Editor’s Note: Last week I invited Liberty Island authors, contributors, and readers to submit lists of the books and authors who had changed them. If you would like to participate then please send your lists to [email protected]

After reading excerpts from the Liberty Island Klavan symposium, I decided to take David Swindle up on his call for others to write about books that transformed their lives. For writers, in addition to literature that had great personal impact, books that change the way they approach writing would in my opinion qualify as life-changing.

If you’re a person with two or three books going at all times, it may be hard to pinpoint the life-changers; for this exercise I came up with seven pairs that seemed to fit together, and reflected chronological milestones in my history of literary appreciation.

1. Frankenstein and Dracula

I was obsessed with movie monsters from about the age of nine. When my father brought Shelley’s masterwork home from the library, I dived in, and the galvanizing draw of pop culture (the Universal monsters were experiencing a resurgence in the late fifties) became a gravitation toward the literary arts. The monster as depicted in the novel was much more than a lumbering ghoul—he had human intelligence and a fully-formed soul.

I checked Stoker’s vampire epic out of the library myself, and gathered that for some fiends, soulfulness was not part of the bargain.

2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Of Human Bondage

The only erotic imagery available to me as a youngster was Dad’s Playboy under the mattress. But the monsters had made me a reader, and there was D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover right on the bookshelf. For this story, I became a secret reader. In passage after passage, I was introduced to a sexual positivism that was definitely not included in my strict Catholic upbringing.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s story of erotic and emotional obsession, I identified strongly with Philip’s club foot (the protagonist’s wound), and became acquainted with two useful realities:  there’s no accounting for attraction, and the entanglements of Eros can bond us to destructive choices.

ayn photo

3. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead  

The perfect discovery for early adulthood, Rand’s dynamic duo first got me thinking about government and the ideology inherent in certain political systems. These books were a validation of every bad thing I’d ever learned about collectivism from my staunchly anti-Communist extended family. The antagonists in the books provided an education about how political power could be subtly malign, and how bureaucratic mediocrity thwarts merit, even genius. I didn’t know it in 1970, but the seeds of conservatism were being planted.

Wilhelm Reich photo

4. The Function of the Orgasm and The Primal Scream

I didn’t understand most of Wilhelm Reich’s treatise on Freud’s libido theory, but both this book and Janov’s screamfest were required reading in early seventies Berkeley, California. Reich’s orgone energy has been largely debunked, but the idea that sunlight played a part in human orgasms, and the quality of those orgasms (or lack thereof) could lead to neurosis, was compelling enough to keep a guy turning pages.

John Lennon’s therapy helped put Scream on pop psychology’s hit parade, but Arthur Janov’s promise (also largely debunked if I’m not mistaken) resonated: that a person, once isolated and essentially deprogrammed from the superego, could scream away all the primal shit that life and/or our families had laid on us. My introduction to “self-help.”

The band Tears for Fears immortalized Janov’s work in their hit, “Shout.”

5. The Sportswriter and Angle of Repose

As I matured, I wanted a fictive voice that grabbed me immediately, and never let go. Finding Richard Ford’s debut short story collection Rock Springs made me a Ford fan forever, but it was The Sportswriter that took me into downer Detroit, into a peripheral sense of depression, and delivered a distinctly male perspective on alienation.

Wallace Stegner’s quadriplegic narrator in Angle (the ultimate protag wounding) was probably the first family epic that absorbed me from page one. The book title’s metaphor is multi-layered; the loss of a child in the story inspired me to coin the phrase “Stegnerian tragedy” in my own literary queries.

6. Dear Life and People Like That Are the Only People Here

You pick up a copy of The New Yorker in a dentist’s office and start to read a story.  You don’t quite finish it, and you don’t quite get where it was going, but you’re interested enough to buy a collection by Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro. You appreciate that the writing is stellar, but you finish stories unsure of their meaning, unsure of what truths have been illuminated.

Then you read one and you get it, and then you start getting more of them (you’ll probably never “get” them all) and you realize that you have now embarked upon a journey into the most artful, epiphanic, crystalline form of literature.

In Munro’s “In Sight of the Lake” (from Dear Life), a woman searches for an institution; only in the last paragraph do we learn that she has already found it.

DeLillo photo

7. Libra and White Noise

My loathing for Lee Harvey Oswald was the legacy left by the first major traumatic event occurring outside the orbit of my hometown and family. Reading Don DeLillo’s Libra changed that. I still found Oswald loathsome, but choked down the realization that part of a fiction (or in this case, creative nonfiction) writer’s job is to flesh out perspectives unconsidered by the official version of events, and yes, humanizing monsters in the name of ultimate truth-telling and exploration of the human condition.

Though a DeLillo fan for years, I got around to White Noise relatively late in life. An inexorable toxic cloud makes the plot, and the metaphor, but it was two thematic elements that “put it on the body” for me, changing the way I viewed a past relationship that was probably the most chaotic and meaningful in my life.

Those elements are “people who live with a consuming fear of death,” and “homicidal rage and its effect on the person who experiences it.”

Read it, weep, and move on, transformed.


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