Every once in a while you’ll pick up a novel and it will completely change your life. Those moments are few and far between, but worth it. As you grow older, they become even rarer. It’s not that I am jaded or set in my ways, but many times I’ve read or heard the idea before.
Here is my list of novels that changed my life and why. Note, I am not saying these are necessarily the best novels ever. In fact two of these novels I no longer even like. (Tastes change, experiences change.) Sometimes a novel comes into your life at exactly the right moment to really affect you.
1. Little House on the Prairie
I know, it’s a pretty pedestrian book to be on a list of life changers, but there is a good reason it belongs at the top of my list.
I can’t remember how old I was when I read it, but I was in elementary school. I was supposed to write a book report, but like most kids that age, I put it off. I told my mom on Friday, “oh by the way I have a book report due on Monday.” I hadn’t so much as decided on a book.
She shoved Little House on the Prairie into my hands and forbade me from leaving the house until I had my report done. By the time the weekend was over I’d read the book, written my report and became a lover of books.
2. The Mists of Avalon
I bought the hardcover of the Mists of Avalon from one of the many book clubs when I was a teenager and it had first came out. I was looking for a good fantasy read, and it was that.
I was also soul searching. I had decided sometime in my teens that I was not a christian. It wasn’t that I had anything against the Lutheran church where I was raised or against religion in general. Nor did I, as many others have, become an atheist or agnostic. I simply wanted something more from religion, an intense personal experience of connection that I couldn’t find in christianity.
The Mists fueled my imagination. Pagan religions, not as a some ancient superstition, but as a deep spiritual path, mesmerized me. It would be several more years and another, nonfiction book, Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler before it became official. But the Mists of Avalon set me on the path to paganism.
3. SlaughterHouse Five
In high school I was a science fiction geek. Oh, I read fantasy, too. That was the extent of it. I strongly resisted the notion that any other genre might be worth a peek. I had a particular disdain for literature.
Some of this was just the age old bias between science fiction fans and literary fans. Literary writers and readers have looked down their noses at genre writers for years. Science fiction writers and readers have looked right back at literary writers with almost the same level of disdain.
It was also, in part, a failing of my education. Perhaps everybodies education suffers in this way. We want to teach great American writers in one semester, so we opt for a short story here, an excerpt there. We want to teach about themes in writing, so we look for the best book about war, or the best book about coming of age.
But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that many of the truly great novels won’t fit into a one semester course on great American writers. The most representative book by a twentieth century American writer might not be the best book of that period.
Educators must make trade offs. They have limited time and a lot to cover. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a short story and boom, Hemingway’s done. Never mind A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises. We don’t have time for novels.
The point being that in high school I was made to read a smattering of the great literary writers, but managed to miss almost all of the works that actually made them great. I read a bunch of representative stories and excerpts that completely failed to convince me that literature was worth my time.
Kurt Vonnegut changed that. Actually a cute guy named Wally changed that, but that’s a slightly more convoluted story. I met him my first semester and he loved literature. I cracked Slaughterhouse Five mostly because he loved it and I wanted another reason to talk to him.
Slaughterhouse Five taught me that literature was worth my time and that literature and science fiction weren’t so far apart.
I went on to read many phenomenal writers and they all affected my worldview, but Vonnegut gets credit for the most life changing experience because he was my entry into literature.
4. Stranger in a Strange Land
I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in the early nineties, after moving to Des Moines, going to nursing school and getting into the local pagan community. The book opened my mind to a new way of looking at relationships, spirituality and what was possible. All at the same time that I was moving in an eclectic new community that embraced many of those same ideas.
Learning the martian language, in the book, gave people super powers. There is an incredible insight buried in that. Words have power. Without the linguistic tools to discuss certain issues or ideas, they remain impossible. Once we start to develop the words, the ideas can be discussed and they can grow.
I was not out about my gender identity for much of my early life. To say I was in the closet isn’t exactly true, nor can I say I was in denial. The closet implies that I knew, but didn’t want to say. Denial implies that I didn’t want to know. The truth is that I simply didn’t have the language to think the issue through. I knew I was not like any of the men I knew. I had more in common with most of the women I knew. But the term transgender was never used growing up. Gender was never clearly distinguished from physical sex, making it very hard for me to describe just how I was different from men or like women.
Stranger in a Strange Land gave me the idea that if I could discover the right words, I could figure this issue out. It began a long and winding process of self discovery. Sadly when I returned to the book years later, I discovered that none of the specific issues that I unraveled were actually in the book. But still, the notion of the notion was there. And that was enough.
I stumbled across a tiny video rental store in Sherman Hills just a few blocks from my apartment. It was early nineties, about the same time I read Stranger in a Strange Land. On a whim I went home with the movie adaptation of Orlando, knowing nothing of the book or Virginia Woolf.
As I have said I was still beyond denial of my gender issues. I was in some vague I-have-these-feelings-I-can’t-put-into-words phase of dealing with my gender.
Imagine my surprise when midway through the novel the male protagonist wakes to find himself a female. My deepest dream, the fantasy I lived over and over without knowing what it meant, was suddenly displayed in front of me. Did others think these thoughts? Could there be words, notions that expressed them?
I had to find the book and read it. It’s since become a favorite of mine. I re-read it recently, post transition. Even now I am struck by Virginia Woolf’s insight into what it’s like to live in more than one gender. I laughed aloud when Orlando, seeing what it’s like on both sides of the gender fence has to fight the urge to run off and become a gypsy. How many times did I feel the same urge through my transition?
So there you have it, five novels that changed my life and why. What novels have changed your life? Why?