A former student, Tracy Lisk, is doing a project for Tom Kinsella’s “Readers, Writers, and Books” class and has asked each of the Lit faculty to tell her about three books that changed their lives. Here is my response:
First, a general disclaimer: Every book I have ever read has changed my life. Cognitive scientists tell us that all experiences, particularly those of reflexive autopoietic activities such as reading, actually affect the way that our brains function on a physiological, molecular level. So the short answer is “all of them.” I should also moan a bit, just as my students moan when I ask them similar questions. It’s easier for me to tell you some of the books that I found enlightening over the course of the past year than it is to look across the span of my life and pick a few particular reading moments. Different books are important to me for different reasons, and there are many of them. Some books, for instance, are important to me not because of their content, but because they were written by friends or mentors or given to me by a person I care about. Other books are important because they shape my understanding of my field. Other books are simply fun to look at, to handle, and to place on my coffee table for the enjoyment of others. Other books have one or two great lines, or I admire their structure, or one of their central conceits. The Great Gatsby, for instance, has a magnificent structure and a great last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. ” Perfect. In spite of that, I’m not sure that it would be on my top 100.
Anyway, enough throat clearing.
1) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I came across this novel in the science fiction section of the Mead Junior High School library, where I would often spend half of my lunch period reading. At the time I was a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, but thought of “literature” as some separate category of book, those taught by teachers, filled with Christ figures and unlikely to be enjoyable. Vonnegut’s novel, which is both science fiction and concerned with the shape of modern history as lived by its neo-allegorical protagonist Billy Pilgrim, a survivor of the bombing of Dresden. This book opened up doors for me. After I read this novel, I had to read everything Vonnegut had written, and soon after I had to read everything written by writers like him. The novel is funny, and serious, and sad, and hopeful. It freely mixes a variety of genres. This book ultimately led to my interest in postmodern fiction, and may well ultimately be the reason why I ended up getting a Ph.D. in Literature.
2) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (any edition)
I’m not a Shakespearean, but Shakespeare is one of the most important authors in my life. I cheated and said his complete works because I don’t want to choose one play. Shakespeare is an author you come back to if for no other reason than that he is unavoidable. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and the Henry plays are retold over and over again in contemporary films. Shakespeare is the most-recycled author. He is worth stealing from. He invented the clichés. Shakespeare has also become a part of my life in the sense that I try to see a Shakespeare play performed at least every other year. If you haven’t been to a Shakespeare festival, and sat on the lawn, and perhaps enjoyed a picnic or a glass of wine while watching the play, you’re missing something. I hope that I will continue to come back to the plays, not only the texts, and not only films, but actual performances, many summer days hence.
3) Ulysses by James Joyce
I read Ulysses three times. The first time I read it on my own, the summer after I graduated from college. I found the experience to be humiliating and the novel incomprehensible. I didn’t read it again until I was in graduate school, when I took a summer course titled “Ulysses.” We read the book twice together, once quickly, and once again in a slower, painstaking fashion. It is the monumental novel of the twentieth century, and it rewards rereading in a way that few other books can. Ulysses is a magnificent technical and artistic achievement. It’s also ultimately a quite hilarious and moving novel about ordinary human life. I hope to reread it again soon.