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The novel that changed your life.


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 17 September 2004 - 02:18 PM

Radio 4's Woman's Hour recently commissioned a piece of research about novels that changed the reader’s view of the world. Books that featured high in the survey included Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby, The Rainbow, Anna Karenina and Catch-22. It got me thinking about the first novel that had a major impact on me.

When I was 15 my sister began going out with a new boyfriend. His best friend worked for Pan Books. In an attempt to get in with my mum, he used to bring in a large collection of brand new paperbacks. While at school I had managed to resist the temptation to read novels. I don’t remember my English teachers trying very hard to convince me otherwise. I found the cover of one of these books very tempting. He showed a cool looking individual casually carrying his jacket over his shoulder. The expression on his face was similar to the one employed by James Dean on film posters.

The book was called “The Intruder” by Charles Beaumont. I am not sure it was very well written. But what Beaumont managed to do was to transport me into another world. The book was about a right-wing white man who was touring the Deep South stirring up trouble against school integration. I am not sure what Beaumont’s politics were but I know what impact the book had on me. I had never thought about the idea of black and white people being educated separately. The book encouraged me to go to the library to get a book out on civil rights in America. It was the beginning of my long interest in the history of oppression.

This morning I did a search for details of Charles Beaumont. Apparently it was the only novel he wrote and died of Alzheimer's at the age of 38.

What novel changed your life?

#2 Andy Walker

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Posted 17 September 2004 - 03:25 PM

The two books that did much to shape my political outlook as a student were Orwell's "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" (which motivated to read more Orwell), and Tressell's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists".

I can't say they changed my life but they have certainly influenced my thinking to a large extent.

#3 John Simkin

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Posted 17 September 2004 - 04:05 PM

I did not read Orwell and Tressell until I was 19. They of course had an influence but I don’t think they shaped my personality in the same way as Beaumont’s book. I think it all depends on your age at the time. At 15 and 16 you are more likely to be influenced by the books you read. Other books brought round by my sister’s boyfriend, that had an impact included Ernest Raymond’s ‘We the Accused’ (a novel about capital punishment) and Charles Israel’s ‘The Mark’ (about a man trying to adjust to life after prison). For some reason these three books encouraged me to identify with people in trouble. This was some achievement, up until that time, I severely lacked empathy. In a way, these books humanized me. Maybe, that is the main argument for young people reading novels. Can other art forms play this role? Can teenagers develop empathy playing computer games? What impact does movies play in the development of personality?

#4 Caterina Gasparini

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Posted 18 September 2004 - 12:19 PM

The novel that changed your life: this is really a very good question. I don't think one novel in particular may have changed my life, although I remember Kerouac's 'On the Road', Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye' and most of Orwell's and Lawrence's works with pleasure. I rather think I was influenced by Malcolm X's 'Autobiography' and M. L. King's 'Stride toward freedom', which I read when I was 15 and contributed to some aspects of my personality. I think my 'humanity' started at that time, as I got interested in the problem of civil rights in the US. I managed to read a lot of books on the topic in a few years.

As for John's questions, I believe some movies can influence the development of personality, but not as strongly as books do. I remember my secondary school Italian teacher saying that, when you read, you also have to 'interpret' what you are reading, filling the gaps between the author's words and your own way of understanding them. This depends on your experiences, view of the world, knowledge, personality, etc. I think that when you watch a movie, little is left to your imagination. There are exceptions, of course, like Kubrick's and other great directors' works.

#5 Jean Walker

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Posted 18 September 2004 - 01:00 PM

I am an only child and until I married I had no other family except my parents so I was an avaricious reader. I don't know about "changing" my life but the books that had the most affect on me were in order of reading age: Little Women, Anya Seton's "Katherine" which turned me on to history, Lady Chatterly's Lover, Zola's Nana, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Clockwork Orange, 1984, Animal Farm, Wild Swans. Not sure what that makes me - a romantic socialist perhaps?
I clearly remember being shocked to the core by Clockwork Orange and now I look around and see so much of it has become reality.

I'm afraid I now tend to read light escapism of the P D James, Ruth rendell/Barbara Vine, Peter Robinson variety. Maybe I'll get back to the better stuff in retirement!

#6 Graham Davies

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Posted 18 September 2004 - 03:53 PM

Up until I was about 16 I hardly read anything that was not prescribed by my teachers. I can't say that these novels changed my life, but they certainly changed my thinking as a teenager and raised my political awareness: Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, Huxley's Brave New World.

I studied A-level French and German. The prescribed texts were dreadfully boring, and I would not attempt to read them for pleasure even now as an adult. One left a profound impression on me, however, Camus' La Peste (The Plague).

Now I read mainly light, humorous stuff. I enjoy reading Bill Bryson and Peter McCarthy.

As for movies, the first movie I saw that left a lasting impression on me was Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (released as Stairway to Heaven in the USA), starring David Niven, Maris Goring and Roger Livesey. It's the first movie that I can recall that really exploited the medium rather than just transferring a novel to the screen:
http://www.powell-pr...iews/46_AMOLAD/
I have it on video and I have viewed it at least a dozen times. Other movies that I can watch over and over again include The Third Man, Mr Hulot's Holiday, Citizen Kane, almost anything by Hitchcock, The Shining.

Regarding the Shining, did you know that virtually everything was filmed at Elstree studios? The opening shots show an aerial view of a landscape in Montana and the exterior of the Timberland Lodge in Oregon, and then the rest was shot on sets at the studios. There was only one real location shot, for the scene where Hallorran talks on the phone - at Stansted Airport. See http://www.unrealaud...ealoverlook.htm
Now THAT's real movie-making - fooled us all!

#7 Pauline Crawford

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Posted 19 September 2004 - 01:08 AM

What a great idea. I read some monstrosity called "My Mother's House" in yr 10 at school. We had compulsary books and this was from the free choice section. I can't remember it now, but there was something shocking in it. Perhaps there were bodies under the floorboards, but it was the first "wicked" book I ever read. As I was a voracious reader as a child, I suspect that all the books in the Children's Library in Adelaide had been checked for a body count.

I must admit to being absorbed in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little house" series. That was my first introduction to another family and to...... snow.

Then I read To Kill a Mockingbird by myself at 14. We "studied it" the next year and I hated the dissection, but found more meaning. Catch -22 started me thinking and challenging. But the one that really sticks would be 1984 (which I read well before 1984, and again later.) I see his world around me today. Those shifting borders of detente, and distrust still concern me.

Interesting to think that what we read at 15 and 16 has such an impact. I have "converted" a war mongering 16 yo youth over to the pacifist side this year. He was keen to read spy thrillers and I have funnelled Chomsky and anti war propaganda to him. He's now spearheading an Amnesty International chapter at school. The POWER of words. B)

#8 Jean Walker

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Posted 19 September 2004 - 01:53 AM

Graham
My partner is a journalist and an obsessive film buff and his very, very favourite movie is Mr Hulot's Holiday. So far, in our 10 year relationship, I have been "subjected" to it at least five times!! I thought there could be no one else on the planet who would mention it as a favourite!! (Actually, to be serious, it IS very amusing.)
Last year I showed the newer version of 1984 to my top level all-girls Gr 10 English class and they were stunned by it. There was utter silence throughout and heated debate afterwards. I am hopeful it will remain with them all their lives. I also showed them Animal Farm, Polanski's Macbeth, Zeferelli's Romeo and Juliet , Shine and the new version of Little Women, none of which, I am certain, they would have voluntarily selected at home, and they loved all of them. Us teachers CAN make an impact!

#9 Graham Davies

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Posted 19 September 2004 - 02:02 AM

My partner is a journalist and an obsessive film buff and his very, very favourite movie is Mr Hulot's Holiday. So far, in our 10 year relationship, I have been "subjected" to it at least five times!! I thought there could be no one else on the planet who would mention it as a favourite!! (Actually, to be serious, it IS very amusing.)


I have several Jacques Tati films on cassette and DVD. He was a brilliant comedian and really made the most of the visual medium. There is very little spoken language in his films. His humour hinges a great deal on his awkward physique and mechanical/electrical gadgets going wrong. Often imitated but never surpassed!

#10 Rowena Hopkins

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Posted 29 September 2004 - 06:38 PM

1984 was good, but The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is even better. Its vision of the future is more believable, though extreme, and therefore more horrifying. If you need anything to convince you that mixing religion and politics is a bad idea, then this will do it. This sinking feeling in my stomach became more and more pronounced as I progressed through the book and I had this overwhelming urge to rush out and demand that EVERYONE read it immediately before it was too late.

I also loved Catch 22 not only because of its anti-war message but also because even though it touched the depths and made me aware of how fragile humans can be, its conclusion is so wonderfully positive proving that life changing novels need not be depressing.

I'm a huge reader. Living in Africa for 4 years demands that you find alternative forms of entertainment and at one point I was reading a book a day. This of course is a wonderful thing as had I not been forced to I might never have got back into a habit broken by too many science textbooks and becoming sick of the sight of written words.

I strongly believe that non-fiction should be as well written and gripping as fiction or it can suck the reader right out of you.

Rowena

#11 David G. Healy

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Posted 29 September 2004 - 08:21 PM

Jack London's - White Fang -- Age 10, first book that got me thinking about anything, other than myself. Of course, I didn't realize that at the time.

#12 Guest_Chris Sweeney_*

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Posted 29 September 2004 - 09:34 PM

.............. or it can suck the reader right out of you.Rowena

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


What an apt saying. I have never heard this before. but I like the ghoulish undertones :D

In my case it was not a novel, but a book of poetry. Adrienne Rich's "The Dream of a Common Language". It gave me 'permission' to be what I was but had never come across in the circles in which I had previously moved. My feelings were validated by this text and I went on to read other poems by her; not least her earlier 'Diving into the Wreck'.

Wonderful!

#13 Derek McMillan

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Posted 29 September 2004 - 09:47 PM

If I had to choose one novel it would be The Iron Heel by Jack London. Up until then I had thought vaguely that society would get better, would progress. I assumed people would be "reasoned" into social justice and there was a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism.

But no ruling class has ever given up its privileges without a fight and that usually meant a fight to the finish with no holds barred.

I much preferred The Iron Heel to 1984 btw because although Jack London talked about centuries of tyranny, his ultimate position was less defeatest than Orwell.

Joan London sent a copy of the book to Leon Trotsky when he was in exile. His review of the book is here

#14 John Simkin

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Posted 30 September 2004 - 07:48 AM

I would be very interested to know at what age people read these books. I have this theory that it is the novels that we read as teenagers that really influence our personality. What takes place afterwards is probably only fine tuning.

The other book I read at 15 that had a tremendous impact on me was Orders To Kill by Donald Downes. It is about an American pilot who is grounded after several bombing missions during the Second World War. He is then trained as a secret agent and is sent to Paris to assassinate a lawyer, a member of the French Resistance, who is suspected of colluding with the Nazis. Although he had no difficulty killing hundreds of people with his bombs, he finds the task of killing an individual very difficult. The problem becomes even worse when he meets the lawyer. He now has serious doubts about whether he is indeed a collaborator. However, he follows orders and kills the man. Afterwards he discovers the man is innocent. I later discovered that the book is autobiographical.

I am pretty convinced that this book, plus reading about the activities of Martin Luther King, turned me into a pacifist. Another novel, about a French soldier who become addicted to killing during the Algerian War (afterwards he becomes a mercenary constantly searching for new opportunities to satisfy his cravings), was another factor in this. In both novels, the hero is dehumanised by war.

When I was 19 I read Animal Farm. This was the book that probably had the most impact on my political consciousness. It is usually claimed that the book is about the Russian Revolution. It obviously is, but it is about far more than that. To me it is about all political systems. It is about how virtually all leaders are corrupted by politics. It is as much about Ramsay MacDonald and Tony Blair as it is about Joseph Stalin.

Novels don’t work on the consciousness in isolation. I read Homage to Catalonia soon after Animal Farm. I also read Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Both books reinforced the ideas expressed in Animal Farm. So did Rosa Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution. By this stage autobiographies, biographies and history books were having more of an impact on me than novels.

However, novels were still important to me during this period (not today of course). Albert Camus’ The Plague and The Fall both had an impact (combined with his greatest book, The Myth of Sisyphus). Finally, there was Scott FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby (a great book to read at 19). Along with the work of Camus, this book helped me make sense of life. As Camus points out, despite his predicament, Sisyphus’s life has meaning. One day he might well get that large rock to the top of the mountain. The passionate optimist. It is the only way to be.

To quote Camus:

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

#15 Cormack Kirby

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Posted 30 September 2004 - 08:47 AM

Often the books that moved you as an adolescent can seem as dated or embarrassing as the clothes you so proudly wore at the same time but, for me, the book I read and then instantly re-read and have since returned to still gives pleasure and insight.
It's Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley and it's what I thought University would be like. It was, in part, but the intensity of the search for truth, meaning and pleasure in life of the characters in the text has never been quite equalled in reality. Then I found out the novel was a roman a clef so it opened up for me the works of all the real-life counterparts of the fictional characters. And I never looked back.




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