10 Empowering Life Lessons from Books

Popular female authors share the valuable insights they have gleaned from beloved books.
By Elizabeth Callahan
10 Empowering Life Lessons from Books

We've been devouring books since we first heard the famous Dr. Seuss line: "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." Such wise words! Whether you read to cry or laugh, discover your own world or escape to another, books feed the mind and empower the soul. Here, we asked 10 of our favorite female authors to each share a lesson she has personally learned from reading. The consensus? It's difficult to choose just one.
Be bold. —Libba Bray, author of Beauty Queens
"For years, I'd heard the feminist Gloria Steinem described as 'shrill' and 'hostile' and many other dismissive, denigrating terms. But after reading about her struggles as a human being and as a leader of feminism's second wave in her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, I got a truer picture. The woman I encountered in her generous, thought-provoking collection of essays is as warm and gracious as she is intelligent. I learned that it's far too easy for women to be shamed into staying quiet about their lives, their dreams, needs, desires, anger, aspirations, and that the old adage, 'Well-behaved women seldom make history' is all too true. Thank you, Gloria, for teaching me how to misbehave."
Choose friends wisely. —Michele Norris, author of The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir
"I've learned many important life lessons from The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou. She has lived a roller coaster life full of peaks and valleys, surprises and sorrows. She is a survivor who learned to surround herself with people who helped sustain her. That is the strongest thread that runs through her memoirs: Find people who believe in you for those days when it's hard to believe in yourself."
[Note: Norris is also co-host of NPR's All Things Considered and The Back Seat Book Club.]
You're stronger than you think. —Lauren Willig, author of The Garden Intrigue
"Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown taught me that heroism resides in unexpected places. Sometimes, the bravest deeds come from people doing their duty as they find it, blundering and muddling along, and doing the best that they can. No matter how bleak something may feel, you just have to press on through, battling your own dragons as the heroine in the book battled hers."
Devour knowledge. —Judith Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
"I first read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in my early twenties, and though I recognize now that it harbors deeper meanings, I loved it for the questing, curious mind of its innocent hero Hans Castorp. Spending several years as a patient in a sanitarium, Hans drinks in knowledge from the people he meets, learning about religion, art, politics, humanism, love, and death. His hunger to learn, and to keep on learning, became one of the guiding values of my life."
Home is truly sweet. —Sibella Court, author of Nomad: A Global Approach to Interior Style
"I consider myself a nomad; I can never stay still for too long. My mother read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak to me and my siblings frequently. Even though I was very young at the time, the book stayed in my mind. No matter how far or for how long I globe-trot, it's always lovely to come home."
Keep an open mind. —Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries
"The classic Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is an all-time favorite of mine. In it, witty but poor Elizabeth Bennet has her pride injured by the handsome Mr. Darcy, so she returns the favor. Will prejudices keep apart two people who are perfect for one another? Lesson: Don't judge people until you know the whole story, and never listen to guys named Mr. Wickham."
Follow your passion. —Uma Krishnaswami, author of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything
"The River by Rumer Godden was the first novel I read that seemed to speak directly to me, even though it was set in the 1920s. The India it portrayed seemed truthfully written, in a way that didn't patronize. Indirectly, the main character's story seemed to give me permission to write. Even now, when I doubt myself as a writer (which happens with predictable regularity!), I remember the impulse that book lit up in me to put pen to paper. It taught me that everyone's story matters."
Always pay attention. —Tamora Pierce, author of Mastiff: The Legend of Beka Cooper, Book Three
"No one will like this, but from Jim's experiences in the apple barrel in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Scout, Jem, and Dill's adventures throughout To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, I learned that eavesdroppers often hear many interesting and instructive things. People may disapprove of eavesdropping, but many books teach the usefulness of it."
Be extraordinary every day. Lisa Tucker, author of The Winters in Bloom
"If there is such a thing as the Great American Novel, the Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is it. This stunning book helped me see that women can be epic heroes — that taking care of other people, watching over them, and forgiving their flaws, can be a noble, courageous way to spend a life."
Identify with others. —Joy Fielding, author of the forthcoming Now You See Her
"Books teach empathy and show you you're not alone, that your insecurities and passions are shared by millions of people all over the world. No matter how different we may seem, we all have the same emotions. Knowing that others feel the same things is an enormous comfort. Three novels that taught me a lot about life were J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays, and Marilyn French's The Women's Room. Each spoke to me at different stages in my life and opened my mind to new possibilities."
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