Books That Changed Your Life

The book(s) that changed your life. There’s a fine topic for a Book Club full of writers.

Some of us started with books that shook our childish selves, that let us know we were not alone, or made us yearn to be in their pages.. For Laura R. it was LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, and for Pam it was MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN BY Jean C. George, about a rural childhood, and a fearless boy named Sam.

Laura R. as a young adult found herself in love with Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL, slain by his rich, poetic language, as was I at about the same age. I so loved OF TIME AND THE RIVER, I typed up whole passages and kept them in my wallet. As a young adult Pam discovered, cheered to read ANNIE ON MY MY MIND by Nancy Garden (1982) about a teenage girl who has a lesbian crush. Marian, growing up in bleak, prim post-war England found that Mary McCarthy’s THE GROUP (1963) served the dual purpose of sex education and liberation.

As young adults, at least two writers admitted to having been vastly influenced by Ayn Rand before they outgrew her. (I personally think it’s because Rand’s characters just knock through every obstacle unencumbered by thought which has to be an adolescent’s dearest dream.)

For some of us, youthful exposure to classics proved life-changing. For Connie it was THE SOUND AND THE FURY, a book she found enthralling and confounding at the same moment. For Laura R (and for this Laura as well) it was TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, a book I still reread often. (It’s a summer book; don’t try it in winter.) And I would also have to add THE GREAT GATSBY which I read in one summer afternoon. (Again, a summer book.)

A youthful reader often responds vividly to words-on-the-page that are earth-shattering. As adults, more sophisticated, perhaps even jaded, such acts of discovery are more rare. But when they happen, they are profound.

For Bob, Steven Pinker’s 2002 book, BLANK SLATE: NATURE VS. NURTURE was life changing. Pinker’s research posits that people are 10% influenced by the parents, 50% by peers, and 40% by genes. Bob says that much of Pinker’s book was based on a book by Judith Richards published in 1998. Nature vs. Nuture sparked a lively discussion among us as parents and adoptive parents. Bob considers his youthful friends far more important to the man he became than his parents were. Sometimes he looks back at his parents and asks: who were you?

Laura R too found more recent titles that shook her conceptions and offered paths through the thicket of identity. Hallowell and Rater’s 2001 DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION about ADD was on such book which codified for her patterns in her own choices. Stephen Prestfield’s 2005 THE WAY OF ART taught her that every day you need get up and fight on behalf of art. Pam found similar guidance in Anne Lamott’s OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS.

Frances spent years mulling the possibilities raised in Charles Osburn’s MYSTERIOUS SHAKESPEARE: the Dark Lady and the Inky Scribe. Osburn puts forth the notion that the Earl of Oxford actually authored the plays. Passions run high on this topic and Frances’s did too. Two current books also radically shaped her thinking, SPIRIT LEVEL by Wilkinson and Pickett about equality and inequality and why greater equality makes societies stronger. For the third month in a row she also touted Michelle Alexander’s THE NEW JIM CROW about civil rights in the years following Brown vs. the Board of Education, 1954.

Novels also provided RWB writers with profound aha moments, including the recent ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (Connie) and SPARROW, by Mary Doria Russell, a book described as Jesuits in space and applauded by both Pam and Marian. I wish I could say that a more modern novel shook my very core, but I have to go back to my first reading of ALL THE KING’S MEN which, with its tight structure wrapped in rolling prose, knocked me over. When I first read THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA,  I did not know the “punch line,” so I parsed it together haltingly. Can one be  swept away by Henry James? Three of his works haven’t so much changed my life, but remained always vivid, indelible, PORTRAIT OF LADY, WASHINGTON SQUARE, and THE ASPERN PAPERS.

The life-changing book I brought to the Pickford was a massive, tome, Robert M. Myer’s 1973 CHILDREN OF PRIDE, a tour de force of masterful editing. Twelve hundred letters exchanged among members of a southern family from 1854 to 1868. I read it when it was first published, and continue to find it artistically inspiring. It has all the power of a novel, but that power lies not in artfully constructed characters, but in the voices of people who live through cataclysms never knowing the outcomes.

We meet again September 10th for our annual Book Exchange.




Comments (4)

  1. Janet Oakley August 15, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Great post. Sorry I couldn’t have been there. But there are things on this list that got me thinking. I think I had influencers when I was much younger. My mom loved historical fiction and had pioneering families on both sides, so a great influencer early on was Little House On the Prairie and all the books in that series. Prince of Foxes, an adult historical novel, also was a great influencer. Finally, a non-fiction book about John Adams whose author I forget, but written 40 years before David McCullough. He became a hero, standing up for the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre.

  2. Carol McMillan August 15, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    I wanted to come. The book I immediately thought about was The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Kuhn. Weird me; I was in Grad school. It’s a great book for anyone who cares about science. Easy read. Small book.

  3. Lisa Dailey August 16, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Thank you for posting so quickly, Laura. I was sad to have missed this gathering. I thought and thought about what I might bring to the meeting and finally came up with The Hobbit. My mom read this book to me when I was about 12 – old enough to read the book on my own, but we were passing time waiting for my younger brother to be born. My relationship with my mother was rocky right up until her death in 2013. I have had a hard time trying to remember any good memories with her, but in remembering the time we spent reading The Hobbit I also found a memory of my mom that was happy.

  4. Laura Rink August 17, 2017 at 3:59 am

    Great recap. You captured our enthusiasm well. Correction: Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.

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