Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I read to my wife every night once she is in bed. We’ve been through Anna Karenina, all four books of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, and many less weighty books. Presently I am reading to her The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Elizabeth Gordon and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

We just finished a very engaging book, The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most To Them (ISBN 1-592-40210-0), edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen. The writers are very eclectic because they are all writers who did readings at Coady’s bookstore, R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut.

Among the writers included are Anne Lamont, (who cites Little Women as one of the books that changed her life), Jane Stern (John Barth’s The End of the Road), Chris Bohjalian (Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist), Jack Prelutsky Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), Tracy Kidder (Hemingway’s Collected Stories), Senator John McCain (Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), and Billy Collins (Margaret Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling). The essays, with a couple of exceptions, are brief, 1-2 pages. Most are very engaging. With some you wonder, “How could that book change anybody’s life?”, and with others, “That sounds like an interesting book.”

I would like to ask you to e-mail me the titles of a book or books that changed your life and a short paragraph as to why. Let me know if it is all right to include your name, or whether you’d prefer just your initials. And also where you live. That’s just to satisfy my curiosity. I like knowing where people live.

It seems only fair that I should start. The first book that comes to mind is The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. It is a compilation of quotations from the mystical writings of Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism which demonstrate that on the level of mystical experience, religions do not differ in any significant way. I read it in 1959 at age 20. I had dispensed with the God I had learned of from my minister father, and Huxley’s book gave me a radically new way to think about religion and the Divine. The experience I had reading that book remains with me 48 years later.


“I still love the power of words. They dispel my loneliness. They soothe my fear of uselessness.”

Kate Horsley, Confessions of a Pagan Nun p. 159


Bibliomaniac – someone with a lunatic’s passion for acquiring books, but not necessarily reading them. One of the most famous bibliomaniacs was Englishman Richard Heber (1773-1833). Of him it is written that one of his houses was “nearly all library” The house in which he died “was filled with books from top to bottom, every chair, table and passage….” He collected books not only in English but Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Portuguese. He rented houses merely for his books in Oxford, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. When he died it is estimated that he had half a million books. It took Southeby’s auction house two hundred and two working days over a two year period to catalog the collection.

From Forgotten English: A Merry Guide to Antiquated Words, Packed with History, Fun facts, Literary Excerpts, and Charming Drawings, by Jeffrey Kacirk (ISBN 0-688-150187)


My "easy chair" and a glimpse of a few of the 15,000 or so books in my library. No, I have not read them all. Yes, I suffer from bibliomania.