And now I have a question for you.
I am loving reading these responses so much. What a generous group you are. THANK YOU. And: MORE, PLEASE.
I think reading Infinite Jest completely changed the trajectory of my life. Before that I wasn’t interested in literature at all. I thought it was boring and lame, based on my experience with it in middle school. But DFW showed me that literature can be literally anything you want. It seems so obvious to say now but it was so eye opening. It defied all my expectations, all the conventions I knew. It was thrilling. Suddenly I wanted to be a part of it. I started devouring novels, from Crime and Punishment to As I Lay Dying to Gravity’s Rainbow to House of Leaves to Lincoln in the Bardo, and every time (if it was good) realizing all over again: *it can be anything you want*. Amazing.
I recently finished the first draft of my very own novel. Who knows what will happen with it, but I can say for sure at least that it is an expression of me. It is me doing that, doing whatever I want. How exciting!
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave me permission to want. To take. To choose myself first. Sounds small, but it changed my life. The character Ifemelu taught me to be selfish in a culture where the woman is fraught with societal expectations and milestones all her life.
Hello! I am a librarian from Wisconsin. For the past 5+ years I have been running a program called Short Story Night at the local brewery. The program was recently featured on Wisconsin Public Radio. You can read/listen about it here: https://wisconsinlife.org/story/short-story-nights-a-book-club-for-the-busiest-readers/
I originally started Short Story Night because I had two small children at home and therefore didn't have time for a traditional book club. I figured there were probably others like me, people who want to talk about literature but are too busy. Turns out I was right. The program has been more successful than I could ever imagine. Typical attendance is around 35 people, and on certain nights I can get as many as 50.
I try to feature stories that will spark conversation, usually contemporary ones. I've found that this allows us to not only consider the construction of the story, the settings, the themes, the plots, etc, but it also allows us to tackle topics that are still relevant. A good case in point was the evening we discussed Tim O’Brien's, "On the Rainy River." I will never forget that event. The brewery was packed. Men and women, from retired folks to college students, all discussing Vietnam and the draft and what they would have done if they were in the character's shoes - and in some cases, what they did do when they were in the character's shoes; when they were drafted and sent over. It still gives me chills thinking about that evening. How everyone respected everyone else and how the discussion flowed. Referencing the story, but also taking off from there. It was, in a way, magical. An example of what great literature can do.
I also want to mention that I often feature author interviews as part of the event. So if George ever finds the time.... I'd love to call him in front of the audience.
Neil Gaiman and all of his stories, but especially American Gods. I have always wanted to be a writer, and I have always thought about going to the U.K. someday to have my own books published. Years went on and I was still there, in my apartment. I read Gaiman's work before, Coraline and Stardust and The Graveyard Book... But American Gods just triggered something in me. I often see writers use the word "resonate," yet not until I can actively feel my soul banging so strong it rattled my bones, that I know what they meant. So, I left Vietnam, and my family, and my girlfriend at the time, and a comfortable job, to pursue an English Degree in the UK. Nothing of mine has been published or even noticed. I'm happy.
When I read this question (has any poem, story, novel, etc., ever changed my life’s trajectory or my way of thinking?), I feel like a failure. Because the answer, I really, really hate to admit, is no.
How I wish it weren’t so! How I wish I could say, “when I was 14 I read such and such and it changed me forever.” Or “when I was 20 I read such and such and because of that I changed my college major.” Nope. Didn’t happen. No story, poem, novel, etc, has fundamentally changed my way of thinking, or my life’s trajectory. (I could be wrong. But this is how I remember things now.)
There is an upside, though, to all the reading I’ve done in my life. I can say with confidence that all of the words I’ve read over the course of my lifetime (stories, novels, and most of all, poems) have provided me a ground upon which I stand and which are a constant reminder that I’m not as alone in this world as I often feel. Stories have entertained me, have made me cry and laugh, have shocked me, scared me, angered me, excited me, ruined me, and been my constant companions for as far back as I can remember. Snippets and quotes from these creations stick with me and I turn to them when needed. I often search through my collection of saved poems to find the one that will comfort me in some moment of crisis.
But I cannot say a story has changed me—except for this, which I don’t think is what George had in mind when he asked us this question: I had always had it in the back of my mind that I would write a novel. But that thought just sat there, like so many ideas I had over the years (“maybe I’ll go to nursing school” “maybe I’ll have kids” “maybe I’ll move to Portugal”). And then, one day (Note: every story begins this way, with “one day”), I was at a friend’s house and we were talking about writing and she said, yeah, I wrote a novel. She went over to her desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers—an entire novel, single spaced, going nowhere. Oh, my god, I thought. I can do that, too. Suddenly, it seemed possible—it wasn’t something you found only in a bookstore. A novel was words on a page that became a stack of pages, sometimes just sitting in a drawer in a desk in a house in a suburb. Well, I went home and started writing, and two years later I had my own novel. So that novel—my friend’s unpublished hobby of a novel—changed my life forever.
I read ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison in an African American Literature class. Aside from having brilliant prose and sharp characters, it really opened my eyes about the experience of black femininity. Reading about Sula and Nel really changed how I viewed my identity as a black woman and how I conceptualized myself in society. There’s something about the way Morrison wrote that got right to the heart and grit and experience of being in such a marginalized space without trodding over the same talking points that you’ve heard in every black struggle movie. It’s shaped the way I see myself as a person living in society and how I interact and perceive the issues I come across in my day-to-day.
When I read Wendell Berry's short story, "Fidelity," in 1992, when it first came out, I was struck by the profound sense of mutual responsibility, caring, and love that he'd evoked in his fictional Port William community. I never forgot how the locals in that story banded together to look after each other, breaking and evading the law to help and protect one of their own, Burley. This story instantly became one of my favorites. Sixteen years later when I was confronted by a crisis in my own community (an elderly neighbor confided in me that she'd secretly been living with the corpses of her three siblings), I didn't know what to do, not until I recalled and reread "Fidelity." That's when I resolved to help my neighbor in any way I could, including keeping her secrets for her. This very old woman and I ended up transforming each other's lives, prompted by Wendell Berry's short story and the example of his own life. Man and meaning one the page brought out the best in me and also, ultimately, in my elderly neighbor, who went on to redeem her life and become the most beloved patient at the nursing home where she eventually died. Based on our love for each other and her extraordinary example of late-life transformation, I found the strength to escape from a long-term, abusive marriage. If that's not testament enough to the power of short stories, I don't know what is.
When I read "Blindness" by José Saramago (in English, translated by Giovanni Pontiero), it physically impacted me for a few days. I felt scared, sometime nauseous. I did not know writing could do this. After that I didn't read anything by Saramago for a long time.
Reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is what finally got me into EMDR therapy. I’d been walking with a mental and emotional limp from childhood trauma that no amount of self-help could touch. I’m not saying it’s the best book out there, but I read it at the right time in my life and it changed me.
In my early 20s, I was working at a Kinko's Copies and suffering with undiagnosed social anxiety and depression. I found a water-damaged paperback of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. I fell in love with the character of Myshkin. He was an "idiot" in the sense that his epilepsy sometimes rendered him incapable of speech and human interaction, but when he has a reprieve from his sickness, he displays a naivety and open-heartedness that deeply affects everyone around him. Somehow this display of kindness and simplicity allowed me to see myself in a more compassionate light. My social anxiety made me something of an idiot at times, but Dostoyevsky encouraged me to forgive myself. Over the following months I plowed through most of his other works. There's a phrase he used in Crime and Punishment (at least in the translation I read) that seemed to encapsulate his philosophy for me: "insatiable compassion."
Anna Karenina. I devoured it a low point after graduating college. I didn't know what to do. But when I started the book I found a world I recognized so intimately... the more I read the more familiar it felt to my own experiences, feelings and questions... I couldn't believe this connection could take place across such a distance in space and time. I couldn't believe there were no images or sounds–– that it wasn't in the flow of real time like a movie or play... and yet the reality was more vivid than that of my own life. I applied to grad school and decided to dedicate the rest of my life to longform storytelling.
Middlemarch--I first read it in college, then again in grad school, and many times since. It's a novel that makes you feel, really feel, the necessity and the grace of seeing others as clearly and deeply as you see yourself. About community and caring and human faults and the necessary attempt to overcome them, even if we fail much of the time.
I realize this will be an unpopular comment (perhaps even evoke pity), but, no, definitely not. I've read lots of novels that I've loved, but none that have ever changed the trajectory of my life or fundamentally changed my way of thinking.
‘Fences’ by August Wilson changed my brain. How Wilson represented systems and institutions and identities and emotions in the play’s vernacular is mind-bending. I first read it in high school, and it was my first conscious lesson about how things thematic and conceptual and systemic can be said without saying them. I return to it regularly and I still don’t understand how that play exists.
Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was my first hint that I had suffered religious abuse as a child. I couldn't unread that book. My whole identity started shifting because of it.
On what I imagine will be a less popular note, reading Ayn Rand's novels as a teenager gave me the courage to change the trajectory of my life. I moved out at 17 (sans job, sans phone, sans internet connection), got into university without a highschool diploma, and started building a life for myself, completely apart from my dysfunctional, impoverished, abusive and extremely Christian family. I don't "agree" with Rand's ideas now, but at the time, they absolutely catalyzed a very positive change in my life. I needed extreme arrogance to believe I could do what I needed to do, and they provided it.