What is it about people and lists of books that changed their lives? Do books really change lives? Or did we just happen to be reading them at key moments? I’m sure in some cases books helped people develop their personal philosophies, find the right job, or get the girl, but in the end, this is one English major who is skeptical of the lasting ability of literature to really, truly, change things.
I come about this skepticism in the most obvious way: I can’t for the life of me think of a book that really changed my life. I can think of bits and pieces, small quotes, that I’ve used to piece together my personal outlook on life. I can think of books that maybe stuck in my consciousness a bit more than others. I can think of books that made me do specific things. But an entire narrative that I can say made me make a fundamental shift like losing or gaining my religion or chucking it all to become a woodworker in Vermont? Not really.
KK’s post at Cool Tools is more optimistic:
Books still have the power to change lives. Which ones have changed yours?
I don’t mean merely great books, or memorable ones, or favorite ones. I mean books that altered your behavior, changed your mind, redirected the course of your life. Books as levers.
As a bonus, the post includes another list of lists at the end.
So, without further ado, I give you the list of books that maybe kinda sorta changed my life just a little bit in some small way and without a lot of fuss and in no particular order:
Rabbit Run, by John Updike. I was 16 and this was one of the books on the grid of books my English teacher let us chose from. Like everyone else I read Catcher in the Rye and was appropriately blown away. I read Cat’s Cradle and felt briefly, fleetingly, clever. But I was one of a handful who chose to read Rabbit Run, and as far as I know I was the only one who commenced to reading Updike’s entire oeuvre. I felt sympathy for Rabbit, and even at 16 I could see the beginnings of myself in him. Caulfield would probably have considered Rabbit a phony like everyone else trying to get him to conform, but I though Rabbit was genuine in a thoughful but pathetic way.
Collected Poems by Wendell Berry. When the woman who would become my wife and I first started dating, in fact on our first date, we found that we both had an affinity for Berry. I began reading Berry because I thought it lent credibility to my eco-intellectualism. This was the era when I began to get heavily into environmentalism, the budding organic movement, and the presevation of farm land. But Berry also spoke to the more traditional me, the one that believed in things like love, and marriage, and family. He also spoke to the political me. His poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” pretty much says it all:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Hang around me long enough and you might hear me refer to a solution to a problem as a “Huck Finn solution” or a “Tom Sawyer solution.” This refers, of course, to the sadly weak last part of Huckleberry Finn when Tom Sawyer makes an appearance and tries to talk Huck into all sorts of convoluted ways to get out of a predicament, while Finn tries to find the path of least resistance. But the middle part, from when Huck finds Jim on the Island until he meets up with Sawyer, is a phenomenal story that parallels the maturation of a young America trying to find itself (put that on your back cover, Penguin Classics!) Twain asked that we not analyze it, but he’s dead now.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. There are a handful of authors that seem to make it onto a lot of these kinds of lists. Tolkien is one. I chose The Hobbit because, if my half-brothers hadn’t given it to me one Christmas, I may never have become the reader I am today. Because of The Hobbit I read Lord of the Rings. Then The Once and Future King, Dune, the Dragonrider novels, and Farenheit 451. Because of a summer devouring Fantasy and Science Fiction, I spent another summer reading War and Peace, then every summer after that reading a lot of books. Maybe I even majored in English because of The Hobbit.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis. Lewis is another one. I could take or leave the Narnia books. They just didn’t grip me the way Lord of the Rings or even The Chronicles of Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander did. But this novel helped coalesce in me what was to become a key element of my personal theology, expressed best by Hamlet in the eponymous Shakespeare play: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Essentially, how can we, beings of Earth, delude ourselves into believing we can begin to comprehend a divinity, if one exists?
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Rand is another one. And I’m totally kidding. You knew that right? And I can’t really comment on her philosophy because I couldn’t make it more than a hundred pages through this plodding, thick, one-dimensional novel.
Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Groan. Yes, I am a member of this cult. But frankly, this was the first “getting organized” book I’d read (and I’d read a lot of them) that really started to make sense to me. Allen’s system has enough room in it to tinker with it to make it your own, but enough structure that someone with a little bit of willpower could fully implement it. Unfortunately, I don’t have much willpower.
Le Rouge et Le Noir, by Stendhal. Where do I begin with this book. Oh yeah. I read it in French! En français! Boo-ya!