One of the reasons I started this blog has to do with my love of a particular NPR podcast/radio show known as This American Life. Every week I would listen to Ira Glass and think about how much I wanted to talk to someone about what happened or I wanted to put pen to paper and write about a particular episode that moved me in some remarkable way. A lot of people I know listen to this and we’re always asking each other—did you see the one where the woman got rabies and couldn’t find vaccine (I can’t for the life of me remember the episode name)? Or in Switched at Birth where those girls are switched at birth and the mother who knew didn’t do anything about it (we always get angry when we think about this one). One of my favorites is the story of the Iranian couple who divorced and then two years later, found each other again (Reunited (and it feels good)). Don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar.
Anyway I’m a few weeks behind and finally heard an episode that originally aired on August 20, 1999. and was re-aired on October 2nd. This episode was called The Book That Changed Your Life. Made up of four acts this episode took a look at the ways in which a particular book touched and of course changed lives. I think the episode is best summed up by a quotation in Act 1 which looks at how playwright Alexa Junge used a book from her grandfather’s library to feel closer to him. She says that
“When you read a book and something speaks to you and you feel understood and it makes the world a less lonely place.” Books can be powerful things and I’ll be first to admit that sometimes we read things that aren’t quite so intellectual or highbrow because they make us feel comfortable and at peace. Others challenge you to look beyond your normal scope of inquiry to see worlds beyond your wildest imagination.
It is to their credit that the power of the written world sometimes trumps other storytelling mediums (one example from the last decade would be the translation of the Harry Potter series to the big screen.) There is also something about books that reflect on the simplicity of expression. In Act III we learn about Roger a construction manager who becomes obsessed with collecting every book about Lewis & Clark known to man. At first he doesn’t read the texts, but once has the final piece (I believe it is a copy of the two volume first official printing of their journals) he opens up and begins learning as much as he can about these two people he has spent years of his life on. The magic is in his voice as he describes reading about the moment when Lewis and Clark reach the ocean, and how he would have been screaming and dancing but for Lewis and Clark their excitement is summed up in the simple text “ocean in view. Oh the joy.”
So it got me thinking about the fiction books that have changed my life. If I included nonfiction this could be a very long list, since there are many, many non-fiction books that inspired me. To some extent these five books are the ones that made me think about the construction of a story, but also made me think about the choices characters are forced to make and how powerful those choices can be as a reflection of reality.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- The Lord of the Rings (fine three books not one but I’m counting it as one) by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
- Atonement Ian McEwan
The Giver, the story of a boy living in a colorless world was perhaps my first introduction to the idea that maybe not everyone can see the world the way I do. What could I live without? A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps one of Dickens most quoted books and while not necessarily his best (I may say that Bleak House might be that) his ability to take his many story strands from incoherency and then pull them back together is just one of the reasons why I love this. It might be the vivid picture of the dirt, the gritty grime of his London/Paris that says it all. As for Tolkien it is the classic hero’s journey, and one which has parallels from all parts of life. Pride & Prejudice has more to do with Jane Austen and what she could do in the middle of 18th century England, but also the way she uses the story to provide a glimpse into all walks of English society. Lastly, Atonement…..really its because Ian McEwan has created a character who is both morally ambiguous and for whom I can never decide whether I would like to feel sorry for or just hate.
As always though as I put together this list other books started popping out at me so instead of me talking about myself—tell me about what books you guys love.
A few related notes:
- Claude Levi-Strauss: Levi-Strauss was a French structuralist anthropologist, who formulated theories on how and why so many myths from around the world seem to have similar structures and ideas. He died at the age of 100 last week and his writings were one of the first to push my mind beyond looking at things in one particular way. Levi-Strauss also had a big role in the creation of UNESCO race policy. Learn about his work at UNESCO here.
- A few weeks ago during one of Gene Weingarten (a columnist for the Washington Post) humor chats he asked us to take a look at a newly surfaced video that provides a single three second glimpse of Anne Frank prior to when her family went into hiding. He wanted us to decide if it was powerful and to explain why—so I’m asking you. Is it just a video of a girl watching her neighbors go off on their honeymoon, or is it powerful (as I found it) to finally catch a glimpse of someone whose words symbolize some of the acute horrors of the Holocaust.
- You might not get another long blog post from me until after November. I’ve decided to write for National Novel Writing Month (50k words in 30 days.) For more information visit www.nanowrimo.com.