Four Books That ‘Changed’ Me

One of the pullout magazines that comes with my Sunday paper has a regular feature called ‘Books That Changed Me’. Usually they invite a local author to nominate four books and say a little about them. I thought I might attempt the same, though it is hard to think of four books that genuinely ‘changed’ me. The authors take a flexible view on what ‘changed’ means from genuine life change, to changing their reading or writing habits and I have too.

1. The Usborne Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry

As an 11-year-old, I was getting frustrated by the science class in my school and what I perceived as a teaching style that was failing to give me a good understanding of the subject. So, I sought out some science books for myself and came across three by Usborne; one each on Physics, Biology and Chemistry. I debated with myself for a long time over which one to get, but since the point of the exercise was to learn something, and I knew nothing about chemistry, I decided it was the one to get. I cannot praise enough the structure and design of this book that allows even a youngster to gain a good grounding in a complex subject. I loved the book and the subject and it did change my life – years later I completed a degree in chemistry which I, er, don’t use.

2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

For a while, I was not at all impressed by contemporary literature. Occasionally I would pick up a book that sounded interesting and had good reviews and I would often be disappointed. I had pretty much decided to focus on the classics and, if I felt I needed some light entertainment, I would go for something unmistakably lowbrow, a Dan Brown for instance. Life of Pi changed all that for me. The premise was too intriguing to pass by. Though it may not be the best example of it, it showed me that contemporary literature can be as enjoyable as popular fiction, and well-written and clever enough to perhaps become a future classic. It also introduced me to the Booker Prize for which I am also grateful.

3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

It feels like I say it every week on this blog, but Dostoyevsky taught me the value of rereading. Although I often cite it as the example of something I found mediocre at first but then loved on a second look there are others. I also had no love for The Great Gatsby when I read it in school but enjoyed it more when I read it as an adult. I did not care for the film of The Talented Mr Ripley at first but I like it more and more on each reviewing.

4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

OK. This is one of those books that I avoid talking about because of the associations that follow it and I want to avoid them becoming attached to me. But if I am being honest about ‘books that changed’ me, then I must mention it. I read it once, aged 20, and I admit that I liked it at the time. Do I still agree with its message? In a word, no. I have no interest in rereading it as I’m pretty sure I’d have a negative take on it now. I guess you reread books in the hope you would like them better, not like them less. But it did change me. When I read it, I had no interest and little knowledge of politics, philosophy, economics or fiscal policy. After reading it I felt compelled to learn more, ironically to the discredit the source of that original motivation.

When I thought of the idea of this post, I thought I may turn it into a meme, but I decided against it because it was not my original idea but lifted from my Sunday paper. Nevertheless, I am interested to hear what books you might nominate as those that changed you. If you turn it into a post of your own, and link back to this post, I’d appreciate it!

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11 thoughts on “Four Books That ‘Changed’ Me

  1. Can’t let this go by. Here are mine real quick:
    1. Watership Down. I’m sure every book lover has that one childhood favourite that started it all off. This is mine.
    2. Jaws. I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list. Without this book there would be no movie to spark my passion in zoology and set me on the path to this inconsequential degree of mine.
    3. Darkwalker on Moonshae. My sister gave me this book, set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, when I was young. I resisted reading it as I had no interest in fantasy at the time. When I did finally get around to reading it, there was no going back. I had turned into the geek I am today.
    4. Lost Horizon. This classic by James Hilton kindled within my breast an infatuation with the Orient. And look where that landed me.
    As I was perusing the books on my shelf, I lingered over a few other titles; not because they are life-changing or brilliantly written, but because they remind me of a pleasurable time or place (or person) in my life. That got me wondering: what books do you treasure most for the memories they bring?

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    • Hey Josh!! Thanks for your list! As for books that remind me of a time and place, I’d have to think about it a bit. The ones that first come to mind are the ones I read on holiday. Reading Catch-22 at my grandmother’s house in India, reading Atlas Shrugged in a backpackers in San Francisco, carrying a big brick that was Shantaram all over Nepal.

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    • Thanks for sharing your list. Zola is someone who gets recommended to me quite a bit, I will have to get around to him sometime. I have a memory similar to your Merchant of Venice. After reading the book on chemistry on my list, I was able to surprise my teacher by naming any element on the periodic table he pointed to!

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  2. When I was a teenager, my mom and I were waiting at the drugstore for my asthma medicine and a book caught my eye at the paperback rack – it was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The back of the book said “one man against the world,” and I thought that was the book for me. Ayn Rand changed my life then and after reading her novels and essays, I became a person focused on facts, reason, reality and logic. I will never be sorry I’ve read and admired her philosophy. Others can call me whatever names they want, but I don’t care. I love my life.

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    • I didn’t intend to suggest that the reason I don’t mention Atlas Shrugged is because I’m ashamed, only that, since it doesn’t represent my views anymore, there is the risk of misrepresenting myself. I guess my falling out with Rand stems from a conflict between her ideals and scientific ideals, which is just a subset of a larger disagreement between all philosophy and science. You mentioned reason and logic, which I would credit to philosophy and Rand, but you also mention facts and reality which I would not. The classic example is supply-side economics, for which logical arguments can be made, but only on shaky assumptions and over-simplification. But the evidence for its efficacy is severely lacking. Or take something more fundamental – libertarian free will. If it is the product of the functioning of my brain, which in turn is the product of my genes and environment, the laws of chemistry and ultimately the laws of physics, none of which I am in control of, where is the free will? I think I will always be a moderate libertarian at heart, favouring small, efficient, government and greater individual freedom. But when push comes to shove I have to go with the scientific ideal that when evidence conflicts with an argument, you should discard the argument. I love my life too, even without free will!

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      • I’m not that philosophical, but this philosophy helped me get through a very difficult period in my life when I was dealing with my young daughter’s two liver transplants and my husband’s alcoholism (at the same time). I would feel dreadful for about 24 hours after my daughter’s doctors would give me bad news, then I would pick myself up and deal with the situation calmly and logically. I’ve seen so many parents completely unable to deal with their ill children, but I did my best for her and now she’s grown and was married last spring. I didn’t fall apart.

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  3. Books that changed me? What a hard question to answer! The fact nothing leapt immediately to mind is a little numbing – am I shallow enough that I haven’t read anything that resonated so deeply, or secure enough that I am confident in myself? After a few hours thought … I just finished The Old Testament and that was such a negative experience that I feel i am further than ever from traditional Christianity. Watership Down brought a sense of the intimacy of nature, as did John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. In terms of the wonder and imagination inherent in fantasy literature, A Princess of Mars and the novelisations of Doctor Who from the 60s and 70s were deeply loved, even if they could never be considered quality literature, The simplicity of pioneer life in the Little House books also remind me of the how the important things in life can really be quite simple. So the loves of nature, imagination, and family, and independence from strict authority probably sums me up.

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    • Wow, apart for the OT and Watership, you mention a lot of books I haven’t heard much of. Thanks for sharing – I think this sort of exercise encourages a little bit of “nosce te ipsum” and everyone’s answer is different and interesting

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