The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963
Rebecca Deczynski, editorial assistant, @rebeccadecz
Age I Read It: 16
Favorite Line: "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."
How It Changed Me: Before I had the pleasure of attending a feminist liberal arts college, this book was the first time that I ever read about a female protagonist struggling to balance the opposing dynamics of complacency and ambition in an unforgiving, patriarchal world. Just like Esther Greenwood, I saw my life branching out before me like a blooming fig tree.
Eventually I'd follow in Esther's footsteps as a magazine intern in New York, and while my experience may have greatly differed from hers, I've always taken solace in the fact that not everyone has their entire life figured out. The Bell Jar provided comfort and company in the face of existential dread—and six years later, I'm reaching for more than one fig.
White Noise by Don Delillo, 1985
Rebecca Bates, senior editor, @re.beccabates
Age I Read It: 17
Favorite Line: "I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east."
How It Changed Me: "The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus"—that opening sentence alone is mesmerizing. Delillo's imagery and prose are always brutal and funny. He mocks the absurdity of academia, while laying down a background of insidious consumer culture and postmodern anxiety (the protagonist and his wife are terrified of death to the point of obsession). The plot crackles like static and then erupts into an incident that becomes known as the "airborne toxic event." As a writer, I suddenly wanted to master the ability to write about disorienting shifts in culture with such lyrical aplomb.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Catherine Fuentes, managing editor, @cat_fuentes
Age I Read It: 15
Favorite Line: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you."
How It Changed Me: Despite always being a voracious reader, English was never my favorite subject in school—until I read Jane Eyre. Jane was a character who taught me the importance of having a strong sense of self at a time when my insecurities were at an all-time high. I learned to speak up and be my own advocate, the importance of forgiveness, and that there's no such thing as perfection.
These lessons were critical for a teenager, but are just as important to remember now as an adult. Reading a book with a strong female protagonist set me down a path to constantly seek out books written by female authors. It also influenced my decision to study English in college. Now, Jane Eyre has jumped to the top of my summer reading list so I can see how it impacts me all these years later.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, 1990
Natalia Tyndall, administrative assistant, @tallylabella
Age I Read It: 17
Favorite Lines: "You're twenty-one years old, you're scared, and there's a hard squeezing pressure in your chest. What would you do? Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you're leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?"
How It Changed Me: My favorite chapter, "On Rainy River," details the main character's anguish over being drafted into the Vietnam War. I read it over and over. The fact that O'Brien could write in a way that made a teenage girl from the New Jersey suburbs feel a kinship with his protagonist and feel the heartbreaking effects of war is still incredible to me.
I found this book at the perfect age: I was still going through that selfish teenager phase, but I was just on the cusp of adulthood. The writing totally popped the little bubble I was in. Even though I read a loaner copy for a class assignment, I ran out to Barnes & Noble and bought my own copy right after handing it back in.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean, 1990
Mallory Rice, deputy editor, @mallory-rice
Age I Read It: 18
Favorite Lines: "Saturday night is when you want to do what you want to do and not what you have to do. In the extreme, this leads to what I think of as the Fun Imperative: the sensation that a Saturday night not devoted to having a good time is a major human failure and possible evidence of a character flaw. The particularly acute loneliness you can feel on a Saturday night is the Fun Imperative unrequited."
How It Changed Me: A little more than 25 years ago, Susan Orlean had a really good idea for a book: She'd travel around the United States spending Saturdays in different cities and towns, and then report back on what she discovered about how Americans choose to spend the most anticipated night of the week. The resulting book takes readers to quinceañeras, divey lounges, main drags, comfy couches, and a weird place in Miami billed as a "longevity center."
Orlean's approach to the style of writing known as New Journalism felt totally fresh to me, it wasn't macho and overbearing like some of the other authors I'd read—she was open and endlessly fascinated and always used her personal experiences to illuminate the subject, not to overpower it. Lots of literary journalists like to talk about how maintaining a sense of curiosity is the key to their success. But I've never read anyone who strikes me as more sincerely curious than Orlean—it's a great model for writing and not a bad one for living, either.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891
Chantal Strasburger, assistant editor, @chantagold
Age I Read It: 17
Favorite Line: "A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away."
How It Changed Me: I was pretty serious about sculpture when I discovered Thomas Hardy, and I immediately began a series of gigantic ceramic figures inspired by his dark, complicated protagonists and their tragic and hopeless lives. Specifically: Tess. The pieces were large, with gaping eyes and long, twisted necks. It was the first time I really took a tortured character out of a book and tried to understand them in another medium. Working on that collection resulted in many hours of sculpting and reflecting, thinking and soul-searching (needless to say, I was a high school art student with a lot of emotions).
Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks, 2000
Abbey Maxbauer, editorial intern, @abbeymaxbauer
Age I Read It: 17
Favorite Line: "As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized."
How It Changed Me: I have always been on board with the idea of gender equality, but when I read Feminism Is for Everybody, I began to think more about the complexity of the feminist ideology. The society we've built requires us to educate ourselves about the many roadblocks standing in the way of what bell hooks saw as a more equitable feminist future. I was deeply changed by learning about the concepts of privilege and sisterhood—my worldview has undeniably shifted for the better.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, 1970
Chanel Parks, assistant editor, @chanelinezp
Age I Read It: 21
Favorite Lines: "Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion."
How It Changed Me: The Bluest Eye is one of the rare books that has made me cry—sob, in fact. The novel's protagonist is Pecola Breedlove, an almost-orphan who encounters intense racism; she becomes convinced that she's ugly, and pines for the quintessential whitewashed standard of beauty: blue eyes. When I read this—not having learned to fully grasp my identity and express myself as a black woman—it was extremely powerful.
I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, and while I thankfully never encountered the same discrimination as Pecola, I felt the pain of what it's like to be ostracized because of the color of your skin. I had come face-to-face with the toxic thoughts that I wasn't good enough, sometimes believing that life would be better if only I had different hair. As I embarrassingly cried in a corner of my college's library, I realized I wanted to help younger generations facing these unhealthy standards, and write about a spectrum of beauty—look at me now!
The Color of Water by James McBride, 1995
Molly Elizalde, associate editor, @mollyelizalde
Age I Read It: 16
Favorite Line: "In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere—on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, 'two up, three down,' just like old times."
How It Changed Me: As a high school student, I read anything I could get my hands on, but for some reason, rarely outside the genre of fiction. In a writing class in 11th grade, I was assigned James McBride's memoir The Color of Water and a whole world of creative nonfiction and essay-writing opened up to me. Reading McBride's honest and personal account of his upbringing (one of 12 black children to a white mother) made something something in my brain click. I used this book as an example the first time I wrote my own personal essay, which was also the first time I took real joy in writing.
Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, 1992
Stefan Marolachakis, senior editor, @stefanmymind
Age I Read It: 18
Favorite Lines: "Sometimes I heard voices muttering in my head, and a lot of the time the world seemed to smolder around its edges. But I was in a little better physical shape every day, I was getting my looks back, and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me. All these weirdos, and me getting a little better right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us."
How It Changed Me: When my older sister moved into her first apartment, she immediately invited me over to check it out. After giving me a tour (which consisted of a quick arm gesture and a "This is it!"), she grabbed a copy of Jesus' Son off the shelf. "I think you're going to like this one," she said.
I opened it up, intending only to scan the first page; when I looked up a couple of hours later, I realized I'd just finished reading the last page. Johnson tells the tale of a young drifter through a series of vignettes, each focusing on a different misadventure. I'd never known a book could be so breezy and so weighty at the same time. Night fell, and I left clutching the book tightly, wishing I could wrap the words around me and wear them home like a coat. I wanted in.
What was the first book that changed you? Share it with your friends!