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.
“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.”
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 Dickinson, Selected 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.