We recently asked subscribers of the BuzzFeed Books newsletter to tell us about a book that changed their lives. There’s something here for everyone, so take your pick — and get ready to be inspired.
1. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
This is a book that has stuck with me for a long time. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between Finch, who’s fascinated with dying, and Violet, who’s living for the future in the wake of her sister’s death. Both have much to learn from each other. All the Bright Places really shows that, no matter what tragedy or hardship you may have faced, you eventually just have to get back out there and live your life. I also appreciate how Niven addresses mental health and the importance of reaching out to people who are struggling before it’s too late.
2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As an American-Nigerian, this book spoke to me on so many levels — from the simple joy of a text interspersed with the language of my parents, to the struggle of understanding race in terms of the world beyond America. I highly recommend it.
3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower was so unlike anything I’d read before. The main character was so relatable in a way that you don’t often see in books — he doesn’t have friends, he’s depressed, he’s kind of awkward, and he feels things really deeply. Reading the book was so cathartic; it helped me process my own depression and loneliness and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world anymore.
4. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Thankyouthankyouthankyou, Dave Eggers. Thank you for making me feel at home in my own skin, for writing the words I could not find, for describing my youth, for not dismissing my reality, for giving me the confidence to grow up to become who I am, for letting me know I was not alone, for being there for me when I needed you, for inspiring me in any way possible, for giving me the hope and the humor to keep going. Finally, finally, finally I can say I’m here. Thank you.
—Elske Krikhaar, Amsterdam
5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Growing up without family to turn to during adolescence, I felt every pain and loneliness that the prince experienced. But The Little Prince taught me to make friends and value them by looking into their hearts — not just into what they projected in public. I still cry like a baby reading this book today. However, it’s no longer a cry of loneliness but, rather, grateful tears from how this book turned my life from dark to light.
The Little Prince touched me the deepest because of how it shares such magnanimous beauty and truths with innocent simplicity. It reminds us not to forget the joy found in small moments and beautiful things.
I love how The Little Prince portrays youth and opened my eyes to see things from different perspectives.
—Adrianne Jane, Las Piñas, Philippines
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
This is the story of two Afghan women who find their lives connected forever. It taught me about the struggles of womanhood, as well as the power and strength of sisterhood, and proves that not all love stories have to be romantic.
This book opened not only my eyes, but my heart. It gave me a new understanding of experiences very different from my own, and caused me to be a more compassionate person. I doubt there is a book that has ripped my heart deeper than this one, and I encourage everyone, especially women, to read it.
7. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
This book is about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, finding your own identity, and living life for yourself. While I’ve not really experienced grief through someone’s death, I have dealt with a hard breakup and the grief of losing a man I thought I’d marry one day. This novel really made me reevaluate my life and has prompted me to slowly seek the closure that it takes to heal.
8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch helped me get through my dad’s second divorce. The main character struggles after his mother is killed, and the book deals deeply with the aftermath and his personal reckoning with loss. Tartt has this way of writing so descriptively that I can almost physically feel myself being brought into the story, watching everything happen as if I were a fly on the wall.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale shocks readers into the startling realization that the dystopian society Atwood has created is not that far out of reach of countries (particularly the U.S.) today. Powerful in every sense of the word, Offred’s story shook something deep within me — I have never come away from a book with so much moral clarity and awe.
This book took my breath away and helped me put things in perspective as a woman — in relation to society and as an individual. It also showed me the true meaning of freedom.
10. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
This book really resonated with me as a 21-year-old finishing my university degree, yearning to move to a big city, and feeling despondent about my future. I sensed a similar spirit in young Holly Golightly who, despite seeming like she has everything together, is at a similar complicated crossroads, running from her past. She’s a beautifully flawed female character, which I had rarely seen before. It helps to see characters who are flawed and experiencing a similar malaise, because you learn that, even if things don’t work out immediately, they can still be alright in the end.
11. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
“Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful 15-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.”
Having lived in the U.S. all my life, I think I lost track of what it means to seek “the American dream.” This book really brings things back into focus, and the Rivera family touched me unlike any other set of characters I’ve ever encountered. Henríquez invites you to really rethink what you take for granted — your privileges, your assumptions, your family, and your home. This is a truly humbling and beautiful read.
12. City of Thieves by David Benioff
This is a very dark, very funny story set during the Siege of Leningrad, with some truly chilling moments and an epic bromance. Lev and Kolya are two prisoners given a chance at freedom if they can secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. I think about their odd adventure a lot, particularly how Lev and Kolya have to just focus on their goal, no matter what comes at them. It’s really helped me accept the chaos of my own life and to look for the beauty in the little things.
13. House Rules by Jodi Picoult
House Rules is about a family struggling through an unimaginable tragedy that puts Jacob Hunt, a boy living with Asperger’s Syndrome, at the center of a murder investigation. Picoult’s book, with its variety of narrators, helped me to understand more about myself as someone with a neuroatypical sibling. It also revealed a lot about what a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome endures in the public eye. Theo, Jacob’s brother, captures in his narrative a lot of the same sadness and frustration that I’ve experienced, and really helped me through some hard times with my own family. Picoult’s book is an incredible portrait of a very complex family.
“In 2009, when Raquel Cepeda almost lost her estranged father to heart disease, she was terrified she’d never know the truth about her ancestry. Every time she looked in the mirror, Cepeda saw a mystery — a tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix. With time running out, she decided to embark on an archaeological dig of sorts by using the science of ancestral DNA testing to excavate everything she could about her genetic history.”
This. Book. Is. My. Everything! It sparked my own quest to pore through Ancestry.com and my grandparents’ photo albums and finally piece together my family’s history, which is something I now recommend everyone do (or at least think about). The way Cepeda interweaves history with memoir and storytelling is simply magical. I dare you to walk away without being inspired.
—Clancy, Saratoga, FL
15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Where to begin?! This book has taught me so many different things, but most importantly it taught me that you have to respect and love yourself before you can love someone else. Looking for a book about a strong independent woman that doesn’t let her past define her and speaks her mind? Jane Eyre’s your girl! She’s the OG feminist and I believe every young girl should read Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece.
Jane Eyre was one of the first classical books that I read and really ignited my interest in the genre. But the beauty of the strong female lead who dared to be independent and fight for herself also stuck with me over the years. I think everyone needs to find time to read this book!
(Also recommended by Ashlin Broussard)
*Oops! A previous version of this post featured a photo of Elizabeth Gaskell instead of Charlotte. Sorry!
16. Just Above My Head by James Baldwin
A friend gave this to me in the wake of my brother’s suicide, and I don’t think I’ve ever received a more apt reading recommendation. It’s the story of gay gospel singer Arthur’s life leading up to his murder, as recounted by his brother Hall and a series of fascinating secondary characters. Baldwin packs so much history, spirituality, and heart into these pages; it is a weighty and worthwhile read, especially for anyone who has experienced loss.
17. Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Dear Sugar got me through the worst days of a shitty breakup, and made me appreciate so much more deeply all the light on the other side. Sure, this book is an odd premise — a collection of pseudonymous advice columns that Strayed wrote for TheRumpus.net — and thus an even odder prescription for getting through hardship and heartbreak but, I swear to god, it works. Strayed brings a soulful wisdom to her prose, pulling from her own rich life experiences to advise people on an incredible range of topics: grief, friendship, finances, fetishes, cheating spouses, starving kittens, building houses, and beyond.
18. Dry by Augusten Burroughs
This book caught me during hard times, at the same age the writer was during his struggle with sobriety. It’s incredible how you can share feelings with someone so directly through a book, and how enlightening it can be to actually laugh at your problems every once in a while. Dry, and Augusten Burroughs’ unique sense of humor, helped me better understand many of my feelings.
19. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I am 15 years old and my favorite book is Hamlet. In it, Hamlet’s uncle kills his father to marry his mother and usurp the thrown. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge his death by killing his uncle, Hamlet is driven mad by internal conflict and confusion. I love this book because, due to my dyslexia and ADHD, I have had internal conflicts of my own, telling myself I am not good enough for anyone, that I’m the dumbest person I know and I don’t deserve to be here. Hamlet made me feel better. Even though it did not end well for him, Hamlet’s story changed my life by showing me that, despite outward appearances, no one is perfect. As crazy as it sounds, this twisted story made me feel less alone.
20. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
I can’t imagine not having read this book as a teenager. Stargirl helped me incredibly through my formative years of finding and creating who I was. I related to the main character in SO many ways. This book made being different, special, and even weird all positive assets in a world of everyone trying to fit in. I stood out amongst my peers because this book helped make it so. Also, upon writing this review, I discovered there’s a sequel. WHAT!? Excuse me while I go fall in love all over again.
21. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
After her mother suffers a mental break, Astrid is flung through a series of foster homes and traumas that nothing could ever have prepared her for. The deeply written characters and rich descriptions make this book pure poetry. As a kid in the Midwest suburbs, I found White Oleander instrumental in teaching me that people aren’t always what they seem on the surface, that good and evil are subjective, and that, ultimately, the bond between mother and daughter is unshakeable.
22. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
This summer was my first living away from home, and at the very beginning, within two days of each other, my grandmother and dog both died. Shortly after, I read East of Eden, a novel by John Steinbeck that follows three generations of two families in the pursuit of the American Dream and the obstacles they face, from others and themselves, along the way. The novel centers around the Hebrew word timshel, which is translated as “thou mayest,” to illustrate that everyone has a choice. At a time in my life when I felt alone and sad and was physically distant from my family, the idea that everything about my life could be a choice, my choice, helped me to survive and choose the kind of life I wanted to live.
23. Caucasia by Danzy Senna
As a white girl growing up in a rural town in Michigan, I wasn’t exposed to much diversity. This novel gave me a chance to see the world from a perspective I had no previous understanding of. I will always remember the eye-opening feeling I had while reading it.
24. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World presents a society whose citizens are too wrapped up in entertainment and cheap thrills to care about the endemic problems right in front of them. This novel is a reminder to me of the perils of willful ignorance. Whenever I find myself disengaged from the world at large, I remember John’s scorn for his frivolous society and I re-assess. I read this book every few years and it never fails to teach me something new.
This book was a complete literary 360 for me. At the time I read it, Dolly the Sheep was big news, people were dying of mad cow disease, the world was going gaga over the World Wide Web, and Brave New World helped me realize that I was not the only one who thought that the world could be a pretty messed up place. Although I’m older and less paranoid now, I’m still in awe of how prophetic Huxley’s book is.
(Also recommended by Nenda F.)
25. Jubilee by Margaret Walker
“This stunningly different Civil War novel boasts a heroine to rival Scarlett O’Hara. Daughter of the white plantation owner and his beloved black mistress, Vyry was conceived, born, and reared to womanhood behind the House. Stepped in knowledge of and feeling for the times and the people, Jubilee is a magnificent tale told with devastating truth.”
Jubilee turns a genre of American fiction on end in a powerful and necessary way. It was the first book to truly challenge my understanding of history when I first read it in high school and, having recently re-read it, I’m happy to say that it remains mighty and poignant to this day. Go, Jubilee, go!
26. Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Wicked: The Musical debuted while I was in high school and I was obsessed with the soundtrack, but wanted to better understand the plot. So I picked up the book my senior year and it totally changed my life. It shifted my understanding of the nature of “good” and “evil” and, for the first time, I started to realize how subjective those labels can be. Someone who we think is “evil” may actually be fighting for what they see as a worthwhile cause, but are outside traditional structures. This revelation contributed to my desire to work in peace and conflict resolution, trying to better understand those who resort to violence — a field I continue to work in happily today!
27. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar definitely had a profound impact on my life. Any young person can relate to Esther Greenwood’s struggle to find herself in a world with unlimited paths to choose from. Plath’s coming-of-age story shows the struggles we have growing up and moving forward in our lives and the unique hurdles and barriers that come up along the way.
28. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
I have always been a bookworm but Nafisi’s memoir of teaching English literature in Iran first showed me the power of fiction to build bridges, create empathy, foster understanding, and transform lives. This passage remains one of my favorite quotes:
“A novel is not an allegory…. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.”
29. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I re-read this every December, and I have to watch one of the movie remakes as well. When I’m feeling depressed from all the shit going on in the world, this book reminds me that even the little things we do to help each other can mean more than we’ll ever know. Mankind is our business.
30. The Painter of Signs by R.K. Narayan
The Painter of Signs was the first book that completely broke my heart. Years later, the quiet dignity of the characters and the rustic, old-world charm of Malgudi, still have the power to cut through to the inside.
31. Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk
This doesn’t seem like an inspirational book — one of the themes is that you can only find true happiness through misery — but I got something a little different out of it: Invisible Monster taught me to stay out of my comfort zone. I have pretty intense anxiety and it keeps me from doing a lot of new or social activities, but Invisible Monsters constantly reminds me that I’ll never grow or find the kind of happiness I want if I don’t ever change.
32. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
This book explores the life of a middle-aged, depressed governess who finds herself accidentally swept into the world of a flighty, sweet-natured performer and her retinue of glamorous friends. The book, while an archetypal Cinderella story, really resonated me when I was unemployed after finishing university and seeing everyone else succeeding and settling in. The novel’s message of “it’ll all be alright in the end” and its effervescent view of everyone receiving second chances really buoyed me up and gave me the boost I needed to in order to keep getting out of bed every morning. For that, it remains a very special read to me.
33. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is that rare, quiet and dignified thing that sneaks up on you from behind and just devastates you. It’s my constant reminder to approach people with an open heart, because you can never hope to presume what path they’re walking on. There’s nothing quite like it, and I don’t want to give anything away — just go read it.
34. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I first read Master and Margarita when I was 14 (I’m 41 now) and my family and I were living in the former Soviet Union where the book had been banned. It tells two separate mysterious and very funny stories — one about the Devil in disguise, visiting Moscow in the 1930s, and the other about Jesus and Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. I remember being shocked by how incompatible the Satan plot was with Soviet morals, and that I couldn’t stop laughing.
I’ve since read the book many times, each time with a new perspective. For me, it’s not just a cult read. Master and Margarita taught me how a book should be funny, exciting, erotic, and rebellious — that bad can sometimes be good, and vice versa.
—Evgeny Vainshtok Broitman
35. Roots by Alex Haley
Clocking in at over 900 pages, Roots is certainly not for the faint of heart. But it is an important testament to the incredible power of fiction, as we follow seven generations of Kunte Kinte’s family line after he is kidnapped from Africa and brought to the U.S. as a slave. This book showed me the depths to which a writer might plunge in pursuit of a story — across hundreds of years, scores of characters, countless narrative arcs. It inspired me to double major in U.S. History and English.
36. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I felt very changed by this series. As the characters grew, I grew with them, and the heart-wrenching ending left me in tears. They changed the way I saw the world, and made me want to discover new things, see new places. It’s one of those series that left me shell shocked after I finished — that’s how much it moved me.
37. When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
This book is a meditation on what it means to have, use, and want a voice. Tempest Williams draws examples from her own life to get her ideas across in the most poetic, beautiful way possible. After reading this book, I valued my voice so much more, realizing I had taken it for granted. Read this is you want to become a more confident, purposeful human being.
38. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man had a way of holding me captive for days at a time. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. Constantly. Even when I tried not to. That’s the power of this book and the narrator’s incomparable search for truth. No plot description does it justice; you really just have to dive in.
—Kyle Chad, Detroit
39. Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
After a dark family secret shatters the bond between cousins and close friends Sudha and Anju, they must learn to pick up the pieces across continents and years. Their story of resilience and solidarity has really stuck with me, in large part because it reinforces the importance and strength of the sisterhood of women.
40. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, our young narrator can hardly believe her luck when the dashing widower Maxim de Winter suddenly asks for her hand in marriage. But she soon learns that all is not as it seems at de Winter’s expansive country estate. She must quickly evolve from an insecure, young woman into the emboldened hero of her own tale. Rebecca presents a great role model for any shy girls (like me) out there. :)
41. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
At heart, this is a the story of a man leaving an island. It seems simple, and you could very easily read it all in one sitting, but here’s the thing: You can’t. Ideally, you’d spend days meditating on each short chapter, rolling the words’ meaning over in your mind. I truly, truly believe that if everything stopped for three days and everyone read this book, the world will be an amazing place.
I read it during a time when I was (very) down and questioning everything. This book was the answer. It altered my perspective, forced me to think, and brought me a sense of calm and understanding. I’ve purchased so many copies because I always give them away… It’s just one of those books that you have to share.
42. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
A man has a set of relationships in his younger days and then tragedy strikes. You pick up with him again when he’s an older man and reconnecting with a woman who was also involved in the tragedy. Their joint self-examination leads to some very interesting results.
I read this book five times in a row. There’s the story and then there is the shadow of a story underneath that. The shadow story makes you question perception and the validity of memory, understanding people’s motivations and their perceptions of memories and how they differ from your own. Powerful stuff.
43. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I first read Harry Potter when I was 11 and, all at once, I started feeling less alone. My parents had split up around the same time and I didn’t have many friends, ‘cause I was this weird little loner, but reading that book made me feel like I suddenly had three new friends. I was going on adventures with them and forgetting all the stress and bad things happening. I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione. They helped me so much with my depression, self-harm, and everything else life’s thrown at me. They are always there, and always will be. I owe J.K Rowling so much.
The Harry Potter Series has changed my life forever for the better. It taught me that no matter how hard the situation is, how unfair life is in that moment, or how absolutely isolated and alone you feel, it will get better.
—Mara J. Potter
(Also recommended by Michael A., Zannah Van Ryn, Malia Zaidi, Amy Randall, Samantha Barnes, and Nany O.)
Note: Some entries have been edited for clarity and length.
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