Can books make a difference in a person's life?
November 5, 2004 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Can books make a difference? What books have influenced you and how? >>

So the election has got me thinking a lot about various ways people choose to make a difference or to influence others, and not just on a political (in the narrowest sense; that is electoral and governmental) level. Some book blog posts (like this and this) and my general book orientation have led me to try to suss out my own thoughts on writing, literature, and change. Please help out AskMe, and let me know:

Can books make a difference? What books have influenced you and how?
posted by dame to Education (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Junichiro Tanizaki's "In Praise of Shadows" has influenced the way I evaluate objects and designs aesthetically. Arthur Danto's "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace" hs influenced the way I think about contemporary art. Lots of books have influenced the way I think about philosophical matters (including getting me to think about them in the first place). Like Nelson Goodman's "Ways of Worldmaking" got me to think about quotation, mostly because I think his account is totally nuts.

Those are all non-fiction, though. I guess Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" had an early hand in what the Tanizaki would later influence more strongly. I think it's harder to pin down the specific influences of literature.
posted by kenko at 10:11 PM on November 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

boy, where to start?

John Locke's Second Treatise of Government changed how I think about the bases of American Government.

Silence by Shusaku Endo and Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler changed the way I think about faith and commitment to causes.

Similarly, C.S. Lewis's Til We Have Faces changed the way I think about other people's faiths.

Ursula le Guin brought home to me a recognition that a lot of my assumptions are mere social constructs (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation).

le Guin (and a few others) showed me that human frailty deserves compassion. She also caused me to rethink what weakness is. I have changed my mind over time, in part due to le Guin. The Magbinogion has a bit of that, too, in places. (I read the Evangeline Walton version, which is edited and paraphrased, etc. I doubt purists appreciate it much.)

There are a thousand things I have learned about our species through books. I live in books a lot of the time, so I learned things from them that normal people probably learn through real life. I don't know how useful these books might be to anyone else, but I'm always happy to proselytize.

Most of my reading lighter than these books -a lot of Patrick O'Brien, sci-fi, Tolstoy, Austin, etc. -but I doubt I've learned much besides archaic nautical terms from this reading.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:06 PM on November 5, 2004

I can't remember who said it but here's a quote I've always liked (I think it may be Twyla Tharp): "The difference between who you are now and who you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read."

I can certainly name some books/writers who have influenced the way I think and behave, though it's not something I actually like to do (I don't mind naming the books but when you get into reasons, it's... I dunno, I hate to be specific.)

That said:

Charles Bukowski taught me that no matter what other people think of you, you shouldn't pity yourself. He also taught me that even someone who doesn't understand love (or want it) feels it. My favorite books by him are Women and Ham on Rye. He also has many wonderful poems. My favorites are Hot, Style, Bluebird, and one I don't recall the title of but which, in its entirety, is: "Some of the best often die by their own hand, just to get away. And those left behind often wonder why anyone would ever want to get away from them."

Philip Roth has reaffirmed my belief that it is pointless to say that men and women are the same. They're not the same. This isn't to say they're not equal, just that they're different. My favorite books by him are The Dying Animal and The Professor of Desire.

PK Dick, who Kenko cited, made me understand that most things are universal and that humans are not better than other animals simply because they're human. To poorly paraphrase a segment of A Scanner Darkly: A character is frightened of a bug and calls her friends to kill it for her. When they see it (and how worked up she is about it), they start to laugh and when she asks why, they tell her that it's a friendly bug. A mosquito hawk. "It helps us." To which she replies: "If I had known it was harmless I would have killed it myself." That line has stuck with me for more than 20 years and probably has a great deal to do with me being a vegetarian. My favorite Dick books are Scanner Darkly and the Man in the High Castle. I also quite like many of his stories.

Isabelle Carruthers' story, Learning to Play Chess, taught me that erotica can be intelligent. It was the first story I read (as opposed to a segment from a novel) that I found both moving and arousing.

Scott Spencers' takes on romance have made me feel better about the lack of logic in my love life. My favorite books of his are Endless Love and A Ship Made of Paper.

Hubert Selby Jr (Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), James Kelman (How Late It Was, How Late), and Kathe Koja (Kink) have taught me that I don't know shit about words. I'm baffled by how they use them so effectively.

Passages from David Gilmour's Sparrow Nights absolutely thrill me though overall I don't love the book. However, they so move me that I read it cover to cover 3 times in a year. The satisfaction I get from the parts I do like even when weighed against the unsatisfying ending give me hope regarding my own writing, which I find equally unbalanced (though not nearly as impressive--not trying to draw a quality analogy).

Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild made me re-evaluate my life and consider that I was wasting it.

For non-fiction, I've found William Glasser's books (particularly, Choice Theory and his books about education) very illuminating.

Peter McWilliams' fantastic Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Society is also one hell of a read. Entire text here.

Not books, but the words (lyrics) of Jason Molina and Bill Callahan give me great comfort.

Stephen Pressfield's The War of Art has made me accept that I am the only thing stopping me from being able to say, "I'm doing what I'd rather be doing." I'm working on it.
posted by dobbs at 11:06 PM on November 5, 2004

Herman Hesse's work, particularly Narziss und Goldmund, and Siddhartha, blew my mind when I was young and impressionable, with their explicit rejection of middle-class aspiration and their insistence that the pursuit of an authentic self was the only worthwhile one. My own life experience means I no longer feel that sure about matters, but it was a shattering contrast to how I was brought up.

Clausen's "The Richest Man in Babylon", which I think I mentioned in an earlier AxeMe of your'n, set me on path to financial righteousness, simple and annoying though it is.

Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" changed the way I think about politics and mass movements, as did the wonderful "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" by Charles Mackay.

Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides made me consider how utterly different my life is from that of my highland ancestors, and the poverty and misery they escaped, and is a wonderful tonic; like Pepys his voice is fresh and his understanding sharp even though he comes from another world.

Every nerdy person will nominate Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid", including me. But I think it would also be good for any thinking person.

I have also drawn a lot of spiritual sustenance from the poets of my own country (James K Baxter, Alan Curnow, R A K Mason, Rex Fairburn, Hone Tuwhare, to name a few) and still find Yeats and McDiarmid and Seamus Heaney deeply moving. It's an interesting question why I have no use for Englishmen.

I wish I hadn't wasted so much of my teenage years reading Tolkien, which I can now only tolerate in small nostalgic doses, but if it weren't for him I would never have realised what a great wealth of old, old writing there is to enjoy and contrast with our own modern experience; neither would I have developed the interest in other languages that has brought me so much pleasure, and helped me in many ways.

And lastly, George Orwell's essays on politics and language (eg Inside the Whale, the road to Wigan Pier) were instrumental in my thorough-going hate of cant and bullshit. Misuse of language to deceive never hurt me as it does now until I read Orwell.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:08 PM on November 5, 2004

Damn, that should be Scott Spencer's not Scott Spencers'.
posted by dobbs at 11:09 PM on November 5, 2004

“LEVIATHAN” by Thomas Hobbes taught me that religious experience is a personal experience and is never to be mistaken for guidance in governance. Fortunately I have never been to war but “And No Bird Sang” by Farley Mowat showed me the incredible fear, violence, friendship and boredom inherent in frontline war experience. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : An Inquiry into Values” by Robert M. Pirsig taught me that my values and my type of breakdown was not isolated. A.A. Milne’s “Pooh” books showed me that the magic of childhood can be carried with you if you let it. Echoing i_am_joe's_spleen Orwell's essays have always lead me forward through the B.S.
posted by arse_hat at 11:40 PM on November 5, 2004

I recently discovered Finite and Infinte Games and its changing the way I think about everything.

Has anyone else read this small book?
posted by Meridian at 11:57 PM on November 5, 2004

Everyone could stand to read Blood Brothers. I've seen it mentioned here on MeFi before, so I know some of you have. It is the first thing I read that gave me a balanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also a pretty good demonstration on how religion can mold an individual into a force for social good, rather than the opposite... and to some degree, shows how fine the line is and what kind of personal choices it requires. The book has an easy narrative to it and isn't terribly long, too.

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Parker Palmer's To Know as We are Known showed me that my own concern about the mind/heart thinking/feeling dichotomy wasn't just a personal struggle, and also gave me some hints on how to find personal solutions to the problem.
posted by weston at 12:01 AM on November 6, 2004

I forgot, don't ask me how. If you want a deep lesson in the scope of human nature, the ease of evil and the non-existence of truth, read Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. (Eg, he said that no survivors' story is an authentic story of the experience of the holocause (and by extenstion, any great collective evil) because the normal case was death. The survivors are all abnormal and their testimony is not the way it was.). All his work is good, and oddly, small_ruminant's mention of Le Guin (who I also read and was changed by) reminded me of him, because he also wrote of human weakness. You can follow up with the poems of Paul Celan, and then you'll need a drink.

Le Guin's "Those who turn away from Omelas", and Garett Harding's essay on the tragedy of the commons are the yin and yang to all the ethical pondering I've ever done.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:16 AM on November 6, 2004

When I was 16, I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. That's how I learned not to trust the government. Turned my political outlook around 180 degrees.

There've have been a lot since then, but that was the first.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:39 AM on November 6, 2004

Anything and everything by Michael Moorcock. Mebbe a dash of Hunter Thompson. LOTR. The Situationists. Hanna Arendt. A detailed economic and personal narrative of the political triumph of the NASDP in a small German town between World Wars One and Two. MDC's first and second records. The Bible. Plato's dialogs on politics. Eduardo Galeano.
posted by mwhybark at 12:43 AM on November 6, 2004

I forgot to mention Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which I found fascinating and which, in a very roundabout way, led to the most satisfying personal project I've ever attempted.

I'll also second Mr Roboto's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and add In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which is about a similar topic with similar results.
posted by dobbs at 12:57 AM on November 6, 2004

John Rawls' A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia have shaped my political thinking.

Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons has changed the way I look at erotica and women.

John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse has shaped the way I think about writing and courage.

Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter? has changed the way I think about art. He inadvertently convinced me to join his ideological opponents.

Paul Violi's Breakers: Selected Poems taught me that poetry needn't be formalist nor scattershot, and that the medium is alive, even though its best toil in obscurity.
posted by Kwantsar at 1:02 AM on November 6, 2004

wait...tender buttons is erotica!?
posted by juv3nal at 2:28 AM on November 6, 2004

politically? joseph raz's the authority of law (for its analysis of rights); george woodcock's anarchism: a history...; orwell's homage to catalonia; said's culture and imperialism; chomsky; steinbeck; and, before all those, harper lee's to kill a mocking bird.
more recently, on israel/anti-semitism: hannah arendt's eichmann...; jean amery's at the mind's limits; peter novick's holocaust in american life.
day-to-day: the guardian, london review of books, bbc.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:51 AM on November 6, 2004

Homer, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Cicero, Seneca, the authors of the Four Gospels + Thomas, Dante, Guicciardini, Pascal, Rousseau, Mill, Jefferson, Foscolo, Lincoln, Marx, Tolstoy, Schweitzer, Churchill, Steinbeck, Selby, most of the modern scholars in the Historical Jesus field (Sanders, Brown, Koester, Ehrman, Crossan, etc)
posted by matteo at 4:34 AM on November 6, 2004

I almost forgot: the Upanishads. and Rumi, too
posted by matteo at 4:35 AM on November 6, 2004

Sheldon Kopp's If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him was the 36th Chamber in my initiation into humanism. Powerful stuff.

More recently, my personal bible has been Alan Fletcher's The Art Of Looking Sideways. This seemingly obese coffee table book reminds me on a regular basis how we can choose to perceive and experience existence.

The Diary of Anne Frank: i read this at a young age, and the experience still haunts me- I know i am not alone in this.
posted by elphTeq at 5:00 AM on November 6, 2004

What everyone else said - such an impressive list of books. I've read many, and feel compelled to read the rest.

In addition to most of the books and authors previously mentioned, Karen Armstrong's A History of God, and Joe Sacco's Palestine (though it's a graphic novel, it's still compelling). Both changed my perspective, in vastly different ways.

Also, in historical fiction, The Alienist by Caleb Carr. It's set in the late 1800s in Manhattan, and as a historian, Carr plays all of it perfectly. Be prepared for him to take certain... liberties with famous historical figures, though. That book, though a work of fiction, brought turn of the century Manhattan to life like no other text. Warning: the crime descriptions are pretty brutal.
posted by bedhead at 5:48 AM on November 6, 2004 [1 favorite]

No one's mentioned my three favorite books, so here goes. Obviously, there's much more to say about each of these, but a brief synopsis of my thoughts:

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead is a wonderful case study in the lesson that there's beauty in being an artist and the ultimate compliment you can pay to a material is to make it what it should be.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to tha Galaxy
taught me that the universe is far stranger than we can imagine, so it's probably best to just sit back and enjoy it.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a great piece of hard sf. Particularly relevant in today's political climate, I think. I took away the central message as being "when resources are in short supply, find a way to change things. because there's always another process active under the surface". Unfortunately, Dune is also an object lesson in the power of unrelenting sequels, but the first one is really good.
posted by Caviar at 6:04 AM on November 6, 2004

Meridian, I just finished Finite and Infinite Games. I liked it--it seemed good next to something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which made a big impression on me in high school). I'd say that one book that's changed how I think about things is kind of the parent to those books, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But other books that seem to mark waypoints in my life so far: The Aeneid. Edmund White's The Farwell Symphony. Amy Hempel's Tumble Home. Short stories by Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and about a thousand others. Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. Yeats's poetry. Peter Greenaway's The Falls. J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Derrida's 1966 lecture and his other writings. Emerson, Thoreau, and Orwell. Most recently: Piers Plowman, J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, and the amazing writing of Samuel Beckett.

I think the answer to the question "do books make a difference" is obviously "yes"--they don't guarantee that you'll be a better person the next day, they can lead you astray as well as in the right direction, but they provide space in which your mind can grow and wander, and if you don't read them, you end up living in the same old dusty bedroom you had as a kid for your whole life.
posted by josh at 6:30 AM on November 6, 2004

Oh, Ernst Cassirer's An Essay on Man and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words.
posted by kenko at 8:14 AM on November 6, 2004

Rousseau's Emile, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways and PrairyErth, Skinner's Walden Two, Bob Caro's The Power Broker, Orwell's 1984. And a whole lot of other stuff I can't remember at the moment.
posted by PrinceValium at 8:56 AM on November 6, 2004

I discovered Thomas Merton's journals a number of years ago and they've had a profound effect on me. They're directly responsible for my own journalling, such as it is.
posted by tommasz at 10:10 AM on November 6, 2004

...oh, and Samuel Delany, especially Dhalgren, and to a lesser extent, his meta-works on edge sexuality, the Neveryon books.
posted by mwhybark at 10:21 AM on November 6, 2004

Work Your Way Around the World convinced me I could do just that.

Why I am not a Christian and The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell.

This is a great question. I'm going to print this thread out and take it with me next time I visit the library.
posted by Otis at 11:10 AM on November 6, 2004

Notes from Underground!
posted by kenko at 12:06 PM on November 6, 2004

I have no doubt that, as a teenager, voraciously consuming everything by Orwell that I could lay my hands on influenced my adult political views.

[this is a good thread]
posted by normy at 12:37 PM on November 6, 2004

Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein. Changed fundamentally how I see philosophical-type problems.
posted by shoos at 1:17 PM on November 6, 2004

Thomas Pynchon's novels V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow fucked me up something rotten as a teen. Mostly in a good way. I needed fucking up.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 5:06 PM on November 6, 2004

Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach," read in high school, showed me that thinking about the kinds of things I (a nerd) liked to think about could be cool, and if other people didn't think it was cool, that was a flaw in them, not in me.

I also read some Ayn Rand shortly thereafter and, while I outgrew the simplistic politics she advocated, it did a lot to reinforce the notion that life is not a personality contest, that what other people think of you should not always be allowed to influence your principles.

Richard Dawkins' books did a fair bit to convince me that science had a lot more of the answers, or at least useful guesses, than I had given it credit for, and was one factor in my leaving the church I grew up in. I had always been interested in science but only in general. Since Dawkins, I've read books on science regularly, at least once a month and often more than that. Evolutionary science has branched out into cognitive science and psychology and sociology and economics.

Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's trilogy resulted in me co-authoring the only novel I've ever completed, written with a high school friend named Rex. (You can find it in the downloads section of my Web site.)

The Applesoft II BASIC reference manual, in combination with Nibble magazine, turned me into a computer geek and led to me doing what I do today.

And David Kiersey's "Please Understand Me" helped me feel more comfortable being who I am and to understand that other people weren't stupid just because they didn't think like I did.
posted by kindall at 6:05 PM on November 6, 2004

Douglas Adams' Hitchikers books for helping me to see the humor and absurdity in all of existence. John Sayles' novels (and films) for reminding me to have sympathy and compassion for everyone and to embrace our common humanity. Dave Marsh & Lester Bangs music writing for clarifying my opinions on cultural issues. Jim Goad's work for reminding me to have a low tolerance for bullshit, sanctimony, and hypocrisy.
posted by jonmc at 8:08 AM on November 7, 2004

Mr. Excel on Excel by Bill Jelen has proved invaluable in its friendly discussion of shortcut keys, subtotals, and other useful but not readily apparent components of the, for better or worse, ubiquitious spreadsheet application.
posted by bingo at 8:59 AM on November 7, 2004

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy dramatically changed my ideas of utopia.

Clearing Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston - you may laugh, but it has made me (and every single person I've recommended it to) look at belongings and possessions in a very different light. Worth its weight in gold.

Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh - an enormously important book to me. A revolutionary way to look at the God concept for anyone who is questioning the ridiculous things we are taught about God.
posted by widdershins at 9:33 AM on November 8, 2004

Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. Convinced me that Whitman's "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes)" was not just a pretty turn of phrase, but quite literally true, and I am more at peace with myself having accepted that.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland. If all you know of "Generation X" is what pop culture and the mass media has made of the term, don't judge this book by it. I had a textbook case of a mid-twenties breakdown, and this book was helpful in dealing with it.


The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman. I just discovered and read the Sandman series over the past few months. Although Brief Lives may not be my favorite from a pure storytelling point of view (either Season of Mists or World's End deserves that honor), I think Brief Lives is the collection that speaks to me most personally.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:16 PM on November 8, 2004

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