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Books That Changed My Life

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Someone on Twitter asked, “What books have influenced you or made an impact?”

How could any serious reader answer that in 140 characters or fewer?

Influenced me? How? My own writing style? That’s easiest to answer. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, anything by Alain Robbe-Grillet, anything by Chris Bojhalian, James Joyce’s short stories and the last (Molly) section of Ulysses.

Made an impact on me? Not sure what that means. Books you think about over and over? Books you read over and over? I don’t know. There are so many that I’ve read multiple times, for different reasons. Still, I couldn’t answer that in a Tweet. Or two. Or three.

What books irrevocably changed my life?

Ah, now that question I can answer.

When I was about 6 and T.S. Eliot died, the local newspaper ran a front page story about him, complete with picture and excerpt from his epic (and not always very good) The Wasteland. (When authors die today, they’re lucky if they’re mentioned on CNN’s ticker, momentarily, at the bottom of the screen during the morning news.) At 6, I tried to read The Wasteland excerpt myself, but couldn’t get it all, so I asked my mother who the man in the photo was. After she glanced at it, she said, “Some poet.”

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I asked her to read from the poem. She must’ve been in a really good mood that day because she actually did it. I was standing in the living room, looking up at a tiny window near the ceiling where shafts of sunlight poured in, watching the dust dance in the brilliant light, and listening to the most beautiful language I’d ever heard. I thought to myself, “One day, I’m going to write words like that, words that sound like music.”

My path as an author and life-long reader had just been chosen for me, and it began with poetry, specifically with Eliot’s The Wasteland, which you can read here, free, since it is in the Public Domain.

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When I was 8 and discovered Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales changed my life dramatically (this link will take you to the Prologue, free). My parents were always throwing my books away (after hitting me with them) because they thought the books were a waste of time since “women were supposed to get married and have babies so they didn’t need to read.” When I discovered a funny, dirty, interesting book written in English which they couldn’t understand (because it was in Middle English), it was an incredible epiphany.Unknown-8I was sitting at the kitchen table reading “The Miller’s Tale” and giggling hysterically over the arse-kissing part. My mother demanded to know what I was reading that was so funny. I obediently showed it to her. After a few seconds, she shoved the book back, asking, “WTH is this? It ain’t even in English.” I answered, “Old English” (because that’s what I thought it was). Her response, “You know, men don’t like smart girls. You ain’t never gonna get nobody to marry you if you keep reading crap like this.” (Only, being my mother, she didn’t say it quite so politely.)

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Since I was only 8 but already associated “marriage” with “control”, I thought, “Oh, goodie,” and kept on reading (although I did cover my mouth to laugh more quietly). Since she hadn’t found the book offensive, she hadn’t thrown it away. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English was the first book that gave me some power in my life: if my parents couldn’t understand what I was reading, I could read it without punishment. It also began my lifelong love of learning foreign languages: I’d simply read books in languages my parents couldn’t understand. No “crime”, no punishment. Besides the fact that Chaucer’s writing gave me power and increased my love for language(s), I adored all the characters in The Canterbury Tales, especially the Wife of Bath, looking for her 5th or 6th husband while on a “holy” pilgrimage to St. Thomas à Beckett’s burial shrine. What a riot.

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Though I read virtually everything I could get hold of (mostly in secret), the next book that altered my life taught me about espionage and spy-cunning. I was 12 when Zeffirelli’s classic film Romeo and Juliet came out, and, like all the girls my age, I desperately wanted to see it. That wasn’t going to happen: there was nudity in it – OMG! I decided I wanted to do the next best thing. Buy the book. My parents guffawed: “I had to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar once,” said my step- (later adoptive) father, “and couldn’t understand it at all. If I couldn’t understand it, you can’t.” I was actually forbidden to purchase the book, and, furthermore, threatened with bodily harm if I was caught with it.

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That was when I learned to become a spy, an undercover agent, a female James Bond. I cased out my classmates, deciding relatively quickly that my partner-in-crime would most likely be the girl with shoe-polish-dyed-black hair who defiantly wore thick black eye-liner despite constantly getting detention for doing so. She was 2 years older than I, but still in the seventh grade because she’d skipped public school so much, she’d been held back two grades, and then sent to Catholic school after she’d been caught smoking her parents’ stolen cigarettes with a boy behind the family’s garage. Yep, she’d do.

She had an older brother who could drive to the nearest bookstore to buy the book for me. After I laid out my plan, she said she’d ask her brother and get back to me. The next day, in a corner on the playground, while looking in the opposite direction and pretending not to talk to me, she informed me that her brother had agreed but only on the condition that I also pay for his Coca-Cola (which came only in bottles that you had to uncap with metal bottle-openers, and which nobody called “Coke” back then). I was also instructed that I’d have to give her a “gift” for her part in this risky affair. I was specifically told what the “gift” was to be. I agreed to all terms and immediately handed over all my accumulated stash of allowance money (25 cents/week for all household chores, including laundry, cooking, cleaning up, etc.) Oh, by the way, her older brother instructed her to tell me that he got to keep any leftover monies for gas and his time. I had to agree that, since he was the only one with a car, said conditions seemed reasonable.

For over a week, I waited anxiously, worrying constantly that the plot would be discovered, and I’d be tortured into a confession, revealing my accomplices. Finally, one day, Shoe-Polish-Hair-Girl gave me our pre-arranged signal, tapping on her uniform pocket three times, nodding once. How my heart pounded as I watched the classroom clock, how slowly its hands moved until the bell rang for lunch and recess. Outside on the playground, My Girl and I casually passed each other. I dropped one of my mother’s redder-than-red lipsticks (that I’d stolen from her dresser) into my co-conspirator’s coat pocket while she slipped the coveted Romeo and Juliet into mine. I immediately ran the length of the playground, down the steps to the church beside the school (I, too, was sent to Catholic schools, though for a different reason: despite my family’s being Jewish, the schools were supposed to offer “protection” from anti-Semitism). I covertly slipped into one of the confessionals with the contraband book. Even at that age, the irony was obvious to me.

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In the dim silence of that curtained space, I gazed longingly at my treasure for as long as I dared, rapturously and repeatedly kissing the cover — which featured Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in a furtive, soulful embrace — before I began to dismantle the book. I tore off both front and back covers, ripped them to shreds, snuck out of the confessional, and crept around the empty church, depositing the shreds into separate waste-bins. Next I took the book out the opposite side door, away from the school’s playground, dropped it into the dirt, where I then stomped on it, bent it, ripped some of the pages (but carefully, so no words were obscured). I also scraped the spine of the paperback against the rough stone of the church until its print was illegible.

Success. It looked like some raggedy old book without anything to outwardly identify it. I returned to the schoolyard in triumph and immediately began reading. My Girl in the black eye-liner and dark red lipstick nodded once at me in passing. I nodded furtively before returning to my treasure.

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At home, I continued reading. Openly. Defiantly. Because neither my mother nor stepfather could tell what I was reading. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language and with Romeo and Juliet’s story.

Did I understand it all? Of course not: I was 12 years old.

Have I loved Shakespeare ever since? Absolutely.

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His Romeo and Juliet taught me that love was tragic but beautifully written. Sigh. Again, with the beautiful language. Getting hold of Romeo and Juliet also taught me how to become a covert operative in order to deceive my parents so that I could read (almost) as many books as I wanted. It also taught me that, sometimes, the people you can trust most in the world dye their hair black with shoe-polish (until they can afford the real hair dye in a box like my mother used).

Although this first meeting scene is not as touching as the version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, it has a special place in my heart because it was this film which made me want to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the first place.

The love song, played in this video, was a top hit on the radio that year, and I adored the film when I finally got to see it. It’s Romeo’s and Juliet’s first meeting, from Zeferelli’s 1968 film. Since the play is in the Public Domain, you can read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet free of charge.

Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was my next life-changing book. And I  mean the book, not the movie. At fifteen, making plenty of money with all my baby-sitting jobs every night of the week and every single weekend, I’d bought the hardcover copy myself from another student who’d finished it. I removed the cover from the black hardback, and kept the spine lowered whenever I read.

One day, when I was about halfway through the book, my mother hung up the phone with my aunt, marched into the living room, and yanked the book from my hands. I protested vociferously. She claimed that my aunt had just read the book, or part of it, at least, and stopped, horrified by the scene where the satanically possessed daughter masturbates with a crucifix. Did I even know what masturbation was? she demanded loudly. I had to admit that I did not (my dictionary, also forbidden, was hidden under my mattress: I’d have to look the word up later).

My step-father then volunteered himself for the “awful task” of determining if I could finish reading the book I’d bought (though I’d already passed the crucifix-masturbation scene) by “bravely and unselfishly” reading it himself. After three weeks of annoyed but helpless waiting, I learned my sentence. My step-father announced that The Exorcist was, indeed, unfit for me to read. I was outraged. Not only had I bought the book myself but the very man who’d forced me to learn the actions (though not the words) for rape, incest, sodomy, and forced fellatio, was now deciding that I couldn’t read a book. My book. I crossed my arms over my chest, narrowed my eyes, and gave him, as they say, a look that could kill… (It never occurred to me to wonder when or how my parents realized I was reading a book called The Exorcist, I was so outraged by their taking it away.)

Though I’d never had study-halls before (too boring), I suddenly decided that I needed not one but two. The first in the morning and the second during lunch-period (I didn’t eat anyway). Both were granted because I was such a good, well-behaved, obedient student. I immediately purchased a new copy of Blatty’s book from another student and read it during my two study-halls, keeping the novel stored in my locker at school, never taking it home.

(Though we were technically too young to see the film version of Blatty’s novel when it came out, theater managers weren’t as strict as they are now about letting you into R-rated films as long as you looked like you were at least 17 (I was 15): we went with a friend’s older sister, who showed her ID, said she was our sister, too, and that we were all allowed to see the movie. The film version of one of the scenes that my stepfather objected to in the novel, though my parents themselves freely used such obscenities (and worse) was more horrifying that I’d imagined.

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Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist taught me that “a room of one’s own” — despite Virginia Woolf’s insistence — isn’t always sufficient: what one really needs is an off-home hiding/storage area to which no one else has access or keys.

After I turned 16 and purchased a ’68 VW Beetle with over 100,000 miles on it — so I could get to work without paying one of my friends for a ride — that VW’s massive front-end trunk, which locked, became the new “room of my own”- the storage facility for all my books. The keys never left my body, even when I slept. One does what one must to survive. And blossom, even in the intellectual desert that was my family.

Other books have changed my life, and me, but those are a few that I remember most vividly, and which I’ve read (and taught) countless times over the years. Though I do not have the original Romeo and Juliet, having replaced it with The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I do have my first copy of The Canterbury Tales and of The Exorcist. These books are some that are dearest to my heart: not just because of their beautiful writing or their stories, but because they, literally, changed me, my view of life, and my ideas of what I could accomplish if I was determined enough (and it my accomplices-in-crime didn’t confess under torture).

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What books have dramatically and irrevocably changed your life?
How?
I’d really like to know.

Use as many characters as you need.

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