Of Writers and Their Reading

The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists

So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” declared lanky Abraham Lincoln on meeting diminutive Harriet Beecher Stowe. Honest Abe was not being entirely accurate in attributing the Civil War to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But more than most other books, even other bestsellers, Stowe’s provocative novel was a cataclysm that transformed the cultural landscape. After Stowe built her Cabin, adjacent property values changed. About few other titles, regardless of literary merit or even sales, can it be said that their publication altered the world as dramatically as the defeat of the Spanish Armada or the invention of air conditioning. Such books would obviously include the Bible and the Quran, but also The Communist Manifesto; The Origin of Species; The Jungle; 1984; Cry, the Beloved Country; Silent Spring; and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Like Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, such books reconfigure the calibrations for where we all think we live. However, others merely reinvent the individual reader, ensuring that the person who finally puts a volume down is different from the one who picked it up. Such are often the books–Dr. Seuss, Nancy Drew, Robinson Crusoe, Harry Potter–encountered at a tender age, before the psyche has established its defenses against alphabetical attack. “The books we need,” Anne Sexton once told an interviewer, “are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves. A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It should be axiomatic that books change our lives.

So a collection of interviews that calls itself The Book That Changed My Life immediately provokes suspicion. It is not much of a life that has been changed by only one book. If nothing else, reading is a process that never ceases generating biochemical reactions. You can’t dip into the same book twice, because you are never the same reader again. And part of the reason is the many books you have read. “If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head,” asked Franz Kafka, “then why read it?” Every book I read should be a book that changes my life.

Most of the fifteen contemporary American authors interviewed by editor Diane Osen recognize that reading and change do not conclude with one experience; they recall several books that changed their lives. The books that changed James Carroll’s life include Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Jack London’s The Sea Wolf brought blows to the head of Charles Johnson. Robert Stone got his kicks from Joseph Conrad’s Victory and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. For Cynthia Ozick, the damage was done by Henry James’s Washington Square, E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Linda Pastan describes how, following a few years of silence, she was propelled back into poetry in 1965 by reading Adrienne Rich’s Necessities of Life. David McCullough recalls that what steered him toward a career as historian was a college graduation gift, a copy of Bruce Catton’s The Stillness at Appomattox: “It had the breath of life in a way I had not yet experienced. In retrospect, I know it changed my life.”

Pastan and E. L. Doctorow both recall childhoods of voracious reading, but for others whom Osen interviews changes came from forces outside books. Though he lists Bram Stoker’s Dracula, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy, and James Joyce’s Ulysses among titles important to him, Don DeLillo denies he was much of a reader as a child. And it was not another book but something in the moment as he stood on a street on Mount Desert Island in Maine that led him to write his first novel, Americana. His Underworld was inspired by a microfilm copy of the front page of the New York Times for October 4, 1951, where a headline about the baseball playoffs sits beside a headline about the Soviet Union’s test of an atomic bomb. Though he salutes Moby Dick and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Barry Lopez contends that the most decisive influence on his life was a landscape, the open fields and wide skies of the San Fernando Valley where he grew up. Philip Levine pays tribute to Wilfred Owen, Walt Whitman, and Leo Tolstoy, but he claims that the earliest sources for his own poetic cadences were the Southern preachers he heard on the radio on Sunday mornings: “I was absolutely thrilled by the way they used language.”

Though Osen conducted her business by telephone, the conversations must have been thoroughly redacted, since the texts shine with the lacquer of revised writing, rather than unscripted speech. Her authors range from middle-aged to elderly, and all are accomplished enough to have won the National Book Award (profits from the volume are being donated to the National Book Foundation, which administers the award). They speak with dignity if not total candor about canonical books that changed their lives, enhancing their own standing with fancy literary pedigrees. Diane Johnson does recall being excited about Swiss Family Robinson, The Bobbsey Twins, and something called Round the World with Bob and Betty. And Grace Paley remembers Heidi and Mother Goose, while Alice McDermott read avidly through the Hardy Boys series. But though books produce their most profound changes in younger readers, most of these respectable grownups–except for Katherine Paterson, who writes it herself–have little to say about kiddie literature. Nor do they admit the role of the comic books, primers, pulps, porno, schmaltz, and kitsch that probably change more lives more completely than anything by Goethe, Proust, or Gibbon.

For the most part, the book that changed the lives of these National Book Award laureates turns out to be the one they recently composed themselves. David Levering Lewis provides an elaborate account of how he came to write and be wrought by his two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois. The most significant book in Barry Lopez’s life is his own Arctic Dreams, while in Charles Johnson’s it is Middle Passage. The Book That Changed My Life ends up being a set of conventional literary interviews, in which an admired author chats about origins, aims, and accomplishments. The memory of a powerful book is just the hook on which to hang comments about a career writing fiction, poetry, or history. The Book That Changed My Life is itself not likely to knock the socks off its readers, but Osen’s collection offers enough incidental pungency and insight to earn a tip of the hat.

Here, for example, is the credo that motivates McCullough as popular historian: “I guess I want very much for others to experience the enlargement of one’s own life that comes with knowing about the lives and experiences and accomplishments and failings and voices of others who went before us.” Committed to storytelling as a kind of religious calling, McDermott marvels that “the almost breathless, passionate desire we have to tell and retell a story, says something to me about how we have been provided with the means of our own redemption.” Rejecting fiction that is polemical or prescriptive, Ozick proclaims her obligation “only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination, which sometimes leads to wild places via wild routes.” No less eloquent is Paley’s insistence on the artist’s social responsibility: “We all have to answer for our minute in history.”

Prize-winning authors might not be the most informative people to poll about how books change a life. Famous writers read and write too much, and the infamous anxiety of influence might well distort their memories and their answers. Might a younger set of respondents have revealed that movies and music, more than books, are now the primary agents of change? Instead of the fifteen winners of the National Book Award whom Osen has assembled, I could imagine another, motley group that would include Henry Aaron, George Soros, Susan Sarandon, Jim Jeffords, Helen Prejean, Ted Turner, Ingrid Newkirk, Daniel Barenboim, Maya Lin, Pete Seeger, Kofi Annan, Phil Jackson, Alice Waters, John Paul Stevens, and Oscar Arias. I suspect each could speak volumes about the effects of a book. What about polling the capital felons currently patronizing prison libraries while awaiting execution? The book must surely possess powers to change a life. Why else would we be throwing it at them?

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His most recent book, as co-editor, is UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST