Books That Change Your Way of Thinking
Consider for a few moments all the books you’ve read in your entire life. Have them all in mind? I didn’t think so. But if you’re like me, a few high spots will be indelibly recorded in a mental list. Some of these have entertained you, some have gotten you through a tough period, some have taught you lessons, and some have been pivotal in changing your way of thinking. These kind of books set us off down a different road and get us thinking in entirely different paradigms. What is it about those books that have that kind of power to affect us so dramatically, perhaps for a lifetime? Is it just timing, or particular preference? Or could there be something lasting and unique in these kinds of books, these kind of authors?
The reason I ask these questions is to get us thinking about what makes a great book great. This is an important question, not only as we think about developing our own writing skills, but also, in considering this, we can enhance and broaden our appreciation of reading in general.
To try to illustrate this, I’m going to give you a brief account of a book, actually a novella, that markedly changed my thinking and certainly influenced some aspects of my life in profound ways.
The story I read as a Junior in High School was The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy. Written in 1886, it was the first major work published by Tolstoy after a tumultuous period of depression and angst in the author's life, eventually culminating in a life-changing conversion. Tolstoy had struggled with finding meaning in his life, and looked at the simple faith of the Russian peasants as a model for his own spiritual odyssey. He incorporated many themes into Ilych from his experiences during this period.
Perhaps this is why I was so attracted to the work. I had been on a similar path of disillusionment on many fronts, and was primed, so to speak, to let Tolstoy’s words radically affect my own understanding of myself as well as my own journey of faith.
The Death of Ivan Ilych deals with the struggle for meaning and purpose in life. Ivan Ilych Golovin is a respected judge whose life displays a paragon of “rightness.” One day, Ilych discovers a pain in his abdomen which inevitably turns out to be terminal cancer. He cannot reconcile the fact that a “good man,” who lived a proper, moral life, should have to die a meaningless death. His family skirts the issues of death and offers no comfort or illumination. Only his peasant servant, Gerasim, has the sensitivity to speak into his life. Gerasim shows Ilych how he really was not living authentically, and through his empathy and insight, helps Ilych face death with dignity and triumph.
The book has strong themes. At sixteen, it made think of the fragility and brevity of life. It made me question just what is the “right life.” It no doubt led to my own spiritual quest and ultimate conversion. As well, the contradictions which I saw in my cultural milieu in the mid-Sixties, the rise of materialism and concomitant lack of stewardship for the environment, inequalities in civil liberties and other seething social issues of that period all provided a context to work out my newly found ardor in tangible ways.
After reading Ilych I set out to learn more about Tolstoy. I read other works by the great master. I even went to a play at our Seattle Playhouse, by Tolstoy. I found that I identified so strongly with Ilych because I shared many of the feelings and struggles that he had experienced, and brought into his writing.
Of course, I am not alone in this. But it occurs to me that one aspect of a great piece of writing is to bring out that shared experience in a powerful and provocative way, and in such a manner as to teach something new, some truth cast in a different light, that suddenly seems so apparent.
I would love to hear about your life-changing books. What examples in literature have deeply affected your way of thinking? Can you think of specific ways that you’ve changed as a direct result?
Written by Edward Nudelman, Books Correspondent for POETRY CENTRAL