(Editor's Note: The following text is an excerpt from The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them, edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen.)
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G. K. Chesterton
A good book changes you, even if it is only to add a little to the furniture of your mind. It will make you laugh and perhaps cry; it should certainly make you think. A great book will make you dream in regions you have never dared to before, and ultimately it will spur you to create or achieve something new yourself.
For me G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday is a book to light fires in my mind, uplift my heart, tell me truths I had only glimpsed before. It makes me feel wonderfully unique, and at the same time part of all mankind. If you think that is too much for one book, read it, and see if it doesn't do the same for you. Read it again a few years later, and find it does so even more powerfully.
It seems an absurd title. What sort of a book is it? Chesterton himself, in an essay written in 1936 and published the day before he died, called it "melodramatic moonshine" and pointed out that he had subtitled it A Nightmare. I would say it is more of a vision, in the sense of something unreal that makes reality suddenly easier to understand. Sorry! The Chesterton passion for paradox is contagious.
It is a marvelous adventure of six men with enormous courage fighting against the anarchy in the world, against those who would destroy, whether by bombs or by indifference. They battle all kinds of dangers, and are pursued from England to France and back again. Some of the chases are deeply sinister, some wild, some desperate, some hilarious, some totally bizarre.
The last is the most fantastic of all. If I say it includes riding on an elephant and in a hot-air balloon, and appears to end in something close to the end of the world, or a fancy dress party in the garden of heaven, you will catch the idea. And yet the issues are as real as bread and butter, or today's terrorism in the streets. It is a fantasy, in the best sense that it is the imagination set free. Within a fantasy's own logic of meaning, its morality, there are no boundaries as to what a writer may use to enrich the picture. It is a poem in prose. The sunset over Saffron Park:
...but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hot plumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen.
There is far more, a hundred passages immeasurably enriching to the memory of beauty, the vividness of life, the sheer love of the earth and the gift to savor it and be grateful. I do not see a pink tree in blossom without thinking of the one before which Gabriel Syme fell on his knees when he expected to die. The music of words, the color and depth, are there all the way through. Chesterton was a poet, he could scarcely help it.
But he was also a thinker, a believer, a man who dared to dream. The Man Who Was Thursday is above all a journey of the spirit where men love the good in the world enough to fight for it. Even though each believes himself utterly alone, and that the enemy is too many, too strong for him ever to win, he cannot turn away or betray the light he has once seen. One short quotation from the end summarizes the heart of it.
"But you were men. You did not forget your secret honour, though the whole cosmos turned an engine of torture to tear it out of you. I knew how near you were to hell. I know how you, Thursday, crossed swords with King Satan, and how you, Wednesday, named me in the hour without hope."
The Man Who Was Thursday is vast and wise, filled with words and ideas that make sense of pain and loneliness and the length of the whole journey of life. But you need to read it for yourself, perhaps many times. How has it changed me? It tells me that I am only walking the same path as all mankind, and not only that it makes sense but it is the only way that possibly could do. I may imagine I am alone, and that is necessary too, but I am not, I am simply in my own part of the procession.
Chesterton's great book gives me food, armor, and a compass for the soul. It tells me yet again that the power of the word is like the power of light itself. I will read, and I will also write! I will write something that will be food, light, and armor for others. Thank you, Chesterton, for the passion of your mind. You died before I was born, but I like to think you would have approved at least some of the things I have done, and will yet do.
Anne Perry is the widely acclaimed author of two bestselling mystery series set in Victorian London: the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including Seven Dials and Long Spoon Lane, and the William Monk novels, most recently Dark Assassin. She has also written three novels set during World War I, No Graves As Yet, Shoulder the Sky, and Angels in the Gloom. A recipient of the Edgar Award and the Herodotus Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Historical Mysteries, she lives in Scotland. You can visit her at www.anneperry.net.