This post originally appeared on Murmur.com, a fantastic community-driven site for discussing movies, music, tech, literature and lifestyle. While I encourage you to check out the site and the discussion going on over there, I am re-posting the article here to give the community around Brews + Books a chance to discuss life-changing books.
There is, without a doubt, great power in the written word.
In a broad sense, there are scores of books that have helped to chart the course of human history in a very real way. Be it the Bible or Mein Kampf, The Art of War or The Republic, books have shaped society for centuries. Books, pamphlets and plays have sparked revolutions, toppled empires and challenged the way we look at the world as a people. Old Billy Shakespeare wasn’t kidding around when he wrote that “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.”
The inspiration for this article wasn’t these Revolutionary-with-a-capital-R books, important as they are. No, lately I’ve been thinking more about the power a book has to change a person’s life. Any great piece of art – film, music, painting – has the potential to profoundly impact the consumer. However, in my personal experience, no media strikes me as strongly or as deeply as a book. A well-written or particularly thought-provoking book can stick with me not for hours or day, but for years. One of the exciting things about picking up a highly-recommended book is I never know if it will end up as a major touchstone for me. I’m not confident that I can name a movie or album that changed the way I approach the world, but there are certainly books that have transformed me in subtle and obvious ways.
Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for example, is a book that has had a profound impact on me. While I usually list it as my favorite book, I can’t put a finger on exactly how it changed me. I don’t blame it for a shift in world view, or for causing me to treat people differently. I’m not pulling up all my roots to go to New York, nor am I any more inspired to write comics. Yet I know that it had a very real affect on me. I suppose the best way to describe it is as a book that changed the way I look at literature. When I read now and when I think about what I’ve read before, there’s a clear split between BK (before Kavalier) and AC (after Clay). Kavalier and Clay was and remains one of, if not the, best-written books I’ve read. The masterful plotting, beautiful writing and fully realized themes and characters created a benchmark that I use to judge all the other fiction I read. The book also opened my eyes to “literary” fiction, a genre that I still approach with some apprehension but used to eschew completely. It’s not an overstatement to say that Chabon’s opus changed the way I experience writing.
Despite Malcolm Gladwell’s detractors, The Tipping Point is another book that I’d consider life-changing. The first long-form work by the author, the book puts forth the idea of “tipping points” as moments of change in society, points when “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.” Gladwell deftly explains the agents of these changes, as well as the content and contexts that propel these epidemic ebbs and flows. The book provides plenty of real world examples, and makes a convincing case that tipping points can explain everything from fashion fads to shifts in crime rates. Ever since reading the book, there’s been a paradigm shift in my thinking and everything is a possible tipping point. Although my college experience gave me many lenses through which to look at sociological changes, this book provided the filter I go to first.
As I think about all the classics I read in middle school and high school, the influential books come fast and furious. There were quite a few I didn’t enjoy while I was reading them, but looking back they were seriously important to me. 1984 changed the way I look at war, government and the media. One of the major reasons I studied politics and law was To Kill a Mockingbird, and Eichmann and the Holocaust changed the way I look at law and personal responsibility. One of my favorite plays to this day is Death of a Salesman, and I think of it often when I’m thinking about technology, career and adulthood. With some time and perspective, I can see why these books are such revered classics.