What book changed your life or profoundly affected you? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and stories. Here’s my rambling answer to that question. xo, m
“The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
In the spirit of the NPR’s This American Life’s discussion on books that changed people’s lives, I’ve been thinking about what book changed my life. Perhaps too much credit is given to a piece of art if you can claim it “changed your life.” But I do think that books can offer us insights, help us feel intimately connected to a character or another world, and even inspire us to write. Maybe books can change us or pose questions we need to be asked, and as a result the course of our lives is changed.
That book for me was A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce. I read it when I was a junior in high school, when things weren’t going well with my family, and I remember feeling sad often. I saw myself ending up in the sciences, and I loved calculus and owned a microscope. English was dull and lackluster to me; I hated reading the assigned books, and other students’ essays struck me as terrible and boring. (I dreaded peer-review sessions, and I suspect whatever I wrote on people’s essays was unconstructive and, at times, mean.) I was what some might call “judgmental” and “angsty.” I was 17.
I wished people could say in class, “This book felt uninspired to me because…” but it seemed to me that creativity was suppressed in English, the classroom most likely to foster it. Shortly after my interest in English class began to decline, I learned about Dickens’ paid-by-the-word scheme. I became an even more jaded teenage reader whose dreams included doctor-dome or moving to an exotic land. Not surprisingly, I stopped reading the books, and I seldom went to class. I had found something I loved more, that seemed to teach me what I needed to be taught. The dean of students called me into his office one morning over the intercom and told me I couldn’t waltz in and out of school. This still amuses me because it’s probably the only time I felt truly rebellious (even though skipping class to read Joyce isn’t exactly what I’d consider badass… more like, supremely nerdy).
My dad gave the book to me as my interest in reading waned. I can’t remember how or why, but I vaguely remember him saying, “This book was the catalyst in my life-long love of reading. And it reminds me of you.” As most adolescents are, I was distrustful of my parents, let alone a book my dad gave me. But there was a genuineness in his voice I didn’t recognize, and I was intrigued.
I started reading it the night he gave it to me and stayed up late. I felt moved. I connected to the main character (the hero, really): Stephen Dedalus- a pompous, creative, smart young man who feels disconnected from his family and his surroundings. He questions religion, art, and school. He’s confused by his Jesuit education (what’s so terrible about desire anyway?), as I was about my own. He had what struck me as profound questions, questions I’d asked myself but that never seemed to be addressed in my English classroom or any classroom for that matter. Joyce had articulated thoughts and feelings I’d had but could never put into words. I felt more accepting of my own sadness and my perceived lack of normality and even began to think there might be value in it.
Books can help us combat loneliness and disconnectedness by showing us the feelings of others or of a writer, by confirming the suspicion we have that others feel alienated at times too. And they can do this in a poignant way, a way that moves us beyond our emotions and into the world created by the author.
I read it instead of going to English class. I marked it up, dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, and took notes in the margins. I fell in love. I could look at a painting and be moved and think, “That’s beautiful. It makes me feel this way or question that,” but up until age 17, I didn’t know that language could be art. I didn’t know that it could be beautiful. I had never seen a writer reflect his main character’s maturity through language (not just dialogue, but omniscient narration); it fascinated me.
To fall in love with a book is no small feat. It requires dedication, bordering on obsession, and other parts of my life undoubtedly suffered. My grades, namely, and my relationship with my parents who didn’t understand why my grades suddenly plummeted. True to 17-year-old form, these matters appeared trite to me.
Reading this book caused me to fall in love with reading- a joy I never thought I could feel. I began to wonder if other books could have the same effect on me, and they did. They just weren’t the books we had been reading in class. I became an avid reader, and I felt intellectually and emotionally alive.
I applied to New York University, and my entrance essay was about this book (or rather, my experience reading it). I essentially wrote, “I read this book instead of going to class. Here’s why.” It worked; I got in. I moved to New York, majored in English, and began my love affair with literature, language, and cities. And now I’m in graduate school to become an English teacher. I want my classroom to be a place where ideas, creativity, and critical thinking are fostered. I don’t want students to feel as I felt- that these things are best fostered outside the classroom, in solidarity.
This book didn’t change my life, but it changed how I felt about something I’d previously hated. And it helped me change the course of my life.
Would love to hear your thoughts on books you love.