View Full Version : Books that changed you

17-04-2005, 10:13 AM
Libraries Make us Free

I've put this in thought rather than literature because I don't necessarily mean novels or poetry, though they can of course be included. What I want to hear about are books that profoundly affected you, so much so that you can think of your life in terms of before and after you read them. Books that opened up new ways of thinking, or sent you off down avenues that you are still following. I don't mean specific writers, i mean individual books that were kind of like events that punctuated your existence.

For me there are two that come to mind, neither of them very fashionable or avant-garde, but i wouldn't be who I am without them. I only read each of them once but I wil never forget them. They are both classic, popularising and very British in a Reithian way.

When I was 17 I took Herbert Read's A Concise HIstory of Modern Painting out of the library in the small Northern Irish town where I lived. Its a lucid, popularising account of twentieth century painting from Impressionism onwards. It was here that I first encountered Dada, Duchamp, Ernst and so on, and after I finished it I felt that i understood something that had previously seemed forbidding, difficult and not for the likes of me. Modern art has been huge souce of enjoyment to me ever since, and it was through getting interested in it that i started to hear names like Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. Which brings me, bathetically, to:

Roger Scruton's A Short History of Modern Philosophy. Now I know Scruton is a bit of a knob, but this book, for all its flaws, is terrific. I got it out of another library, in Battersea, when I was 20 and had just moved to London, working at the Daily Mirror glueing press clippings into files in the cuttings library 8 hours a day, which was as monotonous as it sounds. I would read four or five pages on the tube in the morning, turn them over in my head all day, and re-read them on the way home. I've gone through many primary philosophy texts since, but I have never recaptured the kick, the daily feeling of dawning realization, that I got from that book. It helped me understand ideas I thought were beyond me, and which have informed my life ever since.

18-04-2005, 02:52 PM
John Cage: Silence

I'd absorbed bits and pieces of this - and Cage's music and ideas in general - for quite a few years already, but there was a definite point in my first year after graduating that I remember reading it properly, cover to cover, with all the typesetting correct, as Cage meant it. This is the only book that I regard in terms of my life before and after. How it changed me is hard to say - I've only read it in full once or twice, but the world it opens up is one that is so generous, warm, fun, thoughtful, and profoundly musical, that it stays with you in many ways. After reading it I didn't think about music in the same way again; and the same goes for every other 'musical' aspect of life. It's a philosophical text, an anthology of poetry, a collection of anecdotes, a compositional treatise, and a piece of music in its own right. It's a perfect blend of 'precise madness' (thanks MiltonParker!) and inconsequential/profound story-telling, and as an imaginative work it sits somewhere between Borges, Calvino, Cortazar, Kundera and Perec. Of all the books on my shelves, it's the first I would recommend to anyone.

18-04-2005, 03:24 PM
there are novels and poems that did this but i think that the book that did it most recently for me was naomi klein's no logo - i took a bit of flak for this a little while ago when i posed a question about ethical shopping but essentially the book crystallised a lot of dispirate ideas i had been having into one cohesive whole. since that book i have altered my spending habits - looking very carefully at where my food comes from, where my clothes are made, what kind of resources i use in the classroom etc. essentially it woke me up from my slumbering twenties into a repoliticized thirtysomething, capturing that ardent and angry self that i had lost. interesting that it is under blair that i have come to feel as angry as i did under thatcher...still doesn't amke it easy to know who to vote for.

polystyle desu
19-04-2005, 04:55 AM
Good thread Melmoth

Quickly without looking at the bookshelves ...

I'll say "Neuromancer" by William Gibson .
Because when i rd the review in the Village Voice bk in 1984 , it made me run out and get the book, read it , rd it again to see if the ending run was really as cryptic or cobbled together feeling as it seemed the first time.
But the overall effect of the book on me was rather large , ended up spending a good part of the next 10 years in cyberpunk and post cyberpunk mode , called Gibson and began working with him on projects.
This led to trips to Tokyo Bay's artifical islands and HK's Walled City Of Kowloon,
bringing WG and Bruce Sterling to The Caravan Of Dreams in Texas , then onto The Biosphere in Arizona ,
trying to make C-punk movie with Director Sogo Ishii (failing when ace producer Ed Pressman asked Sogo 'how much do you need?' and he asked for too much) , meeting artist Seiko Mikami,
finding partner William Barg who began to work with Mark Pauline and the SRL guys,
demoing CG for Director Chuck Russell (the Mask , Eraser) to convince him to at least TRY to do "Neuromancer" Movie , creating cyber voudou group The Voodooists ,
writing screenplay with Erik Davis, and getting tapped by WG to do the music and soundwork for the "Neuromancer Audio Book" by 1994.
This run of action was prolly ended by the mixed experience of being involved in the pre -production and post prod of "Johnny Mnemonic" in 1995 . That popped my cyber bubble ...
But before that i was driven by the book like a slamhound .

Other book would have to be Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban .
It's so sad rendition of a UK blown back into a Stone Age like existence was quite sobering
and still stays with me

19-04-2005, 12:39 PM
1) Not a book, but a 14-page Sunday supplement special report (can't remember the name, sorry) on homelessness in London, from early 1990. Had some harrowing Don Mc Cullin photos and was so well written that I knew I wanted to write for a living (coupled with the fact I'm fucking useless at any other kind of job). I still have it somewhere in a box, I'd be gutted if i lost it, though the interviews with punks dossing in the Bullring, alcoholic ex-soldiers, vulnerable schizos and understaffed day centres makes uncomfortable reading. You can't help wondering where half these people are now. I remember one really nice moment, it was a skinhead ex-smack addict with South London Skins tattooed on his cheek, bemused that "People still ask me where I come from", who'd had some tattoos done of spiders "cos my daughters were scared of them, so I told em these were friendly spiders"

2) "The Glass Curtain". Can't remember author's name, but basically a diary account of a Dublin Catholic who moves to Northern Ireland with his daughter and provides a complete eye-opener as to what it's really like - and subsequently exposes high-level Stormont meetings as total jokes. Changed me from a teenager who used to cheer whenever an IRA bomb went off to the point that one of my closest friends is a Belfast Protestant (he was actually born prematurely when a Provo car bomb went off near his pregnant ma). I've also learnt invaluable stuff from him since, especially about the runt gangsters who keep the whole shebang going. True fact - the majority of Ian Paisley's constituents are Catholic

3) Rabelais - "Gargantua and Pantagruel" - I loved this bullshit so much

4) Chris Marlowe - "Dr Faustus" - another classic that warped my head

5) Chester Himes - everything - his descriptive powers make Iain Sinclair read like Jilly Cooper. Reading 'A Rage in Harlem' was like watching the zaniest blaxploitation film ever, 'If He Hollers Let Him Go' actually made me cry after reading this at the disgusting injustice of it all, and his final works in the Harlem Cycle scared the shit out of me - barely controlled hatred and chaos spilling off the page

His writing was so full of punch, it opened me up to a whole range of US post-war fiction I hadn't considered checking out before.

Oh shit, how did these change my life? er, made it better in some way I can't describe

19-04-2005, 01:56 PM
when i was a mere slip of a lad the art teacher told us that we were to spend the lesson making collages,i
was about to use an old copy of Studio Internaltional as my source material when i got reading the text on the otherside to the pages i had intended to use...it was the most amazing thing I had ever read..of course i nicked it and took it home (we were only going to cut the pages up anyway).
It transpired that the text was an inteview with Marcel Duchamp.
the interview was part of the book ''dialogues with Marcel Duchamp''
even if you think ''modern art'' is tosh this is a magical book.
I can't begin to it justice ,needless to say it calibrated my mind to accept art in all it's agencies and was v.wise and witty in doing so.
ALSO if you plan on life of indolence, this book gives you lot's of tips on the aesthetics of frugality/bone idleness!

19-04-2005, 02:13 PM
jack kerouac - on the road. its real, not just convincing or believable, but real. and at the same time it manages to be interesting and exciting, which kind of makes you re-evaluate things youd previously percieved to be mundane and boring. well, it did for me anyhow....

20-04-2005, 05:03 PM
Pynchon - Gravity's Rainbow. Because the man has mind-bending range, and so much depth of knowledge in everything talks about (or at least does a great job of making it up). It just blew me away that someone could come up with a piece of work like that. Still my favourite work of fiction. Read a few pages on the tube every day for quite a long time - I don't think I could have digested it in huge chunks. Reading it was psychedelic, in the true sense of the word.

Non fiction - gotta be Heidegger - Being and Time. My discovery of continental philosophy, and made my question the scientific/analytic background I'd come from for the first time. It seemed to fresh, so revoltionary, and to me it still does, despite the many who have folloed in his footsteps. You can't beat the originator.

22-04-2005, 08:54 AM
Enjoyed these responses. Martin, I think the Glass Curtain is by Carlo Gebler, who is the lovely Edna O'Brien's son. His novels are worth looking at too, can't remember any titles though...

23-04-2005, 02:47 AM
Dostoevsky - The Idiot
Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Well i was sick in bed once and had a lot of time on my hand. A lot. So i read like a madman, day and night, non-stop, anything i could get my hands on. And i read The Idiot. Being 26 at the time i had more than my share of experiences to parallel those found in the novel (indeed the resemblance to my own experience was uncanny). So it was like looking from an observation deck onto some troubled scene, a taking of distance that marked a personal end of phase for me. I definitely came out of The Idiot a changed man.
And on the same shelf was Marcus Aurelius (of Gladiator fame). The Meditations are a fine regurgitation of stoic philosophy, which in retrospect i realise paved the way for my current reality-ignoring self. It's two or three ideas repeated endlessly, a Roman mantra. Very good for when you're sick, too.

The Black Book of Communism

All you Communists read this and repent!

23-04-2005, 06:49 AM
_Feminism: From Margin to Center_ by bell hooks. kicked my well-meaning women's-studies-major ass, as an undergrad about 14 years ago.

_King_ by John Berger. This book was an action on me, not me on it. transformative. and it reconstituted my soul (as a mentioned in another thread), imperilled by too much "social science." I still read it as a reality check.

_Their Eyes Were Watching God_ by Zora Neale Hurston, way back in high school, because it was so self-sufficient, and so sensual.

23-04-2005, 03:33 PM
Books I liked, there's loads, but books that changed me...

Toni Morrison - 'Pair of Blue Eyes' - opened my blue eyes for sure
John Fowles - 'The Magus' - a real discovery, the first book that really focused my interest in reading into a quest for good literature
Angus Wilson - 'Anglo-Saxon Attitudes' - great title, says it all really, a very funny novel, not laugh out loud mind, much more subtle than that, might be a bit too British for some tastes
Echo the shout for Pynchon (any novel with a lightbulb as a character has got to be worth a look) but try 'The Crying of Lot 49', equally well-written but a lot more accessible.
John Irving - 'The World According to Garp' - Could have chosen Cider House Rules, or Prayer for Owen Meaney as well, but Garp was the first I read by him, and the one I've reread the most: a storyteller with a real grasp of the tragedy and the comedy of life, and supreme confidence in his skills as a writer, can't praise him high enough really

27-04-2005, 04:10 AM
The Scourge of the Swastika by Lord Russell of Liverpool - I read this from cover to cover and looked at every photograph when I was 10 and realised then that violence and cruelty were not for me.

The Bible - Made me suspect that everything was just opinion.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell - Confirmed my suspicion that everything was opinion.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism and The Invasion of Compulsory Morality by Wilhelm Reich - Made me realise it wasn't me that was derranged.

Moonchild by Alistair Crowley - Helped me realise that I wasn't the only one who thought that all conflict was the result of people believing their opinions were the TRUTH and worth spilling blood over (see also, Trouble Every Day on Freak Out by Frank Zappa). It also introduced me to Taoism and led me to T'ai Chi Chuan, which I've now been practising for 27 years.

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu - What can I say?

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess - Made me realise that imagination truly was an amazing thing.

Any book by Mary Wesley - She started writing in her 70s and I found that very encouraging. She is very funny and refreshingly liberated.

There are others... in a way, you could say that every word you read or hear changes you.

Not books but loads of Frank Zappa lyrics have changed me - for example, "You should be digging it while it's happening because it might just be a one-shot, big deal"

27-04-2005, 08:04 AM
this is an excellent question! i thought about this for ages, but although I'm reasonably well-read (at least for a scientist!), the books that honestly "profoundly affected you, so much so that you can think of your life in terms of before and after you read them." are children's books.

not in a crap ironic adults-reading-harry-potter way, but books i read when i was just old enough to understand them:

Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll

and bizarrely Arthur Ransome's Peter Duck

because if it hadn't been for these two particularly making me realise that books could utterly seize you for hours at a time, i would probably have never read much else. mind you i haven't read them for 15 years or so, they're probably not nearly as good as i remember

i quite honestly can't think of any adult books that had the same effect on me - the only that springs to mind is Ulysses, because as i was reading it i realised it's the sort of thing you can read ten times and still understand less than half of what's going on.

29-04-2005, 02:28 PM
Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll

i have some very fond memories of the moomintroll books. sfunny, i think i found those just as immersive as something as huge as the lotr, wonder how theyd compare for me today......

29-04-2005, 09:11 PM
Oh, man, the Moomin books!

I read those so young that I thought I'd dreamt the stories. Which made me feel pretty weird in Finland when I came across a Moomin statue. I couldn't believe it at first and then the books came back to me.

they hold up pretty well as an adult - quite weird and dark and depressive, and unlike any other kids' books I've read.

06-05-2005, 02:49 PM
quite weird and dark

no doubt.


eerie shit....

08-05-2005, 10:55 AM
Hmm, this might be an unpopular / unfashionable choice but:

Paul de Man Blindness and Insight

I first read this in my second year at University, struggling to find a way to get out of the facile version of historicism which was dominating the teaching of the Romantic and modernist periods in literature. It took me several re-readings to get to grips with "The Rhetoric of Temporality", the essay I'd originally been looking for, but some of the other essays totally opened my eyes, and I went on to write a dissertation on de Man in my third year. But basically de Man showed me that there was a whole way of thinking that meant you could hold onto the problem of history in relation to interpretation but without reducing texts to being the product of their cultural backgrounds. De Man showed me that romantic works were already engaged with the problems later critics were 'discovering' that they had 'ignored', and that therefore most modern historical*criticism was actually incapable of reading or understanding writing which had already taken into account and ruled out or at least questioned the positions which, with the arrogance of hindsight, modern critics were simply assuming must successfully trump or improve on earlier writing. So I learnt not to assume that I was right, because I came later in history, but more importantly that I needed to find ways of thinking which take into account the problem of the hermeneutic circle, here refigured as a constitutive and structural blindspot in relation to the text. de Man also pointed me towards all the other thinkers who had taken this stuff seriously (i.e. the post-Kantian tradition, basically, although it took me a while to realise it), although it didn't take me long to figure out there were some large unacknowledged borrowings of his own (e.g. Blanchot). de Man took me to Derrida (and so to reject aspects of de Man's work) and the rest (well the next five years) is history.

12-05-2005, 07:24 PM
i'd always wondered what the point was with de man (a friend doing a thesis on him hasn't managed to explain it to me either) so that was quite interesting reading, ta

there aren't many books i can think of that genuinely changed my life (which is pretty sad, as i'm an english MA...) but a few put them on a slightly different track- 'blissed out' did, in that it a lot of the stuff i was reading at college and found incredibly arid- (i.e, the usual french theory boys and gals) suddenly had all sorts of interesting connections with things that i was already interested in (i.e, music and politics) but i rather wish i hadn't drunkenly and incoherently informed simon of this at his book launch thing.

'england's dreaming' had a big effect on me as a callow 16 year old, in justifying my obsessive interest in pop music by suggesting it could have a huge political and social effect (which was pretty heady stuff to read in the late 90s)

it is (justly, as he can be enormously myopic and dull) rather fashionable to bash noam chomsky, but him and pilger had a huge effect at around the same time, mainly by filling in, simply and informatively, the bits i wasn't taught in history classes.

but as for fiction....the only people that really spring to mind are ballard (specially for 'the atrocity exhibition') and orwell, who i quite fancy writing a defence of sometime, attempt to rescue him from christopher hitchens and his ilk....angela carter's 'nights at the circus' and 'the sadeian woman' opened up all kinds of interesting ideas as well.....and victor serge's 'memoirs of a revolutionary'... but now i'm just listing things that i liked a hell of a lot.

hats off to the people mentioning tove jansson!

31-05-2005, 08:33 PM
The two books that had the biggest effect on me were "Siddhartha" by Hesse and (I am slightly embarassed of this one even though I haven't repudiated it) "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn. I do not remember exactly what I thought after "Siddhartha" but basically it changed my idea of what life was about. I was just entering young adulthood and I realised that the rest of my life need not be about work or accumulating stuff or trying to jockey for position on the social ladder. I have a hard time remembering what I believed prior to that, some of these things may have been present already but I know it had an effect on me and I consider it a turning point.

"Ishmael" changed my views on civilization, the nature of society and authority, the purpose of work and education.

08-06-2005, 02:01 AM
Homage to Catalonia made me realise that hoping/fighting for a better world was actually a realistic aim.

27-06-2005, 01:05 PM
Asterix and Obleix - Gosciny and Uderzo : Oh, those anti-Imperialist attitudes and 'magic potions' suited me to a tee as a 6 year-old learning how to read!

Tintin - Herge : Kids being James Bonds was cool. and all those foreign exotic destinations - even the moon!

The Magic Faraway Tree - Enid Blyton : I wanted to live there!

Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Finn - I just loved how there was some sort of new drama in each chapter, kinda like cliff-hnager serial.

Dead Zone - Stephen King : great depressing psychic conspiarcy theroy.

many others as I got older Phillp K Dick, JG Ballard, Harry Crews, KW Jeter, LAberto Moravia, Lester Bangs.