Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Life- Changing Books: Are they for real?

Posted by Simcha 5:32 PM, under | 14 comments

I often see book bloggers refer to certain books as "life-changing" and I've begun to wonder what this means exactly. How can a book really change a person's life? While I have certainly learned a lot from many of the books that I have read, and some of them may have influenced me in small ways, I wouldn't be able to point to a single book and say that it actually changed my life.

After wondering about this for a while I decided to ask around and see if anyone else could shed some light on this matter for me. And so I contacted a few different bloggers and readers and asked them what they thought about the idea of a life-changing book and if they had ever encountered one themselves.

I really enjoyed reading the different responses that I received and was interested to see that everyone here can actually identify at least one book that they would consider "life-changing."

Thank you to everyone who participated.

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Stephanie from Misfit Salon:

I believe a single book can change someone’s life but only to the extent that one is receptive to the ideas in that book. I can point to two books that I can call “life-changing” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Because of reading both books I was spurred to make very significant decisions; I read them at the right time and in the right frame of mind. Had I read them at any other time of my life, they probably would not have resonated as profoundly.

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Shellie from Layers of Thought:

Yes, I certainly believe there are life changing books. When I wonder about all the people who have been emotionally uplifted and rescued by finding escape, solace, or knowledge from a book, it must be difficult to quantify. To me it’s actually not a question of “if” but “whether” we are aware of those moments and the extent of the changes which occur.

On a more mundane level, life changing can also be defined as enjoyment and involvement in the experience of reading, which can make us better people. I actually define my favorite five star books as "transformational". I was lucky enough to come across this great word in a book by Orson Scott Card, titled The Writer's Digest Guide to Science Fiction & Fantasy. I think that it’s a perfect word for defining very special books.

So absolutely books can be transformational; I think almost all book lovers and dabblers will agree. It’s just subjective on how much and which books do the most changing.

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Esther at Eshchory:

To be honest I’m often a little perplexed when I’m asked about a life-changing book. I don’t think I have one.

When I was a teenager a friend pressed a small book into my hands and, with that ecstatic glow in her eyes, told me I must read it as it had changed her life. I did read the book and I afraid the only thing it changed in my life was my opinion of my friend.

I certainly have favorite books, the kind that sweep me off my feet, leave me with a glow of satisfaction for days after reading and suddenly pop into my mind years after I have turned the last page but did they change anything about me? Nope.

Definitely there are some influential writers in my reading history. George Eliot helped me articulate and define my ideas about a moral way to behave. Her own life was a fine example to me that living a moral life does not mean living by accepted society rules.
I am sure my voracious consumption of short stories by W. Somerset Maughan and F. Scott Fitzgerald contributed to my slightly cynical outlook on life.
While Paul Zindel taught me that being a teenager is tough but survivable.

And now I come to think about it there was one life-changing book I read while I was a young teenager. I can’t even remember the name but it was a mini-encyclopedia produced by one of the magazines targeted at younger teenager girls. Although the magazine was a little childish for my tastes the book claimed to contain all the information a girl needed.
And it did - with explanations of contraception, how best to apply mascara and advice on social interaction and appropriate clothing it covered everything I wanted and might need to know. Despite my mother’s disapproving look I read it from cover to cover twice and even took notes.

This knowledge not only helped me negotiate the maze of puberty but most important of all it gave me the confidence to believe that I could cope.

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Jenny from Jenny's Books:


The book(s) I always credit with having changed my life are the Chronicles of Narnia. My mother started reading them to me and my sister when I was three and she was four, and they have been central to my imaginative landscape my whole life. But it's difficult to say that something you read at age three really changed you. For the most part, I think a life-changing book would be one that said the right things to you at the right moment. I read Julian of Norwich's Showings when I was at a crossroads in my relationship to God, and I do think the book changed my life. It reframed my concept of God and presented God to me in a form that I could understand and deal with. So I think to say a book changed your life is to say that it reshaped your understanding of some aspect of life. The book may not be as earth-shattering when you return to it, but it's left traces of itself in you, and I would call that life-changing.

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Emily from What Book is That?:

I think that books can definitely be life changing but I don't think that process necessarily happens overnight. At least for me personally, the "life changing" books were more like seeds that grew every time I encountered an idea from that book somewhere else or every time I came back to the book and reread it.

I tend to give a lot of books as gifts, and that's another form of change- I generally don't give books that I haven't read already unless the other person requested them or has a special area of interest, so for me to give a book as a gift means that I had to love it when I read it, take the time to consider who else I know would like it, buy copies (usually multiple copies) and hand them out to my nearest and dearest. While this is a sort of temporary change, it's still a change.

I feel the same way about books that I pick to donate to organizations that provide them to people who need them. I don't usually feel comfortable doing the "buy one of these preselected books at the counter" deals so I tend to go back to the shelves in the store and pick a title that I personally enjoyed. Taking the time to match a book I've read and enjoyed with the target audience of a cause that I support is another form of change.

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John Ottinger from Grasping for the Wind:

I think that for some people, books can be life-changing. There are many stories of people who read something – book, article, essay, or treatise – that changed the way they thought about the world. It is not for me to say that a book is or is not life-changing for another person. Was The Secret life-changing for some people? Likely. For as many people as make the claim? Unlikely.

And that is the problem. “Life-changing” is one of those hyperbolic words that gets bandied about so much that it is impossible for others to be absolutely sure of the truth of the statement. Lots of people may say The Secret, the Bible, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings is “life-changing” to them, but they only way to be sure is in their actions and behaviors. And since I don’t see such people on a day to day basis, and have likely never even met them, I have no way to verify the truth of the claim. I can test it by reading the work myself, sure, but my experience isn’t going to be the same as someone else, because I am, after all, a different person.

I think that others who speak of one book as “life-changing” are actually saying that this one book was a catalyst. Their descriptor for a particular work was born of life experience and other readings so that because they are changed at the time of reading the particular work to whom they append the label. In other words, the book is life-changing because of all that has come before. That a 180 degree turn comes because that person was at a point in their life journey where such a turn would happen if the right book enters their life. But it could have been any book, so long as it is oppositional to where the person is in their life now, a life they may dislike without knowing why.


So to answer your first question succinctly, yes, books can be “life-changing”. It is not for me to judge someone else’s experiential truth. I prefer, as Ronald Reagan might put it to “trust, but verify” the claim of these readers, if I can.

For me, I have the obvious life-changing book, the Bible. I am an unashamed Christian, and so for me there is no more important book. However, for purposes of this response, I prefer to set aside religious tomes. While these are often the books most often referred to as “life-changing” it is fairly evident why they would be, no matter the religion or philosophy that reader is now a part of.

When you asked the question, I began to think that you perhaps meant what works of fiction were most life-changing. Could I point to any? Not really. I can say that several epic fantasies from the 1990s were formative in my understanding of honor, my concept of good and evil, the notion of what it is to be a good person in a dark world. J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, even Terry Goodkind were important to my prepubescent self. Terry Pratchett was formative in my perception of what is funny. Mystery novels by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle led me to believe that the world was understandable, that mystery just required deep thought and observation to solve. Were these “life-changing” books? No, But would I be the man I am today without them? Also no.

But is there one key novel or fiction that I consider “life-changing”? Perhaps, at least in terms of me as a fiction consumer. Stephen Lawhead wrote a trilogy of Celtic fantasies and a science fiction duology that changed me from a mystery reader into a SF/fantasy reader. I couldn’t get enough of these books, and for a long time, I often said to myself that when I am on my deathbed, I want to be re-reading these as my life leaves me. Such is not the case anymore, but once it was.

On the other hand, nonfiction often is written for the purpose of being life-changing, particularly self-help works. In my own case, a result of a book my wife read, Eat to Live, we are now practicing vegans. Our diet changed drastically, and as a result we are healthier than we were. But though I may use that book as a resource, I might not ever read it. Mere Christianity has had profound effect on me as a Christian, and it is certainly a book I will read again. The Problem of Pain is a memoir about the discoverer of the neurological cause of leprosy which I would love to read again, and which changed the way I use words like “pain”, “hurt”, even “depression”.

But while books I have read may have changed aspects of my life, with the exception of the Bible, none of them have been comprehensively “life-changing”. The effect of the Bible was a religious conversion, something that others can verify by looking at my actions and behaviors, but when one changes one’s entire life philosophy, it is hard to argue that the book was not life changing. I think we would all generally agree with that without debate. But aside from my religious conversion, I am an otherwise an amalgamation of the books I have read, and no one of them changed me to the point where I would use such exaggeration. I am the sum of what I have read. EGO sum plures libri.

14 comments:

Can't say that I have read a lifechanging book, I have read books I loved, but have they changed my life..nah..though that one book did make me think a lot

I thought your question was thought-provoking enough, Simcha, but the other bloggers' responses were full of insight. Now I'm reconsidering the subject, looking at it from a different point of view. Fascinating topic and thanks again for asking me to participate!

Wow, this was a great post. This is also sort-of something I've wondered about. I mean, shouldn't life-changing mean just that - that it changes your life in some substantial way? And yet I seen it regularly thrown loosely around the blogosphere, as if it means nothing. I try not to use this phrase unless I think it is absolutely true, which means I never use it. I think the only books to have CHANGED my life are Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson and Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and both of those had SO much more to do with where I was at the time in my life than with the actual books.
Anyhow, again, this was a great post! I loved all of the answers you got. People had such interesting things to say!

I love this! So many cool ways of saying that books make a difference. Thanks for inviting me to participate!

Cheers Simcha...
I guess I am surprised that quite a few readers do not think books have changed their lives. Amazing!

Makes me wonder what we would be like without them. lol.
Thanks for including me in this thoughtful post. :)

I don't think I would have said that one book changed my life. I would say it really is about the person and what they are ready to hear than the book itself. For example, I might have a book that clearly speaks to me on a deep level at one time. I reread it and find something else the next but yet not able to get that same epiphany I had earlier. It's like the old saying... "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." In this way, the teacher is a book. :)

Great post.

I have never really thought a book as being life changing either. At least, I haven't come across one that makes me feel life changed. I have read books that influence thoughts and change my views. But, I haven't had one book yet to change my life. :) I am always curious about this too.

Blodeuedd: Same here. I've read many thought-provoking books but I wouldn't say any of them changed my life. But perhaps I just haven't met the right books yet ;)

Stephanie: Well you were one of the people who got me thinking about this subject, though you actually did explain on your blog why you considered certain books life changing, unlike many of the other bloggers that I saw using this phrase.

Audrey: I think that's probably the real key and that it's more about the time and place a certain book is read than the book itself.

Jenny: Thank YOU for taking the time to write a thoughtful answer. I was also very effected by The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when I as younger.

Shellie: I don't think it's a matter of having been changed by books but of being able to point to a specific book and say that, THAT book changed you. I know that's something that I can't do.

Melissa: I really like that answer. I was wondering if people who do have a life-changing book are able to turn to that book again later in life for the same effect. Though I don't think I would say that a book that I connected to is necessarily a "life-changing" book. While I might read something that really speaks to me, that doesn't mean my life will be changed by it.

Melissa (My World): That's exactly how I feel and why I put this post together. While the books I read open me up to new thoughts and ideas I wouldn't be able to say that any of them actually changed my life.

Sorry that it took me so long to drop by, but things got really busy the past few days. :(

Everyone's responses are great and thoughtful!

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