Literature that changed your life?

Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 04:52 am
Have you ever read a piece of literature that actually did, in some sense, really change you and your life?

If so, can you tell us what it was and how it was transformative?
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 04:52 am
Thinking, thinking....actually, I think there may be a number of such works for me - or perhaps they hastened realisations that would have come anyway.

Anyway - the first to come to mind is Mary Renault's The King Must Die", which I must have read for the first time at about 9. This book is a wonderful evocation of the story of Theseus - you know, he who slew the Minotaur, absolved Oedipus and all that - the ancient world she evokes is so clear and enrapturing that it seems totally real.

I was enthralled, among other things, by the reality in the minds of her of protagonists of the gods and goddesses of the Greek world, and it occurred to me, absolutely clearly and arrestingly for the first time, that the religion I was being brought up in had no better claim to reality than the vanished deities of antiquity.

Gore Vidal's "Julian" and Samuel Butler's "The Way of All Flesh" completed the job before I was fourteen.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 09:48 am
Oooh, very interesting.

I have to think about this more, but I'd say "Midnight's Children" just off the top of my head. Nothing too profound in terms of core beliefs being shaken, or anything, but it started a serious interest in India generally and modern Indian novels specifically. I read it while still in college, was enthralled, signed up for an Indian history class posthaste so I could make sense of the allusions, LOVED the class, took more, including an incredible anthropology class from Kiran Narayan, who also has written a novel, read more novels, and now have several groaning shelves of modern Indian fiction first editions. My interest (starting in about 1992) coincided with a creative explosion, which is what I find to be the holy grail of reading -- reading a Great Work before anyone has pronounced it great. (I have an Indian friend who sends me some novels before they are even published here.)
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larry richette
Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 12:56 pm
I have had some profound reading experiences, but have any of them actually changed my life? I doubt it. My life is what it is not because of what I have read but because of what I have experienced. But there are some books which have permanently changed my perception of things--ANNA KARENINA, SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION, PARADE'S END, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, THE POSSESSED, THE IDIOT, Proust's novel, TENDER IS THE NIGHT. To that extent I can say that they changed my life, because they changed the way I see the world.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 02:50 pm
Hmmm - a more normal function of literature that, isn't it Larry? But I wonder how much changing the way you see the world changes YOU? Post-modern theorists would argue that it DOES, profoundly - but I guess that is difficult to quantify.

Sozobe - I wonder what that study of India has changed in your way of being?
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 03:48 pm
Two books I read as a teenager really did change my life. They were both biographies: one about Tom Dooley, the other about Albert Schweitzer. They both worked overseas as doctors to help the most needy people, Schweitzer in Africa and Dooley in Vietnam (if I remember correctly). It became a plan of mine to work overseas in an impoverished country, and I did spend 3 years working in Haiti, though not as a medical porfessional. I developed language skills which led me to become a bilingual teacher with Haitian immigrants when I came back to the US, and I still work as a liaison with the Haitian community.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 03:53 pm
Sozobe: some powerful books have been written by Indian authors. "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry was very moving, I was in tears at times while reading that one. There is another young woman writer and I'm having a terrible time recalling her name, she's very politically active....what is her name??? Tell me who else you recommend. I'd love to knoe of more Indian writers.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 05:18 pm
I'm not sure. The possible answers I have come up with could have easily come from another source. But I have found it beneficial to have a fairly thorough understanding of another culture. For example; we in the West tend to assume that women do not like wearing the burkha, that it is oppression, that they would prefer to be able to wear what they want. But I have read a lot about the subtleties, about the kind of power women do wield ("Wombs and Alien Spirits" is a wonderful book about this.)

Additionally, I have been very aware of Muslim extremists through Rushdie's writing, especially, but the Partition is an oft-examined theme in Indian novels. Muslim extremists are matched by Hindu extremists, and there is a vast secular and religious middle that is tolerant and peace-loving.

At any rate, this context and background has proven useful to me given the current state of affairs, and I'm grateful for that.

dream, you're probably thinking of Arundhati Roy, author of "The God of Small Things." I recommend it. Also "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth, "Red Earth and Falling Rain" by Vikram Chandra, "Beach Boy" by Ardashar (?) Vakil, most all Rushdie save "Fury" (my recommendation for A2K book club -- sigh), especially "Midnight's Children", "The Satanic Verses", and "The Moor's Last Sigh." Um. More, but I'll leave it at that. Very Happy
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 05:24 pm
Oh and I've met Rohinton Mistry. Smile Very, very sweet, shy, gentle man. He is not my favorite, as he tends a bit too much toward sentimentality for my taste, but I like him very much.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 05:47 pm
Very much so, literature has opened a window to the world for me. My love of literature was a surprise to me foisted upon me by two great Professors in my Sophomore year of college. These two made it impossible to go any where else but to books to learn what I personally wanted to know about the world. In good books I find the intermingling of all the fine arts as well as history. I tend to enjoy English Literature and that is my major but eventually found Magic Realism, Fuentes, Marquez, Borges.

However, there are two writers that have influenced my life more than any others. Both American, first Thomas Wolfe and secondly the poet Emily Dickinson.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 06:05 pm
Although I wouldn't say these writers changed my life, so much as aided it. There have been two times when a certain author has perfectly with my mood at the time.

The first one is Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet. I was living in Italy, unanchored and overwhelmed by the chaos of the place. Durrell's fucked up characters along with his writing style served to be calming, centering.

The other was Dante's Divine Comedy. I was in a much happier place at the time I read it and the book seemed to me to be synthesis of the creativity that was attainable in the world.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 06:12 pm
I'm only sure that reading Proust's "Rememberance of Things Past" actually changed my life as far as the way I observe and interact cognitively with the people around me. I was certainly moved by "Crime and Punishment," "Tender is the Night" and "The Sound and the Fury." I believe I remember "The Fountainhead" diverting me off into architecture at one time but I veered off into painting. It also made me aware that the single creative mind is what is really important in this world. If we make any life choices that are influenced by books, movies, or any art that is outside of us, I don't believe we are always conscious of it and perhaps are unwilling to admit it.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 06:28 pm
I began seriously reading when I was 8. I was bedridden
for an entire school year by my doctor who THOUGHT that
I had mononucleosis, but looking back upon the symptoms,
the progression of the disease - there is little doubt that it
was actually the beginning of juvenile onset RA. What is
most interesting about my reading habits, looking back, is
that I almost exclusively looked for books written by authors
like Pearl Buck - and all my life have had a fascination with
the far east. THIS from a child, who knew absolutely nothing
about the far eastern countries until I began to read Pearl BucK.
I have always preferred the customs and manners of the people
of the far east, so much more polite, formal, enchanting almost.
Then, on one of our trips to the city full of spiritualists, in Casadega
I was told by one of the readers that I had spent numerous of
my prior lives in the middle east, so if I had been interested
in them since childhood, it made perfect sense. All this without
me telling HIM a word. It wasn't too long before I found
Kurt Vonnegut - and other satirical, wildly humorous
writers who appealed to my sense of humor. I will never
forget reading Bonfire of The Vanities. I remember me
laughing out loud SO hard while reading that book, that
you would have thought I was reading the comics, or
a book of jokes. It never fails though, that when I go
back to a book that touched me, or interested me then,
it no longer interests me at all now. I tried to read Catch22
again....but it bored me, even though with my memory,
I've long since forgotten the plot. I love Shakespeare -
I'll NEVER forget one of the most lovely experiences of
my adult life was when we were living in Gainesville, FL,
home of The University of Florida - I was taking a break
from the practice of pharmacy(working part time) and
doing some post grad work in molecular genetics at
U.F. and I had read in the local paper (good grief - the
cultural amenities of this city abound)about Much Ado
About Nothing -- being played in the woods of the
campus on a gorgeous and balmy spring night. The
admission was $5 and the players were so happy to
get the chance to do Shakespeare, and we were just
astounded at what this city had to offer. Of course, there
is a down side to anything - the traffic & the crazy college
kids driving more expensive cars than I will ever own!
But, I digress .. I doubt that there has been a single
book I've ever read that hasn't moved me, altered me,
changed my perspective about topics that I thought I
knew how I felt about forever- yet came to change.
Though it may sound trite - Scott Peck's, The Road Less
Traveled - although it hurt me to read it, at times, was
a gift from creation to me, I just know it. It came to me
exactly when I needed it most and wanted it least.
Without that understanding - right off the bat - that life
IS difficult. It isn't just a goof up/ a mistake in MY life. I
would be moaning and groaning and whining still & still
looking at each of you, thinking, why is MY life not as
good as his/her life??? Meanwhile I was busy comparing my
insides to your outsides, which makes no sense at all.
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Reply Sun 23 Feb, 2003 08:07 pm
bookmarking Very Happy
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Reply Mon 24 Feb, 2003 09:38 am
Sozobe: the name I was searching for was Arundhati Roy, thank you for helping me on that one.

Babsatamelia, is RA Rheumatoid Arthritis? How are you managing with it now?
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Reply Mon 24 Feb, 2003 09:46 am
interesting question because what has effected me in terms of literature is not a great work but an honest one. Edward Abbeys "Fools Progress" a semi-fiction novel talking about his own impending death written while he was dying, blemishes, scars and all, his, in my mind, amazing ability to present himself simply as he was without excuses or makeup makes the novels subtitle "an honest novel" a journey of self.
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larry richette
Reply Mon 24 Feb, 2003 11:12 am
I guess I would say that literature did change me by changing my perecption of the world. It has not necessarily changed my behavior or the way I react to life, but it has colored my mental outlook. I would say that that is the most you can expect literature to do.
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Reply Mon 24 Feb, 2003 11:46 am
I agree, Larry. Music is the same way. It can inspire, shift perception towards something greater than everyday thoughts and feelings, even though it's not language-based.
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Reply Mon 24 Feb, 2003 09:54 pm
I have never known a time when I was not changing, and the changing usually was at least accompanied by reading, if not caused by it. In my late teens I was profoundly converted to fundamentalists Christianity (from nominal Presbyterianism). I was in this state for a little over five years and during that time read the Bible through, parts of it many times. That book, as I understood it, became the guide of my life, and I am sure, influences me to this day. When I realized that the religion did not "work" for me, I began to look for a way out. Books on the literary criticism of the Bible text were very important to me at the time. I won't mention these authors because they were not literary people.

But just as important as finding a way to break the grip of the Bible, I had to find some alternative to the Pauline psychology. I found it in text books about Freudian thinking , and of interest to this thread (finally) in Dostoyevsky. Not sure how I got into it, but I read The Brothers, The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment. From these books I began to see another view of why and how people come to do the things that they do. I've always felt indebted to Dos for his help.

For the most part I agree with Lightwizard and Larry that the reading of literature changes us incrementally and unconsciously. Once having read something, it becomes a part of what we are, and we are never rid of it. It will have it's effect. So, that's the risk of reading. When you pick up a book, you don't know for sure that you'll be the same by the time you place it back on the shelf.

BTW, this was a very pleasant thread to read.
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Reply Tue 25 Feb, 2003 06:05 am
Hmmmmmm - Sozobe, in line with "Midnight's Children"'s influence on you, there have been many examples of books I have read kindling a long interest in a topic, or shaping my attitudes to it.

For example, probably Mary Renault's evocations of classical homosexuality helped proof me against any negative propaganda I ran up against at a later age. Books about Jewish people - like Chaim Potok's works, for example, meant that I had a very positive interest in matters Jewish from a very early age.

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