Five Books That Changed My Life

By Michael Caligaris

As an agent for Holloway Literary, I am always striving to provide insight into our world of author representation, publishing, and sales. In the past I have written about technical aspects of a manuscript or provided information on obtaining an MFA in Creative Writing. Today, I’d like to break away from formality and talk about books. As an agent who mainly represents memoir and literary fiction, my tastes may not align with all readers and prospective authors of our agency; however, I believe everyone has a “Top Five” list and I know personally I am always curious to hear them. I hope by providing mine today, I can inspire others to pick up a great book and maybe even step out of their genre shell, which can only help expand your literary minds!

Every reader has a list like this and it is cherished. The list is like wallet photographs or an old locket: whenever the moment presents itself, you are ready to declare your love for the books that have changed your life. Since I have a platform, I’d like to do that now.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


Certainly the most salacious novel on the list, Kundera’s masterwork outlines the Prague Spring in the late 60’s. A brilliant surgeon named Tomáš falls in love with a cerebral yet very young photographer named Tereza. Soviet forces are always looming in the background while their marriage dissolves through adultery—Tomáš is a ravenous womanizer who rationalizes his conduct with maxims of intellectuality. There is also Sabina, his mistress, who in turn has a lover named Franz, an idealist by nature and very naive. Put them all together and we have incredible discussions about big ideas such as love, life, death, and war—but at a very microscopic level. If you enjoyed All the Light We Cannon See by Anthony Doer, with his poetic prose and rhythmic structure, then you will enjoy Kundera. He is the godfather of that sort of writing. This book showed me how someone can take big, almost impossible infinite ideas such the ones stated above and distill them all drip by drip over the course of a relatively small novel.

Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder


Never in my life would I think a book of poetry would even crack my Top Ten. I am, admittedly, quite ignorant to a lot of poetry, especially contemporary. However, Zapruder worked as a bridge for me. He is often prose driven and frequently funny. The indelible images he puts on the page have stuck with me for years now. But most of all: he writes like an Everyman. Because of this, he is accessible to the non-poet. He recently became the poetry editor for New York Times Magazine and has released a new nonfiction book on the writing of poetry entitled, Why Poetry. He deserves all of this authority. The collection ranges from love poems to political satire to one very linear, existential journey. My favorite line, which one day I’d like to recite at a wedding: Just look directly into my face you said and I felt everything stop trying to fit. And the marching band took a deep collective breath and plunged back into its song (“Poem” pg 56).

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

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Wallace’s reputation is obviously earned. His fiction is cerebral, darkly comedic, and incredibly heartbreaking—much like how he composed himself in real life. He is often dismissed by some readers as being too smart for his own good, or perhaps elitist, or maybe even pretentious. If you hear someone say this, they probably have never read past a few pages of any of his work. Yes, he is very intelligent. But, and this is really what gets me, Wallace was always undercutting himself because he knew there was infinitely more to life than being literate. This is shown in his essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Inside, there are essays that range from new journalism, to sports writing, to film critique, showing just how versatile and observant and empathetic he could be. This book is a master class in not only nonfiction, but in how to observe the world around you.

Half as Happy by Gregory Spatz

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Spatz is not a well-known writer. He teaches at a school and plays the fiddle in a bluegrass band and somehow finds time to write the most human short stories I’ve ever come across. His prose is musical, like his life, and his subject matter is of real people in real situations—twin brothers in love the with same woman, a dissolving marriage in a new home, a lonely man with an affinity for classical music. Every story in this collection resonated with me due to its oftentimes wholesome nature that came through the skill of using understatement and applying it to average Americans living an average American life. Spatz is much in the vein of Ray Carver, albeit a little more forgiving.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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This is the novel that made me want to be a writer. I could go on and on about the plot or characters or setting, but many people have read what I think to be Hemingway’s best work many times over and have written books and essays and adaptations about this novel. What I want to say is that love is violent and stupid and exotic and terrible but also the only thing we as humans really find worth living for. All of the characters in this book are in some way subject to the casualties and benefits of love at all times. And this is beautifully rendered through the overarching theme of the book: bullfighting. This book taught me so much, and I re-read it every year. I have multiple prints and still squeal with glee when I spot a new one at an old bookstore.

Michael is an agent with Holloway Literary.  Learn more about him and then follow him on Twitter @mikecali31.