This cunning bit of cocktail-party fodder asks 100 notable persons, from actors to authors, to choose one book that changed their life: an irresistible exercise of the desert-island type. “The Books That Changed My Life,” edited by Bethanne Patrick, is an engaging exemplar of those gifty cheerleading-for-culture tomes that nonreaders buy for people they don’t know very well — brain candy for the harried, the uncommitted and the moderately curious. It doesn’t hurt that a portion of the proceeds from the book will go to the literacy organization 826 National, unquestioned good guys in the literary firmament.
The collection also serves as a telling survey of the anthropology of cultural consumption and influence. What kind of books do Patrick’s subjects choose? Over three-quarters were published in the 20th or 21st century, with a handful coming from the 19th century. Blake and the Japanese haiku master Issa speak for the 18th century, and Homer, Plato and the Bible represent the classical and pre-modern eras.
Of the titles that can be ascribed to a single author, two thirds are by men (including Evelyn Waugh, contra Time magazine). Joyce, Beckett and Salinger show up twice each, but so does “The God of Small Things,” by Arundhati Roy. “What this says to me, and I hope to you,” writes Patrick in her foreword with winning aplomb, “is that life-changing books don’t come with ‘Read Here’ labels attached.”
Well, maybe. Patrick has done a good job of recruiting a reasonably broad crosscurrent of respondents. As a strategy, this has the benefit of being heartily inclusive, as well as broadening the collection’s appeal. The downside, not surprisingly, is that the essays are dramatically uneven. Many are wise and perceptive, but others sound like they were transcribed from hurried phone interviews. Several of them are vaguely horrifying: Tommy Hilfiger chooses a biography of Steve Jobs because it shows that “even a brilliant maverick like Jobs makes a lot of mistakes,” while Nelson DeMille cites the tonic impact of Ayn Rand’s lessons of “individual freedom” and “nonreliance on government.” The actor Melissa Rivers implores teachers to give Bill O’Reilly’s history books a chance, because “reading this kind of stuff is how you get your students to learn!”
The responses from writers carry a higher batting average. To me, the most amusing entries are the ones where Patrick’s subjects crankily resist the question. Amanda Foreman rejects the idea of “Damascene conversions” and says, with a touch of asperity, that “the majority of those you have spoken to will have shaped that narrative to fit the circumstances,” helpfully adding, “I’m not saying they’re lying.” The inimitable Fran Lebowitz says, “Listen, if you wanted to find out which book changed my life, you should have asked me when I was six.” Fay Weldon avers, “I am not fond of books as objects,” and she seems not entirely fond of them as concepts or narratives, either.
Others spin the question in interesting ways. An emotionally draining encounter with a Jean Rhys novel leads Porochista Khakpour to the bracing suggestion that “more people should write about the books that disturb them and unnerve them and won’t let them sleep at night.” Ron Charles, of The Washington Post, takes the question aggressively literally, citing Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” simply because it was the first book he reviewed professionally. Writers have never been very good at following directions.
And a number of the responses are deeply thoughtful, even moving. Yiyun Li speaks of how Turgenev brought him “much closer to the real me than all the requirements in my culture to be happy.” Sarah Waters writes that Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” showed her “that a feminist viewpoint didn’t have to be academic or prim. It could be messy. It could be frightening.” And a movie producer named Caldecot Chubb goes even deeper, noting that “most of life is about creating resonant narratives. . . . Few things drive me more crazy than the current locution of ‘content.’ One way or another,” he adds, “we’re all in the story business.”
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
Edited by Bethanne Patrick
Regan Arts. 294 pp. $24.95