20 Must-Read Books About Life (Fiction & Nonfiction)
What you’re about to read is a pair of lists — one of fiction and the other nonfiction. These are all, in some way, books about life. But that definition is going to mean something different to everyone.
For that reason, we’ve done our best to provide as much variety as possible here (and, to that end, this list will be periodically updated).
What does variety mean here? Well, you’ll find a good mix of books about life by women and men; by white writers and writers of colour; by English-language authors and writers in translation from German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and more.
Variety also means a good range of themes and topics explored. These are all life-changing books (or, at least, books with the potential to change your life), but not all of them will be each reader’s cup of tea. And so, variety is necessary.
Some of these books are about living free, without constraint. Some are warnings against living a bad life (and what that means). Others are about life’s meaning and life’s purpose.
Some of these books are positive, hopefully, hedonistic. Others are dark and bleak, but with important lessons to teach.
All of these are books about life, but very much in their own unique way. They’re about work, family, parenthood, friendship. They’re about structure and purpose and motivation. They’re about politics and economics and race and class and feminism.
One final note: this is a list of good books about life. For that reason, you’ll find nothing toxic here. No Jordan Peterson. We’ve also avoided the useless and the over-worshipped. No Paolo Coelho and no Matt Haig.
These are all potentially life-changing books; useful, actionable, inspiring books about life. Enjoy.
Fiction Books About Life
Fiction has the power to teach us great lessons. It uses language and character and tone to inspire empathy and encourage big ideas.
These are all books about life, but each in their own unique way. We’ll discuss here their themes and ideas and characters, and how these things relate to life.
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
The book that put Sayaka Murata on the map as one of the biggest names in Japanese literature, Convenience Store Woman is one of those potentially life changing books that gets readers thinking about what success and personal satisfaction actually mean.
The novel’s protagonist is a woman who has worked for eighteen years at a convenience store. She enjoys her existence as a cog in the machine. She has no aspirations for love and marriage, nor for money and fame.
She does not wish for more responsibilities. She is content with her lot in life, much to the confusion of everyone else in her life, from family to friends to colleagues.
Convenience Store Woman is one of the sharpest books about life, in that it asks us to consider why we want the things we desire. Who are we making happy when we seek promotions, money, and relationships?
How do we find happiness and contentment? These things look different for each of us, and that’s okay. Convenience Store Woman asks big questions about the search for happiness and life satisfaction, making it one of the most truly potentially life changing books of today.
Few books about life in existence are as raw and smart as Kazuo Ishiguro’s magnum opus: Never Let Me Go.
Written by one of the UK’s most beloved and literary authors, Never Let Me Go is a subtly science fiction novel about a woman who grew up in a seemingly peaceful boarding school, and now works as a carer or some kind.
As we search through her memories, we see that she was taught about art and literature, taught to make art and play with others, but life at Hailsham is insular and private, with the outside world remaining a mystery.
Never Let Me Go is, inarguably, one of the biggest and best examples of life changing books ever written. It explores the theme of purpose in myriad ways: the purpose of education, of work, of art, of learning, of discovery, and even the purpose of the human body.
As books about life go, few are as far-reaching and heavy-hitting as Never Let Me Go.
The original science fiction novel, written by a young woman who had not yet hit twenty years of age. An undisputed masterpiece of classic literature and early sci-fi. But Frankenstein is also one of the best books about life you’ll ever read.
I’m a little biased here; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is my favourite novel. But it’s that for a reason: Frankenstein is a novel about human responsibility and hubris.
Frankenstein tells the story of the titular Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who, upon losing his mother, seeks to cure death itself. He forms a new being from body parts and reanimates it, only to run from it in terror.
And here is where the themes come into play. Frankenstein is one of those life-changing books that invites readers to consider our responsibility to one another, as parents and friends and teachers and givers of life.
Frankenstein has the power to resonate with anyone who is responsible for anyone else: parents, older siblings, doctors, teachers, caregivers. It asks us to consider one human’s duty to another; our duty to educate, support, comfort, and guide one another.
There aren’t many books about life as powerful as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
If you know anything about Franz Kafka, this may seem like a strange choice for a list of best books about life. At first. What does a novella about a poor man who turns into a bug have to teach us about life? A lot, actually.
The Metamorphosis is Frank Kafka’s most famous story. It begins with Gregor Samsa, a Czech man who lives with his family. One day, he wakes up to find that he is now a big, ugly beetle.
Samsa’s first thought, however, is fear and frustration. He’s going to be late to work. How will he call his boss? How will he explain this? What if he gets fired?
While it might be absurd and darkly funny, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis has a lot to teach us about our relationship to work; about being servants to capitalism and bureaucracy.
For many who first read The Metamorphosis, it proves to be one of those truly life-changing books; one that has us reevaluating our mental and physical relationships to money and work. A very worthwhile read as books about life go.
Yaa Gyasi’s second novel is a piece of literary fiction about the migrant experience in the US. But it’s also a book about science and religion, about family and addiction and survival.
Told from the perspective of Gifty, a Black American woman born of migrant parents from Ghana, Transcendent Kingdom flits between Gifty’s current life as a neurobiologist studying addiction and her childhood, one defined by religion and race and poverty.
Transcendent Kingdom is one of those life-changing books that asks us to consider the migrant experience, the effects of racism and prejudice, and the impact of capitalism on the poorest and most marginalised people.
Using Gifty, her mother, her father, and her late big brother as examples, Transcendent Kingdom examines the comforting and corrupting effects of religion on individuals and families. It looks at how the most vulnerable of us turn to addiction.
By being grounded, topical, and relevant to racist, capitalist American life in the 20th and 21st Centuries, Transcendent Kingdom hails itself as one of the best books about life you can read right now.
Translated from the Korean by Chi-young Kim
While My Brilliant Life might be one of the lesser-known Korean novels in translation, it remains one of the most quietly impactful and life-changing books you could read right now.
My Brilliant Life tells the story of Areum, a boy struck with a degenerative disease. Areum is sixteen and probably won’t live to see eighteen.
Raised by two loving parents in small-town South Korea, Areum has a plan to document his life and that of his parents, then present his finished journal to his parents on his seventeenth birthday.
While this is an undeniable tear-jerker of a Korean novel, it’s also one of the most powerful potentially life-changing books on the shelves. It teaches us to appreciate our days, our experiences, and our families.
My Brilliant Life teaches us how to love well. And, for that reason, it is one of the most incomparable and valuable books about life.
Translated from the Spanish by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
The Adventures of China Iron is a very different kind of novel, especially as books about life go. This is an Argentinian novel all about hedonism. It’s also a queer novel about how to love unapologetically and loudly.
Set in the wilds of 19th Century Argentina, The titular China Iron is a young woman who has already been married, had a child, given that child up, and been abandoned.
All of that quickly changes, however, when she is picked up on the road by a Scottish woman driving a horse and cart. Liz gives China Iron a name and invites her to wander, live, love, and laugh with aplomb.
The Adventures of China Iron is one of those life-changing books that serves as a reminder to enjoy yourself. Whatever your gender or sexuality, you deserve happiness. You deserve to enjoy love and sex and passion and adventure, just as China Iron does.
Here’s an anti-patriarchy book that, quite literally, laughs in the face of oppressive masculinity and heteronormativity. For that reason, it’s one of the most glorious books about life.
Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang
This is not one of those books about life that will inspire you. It’s more of a wake-up call to the disparity and cruel imbalances of our world. To put it bluntly, it’s a book about systems of sexism and patriarchy.
But a book like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 has its place on a list of life-changing books by merit of the lessons it can offer. This is a novelisation of your average woman’s life: a life dictated by unfair disadvantage, societal rules, family pressures, and threats of violence.
While not a pleasant book, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 remains one of those books that change your life for the better. It teaches us to be kinder to women, to fight inequality, to be good feminists, to call out sexism, to march for women’s rights, to be good and righteous.
This one is a bit of a cliche. It’s certainly not uncommon — and pretty expected — to find Slaughterhouse-Five on a list of books that will change your life, or best life-changing books. But that’s, admittedly, for good reason.
Like most World War I & 2 fiction, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a kind of parable; an anti-war novel full of loud and clear themes and motifs that beg us to consider the value and meaning of human life.
Admittedly, Slaughterhouse-Five does this in true Vonnegut fashion: through odd symbolism, wacky science fiction, and often funny surrealism. Nevertheless, the themes are striking and the lessons vivid.
Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the strongest and best books about life, as it explores the meaninglessness of war and the futility of fate and choice. A powerful novel, to say the least.
While this is a book that so many (maybe most) of us were made to read in high school (I was also made to teach it), Of Mice and Men remains one of the most poignant books about life ever written. As relevant today as it was a century ago.
Telling the story of two wandering white men in early 20th Century America, Of Mice and Men is a story that debunks and deconstructs the infamous American Dream. It proves the cyclical nature of the capitalist trap, and shows us a life not worth living.
George and Lenny have a plan to cheat the system, to break the cycle, to live free and smart and proud. But capitalism comes for us all, in the end. For this reason, Of Mice and Men is one of those truly life-changing books of the 20th Century.
Nonfiction Books About Life
Written by women and men from all over the world, these nonfiction books about life have the power to change your way of thinking, to inspire compassion and empathy and a different approach to life.
Some of these books inspire action, others inspire thought. Some are about how we live, others about why we live. Some are about the body, others about the mind. But they are all, in some way, nonfiction books about life.
Nobody in the English language today writes like Yiyun Li. This fact is made all the more impressive when you consider that English is her second language, having moved from Beijing to New York City years ago.
With these writing skills, Yiyun Li has penned several excellent novels, but her most impressive work is the nonfiction Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.
This book, which blends essay and memoir together, reflects on childhood, love, mental health, and death. It was begun after a pair of failed suicide attempts and took two years to complete.
Dear Friend is a meditation on life, death, reading, and writing, as perhaps best demonstrated by this quote from the book:
“Writing is an option, so is not writing; being read is a possibility, so is not being read. Reading, however, I equate with real life: life can be opened and closed like a book; living is a choice, so is not living.”
By being a book on death, Dear Friend also doubles as one of the best books about life you’re ever likely to read.
Rebecca Solnit is a veteran nonfiction writer and essayist. A fierce and electrifying feminist, political activist, and social commentator. From a book on the history of walking to a manifesto against mansplaining, she’s done it all.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit blends meditations on life, art, and loss to create something truly profound. She begins the book with an essay that includes this pearl of wisdom:
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go … Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”
Men who write big, bold books on human history are a dime a dozen these days, but I promise that Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s Humankind is something different; something worth your time.
Its title being a play on words, Humankind sets out to teach us that humanity — culturally, historically, politically, socially, genetically — is far kinder than we often give it credit for. The breadth of scope in Humankind almost beggars belief.
The book debunks psychological experiments built on lies by liars; it finds a real-life example of Lord of the Flies to demonstrate that the novel is cynical nonsense; it rewrites a more truthful and optimistic history of humanity.
For anyone whose faith in humanity often wavers, Bregman’s book is a balm. It is a light in the dark, and a soothing tonic. One of the best life-changing books you’ll ever read.
Irish writer Sinead Gleeson is a beloved and respected woman in many ways, and for many good reasons. In Constellations, Gleeson turns the focus of her writing on her own life — and specifically her own body — as inspiration for discussion about life and love.
In a pure, almost figurative sense, this is one of the best books about life, as it is quite literally about a life: her body, her health, her mind and experiences.
It’s a book about the things that make a life: people, places, thoughts, experiences, the things we love and lose.
Constellations is a tough book, hard-hitting and raw. That’s what makes it one of the best life-changing books you can read.
Translated from the Japanese by Eriko Sugita
Going from a life of excessive spending and self-abuse, Fumio Sasaki decided to part with all of his possessions, except for some very basic things needed for day to day living.
While Fumio Sasak’s approach is a little extreme in some areas, every single lesson he shares in goodbye, things is actionable such as his tips on taking pictures of things you’d like to remember.
We spend more money on buying or renting bigger homes, not to put extra people in but simply to fit in more stuff, which also costs more money.
There are real, practical life lessons in here, making it one of the most visceral life-changing books to read if you want to enact real change in your real life. Truly one of the best books on minimalism out there.
Casper Ter Kuile is a British-born, US-based fellow of Harvard Divinity School, and his book explores the importance of religious ritual in a secular world.
The Power of Ritual begins by considering what church-related practices are lost in an increasingly secular world.
The two most prominent things are community-based practices, in which a group of likeminded people share time and support one another, and personal rituals like prayer.
The Power of Ritual invites secular readers to explore their own habits, hobbies, and personal behaviours, looking at how we can add a spiritual sense of ritual to the everyday, thus enhancing the importance of what we do.
He considers how our favourite novels can become sacred texts. How a community space like Crossfit can become church-like community spaces. It’s a simple concept with an immense amount of potential impact.
This is one of those books that change your life in more ways than one. It can change your attitude to ritual and religion, while also bringing meaning to your hobbies and habits in a way you never would’ve expected.
A world traveller and award-winning author, Elif Shafak’s voice is one worth listening to, regardless of the topic, whether her writing takes the form of fiction or nonfiction.
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a lesson in optimism. It has the power to rekindle our hope and our faith when we all feel so exhausted by climate change, the rise of populism, and more.
It’s a book that can be read over a coffee, with the lyrical strength of poetry and the wisdom of a hundred lifetimes. It has a simple message but it presents that message through personal examples and grounded, cautious optimism.
A beautifully written book that may just help to alleviate some anxiety. And, in this world, that is worth everything. One of the great life-changing books of our time? Very likely, yes.
Translated from the German by Isle Lasch
Of all the nonfiction books that will change your life, Man’s Search for Meaning is perhaps one of the most obvious. You’re likely to find it alongside The Alchemist on many other lists.
The difference is that The Alchemist is full of worthless, empty pseudo-wisdom, while Man’s Search for Meaning actually deserves to be on these lists of life-changing books.
Written in 1946, after the end of World War II, Man’s Search for Meaning is separated into two halves. The first half is a biography of Frankl’s time as a concentration camp prisoner.
This first half uses this space to examine how people find meaning in their suffering and devise a purpose for living. How do they cope? How do they make sense of their situation? How do they find meaning in their life?
In the book’s second half, Frankl lays out his own psychological invention: logotherapy, which was inspired by the events of the book’s first half. Logotherapy encourages people to find meaning in their suffering, in order to better cope with it.
Of all the overly-relied-upon life-changing books out there, Man’s Search for Meaning is a genuinely important one.
Here’s a book that will likely make a lot of people cringe, roll their eyes, or worse (depending on what kind of audience this list has drawn in. But it’s not my job to care. Terry Eagleton is a fantastic critic and philosopher, and Why Marx Was Right is an important book.
I haven’t just added this book to a list of books that will change your life for the hell of it. I’ve done it because this is a book about modern life; it is relevant to right now. It looks at the atrocities thrust on us by capitalist economies and fascist, right-wing leaders.
It then applies the economic and political philosophies of Karl Marx to everything, proving how an application of marxism could, and would, fix so much of our current political climate, in ways that even the staunchest socialist (myself included) would be surprised by.
If you’ve ever suffered at the hands of a conservative government or a capitalist economic system (which, if you’re alive today, you have), then this book is for you. It’s about life and how to make it better as a community, as voters, and as people.
Even though it’s irrelevant, I still think it’s important to know: Robert Sapolsky sounds exactly like Adam West, and that’s super neat.
Robert Sapolsky is also a very cool scientist. In Behave, Sapoksly looks at the habits, rhymes, and reasons of human behaviour from a neurobiological angle.
In Behave, Sapolsky asks the question: why do we behave with aggression or compassion at any given time? He then plies his own expertise and research in order to answer that enormous and daunting question.
The results of this are fascinating. Behave is an enormous and dense book, but one that is worth every second of your time. This is a book about life in the truest, purest sense. It’s about life from the inside out.