There’s a joke Jim Gaffigan told, years ago:
“Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
Yeah, me neither.”
Ha ha ha. That’s a good one. I laughed along with the crowd on the TV, but then I thought about this a bit more. I have read thousands of books in my life, so far. And honestly, a few books have changed my life. Perhaps they didn’t change my life immediately, drastically or overnight, but they have definitely altered how I think.
The first book I remember challenging my world view was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It wasn’t a book that taught me about racial inequality — I read it for the first time in my teens, as a fairly recent, Jewish immigrant. Black folks being treated here in the States, in the 60s, was similar to the way Jews had been treated pretty much all the time I was growing up. So, racial hatred and ignorant meanness toward others wasn’t shocking or startling. What I learned was that simplicity of language, compelling characters, and memorable scenes is what made a great story. This was not a grand epic with poetic prose or complicated, intellectual exercises in vocabulary. Instead, it was a book that was so well written, and so memorable, that when I re-read it, years later, to my then 10-year-old daughter, I was completely surprised how far I had to read into the book to reach the scene with Atticus Finch and the rabid dog. In my mind, it was such a strong scene that it came much, much earlier in the book. And I was also surprised how a book that was so extraordinary, was so easy to read (not a light read, mind you, there is a world of difference between those things). So, this changed my approach as a writer and as a reader — just tell a good story simply.
It was in my teen years that I also read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Then There Were None. They were both remarkable books, but it took me years to understand just how amazingly ground-breaking they really were. First, through the years, I had to read a gazillion mysteries that were interchangeably generic or averagely mediocre. Only after consuming such inglorious glut of mysteries did I realize the profoundness that Christie’s books were. They were complex, creative, and must have been laid out like a battle plan, rather than a plot outline. It felt as if I was going through a war, without realizing it, but the rules of engagement were changed, and drastically, in the middle of it. My world had altered and became huge as a result — there were no limits on creativity any more, no constraints.
Another book that I love and consider life-changing for me was The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I remember the first time I picked up that book, and read the description on the back, “What if you fell in love with a prince and he turned out to be a son-of-a-bitch?” How could I not read it after that? This was an irreverent, funny, touching, surprising take on fairy tale themes that, again, like Agatha Christie’s works, was so intertwined and creative, that it was wickedly well-written. A year or so after I read the book, and loved every bit of it, I saw a movie preview for it. How, I wondered, could a two-hour movie possibly do justice to a book that was so chock full of yummy goodness? I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, and still catch it when I can, but the book was, and is, in my humble opinion, nearly perfect.
An honorable mention goes to a book I’ve read in my mid-teens as well, that separated my childhood from my adulthood, was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It contained so much violence and sex, and sexy violence and violent sex (the movies have much less sex, by the way, but Coppola did an excellent job adapting the book to the screen, anyway) that it made me realize that nothing is really off limits, especially if it is written well (or maybe because of it).