7 books that can change an individual’s life

If you’re reading this, we probably don’t have to sell you the fact that books can be transformative. From changing our minds to being empowered to act, reading makes us better, and as writers and editors, it’s what keeps us going. With that in mind, we asked outside collaborators to come up with a life changing book that would make a great gift this holiday season.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed ($ 13)

(Photo: Courtesy Vintage Books)

Strayed is best known for her best-selling memoir, Wild, and may be largely responsible for the nearly ten-fold increase in the number of PCT migrants since the book was published in 2012. (The phenomenon has been referred to as the Wild Effect.) So while her memoir has changed the lives of many more people. It was another book published that same year: Tiny Beautiful Things – a collection of their Dear Sugar Advisor Columns from The Rumpus – that changed mine. When I was 30, I just quit my marketing job to start a career as a freelance writer. I was struggling to find work, felt lonely and broke, and kept wondering if I had taken the right step. One day while browsing the public library in Boulder, Colorado, I took this book from a recommended reading chart. I devoured half of it on my couch in one afternoon. As an anonymous columnist named Sugar, Strayed responded to people dealing with problems that ranged from the mundane to the seemingly impossible: an aspiring writer who wonders if she will ever make it. A physically deformed young man who wants to know if he should just give up looking for love. A woman who lost her baby in a miscarriage. Another young man who just asks, “WTF” is done with this life? Her answers are so deeply true and compassionate that I sobbed on the couch and then Googled her name – I needed to know who this woman was. What I learned was that Strayed was teaching a writing workshop in Chamonix, France, in July. In the end, I registered and spent three months in the Alps, writing, riding a mountain bike, exceeded my visa and finally got my first full-time job in journalism. Now I am giving this book to friends who are in a life transition, emergency, or turmoil because I am sure that something from Sugar will also help move their lives forward. – Gloria Liu, feature editor

“Tatterhood and Other Tales,” edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps ($ 15)

tatterhood-feminist-book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Feminist Press)

When I was little, I was obsessed with fairy tales – the animated Disney musicals, the super dark Grimm versions, and everything in between. Since this was in the 1980s (well before the capable Princesses of Brave, Tangled, and Frozen), my mom wanted to make sure it didn’t distort my perception of healthy gender roles. So she got me Tatterhood, a collection of stories from around the world of strong, bright, adventurous women. It completely shaped my way of playing outdoors: I spent hours in the forest looking for fairy hills and magical lakes, confidently looking for the unknown instead of waiting for a prince or witch to show up and change my life. Every child who loves magic should have this on their bookshelf. – Aleta Burchyski, Associate Managing Editor

“Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West” by Rebecca Solnit ($ 24)

wild-dreams-hidden-wars-book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy UC Press)

Solnit is wonderful and productive, and while I don’t know if this is necessarily my favorite book of her (I couldn’t make up my mind, I love everything she writes), it was the most powerful. This was the first title of hers I read, and it was also the first book I read that challenged my own ideas about the wilderness. It is a well-researched and reported account of what she calls the “hidden wars of the American West”: the forcible displacement of indigenous peoples from Yosemite in 1851 and the nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site a century later. Part criticism, part journalism, part history, and part memoir, Solnit’s work has greatly influenced my own interests as a writer and reader. And the ideas that she presents in this work have led me to continue my education and think more critically about how I deal with places that I consider “wild”. – Abbbie Barronian, Associate Editor

“Sometimes a Great Idea” by Ken Kesey ($ 14)

sometimes-great-presentation-book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Books)

There is only one novel that scares me when I think about it. Ken Kesey wrote this epic saga about a strike-breaking lumberjack family on the Oregon coast at the height of his tether, a few years after writing his most famous novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and before going all-in as a leader in the acid-consuming avant-garde 1960s. A big part of my love for this story is the sense of place. I grew up in southern Oregon, where the book is set, and this was the first and only time I’ve read anything that truly captures the essence of this humid, sparsely populated stretch of land, both the people who inhabit it and the landscape in which they live. It’s not easy to read – Kesey often switches first-person narrators across the 600+ pages, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph – but once you find the river it feels so natural, like floating with a river current . The characters come straight from a Greek epic, are cut from marble and often just as immobile, but they all feel familiar, from the unemployed lumberjack to Leland, the black sheep of the Stamper clan. It’s heartbreaking, human, and stinks of the damp saltyness of my hometown, which made me realize when I first read that wherever you live, fantastic stories lurk. Therefore, and for a foretaste of home, I keep coming back to it. – Will Taylor, Gear Director

“Oracle Bones” by Peter Hessler (US $ 14)

Oracle-Bone-Book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins)

I decided to study Chinese college on a whim, and two years later I signed up to study abroad in Yunnan and knew very little about the country. I was intimidated about going to a place that seemed so big and impenetrable until I picked up Oracle Bones from New York staff writer Peter Hessler. It is a comprehensive book, but it is anchored in the stories of a number of ordinary people, most of whom Hessler met while in class during a Peace Corps stay in Szechuan in the 1990s. He follows them as they encounter China’s economic and cultural changes, find jobs in factories and boomtowns far from home, or, in the case of a Uighur trader, sneak into the US from China. I fell in love with narrative nonfiction and realized the ability to connect with characters to better understand a place or problem. I brought this book with me everywhere in the eight months I spent in China, and it inspired me to pursue a career in magazines where I could work on long stories. I am now giving this book to anyone who tells me they think nonfiction books are boring or want to better understand the mind-boggling changes that have taken place in China over the past few decades. – Luke Whelan, managing editor

“House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski (US $ 20)

House of Leaves-Book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Pantheon Books)

Combine house-based horror with David Foster Wallace’s footnote-in-footnote writing style and the seemingly drug-fueled vibe of a haunted modern art exhibit and you get this book. While it’s not for everyone, if you have someone in your life who read this description and could be excited to sink their teeth into 700+ pages (many of which are oddly blank), that would be a beautiful thing and one of a kind Gift. Over the months it took me to read, House of Leaves changed my attitude towards reading, writing, and the limits of what books can be. – Karen Larsen, editorial assistant

“What color is your parachute?” By Richard N. Bolles ($ 20)

what-color-parachute-book_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Ten Speed ​​Press)

In many ways, I owe my job at Outside to this book. After graduating from design school, I was a little unsure what my next step would be. By then, I’d identified myself as a graphic designer throughout my academic and professional life, and yet the skills I loved most didn’t always align with this path. For anyone who is feeling a little lost in their job or looking to make a career, I highly recommend picking this up and jumping straight to the flower exercise. I gifted this to several friends, many of whom have provided the self-reflective benefits! – Jenny Earnest, Audience Development Director

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