Fourth of the last, November 13th, 2015. Today’s prompt is the one from January 2013: “Is there one particular book that changed your life? If so, why did you originally choose to read it? What impact has it had on you?”
Hm. Tough one, particularly for an on-edge Christian. Officially, I’m supposed to say well duh, the Bible… but I can’t. Because it didn’t change my life, it’s just always been there in the background. And while there are interesting bits, like Paul inadvertently making a church-moms’ squabble into Holy Scripture, and the fascinating things that happen when you’re reading two versions in parallel, on the whole it’s rather like a math text: you read it because you ought to, and if you happen to enjoy it, that’s a bonus. I know I’m out of line here, but that’s the truth.
So far as actually changing my life goes… The first book I ever read solely and simply because I wanted to know how the story went would be right up there. Unfortunately I can’t remember if it was Amelia Bedelia or Henry and Mudge. (I know, right? Who calls a Saint Bernard Mudge?) Either way, that book would have changed my life because I realized that you don’t read because it looks cute for your grandparents or because your mom said it was schoolwork, you read because, dammit, you want to know what happened next!
Les Miserables is right up there too – that was the wow, classics aren’t lame threshold. I mean, Jean Valjean… whoa. Admittedly I started on some really scratchy cassette tapes of the musical, then read as far in the book as the tape I had found went: namely, up to the beginning of the barricade, or about one chapter into the second volume of the Wordsworth edition. And then I found the other cassette and wondered where Eponine had been all my life, and oh my gosh what do you mean Victor Hugo kills Jean Valjean? This cannot be. So I read to the end. And then started on Alexandre Dumas because my mother keeps all her French authors together.
The Lord of the Rings was the first adult novel I read. Admittedly I was about twelve at the time and couldn’t walk past the bookcase for months afterwards because I was afraid Gollum would get me, but never mind. That was when I realized that stories worth reading take time to read. I still haven’t read every single word of the Two Towers, and doubt I ever shall, but the rule holds. I was reading the Lord of the Rings for months – had a bit of a fight with the brother partway through a reread a few years later, because we were both up to Isengard and there was only one copy in the house. Solution: buy another copy. Now we have four in the house. (And three Hobbits, one of them a pocket edition from the Bodleian Library.)
The Da Vinci Code, because I learned that just because a book is a best-seller doesn’t mean it isn’t a total pile of steaming bantha chizzk.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God, because I had a paradigm shift and worked out that people in history were people too, and just because someone lives in a different culture to you doesn’t mean they’re totally different. Claudius gets a terrible rap in the history books, but in Graves’ novels, he’s basically an Ancient Roman nerd. Which goes to show there are two sides to every story.
V For Vendetta, because it’s not filed with fiction in the university library, it’s filed with ‘graphic novel’ which is, yes, a section all of its own, between literary criticism and modern art. Also because it’s the first non-superhero comic I read. I learned that some comic books are serious, and people really do study them. Feeling a lot better about my Batman habit now.
A Town Like Alice. Story coming up here. My grandfather owned basically every book Nevil Shute ever wrote, in a beautiful red-leather-covers edition, and he loved them. (Just for the record, I didn’t see him often, and didn’t understand where he was coming from most of the time.) For some reason, he gave all these books to my mom, and they sat with the complete set of Charles Dickens in the basement of our house for years. Then some family chizzk happened, then my grandfather died, then more chizzk happened, and then, one not-so-very-special-day, I went to the basement, and I found the books. I started on Alice because I liked the title. Then my mom told me about where these Shute books came from, and I realized the song was wrong: damn skippy there are regrets. I regret not reading A Town Like Alice soon enough to have something to talk to my grandfather about. I regret not being able to find out what would have happened if we’d been able to meet as people-who-read-Nevil-Shute instead of people-who-are-supposed-to-get-along-because-family.
Schindler’s Ark. I was raised on Shoah stuff, Anne Frank’s diary, Raoul Wallenberg, black-and-white documentaries, ‘child-friendly’ sanitized versions of stories that you don’t realize until you’re much older how really nasty they are, all that kind of thing. But… after a while it all blurs, and it’s like big freaking deal, shut up already. And the one thing that isn’t supposed to happen, happened, and I started thinking in terms of the statistics again. Six million dead Jews, yeah, it’s a number, and? Schindler’s Ark brought the whole thing crashing back down full-force again, these were six million real people. There was also the side effect that I learned there are no heroes. I’d vaguely heard about Oskar Schindler, gathered the impression that he was a thoroughly decent chap. I do not like Thomas Keneally’s Schindler! He’s not a nice person! And Emilie Schindler’s Where Light and Shadow Meet confirms the impression. No heroes is a scary thing to have to learn – suddenly you’re out in a world where Superman is dead and Lex Luthor is not. But it’s important, because that’s the real world.
Prisoner of the Pyrenees. Because. Something I’m really (probably illogically) proud of is that I was one of the people privileged to read the drafts of Prisoner of the Pyrenees. Reading a real live book that you had all the spoilers for before it was published? How cool is that?
So… one book that changed my life? No, not really. How could I possibly choose just one book?
But in the end, I just wanted to share this, which sums up all the best books I’ve ever read:
Problems come when you’re reading an totally awepic H/C or adventure arc. On your electronic device. On the bus. And nearly or actually crying. And the driver asks if you’re okay. And you have to lie-not-lie and say a really close friend is in some really deep trouble and you’re worried about him. (It’s true… ish. I mean, how much closer can a friend be than inside your head?)
Inconsequential remark of the day: I seem to be listening to Queen. How did that get on my playlist? (Oh, wait – I added it.)
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back next month with the next of the last.
What do you think? Any special books that changed your life? For better or worse?