31 January 2014

Six Books That Changed My Life

Emily from Live Renewed had a post this week about the six books that have changed her life.

I think that's a very weighty label, isn't it? Don't get me wrong--I've read many books that have impacted me greatly. But to say a book has changed your life is a big deal. Not something that should be casually thrown around.

Still, I think it's important to be open so that important books can change your life. It's one way we can grow and become better people than we were.

For the purposes of this blog, I'll say that I consider a life-changing book one that shifted the way I see the world and relationships in it, and one that I could read more than once.* These are the books that, when I read the last page, I say something along the lines of "Holy shit."

So I've taken some time to think about what six books fall under the "life-changing" category for me. I present them here (in no particular order), with a short explanation of why.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I first read Jane Eyre in eighth grade. It was my first foray into adult classic literature. I don't remember why I chose it, but I read the whole thing in about two days. I let it sit in my room for a few days, then read it again.

The story of an orphaned governess transformed me as a reader. Until I read Jane Eyre, I stayed securely in the reading deemed by the Powers That Be to be appropriate for my age and grade level. Sure, I took on Accelerated Reader challenges excitedly, but this was the first time I read something I considered an "adult" novel. It opened up a new world of reading to me. Because I read it and (sort of) understood it, I realized I didn't have to keep reading R. L. Stine and Bonnie Byrant. I could choose books based on what sounded interesting to me, and ignore whether the books were "for my age" or not. My reading life was never the same after that.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
I read this in ninth grade English. I'd just moved from another state and had about a month of school left until summer vacation, and the class had already started reading it. I remember that my parents had to sign a release form saying I had permission to read it for class. That was new for me.

This was my first experience with an unreliable narrator, which kind of blew my mind at the time. It was very, very strange to me that the person telling the story couldn't be entirely trusted. Until then, I'd always taken narrators at their words. But Holden Caulfield was a very different character. He only gave part of the story. He contradicted himself. I didn't really know what to make of him at first. After that, I was more careful about what I believed when I read stories.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
I'm still in the process of reading this, so I was a little conflicted about including it in this list. But even only part of the way into the book, I can say it's a life-changer for me.

I'm new to atheism after a lifetime of Christianity (in various forms). And even though I know I do not believe in any supreme being/intelligent creator/god, I am far less versed in atheism than others are, and than others are in Christianity. I know what I think and believe, but I'm unable to coherently debate it or offer evidence against the existence of god. Yet. However, Dawkins is not only helping me articulate my thoughts, but is helping me better understand the scientific evidence behind atheism. It's helping me combat the "truths" I've been taught my whole life, and reminding me of why I've taken that step to atheism instead of simply claiming to be "spiritual" or "non-religious." This book really is changing the way I look at the world because I'm better able to see the wonder and beauty and terrible parts of the universe without tainting it by giving credit to a creator.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You're either a Gatsby person or you're not. I am.

I can't remember the first time I read The Great Gatsby. Probably high school. And I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I could have that first time. But I remember the second time I read it. Because it was the first time a book made me cry. Sure, I'd read books that touched me and made me feel sad, but this was the first time there were actual tears as a I read a book. I cried for Jay and for his father. I've read the book many times since*, and each time it's made me cry. Gatsby has touched me in a way other books haven't, and has grown and changed with me through its many readings. I'm a Gatsby person.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
It seems to me a little cliche that I would add this book, but I do have good reason.

When I was in high school (and college), I struggled with depression and anxiety. At the time, there weren't a lot of people around me going through similar struggles, so I felt very alone. When I read The Bell Jar, I felt a little less alone in what I was going through. I felt that, maybe, others had the same struggles. I know Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath are not the best models of recovery, but just knowing that I wasn't alone in what I was feeling was enough for me to be able to push through it. And, more importantly, ask for help when I needed it. In that way, I think Esther's story made me a better person, so it must be included in this list.

The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking by Robert Atkinson
I read this book my senior year in college when I took a directed study course on personal mythmaking with my academic advisor. I really enjoyed the course not only because it was with a man I admire very deeply, but because of this book.

By learning more about life stories and personal mythmaking, I learned the value of people sharing their own stories. Until then, I knew it was important for people to have a voice, but there was a disconnection between my realization of that fact and the application in my life, words, and behavior. After reading this book, I better understood the value of telling people's stories, and people telling their own stories. Everyone deserves a voice. By telling their stories or letting others tell their stories, they're given a voice. Thanks to Atkinson's book, I understand that better now, and want to do what I can to make sure people's voices are protected.

It's a hard thing to decide what books have changed my life. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to come up with six titles. Yes, there are books that have made an impact on me. In fact, most books I read impact me in some way or another. But I wouldn't call them all life-changing. But these six have earned their place.

What books have changed your life?

*Literature rewards rereading.

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