inside like a tumor, gradually eating away at my sense of dignity. You know and you don’t know. You know and you won’t know, and as long as the outsides of your life remain intact - your job and your professional persona - it’s very hard to accept that the insides, the pieces of you that have to do with integrity and self-esteem, are slowly rotting away."

4. Lit – Mary Karr

“But I'm not ready to stop listening to the screwed-up inner voice that's been ordering me around for a lifetime. My head thinks it can kill me... and go on living without me. ” 

Lit is another memoir, like Drinking: A Love Story, that completely shaped my early views on addiction. It takes place in Boston (Cambridge) and is written by a stunning female voice. Karr, though, is wildly different than Knapp—a rebel, southern-born poet who cusses as much as she talks about God. As a mother, I relate to that aspect of her story deeply; she got sober when her son was young, like me, and had the same attendant feelings of guilt and shame specific to a mother who drinks. She also dated David Foster Wallace, which…well, she dated David Foster Wallace.

“If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There's an initial uprush of relief at first, then-for me, anyway- a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren't yet operational."

5. The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

“She was gone, and all that was left was the space you'd grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren't for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.” 

This is the only fiction book on this list, and the book I name as My Favorite when I'm asked that impossible question. I had such a visceral response to reading this book, to the characters, to the way Krauss plays with dialogue and the physical construction of words on the page. Each chapter is like a separate work of art to me, and there are passages that are burrowed way deep into my bones, like “The Age of Glass” and “My Mother’s Sadness.” I read it at a time when I was both very much in love and questioning every single thing I knew about love. It is also the reason I named my daughter Alma (the main character).

Sometimes I thought about nothing and sometimes I thought about my life. At least I made a living. What kind of a living? A living. I lived. It wasn't easy. And yet.* I found out how little is unbearable.

6. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” 

I found Anne Lamott because a friend sent me a different book of hers, Operating Instructions, in a box of a bunch of pregnancy-type books she didn’t need any more. I was immediately hooked and shortly thereafter read Bird by Bird along with every other word she wrote.

This is a book about writing, and life, and being a woman/mom/human in recovery. It’s equal parts hilarious and profound. I return to it constantly. Annie knows.

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” 

7. Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

“Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” 

Before Wild came out and everyone knew who she was, Cheryl Strayed was “Sugar,” an anonymous columnist on The Rumpus, who wrote these brilliant tough-loving, bold, insanely eloquent responses to reader’s letters. This book is a collection of those letters. I can’t recall how I stumbled upon it, but it found me at a time—during the first terrifying months of separation from my husband, and the darkest days of my drinking—when I desperately needed a voice like hers. No other writer has encouraged me so deeply to find my own writing voice, and to live out my truth as a woman who’s made grave mistakes, but believes deeply and beyond reasoning in my own redemption (in all of ours).

"The fuck is your life. Answer it."

8. Broken Open – Elizabeth Lesser

“When there is nothing left to lose, we find the true self—the self that is whole, the self that is enough, the self that no longer looks to others for definition, or completion, or anything but companionship on the journey.” 

I read this book by moonlight mostly, on the first three nights I was home with my daughter from the hospital. I read it as I lay there wide awake, stunned by this new life breathing between me and my husband in our bed, wracked with anxiety and fear and disbelief. I had mastitis and my whole body ached with intense flu-like symptoms, and I cried almost constantly from the pain and the swirl of hormones, as I turned each page. We were surrounded by boxes as we were preparing to move across the country just a few weeks later; it was a cold, dark February, and I remember almost nothing else specifically about that time but this book: the baby blue cover, the comfort of her words, a tangible thing to hold when life was swirling around me in such new and impossible ways.

Lesser founded the Omega Institute with her first husband, and is a mother, a teacher, and a lifelong seeker. Because of her job, she’s met almost every spiritual guru and self-help teacher of our time and quotes them throughout the book, which centers on various experiences that bring about “The Phoenix Process” of transforming oneself through life’s difficulties.  

She also sprinkles in beautiful passages from her favorite writers, poets and sages and led me to a few of my most cherished works, including Goerthe’s The Holy Longing.

“Over and over, we are broken on the shore of life. Our stubborn egos are knocked around, and our frightened hearts are broken open—not once, and not in predictable patterns, but in surprising ways and for as long as we live.” 

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.” 

I'm embarrassed to say this was my introduction to Joan Didion, as she's written so many other wonderful books, but alas. I flipped through this book stunned by the beauty of her writing and the sheer pathos of the story.

The book is an account of the first year following her husband, John Gregory Dunne's, sudden death. She cut through so many of my fixed ideas about marriage, parenting, grief, sanity and life itself. It was one of the books where I spent the whole time shaking my head quietly in disbelief as I read it--at its starkness, the writing itself, the story, the beauty of her plain language. She also manages to convey place (California) as a living, breathing, elemental part of the story in a way I've experienced with so few writers (see also: Steinbeck).

This book gave me something to reach for as a writer, a witness to life.

“We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.” 

10. On Writing – Stephen King

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

A recovery memoir, a master's instruction on writing, and a mesmerizing story all wrapped into one. I read a bunch of Stephen King's books in my teenage years and was amazed at his ability to get inside my head; whenever I read his books, I started narrating my life with his writing voice. Creepy shit. Although I can't say I'm an avid fan of all his books, I'm astonished by the sheer volume of his work and his ability to tell a damn good story. 

This book is so no frills, so packed with practical advice on writing and living as a writer, and totally brilliant. His addiction and recovery story is woven into the story line, but it's not the whole point (he doesn't remember writing Cujo, for instance, but he wrote Cujo). I've come back to read it in full three or four times when I've needed to ground myself and remember the basics. Every time it inspires me to get my butt back in the chair, shut up, and write (with fewer adverbs).

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” 

11. This is How - Augusten Burroughs

"All improvements, transformations, achievements, liberations; everything you want to change about yourself and your life; everything you want to make happen, any obstacle you want to overcome, any crisis you must survive-- the prerequisite is being able to allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel and not pretend to feel something you don't."

I could probably have included any of his books on this list, and certainly Dry is up there on my list of incredible memoirs, but this is the one I picked. Partially because Dry is just too easy (it's just so good; he is just so good), but mostly because I think about the words in this book more frequently.

The book is a collection of "How To" essays: how to lose someone you love, how to shatter shame, how to be fat, and my favorite: how to finish your drink. He got a good amount of criticism for writing a self-help book. People wondered about his "qualifications" and his "arrogance." But that's precisely why I love it. To me, both the content of the book and the act of writing it was a nod, as Mark Manson puts it, to the Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. And honestly, who is better qualified to write a self-help book than a gay, recovered addict and survivor of sexual abuse? 

His chapter on "how to finish your drink", despite him being slightly counter-AA and borderline dismissive, gave me a much needed push in the ass in the year that I was struggling hard to stay sober. Dry stunned me ten years ago, long before I was ready to get sober myself. I read this book knowing the backstory from Dry and so his words carried that much more weight.

"This is why for you, anything is possible. Because you are made of everything."

*The phrase "And yet." is used dozens of time in The History of Love. For my 38th birthday, I got it tattooed on my wrist.

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907