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3 Books that Changed My Life

real simple magazine, June 2013

Last week, I treated myself to two magazines (oh, how I still love my printed magazines!). One of these was Real Simple. In it, there was an article “50 books that will change your life.” It had been mentioned on the cover, and was one of the reasons I chose this magazine over the many other beckoning covers.

Once I got home, I flipped right to that article. I felt oddly disappointed. As an avid reader, I had expected that many of my favourite books would be included in the list. Out of the 50 listed, the only ones that I had read and that had had an impact on my life were:

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger: I read this book as a teenager. I had come across it in my girlfriend’s homework and it was assigned reading in her school. I hadn’t heard of it before, but was intrigued. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. I had found adolescence to be full of emotions of such intensity that it was refreshing to read a character who seemed to be struggling with angst on the same level. The book also touches on mental illness and it was the first book I’d ever read that had done so.

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton: This was assigned reading in a university course I had taken at Bishop’s. I can’t recall the exact title of the course, but it was full of books that focused on colonial themes in the continent of Africa. It was, by far, my favourite course in this degree. The professor was Dr. Ware. He too was, by far, a most favourite teacher. This led to an extended interest in Africa for me and I ended up completing my Masters thesis on the topic of white women writing in Africa at Carleton University.

But that’s it. Out of the 50 listed in the article, I had found only two that had really touched me. Naturally, though, I do want to pursue the other books on this list. What gems out there have I been missing all these years?

It got me thinking about what books I would recommend as “books that will change your life.” In the end, I couldn’t be certain that one could predict how a book will be absorbed into another’s consciousness and life experience. It’s so individual and personal.

So instead, I would like to share with you “3 books that changed my life.”

3 books: We need to talk about Kevin, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Barney's Version


 A Prayer for Owen Meany: This was my first John Irving book. And while I’ve since continued to read many other ones, I did grow tired of him after a while. But something about this tale, and this particular boy Owen, really touched me. I read it in my early 20s while I was backpacking in Australia, and then it was shared on further with more friends. As you can see it’s been well-loved. This book change my life because it made me think that it’s possible for each of us to have a special destiny of our own.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: As a parent, this is probably one of the most frightening books you will ever read. I had suggested it to my book club soon after its release in 2004 and it kept coming up in conversations for years afterwords. When a movie based on this book was recently released, I didn’t think it could live up to the book, but I was pleasantly impressed. This book changed my life because it made me think that it’s possible to have done everything possible as a parent and still have a child that turns out like Kevin.

Barney’s Version: The central character of Barney is a terribly unlikable guy. He is not the sort of character who is grouchy with a thinly veiled heart of gold. He really is a jerk. But I still liked him. A lot. Maybe because he doesn’t hide his unsavoury behaviour or try to sugar coat anything from his past. Or maybe I liked him because I’m sort of a grouch. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it many moons ago. This book changed my life because it made it painfully clear that there is no “one truth,” since perspective colours our past and our present.

Now, your turn … can you share with me any books that changed your life?


  1. Robyn Grauer says:

    My book club also did We Need To Talk About Kevin back in the fall. Definitely frightening as a parent.Three books that changed my life are: She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, Room by Emma Donoghue and Hannah’s Gift by Maria Housden.

    • Julie Harrison says:

      Oh, yes, She’s Come Undone was fabulous. I haven’t heard of Hannah’s Gift but will look it up. As for Room, I’ve had it in my hands several times and always second guess whether I really want to read it … I think it will haunt me.

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to share your 3!

      • Robyn Grauer says:

        When I read Room, my eldest son was 5. Emma Donoghue does a FANTASTIC job narrating through the eyes of a 5 year old. The subject matter isn’t that pleasant in the book, but it’s worth the read, and I thought We Need To Talk About Kevin was worse in subject matter as a parent. Hannah’s Gift I read in one shot or over one night 2 days – something like that, but be warned, Kleenex is a must!

        • Julie Harrison says:

          That is interesting about your son, Robyn. My son is turning 5 this month. Might be a perfect time for me to read it.

          • Robyn Grauer says:

            Let me know what you think of it! You’re in Canada too right? (I’m in Montreal). My middle son is also turning 5 this month! (June 17th. My birthday is June 16th – he broke my water on my birthday almost 5 yrs ago). What date is your son’s birthday?

            • Julie Harrison says:

              My son was supposed to be born on July 16th! But my water broke three weeks early, so he’s a June baby :)

              • Robyn Grauer says:

                I was due July 8th, and Mack was born at 37 weeks on June 17th. You’re son’s a week-ish younger than mine then? My almost 5 year old is Mackenzie (Mack), what’s yours?

            • Julie Harrison says:

              Hi again Robyn! I just checked out your blog and tried to comment but for some reason the captcha is not showing for me so I can’t get it through. I wanted to say that I’m so glad your son’s teeth and jaw are okay. My daughter had her teeth banged up very badly from a fall when she was a toddler :(

              • Robyn Grauer says:

                That’s weird! I have the Captcha because of a lot of spam comments :( Thank you! He’s doing much better, and I’ll have to photoshop his grad photos this week, cuz I don’t think it will heal before then.

  2. says:

    Perfume by Patrick Sueskind. I read this the first time when I was 13, then again and again and again. I still love it.

    House of the Spirits and Under the Sea by Isabel Allende. Her writing is magical.

    Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck – the story is just so good.

    Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. That story was wonderful and left an impression on me and her new book Life after Life was really good and raised a lot of questions for me about life and the circle of life.

    A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway – again an amazing story. His writing is just so beautiful.

    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I read this in high school after we read Jean Eyre (which I also love) and it’s an amazing interpretation. I still remember it vividly.

    Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, made me cry. It’s touching and beautiful and the movie doesn’t do it justice.

    Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – it’s epic! I love South American writers, there’s always something mystical about the stories and the characters.

    A lot more than three 😉

    • Julie Harrison says:

      Hi Giulia!

      Wow, based on your reading list, we really have nothing in common, LOL! I’ve tried a few on your list and never made it past the first 10 pages.

      But I did read Perfume as a book club book and I’ve never read anything else like it. So different, with the focus on scent. I’d definitely recommend it to a friend.

      Now, Kate Atkinson. Not sure how I’ve missed her. I will need to pick up both of these books.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your books!


  3. Lisa Sansom says:

    I have read “Prayer for Own Meany”, which was excellent (and I’m thinking I’m due for a re-read) and I’ve also read “Barney’s Version”, which was good… Wondering what else was in the 50 books list in “Real Simple”? though on a total aside, I am very ambivalent about “Real Simple” because I’ve leafed through a couple of issues and most of the stuff in there isn’t about simplicity at all… but that’s for another time perhaps. :-)

    A book that really affected me was “Bridge to Terabithia”. The first time I ever cried at a book – I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 10 or 11?

    What else is on your book shelf these days Julie?

  4. Sarah McCormack says:

    great post Julie! I am going to look for all 3 of those books, as I haven’t read any of them!

    books that changed my life….. I will have to say Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter!!! love love love all 7 of these and am currently reading them again (4th time). I loved them the first time, but reading the whole series which each of my sons (individually) has been one of the greatest joys of my life.. without question. Witnessing them experiencing the magic that is reading through JK Rowling’s amazing imagination was something I will cherish forever. ( I think I recall you saying once you hadn’t read them.. shame on you.. lol!)

    my absolute favorite book is “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak.. it reads like poetry. An amazing story that I will never forget. if you haven’t read it, you must. the Prologue is a bit tricky to get through but once you get through the first 30 pages or so, there is such a pay off! I recommend it BIG TIME!

    another book I really loved was the “Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls.. just ’cause her attitude towards the challenges she faced in her life was so inspiring.

    • Julie Harrison says:

      I enjoyed Glass Castle too … but Harry Potter, sorry, still haven’t done it :( I haven’t read anything fantasy-ish since the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in grade school. I just have such a hard time getting into this kind of genre.

      • Sarah McCormack says:

        have your tried HP??? what about Stella…. has she read them? I am so jealous whenever I hear about a kid starting the series.. I love them so much! It is so much more than fantasy…so many amazing characters. first 3 books very kid-ish, and then they really change. trying really hard here to convince you :)

  5. Sarah McCormack says:

    p.s. I liked “Room” too because it had such an interesting “early childhood education” aspect to it.. I enjoyed that element of the story.

  6. disqus_UDagyNAFED says:

    Julie, thanks for sending me the link to your blog. I did enjoy your article and it plants in me a thirst to read more! When I do, I shall let you know the surprises!

  7. disqus_UDagyNAFED says:

    well, this is the first time I have done something like this and I end up with a weird screen name so just ignore!

    • Julie Harrison says:

      Hi Barb! So happy to see you here! Thanks for stopping in to visit … I would love to hear what you are reading in your part of the world right now ….

  8. allison says:

    Interesting notion. I read so much that it’s hard to single out books that I would say changed my life. The three you named do stick in my memory, which says something. The Fault in Our Stars broke through a reading rut and kept me up half the night – I love everything by John Green, actually. I reread Catcher in the Rye a couple of years ago and found it heartbreakingly sad, and it bothers me when people talk about Holden Caulfield as some kind of hipster bad boy when he’s clearly lost and crying out for help. The History of Love is a book that I read more slowly than almost any other, stretching it out in delicious little bites, because as soon as I started it I knew I would be bereft when it was over and I wanted it to last as long as possible. I agree with Giulia about Perfume and Isabel Allende. I was completely unmade by Home by Marilynne Robinson. The most affecting and wonderful young reader book I’ve read recently is Plain Kate by Erin Bow – I ordered it from the Scholastic flyer and it was amazing.

  9. amy_boughner says:

    When I read The Catcher in the Rye I knew that JD Salinger was the writer I wanted to be. I was more convinced when I read Seymour: An Introduction. John Irving’s Cider House Rules was a big one for me in high school, and I’ve read several of his now, most recently In One Person which I loved. I can go on and on about books that I have loved, books that have changed me but I don’t think I could choose just three. I’ve gone through so many stages.

  10. Hi Julie,

    I started a blogpost on the same topic and realised there are too many books on my list and so I have split it into three.

    Both A Prayer For Owen Meany and We Need To Talk About Kevin appear on my list!

    Two fantastic choices, both haunting for very different reasons.


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