Great books have many secrets, both good and bad, that come out only in the reading. This is the nature of the book: in order to understand it, see the treasure or dross within, and develop a true relationship with what’s contained between the covers, you have to read the whole thing. In my own experience, a great book is something that stays with you. It will end up on one of those ship-wrecked-on-an-island lists we see from time to time. It will be kept in a readily accessible place, even if that means it’s not shelved properly in your home library. It demands we come back to it, whether it be for guidance, entertainment, or to remind us what’s possible in times when we’re not feeling up to scratch.
The question that comes to mind when thinking of these books is predictable: Can a book change your life? I think anything resembling an answer to this question will likely have a number of layers. What do we mean by “change your life”? What kind of book are we talking about? Fiction? Non-fiction? Poetry? A personal account is the only way a question like this can be answered, since we don’t all share the same life and have not read the same books (not to mention the fact that it’s a very personal thing to describe one’s relationship to books).
When I was a small child just learning to read, my mother would, due to a complete dearth of local bookstores in rural Newfoundland, create her own books for me. Sometimes these books were filled with pictures she had drawn and coloured of airplanes, boats, robins, or trout captioned by that object’s name, or sometimes they were short stories illustrated to help with my learning. She even kept notebooks filled with words I had learned up to a certain point to help me with spelling. As a child I did not see the value and time my mother put into such things. I have no doubt it is why I read above my grade level all through school.
In primary school I remember a book (but not its name) about a three-legged Scottie terrier named Candy. There was something very sentimental that affected me on an emotional level when I read this book. I’ve since tried to find it without success, but the basic story itself has stayed with me and is one of the most memorable parts of my childhood. There is now a part of me that does not want to read it again; just like watching old cartoons you loved as a child and finding, as an adult, the magic isn’t there the way you remember it, I would not want to ruin the memory of Candy.
In junior high my father, a teacher in a college school in a neighbouring community, would borrow books from the campus library to bring home for me to read. Among the ones I remember best were Doctor Zhivago and an illustrated volume of Roman history. The former was perhaps too steeped in Russian history and social change for me to fully grasp its wonder, but the latter opened up a love of history, especially of the ancients that I still hold today. I remember how strange it was to discuss some of the book’s contents with my friends who had not heard of the Romans, let alone Julius Caesar’s strategy to defeat the Vercingetorix at Alesia. When one is interested in new things one often wishes to share them.
I did not begin writing until I reached university, indeed, until I was nearing the completion of my undergrad. While browsing a bookstore one day I found a, then new, selected poems of Al Pittman, an influential Newfoundland poet. It struck me all of a sudden that good writing could be produced by people living where I lived at around the same time as me. Writing, especially poetry, was not something I associated with Newfoundland (the only Newfoundland poet I knew at the time was E.J. Pratt, who had become more significant in a Canadian context). I bought the book and it began a long journey of poetry reading and, eventually, writing for me. It was at this time I discovered my father’s hidden love of poetry, especially Tennyson and other 19th century poets. Some of the fondest memories I now have of my father is of discussing poetry and writing late into the night.
In the last two years I’ve begun reading Stoic authors and learning about this school of philosophy. At a second-hand book sale a found an edition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, completely by accident, which I read and found fascinating. Written as an exercise in determining his place in the world through an exploration of his own beliefs in Stoicism, the book had an immense effect on me. Ancient philosophy was concerned more with how to live your life as well as possible, not only how, but why (religion had more of an official state role). I’ve come back to this book a couple times already and reread passages that really make me think and question my own spiritual views and I consider this a positive interaction. From Aurelius I moved on to Epictetus, once a slave who would become one of the foremost Stoic philosophers. I highly recommend reading either his Discourses, or the Enchiridion, a handbook or manual for living life effectively.
The ways a book can affect your life are varied and unpredictable. We do not sit down to read and expect a huge impact on our views of life; it’s when you find a book has caused you to change an opinion you had, or entertained you incredibly that you see the value in books. I think great books are connected in some way with transition periods in one’s life, whether big or small, and provide that little extra in experience that makes life the varied journey it is.