Life-Changing Reading

Rather than simply regurgitate my own utterly incoherent and random holiday reading list or start foisting my all-time favorites on you, I thought I would instead offer a list of books that, in this avid reader’s opinion, have the potential to change one’s life, to alter the way one thinks and acts in the world. Heck, if nothing else, I can guarantee that, should you read even one of them, you will come back to campus with new perspectives in addition to your new presents.

Without further ado…


Yes, it is an 800-page Victorian novel”” what my roommate would call a “Mr. Johnson Comes to Tea” sort of book. But if you come to this book willing to wade through a few dull parlor chats, you will likely get swept up in the story of Dorothea Brooke, a pious but troubled girl wrestling with questions of love and responsibility in a provincial town. Its massive cast of carefully and colorfully drawn characters will not leave your head”” and its clear-eyed, unsentimental celebration of little acts of kindness and mercy will remain in your heart.

“Howards End”

The metaphor at the center of the book is a bit obvious”” a battle over the titular estate represents struggles over countless other issues and emotions. But everything else about it”” the characters, the painterly prose”” is beautifully nuanced. In writing this book, E.M. Forster was grappling with, among other things, the proper response to modernity. His suggested response”” “Only connect!””” still rings true today.

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

“I am with all those who need a light for that night.” That deeply moving sentence, one of my favorites in all of literature, is at the heart of this Hemingway short story. Like the man’s best work, it finds the big in what is seemingly simple and small. Here, a chat between two waiters at closing time becomes a stirring affirmation of human solidarity.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

The articles anthologized in the book’s first half are classic examples of New Journalism, but the essays in its second half pack a nigh-incomparable punch. The titles of those essays”” “On Going Home,” “On Keeping A Notebook,” “Goodbye To All That””” indicate that Didion is taking on the Big Topics, and when someone of her perspicacity and genius does that, we must listen.

“This Is Water”

If you want maximum genius at minimal length, check out the late, great David Foster Wallace’s speech, surely the best graduation talk ever given. Here, he touches on generational angst (we are in danger of winding up “imperially alone”), faith (“the only choice we get is what to worship”), love (which is sustained in “myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day”) and so much more. His impeccably crafted phrases are unforgettable; his generosity, which practically radiates off the page, is contagious.