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The Books That Changed Us

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Students share book recommendations for finding new meaning or seeing the world differently.


Growing up, I liked to read so much it was almost annoying. On the day I got my first library card, I borrowed the maximum number of books I was allowed. From then on, I would go to the library with my rolling suitcase in tow so that I could empty whole shelves to take home with me. I remember many late nights when I hid beneath my covers, flashlight in hand, and read fantastical novels about adventures in faraway places. In the morning, I’d wake to the smell of pressed pages with words inked onto my cheek; whatever book I had been reading had served not only as a temporary pillow for the night, but also as a beacon to the world of my love for the written word. 


That childhood love was annoying, yes, but genuine: it has propelled me through a degree in English, several book clubs, a lengthy list of options for friends’ birthday gifts (books, of course), and more. But for several years, while working long hours in corporate America, I stopped reading altogether. 


I’ve started to return to it in the last few months, rediscovering the joy of diving into a really good book. Here was this thing I had loved all along, this thing I had always known but somehow forgotten. As a new RC at HBS, I don’t want to let that slip away.


If you can relate, or if you’re looking to read something other than cases this semester, start here. Students from across HBS wrote in with the books that have had the biggest impact on their lives. We have selected eleven to share with you.


If you’re looking for examples of leadership

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

“Before coming to HBS I went on a cross-country road trip. Reading through the early-life adventures of Roosevelt (a hunter, traveler, and budding conservationist) while camping in the Badlands, Flathead Forest, and the California Redwoods had a big effect on me. Coincidentally I read about his fiction-like ranching adventures (including some serious fights) in the North Dakota Badlands while camping a mile from his home-base in Medora, ND and could see the pages jump to life right in front of me!” – Eric Horne, MBA ’24


Walking with Destiny by Andrew Robert

“Andrew Robert’s biography of Winston Churchill is the most meaningful non-fiction book I’ve ever read. What stands out is the sheer relentless energy and inexhaustible willpower of a leader who stood alone against the Nazis and would-be appeasers for months before America entered the war. For anyone interested in leadership in times of crisis and acting with conviction and moral certitude amidst great tragedy and suffering, Robert’s biography of Churchill is a must-read.” –  John Pedro, MBA ’24


If you like thought-provoking fiction

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

“It’s rare to find books that combine magistral storytelling with prose so beautiful it reads like poetry. This book does just that. A Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, All the Light We Cannot See narrates the intermingling stories of a blind French girl and a young German soldier during the ending days of the Second World War. It is an important reminder that there are always two sides to a story, even in the painful realities of war.”  – Paulina Llano, MBA ’22


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“This novel revolves around a group of privileged, brilliant undergraduates under the tutelage and influence of an idiosyncratic Classics professor. Aside from providing me a renewed appreciation for my high school Latin courses, Tartt’s novel was a prescient reminder to be wary of powerful figures in (and outside of) academia, especially those with evident narcissistic traits. It is an eye-opening depiction of how highly stimulating intellectual environments might give rise to zealots, idolatry, and the most extreme experimentation.” – Catalina Piccato, MBA ’24


If you want to learn about something new or niche

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

“This book was introduced to me in 2018 just as blockchain was entering the mainstream. I love the premise—that there are two types of games in this world. Finite games are games you play to win, are bounded by rules and time; infinite games are games you play for the game to never end. It’s an excellent metaphor that can be broadly and metaphysically applied to many aspects of life.” – Celeste Chia, MBA ’23


The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

“The book explores the design of everyday objects such as coffee pots, but also delves into more complex objects such as aircraft and nuclear power systems. As someone with little experience in design prior to reading the book, it was immediately accessible and relevant. It broadened my outlook on the importance of design and the ways it affects action, and directly affected the quality of my work doing test and evaluation flights for the Marines.” – Mark Betzel, MBA ’24


If you’re searching for advice or motivation

Couples That Work: How Dual Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and at Work by Jennifer Petriglieri

“I read this book when my wife moved from her place of comfort, left her job, and joined me on a small island in the Indian Ocean where we’d first met. In our search for wisdom on how other couples navigated the journey and the complex decisions in negotiating individual careers and couple-level needs, I found the research and insights from this book stimulated meaningful conversations for us about the principles that ultimately guide us now.” – Theodore Sutherland, MBA ’24


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

“Angela Duckworth presents a new paradigm on achieving greatness: grit is the key. It’s a combination of passion and perseverance, which are inextricable. She touches on accepting failures as a process of learning, the value of showing up, and following through with commitments. If you’d like to read a book that resonates with who you were and inspires you with who you can be, then Grit should be the next companion you bring while sipping on a cup of coffee.” – Justine Malabanan, MBA ‘24


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

“Writing as the once anonymous ‘Sugar,’ Cheryl Strayed received thousands of questions from people around the world each year. She would answer with stories from her own life that covered everything from love and loss to addiction to family and growing up. I’ve gifted this book 10+ times to friends who’ve lost loved ones, gone through a breakup, started a new chapter of life, or were simply just in need of inspiration. It’s my ‘bible’—the one book whose lines are a constant drumbeat in the background of daily life.” – Rory Finnegan, MBA ‘24


If you want to go deep 

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

“This book was given to me by a friend when my grandfather got sick, when we thought his life was coming to a close. It’s about elderly care and how different options influence quality of life, dignity, and health outcomes. But it’s also about the importance of difficult conversations and the realities of accepting a nearing death to make the most of the time you have left. There are many deeply personal stories that resonated.” – Brian Hauer, MBA ‘24


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

“This is a memoir of a neurosurgeon who, at 37 years old, is dying of lung cancer. Paul reflects on the question of what makes a life worth living when everything he had worked for and that defined him was being stripped away in a reversal of the doctor-patient roles. The book not only made me think about the meaning of my own life, it also made me reflect on the most basic elements of the human spirit that give life its depth; in Paul’s words, ‘hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.’” – Hazel Tan, MBA ’24


***


In books, we search for ourselves. We seek characters or authors we can relate to, in similar phases of life. We look for the right string of words to describe the things we feel and experience. If we are lucky, books teach us something. If we are really lucky, they change us.

 

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