Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Life-changing books

Inspired by this post entitled "for the love of reading", as well as an old episode of This American Life called "The Book That Changed Your Life", I've been thinking a lot about life-changing books. Which are rarer than you think, really, considering the ratio of how many books actually get read to how often life is ever really genuinely changed. I mean, there are books that have been terribly affecting, books that have written themselves into my DNA for how much I've come to love them, or books that came my way precisely when I needed them, but I didn't necessarily start to live differently after reading them.

Top five exceptions as follows:

1) Anne of Green Gables: As I wasn't so defined before I read this book, I can't say it changed my life exactly, but I'm confident I would have a different kind of life now had I never read it. For over twenty years, I've sought to emulate Anne Shirley's ambitions, her spirit, her articulateness, her passions, her bookishness, her incorrigibility, and to see the world as she does.

2) "The Grunge Look" by Margaret Atwood: Which isn't a book, but rather as essay from Writing Away: The PEN Canada Travel Anthology. I encountered the anthology in the Hart House Library during the summer of 2002 when my life was a mess, and it was apparent to me that the only thing I could do to fix it was to run away to England like Atwood had. It was a terribly unwise decision at the time, but in retrospect was the smartest and bravest move of my life.

3) Vegetarian Classics by Jeanne Lemlin: This book taught me how to cook, as well as provided the means for us live very cheaply during the grad school/unemployment years. Our copy is now falling apart, we still use it all the time, and I hope it's not too terrible how often I just slip in a little bit of beef...

4) Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: Last summer's garden was a bust, and Barbara would be horrified if she knew just how addicted I've become to bananas, but even still, my eating and shopping habits have been changed since I read her book almost two years ago. The vegetannual has changed the way I eat. The world tastes much better for it.

5) Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. Without it I might still be waiting for a stork.

Fascinating to see how little novels factor in here, particularly because I read as many as I do. Though I wonder if novels change our lives in more subtle ways. I suspect they're the stuff we're constructed of more than the signposts along the road.