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Heart Books

February 19, 2013

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Back when the book blogosphere was young, we would dream up lists of questions to ask each other, which would then do the rounds in true chain letter style. Being, as most bibliophiles are, an introspective, word-y type of person, I loved these. But there was one question that always troubled me: “What is a book that has changed your life?”

Now. Reading has certainly changed my life. Certain authors have done much to shape my beliefs. But a specific title, altering the course of my existence? I never had an answer, and I secretly worried that this lack meant something, something about whether books were truly powerful for me.

I have grown older, and more secure, since those days, and I no longer trouble myself over whether I’m a ‘real’ reader. I also now take a less literal view of that question. In spirit at least, I believe it’s asking “What is a book that has touched your soul?” And I have many such heart books, as I think of them.

Allow me to share one with you. Jane Austen’s Emma became a heart book for me in the fall of 2008, when I was twenty-two. My life, that I had so meticulously planned since I was seventeen, was beginning to derail, and I had no idea why. I burst into tears at least five times a day, and despite all of my outward signs of success and a promising future, inside I felt hopeless. So I turned to Austen, and Emma’s story suddenly became my own. Here was a young woman, just about my age, who also thought she had everything figured out, only to have her world turned upside down. The harder she tried to fix things, the more she seemed to mess things up. Emma’s fall from grace and her eventual recovery of it soothed the large part of me that was terrified I would destroy my entire future if I didn’t figure everything out right now. Austen’s gentle, loving portrayal of Emma allowed me to see myself in a kinder light. That was a profound gift, and ever since Emma has had a place in my heart.

All of this came to mind because I’m in the middle of a heart book right now: Sara Maitland’s From the Forest (also published as Gossip From the Forest). It’s a book I connected with in an instant, from a visceral place, and I now find myself reading just a chapter at a time to prolong the experience. It is teaching me truths about myself, truths I already half-knew but couldn’t quite articulate. It’s also breaking my heart, as I currently live in a forest-less land, but it’s worth it.

In the spirit of nostalgia, I’d like to ask all of you to name a heart book, either in comments here or on your own blog (do leave a link in the comments so I can come read your post). Pass it along, chain letter style, and let’s embrace those books that resonate with our truest, deepest selves. I know they can be difficult to talk about (I actually didn’t mention the one book that has most literally changed my life; perhaps in another few years I’ll be ready), because of course claiming a book as soul-touching bares at least a bit of your most vulnerable self to the world. Yet I believe that the much of magic of book blogging lies in that combination of the literary with the personal, and that we have built a community that is supportive enough for that to take place. I look forward to hearing your stories.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2013 6:23 am

    I have red so many books, old and contemporary, that have touched me in some way or the other, with the truth of what they say. Other people’s stories sometimes can do this.

  2. February 19, 2013 6:37 am

    I’ve been re-reading a book that has always touched my soul. It’s silly, and yet it gets at some of my most profound fears. It’s the second book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, entitled The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It’s got the total perspective vortex. It’s got a cow that has been bred to want to be eaten. Everyone thinks they’re in a spaceship with an improbability drive, but for some of the book they’re in a friend’s pocket. I named my current car after this spaceship–The Heart of Gold. There’s really no other book that goes over all my fears and worries and makes them feel better the way this book does. Seriously.

  3. February 19, 2013 8:11 am

    Walk to the End of the World – Suzy Mckee Charnas: It gave me the sads, because the world in it is terrible, but it was one of those books that really got some of my own disatisfaction with the world and made me feel understood.

  4. February 19, 2013 8:18 am

    Such an interesting topic, Eva. I posted about my heart book on my blog (

  5. February 19, 2013 8:49 am

    Jane Eyre – always and forever. I read it for the first time in fourth grade, not understanding many of the words but knowing it would be a book I returned to again and again. I have read it over a dozen times and turn to favorite parts if I’m feeling a bit lost.

    But a change-my-life book? Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It just opened my eyes in ways that other books hadn’t.

  6. February 19, 2013 11:06 am

    What a question, Eva. To Kill A Mockingbird is a “heart” book for me, and Things Fall Apart introduced me to world literature, something severely lacking in my early education. I return to it again and again.

  7. literary travels and explorationskatrina permalink
    February 19, 2013 11:25 am

    A single book didn’t change my life but a literature module for my A Levels did, protest literature – A Handmaids Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, 1984, Animal Farm and a few others – led me from applying to not so great universities to study law, which when it came down to it I knew that I was not cut out for to changing my plans to study literature, a subject I really struggled with but loved. It made me see my future as a believeable pathway – university, teaching career, specialist teacher rather than a dream of a law court I was unable to ever achieve.

    These books also forced me to start seeing beyond the immediate insular world of the small town teenager, suddenly I abandoned teen books and wanted to know the world from all different angles, perspectives and views.

  8. February 19, 2013 11:26 am

    For me it’s The Hours. I read it at a young age in comparison to most of the characters, but its messages about loss and longing hit me at a just-right time after the loss of my grandparents. It taught me that even in the dark there is always hope. We endure. We just do. When I feel engulfed or overwhelmed by life, I look to its closing paragraphs to remind me.

  9. February 19, 2013 5:00 pm

    What a sweet, heartfelt post–and such a big question. I’ll have to put some thought into this and see if I can come up with a worthy response post.

  10. February 19, 2013 5:05 pm

    Immediately I think of “The Dollmaker” by Harriette Arnow. It was a book I read relatively early into my 250 list, but it struck me in the right moment and time. It is a book that will always stick with me.

  11. February 19, 2013 8:44 pm

    Lovely and thoughtful post today, Eva! I think many of us have wondered the same thing: if we are truly readers. It’s not the number of books we read, but how deeply we read, I think.

    Two serious books that come to mind are The Contender and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (although a book need not be serious to be affecting). I read both many years ago, but the impact they had on me was great and lasting. More recently, I’ve reread classics by Virginia Woolf and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which have affected me to a similar degree.

  12. February 20, 2013 9:37 am

    Aw, I love this post! I have many many heart books (as well as a very few books that have changed — I don’t know about my LIFE, but changed me). Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a heart book for me. Every time I read it, I am blown away all over again by how charming and creepy and creative it is. How did she think of all those spells? Oh God I love Susanna Clarke so much. She is a beautiful genius and I die inside every year that goes by and she has not written me another book to snuggle.

  13. February 20, 2013 12:29 pm

    rings of saturn be one for me Eva ,all the best stu

  14. February 20, 2013 6:15 pm

    A heart book for me was Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s In Dependence. Resonated with it so much.

  15. February 20, 2013 7:30 pm

    Such a great post and such a great question!! So many books come to mind..A Wrinkle in Time…Misery by Stephen King…The Witching Hour by Anne Rice…Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver…all for their own reasons that are deeply personal. Hmmm..I may just do my own post on this :) Loved yours!

  16. February 21, 2013 8:19 am

    Thanks for this, Eva. I posted a reply on my blog:

  17. February 22, 2013 12:49 am

    I love that term heart books. One of mine is Jane Eyre, I can really relate to her sad childhood (unfortunately) and the fact that she picks love over religion has been a guiding light to me after years of forced church stuff. I’ve also come to love Emma a lot in the past few years and wasn’t sure exactly why, aside from loving how cosy and homey it is since I’d moved away from my home province and family around that time. But what you mentioned about how Emma thinks she has everything all figured out and then doesn’t also resonates with me. Since moving, I’ve come to terms with having depression and going on medication for it and have also started over in terms of training for a new job. So it’s been challenging, but all of Austen’s novels, as well as so many others, have been there to support me.

  18. February 24, 2013 4:29 pm

    I am glad Emma was there for you when you needed her. I am impressed with how gracious you are about not following your earlier plans.

    The book that affected me most I think was The Brothers Karamosov which I read as a college freshman. I had been raised to believe that if I smiled and said please, I’d get anything I wanted. Deep down I knew better, but felt lonely and confused about it. It was liberating to learn that I was not alone in my doubts and to have my questions articulated.

  19. February 25, 2013 5:09 am

    ‘Sunshine’ by Robin McKinley. Actually most of Robin McKinley (‘Rose Daughter’ and ‘Deerskin’ also spring to mind) but I’ve loved the former ever since I first read it when I was seventeen. I’m Sunshine’s age now, so I feel like I’ve grown up with her.

  20. February 25, 2013 8:35 am

    I think I am going to have to read “Gossip From the Forest”. I have now come across this book, mentioned by book bloggers, about 5 times and each time the review refers to it as being very special.

    My all-time favourite book that taught me so much and really touched me never appears on any of my ‘best ever reads’ lists. I suppose because it is so close to my heart I want to protect it and I don’t want to hear someone disparaging it – I know, how ridiculous! Also, it is a coming-of-age story (bildungsroman – thanks for teaching me that term book bloggers) and for me to identify with the main character so closely at 34 years old makes me think, isn’t it time for me to ‘know who I am’ and grow up?

    If someone asks me, “what’s your favourite book?” or “what book changed your life?”, I have plenty of other books that I love and have changed me in some way, so I don’t feel that it is insincere to omit my real favourite. I think the books we like make more of a comment about our own personalities than any kind of statement about the quality of the book and there are some things about myself which I prefer to keep private, or at least only reveal to close friends.

    • February 25, 2013 10:07 am

      I know that I “came of age” in my mid-thirties, with the help of some important books. And I am not sure I want to talk about how.

  21. February 28, 2013 4:42 pm

    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Loved the characters and cultural conflicts and realizations

  22. March 1, 2013 11:27 am

    Thank you for such a lovely and though-provoking post! I know I’m a bit late, but I was mulling over my own post on the subject–it’s not something to be taken lightly, as I’m sure you know!

    Anyway, my post on heart books is over at bookwanderer. The first book that popped into my head was The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. It completely spoke to me across time and place when I read it, and even now it’s hard for me to articulate just how much of an impact it made on me. But I tried! :)

    (Funnily enough, I’m actually reading Emma for the first time right now. I absolutely love it.)

  23. March 5, 2013 11:44 am

    Eva, I am relieved I am not the only reader whose life was never really changed by a book. A novel that is a heart book for me is “The Master and Margarita” by Bulgakov. I guess what left such a deep impression on me (apart from the brilliant and complex plot) was the possibility (which before I had never considered seriously) that there are good and evil forces in the world that are to be reckoned with.

  24. readerbuzz permalink
    March 12, 2013 7:58 am

    Love the idea of “heart books”.

  25. Debbie permalink
    March 23, 2013 6:16 pm

    This a lovely post; I never thought of Emma that way before, being more inclined to get annoyed at all the intrigue she seemed so caught up in. My heart books on a comfort level seem to involve journeys, e.g. Three Men in a Boat, Lord of the Rings and Pickwick Papers; on a less happy note they involve loners for whom things go awry, e.g. Lord Jim and Nostromo, and 1984. Hang in there, who knows what is around the corner?

  26. Ash permalink
    March 28, 2013 6:50 pm

    Eva – This post was certainly a though-provoking one and right after reading this, I couldn’t resist the temptation to blog about my heart book, Pride and Prejudice. Hope you enjoy reading my post on Heart book and share your thoughts.


  1. A “Heart Book” | Wandering in the Stacks
  2. Heart Books | bookwanderer
  3. Naming my Heart Book | book lets go...

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