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August 15, 2014

The Book that Changed Your Life

This post was inspired by the wonderful Colin Dexter (author of the “Inspector Morse” series), who wrote recently on a book that changed him.

It’s a terrific topic, though as Dickens Death Scenes go, my floodgates open widest for Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. (I am swayed, in truth, by the play: David Thewlis, as Smike, gave one of the most vivid, harrowing performances I’ve ever seen. It’s on Youtube, but make sure you opt for the Royal Shakespeare Company production.)

If I had to pick the Dickens novel that made the biggest impression on me, though, the nod would go to Our Mutual Friend. Which I’ve never read. I was in college, taking the first of what I imagined would be four years of English classes, but I couldn’t get through the damn thing. This was particularly odd because I had read almost all of Dickens before I was 15: My parents had a handsome set in the living-room bookshelf – tooled leather bindings, lovely yellowing pages, that wonderful Old Book smell – and I spent endless hot, airless summer afternoons greedily reading my way through them. But the minute the book turned from a joy into a requirement, the minute I was expected to spit out lists of themes, analyses of social commentary, papers on “The Role of the River in Dickens’ London”…I became unable to read it. And I suddenly realized, with a certainty that I had rarely experienced, that English classes would ruin reading for me. I dropped that one, faked my way through another on Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and ran like a refugee into the sheltering arms of the Sociology department. PHEW. Dodged that bullet.

Our Mutual Friend, then, directly influenced my course of study. But when it comes to books that influenced my course of thought…two occur to me: The Naked Hamlet, by Joseph Papp; and Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie. The first was another of the books that was knocking around my parents’ living room. It was a published version of the production handbook that Papp kept while creating his groundbreaking (and critically reviled) production of Hamlet, in 1967, starring Martin Sheen. At the time, of course, it was both fashionable and important to question, rip apart, and (maybe) reassemble anything considered iconic. Much of the time, this “deconstruction” was conducted with little more than blunt instruments and a sense of anarchic release, but Papp was meticulous; no detail was too small to be considered, tried, weighed, analyzed. By the time I got ahold of the book, in about 1974, the production was long gone, but this was the first time I had been given access to the process of creating art – to the process of creating anything, really – and it was intoxicating. It told me what I wanted to do. I wanted to create.

I was quite a bit older by the time I landed on Foreign Affairs. Lurie won the Pulitzer for it in 1985, so I would have been in my mid-20s, mired in a depressing, insufficiently successful acting career, and with any number of affairs under my own belt. The affairs were, in their way, rather more depressing than the acting career, because I cared so much less about them. I knew they were supposed to matter, one way or another, but…they didn’t. And I felt rather clueless as to what I was meant to be feeling. There were plenty of books and magazines on hand to teach me about young love, but none of the lessons really resonated.

The one that did, at last, was about people well into middle age. Even more astonishing, they were not particularly attractive. Vinnie Miner is a short, stumpy academic, with a case of self-absorbed resentment so well developed that she imagines it as a grubby, inconvenient dog that insists on following her around. Chuck, a lumbering Midwesterner down on his luck, with vulgar vowels and an even uglier raincoat, is the fool who loves Vinnie. The hallmark of his foolishness is that he somehow fails to see how small she is, insisting on seeing her as bigger-hearted, braver, better than she is. And because he loves her, she becomes the person he believes her to be.

I reread Foreign Affairs every five years or so. It makes me cry and reaffirms my faith in the possibility of change.

What books have changed you?



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