The Life-Changing Magic of Literature

Need another reason to give books as gifts this holiday season? 25 authors reveal how these narratives shaped their writing, their careers, and their outlooks on life.

Most likely, we each have a book or an author that has shaped us irrevocably—after reading their words, we are never the same again. Here, 25 authors tell us the book that changed them after it was presented to them as a gift from a friend, loved one, or teacher.

We’ve been sharing these heartfelt reflections every Saturday in December. See parts 1 and 2 here then share the best book you’ve ever received as a gift in the comments below.

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The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

“Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is, to this day, the present that makes my heart leap. It was a baby shower gift from a friend, for my first baby—a most perfect addition to my then-new children’s book library. I was determined to find books for my baby that featured stories and characters that were representative of our family and the beautiful life we planned to create for her, and The Snowy Day, with its simple but glorious tale of a little Black boy playing in the snow, is emblematic of that. It’s not a slave narrative. It’s not a nod to the Civil Rights Movement or black icons or some kind of struggle. It’s a piece about the everyday experience of black children—a salute to their humanity. I still have that book on my bookshelf, along with dozens more just like it I’ve collected over the years. It’s The Snowy Day that I look to as I build my own children’s book imprint, Denene Millner Books. Like Keats’ offering, the books I’m publishing are a love letter to the everyday lives of black children. Seventeen years after receiving it, The Snowy Day serves up that kind of inspiration.” —Denene Millner, co-author of Around the Way Girl with Taraji P. Henson and author of the forthcoming Early Sunday Morning

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For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Nearly ten years ago, my ex-husband and I flew to Key West in order for me to give a reading and do a Q&A with Ann Beattie. It was my first time visiting Key West, and Ann and her husband acted as our unofficial tour guides. The trip itself was magical and surreal, but one of the most memorable moments occurred our very first morning there. A moped—seemingly out of thin air—pulled to an abrupt stop in front of us just as we were walking out of our hotel. The driver of the moped hopped off, said our names, handed us a package wrapped in brown paper, then sped off. Inside the package was a signed first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was an impromptu and wholly unexpected gift from my soon-to-be stepfather. It couldn’t have been a weirder or more perfect present for that weird and perfect place.” —Hannah Pittard, author of Listen to Me

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Anne Sexton: The Last Summer by Arthur Furst

“I still tear up when I read the inscription on the flyleaf of Anne Sexton: The Last Summer, the book my college roommate and beloved friend Rachel gave me the day I turned in my senior thesis. It’s a book of black and white photographs by Arthur Furst, interspersed with reproductions of Sexton’s last letters and poems. They show the poet in all her beauty, all her toughness and fragility, her longing and slyness and self-doubt. At just barely twenty-one, I wanted to be a writer like that—I wanted more than anything to devote my life to words, to make a path with them through despair and towards the light. I had never dared to say it, though: it seemed too big, too presumptuous, too scary. But Rachel knew. “For Miranda,” she wrote, “Woman, Writer, Creator, Scholar, Friend. Congratulations on the completion of your first major work!” For years that book has been a reminder that before I dared to voice my heart’s desire—and ever since—someone has believed in it, and in me. That is a precious gift indeed.” —Miranda Richmond-Mouillot, author of A Fifty-Year Silence

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Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

“While traveling in Brazil, an ex of mine sent me a Portuguese version of Goodbye, Columbus. She thought Adeus, Columbus the perfect gift: the comfort of Philip Roth, an author I knew and loved, mixed with the newness of a foreign language. She inscribed the book: “How great is the translation of that famous first sentence? La primera vez que ve Brenda, oculos.” We haven’t spoken in years, but I’m still grateful to her, returning every now and then to the strangeness of understanding a sentence in a language I don’t speak. I know that line by heart—The first time I met Brenda, she asked me to hold her glasses—but here, it’s new to me. Unsettling. At once I find myself in mapped and unmapped territory, and it’s impossible to know how to feel.” —Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys

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The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

“When I was a little girl, I got a book for each night of Hanukkah. One year, my book was Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, one of the most inventive and genre-defining children’s books of all time. The Golden Compass sparked in me a fascination with the seeming magic of England, which ultimately helped lay the foundation for my own middle-grade writing. Hanukkah when I was a kid was the greatest—what more could you want than a book a day for eight days straight?” —Leila Sales, author of Once Was a Time

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Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

“When celebrating one of my dearest friend’s 50th birthday on the central coast of California, her good friend and I really clicked.  She took a detour in the town of Solvang, CA to hunt down a bookstore so she could get me a copy of Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the unique Lucy Grealy. As much as I loved the company around me, I wanted to devour that book from the very first sentence.” —Lisa Napoli, author of Ray & Joan

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X

“When I was a young teen in the 1970s, my parents gave me The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It blew me away because it opened my eyes more than ever before to the irrationality and corrosiveness of racism. It also showed me you can never predict based on where someone starts out in life where they will end up.” —Nick Chiles, co-author of Every Little Step with Bobby Brown

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

“Many years ago, I sat down to write a novel. I had no qualifications whatsoever. I wasn’t even sure if ‘whatsoever’ was one word or three. But I started writing and didn’t tell a soul I was doing it. Because I thought there was a pretty good chance I would quit. Once I’d written half the story, I started telling everyone I was doing it. Because I really didn’t want to quit and I knew I could count on my friends and family to shame me if I did. At this stage, my mom gave me a copy of On Writing by Stephen King. And it was just perfect. A guy who wrote a lot was taking me through exactly how he did it, to the finest detail. It was a gift inside of another gift—which the best books always are.” —Jason Headley, author of F*ck That: An Honest Meditation

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Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

“The best book I ever received as a gift was Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne. It was special for two reasons. The first was that my mother and I read it together. Those wonderful memories will last a lifetime. The second reason it was so important was that it taught me how to recognize and deal with the Eeyore people who, sooner or later, show up in everyone’s life. (They’re out there).” —Jayne Ann Krentz, author of When All the Girls Have Gone

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The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books by Maud Hart Lovelace

“The most special book I’ve ever received as a gift was the Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace. When I was in second grade our family moved and I had to leave behind all of my friends. On my last day of school, my classmates gave me that book and all of them had signed it and written little goodbye notes. Now, my daughters have the book and it still reminds me of my childhood friends whenever I see it.” —Katie Wells, author of The Wellness Mama Cookbook

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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

“Back in the days when the thought of publishing a novel was still more surreal than riding unicorns through Elysian fields, I received a letter that I would never forget. It was from the reviewer of a journal that I’d recently sent a short story to. The reviewer’s name was Steph and the letter expressed how much she loved the story and how it reminded her of Gabriel García Márquez, a writer who happened to be my personal hero. Having had little-to-no literary validation by this point, I naturally swooned. And thus began an unexpected literary friendship; one that would last through the writing of my first novel, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko.

A few weeks before the publication of Ivan, Steph told me that she’d mailed me a celebratory gift, but that I wasn’t allowed to open it until pub day. So for weeks, I looked at the unopened brown package, which only added to my anticipation. Eventually, pub day came and when I opened the package, I found a 1948 Russian copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, a book that played an important role in my novel. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I’d ever received. And it was one of those rare, once in a lifetime treasures that no one else would have (or could have) thought of. Today, it sits on my desk where I write every day, reminding me of the places that even the smallest acts of kindness can push a person.” —Scott Stambach, author of The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko

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Mary Engelbreit’s Sweet Treats Dessert Cookbook by Mary Engelbreit

“First released in 1999, Mary Englebreit’s Sweet Treats Dessert Cookbook came my way in 2007, as an engagement present. The timing couldn’t have been better, arriving right around the time when I was starting to be more confident in the kitchen. Since then, it’s become a book I’ve reached for over and over again. While many might assume that a book released under the name of the popular illustrator might be a lightweight, the recipes were developed by Melissa Clark and Judith Sutton, both heavyweights in the field. Clark, in particular, is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and staff writer for the New York Times. My favorite recipes? The Ginger Peach Cobbler, Bittersweet Chocolate Bread Pudding, and Brown Butter Raspberry Tart. Really, it’s a solid cookbook. And fun, too, because it’s got secret foodie cred amid the charming illustrations! —Hillary Manton Lodge, author of Two Blue Doors Series and Jane of Austin

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Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

“A couple of years ago my husband Barry—who knows how much I love having a big fat book to read over the holidays—gave me Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. Tomalin is a wonderfully perceptive writer, who doesn’t try to whitewash the subjects of her biographies, but rather brings their characters to life with all their strengths and faults and foibles. This is a fascinating book which gave new depth to my knowledge and enjoyment of Dickens’s work. (My favorite Dickens novel? Impossible to choose between Bleak House and Great Expectations.)” —Alison Love, author of The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom

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The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

“After the birth of my first son, Griffith Fodder-wing Wilson, my grandmother gave me the seventh printing (1938) of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel, The Yearling, my favorite book from my childhood and the source of our son’s middle name. My grandmother died a year after—this was the last gift I received from her—and I often look at the illustrations by Edward Shenton and think of her, while waiting for the coming day when I read the book to Griff.” —Kevin Wilson, author of the forthcoming novel Perfect Little World

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Collected Poems by Federico García Lorca

“In 2004, after my father died, I went to Cuba to take a break from life, and after various twists and turns I ended up spending a week with a subversive street theater troupe in the provincial capital of Santi Spiritus. It was a magical and weird experience—somewhere between joining a cult and dropping backwards in time. We spent a great deal of time reading poetry and drinking and stilt-walking, and when I had to leave (because I was in the country illegally and my cash was running out), one of the troupe members gave me a copy of a book of Lorca poems, preserved with packing tape and moxie from when it was published before the Cuban Revolution. I’ve read it cover to cover, and even spent a few months trying to translate it.” —Abraham Burickson, co-author of Odyssey Works 

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Living the 7 Habits: The Courage to Change by Stephen R. Covey

“The summer when everything changed for me was all about books. I was at law school at the time, but an author said to me when I visited him, “If you do decide to stay in America, you should…” That assumption changed my whole plan: I quit law school. I focused on creating a new path. The first step was to apply to university in the United States. There was just one school I had in mind and it was already six months past the deadline for application. Still, I willed it to happen. Yearned for it. Prayed for it. It was hard to keep believing for the impossible. Then one day I received an unexpected package. It was a new book from Stephen R. Covey. He wrote in it that one day I would send to him my “magnum opus” full of “love, vision, insight.” It wasn’t the book itself that was so meaningful. It was that he had taken the time to affirm a young, aspiring writer to keep going. It came on a lonely day and filled me with light. It confirmed I was on the right path. It was a book that kept me going forward. Today, if anyone has been inspired by anything I have written then a thread of credit flows back to that gift on that day so many years ago.” —Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

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Little Bear by Elsa Holmelund Minarik, illustrations by Maurice Sendak

“The best book I’ve ever received as a present is my copy of Elsa Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear, given to me by my grandmother on my third birthday. When my family moved to rural Senegal shortly thereafter, the book came with us, and, in a vivid place largely devoid of the written word, the story of Little Bear wanting a coat to put on became my daily reading practice. I can still remember the feeling of those words somehow entering my eyes and then magically coming out of my mouth, knowing I could do something incredible, and that it was called ‘reading.’” —Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of June  

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The Modern Chinese Dictionary

“The most special book I have ever received was for my tenth birthday, when I was in China, as part of a gift package sent by my great-aunt. Her sister, my grandmother, was very frugal. So a multi-present package was the height of luxury. And my favorite item from that package was a large Chinese dictionary, almost encyclopedic in scope. I used to just open it anywhere and read. And thirty-years later, ten thousand miles away, I still have that same dictionary on my shelf.” —Sherry Thomas, author of A Study in Scarlet Women

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Matilda by Roald Dahl

“I am the baby of the family, so much of my childhood library was made up of hand-me-downs from my older sister. That’s why I so vividly remember the day my mother gave me a brand new copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It didn’t stay new for long; I read that book so many times I literally wore off the cover. Matilda was a mischievous, compassionate, classics-loving heroine I could root for and admire. She’s still my role model, and Matilda remains one of my very favorite reads.” —K. E. Ormsbee, author of The Water and the Wild and The Doorway and the Deep

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The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö was not one book, but a series of ten small books which can be considered like one book under that title. The original hardcovers from the seventies were given to me by my father. The series spanned a ten-year period in the life of Detective Martin Beck, but also everything going on in the city of Stockholm, Sweden during that time. The Story of a Crime series had a huge influence on me as a writer, and I can safely say that when I first read the books, a seed was planted in me, one that would take me to the real world of police detective work, and then writing a crime fiction series of my own.” —David Swinson, author of The Second Girl and the forthcoming Crime Song

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The Plant Recipe Book: 100 Living Arrangements for Any Home in Any Season by Baylor Chapman

“I love plants and this book shows how to make gorgeous living arrangements that go far beyond a cactus in a clay pot. It was given to me by a dear friend when I was laid up in bed for three weeks after foot surgery. It allowed me to fantasize about all the beauty I could create once I was mobile again.” —M. J. Ryan, author of Habit Changers: 81 Game-Changing Mantras to Mindfully Realize Your Goals

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Poems for Little Ears by Kate Cox Goddard

“When I was eight years old my parents gave me Poems for Little Ears by Kate Cox Goddard for Christmas, a book I love and still have. I peek at the pages now and then to remind myself of the time I first fell in love with words.” —Susan Meissner, Secrets of a Charmed Life

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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“The best book I’ve ever received as a gift is War and Peace, which my roommate’s parents gave me as a college graduation gift. It’s silly to comment on the substance of the book, as of course it is a tremendous novel and no one needs me to tell them that. It was a wonderful gift not only for the reading experience, but also for the excuse it gave total strangers to speak to me. My mother had died shortly before I graduated from college, and I was somewhat of a nomad that summer. Carrying around a beautiful hardback copy of War and Peace is basically an invitation for others to approach and brag about the fact that they’ve also read that great book, and it was a time in my life when I particularly needed the kindness of strangers. It also made me feel smart and it bolstered my confidence, two more things I really needed as I was heading to law school that fall, and was not at all sure that I was ready for it. Given that I stuck it out and made it through law school, I’d have to say that War and Peace is the greatest book gift I have ever received, hands down.” —Sue Mullen, co-author of We Are Still Tornadoes 

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Door into the Dark by Seamus Heaney

“When I was in college, I took a Poetry Writing workshop with the poet Sam Hazo, and after a few weeks, he assigned each student a particular poet. He chose the Irish poet Seamus Heaney for me and gave me a copy of his first collection Door into the Dark. “Read them aloud,” Hazo said. The music, the clack of consonants, the unexpected twists of language profoundly influenced how I write. I hear him still.” —Keith Donohue, author of The Motion of Puppets

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The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, Book 1) by Carolyn Keene

“On Christmas 1974, when I was nine, my Aunt Marilyn gave me a yellow-spined, hard-backed Nancy Drew mystery: The Secret of the Old Clock. I’d never met my aunt—she lived across the country—and I’d never heard of Nancy Drew, but that book was so exciting! A girl detective! A girl who was at the center of the story and having awesome adventures! Nancy Drew had it all, man: she was rich, she had her own posse of friends, she had a boyfriend who showed up conveniently when she needed a date, and she had a dad who bought her a new car when she wrecked her old one. I dearly wanted to be Nancy Drew. I went on to read all the rest of the Nancy Drew books before I hit middle school and Aunt Marilyn became my favorite aunt because? She. Was. The. Bomb.” —Elizabeth Hoyt, author of Duke of Pleasure


Featured image: Dark Moon Pictures/Shutterstock.com

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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