Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Life-Changing Book Experience

I’ve been asked to contribute five hundred words or so to the Scottish Book Trust’s essay contest. Participants are required to write a feel-good tale about that one special book that saved their soul from infernal damnation and led them along the path of righteousness. The most gut-wrenching glot of heart-rending bunk earns a place in their anthology.

Do you detect a shade of cynicism in my voice? Yes, you do. Why so? Well, inquisitive voice-in-my-head, I’ll tell thee.

I have yet to read that elusive life-changing book. Perhaps I’m an unfeeling robot with a man-heart made from mashed potato and binder twine, but I don’t really believe in the life-changing book experience.

I read books for the following reasons:

1. Intellectual stimulation and emotional provocation.

2. To be taken on a gallop through the fantabulous superhighways of another person’s imagination.

3. To help understand the unfathomable enigma of the human condition and to help me become a less misanthropic wazzock.

4. To expose myself to the boundless wonder of language and what is achievable through clacking ideas onto a page and binding them together with the beautiful adhesive of words.

5. I have nothing else to do and my social life is practically nonexistent.

Now, one might argue this leaves plentiful scope for a life-changing experience. Not so. See, novels influence my life. They influence my actions, my thoughts, my decisions. However, they don’t physically change anything. That is, for me. I wouldn’t dare express this as a generalisation.

Had I not read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment when I was 16, my life wouldn’t be radically any different to how it is now. I might never have discovered the cockspurting magnificence of the Russian master, but chances are another novelist would have filled his formidable boots. My natural interest in Russian writers would have brought me to him sooner or later.

Crime & Punishment is the one book that qualifies as a ‘life-changing’ experience, though I consider it more the first moment I instantly clicked with an author and understood their work totally and utterly. No life-changing experience. Just blissful comprehension.

Life-changing experiences, not to state the obvious, happen in life. Yes – I stated the obvious. We trip over a brick and get run over by a Ford Focus. Life-changing. We shoot President Bush through the temple with an airgun. Life-changing. We meet our life partners, get married, start our dream jobs, and have three kids all in the same afternoon. Somewhat life-changing.

I suppose I’m envious of the reader who completes a novel, has a eureka moment, then goes on to live their life in the shadow of the book. That’s an experience I would thoroughly dislike to have. Who wants an author to have that much control over their free will?

That’s divine power, sister. Best keep away.


  1. Let me try again with at least two annoying typoes removed for your (and mine) convenience...

    Does it count as life-changing when you at the age of seven decide to re-read a book every spring for the rest of your life? If you look at it strictly practically, I would have been able to do something else entirely in the hours I over the years have spent reading "The Secret Garden". Like have a garden of my own. But I didn't. As I was reading.

    And does it count as life-changing if your life might have changed if you hadn't read the book, but you did, so your life went on in the same fashion as before? (Though that is more of a "tree falls in the forest" kind of question…)

    Finally, more importantly, and awesomely, how cool is it to be asked to contribute in an essay contest? Is it rude of me to ask by whom? (If you're going to say it's the inquisitive voice in your head I promise not to be too disappointed)

  2. I'll disagree.
    I do beleve in life chaging books - and no, I don't mean "The Secret" and it's ilk.

    Let's have two separate starting points and make them diverge.
    1. No one can make anyone else change, people only change when they want/need to. You can, however, give impetus and information to help.
    2. Life is a never ending infinity of crossroads.

    So, I read a book just before another crossroad. It infuences me to turn left. Fucking yes it has changed my life direction.
    Not the concept/story the contest is lookng for though, I suspect.

    Here's one example from my life:
    I found something I needed by taking LSD. I became mentally addicted. Heavy doses, many, many times a week.
    Then, while straight one day, I read a book - just by chance. The author sensibly told me that LSD was like taking an elevator to the top of a mountain. Great view, great experience, but you learn nothing valuable because you missed the journey climbing up.

    I stopped taking drugs from that day onward.
    Life changing, oh yes. But only because I was ready to accept that change and his words found resonance within me.

    Just a few well placed and well timed words, whether by mouth, film or book, can change our lives.

  3. Cruella: That's an odd one. It sounds as though the book has some mysterious power over you if you are compelled to read it every spring.

    If the Secret Garden has radically altered your outlook on anything or influenced the way you live your life (rather than merely eating up your time), then... ja. It's life-changing.

    The book contest: I somehow made that sound more illustrious than it is. It's an open contest for anyone. You, as a Norwegian-American, can even submit. Simply follow ze link.

    Mike: You've delineated the difference between influence and change perfectly.

    Now I'm in agreement. When you're saved from potentially deadly things by a few lines in a book, that becomes a full-blown change rather than an influence.

    I've yet to encounter that change. I think it only happens to a certain group of people. The explorers. The adventurers. People who DO things.

    You should enter the contest. They only want between 50-500 words, and your drug story is perfect fodder for them. Genuine feel-good redemption.

  4. Ungrateful wretch that I am, I neither remember author nor book name now!
    Anyway, I don't think they pay do they? (Princples Old Chap, Principles - it's not the amount).

  5. I would say all the 'life changers' I have touted up to now are merely perspective influencers.

    Had I read Crime and Punishment at 16, I NEVER would have read Brothers Karamazov, and that would be a change (I have trouble with Crime and Punishment... don't feel I'm given enough psyche to forgive the things he does).

    Only one (set of) books truly qualifies as life changing for me (and her I reveal what a truly grand geek I am). Between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince, I was so immersed in Harry Potter that I sought an online community to discuss it... discussion lead to writing, something I'd given up years ago as impractical... I proceded to meet other writers and eventually write fully original stuff and now feel I have the impetus to follow something that once only seemed a pipe dream... life changing.

  6. Ah, the Brothers Karamozov! What an OUTSTANDING book. Yes, too bloody long but the very definition of a CLASSIC.

    People sneer at Harry Potter but it has generated such an interest in writing (for adults) and reading (for kids). Although I dislike the genre/characters, I respect the franchise and its influence in the literary atmosphere.

    Plus people always mockingly call me Harry Potter. Grrr.