01 February 2011

Books that change lives

People who read often talk about life-changing books, books that gave them an inspiration or an understanding that changed the course of their lives. The change can be of any kind, but especially common seems to be the one that made the reader decide to pursue an occupation or a calling that they had not considered up to then, the one that made them rethink an issue and/or take a stand, and the one that awakened a longing or strengthened an idea into the resolve to do something specific.

These books are responsible for people veering off the path of least resistance that their lives have taken up to then and cause them to make important life changes, like to go into the church, change college majors or drop out, start charities, run for office, vote differently, move to another country, change their lifestyle, give up high-paying jobs that were killing them in order to pursue their real interests, to travel around the world, to find themselves and a million other things, big and small.

While religious and inspirational books feature heavily on most lists of life-changing books, it isn’t just those that change lives. Any book has this potential, even the worst kind of dross, although where those books are concerned it is admittedly usually only to make someone think “What a load of crap! I can do so much better than this!” and then go out and do it.

There are a few that have affected me like this. Whether they wrought any big changes in my life is debatable, but they affected me all the same. I have not encountered such a book since I was a teenager, but I remember them clearly.

The first and most memorable was not one book but a series of them: the Dr. Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting. They made me want to become a veterinarian, a resolve I held from age 8 until I was about 16 years old, which is when I fainted when watching a common veterinary procedure - one I had often seen performed before - being carried out on one of my father’s horses. It was an attack of vasovagal syncope triggered by the sight of blood, a condition I have suffered from ever since. Fainting at the sight and even just the smell of blood is a serious problem for anyone considering a career in medicine, so that dream was shattered. I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t developed this condition, I would now be a practising veterinarian.

The other books that inspired me were ones I read in my teens that had to do with adventure travel. Because of these books I travelled to India, have plans to travel to Egypt in the next few years, and will one day travel to South America. They turned a minor travel bug infection into a raging fever that, much like chronic malaria, recurs at odd times and causes me to drop everything else and start planning trips to various corners of the world. Money matters often prevent me from actually buying a ticket and setting off, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming and planning.

How about you? Has your life been changed by a book? Please tell me which book, and how.

4 comments:

George said...

My life-changing book is the complete edition of Jack Vance's THE DYING EARTH (which includes EYES OF THE OVERWORLD). Not only is it a fantasy masterpiece, it posits a future that exists eons from now. It takes a little time to adjust to Jack Vance's baroque language, but once you get the hang of it, the humor of the stories shine through. I've never looked at the world the same after reading this classic.

George said...

After giving your question more thought, I can also recommend Norman Mailer's best book, THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG. Mailer called it a "non-fiction" novel. It's the story of Gary Gilmore, American criminal and killer. Mailer not only illuminates the dark side of a murderer's life, he also captures the essence of Gilmore's girl friend, Nicole. Outside of Thomas Hardy, this portrait of a female character is best I know of written by a male writer. You'll never look at crime and punishment the same after reading this book.

Bibliophile said...

Than you for the recommendations, George. The Executioner's Song especially sounds like something I might like reading.

George said...

THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG is written in an ingenious paragraph style. Once you start reading it, you won't be able to put it down!