Life-changing Books: Continued

We usually think of life-changing events as precipitating actions in the real world, such as a birth or death, marriage or divorce, but to think about how  written words (especially the words of a work of fiction) can have such an effect, well, that gives great power to the imagination.

Often these life-changing books are those we read first as children. Anne Lamott says that since her childhood, she must have read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time a dozen times.Unknown

A Wrinkle in Time saved me,” she says, “because it so captured the grief and sense of isolation I felt as a child. I was 8 years old when it came out, in third grade, and I believed in it — in the plot, the people and the emotional truth of their experience. . . . the book greatly diminished my sense of isolation as great books have done ever since.”


John Irving was a little older when he read Great Expectations, the book that he says changed his life:

“I was 15. It made me want to be able to write a novel like that. It was very visual — I saw everything, exactly — and the characters were more vivid than any I had heretofore met on the page. I had only met characters like that onstage, and not just in any play — mainly in Shakespeare. Fully rendered characters, but also mysterious. I loved the secrets in Dickens — the contrasting foreshadowing, but not of everything. You both saw what was coming and you didn’t. Hardy had that effect on me, too, but when I was older. And Melville, but also when I was older.”


Richard Ford says that the book that changed his life and served as the inspiration for his novel The Sportswriter was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.  Ford views The Moviegoer as “a renewing experience” and Binx as a hero “headed toward the light” and “trying find a vocabulary for affirmation, trying to find the institutions in life that will let him like life better and be better at it.”Unknown-1

Ira Glass dedicated a This American Life radio show to  “The Book That Changed Your Life.” (Click on the highlight to hear the program.) This show (which includes a segment by David Sedaris) is a wonderful illustration of the many ways a book can change a person’s life.

So how did hearing Miss Caine read Les Meserables to our seventh grade class change my life? She and the novel were links to another world–a world radically different and far away from a hot classroom in southeastern North Carolina in the fifties, a world with great conflicts and moral issues, a world that explored the nature of love, compassion, justice, revenge and the effects of poverty. Of course, I didn’t think about these great themes at the time. I was just a kid who loved a good story and was happy to avoid diagramming sentences. But when Miss Caine read to us, I left the classroom behind and saw the people and the story in my mind. I was literally lifted out of myself.


“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
― Emily DickinsonSelected Letters


Writing Jumpstart: Do you remember being read to? What are you reading now? What do you want to read? Have you read something that calls you into some sort of action or that inspires you to write in a certain way?  Go for ten minutes.

A Book That Changed My Life

A few evenings ago at a lovely dinner party during one of those conversations that move easily from topic to topic (errant fire alarms to parking fines) and place to place (an ATM in Burma to a burly motorcycle officer in Germany), my friend Susan talked about David Brooks’s lecture at the Chautaugua Institute she attended in July. When Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him.

David Brooks, Chautaugua, 8/16/13

David Brooks, Chautaugua,

“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” they told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”

This made me think:  Could I do that? Could I name one book that changed my life? My first challenge was trying to remember all the important books I’ve read over the years. But then it hit me: if a book changed my life, how could I ever forget it?

Finally I did remember one book. And so I wrote the following riff on that book. In a future blog, I hope to talk more about why and how that book changed my life.images


Miss Caine Reads Les Miserables to Our Seventh Grade Class (April 1955)

There you are, Miss Caine,
the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
Your dark hair curls almost to your shoulders
and springs up around your face in tendrils
that your long fingers can never tame.
Your pencil skirt pulls across your hips
and a white blouse with a small collar
reveals your long neck. You wear
nylons and black pumps and sit with legs crossed
on your desk. The book is in your lap.

After lunch, we enter your classroom
all sweaty from running around the playground.
Some of us have begun to pair up.
I’m in love with Robert Owens.
My friend Donna Kirby isn’t sure,
but she thinks that James likes her.
Our first dance is in a few weeks.
My mother is making me a pink taffeta dress
with a layer of net over the full skirt.
Last night I turned as Mother measured
and marked the hem with her chalk.

But today as we return from lunch
still smelling like wax paper and milk cartons,
you open the big book and start to read.
We settle into our wooden desks.
Some cross their arms and
lower shoulders onto desk tops.
Miss Caine doesn’t seem to mind.
She is caught up in the lives
of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette.
French street fighting explodes around our heads
and we know the meaning of the eternal chase
and we know what it means to be an orphan
even though we are as secure as we will ever be.

The bell will ring in three hours.
I will walk home and have peanut butter crackers
and half a small Coke with my mother
as we watch Edge of Night.
But for now, Miss Caine reads
Les Miserables and we will
never be quite the same again.

–Vicky Lettmann (8/19/13)


Writing Jumpstart: A Book That Changed Your Life. Go for ten minutes.

I enjoy reading your jumpstart writings. So send me one of yours. Please limit to 500 words.  (See contact page.) I plan to publish a few on the site. Thanks!