My friend who works for a library recently posted this question on social media: What was the book that changed your life? She included a link to an article with writers giving their answers and I skimmed through it, not recognizing most of the titles. But it got me thinking.
I’ve been reading since, well, the day I could read, and really even before that if you count all the hours I spent on the living room couch as a child with a picture book on my lap, making up the story because I couldn’t understand the actual words yet. So I’ve been ingesting information and fantasy and debate and romance and mystery and history and humor and dialogue for nearly all my life…and that’s a really tall order to sift through all those years and chapters and sentences and come up with an answer to this now seemingly trite question.
But as I said, it got me thinking.
Two answers came to mind immediately:
First, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a beautiful, poignant memoir I could say a lot about, but really because it introduced me to Dave Eggers, a man who would become one of my all-time favorite authors. If you’ve seen my Favorites page, I mention You Shall Know Our Velocity, but everything I’ve read by Dave has pricked my soul on some level. Why? Because he writes in this spare, crystalline way that I aspire to, for one. But for two, he writes the truth. Whether it’s the inane conversation between two friends trying to plan a trip, or the innermost thoughts of a young woman unable to think for herself, or a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro by an under-prepared man, he writes the truth. When someone is able to tap into what is true—even if you’ve never experienced for yourself the exact thing being written about—you know it without knowing how you know it. And whenever that happens, it’s like a seam opens up in the fabric of your life and you see into the secret place wherein all the world’s wisdom lies.
My second answer is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I have a story about this. A few years ago I was at a wedding with my boyfriend. We were going through a tumultuous time, lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs in our relationship, lots of vulnerabilities and hurts and doubts, and the bottom line was that I did not want to be at that wedding. I barely knew the couple getting married, I was deeply tired on an emotional level, and that night I was so on edge I could barely speak because I was afraid we’d get into an argument as we’d been doing a lot of back then. As we were making our way around the buffet table, my boyfriend got caught in a conversation with a woman holding a baby. A man, who turned out to be the woman’s husband, turned to me to introduce himself and made a few other polite inquiries by way of small talk. I must have told him I was a writer, because he told me he was a musician. And then he asked me if I’d read The War of Art. I said no, I’d never heard of it.
And you know when you have one of those moments where everything in the room just stops…the background noise disappears…everyone else fades into a blur…and the only thing you’re conscious of is your heart beating and the face of the person in front of you who’s about to change everything? This man whose name I don’t remember, who was a struggling musician as much as I was a struggling writer, who had met me as a stranger and would forget me as a stranger but somehow understood that the vocation I had embarked upon—much like his—was fraught with self-doubt and fear, told me he’d found enlightenment in this book and I believed him. I bought the book the next day and devoured it in one sitting. As with all my favorite books, I’ve read it several more times, and every time I am slapped upside the head and humbled and vow to recommit myself to my work. It’s a book that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It holds you accountable, in your life and your art. It asks how willing you are. It has nothing to do with bestseller lists or profit margins or six-figure deals, all the things we humans deem important.
(Note to readers: whenever you have one of those moments, pay attention. And for heaven’s sake, if it involves a book you need to read, go out and read it. Books are messages; the writing comes not from the author, but from the divine. Steven Pressfield will tell you all about it).
Many other books have left permanent impressions on me. I could try to talk about them all, but such self-indulgence might become a bore to you (and to me). So I’ll just leave you with these. And the original question. And your thoughts.