I thought I’d throw the following topic out: Recently I was talking to a friend and he posed the question to me, “which books would you say have changed your life?”
Of course this is the type of question that requires a lot of thought and is impossible to answer adequately on the spot. So I thought I’d turn it into a blog entry instead. Ideally I would hope to inspire other people to think and write in with their list as well, but if I end up all alone on this one, then at the very least this will have kept me occupied for the afternoon.
Book 1: “The Trojan War” By Olivia Coolidge. When I was in 6th grade I was at my cousins’ house, and they had several picture books on Greek Myths on loan from the library. They encouraged me to read the book on Troy, but I was more interested in Hercules. After all, how interesting could Troy be? Even at that age I was familiar enough with pop culture references to know the war ended with the Trojan Horse. What else could there be to the story?
So I never did read the book on Troy, but it began to bug me afterwards. Why did my cousins’ like that story so much? What did I miss?
My school library had a copy of “The Trojan War” by Olivia Coolidge, and when I stumbled upon it I was impressed by how thick it was. My cousins only had a small picture book about Troy. Could there be enough story to fill up a thick book like this? Now I was really curious. I checked the book out and started reading it.
Of course I soon discovered that there was much more to the story of “The Trojan War” than just the Trojan Horse. I was fascinated with all the stories of heroes and gods fighting side by side on the battlefield.
I thought that because Olivia Coolidge’s book was so thick, it would teach me everything about the Trojan War. But I soon discovered that Coolidge’s book was only a summary, and that there were volumes upon volumes written about the Trojan War by Greek, Roman and Medieval authors. I tried to read everything I could about the Trojan War. As a 7th grade boy, I was at the perfect age to enjoy all the gory battle stories in “The Iliad.” Other books like “The Aeneid” and “The Odyssey” were somewhat slower going, but I struggled through them.
Eventually my interests spread from The Trojan War to Greek and Roman Mythology in general, and then to Greek and Roman History. For many years I was convinced I wanted to become a classical scholar. This interested faded out halfway into my second year of Calvin, when I decided my interests had moved on to more contemporary history. But even though I ultimately gave up on the classics, the interest still had the following effects on my life:
1. For a good six year period almost all of my leisure reading was in someway connected to classical history or classical mythology.
2. My decision to take Latin in High School and College instead of something more useful like Spanish or Japanese. Actually since the idea of going to Japan didn’t occur to me until my last year at Calvin, I probably still wouldn’t have studied Japanese. I would probably have taken Spanish. And every now and again, even in Japan, I do sometimes realize that I am at a disadvantage for not knowing Spanish. Like, in a previous blog post, when Tom was able to cut me out of the conversation by switching into Spanish. At that moment I realized that my current linguistic disadvantage was a direct result of my having studied Latin over Spanish.
3. My decision to attend Calvin College was partly based on the strength of their Classics program. Of course being from Grand Rapids Christian, I may well have ended up at Calvin eventually anyway. But then again, you never know, I may not have. And then who knows how different my life would have ended up?
4. Staying the extra year at Calvin was partly because of switching majors halfway through. Again, maybe this is stretching things a little because everyone switches majors, and if I hadn’t switched from Classics to History, I would probably have switched from something to something else. Or than again I might not have. And then that 5th year at Calvin, and everything that happened in it, is again a result of this book.
5. Strange as it may sound a lot of my politics were formed by reading about classical history. This was especially true around 11th and 12th grade when I was reading a lot about the last 100 years of the Roman Republic, and the rise of Julius Caesar.
Of course the obvious lesson from this period is that republics have a way of turning into empires very easily. All governments are human institutions and are not eternal. The Roman republic lasted for 500 years before becoming an empire. We sometimes think that because our republic has lasted for 200 years, we have created the best system of government ever invented and nothing could ever destroy it.
It is always the natural ambition of those in power to seek more power. It was true in the roman republic and it is true today, and we need to be very careful about our elected officials.
But aside from the whole “collapse of the republic” theme, I found the intense class warfare of the late republic almost more interesting. For example, the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers and the intense opposition of the patrician class to these reforms.
This made me realize that all governments always exists for the benefit of those in power, and that the poor are always being screwed over by the rich. It’s a theme that was true in the Roman days and has been consistent all throughout history.
I started to think about how American history will look to historians from 2000 years in the future. I decided I wanted to be on the “right side” of history, and be on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
Book 2: “A Tale of Two Cities” Charles Dickens
I guess when I talk about the changes in my life resulting from previous book, “The Trojan War”, I’m referring not so much to the one book itself as to all the books I read during this period, and just identifying “The Trojan War” as the one that sparked it all.
In the same way, “A Tale of Two Cities” didn’t really change my life by itself so much as it just opened the way for a new interest.
I’ve re-read the book several times, but when I was in 12th grade I was doing it for a book report. The depiction of the French Revolution fascinated me, and I thought for the first time that perhaps I might be more interested in recent history than I was in the classics. It was a couple years later before I finally decided to switch over, and it certainly was not the result of this book alone, but it was one of the first sparks. Otherwise who knows? Maybe I’d still be studying the classics right now, in graduate school or something.
Book 3: “The Manufacture of Consent” Noam Chomsky
Unlike the previous books, it is hard with this book to point to so many concrete examples of my physical life being changed. But as far as my mental thought processes or the way I look at the world, I can’t think of any book that affected me as much as this one.
I was in my fourth year of Calvin and doing a research paper on Nicaragua during the 1980s. As part of the research I was interviewing a Calvin professor who had spent time in Nicaragua during the period and written articles on the subject for “Christianity Today”. Near the end of our talk, he said something to me like, “Have you read any Noam Chomsky?”
Given my politics, I should probably have come across this name earlier than I did, but even at age 21 I still had no clue who Chomsky was. The professor told me that Chomsky had written a lot of interesting things about Nicaragua, and that I would definitely want to check his writings out.
I went to the library and checked out what I could find. It absolutely blew my mind. Although “Manufacture of Consent” is the book that sticks out in my mind the most, any book by Chomsky is quite shocking to someone who is not familiar with his work.
As a result of reading Chomksy, I’ve certainly become a lot more critical of the information I find in the mainstream news. Also my decision to get involved with independent media groups, like “Media Mouse” was largely motivated by Chomsky.
Books 4: “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells.
As with Chomsky, this entry is more of an author than a single book. In addition to “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine”, I also read and enjoyed “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, “The Invisible Man” and “In the Days of the Comet” by H.G. Wells.
I was already leaning towards science fiction before I discovered H.G. Wells, but after reading his books I started calling myself a science fiction fan without any embarrassment. The end result was hours and hours of wasted time watching science fiction movies on TV, and reading pulp science fiction paperbacks. Also for a long time I incorporated science fiction themes into everything I wrote, (such as the “Fabulae” story I wrote in 9th grade.)
Also H.G. Wells was my first exposure to socialist ideology. In particular his (somewhat heavy handed) socialist novel/manifesto “In the Days of the Comet”, which I read in 8th grade. At the time I had no idea what socialism was, and the story largely confused me. Yet it stuck out in my mind and for a long time afterwards I remembered his depiction of a socialist utopia.
Well, that’s my list. At least that’s my list as it appears to me at the moment. I’m sure I’ll think of another book as soon as I post this, but these are all the “life-changing” books I can think of at the moment. If anyone cares to take me up on this challenge, I’d be curious to see your list.