It was a natural. I was interviewing the town’s new library director and we fell to talking about the books that changed our lives.
“It’s a fabulous thing, the serendipity of finding a book that changes your life,” she said. “For me, it was ‘Little Women’ where those strong women without a father managed to prevail. It’s important in childhood to know that people have had hard times and gotten through them. I read that book over and over again. I’d be sobbing and sobbing at the end, and then I’d open it at the front and start all over again.”
She was a Jo, of course. A lot of us girls were Jos while we were growing up.
But now that I’m about to turn 74, and entitled to a bit of reflection, I don’t think “Little Women” changed my life. Although I cried when Beth died, and was impressed that Jo found a way to be a writer, I’m a coup de foudre baby. I believe in the power of metaphorical lightening strikes. And five books actually did change my life.
As novelist Alexander Chee described the experience: “(The book) radicalized me, the writing rewiring me somehow, in a way I’d never want to undo,”
Each of these five books — and I’ll get to their names in a minute — rewired me irrevocably.
Surprisingly, some people argue that this can’t happen. That a book can’t change a life; five books can’t change one life five times.
This argument has been going on for centuries. For example, back in the Roaring Twenties, New York City had a flamboyant mayor named Jimmy Walker. When he was asked about censorship and the banning of books, he famously said, “No woman ever lost her virginity to a book.”
Not true! cries critic Rebecca Solnit.
“Photographs and essays and novels and the rest can change your life; they are dangerous,” Solnit wrote. “Art shapes the world. I know many people who found a book that determined what they would do with their life or saved their life. Books aren’t life preservers; there are more complex, less urgent reasons to read them, including pleasure, and pleasure matters… (But) art can inflict moral harm and often does, just as other books do good.”
I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide if these books were dangerous, if they did me harm or good.
THE FIRST BOOK
When I was 10, Sherlock Holmes came into my life. He came in two volumes, a collection of four novels and 56 shorter stories bundled together as “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At 10 I was already an omnivorous reader. Holmes was the first adult book I managed to get my hands on, and as I started reading, I could see those children’s books — mostly fairy tales with colors in the title — getting smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror of my life.
“The Study in Scarlet” formed the personality that would lead me out of childhood. I was in many ways already like Holmes: an outsider, a loner, eccentric by nature, intelligent. and cursed by a literal mind and the ability to reason abstractly that seemed to dismay the rest of my family.
Until I read Conan Doyle, I thought I must be the strangest person in the world.
But I was meant to be a detective — and being an investigative journalist is very much life being a detective — and at the tender age of 11 I did manage to solve a case. We kids were playing in the street when a man came by and asked us for help. He had parked his car somewhere and couldn’t find it again. I questioned him in detail about what he remembered of the terrain near where he had parked, and then I found the lost car parked near the grammar school. Case closed.
Even though my parents thought it was a lucky coincidence, it was one of the proudest moments of my early life.
Then there’s this:
Watson on Holmes: “My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“‘You appear to be astonished,’ (Holmes) said… ‘Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it…I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”
Holmes’ derision of irrelevant learning was a blessing to this bored little middle school child, although of course my teachers disagreed. And later in life, I had an idiot of an editor who argued that of course I had to know that the earth revolved around the sun, although even if it went around the moon, what difference would it make to the way I covered my beat? But for the next three months he challenged me with arcane Sherlockian trivia and felt triumphant when I could not remember the names of the stories in which these details appeared.
It’s the concept, fool, I wanted to say to him. Your questions prove my point. Move along here, there’s nothing more to see.
Thanks to Holmes, I would study human nature closely for the rest of my life. And I learned that eccentricity has its purposes; an understanding that saved my tender young soul. The books blessed my unbridled curiosity, which still helps me as a journalist and as a writer. They let me believe that life can be a series of adventures. As an added benefit, they left me with an affection for crime novels that continues to this day. I owe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle an undying debt of gratitude.
There’s a caveat here. Sherlock Holmes was a man. I identified with him completely. Yet I was a girl on her way to being a woman. Was I misled? Was I somehow made more manly? Was I damaged?
No, no and no. It was the concept, fool.
THE SECOND BOOK
OK, I’m a little older now. I’m in middle school, The books I tend to read are avant garde, although I don’t understand that term yet. And I can’t explain how Henry Miller’s sexy “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” which were were written in the 1930s and banned in the United States until 1961, came into my hands in 1956 and taught me how to masturbate.
It was Miller’s language that affected me, the raw, forceful, sexual language. As I read the books, previously unknown sensations of warmth, moisture and inchoate craving developed between my legs. I had no idea what these feelings were. I had never felt them before.
But when I read about Henry Miller having sex with his wife, June, in the back seat of a Paris taxi cab, I tentatively put my hand between my legs. A few pages, a few gentle strokes, a few orgasms and I was hooked two ways — one on Henry Miller and the other on my hand.
By the way, I can’t claim that I identified with either Henry or June. I read most of his books, some of hers, and some of their lover Anais Nin’s diaries. She had a big following when I was in college. I found her diaries mewling and uninspiring and Miller’s later work left me cold.
THE THIRD BOOK
Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was published in 1957 and I read it in 1959, the same year Bob Dylan did. ‘It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” he said, and as usual he was correct.
“On the Road” was a lightening bolt that entered the body of this shy little girl from Far Rockaway and changed every molecule in her body.
It never crossed my mind that all the main characters in “On The Road” were guys. I wanted to be on the road like Jack and Neal. I wanted the romance of constant movement, parties, ecstatic conversations about philosophy and writing and poetry and jazz, pain, loneliness, suffering and sorrow. I wanted danger, cops and jail, friendships with madmen, adventures to match Jack London’s. I wanted to hang out heavy like Hemingway wrote about in “The Sun Also Rises.” The adventure was in the rush, the ping-ponging from coast to coast, the characters you met along the way, everybody high on talk, strange drugs, hustling and sex, and I wanted to experience all of it.
Kerouac used language to create movement and driving (ahem) rhythm, and those were the forces that drove me, too. I was restless, frustrated by conventional civilization and eager to get on the road. But it would take another book to send me on my way.
THE FOURTH BOOK
Well, what woman doesn’t say that Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” changed her life? There’s even a collection of Friedan’s writings on the women’s movement that uses it as a title.
When Friedan died in 2006, one of her fans printed dark blue bumper stickers that say “Thank you Betty.” I have one pasted on my desk next to my computer keyboard.
Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, the National Organization of Women was founded in 1966, but the idea that women were equal to men didn’t explode in my brain until the early 1970s.
In 1972 I was living in New York and unhappy for reasons I could not understand. (My ex-husband is one of my best friends today, so it wasn’t that I didn’t love him.) I was in a profession, theatrical costume design, for which I was emotionally unsuited. My life left me unsatisfied, often terrified and mainly stalled.
I picked up “Feminine Mystique,” opened it to the first section and felt that bolt of lightening run through my body once again. Frankly, I don’t think I ever finished the book. I didn’t need to.
In 1974 I combined “On the Road” with “The Feminine Mystique. I left my husband and career and went on the road in South America for 14 exciting, sometimes disturbing, often dangerous years.
THE FIFTH BOOK
It was 1974. I was in Misahualli, a sleepy Ecuadorian jungle town. The few travelers who were on the Gringo Trail — and I was usually the only woman traveling alone — left a trail of books behind them. In Misahualli I found in my pension a paperback copy of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life.”
It took only a few pages before I grabbed a pen and started underlining her insights. Eliot’s sharp eye and depth of understanding of other people’s inner lives and motivations was a revelation. I hadn’t realized that a writer could be so deeply knowledgeable about her society and write so beautifully and mercilessly about it.
I can’t say that I became a better writer because of Eliot, but I can say that I realized that many of the things I had been observing on my own — women’s infuriating place in the world, the failure of consumerism, the stagnation of society, the hypocrisy of government and organized religion — were now topics I could write about.
I still have that book. I still treasure that book.
My last coup de foudre came from a newspaper, not a book.
In 1989 I was still recovering from my years on the road. I was in Brattleboro, Vermont, ostensibly to take a masters degree in international management from the School for International Training. In reality, I was there because I couldn’t think of another way to reenter the culture of my own country.
After the coursework finished, I found myself in deep emotional turmoil — no home, no job, an estranged family, no clue as to what to do with myself. And I was 48 years old!
To pay the rent I took a job in the publicity office of the umbrella organization that ran the school. One day my boss asked me to write a piece for the local newspaper’s September back-to-school issue.
When the paper came out, I saw my name — my by-line! —in print for the very first time. The earth moved. Bells rang. The very same day I called the newspaper and asked for a job.
“Have you ever had anything published?” the editor asked.
“Just open today’s paper,” I said.
I started my new job the next day. I have never looked back.
In one moment, one lightening strike, I found my career and the place where I belonged in this world. A year later I found my husband on the sports desk. There hasn’t been a coup de foudre since.
Perhaps my life doesn’t need any more changing. I’ve made a million mistakes and suffered a lot of loss. I know there’s more loss coming. But right now I have my work and my love and I am happy.
I still read omnivorously — three books and about 10 magazines at a time — but another life-changing book may be in the rear-view mirror, where once upon a time and long ago all those fairy tale books with the colors in their titles once disappeared