What We Read: 5 Books That Changed My Life

AOL's employment law expert shares books that influenced her

You are what you read. In that spirit, AOL Jobs will feature books recommended by our staff and contributors each day for the next week or so. As the year winds down, consider one of these reads to savor in your down time or give to a reader in your life.

When AOL asked me to write about some books that affected how I look at my work and my life, I was flummoxed. How to pick just a few? I've read voraciously since I was able to read, so there are probably thousands of books that have influenced me over the years. Which ones made me choose employee-side employment law? Which books helped me decide that fighting for justice and equality were my path in life?

The books on my list are ones I still think about and talk about 30 or 40 years after I first read them. Books that taught me about justice and equality, that made me think about the world in a different way. In short, books that changed my life.

A Time To Kill
By John Grisham

Almost every lawyer will tell you that To Kill A Mockingbird is one of their favorite books about the law. Mockingbird is one of my favorites too (and it is probably responsible for lots of lawyers choosing their profession), but A Time To Kill is my absolute favorite book about the law. It has similar themes to Mockingbird, race, justice, and equality, in the context of a criminal trial, but it also has that trademark Grisham legal thriller action. It was Grisham's first novel, and I still think it's his best. Plus, now there's a sequel. Sycamore Row was recently released, and this time our hero, Jake Brigance, takes on a will contest. You'd think that wouldn't be as exciting as a criminal trial, but Grisham keeps you turning the pages. It continues the themes of race, justice and equality that made A Time To Kill so great.

The Feminine Mystique
By Betty Friedan

This book definitely changed my life. But for The Feminine Mystique, I might have been Miss Teenage Baltimore instead of third runner up. That's because, when each contestant was asked to name a woman I thought had influenced the world for the better, I said, "Betty Friedan," and explained how The Feminine Mystique taught women that they could be equal to men and didn't have to limit themselves to staying at home. Almost everyone else answered Betty Ford or some other less controversial woman. The pageant director came up to me later and said, "You might have won, if only you hadn't given that answer." I wouldn't have changed my answer for the world. Now it's one of my favorite stories to tell about my rebellious teen years. I actually got to tell Betty Friedan that story years later, and it made her laugh. Anyhow, I read the book during high school in the mid-70s, and it was inspiring to me as someone who had decided to be a lawyer at a time when no woman in my family had even been to college. Today, I'd recommend it to young women as a reminder that the equality they enjoy didn't come easily.

By Stephen King

When I read this book in junior high, I was hooked. I always loved a good horror story, but I'd never read anything like Stephen King. Carrie is the ultimate book about mean girls, about being different, about fighting back against those who would demand conformity. It isn't my favorite Stephen King book, but I'll never forget my first, and it probably did influence my attitude toward mean girls and bullying (a topic I frequently write about today). My favorite, until recently, was The Stand. However, he completely outdid himself recently with 11/22/63. Another great Stephen King read is the sequel to The Shining, the just-released Doctor Sleep. Stephen King is my favorite author, bar none.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
By Dee Brown

I grew up playing cowboys and Indians in the politically incorrect 60s, so this book was a wake-up call. It was a reading assignment in junior high, and it was the first time I heard the story of how the West was won from the perspective of the Native Americans. The quote that always stuck with me was, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it." This book made me want to jump into the pages, to try to change what happened. I couldn't believe Americans allowed it to happen. My teen sense of justice was outraged. It showed me how, even in the Land of the Free, injustice can take place unless good people stand up.

Crocodile on the Sandbank
By Elizabeth Peters

I grew up on Nancy Drew, which was absolutely full of girl-power (at least, for its time), and have been a mystery lover ever since. My favorite mystery series is the Amelia Peabody series, starting with Crocodile on the Sandbank. In fact, I'm reading one of the books in the series right now. Amelia is a 32-year-old self-proclaimed spinster in 1884, on a trip to Egypt. She refuses to conform to society's ideas of what a woman is supposed to do. She is smart, funny, and persistent. She meets a handsome Egyptologist who is equally set in his ways. Mystery, adventure, romance and hilarity ensue. While I mostly tell people I named my youngest daughter after Amelia Earhart, I have to admit that Amelia Peabody definitely influenced her name. In her baby book, we put that she's named after both strong women.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the book which has most influenced my work and how I look at my life is my own book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired. Without it, I wouldn't be writing for AOL Jobs, which is one of the most enjoyable things I do, thanks to you, my readers. I truly enjoy the opportunity to write about the issues that affect employees and try to offer my words of wisdom from the perspective of an employee-side employment lawyer.

Now that you know what books have influenced me, I'd love to hear about yours in the comments section.

More What We Read

Author Stephen King on the Best Advice He Ever Got

Tags: books
Donna Ballman

Donna Ballman


Donna Ballman’s book, Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards, was the Winner of the Law Category of the 2012 USA Best Books Awards and is currently available for purchase. Donna is the award-winning author of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, a book geared toward informing novelists and screenwriters about the ins and outs of the civil justice system. She’s been representing executives, physicians and employees in Florida, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and other employment law issues since 1986. Her blog on employee-side employment law issues, Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, was named one of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 ABA Blawg 100 best legal blogs, Paralegal 411’s Top 25 Labor and Employment law Blogs of 2013 and the 2011 Lexis/Nexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Law Blogs.

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