Books that made a difference (to me)

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Books that made a difference (to me)

I have been greatly enjoying the thread on mandatory reading in high school .... and was wondering if I could suggest a variation on the 'reading nostalgia' theme.

I am interested in hearing Babblers reflect about books that made a difference to them - books that so affected us that we were compelled to look at the world through new eyes ... and presumably from a more progressive / socialist / feminist perspective. 

To lead with a personal example .... in 1969 a brand new Grade 10 English Teacher (from England, with long hair!) had our class read "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown. It is an incredibly powerful story about a young African-American boy growing up in Harlem of the 1950s. At heart it is a classical American tale of one remarkable individual's struggle against the odds / over adversity.

But from where I sat (warm, white and comfortable in a Montreal suburb) it was a heart-stopping revelation about the damage wraught to individuals and communities by the twin evils of poverty and racism. My emergent political sensibilities headed leftwards almost overnight .... and when school reconvened the following September, Mr Potter was nowhere to be seen.


Barbara Ehrenrich-Nickled and Dimed

autoworker autoworker's picture

Animal Farm

ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture


 I had to think a lot about this.  I find it hard to come up with one key book that was a big eye-opener.  I can recall whole lot of smaller 'aha' books that at the time gave me new or different insight into things I was interested.  However I do have two which did have quite a profound affect on how I viewed the gathering on info as whole.  Thing I don't remember their specific names.  One was the main text book used in a women's studies course on the history of women.  I love history and this book as a whole was an eyeopener.  It was a survey of women in history from ancient to modern times. It looked at narrative of history from a female point of view and perspective.   It really drove home that anaylsis of history and modern events can be quite different when looked at from different perspectives and not just from the dominant viewpoint. 

The other was a book titled something like "The History of Jesus from A Political Perspective".  It was a big thick tome that looked at the writings about him through the lens of social, cultural and political history.   It wasn't a book about faith or even about whether actually existed but about the context of where they came from and it's effects and meaning in the the wider culture.   I grew up in a church though wasn't super religious but this book opened my eyes to an entirely different way to look at religious writings and religion itself that has influenced me to the day.  

infracaninophile infracaninophile's picture

I  had to think this over, too. Many books have made a difference... but in this context, thinking of what books really kick-started an awareness of social issues, my vote goes to Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, which I read in Grade 10 I think. It was incredibly powerful, not only for its vivid depictions of racism, injustice and the evils of the death penalty, but for the beauty of its language and an undercurrent of hope that we can, at least as individuals, transcend these social evils (and of course, work together to minimize or eliminate them).

One passage in particular struck me for its lyrical beauty, and I remember it verbatim lo these many years later: words (in the text) of the old minister whose son is about to be hanged:

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.


lorene1voice lorene1voice's picture

Reading Shakespeare, science fiction (e.g., Ursula LeGuin), mysteries (e.g., Agatha Christie), and many other books as a child opened me up to beauty and possibilities. 

Maysie Maysie's picture

I so can't pick one book. Here's four.

Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill.

Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women by Carol Camper (editor)

Feminism: From Margin to Center by bell hooks

Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existance by Adrienne Rich (this is an essay, not a book, but it changed my life in a number of ways)


As a teenager there were a few books that changed the way I viewed the world.

Revolution for the Hell of It by  Abbie Hoffman

Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin

Left Hand of Darkness by  Ursula Lequin

As an adult there have been many many more.

I, Rigoberta Menchú 

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

Gabriel Dumont by George Woodcock

Waste Heritage by Irene Baird


George Woodcock was prolific and he also compiled what were at the time the definitive collections on anarchist thought.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Great topic, sherpa-finn! Thanks for starting it. I haven't heard of your book, but it sounds amazing. I have been influenced by many of the books mentioned here, both as a youth and as an adult: I read Animal Farm as a teenager and loved it, but Dracula is one of my all time favourite books.  Maysie's selection by Adrienne Rich was a huge one for me in university as well as bell hooks, who was a revelation. And I also agree with lorene1voice (welcome to babble btw!) that many books and Shakespeare continued to open up my field of vision in the world.

It's pretty hard to pick one or two books that have had greater impact on me than all the others, but I'll geek out and say The Political Unconscious by Fredric Jameson, who taught me the value cultural texts have in the realm of politics, and Touching Feeling by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who taught me that emotion and the way we feel tells us far more about our world than we give it credit for.

Novels that changed the way I thought about literature: Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Mark Twain's Huck Finn. These books continue to astonish me.


In undergrad I was assigned the Radical History Review book Visions of History, which collected interviews with a series of radical historians, mainly from the US and UK (E.P. Thompson, Natalie Zemon Davis, etc.). It is a book I've turned to many times in my professional life.

Another book I read in undergrad that sticks with me and that I've read several times was the collection Albion's Fatal Tree, which is this great study of popular crime in 18th century England.



The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Linda McQuaig, All you can eat: Greed, lust and the new capitalism
Shooting the Hippo

Phillip Knightley, The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby

David Lewis, The Good Fight: Political memoirs

David Scheim, Contract on America: The Mafia Murder of President John F. Kennedy

Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain

From my youth

Geoffrey Trease, Word to Caesar

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
War of the Worlds

Erich von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?

Bram Stoker, Dracula


It's been a long time since I read Dracula. I remember visiting Whitby and Whitby Abbey when a teenager. Nice seaside town and very scenic. Visited the James Cook museum.


Great topic!




as influential books, certainly the Bible for my young life

then in college Sartre's Being and Nothingness:

exasperating, unreadable, desperately in need of an editor .... but also a conceptual "crystalline palace", as a French contemporary put it, a complete description of consciousness and motivation; best psychologist I have read

Kaitlin McNabb Kaitlin McNabb's picture

In undergrad, I was exposed to some great feminist writing, and some fantastic essay collections. I always recommend some Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman to people looking to expose themselves to feminist writing and 'issues' because these two write with a lot of accessibility to younger readers and uninformed readers.

Personally, I love the collection 'Colonize This': an essay collection by Women of Colour; and reading 'Yes means Yes': an essay collection which discusses rape culture, but also a sex-positive outlook on education, media, gender, and culture. There were some fantastic essay about sex ed.

On a more ficition based note, the so-cliched, Catcher and the Rye was a great introduction into different styles of writing in high-school, especially when I got really into reading beat literature and poems. 

Recently, Michael Christie's 'The Beggar's Garden' was so impressive and inspiring, and I will always love Joan Didion new and old.