“A Book that Changed My Life”
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