Books that Changed Me.

This weekend one of my grandsons got married; he and his bride both love books (as a wedding present I gave them my prized near-incunabulum), and they designed their wedding accordingly — there was an arch of books, table assignments were found in a card catalogue, and tables were named after books (the head table was, delightfully, The Fellowship of the Ring). My wife and I bitterly regretted not being there, but we were just too nervous about the delta variant, both of us being aged and one of us being immunocompromised. At any rate, it got me thinking about the role books have played in my life, and I thought I’d make a list of some that have changed its direction.

In childhood:

Young Readers Science Fiction Stories, by Richard M. Elam
This is, in a sense, a ringer, in that I don’t actually remember reading it, in contrast to those that follow. But it was given to me (by my beloved Aunt Bettie, who supported me in so much) when I was six, so I can’t have had much exposure to sf before it, and it’s very clear from the condition of the book (e.g., endpapers covered with pencil drawings of rockets and buildings) that I read it assiduously and with pleasure, so it makes sense to assume it was my introduction to the world of science fiction, which made up the bulk of my reading for pleasure until I went to college and which is surely responsible for a significant part of how I see the world. From an adult point of view, it’s a pretty terrible book, but if you’re curious, it’s available in full at Project Gutenberg.

The Story of Language, by Mario Pei
As Ben Zimmer once said, Pei is “not always the most reliable source when it comes to language-related information,” but he’s a very lively writer and got a lot of young folks interested in language, including me. (It took me years to eradicate some of the errors he wedged into my developing brain.)

High school:

The World of Mathematics (4 vol.), by James R. Newman (LibraryThing).
The book that made me want to be a mathematician, leading to my brief career as a math major in college. (A tip of the hat to Gödel’s Proof by Newman and Ernest Nagel; it didn’t change my life, but it absolutely blew my mind when I read it in college, and I still recommend it to people.)

Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov.
Between them, they expanded my idea of what a novel could be and what life could hold; you might say they taught me how to read.

Linguistics and Your Language, by Robert A. Hall, Jr. (LibraryThing).
The book that introduced me to the scientific study of language and led eventually to my brief career as a linguist. I still recommend it to people.


Selected Poems, by Ezra Pound (LibraryThing).
Selected Poems, by Hugh MacDiarmid (LibraryThing).
Between them, they taught me what modern poetry was and set me on a lifetime of exploration. (Before I discovered Pound, I thought poetry was written in stanzas by dead people.)

Roots of the Western Tradition: A Short History of the Ancient World, by C Warren Hollister (LibraryThing).
I’m sure a great deal of it is thoroughly out of date, but Hollister’s lively writing and confident blend of history, geography, and culture gave me a lifelong interest in world history. (Plus he introduced me to Archilochus, one of my favorite poets; I’ve never forgotten his translation of the famous shield poem, which I quoted here.)

Russian for Beginners, by Charles Duff and Dmitri Makaroff (LibraryThing).
The book from which I taught myself Russian. Little did I know how far what I thought was a passing fancy would take me.

Patterns of Anarchy: A Collection of Writings on the Anarchist Tradition, edited by Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry (LibraryThing).
Made me an anarchist (in the tradition of Kropotkin, not Bakunin).

Grad school:

The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth (Amazon).
The book that made me want to be a poet (I spent a couple of years in the late 1970s writing poetry pretty much every day); I still, doubtless sentimentally, think of it as the best poetry anthology ever compiled.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by Robert M Pirsig (LibraryThing).
I know a lot of people sneer at this foray into pop philosophy, wildly popular for a while in the late 1970s, but I don’t care — it gripped me and made me think and I reread it and annotated it and it helped me make the decision to leave grad school. (Oddly, it was recommended to me by my dissertation director, Warren Cowgill, who liked it because he was from Missoula, Montana; I think he was disconcerted to see how strongly I reacted to it.)

After grad school:

Стихотворения, by Osip Mandelshtam (LibraryThing). I had been pestering the manager of the late lamented Viktor Kamkin Books in Manhattan to get this for me (I saw a copy there, wanted it, but foolishly postponed the purchase, and next time I went it had been snapped up by someone else); when I finally bought it, I devoured it, memorizing poem after poem and starting to try my hand at translating him. This was my introduction to modern Russian poetry, and I still think it’s some of the best poetry of the 20th century. I’ve since gotten a four-volume Collected Works (LibraryThing), which is what I usually consult, but that compact selection will always have a special place in my heart.

I’m probably forgetting others with an equal claim to be mentioned here, but this is long enough already. Without these books, I have no idea who I’d be today.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Many in my case too, but to pick one of the less obvious ones (though perhaps not so much to Hatters), Wright’s Grammar of the Gothic Language, which I discovered in the local library when I was fourteen; which taught me that historical comparative linguistics existed and was fascinating, which led me to discover that scientific descriptive linguistics existed and was fascinating.

    (I suspect that this ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny introduction to modern linguistics subsequently protected me from Chomskyan perversions, too. Once you’ve seen what rigour really looks like in linguistics …)

  2. Yes, Bloomfield’s Language gave me a similar vaccination.

  3. just scifi:

    Alfred Bester, Demolished Man
    James Blish, Cities in Flight
    Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze
    PKD, Man in the High Castle, Clans of the Alphane Moons
    Henry Kuttner, Chessboard Planet, Call Him Demon
    Frank Robinson, The Power
    Cordwainer Smith, Game of Rat and Dragon
    Theodore Sturgeon, Man Who Lost the Sea… `nuff said?

  4. PS: should have included

    Jack Vance, Languages of Pao

  5. I came across this book, I think more or less by accident, when I was teenager, and remember finding it enjoyable and enlightening. I liked learning languages and learning about languages, but I had no idea what a person who studied languages might do, so I went for a more practical degree in physics. This was in England in the early 70s, when there was, as now, an official enthusiasm for STEM subjects, as we didn’t call them back then. And language learning was certainly not included.

  6. John Emerson says

    Carruth’s anthology introduced me to half a dozen or more poets I’d never heard of and really changed my view of American poetry.

  7. John Emerson says

    The most unexpected book I read when I was young was Herodotus, which to me was just fun.

  8. Carruth’s anthology introduced me to half a dozen or more poets I’d never heard of and really changed my view of American poetry.

    Same here. The only bad thing about it is he hardly included any of his own poems, so it took me years to discover how good he was.

  9. As I appear to have said in a comment thread a dozen years ago: “it seems to me that any unsophisticated public library with one or more titles by Mario Pei was at one point required by convention to stock a copy of the Loom of Language.” Your list lacks the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, of which I was quite fond in my earliest period of literacy. Perhaps you are enough older than I am that by the time it was published you were no longer its ideal reader?

  10. The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs was apparently first published in 1960, so I could perfectly well have read and enjoyed it, but the dino book I remember is All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews.

  11. Did you read The Enormous Egg as a kid?

  12. Nope, don’t remember it at all.

  13. Highly recommended and fun.

  14. I read the gospels when I was 9 for a cub scout badge, and they were bracing. I have no idea whether it was the content or the expectation, though its worth noting we were Unitarian, in one of the hold a seder/learn about random Hindu gods* congregations, so there wasn’t much familial pressure that way at all. I’ve never been truly Christian, but the sense of self-sacrifice has always seemed powerful and valuable. Vividly remember a few days later running downstairs long after bedtime to beg forgiveness for a grievous 9-year old’s sin that had been keeping me sleepless, to the bewilderment of my parents and grandparents who were drinking and playing bridge.

    That and Sandburg’s Lincoln, which again may have impacted me less for the content than for reading it with my tall bearded father shortly after we moved to Springfield, literally on Lincoln St., probably when I was 8, and twice since. The book is certainly part of what brought me to my career administering elections.

    Mary Sandoz’s Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglala was also formative for me. More recently, I attended a lecture by the Native American novelist James Welch, who insisted, plausibly, that one should get away from reading Anglo versions of native history and culture. When I asked about Sandoz, he stuck to his guns, but you could see he was conflicted.**

    As an adult I would say that Stuart Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods gave me a different understanding of the city where I lived. And Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World did the same for the natural world around me.

    * Not implying that the gods of Hinduism are random, but that our Unitarian version of the pantheon was.

    ** Never thought about it this way, but that’s three formative books about men assassinated for their beliefs.

  15. Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy by Roger Lancelyn Green. Much later I discovered that he was one of the Inklings, when I came to know who those were.

    The Moomin books I found very enchanting, and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (yes, the same person the film Sirens is about).

    The Hobbit and LotR. I even sent a fan letter to JRR Tolkien and he sent me a very nice answer.

    We had Language for Everybody by Mario Pei in the house, and in high school I won a copy of The Loom of Language as a prize. I had a look at it a few months ago, and it still seemed worth reading.

    I read a lot when I was young, and it’s hard to single out particular books. However, the one that really had the greatest influence on the direction of my life was an Algol language manual that my mother rescued from being tossed and brought home for me, so at the impressionable age of 17 I was introduced to the concept of context-free grammars, which just seemed like the most mind-blowing idea. That set me on the path, and a few years later it was IBM System/360 Principles of Operation, and then my influential books got more and more technical. Although at the same time in my life I was reading Pynchon and the Beats.

    People kept telling me to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I didn’t get around to it until a while after its peak popularity. It did probably play a role in getting me to buy a Triumph TR-3 and work on it myself. And that led to the realization that, while there are some things that I may have a knack for, auto mechanics is not one of them.

  16. January First-of-May says

    The most unexpected book I read when I was young was Herodotus, which to me was just fun.

    Coincidentally, my brother had stumbled on my old university printouts of Herodotus when he was four; he also found it fun, and it seems to have started (or, at least, fueled) his interest in history.

  17. The Concept Of Mind, Gilbert Ryle
    College Geometry: An Introduction to the Modern Geometry of the Triangle and the Circle, Nathan Altshiller-Court
    [nine-point circle ! Desargue’s theorem ! area of triangle in terms of the lengths of the sides ! exercises galore !] [“modern” means from the 16C on, but the triangle area formula supposedly goes back to Heron of Alexandria]

    Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
    The Language of Morals, R.M. Hare

  18. January First-of-May says

    College Geometry: An Introduction to the Modern Geometry of the Triangle and the Circle

    Sounds intriguing!

    My own introduction to math (and its awesomeness) was, probably but not certainly in order, Viktor Bobrov’s Volshebny Dvurog (not sure how to translate that title into English – “Magical Bicorn”?), Yakov Perelman’s Algebra for Entertainment, Vladimir Lyovshin’s Nulik Morekhod (even less sure how to translate that title than Bobrov’s – “Zero the Mariner”?), and the good old Graham-Knuth-Patashnik Concrete Mathematics. (All in Russian, obviously.)

    There were probably a few more books involved that I can’t name offhand (and at least one that I can name offhand, and remember fondly, but had never been able to find even so much as a picture of again despite some frequent googling, so I’m not sure what it actually was about).

  19. There probably were many childrens’ books that I don’t even remember that influenced me. My interest in history was fueled by old history text books of my parents, and their old geography text books plus the adventure books of Karl May and the Diercke Weltatlas got me interested in travelling and led to my nomadic lifestyle. Schwab’s Sagen des klassischen Altertums was the reason I chose Latin over French in 7th grade. There were more history books that influenced me – C. W. Ceram’s Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte and Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico (in German translation) made me want to become an archaeologist for a while. Then I read Fischer-Fabian’s Die ersten Deutschen, a popular science book about the Germanic peoples, where I first learnt about the Indo-European language family, which led to me studying linguistics.
    I’m from a social democrat family background, and I assume that did more for my basic political positions than any individual book, but two authors still stand out in influencing my specific views, Kurt Tucholsky and George Orwell. Both more through essays than any single work.
    Almost all of the books that influenced me I read during my boyhood and adolescence; plus some Orwell in the early university years. There were books in later periods that I liked and learnt from, and I fell in love with new (to me) authors after that period, but I couldn’t name any book that changed me after that period.

  20. There probably were many childrens’ books that I don’t even remember that influenced me.

    I left those out, since they did not so much change me as lay the groundwork for change.

    The Oz books, Frank L. Baum
    Junior Classics
    The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books

  21. I read the gospels when I was 9 for a cub scout badge, and they were bracing

    Yes, I probably should have mentioned the Bible, and specifically the gospels, which I studied in Sunday school for years and memorized bits of; even though I lost my religion (as they say) shortly after being confirmed in the Lutheran church (thanks to my Norwegian-American mother; my father was a Southern Baptist but, as is traditional for males, left the religious stuff to my mom), it gave me an ethical grounding that has in many respects stuck with me.

    I should probably also have mentioned William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I read at far too young an age (13, maybe?) and which gave me a lifelong horror of both war and anti-Semitism.

  22. Captain’s log, supplemental: 6th grade (~ 1956) reading list (partial)

    Bear elective 3a (Cub Scout manual) : crystal radio

    Encyclopedia Britannica:
    Leiden jar, Hertzian waves, 2nd order linear differential eqns (1 variable)
    primate sexuality

    A Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity (public library)

    Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

  23. I never read The Enormous Egg, but on visits to Washington, DC, as a child (when my grandparents lived in Alexandria) I used to climb on a triceratops statue in front of the Natural History Museum. I later discovered that that statue played the dinosaur Uncle Beazley in a movie made from the book, despite having no moving parts. It has since been moved to the National Zoo, so is about a mile from me at the moment. Kids have not been allowed to climb on it in many decades, presumably because of fear of lawsuits; even while it was still on the Mall a fence was built around it.

  24. Top of the pops: From forever: the Bible. High school: Pei. College: Lord of the Rings. Grad school: The Recognitions, Rayuela. After grad school: the Aegypt tetralogy. And I’m glad to see you invoke Patterns of Anarchy.

  25. It’s funny, I read Lord of the Rings and loved it, just as I loved Simon and Garfunkel and the Pachelbel canon and Joplin rags and other touchstones of my generation, but it wasn’t formative for me the way it was for so many — I enjoyed it and moved on, feeling no need to go down the rabbit hole of the Silmarillion or study the invented languages and their backstories.

  26. Junior high

    LoTR was definitely the book that sent me off on a language track. I had been interested in languages even earlier – started teaching myself German when I was 9, but reading the appendixes in Return of the King set off a spark. I started trying to figure out Sindarin and Quenyan, which led to curiosity about Welsh and Finnish (neither of which I have actually learned to this day).

    Watership Down – made up foreign languages and myths, political allegory and Anglophilia – all in one book.

    The New Yorker 25th Anniversary Album 1925-1950 probably warped my world view (“I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it”). Originally belonged to my grandparents, and this volume is still lying around at my mother’s house (sadly the 35th anniversary album seems to have vanished). It certainly is an anthropologist’s dream into the mores and attitudes of a vanished America.

    High school

    Il deserto dei Tartari by Dino Buzzati. This is the first novel I read in Italian, at age 14. A great novel for precocious adolescents – the Kafkaesque story of a soldier wasting his life away in anticipation of an attack that never comes. Drogo’s almost unquestioning obedience to a static, subtly merciless and faceless bureaucracy probably also encouraged my interest in the history of the Habsburg Empire.

    Steppenwolf I went on a Hesse jag in high school, this one is the only one I really remember. Somehow encouraged me to keep learning German.

    I, Claudius and Claudius, the God – far better than Game of Thrones for treachery, intrigue and power.

  27. warped my world view

    That reminds me that I should mention the MAD Magazine anthologies of the 1950s (Inside Mad, The Brothers Mad, The Bedside Mad, etc.), which had a similar effect on me, God bless them. Potrzebie!

  28. As I have no doubt said before, the three books most responsible for my becoming a linguistics major (which is not to say there aren’t others that were more formative of my overall personality and/or worldview) were:

    1. The language-dense appendices to The Return of the King, as referenced above (first read circa 7th grade)
    2. The “Indo-European roots” appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary (I think 8th grade); and
    3. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (first semester sophomore year of college), which convinced me NOT to be a philosophy major and thus to go with Plan B instead.

  29. Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

    I share a hometown with Grace. I have never read the book though. Nor is it much discussed in my hometown (we certainly never read it in school). Peyton Place is for us what “Sound of Music” is for Austrians. Does it hold up? Do people still read it?

  30. @Vanya: I have no idea; I’d forgotten about the book until this thread came around. This

    seems like a reasonable review, but its penultimate sentence [ `Maybe Metalious thought this stuff was romantic and liberating.’] seems pretty dubious to me.

  31. John Emerson says

    When I was 16 I edited Peyton Place down to its 12 porniest pages, allowing busy readers to skip the abundant tare. “Her nipples were like diamonds”. “Her panties slipped off as though they were several sizes too large”.

    “Afterwards…..” — Stendhal used that dodge and gave a philosophical rationale for it.

  32. John Emerson says

    50s MAD was the best.

  33. Yes, like “Peanuts” it went downhill after the ’50s, at first slowly and then rapidly.

  34. I have the first three volumes of The Complete Mad Magazine (I stupidly bought them one at a time instead of getting the set, and by the time I went for Vol. 4 it was sold out).

  35. I have a hard time thinking of any specific books that “changed me”, because all of them did. But cartoons (including Mad and Addams) have been pretty influential on me in the long run, more than any book of pure words. Cartoons are magic.

  36. @Y: Walt Kelly! At his best, a remarkably witty and erudite guy. His politics went over my head when I was a kid in the South, and today he might well be cancellable for his use of dialect (eg pickaninny?) but (as far as I could tell at the time) he was the Dante Alighieri of a kind of common poor-white/african-american koin\’e.

  37. Yes, Walt Kelly indeed. I didn’t understand a lot of Pogo, but he was almost as formative as Mad. (Walt Kelly at LH: 2004, 2005.)

  38. I don’t know about “changed”, but the children’s book that made the most impression on me was was Janusz Korczak’s Kajtuś Czarodziej, in Hebrew translation; it was also translated into English as Kaytek the Wizard, and into other languages. It’s thrilling and convincing, but also dark, dark, dark, and not just because I knew about its author’s unspeakably tragic fate (Korczak ran an orphanage, and refused to abandon his 200 wards when they were taken to Treblinka, despite several offers.) It reads like no other story of any genre that I’ve ever read, and affects me now as much as it did when I was 10 or so. Next to it, those other recent books about a boy wizard look positively fluffy.

  39. Well, now I want to read it.

  40. About the English translation of Kajtuś Czarodziej, the WiPe says:

    # The book contains some gaps, including one of the chapters, which were sections that were crossed out because they were too frightening to children. #

    The plot summary there makes the English version sound completely trivial.

    There’s a cute sentence under “reception” that not only characterizes propriety as a kind of fashion, but implies that changes in fashion are contributions to progress:

    # Dunin notes the book’s outdated attitudes to issues of gender and race.[5] #

    It’s all in the notion of “outdated”. “New, improved formula!”

  41. Haven’t read this yet, but it seems promising:

    the European Handbook of Central Asian Studies: History, Politics and Societies

    (free access)

  42. First niggle: Улица Романовского /Romanovski Street isn’t Romanov Street.

  43. Walt Kelly was a very talented artist and a brilliant manipulator of the English language. His far-fetched parodies of Christmas carols, Stephen Foster and Kipling, among others, were unequalled. And he did not shy from venturing into linguistic territory, such is what is the correct form of the verb to describe having an octopus on your head. And his analysis of the repercussions of the International Geophysical Year being 18 months long was inspired. (Who knew that G.O. Phyzzists were “Grand Old Phyzzists”?)

    Many people probably don’t know that he coined the environmentalist slogan “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (A parody of Perry’s message in the War of 1812.)

    All this in addition to spot-on biting political satire.

    I suppose younger people going back to read it now would perceive the political material as being ancient history. I didn’t read the strips from the 1950s until much later, for which I thank an old girlfriend who was a big Pogo fan. But at least I was aware of the politics of that time.

    Unfortunately Walt Kelly died at only 60 years old. I sometimes think “Imagine what he could have done with Ronald Reagan”.

    … Perhaps to try to atone for making me throw out all my copies of Mad magazine when I was a child, years later my parents gave me Good Days and Mad by Dick DiBartolo, an account of what it was like to work at Mad in the classic years. Fascinating and hilarious.

    1961! Last upside-down year until 6009!

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Last upside-down year until 6009!

    We’re coming up to a pair of twin-prime years, though, in 2027/2029. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see 2081/2083 unless I take up jogging, which would be a step too far.

  45. Stu: I haven’t seen the English translation. I don’t like the idea of bowdlerizing books, but the translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is well-regarded, and the reviews I have seen (especially negative reviews) suggest the book has not lost its power.

    There’s a Russian translation, too (“Кайтусь-чародей”).

  46. David Marjanović says

    1961! Last upside-down year


  47. The book contains some gaps, including one of the chapters, which were sections that were crossed out because they were too frightening to children.

    OK, I’ll read the Russian translation. It’s good to be multilingual!

  48. January First-of-May says

    Last upside-down year

    In some fonts 200↊ (that’s U+218A TURNED DIGIT TWO) can look like 2002 or (less commonly) 2007. There shouldn’t be any others until at least 2112, though.

    (That said, in 2017 I enjoyed writing the year number as 2Ф↊ [or similar] – upside-down reversible, but not actually legible as the number without context.)

  49. 1961! Last upside-down year until 6009!

    I made use of these upside-downable numbers in birthday cards I made a couple of years ago for some friends I knew at art college when they were 19 and still know nowadays. As they each turned 61 I did them a flippable card with a single two-digit number in the middle and photos of them at 19 and 61 as appropriate to the orientation. (It would have been perfect if we had all been born in 1961 and I was planning this for next year).

  50. I just ran across a list I made for a FB quiz in 2014 (showed up on my memories) which will expand on what I said above:

    The Bible is not on the list. It didn’t so much change my early life as infuse it. The fifteen:
    1. Francis Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
    2. A.S. Neill, Summerhill
    3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
    4. William Blake, writings
    5. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (same message, honest).
    6. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances
    7. Hartley Burr Alexander, The World’s Rim
    8. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion; The Phenomenon of Life; The Imperative of Responsibility
    9. Norman O. Brown, Life against Death; Love’s Body; Closing Time
    10. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil
    11. William Gaddis, The Recognitions
    12. Julio Cortazar, Rayuela (Hopscotch)
    13. Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House and The Unsettling of America; Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild and Earth House Hold
    14. John Fekete, The Structural Allegory
    15. John Crowley, the Aegypt quartet.

  51. PlasticPaddy says

    Do female authors not set out to change people or was our reading/education biased (not trolling, just musing)?

  52. Of course our reading/education was biased; that point had occurred to me as well. Today’s kids will grow up with a very different list, and their lives will have been changed by a lot of women writers.

  53. Mind you, I’ve loved the writings of a lot of women (from Sappho to George Eliot to Virginia Woolf to Marina Tsvetaeva to Zadie Smith), but I can’t say that any of them changed me the way the books I listed did. Feminist writings certainly did, but no one book stands out.

  54. FH Burnett lives!

  55. Now that I think of it, I should have listed The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the Kerner Commission Report, both of which opened my eyes to the racial situation of the US the year I entered college (1968).

  56. Rodger C’s list reminds me of two lacunae in mine:

    6.Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances

    9. Norman O. Brown, Life against Death; Love’s Body [; Closing Time (don’t know about this one, ed.)]

    I even hitchhiked to Santa Cruz to meet “Nobby”. The only other time I went anywhere and did anything was to see a James Brown concert in Jackson, Miss. I only just now notice that both were Browns.

    I got over those changes, though. All I remember is that me and my then-current boyfriend were the only two white people in the audience.

  57. You saw James Brown live?!

    *is jealous*

  58. It was fab. I also saw Dylan in concert in Austin (in a campus auditorium, I think it was). But I was already at UT so I didn’t have to leave town.

  59. January First-of-May says

    Mind you, I’ve loved the writings of a lot of women […], but I can’t say that any of them changed me the way the books I listed did.

    I think I might be in a similar situation: I quite enjoyed the works of Irina Tokmakova, Maria Romanushko, and Anna Korostelyova (and probably others I don’t recall offhand; EDIT: Zinken Hopp, Nora Gal…), but I’m not convinced if any of them changed me.

    …On further thought, two that might qualify are Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi and Karlsson fame) and Sonya Shatalova.
    (To a large extent, Sonya was my introduction to “hey, anyone could write good poetry, even if they’re younger than you are”. Unfortunately (?) she also indirectly convinced me that I suck at writing, because her writing, both of poetry and prose variety, was so extremely good [especially for her age] that any attempts by me paled in comparison.)
    (OTOH, she doesn’t quite qualify as a book that changed my life, because IIRC at the time her writing circulated in printouts, and/or as part of large collections, rather than in individual books. By the time they bothered to make a book of her collected writing, I was also included, and the sheer disparity in skill was, at least to me, particularly obvious. I suppose that might have been the book, but using books that featured my own works is kind of cheating…)

  60. David Marjanović says

    David Lambert (1983): A Field Guide to Dinosaurs

    It’s not remotely a field guide. Amazingly, the German translation (1988), which I read (Christmas 1989), has a more accurate title: Alles über die Dinosaurier.

    It briefly presents every genus of dinosaur that was known in 1983. That taught me that this information is accessible, rather than being arcane and only revealed to wider circles one or two at a time.

    Other than that, there’s Carl Sagan’s Science as a Candle in the Dark (also in German translation), which took a few fears from me. I think that’s it. My personality is so stable that I doubt it’s been changed much.

    (Often I see a Languagehat thread for the first time in 5 or 10 years, want to comment on something, and find I already made that exact comment at the time.)

  61. A different favorite is Chris McGowan’s Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones. I still have the book, and once actually got part-way through the project.

  62. 1. Rodger C.’s list reminds me of a seminar I took my last semester as an undergradute (spring 1987) whose formal title I don’t remember but it was more or less “The Sixties As An Episode In Pop-Intellectual/Philosophical History,” which consisted largely of reading books that had been very popular among people much like ourselves back when Rodger C and hat et al had been the age we were and trying to reconstruct the lost worldview those books suggested. Even those students most sympathetic to an inherited and romanticized understanding of the whole Sixties Thing found both Marcuse and Norman O. Brown pretty alien and baffling (ditto Charles Reich of “Greening of America” infamy).

    2. Books you read early enough in childhood may not quite seem life-changing because they are sensibility-forming and you may not clearly recall the “before” well enough to have a before-versus-after contrast. But if we’re looking for female authors, Beatrix Potter was there for me. I read a bunch of Serious Feminist Theory authors later on, maybe around 10th grade. The one that sticks out most clearly just as an exemplar of a certain over-the-top rhetorical style is Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, but there were a few others (can’t recall titles at present) that were probably more illuminating as to substance.

  63. Separately, the separate mentions of female writers and Nobel-laureate Bob Dylan makes me recall a possibly relevant passage from his interminably long (even longer than Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands!) 1997 “Highlands,” viz.

    [Verse 13]
    I said, “Oh, kind Miss, it most certainly does”
    She says, “You must be jokin’,” I say, “I wish I was”
    Then she says, “You don’t read women authors, do you?”
    At least that’s what I think I hear her say
    “Well,” I say, “how would you know? And what would it matter anyway?”

    [Verse 14]
    “Well,” she says, “you just don’t seem like you do”
    I said, “You’re way wrong”
    She says, “Which ones have you read then?” I say, “I read Erica Jong!”
    She goes away for a minute
    And I slide up out of my chair
    I step outside back to the busy street but nobody’s going anywhere

    I probably first read Erica Jong circa 1981ish, by which point the world had shifted sufficiently that it was difficult to understand what all the fuss had been about. I do think her 18th-century picaresque-pastiche “Fanny” is underappreciated in comparison to her more notorious work.

  64. I found Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and Charles Reich alien and baffling myself!

  65. Didn’t like Hesse either.

  66. And yet the college-town beatnik Hesse-enthusiasts of the earlyish Sixties have had the last laugh, what with a college-town baby of that era (Berkeley, 1964) named after a Hesse character having grown up to become Vice-President of the United States.

  67. Didn’t like Hesse either.
    I read some books by him because I had friends who found him inspiring, but my reaction was basically “meh”. Probably because I was neither mad at my elders nor angsty as a teenager.

  68. David Marjanović: Often I see a Languagehat thread for the first time in 5 or 10 years, want to comment on something, and find I already made that exact comment at the time.)

    Thie often happens to me too, but I usually feel that I wrote much better at the time than I could now.

  69. >Do female authors not set out to change people or was our reading/education biased (not trolling, just musing)?

    I accept the point but do want to mention that my list included a woman, and one who took a groundbreaking approach to her subject, Mari Sandoz.

  70. David Marjanović says

    I usually feel that I wrote much better at the time than I could now.

    That happens to me, too; in particular, it sometimes turns out I’ve forgotten something pretty important!

    I read some books by him because I had friends who found him inspiring, but my reaction was basically “meh”.

    Oh, that reminds me, I read Siddharta once, expecting it to be a historical novel about the Buddha. I got more and more disappointed as I approached the end, and remember nothing else about the book.

    I grew up surrounded by the assumption that teenagers rebelling against their parents in particular and their elders in general was a basic ethological fact about Homo sapiens. It annoyed me to no end, because it’s so obviously a historical fact about the 1960s instead. I never had a generation conflict, and there wasn’t any going on around me either.

    Didn’t have teenage angst either, but that’s more obviously a matter of individual variation.

  71. It annoyed me to no end, because it’s so obviously a historical fact about the 1960s instead.

    To be fair, it was also a historical fact about the 1860s.

  72. David Marjanović says


    I wrote “Siddhartha” first, then figured it looked hypercorrect… it’s not.

    To be fair, it was also a historical fact about the 1860s.

    Interesting. That could explain a few things, but I’ve never noticed. Could you elaborate?

  73. Quote wikipedia: “Siddharta is a five-piece Slovenian alternative rock band formed in 1995. They are named after the 1922 novel by the German writer Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha.” So whether you keep that hypercorrect-looking “h” depends on context. Portuguese reportedly strips it down to “Sidarta.”

  74. Interesting. That could explain a few things, but I’ve never noticed. Could you elaborate?

    I was actually thinking of Russia (naturally); see the brief discussion here. Turgenev and Dostoevsky were both obsessed with the revolt of the шестидесятники (‘people of the ’60s’) against the vague, sanctimonious liberalism of their parents (the people of the 1840s). But I have a feeling there was a similar generational revolt in various European countries in the mid-19th century.

  75. January First-of-May says

    I usually feel that I wrote much better at the time than I could now.

    For me it’s usually either that, or the old comment is in much the same words as what I wanted to write in the new response. But every so often it turned out that I actually (also) wanted to mention an important detail that didn’t come up in the original comment, so I did post a new one after all; one example that immediately comes to mind is the bailiff of Highcastle.

  76. Portuguese reportedly strips it down to “Sidarta.”

    Whereas Russian turns it into the downright Caucasian-sounding Сиддхартха [Siddkhartkha].

  77. @David Marjanović: I thought that one of the most brilliant things about Siddhartha is the (never explicitly stated) revelation that the folklore we have today about the supposed Buddha is actually an amalgam of stories about at least two different people. In the novel, we only get Siddhartha’s story, but it is implied that Gautama’s life story would be just as interesting. The key recurring character of Govinda represents the beginning of the syncretism that combines the ideas of both men to create the religion of Buddhism.

  78. I have fond memories of The World of Mathematics. It got lost somehow in one of our many moves, but bits of it are still with me; last year I found myself recounting the biography of Gauss to my son while putting him to sleep, decades after I had last read it. Definitely also endorse The Loom of Language, which I found a bit later – the author’s opinionatedness just makes it more memorable. The Demon-Haunted World left me cold, but Cosmos shaped my childhood dreams as much as any other book. (And nightmares, come to think of it: the idea of the sun going nova was kind of scary at that age.)

    I guess my list of direction-changing books would have to include:
    The Lord of the Rings (yes, I too got into linguistics partly by obsessing over its appendices; I also suspect it helped incline me towards hiking)
    A Manual for Articulatory Phonetics – I must have been 9 or 10 when I found a copy of this among my mother’s books, and promptly started going about the house trying to pronounce various exotic phonemes based solely on the descriptions. Before long I was writing my diary entries in IPA. Good thing I had tolerant parents.
    Euclid’s Elements some geometry textbook with a forgettable title, offering a user-friendly presentation of Euclid. Combined with a couple of weeks of tutoring before I started at a new school when I was 11, it allowed me to understand the appeal of maths for the first time, and race ahead from a rather slow start.
    – Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics – I bought it with school prize money when I was 18, I think, and it’s shaped my whole approach to linguistics, even if I can see a few issues looking back.
    Ablaut and Ambiguity – the first book I ever saw proposing an acute and carefully argued analysis of North African Arabic as a system in its own right, after hearing all my life that it had no rules.

    “Life-changing” somehow seems like a much higher bar for fiction and poetry (“You must change your life”) than for non-fiction. Discovering T. S. Eliot felt like a revelation, but it didn’t exactly change my life – just my reading preferences. I think Go Set A Watchman does pass that bar for me, though. A lot of the works I liked best when I was younger were ones that evoke nostalgic pre-exilic memories, including To Kill A Mockingbird. (Speak, Memory! does much the same for me, if you prefer a more high-brow example; so, disturbingly enough, does The Fifth Head of Cerberus.) Go Set A Watchman is as good a cure for such nostalgia as one could wish for; it doesn’t negate it, but it does put it into its proper place.

  79. January First-of-May says

    shaped my childhood dreams

    Now that I think about that option, I should probably add another female author that I probably wouldn’t have thought of otherwise: Carol Donner, the author of The Magic Anatomy Book (Тайны анатомии [“Mysteries of anatomy”] in the unaccountably far more popular Russian edition, which was the one I had), which introduced me to the wonders of endosomatophilia, and to a large extent shaped my teenage fantasies.

    (I’ve read a few other books with similar plots – the prototypical example is Fantastic Voyage, though I hadn’t read that one until much later – but this was one of the first, and probably the most influential.)

  80. I note for the first time that in 2014 I misspelled Frances Hodgson Burnett’s name. This made the subsequent adversion to female absence puzzling to me. But are there really English-speaking former children who never heard of her?

  81. I think she’s a UK thing. I certainly never heard of her as a child, and am only vaguely aware of her as an adult.

  82. FHB’s `Secret Garden’ and `A Little Princess’ are on my wife’s list of significant books. I didn’t know till now that FHB wrote `Little Lord Fauntleroy’ (which I don’t know anybody who’s read (it)) .

  83. I think a lot of Americans read The Secret Garden, but fewer read A Little Princess. (I’m not even sure if I finished A Little Princess myself; most of my memories are of a British television version that I saw before I even started the book.)

  84. I read Fauntleroy (in translation) as a kid and even then found it ridiculously goopy.

  85. quoting Y back at Hosenscheiser and Heularsch:

    `If the story is true about Malinowski, it might be a good illustration of how much anthropologists missed by not working with women.’

    see also eg Jane Eyre ? [as for guy stories, I just recalled E E Smith’s Lensman series…]

  86. Wait, so you’re saying E.E. Smith is *not* a female author a la S.E. Hinton or E.L. Konigsburg?

  87. Re Kaytek the Wizard far up the thread: just to clear the name of the fabulous Antonia Lloyd-Jones, I gather from other reviews that the book was unfinished and the crossings-out referred to on that Wiki page were the author’s. And that there are copious translator’s notes, so I doubt there’s any bowdlerizing going on.

    If I had to narrow my own titles down to one, it would have to be the Penguin Book of Women Poets that I got for Christmas when I was about nine. Outstanding anthology, and probably the book I’ve reread more than any other. When I was on a terrible high school year abroad it was all I had in English aside from a Bible my grandma had given me. And when I moved abroad permanently in my early twenties, I again had only those two English books at first plus Ulysses (since I figured that way I’d finally get through it).

  88. Penguin Book of Women Poets

    Yes, that’s a terrific anthology.

  89. I read the Ladybird easy-reading version of The Elves and the Shoemaker and it remains my favourite fairy story, because there are no villains.

    A twenty-year-old edition of the Children’s Britannica inherited from older cousins may have done me more harm than good. We had an uptodate Encyclopaedia Britannica rendered inert by that horrible micropaedia/macropaedia division.

    Chambers’ Twentieth-Century Dictionary is far superior to Chambers’ Twenty-first Century Dictionary.

    Then, I dunno, Primo Levi, maybe? I guess books only ever change me at the margin. The best lack all conviction, which makes me the best. My inability to do any close reading is a fault for which I blame… let’s go with, school.

  90. I read Fauntleroy (in translation) as a kid and even then found it ridiculously goopy.

    Somewhere between accidentally and in an endeavour to close my gaps of knowledge of popular culture, I finally ended up watching the movie last Christmas (the Jack Gold adaptation – that movie is one of the Christmas staples on German TV). I agree on the goopiness – sometimes it’s actually cringeworthy. But what surprised me was that it has the look and feel of something from the 50s or 60s (think Mary Poppins) while it actually was shot in 1980.

  91. We had an uptodate Encyclopaedia Britannica rendered inert by that horrible micropaedia/macropaedia division.

    Ah yes, the Britannica! We had, I believe, the 1964 edition, and I sure loved it (especially the two-volume multilingual dictionary that came with it); I don’t know if it changed my life, but I spent a lot of time with it, and it certainly added to my knowledge. And I agree that the Macropædia/Micropædia thing was ill-advised; the 15th edition came out when I was in grad school, and I was horrified to see what they’d done. It saddens but doesn’t surprise me to learn that “The 2010 version of the 15th edition, which spans 32 volumes and 32,640 pages, was the last printed edition”; actually, it surprises me they put one out as late as that.

  92. John Emerson says

    One book I can add is Kipling’s “Just So Storiies”. Kipling was an imperialist and racist but this book didn’t come off that way to me then. It just made me curious about the world out there beyond the lakes and marshes of my flat homeland.

    I think that kids are more aware than we think that children’s books ar not about real people.

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve long maintained that Kipling is seriously underrated as a literary artist, on account of the fact that his political opinions now only appeal to the sort of people incapable of truly appreciating any kind of art at all (like our own dear Shapeshifting Creep and his galère.)

    “The Female of the Species” (for a spectacularly egregious example) is a terrific poem. It is easily the best poem opposing women’s suffrage that I know of.

    Kipling was undoubtedly racist in our terms; but it was a complicated sort of racism, with seeds of something better deep within it. He would most certainly have been an advocate of diversity.

    Also, the “Just So Stories” are plain wonderful, Best Beloved. Do you see?

  94. I agree with all of that, and I cock a snook at the current piety which claims that the value of art depends entirely on the virtue of the creator.

  95. I think I completely agree with you in some way. It’s just that “the value of art” can be taken to mean something objective, and then of course it doesn’t matter who created it; or it can be the sum total of people’s reactions to it, and then it does. It’s completely subjective the way I used to love seeing/reading/hearing something, but cannot do so now because my stomach turns at the thought of its creator, but that’s how it is, for better or worse. The California Missions exist as rare and beautiful examples of Spanish architecture, and as the heart-wrenching sites of cruel concentration camps. Neither sentiment can be denied.

  96. Sure, I’m not saying one can or should ignore vile behavior, just that it’s possible to hold two different things in one’s mind at the same time — this is a splendid poem, and it was created by a nasty man — and that it is in fact necessary to do so if one claims to take art seriously. If I lived in a society where everyone was all art-for-art’s-sake and no one cared about what evil the artist may have done, I’d be rubbing their nose in the artist’s behavior, but since the problem is the reverse, so is my pushback.

  97. Kipling certainly recognized the moral ambiguity of colonialism, having seen it first hand in India; and his racism was of a cultural bent, not based on a belief in the inherent biological superiority of Western peoples. he was eloquent in expressing his viewpoint, even though that viewpoint was sometimes rebarbative.

  98. I read a lot of Kipling and other books of his era as a kid (we read a lot of old books.) The message I got about black and brown people was not that they were inferior or to be feared, but that they were unbelievably exotic. To me an Uncle Sambo caricature was about the same as a caricature of space aliens. Of course my excuse was that I really did not encounter any such people, and Kipling had.
    There were a lot of Karl May books around, but I did not read those, fortunately. They did not appeal to me.

  99. David Marjanović says

    I read a lot of them (still less than half, but that man was very productive). They’re very engagingly written in the sense that it’s easy to read the 400 pages cover-to-cover in one sitting. The fact that the first-person narrator presents himself as a perfect hero takes a while to become annoying – and it also took me a while to pick up on the fact that all of the books are fiction; other than the improbability of the stories themselves, most of the books contain no hint of that whatsoever (…and indeed there’s evidence May came to believe some of his fantasies long before his career was over).

    Actually, I remember the first thing I found in a May book that I knew was wrong: a passage where the hero falls asleep, has a long dream, wakes up, looks at the clock, and sees he had had that whole dream in a few minutes, if not seconds. That’s a widespread myth. Dreams really can last for an hour or more. The only way to dream in fast-forward is to skip scenes.

  100. I grew up with May as well. The goody-two-shoes nature of his narrator-hero can be annoying to an adult, but as a boy, I wanted to be like him. His belief in the general moral and spiritual superiority of Christianity can be annoying as well, but at least it’s non-denominational and he actually demands from Christians to live their faith and do good, not just to proclaim the superiority of their faith to the natives*). And, for a man of his times, he has little racism, and his stories have non-white protagonists that are equals or even superior to whites.
    Another thing that looks quaint in our times of endless gore and brutality on the screen, is the low level of violence – more fist fights than firefights, and May’s hero has a policy of shooting to disarm or temporarily neutralise his opponents, but never to kill. Deaths are significant, often tragic events, not stations on a way to a high-score.
    *) And while religion plays a role often enough that it’s noticable, most of his books are clear, fun adventure; otherwise they wouldn’t have become so popular.

  101. I should have included the 1960 Britannica as one of my formative “books.” I still have it, and I can, without looking at it, recite “A to Anno, Annu to Baltic, … Vase to Zygo.”

    Karl May I met first, in the original, as a soldier in the Panama Canal Zone library. (I don’t mean I was stationed in the library. That would have been nice.)

    I agree that Kipling has his virtues. I was introduced to him in a bright-covered trade paperback my mother brought me titled Kipling’s Adventure Stories. It was (and is–I still have it too) nothing of the sort; a ripoff company had photo-reprinted an old anthology that was definitely not for kids. It expanded my horizons.

  102. Allan from Iowa says

    I read some of Mario Pei’s books when I was young. In spite of whatever problems they had, they taught me that you need more than a handful of similar words to conclude that a pair of languages are related. This immunized me against the claims of Charles Berlitz or much later Merritt Ruhlen.

  103. January First-of-May says

    That’s a widespread myth. Dreams really can last for an hour or more. The only way to dream in fast-forward is to skip scenes.

    The possibly-mythical part is “long dream”; I’ve personally had multiple cases of dreams where I could later verify that they only took a few minutes because they happened when I fell asleep again after the alarm.

    And it’s actually quite nontrivial to tell how long a dream is (even after waking up; obviously much harder from within it), so it’s probably easy for such (surely fairly common) scenarios to get misunderstood.

    Naturally it doesn’t help that skipping scenes within a dream isn’t exactly unlikely either…

  104. David Marjanović says

    fist fights

    Lots of them, but they’re very short, because one hit of the hero’s fist to any villain’s temple immediately renders the villain unconscious. As effective as the Vulcan nerve grip, but faster.

    I’ve personally had multiple cases of dreams where I could later verify that they only took a few minutes because they happened when I fell asleep again after the alarm.

    Dreams can indeed start immediately after falling asleep. Or during falling asleep – there seem to be people who can’t fall asleep until they’ve managed to completely stop thinking, but I can fall asleep while thinking; what I’m thinking turns into a dream.

  105. In your case, are they distinct from hypnagogic hallucinations?

    Those happen to me. I don’t think I ever have hypnopompic ones, but I mention them because it’s one of my favorite words. Along with its cousin, psychpomp.

  106. John Cowan says

    Well, a lot of these books and authors have done a lot for me, so I thought instead of following up or trying to list my own names (I would surely have remembered some of them only after the edit window closed), I’d instead list my Life-Changlng female writers instead. In no particular order:

    Madeleine L’Engle (the Mushroom Planet and Wales as a child, the rest in my forties)

    Wilmar Shiras, the first four T. Paul stories, as I didn’t find the fifth until several decades later; I too was “b c 59” and “י ק לג לנלי”, (though not an orphan)

    Harper Lee

    Ursula K. LeGuin

    Virginia Woolf (only Orlando, but that was The Thing for me that year)

    Louisa May Alcott

    Molly Ivins

    Peg Bracken

    Margaret Mead

    Marianne Cowan (qua translator of Nietzsche)

    I’m sure there are more, but I’ve been parked on this post for days.

  107. David Eddyshaw says

    “Books that have changed the actual direction of my life” is a pretty high bar. I can think of a great many books that I am very glad to have read (by women and men) and which have helped me to understand life better, but none that I could really say made me actually change direction. That was all people, not books. Not even the Bible* (for all that I am a foaming fundamentalist hardcore Calvinist.) Some of the people recommended books, to be sure … but to say that the books changed my life would be putting the cart before the horse.

    * I dare say it’s possible that a casual reader who chanced across the Bible with absolutely no expectations or preconceptions might become a fervent Bible-believing Christian as a consequence, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the phenomenon in real life. Teicht do Róim …

  108. @John Cowan: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (and its sequels) were written by Eleanor Cameron, not Madeleine L’Engle.

    @David Eddyshaw: Doesn’t being a “hardcore Calvinist” mean believing that you were actually predestined to change directions?

  109. David Eddyshaw says


    Indeed. Indeed.

  110. Trond Engen says

    Lifechanging is a high bar to pass, but certainly Aschehougs konversasjonsleksikon, I believe the fourth edition, and Det Bestes Store Verdensatlas, both acquired by my father with his first paychecks and read to pieces by me 10-15 years later. When Kunnskapsforlagets Store Norske Leksikon came from 1979 and onwards, we upgraded, and I read each volume from cover to cover and criss-cross as they arrived in the mail.

    I read Egilssoga in Nynorsk translation by Leiv Heggstad at the age of nine. My grandfather got Snorre in the Nynorsk edition for the 800 anniversary in 1979, and I think I read most of it in the summer of 1980. Later we got it ourselves, and I read the rest of it.

    Literature for children and young people. I read a lot of good stuff. What maybe meant most to me in hindsight is Winnie-the-Pooh in Norwegian translation/adaptation by Thorbjørn Egner — most to me as a big brother reading for a little brother. Also Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories. And Zinken Hopps Historien om Norge, Norwegian history as a family saga from the settlement of a farm in the early iron age to the modern day city on the same place and continuing the name. Richard Adams’ Watership Downs, which I read every year well into my twenties, is a novel, but it may belong here.

    And comics! As a Northern European kid growing up in the seventies, the weekly Donald Duck magazine was inevitable, and I devoured it, reading every issue from about 1972 until I left home for my conscription year in 1988. I recognised from the beginning that much of it was just filler, and only the long continuation stories at the end were really worth reading, and not even all of those. Nevertheless, like Store Norske, Donald was just part of a well-furnished home, and my wife and I took up a subscription and kept it for more than a decade until we realised nobody in the house read it anymore. But when the stories were good, they were really good. The long adventure stories of the great Carl Barks caught me, and when these classic stories were gathered in books and collections, I got them for birthdays and Christmas — and read them to pieces. The Norwegian novelist Jan Kjærstad, himself sometimes mentioned for the Nobel Prize, is on record saying that Carl Barks is the most important author of the 20th century and should have had the Nobel Prize for literature.

    Astérix, of course. And later graphic novels and European B.D. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is standing out.

    I also read a lot of “serious” literature when I was in my teens and twenties. Nothing that really changed me or my worldview, but much that changed my view on parts of the world. Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago. Gabriel García Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude and especially Love in the Age of the Cholera. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children and Shame. Tony Morrison seems to have fallen out of fashion, but I’ll hold up Beloved.

    For Norwegians. Johan Falkberget’s historical novel Christianus Sextus was a revelation when i was in high school. Olav Duun’s collective novel Menneske og maktene, the above mentioned Jan Kjærstad’s contemporary and modernist Forføreren trilogy, Tor Åge Bringsværd’s historical Gobi series, and Gert Nygaardshaug’s ecological dystopia Himmelblomstreets muligheter.

    Too many men, I can see that, so let’s turn to crime fiction. Karin Fossum for the deep psychological insights. Kerstin Ekman for the forensic analysis of society, in her case rural northern Sweden. Fred Vargas for the sheer fun and the French,

    I never really got going with sci-fi.

  111. jack morava says

    Books that changed me is a moving target. My small town had a remarkably good public library that I passed walking home after school, and I plundered it.

    Some checkmarks from later adolescence: Wilmar Shiras, Gabriel Marquez, the Alexandria Quartet (hat tip or something to my first serious girlfriend), Robert Musil…

    [Checking WiP, I just learned that Musil was a student of Meinong, a jungle explorer. Small world…]

  112. John Cowan says

    Cameron vs. L’Engle

    Editorial conflation. I meant to write:

    Eleanor Cameron (the Mushroom Planet and Wales as a child; Mr. Bass’s Planetoid much later)

    Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Arm of the Starfish as a child; the rest in my forties)

  113. John Cowan says

    I’m reading The Secret Garden again now, and it reminds me of the time when I was about ten and my mother took me to a used bookstore (literally a barn). I picked out some books and sat on one of the chairs, or perhaps a bench, and started to read them while my mother browsed. There was a woman sitting in another chair (or perhaps also on the bench), and she started to talk to me, quite likely about books, but I have no memory of that. Anyhow, eventually my mother was finished too, and we went to the cashier and bought the books.

    When I got home, I went on reading, and my mother saw that I was reading The Secret Garden, and she asked me “Why did you take that lady’s book?” I was quite distressed by this charge: it was a book I took off the shelf myself, and I said so. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was to the effect that she hadn’t expected me to pick “a girl’s book” out.

    At any rate, reading the book vaccinated me against the idea that a book with a female hero would be one I wouldn’t like. I now see that Mistress Mary Quite Contrary was something like me, a lonely introverted child with at most one friend at any given time (my parents moved around a lot, so I didn’t have long-term friendships until late in secondary school, and then again late in college). I made up for this later, of course, by having the Longest Conceivable Friendship, only recently ended.

  114. Do you think she actually asked, “Why did you take that ladies’ book?”

  115. John Cowan says

    That doesn’t sound like the way my mother, a first-and-a-half-generation feminist (born 1919), would talk. In addition, the charge was (at least implicitly) theft rather than gender-bending.

  116. My fifth-grade teacher read The Secret Garden to our class, a chapter a day. It was a life-changing experience. When I rediscovered it aged 29, it was another life-changing experience.

  117. ktschwarz says

    “That lady’s book” and “that ladies’ book” would be distinguished by intonation, as would “those ladies’ books” (books belonging to those ladies) and “those ladies’ books” (those books for ladies). But I suspect Y knows that perfectly well and was pulling John’s leg.

  118. Trond Engen says

    “That lady’s book” vs. “that ladiesbook” if English marked compounds like any other Germanic language.

  119. John Cowan says

    “That lady’s book” and “that ladies’ book” would be distinguished by intonation

    Not when I speak, they aren’t.

    “that ladiesbook”

    More likely that ladybook.

  120. In my intonation they are the same.

    The question wasn’t tongue-in-cheek exactly, rather it made the very, very unlikely assumption that JC hadn’t thought of that other interpretation.

  121. David Eddyshaw says

    Quite different stress patterns for me; in fact, I’m surprised to discover that for some L1 speakers they aren’t different. But I should be used to such discoveries at the Hattery by now.

  122. John Cowan says

    I had not, in fact, thought of that ladies’ book as an interpretation, because my mother wouldn’t consciously conceptualize a book as being for ladies, although the unconscious assumption that TSG was such a book was almost certainly underlying what she said.

  123. Bathrobe says

    I can’t think of any books that have changed my life. There are some that must have influenced me.

    Maybe Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”…. Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People?…. (Hadn’t occurred to me before, didn’t change my behaviour).

    the female of the species is more deadly than the male

    I think I first heard that on F Troop, although it might have been on some other series. I didn’t realise it was from Kipling.

  124. J.W. Brewer says

    I was briefly confused by this thread because (as an aging/aged child of the Seventies) my mind had muddled up with (whose wiki page indeed specifically warns against such confusion), one of which seemed more improbable as 5th-grade classroom material than the other. Although I guess that one might be more unequivocally a “ladies’ book”?

    I may have remarked on this before (although hopefully not in this thread), but a book I read and re-read somewhat obsessively in my mid-to-late teens was Tom Robbins’ hippie-magical-realism novel It’s possible that due to other factors I would have ended up a habitual/addicted cigarette smoker between the ages of 17 and 23 regardless, but I’m pretty sure it was that book’s specific glamorization of Camels as the ur-cigarette that led to my devotion to that brand. (Which in some sense continues – I haven’t smoked a cigarette since 1989 but the ones I don’t smoke are Camels, not Marlboros.) Which I think is a pretty good example of a book having a fairly concrete life impact.

  125. David Marjanović says

    Which in some sense continues – I haven’t smoked a cigarette since 1989 but the ones I don’t smoke are Camels, not Marlboros.

    “…alright, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

  126. Rodger C says

    I didn’t realise it was from Kipling.

    All right, all right, I admit it, no one reads Kipling any more.

  127. J.W. Brewer says

    I guess the “female of the species” quote is not uplifting enough to have been misattributed by the internet to Einstein or Lincoln? Not even to Churchill or Shakespeare?

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