Four books that changed me

A couple of weeks ago author and blogger Angela Savage posted the contribution she’s made to a column in The Age newspaper in which the columnist is asked to identify Four books that changed me.

Savage, being a writer – her works include The dying beach (my review) and her latest novel Mother of Pearl (on my TBR) – chose books which changed or affected or inspired her life as a writer. Lucky her to have such theme by which to narrow her selection. No such luck for me. Even so, she said she had to whittle her selection down from about 400 to 4! It’s hard, of course, but I’ve decided to choose books that have taught me something about life. I’m going to list them in the order than I first read them because, in fact, three of them I’ve read more than once. The other I would happily read again.

Book coverFirst up is Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice, of course. You knew there had to be a Jane Austen in my list didn’t you. It was hard to choose which one, in a way, because all of Austen’s books teach me about people, and they keep teaching me every time I read them, because every time I read them I’m at a different point in my life. The richness of her observation and understanding is timeless and unsurpassed. I chose Pride and prejudice because it was the first one I read, in my early teens, and is the one that hooked me on her. teaches me so much about life, about people’s  – a book that I can read again and again

Albert Camus, The plagueNext is Albert Camus’ The plague/La peste (my review) which I first read in my very late teens. I love Camus’ exploration of how different people react when presented with a difficult life-threatening situation – like a plague or, say, the Holocaust. I know which character I’d like to be, but would I? This book, I hope, keeps me honest.

Book coverAnd then there’s that terrifying book, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I first read with my American reading group in 1992, when I was living there, and then again with my Australian reading group a few years later. If you want to read a book about the devastating impact of slavery – of its horror, of the way it destroys all sense of self, of agency, of hope – then this is the book to read.

Kim Scott That Deadman DanceAnd finally, I wanted to choose a book that has moved along my understanding of Australian history. There are many I could have chosen – so many great books by indigenous writers – but I think Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) is a foundational book, because it reminded me of/showed me the generosity of indigenous people in the early days of settlement and how it was thrown back in their faces by people who didn’t respect them as human beings (let alone as owners of the land they were “taking up”.) Oh, and I read it in 2011, the year after it came out. Was it that long ago?

If you asked me to do this next year, would I choose the same books? I don’t know, but I think I probably would, because each of these books remains vividly in my mind years after reading it.

And now I’m going to ask you what Angela asked her blog readers, what four books would you choose?

50 thoughts on “Four books that changed me

  1. Maybe not what you are expecting because these are NF…
    I can’t actually remember the name of the book that changed the way I managed my money. It was written by a celebrity financial adviser, and it started off with the story of a survey that asked people how much more money they would need to be able to make ends meet. Rich or poor they all said 10% more than they were currently getting, and that was because, rich or poor, they spent everything they had. The solution, he said, was to save 10% of your income, whatever it was. And I did. Best advice I ever got.
    Another book that changed me was Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I learned techniques I’ve been using ever since.
    Then there was Gombrich’s The Story of Art: I didn’t study art history at school, so this textbook became my guide to enjoying art. I’ve got lots of other art books since, but it’s still my favourite.
    And finally, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Like every other canon it has flaws, and my interest in it waxes and wanes, but I have only once or twice been disappointed by its recommendations!

    • Fascinating selection Lisa, and you’re right, nol what I expected.

      I love your first one, though as a banker’s daughter saving is something I learnt from a very young age. I’ve always saved, and have the philosophy that you should enjoy life (ie spend money) but keep an eye on the future as well (ie save some too.)

      I enjoyed your reasons for your other three too.

  2. I’m going to cheat, and just supply one book, which blew my brains. It was Martin Gardner’s “Scientific American book of mathematical games & diversions”. I read it in 1964 or thereabouts, and it showed me that mathematics could be fun and intriguing and playful. (Think Hexaflexagons and Hex and polyominoes – I am doing a polyomino puzzle at the moment.) I have wasted many hours on mathematical games and puzzles since. This book validated my leaning.

    As for the other three, well, while I have read and enjoyed many many books, I can’t think of another that classifies as life-changing!

  3. Charlotte’s Web
    The Poisonwood Bible
    Anne of Green Gables
    I can’t decide on a fourth!! 😱
    The Woman’s Weekly Birthday Cake cookbook? Certainly changed my life in terms of the amount of time I spent making birthday cakes for years!

  4. This is a great post. Your choices are thought provoking and understandable. I would put The Plague on my own list. I think that my own list. You have also gotten me interested in indigenous Australian writers. I must read something soon. The Deadman Dance sounds like a possibility.

    I think that my own list would be very similar to my favorite book list which I posted last year.

  5. Great post.

    I have read 3 out of your four books and I tried to read Kim Scott. Now that’s read other books about Australian history and visited Australia and improved my Australian English, I might be able to read it. I should try again.

    My list would be:

    – Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary. This was my first Gary and I learnt so much through his novels.

    – Pride and Prejudice, like you, for the outlook on human nature

    – In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, because no book ever made me understand how Vichy was possible than reading In Search of Lost Time. Plus there’s the daring take on gender and homosexuality. The humour. The reflexion on time and memory.

    – The Humain Stain by Philip Roth. My first Roth and I was hooked.

  6. If we’re thinking about books that taught us about life, I would have to choose four that I read around the time I was 12-13, because that’s when certain books were starting to show me that I wasn’t as odd as it seemed, growing up in southern Missouri. So I’d pick:
    Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
    The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
    A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
    The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart

  7. We share two, as you might guess, P&P which I read and re-read during my matriculation year; and That Deadman Dance which you persuaded me to read and which introduced me to the world of Indig.Lit. The other two are Jack London’s The Iron Heel which is a fiction which discusses the Capitalist reaction to communist revolution; and Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, Daniel Cohn Bendit’s account of the Paris Uprising of 1968. And if my 4 may have a fifth it is Ian Turner’s account of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia – Sydney’s Burning.

  8. Oh, I have to laugh when I think of the first book that changed me!
    No children’s classic…but P. Roth’s “Portney’s Complaint”! I was shocked. I’d never read anything so physically/sexually graphic! I come from a long line on New England Puritans!
    Next up…the Scarlet Letter. This was the first book in high-school I really studied…symbolism, (rose bush, the letter, pearl), language (irony: “Halo of misfortune and ignominy” (dishonor), puritanism. This book taught me how to ‘slow read’.
    Dickens has to be on the list….I had my heartbroken for the first time when I finished “The Tale of Two Cities”…Sidney Carton’s undying love for Lucie.
    Zola “Germinal”…my sister nudged me, pushed me to read this book (…she was 6 years older and a prolific reader). She finally bought it for me and said: “Now, no excuses!”
    When I heard that she had died suddenly (..I was in NL)…I finally picked up the book and felt very close to her. I was sad I’d waited so long….I had no one to talk to about the book.

  9. What a fascinating topic for a post! You certainly have me thinking of my own list, as I was reading yours. Toni Morrison is not a favorite author of mine; I would have to choose the “gentler” ones, such as C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle. But, how interesting it is to read about whom has struck a chord in our hearts.

      • Every week I would have a different four! Today I will choose George Orwell’s essays which provided such education about modern politics and literature when I was at school. George Eliot’s Middlemarch which demonstrated just how compelling realist fiction could be. The Varieties Of Religious Experience by William James which gives such insights into the psychology of faith. Primo Levi’s If This A Man which is a model of lucidity and penetration.

  10. What a wonderful topic of discussion. My own four books:
    Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I studied this book in my early teenage years, thinking this was the user’s manual I needed.
    Brothers Karamazov. An older friend gave me this when I was in high school. When I read it as an adult, I realized how much my worldview was influenced by it.
    Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. His message that you know more than you think was immensely comforting and useful.
    Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. This was the last of a half a dozen books I read before a trip to Australia in 2009. It sealed the deal for me on my love for Australian literature.
    Thank you, Sue, for posting this. I have loved reading what everyone says and will be asking everyone I know for their four.

    • Thanks Charlotte. Love your choices and the reasons for them. My parents had Dale Carnegie, probably one of the only self-help style book they ever had. I love your reason for Spock. I’m just reading a book about a couple who needed to realise that. It sounds like they were scared out of their wits. I need to read BK one day, I know. As for Cloudstreet, what can I say? It did its job.

      I’m travelling in Japan now but I’ll to see what your readers come up with.

  11. Let us not forget:

    * Anna Karenina
    * War and Peace by Tolstoy
    * Vanity Fair by William
    Makepeace Thackeray
    * The History of Tom Jones, a
    Foundling by Henry Fielding

  12. This list could change on any given day, depending how I’m feeling HOWEVER

    1. Milly Molly Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley – the book that made me a ‘reader’.
    2. A Room With a View by Forster – romance, Italy, conflict, everything
    3. Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett – saddest book I’ve ever read
    4. Cider House Rules (or anything by John Irving) – for his epic tales

  13. What a terrific post! And I love the idea that it’s probably the first time Portnoy’s Complaint and The Scarlet Letter have shared billing for anything.

    I’ll have to think what my four might be. But in this moment, I’m inclined to agree on Beloved. That’s the first time I recall actually having nightmares on sequential evenings,after reading a novel. (I eventually put it back on the shelf and waited more than a decade to carry on. Though reading many other disturbing books in the meantime. And having gone on to read most of Morrison too.)

    Thoroughly enjoyed all of this!

  14. Hi Sue, four books that changed me, I know would differ each year. But, one will that always be first, is The Girl of the Limberlost. It was my mother’s and I still have the book. It was then I began to seriously read. I did like reading all the other choices.

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