There's a form of back-and-forth blogging bouncing about some of my favorite writing blogs lately that I find very stimulating. Someone will post on a topic in which we all have common ground, but perhaps taking a fresh angle on it that we all hadn't thought of before—and one person and then another responds with their own take on the same topic. I think this is an even better use of the blogging community than tagging—it's saying, "Hey, that's a great idea; I think I'll try it too," instead of pulling one's hair out trying to come up with required answers to questions.
Once again I can credit Bree with starting this one. She posted a short list of favorite books, with a twist: specifically, books she feels have changed her in some way. So of course I started thinking...what books, if any, have changed me? I wasn't sure at first if I really had read anything I could classify as life-changing. But after thinking, and considering (and if I didn't tap myself on the head like Winnie-the-Pooh, I came close to it), I think I have identified a handful of books that gave my thinking some kind of a jolt, subtle as it may have been at the time.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I remember that within the first chapter or two, when I read this for the first time, I said to myself, "I'm going to enjoy this." And it wasn't even because the story had grabbed me; it was before that—it was the sheer mastery of language, the way du Maurier with seeming effortlessness puts one inside her protagonist's head and makes one feel her every hesitation, fear, happiness and pain. It was perhaps the first time I thought, "This is what a real novel looks like." I think it heightened my appreciation of what could be done with writing, what a novel could be, and made me more interested in trying for that myself.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This was very much the same. A totally different style and voice, but once again, it was the wonderfully real characters, the way all the different bits of story are slowly drawn together into a whole, that impressed and moved me. I'm glad I didn't read this one until I was older (late teens, if I recall correctly), because I think I was the age to appreciate it. In my opinion it's one of those books that are incorrectly labeled children's literature—it's largely about children, but it's not necessarily for children. One of the amazing things about it is the way Scout's narrative voice is adult and child at the same time—I found myself responding to it on both levels: fondly remembering what it was like to feel that way as a child, yet smiling at it from the perspective of adulthood. It's a book that makes you see ordinary things and the interactions between people with new clarity, and I think that half-subconsciously affected the way I viewed the world as a writer, too.
The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey
I had already made my life choices about higher education when I read this book, and I never questioned them even then. But I still flinched at the prospect of answering The Question about college or trying to explain to other people what I was going to do. It's hard to estimate now just how much of an effect this clever, funny, quirky memoir about one teenage girl's self-education and first attempts at writing has had upon me. It made me see clearly just how fun and exciting and fulfilling the path I had chosen could be, and I think it went a long way towards freeing me of any lingering shreds of self-consciousness about choosing it. Here's my review of this book. (And by now, I've been freed even further: when people ask me where I go to school, I just say, "I'm a writer.")
Complete Works of O. Henry
This was a gradual thing, a volume that I soaked up over the course of several years. But I think I can safely say I wouldn't be the same reader or writer without O. Henry. It's one of the proverbial books-I-would-want-with-me-on-a-desert-island. You can find a little of everything in here, from side-splitting satire and slapstick to unexpectedly wrenching moments of pain and pathos. The famous twist ending works delightfully with humor, but when it goes the other way, the punch is almost enough to make one shrink from reading the story again. But of course one does—at least, I do. They're that good. They also form a marvelous tapestry of life in turn-of-the-century America. And Henry's flair for playing on words is an education in itself. This is the fellow who used to avidly read dictionaries while working on a ranch in his youth, and I think he made good use of every word he read.
The Light of Western Stars by Zane Grey. Now, this one isn't on my list of favorite books; it's by no means the best Western novel I've ever read; but it was the very first real Western novel I ever read. I stayed up well past bedtime reading it, chewed my lower lip to shreds in the process, and then went straight to the library catalogue and ordered half a dozen more Westerns. So you could certainly say it changed me. While I feel I've outgrown Grey's particular brand of melodrama a bit since then, I do owe him a large vote of gratitude for writing the novel that I cut my Western teeth on, so to speak.
Image: 'Three Women Reading in a Summer Landscape' by Johan Krouthén (source: Wikimedia Commons)