Monday, October 5, 2009

A book that changed your life


By Kathryn Lilley

Last weekend I heard a great program on This American Life called "The Book That Changed Your Life."

It reminded me of a recent discovery I made: I learned that a book I gave to a friend 30 years ago had actually changed his life.

Thirty years ago, I was 23 and newly graduated from Columbia Journalism School. He was 22, and a charming slacker. We dated just long enough for me to conclude that he had a serious pot habit (I was naive about drugs 30 years ago, and slow to catch on).
As our relationship hit the rocks, I gave him a copy of a book I was reading at the time, The Republic. I marked up passages that I thought applied to him. I don't recall which ones they were--probably the sections that described Plato's concept of a well-ordered society. I'm sure it was a bit of a reproachful gift, a pseudo-intellectual parting shot.

Recently I received a long, thoughtful email from my former friend. It was a thank you note. He said The Republic had had a huge impact on his life; he credited it with helping him give up drugs and recalibrate his approach to life. He's now a successful businessman.

It's hard to believe that one book was responsible for all that, but I was glad to hear his story.

I can't think of any books that changed my life in such a profound way (I do recall faking a southern accent for an entire year after reading Gone With the Wind, and another year of nightmares after reading When Worlds Collide, but those don't count).

How about you. Have any books changed your life?

9 comments:

  1. Wow, that is such a cool story about Plato! I have to say ol' Plato was a major influence in my life, too. I devoured the Dialogues in college. I almost changed my major to philosophy because of it. It made philosophy exciting to me, and may explain why I eventually went to law school and thrived on the Socratic method...

    As far as fiction, one of the first "big" novels I remember reading as a kid was Tarzan of the Apes. I still recall the pleasure of being in a book I didn't want to put down. Which is one reason, perhaps the main reason, I wanted to become a writer myself.

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  2. It was actually an introduction to a book of essays about Stephen King. He wrote the intro called something like "The Making of a Brand Name" and it inspired me to try writing. And now I'm a professional writer and novelist. Sometimes I don't know whether to thank King or kick him in the ass.

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  3. On Writing. Made me think, for the first time, that it was possible. and I'm still working toward the dream as a result.

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  4. In a small way (nothing dramatic like your story!) the children's book 'Shadow Castle' by Marian Cockrell changed my life by revealing that fantasy books were my love, and what I wanted to create. I think I was seven years old when I first read that. I can't think of another one that had a profound impact, but I'm sure one exists... I'll pop back over if I think of it :)

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  5. I've never that had much of an epiphany from a book, but I can think of three that built on each other to change my outlook on many things.

    In my late twenties I read David Halberstam's THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST and THE RECKONING, as well as Stanley Karnow's VIETNAM. They made me realize there's more to everything than meets the eye, and that finding contextual material will take some work.

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  6. It's no wonder you almost switched to philosophy, Jim--I read that philosophy is one of the best majors for lawyers-to-be. Teaches you how to argue "realities" from different points of view. I got into philosophy too, although I confess my original motivation was that I considered it an "easy A" in college!
    Mark, I'm going to find that book by Stephen King. It sounds great. Also loved On Writing.

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  7. There are several books that changed / effected my life.

    1. The Torah & The Bible : actually I can't say it changed my life as much as shaped my life, I've been reading it almost daily since I was six. The study of a culture, their worship, history, laws, interactions and philosophies in the light of a single over arching purpose will effect a person's thinking on the deepest levels. When read in context as a whole the ramifications of its teachings are awesome.

    2. The Practice Effect: by David Brin, (c. 1984). It wasn't terribly deep or elbow patch's & a pipe philosophical but really made me think that if you can imagine it you can do it. That has become my own prime directive of sorts.

    3. Once an Eagle, by Anton Myer
    One of the best books I have ever read, a contrasting view of life as a whole, beginning to end. One of the few books I will read more than once.

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  8. In my final year of high school I read two books that didn't really change my real life but certainly altered my imagination and prompted my desire to write. They were Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and An Imaginary Life by David Malouf.

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  9. I love so many books it's hard to pick, but I distinctly remember a few having a profound impact on me for different reasons:

    Charlotte's Web when I was six or seven and read it all by myself--it made me cry and transported me to another place

    Mists of Avalon when I was twelve--the first adult novel where I was similarly transported, and I re-read it about six times before seventh grade

    Magician--Probably the real biggie. I was about thirteen or fourteen and it was so much fun that the moment I finished it, I wanted to read it aloud to my boyfriend, who was dyslexic. I eventually married that boy and, after twenty years of marriage, I still read books aloud to him. We've grown our minds together, and I think that's part of what makes us such a happy couple.

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