But the main point of this post is to link to j4's post talking about World book day. Lists of Great Books are always easy blog fodder, but j4 has a take on this particular bit of manufactured non-news which is hilariously snarky and makes interesting points at the same time.
j4 ends her post by making a list of books
first read while still in full-time education and which I believe significantly changed the way I think. I can't manage a response at the level of her original post, but I can make lists, and this seems an interesting exercise.
I posted on a similar subject last year, so I'll pick a different set this time round. I'm not sure about picking books that have changed the way I think; to some extent, every book I read changes the way I think, just like all my experiences. As a teenager I made a concerted effort to read through every single title on whatever list of a hundred classics was circulating at the time, and I found some decent stuff that way as well as a lot I might just as well not have bothered with. Also rysmiel suggested in the discussion of j4's post that the list should exclude books that change one's thinking about books, which seems fair enough, but that is the main effect most books have on my thinking.
- Gordon Bourne: Pregnancy
- As a very young child (before I started full-time school), I was slightly obsessed with this fairly serious tome by an obstetrician from the 1970s. My mother used it to teach me the facts of life when she was pregnant with my younger siblings. I had the least possible interest in sex and was never planning to have children of my own, but I was fasincated by the diagrams of the different stages of foetal development.
I loved the concept of a single cell dividing into two and each daughter dividing again to make four cells, then eight, then sixteen and so on until you had a whole baby. And the way the genes told the cells what to do so some would become the placenta and some would become the different parts of the body, and the baby would develop from this shapeless and tiny blob through various stages of tadpole-ness into something that was recognizably the same species as me. I used to demand to be talked through the various stages of foetal development, using Bourne's diagrams, in place of a bedtime story.
This led to my spending most of my childhood trying to find out everything I possibly could about genetics and embryology. I was most aggrieved when I got into secondary school to encounter the reaction that I wasn't supposed to know about that kind of thing yet! But the cell biology obsession stayed with me; I took biology A Level mainly to find out more about chromosome replication, meiosis and mitosis (I didn't much care for traditional whole organism biology and ecology!). And here I am ten years later researching gene expression and the cell cycle professionally.
- LM Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
- My class teacher when I was 10 recommended LM Montgomery to me, and I promptly fell in love with Anne Shirley. The main way the book changed the way I think was the way it talks about passionate friendship, the people Anne calls her kindred spirits. It's a very powerful concept, and there aren't many exemplars in a culture where Romance is everything and friendship is barely mentioned.
My most important relationships fit into Anne's model; that's partly a conscious choice inspired by the book, and partly because it just works for me. The people who matter to me on the deepest level are not necessarily people who have a formal connection or even much in common in terms of personality and interests.
- Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
- Madame Bovary scared the hell out of me, because I can very much see Emma Bovary's tragic flaw in myself. I can be drawn towards the mystical and romantic, and I was worse as a young teenager when I read Madame Bovary. I think my religion is more reasonable for having read and recognized how meaningless Bovary's ecstatic piety is. And I think I'm more sensible about relationships than I might be, if I hadn't read it.
But it also haunts me; I was quite nervous about sexuality and deep emotional attachments anyway at that age, and Madame Bovary made that vague nervousness into a present horror, so I think it has made me more reticent about relationships and commitment and that sort of thing. There's a fair amount of feminist-y stuff which I think feeds into the same fear of being destroyed by investing too much in a bad relationship: de Beauvoir's Les belles images, which was a set-text for A Level (and I read a few of her writings on similar themes, La femme rompue and so on), and Annie Ernaux's La femme gêlée, among others.
- Naomi Wolf: The beauty myth
- Talking of feminist stuff... I really can't remember why I picked this up, it's not the sort of thing I read at all. But I learnt a lot from it. I like Wolf's style, because she presents arguments and evidence and, like the School of Hillel, mentions the opposing view as well as her own. She doesn't try to claim that anyone who disagrees with her must be an agent of the Patriarchy!
So, Wolf exposed for me the workings of the connection between thinness and moral goodness, and other elements of the pressure on women to conform to a certain ideal of appearance. I might otherwise have thought I was indifferent to that kind of thing, since I am not interested in makeup or clothes, and genuinely didn't care if that meant I would never get a boyfriend. But the social and medical implications are quite far-ranging. Wolf did not convert me into a feminist, but she did stop me from trying to lose weight and concentrate on living healthily, and also taught me to be extremely skeptical about the whole diet and "beauty" industry, which I think is a useful defence.
- Forms of Prayer – Days of Awe, eds R Dr Jonathan Magonet, R Lionel Blue and R Hugo Gryn.
- This is the prayer book we use for the High Holy Days. The ordinary Sabbath and daily book has influenced my thinking too, but the Days of Awe book is probably more significant. There's the liturgy itself, as organized and translated by some really wonderful Reform thinkers, and there's also the readings and collected thoughts and poetry from all over the place. It's an ongoing source of information and inspiration and has very much shaped my religious identity.
- Alice Walker: The Color Purple
- The Color Purple deals with some pretty distressing themes, racism, violence and abuse, and packages them accessibly enough that I could bear to read about such unbearable material. Which means that I'm a lot less ignorant about these topics than I would be without reading it. It's also important to me that it has a lesbian relationship without that being the whole point, it's just one more thing that happens in the wider context of the novel. Clearly not the only book in print where this is the case, but I'm pretty certain it's the first I came across. Oh, and on the thinking about books level, it cured me of my prejudice against books written in non-standard English.
- Denis Diderot: Jacques le fataliste
- This is a much more useful popular novel based on philosophy than Sophie's world, though it's not pretending to be a comprehensive survey. It's sort of about determism and free will, but it's also about literature and intertextuality and... yeah, I was supposed to exclude books that changed my thinking about books. I should reread it actually, it's been a while. And Wikipedia tells me that it's based on Tristram Shandy, so maybe I should read that too. The other thing that's memorable about Jacques le fataliste is that it contains what is still my absolute favourite sex scene in all of literature. As such, you might say that it changed my thinking about eroticism.