As a voracious reader and literature-junky, I like to talk about books with people. A lot. I love finding out what others are reading, trading favorite authors, discussing well-loved books. I like to think who I am and how I think and what I do are, in many ways, shaped by what I read. ("I am well-read, therefore I am.")
I just finished a conversation with a good friend about this topic, and I've been mad to blog about it every sense. (The phrasing of being "mad" to do anything being a direct influence from Kerouac, for example.)
I was talking about Erica Jong, one of my favorite writers in a slightly guilty-pleasure sort of way. (Why a female writing about sex, even if it is profound, well-written and moving, should be a "guilty pleasure" is a whole other topic of conversation. Or, if I were more influenced by Ms. Jong, psycho-analysis.)
I went to see Jong speak at the Brookline Booksmith a few months ago, hoping and expecting for some form of transformation and salvation. See, I've been reading her since I was 17, when I first found a battered old copy of "How to Save Your Own Life." In many ways, that book changed my
life (more on this later), and I felt a deep need to tell her this when I saw her. (I'm sure she gets that all the time and is, in fact, sick to death of hearing it. Still, I think if someone has changed your life, you ought to tell them if you get a chance, and I was determined to do so.) For a variety of reasons, her attitude and demeanor not being the least of them, this plan was a flop, and I left feeling incredibly disappointed.
But that's a minor side point. What this whole conversation got me thinking about is what books have literally changed my life. Not influenced my thinking, not made me reconsider my position on issues, not thrilled me or made my life more enjoyable. These things are nice, but not the big prize here...I'm talking about books that have very literally caused me to change my actions, to change the way I live my life, to change the course of my destiny.
Being a literature snob, I instantly want to bring up Blake, whose "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" I thought revolutionary sophomore year of college. I want to bring up Kundera, who made me reconsider my relationship to politics, to power, with sex, with love, with others, through his writings in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
. I want to bring up Faulkner, or Hemingway, or Morrison, writers whose collected works I have generally devoured and who I like to think of as pretty damn influential on...well, something in me, since I've read so much of what they've written. I want to bring up Kushner and Albee, whose plays I have read, watched, and worked on for hours and hours and hours, the lines of which I can still quote in my sleep. I want to bring up Kerouac, who (besides injecting the word "mad" into my vocabulary in a new sense) gave me Dean Moriarty and his yea-saying ways -- a constant reminder and inspiration to say yes to whatever life offers. Or Anais Nin, which I'm reading now, and is affecting me in many ways as Jong did when I was a teenager.
But I can't. As much as I've loved these writings, pondered and analyzed these words, and absorbed these concepts into my thinking, I can't honestly claim that any have changed my life
To my mind, two books have: Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life
and Rob Sangster's The Traveller's Toolkit
. Sort of an embarrassing list, actually, but these are the ones.
I picked up Jong at 17, and I read about sex and relationships in a way I never had before. I think this was one of those second wave feminism books that came out in the 1960's and 70's, words that revolutionized and scandalized readers by talking about female orgasms (gasp!) and sex before marriage (double gasp!) and even multiple partners and lesbian affairs and all the rest (can't-breath-i'm-gasping-so-much). I wasn't terribly scandalized by any of this (well, maybe at the age of 17, I was a little scandalized by the orgies.) But I was intrigued and amazed by Jong's frankness when it came to relationships -- and, in particular, the way sex did and did not relate to love. Perhaps most of all it was her entirely rule-breaking, totally nonjudgmental, experiential-based approach to sex and love that resonated the most with me. I hadn't read Kerouac yet, but Jong was a yea-sayer, too.
I won't get into too many sordid details here, but I will say that I am positive that being exposed to Jong's philosophy of living changed my life.
Book number two I picked up at a used bookstore in Washington DC. (Right next to Eastern Market...and if you are ever there, I highly recommend a visit. The shopkeeper makes a point of insulting everyone that comes into the door...it's really quite a sight to watch. ) They had a great selection of used travel books, and I picked up a whole collection of late 90's Lonely Planet guides to all sorts of cool places in the world. I was planning my Watson fellowship application at the time (for those of you who haven't heard of it, it's a program that allows you to travel around the world working on a special project of your design. Fucking awesome, and I didn't get it. But things work out, regardless.) I had originally been dead set on doing the Europe thing...until I picked up this book by Rob Sangster. It's basically a how-to book for first time travelers, although I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of planning a long trip, especially to less developed countries, even if they've traveled before.
Sangster made going to third world (sorry to be less than PC, "less developed" is just such an awkward phrase to use) countries seem accessible, doable, and far more fascinating than anything I could see in Europe. He took the fear factor out of it. His book opened me up to the possibility of going to places a little more off the beaten trail...leading me, eventually, to plan a six month backpacking trip all on my own through India, Thailand and Japan. He not only convinced me that I could do it, but that I had
to do it.
And his philosophy of travel -- seeking out adventures, traveling cheaply so as to get to know the culture, but not so cheaply that you ended up miserable, being flexible and able to roll with the punches, focusing the trip on meeting people and learning the culture rather than seeing specific sights, not losing sight of the bigger picture whenever the traveling got frustrating and rough, and being a responsible traveler -- became my philosophy of travel. I not only chose my destination and made my trip happen because of what he had to say, but I had a far more enjoyable and successful trip because I had read his book.
So there it is -- sex and travel. The true impact of literature on my life!
I'm still trying to come up with other books that make the cut, but those are what I have thus far. I'd love to hear from others, though...post and tell me what books have truly changed your life. I'm betting it will be a fascinating list.