Can a book change your life?

by Jenny Nicholls / 16 January, 2019
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Illustration/Greg Downie.

Jenny Nicholls asks if a book can change your life.

Danyl McLauchlan recently reviewed a New Zealand Book Council survey of our reading habits on The Spinoff. After a typically clever analysis of library data, he showed the council’s figures were somewhat... well, wildly... optimistic.

“The Book Council wants us to read because they’re, y’know, the Book Council,” he writes. “I want New Zealanders to read too, although I’m not sure I’d welcome the world their highly dubious survey hints at, a world of vast, brightly lit warehouses stacked high with New Zealand poetry, crammed with readers who sleep and read in desperate shifts. There’s an air of sanctimony about reading, sometimes… an implication in the marketing and criticism that you should read Exit West because it helps refugees… that reading Hannah Arendt will stop Trump, somehow… that reading poetry is worthy, self improving: that reading makes us better people. This isn’t true.”

Mclauchlan’s column, “Lies, damned lies, and Book Council data: a strange new survey on NZ’s reading habits”, is worth seeking out. But he is wrong about reading.

Mclauchlan, a Wellington-based writer and author of two novels, allows that reading is “one of the joys of life; a vast and inexhaustible pleasure”, although he cautions “even if you read 35, or 70, or 140 books a year every year for the 60-odd years of your adulthood, you won’t come close to covering the most significant works of any substantive field, especially if you intersperse them with Lee Child novels.”

So books are fun but philosophically inert – a sort of cultural helium, requiring a massive intake for lift-off?

In a piece in the New Yorker called “In Defence of Poetry”, the essayist Louis Menand writes, “The funny thing about the resistance all these writers put up to the idea that poems can change people’s lives is that every one of them had his life changed by a poem. I did, too.”

Imagine the world that didn’t read... a world of bare shelves. In an excitable 18th-century eulogy for the author Samuel Richardson, French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot offers us a glimpse of a time when the novel was… still novel: “One takes a role in [Richardson’s] works, you are thrown into conversations, you approve, you blame, you admire, you become irritated, you feel indignant. How many times did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theatre for the first time, crying... ‘don’t believe it, he is deceiving you’... his characters are taken from ordinary society.... the passions he depicts I feel in myself.”

We do not need to read “the most significant works in a substantive field” to lose our minds, or at least our preconceptions.

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” wrote Franz Kafka. “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves... a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.”

We can only imagine what a thoughtful white reader in 1950s America might have made of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, or in 1845, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A “blow to the head” probably comes pretty close. “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” wrote Douglass, in words which make me want to cry. His memoir, without doubt, helped to end slavery in the US. It is our own privilege that reduces his words to a bookseller’s meme.

If you want to learn more about a man who has been described as one of the greatest Americans of the 19th century, reading David W. Blight’s acclaimed new biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster) is the way to do it.

Our assumptions and theories about the world can, quite easily, be built untidily of books, accumulating in great cross-referencing internal piles. As George Orwell wrote in Books vs Cigarettes: “There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life.”

In Why Orwell Matters (2002), Christopher Hitchens explains that Orwell, an Old Etonian born at the turn of the century, “had to suppress a distrust and dislike of the poor, [and] revulsion from the colored masses who teemed throughout the empire. By teaching himself in theory and practice, he become a great humanist.”

Orwell’s reading fed Orwell’s writing.  And what writing that was. In 1949, dying of tuberculosis, he published 1984, the novel that gave us phrases such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, “Newspeak”, “telescreen”, “2 + 2 = 5” and “memory hole”. His name has become the adjective “Orwellian”, which oozes official deception, manipulation and surveillance. Last year, the former chief book critic for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, published a book called The Death of Truth, which mentioned Orwell 28 times.

And without Orwell, we might never have heard of Anthony Bourdain, to pluck another name almost at random.

“Down & Out in Paris & London changed my life,” wrote Bourdain. “It was the direct inspiration for Kitchen Confidential, the text I had in mind with every page.”

Bourdain and I both read Orwell’s account of life as a plongeur – a Parisian dishwasher – in our teens. The account of rat-infested benches, being broke and hungry, and the underclasses in London and Paris propelled Bourdain further into the life of the restaurant kitchen, while it made me vow to avoid it at all costs. I applied for a journalism course immediately.

English art historian Simon Schama writes: “You always remember where it was that you first read the books that changed your life.” In his case, it was the Greek Islands. In my case, it was my gran’s place in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland.

And yes, I know one person’s five-grain artisan porridge is another’s indigestible gruel with lumpy bits. I once raved to writer Steve Braunias about The Wisdom of Bones, a book about fossils. Fool! What was I thinking? Steve had his own heroes.

Christopher Hitchens (a big Orwell fan) borrowed Orwell’s furniture metaphor for his book And Yet...

“I was asked to name the works of fiction that had most influence on me,” he writes. “Novels were specified: even so, I should have said ‘the war poems of Wilfred Owen’. I shall never be able to forget the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture of my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up.”

Auckland iconoclast, former model and writer Judith Baragwanath also grew up in a society she found restrictive: 1950s New Zealand. After reaching New York in the 70s, she pounced on Ringolevio, a record of the underground culture of the 1960s written by a charismatic Park Ave burglar, Emmett Grogan. His writing was like a kind of personal gelignite, she tells me, that blew away the old certainties. “It set me free.” She still treasures her copy.

The English economist Noreena Hertz told the Guardian she was deeply affected by New Zealander Marilyn Waring’s If Women Counted. Published in 1988, it triggered her interest in feminist economics, a topic that still defines her career. Nature writer Richard Mabey says the science writer Lewis Thomas “changed the way I thought, wrote and laughed”.

Books can change us. But can they make us more empathetic? In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests they can – and, what’s more, on an industrial scale. In particular, he says, novels may have had a role to play in the freefall in worldwide violence through history (the theme of his book).

“Reading novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights,” he writes. “As usual, it is hard to rule out other alternative explanations for the correlation... But the ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. And in some cases a bestselling novel or memoir demonstrably exposed a wide range of readers to the suffering of a forgotten class of victims and led to a change in policy.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) mobilised abolitionists in the United States. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) exposed the mistreatment of children in workhouses and orphanages, not from the viewpoint of a reporter, but, in a remarkable innovation, from the viewpoint of a child.

“The human capacity for compassion is not a reflex that is triggered automatically by the presence of another living thing,” writes Pinker. “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking.”

Reading makes us better.

Prescribed reading

A celebrity reading list

Mike Hosking should read:

Happy City: Transforming our Lives through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, 2013.

Leighton Smith should read:

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014.

Bishop Brian Tamaki should read:

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1859.

Donald Trump should read:

The House of Islam by Ed Husain, 2018; The Lorax by Dr Seuss, 1971.

Simon Bridges should read:

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness by Michael Pollan, 2018.

Bob Jones should read:

Māori Made Easy by Scotty Morrrison, 2018.

Vladimir Putin should read:

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen, 2012; Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev, 2015.

Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg should read:

Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry, 2018.

Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman should read:

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum, 2018; Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh, 2018.

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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