50 Successful People and the Books That Influenced Them

Books have the power to transport us to other places and times, to teach us about things beyond our own experience, and to enlighten us to possibilities we had yet to even imagine. In short, books can change who we are and the direction we take our lives, whether by inspiring a passion for learning, creating a new interest, or defining a career path. That’s not high-minded praise for books; it really does happen and there are plenty of examples of lives being changed, or at least heavily influenced at some point, by books. Even better, many of those who’ve found inspiration and insight in books are people that you know by name from literature, movies, television, and business. We’ve listed just a few of them here along with the books they say shaped their lives. Look through the list and, who knows, you may just find a great read that makes a big difference in your life, too.


Learn what books made a big impact on well-known journalists.

  1. Katie Couric: Personal History by Katharine Graham:News correspondent Katie Couric named publisher Katharine Graham’s autobiography Personal History as one of her most life-changing and favorite books. She said, “Katharine Graham’s Personal History is the story of a woman I deeply admire. It takes you through the ebbs and flows of her personal and professional life.”
  2. Piers Morgan: An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan:British journalist Piers Morgan was greatly impacted by this tale of a man who was kidnapped in Beirut and lived in a tiny cell for years. He has said that it made him feel grateful for his life, stating, “I thought, ‘I’m never going to complain about anything ever again.’ I still complain, but I try to temper it.”
  3. Lesley Stahl: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Longtime 60 Minutes fixture Lesley Stahl named this epic Russian tale as one of her favorites, finding it easy to relate to the characters and get drawn into the story. She said that the book changed her and made her realize just how much she loves to read. She has said, “I understood great writing—reading someone who understood human nature, particularly women’s human nature. I slowed down to read it; I relished it.”


In order to write well, you have to do a lot of reading. Learn what some of the best authors read that inspired their work and changed their lives.

  1. Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman: The Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel The Guns of August, which documents the first few months of WWI, inspired now-famous history writer Goodwin to enter the field of history writing, then largely dominated by men. It was from Tuchman that Goodwin said she learned “the importance of being in love with your subject.”
  2. Sherman Alexie: Superman comics: While not a book, comics had just as much of an impact on the life of Sherman Alexie as any novel. They were one of the first places he learned to read and to understand words. He would later move onto the books in his home, collected by his father who was an avid reader, even tackling heavy books like Grapes of Wrath as a kindergartner thanks to his early practice courtesy of Superman.
  3. Jack Prelutsky, A Children’s Garden of Verses by Robert Lewis Stevenson: Unsurprisingly, acclaimed children’s author Jack Prelutsky chose a book for children as the one that changed his life the most. A Children’s Garden of Verses was the first book he remembered reading on his own. He loved the book and feels it may have inspired his fondness for poetry.
  4. Don DeLillo: Dracula by Bram Stoker:Award-winning author DeLillo admits to not reading much as a child, apart from comic books, that is. One of the first books he remembers reading and really enjoying, however, was Dracula. He named the book as being one of the ones that changed his life, along with Ulysses, in a survey by The National Book Foundation.
  5. Joyce Carol Oates: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: Oates’ grandmother gave her Alice in Wonderland when she was eight. She loved it so much she memorized it and immediately began to draw and write novels of her own. Aside from inspiring her to write, she states that the book has influenced her own writing saying, “The admixture of the real and the surreal; the sense of normality shading into nightmare and back again; a strong female protagonist; bizarre, comic, threatening, mysterious figures – these are all elements in my own writing. It can’t be a coincidence that one of my early novels is titled Wonderland.”
  6. Alice McDermott: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Asked by NPR to name the books that changed her life, McDermott noted this classic along with Absalom! Absalom!, To the Lighthouse, and Our Town. Elements she saw and loved from all four may have influenced her own writing and career.
  7. Anita Shreve: Too Far to Go by John Updike: Sometimes, you come across a piece of literature that just moves you. For Anita Shreve, the work was the short story “Separating” by John Updike (it appears in the collection Too Far to Go), which she first read the early stages of her career. The heartache and pain in the story inspired Shreve, both when she first read it and in subsequent years when she revisited it, and she holds it up as an example of the true power of the written word.
  8. Aaron Sorkin: Bonfire of the Vanities by Thomas Wolfe:While Sorkin named Catcher in the Rye as his all-time favorite, Wolfe’s book was also particularly inspirational to him and his work. He has stated that he’d like to try something similar in structure in his own writing, stating, “Tom Wolfe has a way of taking characters that have nothing to do with each other and making them crash into each other. That’s something I’ve always wanted to try.”
  9. J.K. Rowling: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford: While in high school, Rowling read the autobiography of political activist Jessica Mitford. She admired the author and has said that the book changed her life. Mitford, she says, is the writer who has the most influence on her, adding, “I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter [Jessica Rowling Arantes] after her.”
  10. Frank McCourt: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare: As a young boy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt caught typhoid and spent months in the hospital recovering. For him, books were the only form of escape. A fellow patient had a book of English history that contained the first excerpts from Shakespeare he ever read, an experience he reveled in, stating, “If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”
  11. James Atlas: Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks: Publisher and author James Atlas fell in love with books at an early age after picking up this collection of poetry by Brooks in a Parisian bookstore while on vacation. It was then that he realized that, in his words, “poetry could emerge out of the geography of your own experience.”
  12. Jacquelyn Mitchard: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith:While many authors and celebrities are influenced by books, not many name their children after their favorite characters from them. That’s just what Mitchard did with her first daughter. She also credits Smith’s work with, “explaining, for me, love, death, loyalty, writing – my life. Nothing has ever replaced its raw and tenacious power.”
  13. Nelson DeMille: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand:Nelson DeMille has written a number of best-selling thrillers, but his favorite books lie outside the genre. His favorite, and the book he credits with changing how he thought, was Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Her bold views jarred him into thinking outside the box.
  14. Harold Bloom: Little, Big by John Crowley: Humanities professor Harold Bloom admits that Little, Big didn’t change his life as much as Shakespeare, the Bible, and the works of many of the major poets of the 20th century, but he still recommends the fantasy novel to students and friends regularly. Why? He says the book “naturalizes and renders the domestic marvelous.”
  15. Da Chen: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: When Da Chen was growing up poor in China in the 70s, books were hard to come by, both expensive and banned by Mao during the cultural revolution. His first taste of a book was The Count of Monte Cristo, which sparked such a love of reading in him and others in his community that they would hand-copy any books they could, hiding away their passion for the written word. Chen believes the book was what motivated him to write his own memoirs and many of his subsequent novels.
  16. Alexandra Stoddard: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke: While struggling to write her first book, Stoddard was introduced to this collection of letters. She has said that the book has remained indispensable to her since then, offering advice and guiding principles on both writing and life.


Great leaders have often been moved by books, including the presidents and senators listed here.

  1. Bill Clinton: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Since he read Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in college, Bill Clinton has regarded Marquez as one of his literary heroes and has said that the book changed how he looked at literature. And it wasn’t just Marquez who made an impression on the president, but vice versa as well. The two met in 1996, and the encounter prompted Marquez to write an opinion piece defending the former president during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
  2. Barack Obama: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad:In Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father, he mentions the impact that this classic had on his understanding of how people look at and treat one another. He writes, “It’s [the book] not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”
  3. Ronald Reagan: Witness by Whittaker Chambers:It should not come as a surprise that a book many consider seminal to the conservative moment was among the most life-changing to this former president, helping define his views on politics. Reagan said that the book offered insights into the communist mind (Chambers was a former communist spy) and convinced him that liberalism, not just communism, was an enemy of American progress and politics.
  4. Joe Lieberman: The Bible: For Senator (and former vice presidential candidate) Joe Lieberman, the Bible had a huge impact on his life, though he states he thinks every book he has read has changed his life in some way or another. He singled out the Bible because of his Jewish faith, which he says has shaped his life and his choices, though he also loves Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, and Theodore White.
  5. John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway:John McCain’s favorite book is Hemingway’s classic Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. He read it when he was a boy, and was captivated by its depictions of war and its hero Robert Jordan. From it, he gleaned that, “A great man must always be his own man, and have the courage for it, and he must die with style.”

Movies and TV

Celebrities may not always seem to be avid readers but many are. Here, you’ll find a few who share the books that have had a big impact on their lives, goals, and careers.

  1. Hugh Jackman: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse:Given the book when he was headed to drama school, Jackman found some valuable lessons in this classic tome. When asked about it he said, “When I was 18, I read Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, and that had a big effect on me. I make myself read it every decade because I get a different perspective every time. It’s a beautiful book.”
  2. John Waters: Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff by William Inge:Offbeat filmmaker, actor, writer, and journalist Waters named this novel by Pulitzer-winning author Inge as one that changed his worldview. He said, “I learned a valuable lesson. No matter how brilliant the writer (and I loved William Inge), trying too hard to be intellectually provocative can be a disaster, especially when you mix lofty intentions with horndog sex scenes in the name of literary honesty.”
  3. Patton Oswalt: “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison from They Came from Outer Space: Sometimes, a life-changing book isn’t one that determines a career path or a change of ways, but one that just offers a different, enlightening perspective. Ellison’s short story was that for comedian Patton Oswalt. Of the story, which he read as a teen, Oswalt said, “Ellison didn’t change my life so much as he changed my reading habits, revealing a dozen branching paths and side alleys where before there seemed to be an orderly road to adulthood. He brought rawness and confusion and awe and real terror, and I’m forever indebted.”
  4. Gary Sinise, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: When he was 14, Sinise saw of Mice and Men performed as a play, and the experience inspired him to read the book, which he names as his favorite to this day. He has said, “Up until Of Mice and Men, I had not been a big reader in high school; that book got me reading.” His fascination with the story wouldn’t end there, however. Two decades later, he directed and starred in a movie version of the book.
  5. Ben Affleck, Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White: While most tend to think of Affleck as an actor, he’s also written and co-written several screenplays, including an Oscar winner. Affleck has said that while he initially hated the strictness of the rules imposed by this grammar classic, he soon learned that he had to learn the rules before he could break them. He says, “This book is an essential tool. It has been of great use to me and is probably responsible for my best writing. I owe my successes to Strunk and White; only the mistakes are mine.”
  6. John Cusack: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:Like many, Cusack read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and also like many, it was the first book he felt a real connection to. He has said of reading it that, “It was the first time I went to school and was interested in what anyone had to say.”
  7. Jennifer Garner: Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley:Garner grew up loving to act but always felt that it was just a hobby for her, not a career. In college, as a chemistry major she decided to take a beginning acting class in which students were to read and perform Henley’s play. It was this play that motivated her to change her major and to pursue the successful acting career that she has today.
  8. Josh Brolin: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn: Brolin told Oprah that Zinn’s historical book was “the most empowering book I’ve ever read.” He loved it enough to work with Zinn on an educational documentary and even chose a school for his daughters based on the fact that it taught the text.
  9. Vera Farmiga: Wildlife by Richard Ford: Farmiga read this book while pregnant and said that it gave her some striking insights into the relationships parents can have with their children, even offering some ideas on the ways she’d like to one day interact with her own.
  10. Zoe Saldana: Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid:Saldana loved this book because of its ending, which she said made her cry for three days afterward, and also for its explanation of Caribbean culture. Touching on politics, history, social status, and gender, Saldana has said the novel spoke to her and helped her to better understand her own links to Caribbean life and history.
  11. Cate Blanchett: The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim:Actress Blanchett read this book about the importance of reading fairy tales while she was in drama school. She has said that she relates to some of the examples in the story, including one where a child at first feels scared in a woods but eventually comes out stronger on the other side. She says, “One can feel expendable—particularly in this day and age, and especially working in film—and for me, this reinforces the power of storytelling and the necessity of it.”
  12. Isla Fisher: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf: Wolf’s book explores how many women are oppressed and controlled by an ideal of beauty that’s rarely attainable, at least not without a lot of time and work. Fisher believes that the message is incredibly important to all women and has admitted that it has helped changed her thinking on things, too, especially after the birth of her daughter. She states, “I started thinking about it [the book] again recently because I have a daughter; you suddenly panic about the possibility of your child being subjected to a barrage of images promoting an ideal that doesn’t exist in real life.”
  13. Jodie Foster: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison:For Jodie Foster, Morrison’s famous novel was a significant part of her college education. She wrote her senior essay in college on the book, examining Morrison’s relationship to the African oral-narrative tradition. Foster is still a big fan of Morrison and has said of her, “I think Morrison has the most deeply poetic voice in contemporary American fiction, and I have never missed reading anything she’s written.”
  14. Andie MacDowell: Jung’s Map of the Soul by Murray Stein: MacDowell has discovered a new love of the psychologist Carl Jung’s theories as she’s gotten older. In recent years, she’s used his work to become more introspective and to think more about the way the mind works. It’s not an easy task, but she says, “I have sat down and actually tried to read it through all the way. But my brain starts to get exhausted. I can only take so much at a time. But as I’m reading it, I am more aware of myself, my dark side and my light side. I can make better choices. I’m more attuned to what’s important. I think I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m far from being finished.”
  15. Chace Crawford: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls: Gossip Girl actor Chace Crawford loved Rawls’ young adult novel when he was a kid, recalling, “I read it four times when I was younger. For a kid, that book was awesome.”
  16. Alex Trebek: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: Says Trebek about his pick for a life-changing book, “I read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins when I was about 12 and just couldn’t devour the pages fast enough. I was entranced by this mystery novel. That might be what inspired my love of reading.”
  17. Matt Czuchry: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom: Matt Czuchry, best known for his work on Gilmore Girls and The Good Wife, picked this autobiographical novel by Mitch Albom about his relationship with his dying sociology professor as one of his favorites. He said that the book, “really made me appreciate my life more. It made me question things and really inspired me.”
  18. Kate Walsh: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck: Growing up in California, Kate Walsh loved reading the work of John Steinbeck who set many of his stories there. She would go on to read nearly every book by the author but names this one, her first, as the catalyst that really got her into reading Steinbeck. The influence wasn’t just on her reading tastes though, she says “The characters he wrote about were so flawed and colorful and fantastic—that’s why I became an actor.”


Sometimes, getting ahead in business just requires a little inspiration from a book. Learn about two examples here.

  1. Donald Trump: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale:Trump’s father was friends with Dr. Peale and that relationship encouraged Trump, despite being a cautious optimist, to read The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump has said the book left a great impression on him stating, “I agree that a positive outlook and approach to life and business can reap great results.”
  2. Guy Kawasaki: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland: Former Apple employee and Silicon Valley superstar Guy Kawasaki said that this book helped him to finally write his first book. He said, “It liberates people from the mental barriers that hold them back. Ostensibly for writers, it’s applicable to anyone who wants to excel in what they are passionate about.”


From great chefs to music moguls to doctors, this assortment of big names offers some insights into just how much a book can shape a person’s life.

  1. Jacques Pepin: The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:World-renowned chef Jacques Pepin lived in Paris at the height of the French existentialist movement, even working at a restaurant that philosopher Sartre frequented. Yet it was not in Sartre that he found life-changing ideas, but in Camus’ existentialist re-telling of the classic Greek myth of Sisyphus. Pepin felt drawn to Camus’ work, and said that it taught him the importance of personal responsibility, dignity, and goodness as well as stimulating his mind and making him want to learn more.
  2. Anthony Bourdain: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson:Anyone who’s ever watched Bourdain’s travel show No Reservations knows about the chef and author’s deep-seated admiration for Hunter S. Thompson, so it should come as no surprise that he named one of the Gonzo journalist’s books as being most life-changing. Bourdain has said this about the book, “Thompson’s savagely descriptive sentences deeply affected my own, leading to a lifelong love for hyperbole. And as a young man just coming of age as it became clear there would be no revolution, no peace in Vietnam, and four more years of Richard Nixon, I responded to Thompson’s rage.”
  3. Lou Holtz: The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz: Legendary football coach Lou Holtz wasn’t always at the top of his field. At a point in his life that he was struggling, he read this self-help book which suggested getting back in touch with one’s dreams by writing a list of goals. Holtz did just that, creating a list of 107 things he wanted to accomplish in life. He still has the list, with only five more goals left to accomplish.
  4. Jack Canfield: Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody:When Canfield was in college, one of his professors lent him Life After Life, a study of near-death experiences. Central to these experiences were two questions: ‘What wisdom have you gained from this life?’ and ‘How have you expanded your capacity to love?’ Canfield has said that he “came to view these two questions as the final exam for life, and they have directed my life for more than 30 years.”
  5. Jay-Z: The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav: One of the books that had the biggest impact on rapper and businessman Jay-Z’s life was this spiritual tome by Gary Zukav. He said, “Growing up, I was always curious about religion. This book made the most sense to me; it’s about the way you live your life.”
  6. Dr. Bernie Siegal: The Human Comedy by William Saroyan: Cancer therapy expert Bernie Siegal found inspiration and solace in the works of William Saroyan, many of which deal with loss. Often working with those who are dying and in pain, Siegal took away valuable lessons from The Human Comedy. He says, “In The Human Comedy, Saroyan has a teacher talk to one of her students and tell him what we all need to survive: to respect each other even if we don’t like each other; to love truth and honor; not to be alike but to be human in our own way and to pay no attention to those trying to hold us back and embarrass us.”
Posted on 11/20/12 | by Staff Writers | in Resources | No Comments »

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