37 Life-Changing Books You Won’t Be Able to Put Down

Illustration of a woman reading books next to a lamp


These reads will answer questions you didn’t know you had.

How much empty space do you currently have on your bookshelf? Whatever your answer, we guarantee you’ll need more after browsing this no-duds list of astounding reads.

We’re big bookworms here at Katie Couric Media, so sharing recommendations is one of our favorite pastimes. We’ve got favorites in just about every category: suspenseful thrillers, steamy romance, nonfiction by inspiring women, books about friendship, beach reads, and essay collections, to name a few. (And, of course, we can’t forget Katie’s all-time favorites!)

But as any dedicated reader knows, there’s a vast difference between good books and great books — and discovering the latter can be a truly metaphysical experience. Some authors are talented enough to reach through the page, seize a firm grip on our hearts and minds, and make us think about the world in a way we never did before. And that is the kind of reading experience we’re most interested in.

In pursuit of finding that high more often, we asked the readers of our Wake-Up Call newsletter, who are huge lovers of literature themselves, to share the titles that truly changed their lives. And they seriously delivered! (We also got a few A+ recommendations from our CEO, John Molner.) Below you’ll find a diverse selection of books that offers a little bit of everything, from gripping novels to raw and revealing memoirs to eye-opening nonfiction. They’re very different in terms of who wrote them and what they’re about, but what they have in common is their special ability to stay with you long after you’ve closed the cover.

37 Books That Will Change Your Life

Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind by Barbara Becker

“I love metaphors, and the central metaphor of Heartwood is one that will stay with you, prepare you for your next loss, and help you to make sense of all previous losses. Heartwood is the central core of a tree, which is no longer alive but provides structural support for the living, growing rings of the tree, and all its branches and leaves. While reading, I kept thinking of my parents, who passed away in 2010 and 2017. Now I see that they are still with me, they are and will always be part of what holds me up, just as I will someday become heartwood for my family and friends. But it’s not just a book to give to people facing loss. It’s also a book that will help you live more fully, and be more present for whatever time you have left.” – Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of books including The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found by Frank Bruni

“A few years ago, Frank Bruni woke up to discover he’d suddenly lost vision in one eye — and there was a real possibility that he might one day lose sight in the other one, too. But he isn’t the least interested in self-pity, and as he told me in a fascinating conversation, the question he asked wasn’t ‘why me?’ but ‘why NOT me?’ This engrossing read isn’t morose or ominous — it’s just totally honest.” – John Molner

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

“This is one of the best novels I have ever read. It takes us through a heart-wrenching period of WWII, mostly through the lives of a German boy with a talent for repairing radios and a lovely French girl who is blind. Doerr’s style of writing is clear and precise so each chapter is an event seen by the opposite forces of the war. Brilliantly done! What I truly appreciated was that he didn’t simply end the story leaving you lost and raw. Instead, knowing the reader will need to grieve, he gave you a little more, which allowed us a sense of closure. I cannot recommend this book enough.” – Yvonne Seay

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“I’ve read this book at least 100 times. It’s my go-to book when I need an escape — and when I need motivation to keep moving forward.” – Robin McKay

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

“I was in my 30s when I first read this book and discovered the story of a shepherd trying to follow his dream, written in a very intriguing way. I read it again several years later, and I wound up going to seminary school to become a non-denominational ordained minister. This book always reminds me to follow my heart, follow my dream, and walk the path that I am intended to be on.” – Celine Price

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a multigenerational story that takes place in Korea and Japan. In the early 1900s, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she’s pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.” – Rebecca Logeman

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

“I am a 26-year educator and a librarian, and this is one book I think of constantly. It’s a memoir of growing up with religious fanatics. I am not one to be moved to tears by much, but the last chapter had me bawling. I did not pick up another book for weeks because I still couldn’t get this one out of my head.” – Tammy Reed

After This: When Life Is Over, Where Do We Go? by Claire Bidwell Smith

“My beloved husband, who I knew since I was 12 years old (going on 70 now), passed away two years ago. The grief is sometimes unbearable, and I’ve searched for ways to understand. This book opened my eyes, heart, and mind to believing that he’s here in so many different forms and my love for him will sustain me.” – Marsha Bank

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

“This book tells an important story that needs to be shared. It tells us what slavery and indentured servitude were like in the early days of our country. While it is fiction, I felt it told a more complete story than the history textbooks I was required to read in high school.” – Helen Unangst

We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship by Will Schwalbe

“I don’t just love Will Schwalbe’s writing — I’ve considered him a close friend for 40 years now. This book explores an improbable connection he made with a classmate at Yale. Though the two couldn’t have been more different in their backgrounds and passions, the tight-knit friendship they formed has grown and endured over decades. It’s such an eye-opening read that I caught up with Will to talk about the process of writing it.” – John Molner

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams

“I have read this book many times, and each time I read it, I discover something else to carry with me that brings me joy. Both of these amazing humans have so much to offer us in the way of gratitude, even in our darkest moments. I recommend it to anyone who asks me about my favorite books, and everyone who reads it tells me it was life-changing.” – Lisa Adcock

Still Life by Sarah Winman

“This extraordinary novel is made up of beautifully crafted characters similar to people in my own life that I knew, wanted to know, or wish to forget. The extraordinary passages about the importance of art in our lives, with the background of WWII Italy and its aftermath, touched my soul in a manner that few stories have before. Upon completing the book, I looked at my husband and told him that I had to return to Florence because I missed the art. He read the book and felt the same way. I adore Italy, and this novel made me realize why I must return.” – Emily Rossi-Snook

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

“While most read this in high school, I did not. I entered college later than most, and we read this book for expository writing. I was 28 and it was an eye-opener. It taught me God is nature and is everywhere. You get what you get when you need it.” – Maggie Ostroff

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

“Every American must read this book. It examines so many things that aren’t taught thoroughly or talked about enough: simple plain truths as to why some have had economical advantages based on generations before, and some startling facts like how Hitler studied America’s model for the treatment of Black Americans. It’s jam-packed with information that we all need to begin to see things through other people’s eyes and come together as one United States of America. It’s truly a life-changing book.” – Teri Myers

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp

“I read this book probably 10+ years ago, and its story still impacts me today. I cried so deeply and cathartically from being seen as a woman — a validation of both the struggles and magic being a woman brings. Such a beautifully told story of the artist’s life that makes her human and relatable.” – Kristin Hatfield

Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

“I’ve read a number of books to learn more about the experience of being Black in America (I’m caucasian), and Waking Up White is the first one that really opened my eyes to issues that white people can misunderstand due to ignorance, even when they have good intentions.” – Julia Baker

The Mother of All Dilemmas: Dreams of Motherhood and the Internship that Changed Everything by Kathleen Guthrie Woods

“This memoir really helped me come to grips with being a non-parent. As a gay man, in my younger years I often assumed I’d wind up being a dad in some creative way, but it didn’t work out. So now that I’m older and have read this book, I can see the advantages of not having children and how happiness doesn’t depend on parenthood — and I never have to negotiate with an irrational toddler or pay for someone else’s college tuition.” – Tim Bryant

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

“This modern-day retelling of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield hit close to home. For the rest of my days, I will love Damon Fields, the main character. Despite an absolutely horrible lot in life, he just wants to be loved and never gives up despite one devastating setback after another. The book had parts I dreaded reading because I knew the outcome would be awful, but I couldn’t not read it. I cried many times, and sometimes I cry just thinking about it because it was such a deeply emotional story. But I’m better for having read it, and frankly, everyone should read it. It sheds light on a part of our society that most want to ignore, but so many in our country are affected by every day.” – Jeron Hayes

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

“This book tells a story about racism and regret. It shares both sides of a story and illustrates how, based on how you’re raised, racism can be ingrained from childhood. Ultimately, it’s the choices you make as an adult that can change how you interact as a human. I recommend this book to everyone, especially in these trying times.” – Sherri Crow

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff

“This is a book that reminds us that we aren’t responsible for others or the choices they make in life. It doesn’t mean we love them less (or care less), but in the end, it’s up to that person to choose their own path. I needed this book to take the burden off me for someone in my life that struggles with addiction and other issues.” – Vicki Nelson

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

“This book changed my life, and I read it every year as a reminder. I originally read it along with Oprah and watched her weekly discussions with the author. Mindfulness was a new concept to me. Learning to get out of my head and embrace the present moment lead me to a new freedom from thinking and overthinking. Learning about my ego and how it was really controlling so many thoughts and actions brought a whole new perspective to my life.” – Bridget Burke

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

“I had recently lost my husband after we had moved away from friends and family to live in our dream city. After sitting in silence for almost a year with the thought what do I do now?, I picked up this book. I felt like Sheryl was speaking to me. Cheering me on. Giving me a reason to keep going and figure out what to do next. Seven years later, I am living my best life.” – Lynn Beran

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

“Besides the fact that this novel is so well written and the characters and story are fantastic, the book made me realize the kind of discrimination women endured in the 1950s. It made me think about my own mother and how limited her career options were. We really have come a long way.” – Eileen Woods

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

“This book told me I could follow the life of my dreams, that I could reconnect through nature, and to pull up my bootstraps and power through difficult times. Through Cheryl’s misguided attempts, I learned that life is full of mistakes, but you learn from them and move on. It’s one of the few nonfiction books that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed.” – Dana Hartmann

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“This novel really resonated with me — and the fact that I’m not a teenage boy from the Midwest in the 1950s makes that even more remarkable. The story takes place over 10 days and covers half of the United States. It’s a total escape from today’s trying times. The world that Towles creates is a snapshot of another time and place — a perfect read.” – Sharon Steckline

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

“You don’t hear much about this novel. It’s a story about Southern prejudice in the 1940s and the challenges that women faced at that time. The background of the story is the New Deal program that commissioned 1,400 murals to be painted in post offices across the country. It switches between past and present-day and addresses the impact of rape on women and girls’ mental health.” – Kim Terry

“There were so many levels of this novel that struck me: Illiteracy. An older woman’s relationship with a much younger man. However, what really stuck in my mind was her question: What would you do when put in a situation where the lives of others — or your own life — is at stake? What would you really do? We all think that we’d do the right thing, but when it comes down to it, would we? The question still haunts me.” – Anita Stroud

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“This book has stayed with me since I read it. It probably took me almost a month of sobbing, putting it down, picking it back up, repeat, before I could get through it.” – Katie Collimore

Finding Me by Viola Davis

“This is my new favorite book. Viola Davis is a force to learn from — and has been since she was a little girl. I learned so much about being human, what family means, forgiving, and not trying to rewrite our past. I couldn’t put this book down.” – Lorrie Hambling

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

“This book brought to life three people who participated in the Great Migration. Each individual touched my life, and they will always be with me. This book also contributed to a massive, five-plus years-long personal project to learn a more accurate version of American history.” – Peggi Johnson

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

“The soaring satisfaction of justice prevailing and delivering it in a well-thought-out strategy is superb. Then there are the unequivocal themes of faith, hope, and love. The story inspires faith that the good will be rewarded and the bad will have their comeuppance. Then there’s the love that was denied but never lost or forgotten. And finally, hope — the power of hope resonates with people no matter what age or background. I read this book when I was 18, then right before graduating college, and years later again in my 30s. I love it so much.” – Nel Aronce

The Push by Ashley Audrain

“Oh my goodness, I couldn’t tell you the last time I couldn’t put down a book. I changed plans so I could read this book. My cousin flew in from Canada to visit me in Colorado and I handed her the book. She hung around the house to read instead of hiking. It’s that good! It’s juicy and dark and will put you on the edge of your seat, consistently wondering where the story is going.” – Renee Goldberg

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

“Reading this changed the way I relate to people and look at the past. I think about this book every single day.” – Kate Lentz

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

“I have struggled with anxiety my whole life, before I even knew there was a word to describe what I was feeling. This book changed my outlook on it and was super educational at the same time. If you have anxiety, I highly encourage this read.” – Emma Schilling

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

“I was blown away by this true story. The title tells us it isn’t a happy one: It traces Rob Peace’s remarkable but sad life, from the desperate streets of Newark, N.J. (where he was a star water polo player, exceptional student, and drug dealer) to his unlikely acceptance at Yale (and a full scholarship from a Newark benefactor). Rob’s randomly-assigned roommate is a quiet, gifted student and long-distance runner from the Philadelphia suburbs, and the two form an unlikely friendship. After Rob is tragically killed in a drug-related crime before he turns 30, his friend Jeff Hobbs explores how someone so exceptional was unable to escape the circumstances of his tragically short life. It’s a beautiful tribute to his friend — and a stark reminder of the unfair advantages and circumstances that too often steer our destiny.” – John Molner

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

“This is an eye-opening book! Mennonite communities are everywhere — Canada, Mexico, and even Belize. To think women have been subjected to drugged rapes and treated as second-class citizens of this world is truly shocking.” – Ginger Ellerslie

Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

“This isn’t Cosmopolitan-like advice about how to please your man. This book explains what makes women’s bodies tick, how their bodies and minds react to stimuli, relationships, stress, and that voice inside their heads that can encourage or destroy the joy of sex. It normalizes sex and gives women permission to pursue whatever they want and need to enjoy sex. Truly a game changer for women of all ages.” – Alison Burris