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Sweatpants & Books | AskReddit: What’s the One Book You’ve Read that Made You Rethink Your Life?

By Emily Parker

Jim Rohn once said “The book you don’t read won’t help.” But as a reader, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what book to pick up next! We turned to AskReddit to find out what books people read that changed the way they saw life in a big way. We chose 10 of our favorite answers.

Have you read a book that changed your perspective on life? Share in the comments!

Some answers have been edited for length and/or clarity. Plot summaries provided via GoodReads.


1. Notes from the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground made me really evaluate my thoughts and actions much more deeply than I ever had before. I think a lot of people, myself included, tend to automatically think of themselves as good people in a way that can hinder their ability to recognize when they’ve actually done something shitty to someone. But in Notes from the Underground, when you read a personal account from someone who is so obviously such a massive dickhead, but still presented in a way that makes their impulses a bit more relatable than you’d like to think, it really makes you realize that being a good person isn’t something that’s automatically granted, it’s really something that you have to strive towards and constantly struggle with. A lot of his other works built up more on this same theme, as well as many other incredible ideas too.” – Chonkyfired

Plot Summary: Dostoevsky’s most revolutionary novel, Notes from the Underground marks the dividing line between nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction, and between the visions of self each century embodied. One of the most remarkable characters in literature, the unnamed narrator is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man’s essentially irrational nature.

2. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. “Hunger, by Knut Hamsun made me realize that, out of an excessive sense of shame, I never ask for help, even when I’m in the deepest shit. It shed a light on how much I compound my miseries sometimes. Shit happens to everyone. Ask for help if you need some!” – uMunthu

“I don’t think any other book ever made me feel so hungry and helpless. I’d highly recommend it but you should be in a decent mental state before reading – the book is almost psychologically abusive in how well in portrays suffering.” – scheyst

Plot Summary: One of the most important and controversial writers of the 20th century, Knut Hamsun made literary history with the publication in 1890 of this powerful, autobiographical novel recounting the abject poverty, hunger and despair of a young writer struggling to achieve self-discovery and its ultimate artistic expression. The book brilliantly probes the psychodynamics of alienation and obsession, painting an unforgettable portrait of a man driven by forces beyond his control to the edge of self-destruction. Hamsun influenced many of the major 20th-century writers who followed him, including Kafka, Joyce and Henry Miller. Required reading in world literature courses, the highly influential, landmark novel will also find a wide audience among lovers of books that probe the “unexplored crannies in the human soul” (George Egerton).

3. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “I had been far too obsessed with technical minutia and completely forgot the core of what it is to be human: to enjoy people for who they are instead of what. I have since tried to live more childlike and get to know people based on preferences and personality instead of trivia (where they’re from, how many siblings, job title, etc). I feel this has enabled me to forge better relationships and skip all the lame water cooler banter I see so frequently in movies about office settings.

That was a few years ago and it’s been a constant struggle to avoid becoming what I considered a “typical adult”. It’s brought me further away from “boring” people and closer to more interesting people. I probably need to reread it again because I can feel myself becoming lame again.” – jeremiahs_bullfrog

Plot Summary: Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

4. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl. “This book probably saved my life. I have been depressed since I was a child. Heavily treatment-resistant. Nothing has ever worked at all. God knows how much money my family spent on therapies and drugs trying to keep me alive.

In one of my papers at uni, a guy I knew talked about this book. Saying it was the most important thing he had ever read. So I figured, why not give it a read? He was from a similar environment so maybe I’d find it interesting.

The perspective that Frankl gives fascinated me. Instead of happiness or pleasure he focuses on meaning – how those who had a sense of meaning would survive while those without it were more likely to die. I couldn’t hope for happiness, pleasure or normalcy, but meaning was something both measurable and attainable.

So I changed my focus to be meaning-oriented. Depression isn’t likely to go away, but as long as there’s meaning in the suffering, it could be endured.

My life became more stable after that. I became focused on where I needed to go to achieve the things I identified. I went from C grades to A grades. I’ve finished my MSc and started on my PhD. Both focused on searching for biomarkers in depression/anxiety. The depression has never left, but I’m more stable than ever before. All due in a large way to that book.” – AkoTehPanda

“I was also resistant to every treatment, the pain of existing was unbearable, and when I wasn’t resigned to give up, my question was only ever “How do I fix this?” Then this book hit me with “A man who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how“.” – [deleted]

Plot Summary: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory – known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”) – holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.

5. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman. “This book really helped me put in perspective the important things in life and helped me realize that materialistic things and petty life drama don’t mean anything compared to your inner peace. It also gave me a new appreciation for nature and the universe. Sounds kinda corny, but it’s a really amazing book.” – [deleted]

“There’s a certain pretentiousness to philosophical and spiritual groups that leads them to believe that great truths can’t come in simple packages. Things have to be terribly complex or they’re without merit. This book successfully tosses that notion out on its ear. Through this simple story, centered around a young man trying to find his inner peace and meaning, Dan Millman manages to touch on the most important things in life. He gives the reader a blueprint for happiness. At any point when I feel unhappy, or like my life is heading the wrong direction, I like to reread this book and remember what happiness means, and how to achieve it.” – [deleted]

Plot SummaryWay of the Peaceful Warrior is based on the story of Dan Millman, a world champion athlete, who journeys into realms of romance and magic, light and darkness, body, mind, and spirit. Guided by a powerful old warrior named Socrates and tempted by an elusive, playful woman named Joy, Dan is led toward a final confrontation that will deliver or destroy him. Readers join Dan as he learns to live as a peaceful warrior. This international bestseller conveys piercing truths and humorous wisdom, speaking directly to the universal quest for happiness.

6. Island, by Aldous Huxley. “Island is the antithesis of Brave New World. In the book, he shows how humans can use things like sex, drugs, science, technology, religion to enhance their own humanity, rather than become disconnected from it, like in Brave New World and 1984. It changed my life big time, much like Brave New World and 1984, but in a much more positive, optimistic way.” – [deleted]

One of my favorite quotes: “Believing in eternal life never helped anybody to live in eternity. Nor, of course, did disbelieving. So stop your pro-ing and con-ing and get on with the job – which is our own enlightenment.” – [deleted]

Plot Summary: In Island, his last novel, Huxley transports us to a Pacific island where, for 120 years, an ideal society has flourished. Inevitably, this island of bliss attracts the envy and enmity of the surrounding world. A conspiracy is underway to take over Pala, and events begin to move when an agent of the conspirators, a newspaperman named Faranby, is shipwrecked there. What Faranby doesn’t expect is how his time with the people of Pala will revolutionize all his values and—to his amazement—give him hope.

7. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. “I got a lot out of that book but one line stuck with me the most, “Flask, alas, was a butterless man!”. In context, it is about him banning himself from eating butter because he feels that he is not high up enough to deserve something that is so scarce, when in fact no one would care if he ate it. It made me realize that a lot of my perceived limitations in life have been self inflicted.” – SgtChuckles

“”There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.”
Really made me think about what comforts I want to pursue in life, what I would have to give up to achieve them, and if I would actually be more comfortable with them.” – [deleted]

Plot Summary“It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humor, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

8. Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. “It’s about a famous Nazi propagandist during World War II who secretly supplies vital information to the Allies in an attempt to help end the war. His true status as a spy is unknown to the public. He is only seen as someone whose work fueled the holocaust and, during the events of the novel, is currently standing trial as a war criminal. The entire book is his internal struggle of “the greater good” and personal accountability while he shares his story from behind bars.

The story is absolutely depressing and warns about becoming something that you were only pretending to be. “Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.” Please read it.” – RobSwanDive

Plot SummaryMother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy during World War II, is now on trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. But is he really guilty? In this brilliant book rife with true gallows humor, Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of gray with a verdict that will haunt us all.

9. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. “I am an addict and have dealt with mental illness for as long as I can remember. While the novel does include a lot of potential solutions for the issues it highlights, what helped me the most was finally understanding that my worldview isn’t necessarily unique. Realizing that there was someone else out there that understood what I felt so alone going through was really very eye-opening and, although I’ve slipped a few times since and things aren’t exactly great, randomly picking it up and reading my favorite passages has proven to be a good way to calm down whenever I catch myself losing control. It is, in my opinion, the most accurate representation of addiction and mental illness (at least for me, I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience.) Even the writing style itself just clicks for me — it feels like reading my own thoughts.

A lot of novels have impacted me in very real ways, but none more than Infinite Jest.” – nothingcleverleft

Plot Summary: A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America.

Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.

Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human—and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.

10. Persepolis (I and II) by Marjane Satrapi. “I’m sure it was partly that I was sixteen and angry when I read it, and partly that I was stuck in a controlling religious environment that I didn’t realize was harmful. At the time, I was dedicated and devout, and all my frustration was directed inward to myself.

It was the book that made me realize that it’s okay to question God, and that when I’m confused or lost I should “educate myself” instead of always seeking instruction from authority figures. The book didn’t talk me out of religion right then, but it taught me that seeking knowledge and thinking for myself is valid and good. I’ve reread it over and over and a decade later, I’m working as a nanny and it’s influenced how I raise children.” – redcheekedsalamander

Plot SummaryPersepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.

Emily Parker is a musician, writer, and avid reader who started Bucket List Book Reviews, the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ project. For Sweatpants & Coffee, Emily hopes to inspire the reading of the classics by a whole new audience by only reviewing the really good stuff.

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