Books that changed things

Mighty Girl’s blog post Eight Books That Changed Things For Me got me thinking. Thinking, really, less about what books have changed things for me than whether it was far too embarrassing to publish such a list. So many of them are shallow and rather silly. But what the hey.

In rough chronological order:

1. James Clavell, Shogun

I bought this at a garage sale (for $0.50) when I was eight and devoured it. Goofy as it sounds it was the first epic I encountered, and wow! It totally opened my mind to the possibilities of stories based more in human relationships and grand circumstances than in the simpler plots of children’s lit. I followed it up (as I recall) with The Thorn Birds, that huge novel with a one-word title where small children are fed to Baal via a stone statue, the Old Testament, and the full North and South series. Whoo.

2. Sigmund Freud, a book the title of which I cannot remember

When I was nine or so it was a particularly hot summer. There were three rooms in our house that were air-condiditioned: my parents’ bedroom, my dad’s office, and the sun porch. There were no bookshelves on the sun porch and I could hardly hang around my parents’ bedroom, so I spent a bunch of time reading all the books on my dad’s office shelves (Dad’s a psychiatrist). I eventually read this book either by or about Freud, which had much detail about penis envy and whatnot. I think — and this is a wonderful credit to both my parents — that it was the first time I truly absorbed that some people thought rather little of women.

I confronted my dad: “you don’t believe all this penis envy stuff, do you?” He said something mollifying about it being a classic upon which more modern theories of psychiatry and the brain were based, and he added in a tone of true bewilderment that things might be otherwise, “I can’t imagine not wanting everything in the world for my daughters”. Go, Dad! xxxooo.

I read the Odyssey that summer too (in translation, obviously) but it didn’t make half so strong an impression.

3. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This was on a summer reading list for my new school the year I moved to Vancouver and I chose it purely based on the title. I was fifteen, which was about perfect in retrospect. My first foray into the land of abstraction, into books with ideas beyond plot, and where they could take you.

It’s good for bit-by-bit reading on canoe trips — I dragged my copy around a fair amount when I worked as a canoe tripper. I still like to read it in the woods from time to time although I now realize it’s badly dated. Cities aren’t good for it.

4. John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

In the middle of university I sort of kind of accidentally ended up on the literary review, although I was very much a science student (long story, but the previous year the review failed to cut the pages of the thing and urged us to “do violence to the text”. We did.). Frustrated by my inability to express why exactly I liked some poems that were submitted to the review and not others, I expressed this to boyfriend-of-the-time, who happened to be an Classics and English major, and he loaned me his copy of this book.

This is the only English textbook I’ve encountered that actually added to my appreciation of any form of writing instead of diminishing it. Totally changed my approach to not only poetry but prose as well. If we dispensed with the vast majority of high school English classes and replaced them with this book, the world would be a better place. And students would be much happier. To borrow Melle‘s current tagline:

“Storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it.”

— Hannah Arendt

It’s out of print, of course.

5. Lynn Crosbie (ed.), The Girl Wants To: Women’s Representations of Sex and the Body

Well hey. A collection of erotica that is actually varied and interesting. Who knew that existed? Not me when I found this book late in undergrad, that’s for sure.

6. Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War

Here, Griffin provides a psychology of war and violence, examining in particular how the denial and secrecy surrounding these events affects personal lives. As examples, she explores the lives of the families of workers on the Los Alamos project and at Oak Ridge, the background and psyche of Heinrich Himmler, the life of a British soldier in the Boer War and World War I, and Gandhi’s resistance to violence and oppression. These are interwoven with autobiographical narrative that illustrate the effects of family denial and secrecy.

This was a required text for one of my grad school classes. We all read it and absolutely failed to discuss it afterward in any coherent way.

“It was –”
“I know! and then it was like….”
“Me too.”
“Yeah, totally.”
(long pause)

A book that is felt more than it is read, I think. Every time I’ve loaned this book to someone they’ve stolen it.

7. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

This book made it obvious to me that I was essentially pagan at heart, although without the benefit of Californian beaches and redwood groves in which to conduct complex rituals and with rather more Buddhist tendencies and a seriously non-foofy approach.

I was doing research for my Master’s at the time. Taking things back to first principles, I ended up researching religions (because you need to base how you handle the Earth’s resources in a system that people will understand and accept). In one class I bemoaned the fact that libraries didn’t seem to carry pagan books at all, and a very generous colleague lent me a number of books including (IIRC) this one. Thanks again, Lynna!

For the record, many pagans and most Native American cultures have it right, Earth-wise.

8. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I’ve posted about this book before, I know, but it really is a good one. I can’t remember whether I read it before or after Jacobs’ (and my) involvement with Citizens for Local Democracy, but it doesn’t much matter. Read it and you’ll not look at cities, or your neighbourhood, in the same way ever again. And it is such a wonderful read.

So there’s eight, but I’m sure there are a bunch of runners-up — off the top of my head, Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman, Catcher in the Rye, Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade

2 thoughts on “Books that changed things

  1. I was about six when you started reading Shogun, I think I was still on Meg and Mog books, and I remember being *seriously* impressed that my big sister was reading a book that was about 5 inches thick 🙂

    I also remember reading most of the books on dad’s bookshelf, although the one that sticks with me was “Dr. X”, an autobiography of a Resident in an ER. Thank heavens the air conditioner was in that room, I never would have read those books otherwise.

  2. The Dr. X one was good, wasn’t it?

    Window-mounted air conditioning: a key to children’s literacy…

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