Can books change us later in life?
In his famous essay, “The Lost Childhood,” Graham Greene asserted that it is only when we are young that books have any great influence on our lives. Then they give us a glimpse of possible futures, while also shaping us to pursue the dreams they have inspired.
I’ve always believed this to be true. After my mid twenties books have seldom, if ever, possessed the impact that they had previously. Oh, I’ve enjoyed many novels, learned from lots of nonfiction. But I can hardly remember much of what I’ve read as an adult, while I can still vividly recall the very paragraph in which preppy Ken Holt sheds his school uniform and puts on jeans and a turtle neck, along with a new identity; the thrilling page on which Jad Bal Ja, the golden lion, emerges from the jungle to save Tarzan from certain death in Tarzan and the City of Gold; the disturbing episode in Beverly Cleary when the dog Ribsy must decide between Henry Huggins and his old master.
Little I have read since has made that kind of a lasting impression on me.
But I was wondering: Are there any books of adult life that have seemed as fundamental, as paradigm-altering as the books of childhood?
Maybe a few. Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave — that melancholy word-cycle of quotations and mini-essays — seemed to speak directly to my soul about life and art. The work of Ronald Firbank — campy and funny and artistically unique — was a discovery of middle age that has stayed with me when more important writers have faded. (To admire Firbank is to draw down a scowl from Evelyn Waugh, who felt that a penchant for the author of The Flower Beneath the Foot wasn’t appropriate for a grown man.) I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun with awe, suddenly aware that novels as subtle and ambitious as those of the high modernists could still be written — and written as science fiction. Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights Companion opened my eyes to the complex wonders of that great Middle Eastern treasure box of stories. It’s a model of what one might call popular scholarship. The poetry of Philip Larkin has stayed with me for decades now, as if Larkin were from the start a classic like Donne or Wordsworth.
And yet I still don’t know if these count. Would I be any different today if I’d never read them? Probably not. But if I hadn’t read Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft, I suspect I would be different.
What do you think, members of the Reading Room? Have and books deeply, truly affected you after your twenties? If so, what books and how — and why?
— Michael Dirda