“A Book that Changed My Life”

“A Book that Changed My Life”StrandBookstore-UKL-300x400

by Ursula K. Le Guin

There’s a magazine aimed at the people who used to be called old before that became the unspeakable and unprintable “o” word now replaced by blandnesses such as elderly, senior, feisty, and spry. This magazine approached me, I expect because I am a writer who is very [unspeakable and unprintable], to see if I’d write a short piece for them. I sent them the 200 words they asked for, but they never answered, and I realised I was glad they hadn’t, because my 200 words were no good.

The problem was their topic: “A book that changed my life.”

A book? One book?

When I was very little, books were read to me; then I started reading them; a while after that I started writing them. By now I’ve been reading and writing books for about eighty years, and every single one of them changed my life.

Well, I admit some of them didn’t change it very much. But you never can be sure what you take away with you from a book. Almost anything you read is likely to have the power to change, or to shape, your life.

Since almost any book can inform or misinform, enlighten or confuse, shrink or enlarge expectations, and directly or indirectly subvert conventional teachings or beliefs, The Powers that Be, political and religious, are always trying to control books by censorship, forbidding literacy to women, etc. Their distrust is justified. Nobody can guess how a person’s life or a people’s fate may be changed by one book, or one poem, or even a single sentence.

So in that sense, the magazine’s topic was a sound one. But for me, it was this can of worms the size of Arkansas. How the hell was I going to pick one book out of eighty years of reading books? One, out of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books that changed my life, every one of them in a different way?

So I wrote them 200 words of bleh, which went nowhere, thank goodness, and I forgot about it.

Then the Strand Bookstore in NYC asked me to do their monthly “author’s bookshelf.” The authors gets to pick 50 books, and they do their best to have copies of them all, set out on a sale table in their store.

Well, now that is a really nice idea. I thought I could do that.

Fifty isn’t very many books, by my lights, but at least it’s 49 more than one. And the only qualification was liking them, and I like a lot of books a whole lot. I got to fifty in about ten minutes. Actually, a lot more than fifty, because I cheated — with some authors, such as Virginia Woolf, I just said “anything she wrote” — simplifying life both for myself and for the Strand.

I tried to name books purely because I like (love) them. I consciously tried to avoid thinking about it, thinking that I should mention something because it had such an influence on me… No. People are always asking me What Books Influenced You? — a question I hate, because it’s the same problem as A Book That Changed Your Life.

What books didn’t influence me?

If only someone would ask that! I’ve been waiting for years to answer it. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, I will say, had absolutely no influence on me except to cause hours of incredulous boredom. I thought in all fairness I ought to try The Fountainhead. I gave up on page 10.

But that title reminds me of The Fountain, by Charles Morgan, a book that did have real influence on me when I was 22. Though I don’t now really know why, so it’s not among my fifty at the Strand. But it’s on my own shelf, for the piety or tenderness we have for something we loved long ago. So is D.H. Lawrence. So are many others I didn’t list.

By a semi-conscious decision, I left almost all the kids’ books I have reread all my life. And most books not in English.

For some reason I had listed almost no fantasy and sf, when I realised I had my fifty, and more than fifty, and must stop. If I went on I would try to make the list complete, and there is no way it can, or should, be complete. There will always be one more book I forgot to mention. And there will be the book that I haven’t yet read but will read tomorrow and love. So I just stopped.

Here’s my original list. They’re not in any meaningful order. I’ve added a few books that I couldn’t bear to think weren’t included. But then again, I stopped. The beginning of wisdom is in knowing when to stop. Or maybe sometimes it’s in just stopping.

List of books sent to Strand Bookstore:

Virginia Woolf: whatever you have — novels, letters, the diary.
Jane Austen: all the novels
José Saramago: The Cave, Blindness, Seeing, The Stone Raft, The Elephant’s Journey, All the Names
Charles Dickens: Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Poetry (collections or selections): Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Emily Bronte
Lucretius: The Nature of Things
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
Charles McNichols: Crazy Weather
Thomas Berger: Little Big Man
George Eliot: Middlemarch
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rudyard Kipling: Kim, Just So Stories (with Kipling’s illustrations), The Jungle Books (with his father’s illustrations), The Day’s Work
Lyov Tolstoy: War and Peace (in any of the older translations, not Pevear), Anna Karenina
Molly Gloss: The Jump-Off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, Falling From Horses
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi


Poetry: A.E.Housman: Poems (how could I have not mentioned Housman!?)
J.R.R.Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (ditto)
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Austin Tappan Wright, Islandia
Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake
Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog




“A Book that Changed My Life” — 16 Comments

  1. Yeah. Just one book? It is to laugh. Even a bad book read at the right time can change one’s life. And life changes daily.

    The display in The Strand sounds lovely, though. What a good idea.

  2. LOVE this!! We need the unspeakable/unprintable to tell what books meant to them, and those who are on the way to unspeakable/unprintable …

    Right now we are using Sean Connery, who said he got his first big break at age 5 when he first read a book.

  3. All good discussion and comments to read by someone who is just reaching the shores of unspeakable/unprintable … It is the nature of “The Way” that is can not be named or defined, just lived.

  4. I was so happy to see the post on Goodreads that Ms. Le Guin had a new blog entry. Just wanted to let you know that I posted the link to it on twitter and within seconds the “retweets” have been dinging my phone from around the world. Guess I am not alone in my fandom!

  5. Ms le Guin, just a quick note to thank you for your latest blog post. More than that, I’d like to thank you for introducing me to Ged, and all the others, over many years. Most of all, thanks for your beautiful Tao te Ching! No author has brought more pleasure into my life than you have.

  6. Dear Ursula,
    I have just finished reading “Powers” this morning, and I am still in tears. I am not crying because it was sad (though it was) or because someone died there (though they did). I cried just because… I was filled with SUCH emotion – fascination, joy, adoration, as well as grief, fear, doubts, endless thoughts – even twinkling of some sort. In fact I am writing this – and I am crying all over again, just because emotions are bursting out.
    I am Russian, I was born and still live in Moscoe, but luckily I speak (and read) rather decent English, so of course I have read your books in English (all 3 Western shore books and several others, all of which left me with the same twinkling feeling). And I just wanted to acknowledge – as best as I can (because obviously reading in a foreign language is much easier than writing in it, especially when you are writing in tears), – how immensely your work touches me, and how… Breathless I always fnd myself as soon as I close your books. Breathless and completely taken away.
    Thank you for that.

  7. “The beginning of wisdom is in knowing when to stop.” True of many things, but not of reading. Thank you for this list. I don’t know them all, and shall make the acquaintance of the strangers.

  8. Picking one is undeniably challenging. Books – good books – are transformative, if one is a bookish person at all. But I do have one book story that I have been wanting to tell for a while ago, and I think now is the time.

    The year was 1981, and the book was A Wizard of Earthsea. It and I would turn thirteen years old that year. Rather a cuspal age for a boy. I don’t know enough about the maturation of books to speculate as to how pivotal the year was for the book. But it is when we met.

    It remains one of my favorite books, but that isn’t the gist of this story. Not that we met, but how.

    To tell the intensely personal briefly, I was introduced to Earthsea, and to the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin, by the first boy I was aware of being in love with. Magically, miraculously for the time, he felt the same. Then he moved away, and we lost touch and I haven’t seen or heard of him since that summer.

    That’s alright – Maharion and Erreth-Akbe didn’t get a happily-ever-after either.

    I did get a lifelong companion in the guise of Le Guin’s body of work. I hope that, wherever he ended up, my friend found something as satisfying and is still around to celebrate making it to a time that is a bit more accepting. It meant the world to me that we were able to accept ourselves, and each other, even then.

  9. I’ve been reading Ms. Le Guin’s work since the early 70s. Without fail, all have moved and informed me of myself and of new ways to look at existence. Minutes ago I finished another reading of my aging Avon paperback copy, ‘The Lathe of Heaven’. Yet again I am changed, made better, and though woefully incomplete I’m only old, not dead, and still have hope.

    Speaking to me as if by ansible, the beautiful structure of her prose is like poetry. Her acute understanding of our places in the worlds we live and our relationship to innocence and wisdom causes the sun to rise on at least this one.

    We do not inhabit perfect Omelas, though we use our children as shamelessly. Perhaps our world is where they who walk away go?

    The only sour note in her List of 50 is the absence of any books by Ursula K. Le Guin, my favorite author. Many, many thanks!

    May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks!

  10. Two of your books would be on my list–The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home. Both transported me to different times and places as real as this one.

  11. As someone who’s never read any of the Russian classics, I am wondering why you specifically said “not the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations.”

    I’ve got Karamazov in the Pevear because I’ve always wanted to rectify the fact I’ve never read any Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and the new translations came very heavily promoted as the first “true to the original text” translations.


  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the list!
    I can’t believe I’d never heard of Carmen Dog. It’s the kind of smart that cuts, angry-funny. Sweet, too. And the characters, oh boy. I’ve been constantly drawing them since I finished, trying to figure out what Pooch, Philip and Rosemary look like. Also what’s-her-face, the Siamese cat. For the most part the drawings are crap, but I will figure it out.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was brutal. It made me think about inequality, and how it is perpetuated. I know, as everybody knows, that education is important, but The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me realize it. The 1950’s were not that long ago.

    I had just finished reading some inexcusably racist 80’s cyberpunk when I started reading At the Mouth of the River of Bees. It made for a nice change. The stories in it are really, really good, and the author writes stories set in Japan and China and (for a bit there) Korea without ever exoticizing or fetishizing any aspect of their cultures. It was beyond refreshing. Worthy of note is the fact that the story after a cute, wholesome tale of a cat who travels through Japan looking for a place where she belongs starts with “In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly”.

    Tolkien meant the world to me when I was growing up. That’s all.

    I really like Kipling, though my favorites are his Just So stories, which I read in German. Watch me shrug self-consciously as you tell me that the point of Kipling is the way he writes, and that that is certainly untranslatable.

    Saramago, I read in Portuguese. I think we had to read Blindness for school. The one I most enjoyed was The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I wonder why it’s not on your list? Did you think it was silly, stupid, misleading?

    Molly Gloss’ The Jump-Off Creek was interesting. I started reading it without the slightest idea of what it was about. The most interesting thing for me was seeing how reserved the characters were, how much they thought before they spoke, the troubles they went to to make their presence known so as not to startle others, or perhaps give them reason to misjudge their intentions. It is all very alien to me, I don’t know anything about the American West.

    When I was 16, I got it into my head that I had to read Tolstoy. I thoroughly enjoyed Ana Karenina, but stopped reading War and Peace when I got to the bit where the narrator waxes poetic about some wondrous beauty’s mustache. My best friend, whose upper lip would have made Frida Kahlo (and, I suppose, Tolstoy) proud, had just started dating the boy I liked.

    The only thing I have read by Virginia Woolf is Orlando, which I loved. I got put off of her other writings when I was angrily and repeatedly informed by a friend of my mother’s with a degree in Literature that Orlando was a waste of time, it had been written by Virginia Woolf as a joke, and was, therefore, worthless. I believe by now I’ve spent what amounts to hours of my life mentally telling that woman to go pickle a cactus.

    I’m looking forward to reading the other books on the list! Especially Life on the Mississippi. I tried reading Huckleberry Finn when I was younger, got sorely bored and confused, and stopped. I hope I can appreciate Mark Twain better the second time around.

  13. Hi Mrs. Le Guin,

    You didn’t include the book you translated, “Lao Tzu / Tao Te Ching” in the list. A book you said your family read at your father’s memorial service; and you have marked which chapters you’d like to have read at your funeral.

    I imagine the reason of your omitting the Tao Te Ching from the list is because you have read it so many times for so many years, you have internalized it as part of your essence. Much like you not listing any of the books you wrote in the list, Tao Te Ching is not a book “that changed your life” because IT IS part of your life.

    Looking forward to reading your newest book: “Steering the Craft”, I want to thank you for continuing to share your thoughts, insights and wisdom with us.

    Shiu-chin Linda Hsu