Under the influence

Driving into the City on Monday, I heard a snippet of a segment on NPR where they asked their listeners to discuss books that have influenced them.  I made a mental note to look up the program online when I got to the office and had forgotten all about it by the time I’d crossed the GW bridge (now, of course, I can’t find the link).  But, the subject stayed with me.  As a result, I’ve been noodling about the influence of books for the last couple of days.  Obviously, all of us bookworms have been swayed by literature—both high and low—but how, specifically?  It’s rather obvious that books shape our intellectual growth but what about other areas of our lives?  How much of our beliefs, tastes and dislikes, career paths and other big-ticket choices have been influenced by books?

I think every aspect of my life has been touched by books.  For instance, I believe my view of politics and policy was shaped by those “You Were There” books about the American Revolution that I read in elementary school and all those biographies of three-letter presidents (FDR and JFK); my ideas of romance were an unholy mish mash of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Colette, Mary McCarthy and Jacqueline Susann; my career choice owes a lot to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; and my general take on the human condition far too impacted by the darkness of Russian novels and the sinister whimsy of Latin American greats like Borges and Garcia Marquez….

But, when I tried to think of one book that influenced me above all others, I couldn’t.  It seems that, for me, literary influence is an aggregate of themes and ideas culled from, probably, every book I’ve ever read.  Even in the most banal, tedious narratives I’ve been able to find a phrase or thought that influenced my thinking or my doing.  And, that, to me, is what’s so amazing about literature.

So, what are the books that have influenced you?  Is there one title (or many) that you can claim changed your life?

6 Responses to Under the influence

  1. I tried to think of one, but I can’t narrow it down. To me, choosing one book is like selecting one meal from my youth and giving it credit for all the nutrition I received growing up. I can, however, name the book that influenced me most as a writer. Stephen King’s memoir. That one shook the ground enough to plant me in a new place.

  2. Carrie-Anne says:

    The book that most influenced my life was Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I read in December of 1999, shortly before I turned twenty. He’s been my second-favorite writer since I was fifteen, and two of his other books, Demian and Narcissus and Goldmund, have also had a profound impact on my life.

  3. Jenni Wiltz says:

    I can’t think of a single title that changed everything…it was more of an amalgamation. When I read “Fear of Flying” in college in the late ’90s, it gave me the courage to dump a loser boyfriend and seek out something (someone) better. When I read Robert K. Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra,” I cried for a week, then realized the lesson was don’t let crazy-eyed mystics run your life. So many books, so many lessons, so many more waiting to be read! If I did nothing else but read, maybe I’d be wise enough to stop making mistakes.

  4. Miriam says:

    So glad I’m not alone in picking the ONE book that made me who I am. Jenni, so funny you mention NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. I was obsessed with that book in my teens and got essentially the same message as you from it. Have stayed away from all Rasputins since.

  5. Lisa Marie says:

    The book that moved me the most was “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles, which I read before I first journeyed to North Africa. Bowles’ characters Kit and Port exemplify the idle American so perfectly. There are a lot of analogies that one can draw from Kit and Port’s journey and that of many people who lack true passion/conviction in their lives and try to fill it with travel, creature comforts, sex, etc. “The Sheltering Sky” made me vow to never become a “Kit.”

  6. I respond tardily to those who chose Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra as influence. The book I would pick is about the same time period, All Quiet on the Western Front. I read it during a phase when I “wasn’t reading” – in college? – I won’t try to explain.

    But there’s this tidbit from Wikipedia about Nicholas: “As head of state, he approved the Russian mobilization of August 1914, which marked the first fatal step into World War I, a war in which 3.3 million Russians would be killed,[4] thus leading to the demise of the Romanov dynasty less than three years later.”

    When I was very young, I can remember going to all kinds of military museums, air shows, etc. with my family – one of them had a WWI trench exhibit, you could walk through a fake trench (indoors), and press a button (I think there was a button), and there were flashing lights and realistic sounds of explosions! And I remember thinking, why would anyone want to do this (be bombarded with flashes of light and the sounds of explosions).

    So there’s a whole chain of books about WWI that I have read, The Arms of Krupp, poetry by WWI soldiers, Anna Akhmatova (“The real – not the calendar – / Twentieth Century”), other Russian poets, “lost generation of 1914″ type books, etc. But All Quiet on the Western Front was first.


    In reference to Rachel’s idea of literary mashups – I think Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Dicken’s A Christmas Carol are an obvious combo – All Quiet on the Christmas Carol (no, really, I do love these two books.)

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