Janet (j4) wrote,

Thought to book

I've been giving a little more thought to my rather off-the-cuff list of "books that changed the way I think", in order to expand a bit on what that designation means to me, and whether (and if so, how) they really did change my way of thinking. Since I started writing this, livredor has also taken up the subject, and her own selection makes for interesting reading; do read it, and not just because she's so complimentary about me!

Anyway, the ramble resulting from my musings got quite long...

marnameow's comment has been (through no fault of hers) like a splinter under my skin. She writes: "I can't think of even one book that's changed the way I think in any great manner. Maybe I'm doing it wrong?" My instinctive reaction to this, which I didn't post at the time, was a huffy and passive-aggressive response along the lines of "No no, clearly I am just stupid for not thinking of everything myself without needing books, and far too easily swayed in what I think for letting a mere book influence me." Blah, blah. But nobody thinks of everything "for themself" without any external influences, and since nobody exists in a vacuum it's not clear what thinking of something purely "by yourself" would mean. Without recourse to books? Without recourse to other people? Without the aid of a language invented by others? Without using the brain with which your parents' DNA furnished you? There's only so much you can insist on deriving from first principles; question too much and you end up rooted to the spot, unable to take even the ground (or the feet) you're standing on for granted. Of course, that's not to say one shouldn't question anything; at either extreme lies a kind of madness. Let's back out of that dead end while we still can.

Now, clearly in some sense everything you read changes the direction of your thoughts, if only that your thoughts follow the path of the book while you're reading it. And I suspect that, more often than not, my thoughts remain changed after reading that book, even if only to the tune of "I won't bother reading that book again". Sometimes I recall a phrase, a sentence, an image. Sometimes I come away with a general impression which will be (rightly or wrongly) linked to that author in my mind. Sometimes, however, the ideas in the book stick more firmly and more clearly; they become things that I carry about in my mind, and I think that's some of what I meant when I said that these books changed the way I thought. They didn't necessarily convince me to change my mind about anything; they didn't necessarily provide me with whole new concepts I hadn't previously envisaged (though I think in some cases they did); rather, they were like rocks dropped into the stream of my thought. Even the smallest pebble will change a river as it flows around it; but a large enough rock will make the water's little detours visible as the river eddies around the obstacle, and a boulder large enough may change the river's flow so that the bank erodes in a slightly different pattern. At what point can the river be said to have changed? Does it matter?

Then there's the social aspect of learning-from-books. Now, I didn't have that many friends when I was doing what little growing I did, so I had to learn some of my social patterns from books -- while normal people (there's my huff again, and one thing I have failed to learn from books is how to kick the damned thing downstairs) learned them from real people. Often it seems to be taken as read that social skills only count if they are learned in the School of Hard Knocks, the University of Life; and it may well be true that you can't learn everything from books. However, unless your life is pretty unusual, you're likely to be able to gain (if only second-hand) experience of more social patterns through books than in your real life, or even in the lives of your acquaintances. And are the societies depicted in books necessarily so unrepresentative that they have no bearing on "real" life? Society influences art, and art influences society, and books are written by Real People, and part of how Real People behave is influenced by the things they read, and certainly how we expect Real People to behave in situations which are new to us may be influenced by what we have read about those situations, and so unto the nth level of postmodern angst.

Furthermore, the argument (which, incidentally, has tell-tale wisps of straw sticking out of its head) that learning from real life is better than learning from books in this one case seems to imply, by extension, that much of our schooling would be better replaced by going and learning things "for real" rather than wasting our time reading about them. It's possible that some of you believe this, and it's highly likely that some of you believe this for some things, some of the time. Me, I couldn't possibly comment. Watch me backing out of another dead end, like a badger out of a blocked-up sett.

Meanwhile, hoiho raises a thought-provoking issue: "I am left wondering whether the books were simply a catalyst, and came along at a time where my thoughts and ideas were changing, and would have changed anyway." There's a quantum problem here, if that's not a nonsensical designation to give it, that as soon as you start looking at how your thought-processes are changing, you end up changing them some more (if only to add a layer of self-awareness or deconstruction). I suspect that the two processes are hopelessly intertwingled: a book is more likely to resonate profoundly with me if it verbalises or amplifies things which were already emergent in my mind; and I may be more likely to read the book in the first place if it seems pertinent to my concerns of the moment. The question of whether the book changes the thoughts, if it puts them into words, then becomes a more general one of the extent to which a thought can be said to exist if it cannot be communicated by the person who's thinking it. It's not quite a tree-in-the-quad situation, since the sound -- the thought -- is definitely present to the thinker even if only as a vague emotional disquiet; but if only you can hear it and you have no way of conveying the concept of "sound", "tree", or "fall" (let alone "air-molecules" or "eardrum") to another person, then there's only so far you can get with it. It seems to me that crystallising a thought is changing it, even if it's only a change of focus; but of course you're all free to disagree.

There's also the problem of memory: I often have vivid memories of being affected by specific books, of reading them and wanting to tell people I'd read them, of writing quotes from them all over my folders (so were my thoughts changed by the idea of the book rather than the book itself? And is there a difference?); but I generally have much less vivid memories of the exact shape of my mental landscape at the time, and my reconstruction of what I was thinking at the time can often only be extrapolated from what I was doing... which includes, of course, what I was reading. You see the problem? With all this unreliability of recall, it's more or less impossible for me to know to what extent I'm blaming the books for the tracks my mind was running on because the books could embody, summarise, or explain those patterns of thought to other people. There's also the problem of constructing the narrative of one's own life so that it looks more coherent: it makes a far smoother story to have one's teenage existentialism shaped by Godot than by Garfield. Or perhaps it doesn't -- that's the subjectivity of storytelling for you!

I don't think the above adds up to any kind of conclusion; more a kind of caveat lector for the following, which is my annotations on the original list:

Waiting for Godot

This hit the (coffin-)nail on the head of existential angst, and made it funny. I suspect my nascent blackly absurdist sense of humour was growing as much from Monty Python as out of Beckett, and I wouldn't have watched that if it hadn't been for my parents' attitudes, so the influences are all intertwingled, but Godot had even better catchphrases than Python. I read it at the age of 14-ish just before going to a production of the play that was put on at our school; I was entranced by the play, and stayed for the discussion session afterwards, and asked a question about whether the comedy could be said to frame and highlight the tragedy. Yada yada, yes, but I had thought of that point out of my own head (or as much, as discussed, as one can be said to do such a thing), and the grown-up actor chap who was running the discussion said it was a good question, rather than telling me to shut up. Not the book's doing, that, but nonetheless bound up with it in my mind.

The School at the Chalet

This entry should really include the subsequent fiftymumble books in the series, since I think their influence was cumulative as I grew to 'know' the characters and feel like 'part of' the community; but I did actually read the first one first, for a change. I'm only now starting to realise quite what a strong early influence this was on a lot of my ways of thinking about personal and social behaviour, ethics and responsibilities; how to get along in a community; values in education; personal religious belief; and of course when it's appropriate to put one's hair 'up'. Seriously, though: the Schoolgirl Code and all that derives from it made me think hard about conflicting loyalties and questions of right and wrong, and it's testimony to Brent-Dyer's skill as a writer that she manages to handle these issues without the sort of preachiness that would put people off, without making her cast of characters mere parts in a morality play.

If on a winter's night a traveller

I found this in Loughborough town library. The title jumped out at me (I wouldn't have known where to look for book reviews in those days, so I just used to pick things that looked good) because it was so unusual, so unfinished. I read the first couple of pages standing at the shelves, and was hooked; I think my reaction was along the lines of "You can do that in a book??"

The Waste Land

You can still see the exit wound that this blew in my brain, you know. It made me think about where one text ends and another begins, and whether something changes when you put it in a different context, and whether you could apply the same principles to Eliot quoting Webster as to Suede quoting Byron, and whether a poem was still a poem if it was made out of things that weren't poems, and how religion and myth and stories were all parts of the same thing in some way, and I didn't even start putting half of those thoughts together until I came to write my final-year dissertation on ideas of revelation in Eliot's poetry, but the way was paved. The Waste Land got me researching, too; chasing up every reference in Eliot's notes was my first real intimation that the hypertextual paperchase of research could be as much fun as an adventure game -- and you never ran out of levels. It also got me reading more Eliot, and that gave me a deep love of liturgical language that I only really realised I had when I started missing Evensong enough to wheedle my way into a college chapel choir in my non-existent spare time, even if before that I had gone through a phase of telling people that they should read Ash Wednesday if they wanted to know where I stood on The God Question, or (in more flippant mode) that I had converted from lapsed Anglicanism to lapsed Anglo-Catholicism. ... Eliot has a lot to answer for, really.

Red Shift

I re-read this so many times, and it never failed to make me cry. There was something about the interwovenness of the stories, the way people's thoughts and dreams and language could seep into one another; the way memories can leave scars in a landscape; the way history repeats, playing out the same dramas over and over; the way place shape our experiences, and our experience shape those places for us, and the way those shapes can survive through the millennia without us even realising the part we play in them; and ultimately the futility of it all. I don't know if it really did "change the way I think", but it's probably the best expression I've found so far of that particular part of the way I see the world now.


I think, in so far as I could put words to what this did to my mind, this showed me that we can (and frequently do) make our own mythology out of the narrative of our lives. Not that I would have put it like that at the time. (It also resonated strongly on a personal level because the characters of Demian and Frau Eva seemed to correspond to real people in my life.) Ever since reading it I have been more conscious of people and images fulfilling symbolic functions for me as well as their personal and social functions as individuals, as well as their literal meaning as images or their consensus status as symbols.

The Whitsun Weddings

We studied this at A-Level; I had been writing poetry (as teenagers are wont to do) which was mostly formless and rhymeless, under some mistaken apprehension that this was a more effective and more, like, real expression of my mental turmoil (i.e. wondering What It Was All About and Why She Didn't Fancy Me) than all that outdated rhyme and metre. It's a phase you go through, isn't it? Anyway, Larkin proved to me that rhyme and metre and control could be used to far more devastating effect than all my angst-ridden free-verse flailings. In retrospect I was hardly fair on myself with the comparison, but it inspired me to try to write in a more structured and formal way, and my writing improved for it; that's something I've carried with me, the recognition that sometimes constraint sets you free. Which brings us, obliquely, to:

The Story of O

Which influenced the way I think in ways that some of you will guess, and the rest of you won't want to know... No, that's too much of a cop-out, isn't it? It was revelatory in that it put words to nameless desires, and made me contemplate the possibility of desiring things that hadn't even occurred to me. It changed the way I thought about choice and consent. It also made sex and sexuality something bigger, something quasi-mythical and transformational, it gave a shape to the whole messy business where I had previously felt (or is this a later version of me retro-fitting my thoughts?) that stories were, on the whole, more satisfying than sex. It also (and do feel free to laugh at me for this bit) helped to explained part of why The Phantom of the Opera had been such an obsession for me when I was younger, why I had so desperately wanted to be a Christine who wasn't so utterly stupid about the whole thing, who surrendered herself to the Music of the Night, thus redeeming the Phantom and bringing herself greater strength and happiness (so perhaps that is the book which should be on my list, though I felt that erotic fiction was sadly under-represented in lists of Books That Are Worth Something In Some Way and I wanted to redress that balance).

Beckett's Dying Words

At last, a non-fiction book. (I suppose I should have included all sorts of textbooks and so on in that by giving me more information they changed the way I think; but I think in making that original list I was thinking more of the metaphysics than the physics, though of course one informs the other, and vice versa, and if I create any more overlays of self-undermining here I risk disappearing out of the frame of the shot altogether.) I first read this when I was learning to read literary criticism (I still can't help laughing at my classmates' assertions that this was cheating), and had found much of it interesting but quite dry to read. Ricks overwhelmed me with the sense of how much fun you could have with your criticism, how the language of the text was a deck of cards with which you could play countless games, and how when you'd exhausted every game in your repertoire from Black Maria to Snap, you could build card-houses simply for the fun of knocking them down, and then you could go on to do a dazzling array of magic tricks with them until your audience were left in some doubt as to how many hands you might have, let alone whether your deck of cards was limited to the standard fifty-two.


I am aware that there exist people whose worldview does not on a conscious or subconscious level include Hamlet, but I am no longer one of them. That is all.

I am also increasingly aware of how haphazard this list is, and how little any of it means.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

When you have grown up believing in books, living in books, you often wonder what would happen if your favourite characters could speak outside the story. Some people write fan-fiction as a result of this speculation. While I would be extremely tickled to read Hamlet/Horatio fanfic, particularly if it were written by someone with Stoppard's wit, I also feel moved thank whichever powers seem appropriate that we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. I think this was probably the point where I really became able to switch off the habit of thinking of the characters in books as flesh-and-blood people (about whom we only knew what was on the pages), and to be able to think about them instead as pure constructs of the text. Whether you think this is "right" or "wrong" (or "mu"), it's a kind of paradigm shift.

Fire and Hemlock

I don't really know, now, quite why I included this. However, it has haunted me ever since I read it, it burned the eponymous image into my brain, and maybe that is enough. It was also the first place I encountered the legend of Tam Lin,though, which for me (for reasons I can't entirely fathom) has one of the strongest rings of mythical truth about it of all the folk tales, and has been told and retold in so many different guises that I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that; and maybe Diana Wynne Jones planted that seed in me, or maybe there is something more generally true-seeming (pun intended) about the story, and that's why I went back to find the book when I wanted to re-read it, and was delighted when our friendly librarian identified it immediately from my description that "it had a picture of plants silhouetted against flames". Either way, it feels as though it has become part of my personal mythology of my relationship with books, and that in itself probably counts for something; a very meta-something, to be sure, but that in itself... and that... and so on.

In summary: I've read a lot. I've thought about a lot of things. There is almost certainly a correlation. But I certainly don't intend to stop doing either for long enough to set up anything approaching a controlled experiment. There are books to be read, and thoughts to be thunk, and miles to go before I sleep.
Tags: books

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  • Just like starting over

    Hello! Does anybody still read this? I am basically declaring LJ bankruptcy: I haven't read my friends feed for so long that there's just no way I…

  • Running for the wide open spaces

    So I tried to explain this to someone face-to-face, or at least side-by-side, but there are some things you can only say in the small hours of the…

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