Aug 12, 2008

The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen

This is a collection of essays by 71 contributors about the book (or books) that had the deepest impact on them. The editors invited contributors from a great variety of backgrounds – fiction and non-fiction writers, historians, scientists, politicians, sportswriters, doctors, literary critics and even a chef. What they all have in common, other than the fact that they all also write, is their passion for books. I wasn’t familiar with most of the contributors, some of the exceptions being Alice Hoffman, Amy Bloom, Anita Diamant, Frank McCourt and Sara Nelson.

It was interesting to see so many different perspectives on books and reading. The contributors are indeed all very different, and this gives the book a lot of variety. It also means that most readers will, like me, react very differently to the different essays in the book. Some I really liked, some left me indifferent, and some I disliked.

I think that my absolute favourite was Elizabeth Berg’s essay on The Catcher in the Rye. She says:
I kept thinking, I didn’t know you could do this! I didn’t know you could write this way! It was so open. So close to the bone. So conversational. Catcher in the Rye showed me you could write “to” someone you’d never met as if you were talking to someone you’d always known. That you could tell a secret publicly and it would still be a secret privately. That you could reveal the most profound emotions in the simplest of language, that in fact it was more effective to do it like that because then the writer got out of the reader’s way. It taught me that the smallest of gestures could reveal all you needed to know about a character. That humour and pain could exist on the page beside each other, if not inside each other.
That simplicity, that poignancy and that sense of intimacy are among the things that make The Catcher in the Rye one of my favourite books. Alice Hoffman says something along the same lines:
The plot itself, the journey of one teenage boy, is less important than the emotion and the unique humanity. Reading a book became an act of intimacy.
I also can’t resist sharing the first paragraph of Kate Atkinson’s essay on Picksongs & Descants by Robert Croover. I haven’t read the book, but I identify with this paragraph fully:
I read my way through a solitary childhood. Books were the bedrock of my emotional and intellectual life, books that prescribed no limit to the imagination, books that were full of resourceful girls, princesses and goatherds and Victorian maidens, not to mention the sand fairies, the talking animals, the scheming stepfamilies, and the handsome men who had been transformed into beasts, both real and metaphorical. Fairy tales, in particular, fed my imagination when it was most hungry—so much peril, so many possibilities!
I've never read anything by Kate Atkinson, but now I really want to. Other favourites include Dorothy Allison’s essay on The Bluest Eyes and her own experience of rejection, Da Chen’s childhood memories of growing up in a small village in China, being perpetually starved for books, and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, Anita Diamant’s explanation of how Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own influenced The Red Tent and Sebastian Junger’s thoughts on Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee.

There are 71 essays in this book, but they’re all pretty short (about 2 pages on average), so this is quite a fast read. Like I said, I didn’t enjoy all of them, and as far as books about books go, I suspect that there are better ones out there. But I still think that The Book That Changed My Life is very much worth reading.

One last passage I loved, this time from the introduction by Roxanne J. Coady:
Reading is a way to live more lives, to experience more worlds, to meet people we care about and want to know more about, to understand others and develop a compassion for what they confront and endure. It is a way to learn how to knit or build a house or solve an equation, a way to be moved to laughter and wonder and to learn how to live.
Other Blog Reviews:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Age 30 - A Year of Books
Rebecca Reads
(Have I missed yours? Leave me the link and I'll add it to this post.)

Question: What is your favourite book about books?
I haven’t read all that many, but I can’t imagine myself enjoying anything more than The Polysyllabic Spree. I’d love to be surprised, though. I’m thinking of compiling a reading list of sorts for next years, so any suggestions would be welcome.


  1. I love the quotes you included.

  2. You're a winner! Stop by here to get the details. :)

  3. This sounds so interesting! I think maybe I've seen it before but I had forgotten about it and will need to put it on my list. I also need to get my hands on the Hornby one as I've heard great things about it as well. I've recently picked up a few Atkinson books and look forward to reading them as well.

    Hope the vacation is going well!

  4. I started to read your post and thought "oh, a book about essays- boring." Then I got to the quotes- wow! I want to read this book now! It sounds wonderful.

  5. Wouldn't it be great to have a book like this in which you could hand pick the authors you wanted to hear from? That would be a delight!

  6. Sounds like a really fun idea for a book. I am glad you enjoyed the Polysyll;abic Spree so much. I will put this on my list of books to look out for.

  7. I, ironically, love to read about reading and writing. Thus, a book full of authors writing about reading sounds like heaven. I appreciate your upfront analysis of the book. I think I'll try and snag this one from the library.
    (Also, I must get The Polysyllabic Spree. Thanks!)

  8. A book about books? Could there be anything better?!

  9. I think I have this one at home and have flipped through it -- definitely interesting and fun to see which ones I've read and what I think of them...

  10. That sounds like fun reading.

  11. Sounds interesting! I'll have to check out this book. Love reading books about books. ;)

  12. This sounds like an interesting read, and I can recommend Kate Atkinson highly. I'd start with her first novel, Behind the scenes at the museum (a family saga) or Case histories (her first crime fiction novel featuring Jackson Brodie- she's just published the third).

    I enjoyed The Polysyllabic Spree and agree that it sets a high standard. Other books about books equally good are The common reader by Virgina Woolf, Lectures on literature by Vladimir Nabakov, all of Anne Fadiman's work (Ex libris, At large and small and as editor, Re-readings)and My reading life by Bob Carr (hard to get if you're not in Australia though. And there are so many more out there!

  13. would take a very special book to say that it changed your life.. that's something one has to be opened to..even if they don't know they are.

    at the moment I think Inkheart is a favorite book about books.. I love the concept that characters from a book could become real or that you could go into the book..

  14. This sounds like a book that would alternately entertain and infuriate me... I'm not sure which I would enjoy more!

  15. I remember this one from Dewey's review, and it does sound like a fun read, but probably not one I'll ever get to. But I am so glad you shared that last quote--"Reading is a way to live more lives..."--in fact, I think I'd love to somehow frame that and hang it by my favorite reading spot!

  16. The excerpts you used make me want to know more about how certain books have influenced authors!

  17. Terri B: I'm glad to hear it :)

    Joy: yay! Thanks so much :)

    Trish: You do need to get your hands on the Hornby book! I really think you'd enjoy it.

    Jeane: To be honest, some of the essays were boring/uninteresting, but definitely not the majority. It was certainly a worthwhile read.

    Carl: It really would!

    Rhinoa: I hope you enjoy this one!

    Jessica: I hope you manage to find this one. And the Polysyllabic Spree.

    Becca: Indeed!

    Daphne: It is particularly interesting to read about books you've read and compare notes with the author, so to speak. And this really is a good book to have around and dip into every now and then.

    Bookfool: It is :)

    Melody: Me too

    Sarah: Thanks for the recommendations!

    Deslily: I really need to get around to reading Inkheart! That's such a cool premise.

    Rob: That's pretty much what it did to me too.

    Debi: I probably wouldn't have picked it up if it wasn't for the fact that I was running out of books to read here and found it at a bookstore...but I'm glad I did. And that's a perfect quote to hang over a favourite reading're giving me ideas :P

    Jenclair: I always find that so interesting to read about. Particularly when an author cites an unexpected influence.

  18. Thanks for leaving me this link - I've added it to my review. I think we're both saying the same things. :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.