I'd predict that 99 percent of the small talk in the staff elevator at my library involves the following question and its answers:
"Are you reading anything good?"
Most recently I asked this of a woman holding The Poisonwood Bible, which I adored.
"Yes!" she said, waving the book in front of me. "I'm almost done. This book has changed my life."
Hearing that a book changed someone's life is one of my greatest pleasures. I can't think of a better compliment an author could hear. Unfortunately, my follow-up question doesn't always yield a satisfying answer:
"How?" I said. Meaning, how did it change your life?
"Because it was amazing!" she said.
This is a pretty typical response, and I know I do it sometimes as well.
"Because it was just so good!"
"It was incredible!"
"I loved it!"
These are all great to hear, but none of them indicate any clues about how a life might have been changed, not that anyone owes me an explanation if I ask. Still, "This changed my life!" is pretty high praise and shouldn't be interchangeable with "This book is really good!"
Now, I don't go around watching everyone I talk to, so that I'll be able to pounce from dark alleys, proclaiming, "I knew your life hadn't changed!" And of course, every book you read changes your life, if only because you are now a slightly different person — the person who now has one more book kicking around in their brain.
But saying something "changed my life" really isn't something I want to note casually. So, as someone who tries (and often fails) to heed Mark Twain's admonitions about using the correct word, I've been trying to figure out if any books have actually changed my life, and how.
Here are a few:
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
I was in first grade when I brought Charlotte's Web home from the library. I instantly fell in love with Fern. I had loved books and stories before this, but this was the first time I felt a visceral, immediate connection with a character in a book. I loved her. Madly, painfully. This book taught me just how real a character can be, and how much truth fiction can have.
Misery by Stephen King
I started bringing Stephen King books home from the bookmobile in fifth grade. Misery was the book that my mom caught me reading prior to banning Stephen King from our house until I was older. I was usually an obedient kid, but I continued sneaking King's books into the house. Misery taught me that reading the books I loved, regardless of the effort the subterfuge required, was way more fun than obeying my mom.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
My favorite bookstore owner of all time — Keith Clawson from the defunct Experienced Books in Salt Lake City — recommended Motherless Brooklyn to me as soon as I told him that I had Tourette Syndrome. He wouldn't let me pay for it, either. "This one's on me," he said. The protagonist of the book has Tourette's. Mr. Clawson put this book in my hand at a very desperate time, when my condition was worsening every day and I despaired for my future. Saying "It saved my life!" would be melodramatic, but this book helped me smile at a time when I couldn't find any other reasons to do so.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
One of my favorites, if not my absolute favorite book. Confederacy was recommended to me by Mr. Clawson as well, so I owe him for this too. At the time Confederacy was the funniest book I had ever read, but it was sad, too. This book has come to define nearly all of my ideas about humor. I've reread it every year since. Each year, the book is still funny, but I'm increasingly aware of how inextricably intertwined sadness and humor often are. So much of humor is based on acknowledging a lack of something, or a brief flash of superiority. I often laugh because the alternative scares me.
Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Mark Twain
Okay, this short piece by Twain isn't a book, but its quantification of the mistakes Cooper made in The Deerslayer tales and The Last of the Mohicans should make writers question whether their words are actually communicating what they're meant to. It has certainly had this effect on me. Also, this piece gets my nomination for the most hilarious piece of short writing in existence.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Depending on the mood I'm in, Blood Meridian is either my favorite or least favorite book. I say it has changed my life because I can't stop reading it. If ever a book has deserved the description of "haunting," for me, it is this book. Each time I finish it, I shudder and think, "Okay, never again. That's enough." I rarely make it more than a month before I'm revisiting scenes, paragraphs, and pages. Why? I'm not sure, and therein lies my fascination. It could be the fact that I love Westerns, or the campfire lectures delivered by the horrific Judge Holden. It could be the archaic language or the scene on the edge of the volcano. It could be the dancing bear or the idiot and the parasol in the later chapters. It could be all of these things, or none of them. The activity of reading is itself a compulsion for me. But Blood Meridian is the only book that compels me to read it again and again. Its power is that I can't leave it alone, even though I know how shaken I'll be at the end.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Many of my ideas (ill-formed or otherwise) about how we deploy language — either to our favor or to our detriment — come from the linguistic absurdities of Catch 22. Often, when I find myself struggling to define an abstract concept, I think of the characters in Catch 22 chasing their own words around. Language can make the meaningless meaningful, or vice versa.
How about you? What books have truly changed your life? Do you know why?