Books that really change your life

A few weeks ago I read this anonymous letter to JK Rowling, written by someone who wanted to tell the author that, as a child, the Harry Potter books were the only thing that gave him a sense of home. (I’m saying “him.” I don’t know if the writer of the letter was male or female, so I spun a coin :) )

helena fairfax, books that change your lifeThe writer went on to describe a pretty horrific and miserable childhood, and said that, as an eight-year-old, ” I was carrying my whole life in a backpack: clothes, school books, a few pens, two pictures, my dead grandfather’s pocket-watch – and Harry Potter. Your books, your words and my imagination were then the only things to provide me with some enduring sense of home. I could return to them, knowing for sure that the fantasy world you had created was somehow waiting for me, wherever I was. I could carry a whole universe within me and escape, for a time, from this small and unsatisfying world of mine, which I couldn’t prevent from falling apart.”

When I read those heartfelt words I was reminded of the power writers have to change the lives of their readers. When I was a child, I went through the upheaval of moving continents, from Uganda to a miserable and grey north of England. I’d never been to school before – I don’t remember even seeing a school for young children until I came to England – and to increase my disorientation I had no idea what the other children in the playground were saying, with their weird Yorkshire accents. I’ve written before about the first time I recognised the power of stories. My mum gave me a copy of Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, by Rumer Godden.  I started reading the story and found to my utter astonishment that here was a little girl in a book who felt exactly as I did.  Nona is forced to move from India to England, and she hates it and is lonely and miserable, and none of the grown-ups around her helena fairfax, books that change your lifeunderstand what she is experiencing.  I carried that book around with me for months (as you can see from the battered copy in my photo). That story helped me not to feel alone, but it also taught me a lesson that I only really understood later in life, which is that authors can reflect people’s lives back to them in a way that can help them understand the world around them, and change their way of thinking.

Since then I’ve read many other works of fiction that have changed the way I view the world. Another one I’m thinking of – and perhaps you might think a strange choice for a romance writer – is Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. I first read this cult classic as a student, and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I’m ashamed to say that with all the talk of aliens I thought it was a pretty silly story. It wasn’t until much later that I realised just how deep this book is, and it really did change my way of thinking. If you don’t know the story, it’s about an ordinary guy who meets aliens from outer space who show him that the way humans think about time – that it starts in the past, moves to the now, and goes on to a future we can’t see – is two-dimensional and restricts us in how we view the real world. The aliens come from a planet where time is three-dimensional. All moments in time exist at once – which means moments we’ve lived in the past are still there, and the aliens can access them, and moments to come in the helena fairfax, books taht change your lifefuture are equally there, only we humans can’t see it. To the aliens, there is no such thing as past, present and future. All is equally now.

Now, I’m no physicist, believe me. Ask me about words, language and writing, and I’ll talk for England, but a scrape through Biology ‘O’ Level is about the limit of my scientific prowess. It took a work of fiction to teach me a lesson in physics that Albert Einstein himself believed. When a good friend of Einstein’s died, he famously wrote to the family:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Time is just an illusion! I remember being completely struck with this way of thinking when I finally worked out what the theme running through Slaughterhouse 5 really meant. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by the allies. His book also deals with the horror and stupidity of war, and I wondered if writing this book, and adopting Einstein’s philosophy, was his way of coming to terms with the horrific aftermath that he witnessed. Reading what I once thought a “silly story” taught me a theory of physics and made me question all the ways we limited humans look at the world around us.

There are lots more “silly stories” that have changed my way of thinking. Too many to mention here. Whenever I hear a reader describe how a book has changed their life, I feel really heartened that an author has managed to speak so nearly to someone they have never met, their words moving people even long after the author has died.

Which books first got you hooked on reading as a child? Are there any books that resonated with you in later life, or changed your way of thinking? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!




21 thoughts on “Books that really change your life

  1. Fabulous post, Helena, and that letter extract brought tears to my eyes. I completely agree with you about the power of the written word. I must read that Slaughter House book sometime as I’ve always been fascinated by time and parallel universes. One book that really affected me (which I would never have read if not for my literature degree) is Things Fall Apart by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. It’s a famous post-colonial novel and looks at the impact on a perfectly happy African tribe by so-called western Christianity and the changes it brings. Thought-provoking.


    1. Hi Rosemary, I’ve never read Things Fall Apart. I can see why a story told from that perspective would change the way people here think. I’ve added it to my list of books to read. Thanks for the recommendation! I was very moved by the letter extract, too, and it prompted me to write this post. Thanks for your great comment!


  2. Great post, Helena. I, too, was moved to tears reading the letter extract. When we read for entertainment, it’s easy to forget the effect that some books can have.

    As a teenager, I was particularly moved by The Catcher in the Rye. It was comforting to know there was another teenager out there who felt they didn’t fit in, at sea in a world he didn’t understand or particularly care for. When I reached the end of the book, I didn’t want to leave Holden Caulfield behind. As for The Lord of the Flies, again read when I was a teenager (standard text in English class) – the way they start out as small children but then you get so caught up in the story and the horror of events that you forget that – and then at the very end, you are reminded that they are only children, after all. It makes the hair stand up at the back of the neck to even remember that sickening realisation as I read the last page.


    1. Hi Helen, I loved the Catcher in the Rye, too, as a teenager. A lot of Holden Caulfield’s phrases still stick in my mind – as does “Kill the pig!” from Lord of the Flies. Terrifying! Thanks for reminding me of two great books!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Helena, Great post. Another Vonnegut book with a concept at the core of it is Sirens of Titan. It is another of my favorites. Vonnegut was a speaker at my college graduation. I asked him when he knew he wanted to be a writer. He said, “I always wanted to be a writer.”


    1. Hi Ken, I would LOVE to have met Kurt Vonnegut. How amazing to have him as your speaker, and to actually get to speak to him…! And how interesting that he always wanted to be a writer. I had wondered if it was his experiences in the war that made him want to write. I haven’t read Sirens of Titan, but will definitely do so now. Thanks so much for dropping in with your great comment!


  4. I answered these questions just yesterday evening getting an interview ready for Ken (above) and Anne.

    I can understand how a book/books can change one’s life and the characters become friends. At a time in my life when I was reading mostly cozy mysteries, not only did I enjoy some cozies, but I wanted to write one, I was introduced by two friends to an entire new world of literature. They (my friends and the books) improved my life and I will forever be grateful. The first book into this new world was The Shadow of the Wind. And after it, many others followed.

    Wonderful post, Helena.


    1. I read The Shadow of the Wind a few years ago, too, Susan, and loved it. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Look forward to reading your interview with Ken and Anne!


  5. This is a great post, love it. The only books that stand out in my mind is the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend mainly because they made me start writing in a diary.


    1. I loved the Adrian Mole books, too, Sarah, and had never read anything else like them at the time. Thanks for reminding me of them. How interesting that you started writing a diary. I bet that’s fun to look back on now! Thanks for dropping in, and for your lovely comment!


  6. I have always loved reading. I can remember in little school racing through all the boring learning book of Billy Blue-hat etc to get that certificate that meant i was a ‘free-reader’ and could read anything i wanted.

    I do remember reading a LOT of Chalet School books. My mother had read them when she was little and I inherited them. I didn’t have many friends at school so i immersed myself in those.

    The Harry Potter series is also very close to my heart. They are my comfort blanket. When i need to get out of this world for just a little while, i go into Harry’s.


    1. Hi Naomi, I so remember that feeling of finally being let loose in the school library! I didn’t discover Chalet School books as a child, but one of my daughters adored them. She still has all her battered copies on a bookshelf in her room. And I remember vividly the excitement of a new Harry Potter book coming out. J.K. Rowling painted a very real world. I understand what you mean about being able to escape into those books. People say that video games are taking over, and that people no longer read as many books, but I’ve found from keeping this blog that books are still as important to children growing up today as they ever were. Thanks so much for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a deep post, Helena. My goodness. I hated Lord of the Flies, just grim, gruesome, awful. But I do believe in the power of words to change lives and to provide an escape from one’s dreadful reality. I expect I will think longer on this post. :)


    1. I hated Lord of the Flies, too, Marsha, but the whole story sticks in my mind. It’s a very powerful read. It was quite a deep post for a Friday! Thanks for dropping in!


  8. Great post! Your line in this post that spoke to me was “authors can reflect people’s lives back to them in a way that can help them understand the world around them…” I think we love the books when we can identify with characters, see a small part of ourselves in their personalities. The book I remember that made me want to be an author at 9 years old was Black Beauty. I was enthralled with horses and Beauty was magnificent. In fact my first “novel” was about a horse very similar to the Black Beauty story–when I was 12.


    1. Hi JQ, I loved Black Beauty, too, when I was young. I haven’t read it since I was a child, but it was a gripping story that sticks in my mind. I hope you kept your novel – that would be fun to read now! Thanks for dropping in!


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