How many times have you heard someone say that a book changed their life? In how many of those instances were you able to observe that a change had actually taken place? The question’s not entirely fair–after all, some changes take a long time to arise, and tracing what we now view as a profound change back to to a book isn’t the epitome of scientific rigor.
There’s also the pesky notion, which I believe in, that every book we read changes us. Ditto every person we speak with, movie we watch, breath we take, and thought that we think. We are never exactly who we were one second ago.
Still, I do believe that books can change people in the way that I think they mean when they say “This book changed my life.” The best books for me make me want to be a better person, or help bring my ideas about what being a “better person” actually means more clarity.
I’ll give you some concrete examples. Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions made me want to be a writer. As a smug teenager it was so simple that I thought anyone would be able to replicate that style, at typing speed, and become rich and famous as a writer. I had no idea what level of craftsmanship Kurt was actually working at. I’ll never come close to his Vonnegut’s ability to say things better than anyone else, or write the way he did but he inspired me to start writing. For better or worse, I never quit.
Gargantua and Pantagruel, along with Candide, taught me about satire. It is my favorite form of writing when it is done well, and it is unbearable when it fails. It also made me feel less alone as a giant. You’ll have to read it to understand that.
Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates taught me that writing did not have to make any sense at all to be beautiful, and that absurdity and literary craftsmanship were not mutually exclusive.
Alices’ Adventures in Wonderland taught me to suspect that there is more than meets the eye to many kid’s books.
The Fortress of Solitude convinced me that I couldn’t really write about a city without having lived in it.
Stranger Things Happen made me mourn for the current state of the short story and wish that Kelly Link would put out a book every day.
A Confederacy of Dunces has taught me that I can always laugh about a man dressed in a pirate costume while pushing a hot dog cart, no matter how crappy I’m feeling. I still haven’t reviewed it here on the blog because I don’t know how to express what it has meant to me.
Don Quixote taught me that I would never quit reading, even if my brains dried up. My addiction to books is a weakness I cherish.
Blood Meridian taught me that I can simultaneously love and hate a book above all others. Geek Love is a close second there.
Slaughterhouse Five – I’ve never been more convinced that I was never cut out for the military.
The Bible taught me that people were just as weird a few thousand year ago.
A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court made me hope there was a Heaven just so I could tell Mark Twain how much I enjoyed the scene where he’s putting on his armor.
The Far Side (I’m counting this because I reviewed the complete Far Side books) still teaches me things every single time I open it. It changes my moods instantly. I can’t explain it.
Man’s Search For Meaning taught me to question memories–especially my own.
I’m sitting in my study, looking from shelf to shelf. Old friends line the walls. Most of their authors are dead. There is nowhere else I would rather be, although now that I look more closely, I could use a few thousand more volumes on the shelves. I suspect my next house will be chosen solely for its potential as a library.
So, if you’re up for it: books that have changed your life, for better or worse. Really think about this. What books actually provoked lasting changes in your lives, thoughts, and actions?
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