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Literature that Changed My Life

I remember the first time I cried while reading a book. I was reading The Great Gatsby. The funeral scene stunned me: how a man with so many “friends” could have such an empty funeral. I cried sporadically for about three days after finishing the book, and genuinely felt that those pages changed my life and the way that I thought about things.

I love feeling changed by a book, poem, play, essay, short story, etc. In general, I love feeling that a piece of literature has left an lasting impact on my life; that I will forever carry a piece of the work with me. In fact, I love the feeling so much I seek it, and look for the opportunity to be changed by way of a stack of papers. This desire led me to study literature as an undergraduate. I remember my first English class in college. We sat in a large auditorium with rounded seats and fifty year-old blackboards. The professor came in and began discussing the importance of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which is a poem featured in The Venerable Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. My eyes were glued to the front of the classroom, and I couldn’t wait to hear more.

I understand that I may be a bit of a literary nerd. I do not think many people get excited about Old English poetry, and that’s okay! I think one of the biggest lies we tell students of literature is that the only stuff worth reading comes from the canon. In reality, how a work touches us is personal, and is not dependent on its historical or literary worthiness.  I even like to read those $4 mystery novels in the mystery section of the book store. You know, the ones with witty titles about murder, food, or cats? I eat them up.

This is one of the reasons that I wanted to write this post. Some of the works I love and that have changed my life are not in the canon. Some of the works I have just enjoyed reading, and felt the lasting impact on a personal level. I have felt these feelings from only a few pieces of literature. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed plenty of works that I did not necessarily feel changed by, and many of these works are great. However, what we are changed by is dependent on who we are as people. As I said before, it’s personal.

With all that is going on right now I know many people are looking for something good to read. Reading is a great way to expand one’s mind, escape for a little while, or even just relax. I put together a list of some works that have, personally, changed my life in the case any of you are looking for something.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I never wanted to read this book because it looked long and boring. One of my high school English teachers begged me to read it. Well, I liked this particular teacher very much. She was smart and usually had great recommendations. After about a month of putting it off, I finally picked it up one night to read while taking a bath.

…and finished it in less than 48 hours. East of Eden was perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I literally could not put it down. It was such an exciting read! The book initially presents itself as the story of an Irish family in the Salinas Valley of California. Then, out of nowhere, there is murder, war stories, marriage drama, family drama, prostitution rings, etc. I mean, the story gets wild. If you have time and are looking for a great American classic, open this book.

The reason this book made the list is because of Steinbeck’s beautiful imagery and character development. The imagery and the scenes he presents throughout the book are truly imaginative, and you feel like you are there witnessing everything. In regards to the character development, it is perfect and very detailed. By the end of the novel you feel like you’ve known the characters forever.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

Without sounding dramatic, this book was there for me when I needed it the most. That is why it made the list.

Being a teenager is never easy, especially if you’re emotional, misunderstood, and a fan of The Smiths. After you’re finished reading this book, Charlie will feel like your very own friend. The Perks of Being a Wallflower touches on all of the uncomfortable parts of growing up: sexuality, friendship, awkwardness, family roots, fitting in, etc.

Is this book for adults? Probably not, but this list is of books that changed my life in some capacity. This book changed my teenage life. If you’re a young adult or know of a young adult who is looking for a good read, voila!

“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have written about this work, here. It is one of my favorite short stories of all time and really gets me in an autumnal mood. I have a tradition every year that on October 1st I sit down and read this story. (That probably sounds super corny, but I don’t even care!)

I like this story for a few reasons. First, Hawthorne’s imagery is absolutely wonderful. It is eerie, descriptive, and places you right in the story. Secondly, I like the overall eerie mood of the entire work. Who is this person Young Goodman Brown is meeting in the forest at night? Is this safe? Where is Faith?

Thirdly, I like this story because it makes me wonder about everyone around me. Like Young Goodman Brown, we really don’t know who we are sleeping next to, or who our parents were before they had children. This story is truly haunting. It is not long, either, so I definitely recommend this work!

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I have always been a fan of WWI post-WWI literature, especially the poetry of the era. Mrs. Dalloway is probably by favorite novel of that time. Essentially, the book follows a day-in-the-life of a proper English woman as she navigates life after the war. There are flashbacks to her younger life, moments of intimacy between characters, and constant “what-ifs?”

I must warn you, though: this book is incredibly sad. As a reader, you’re left asking yourself what if this happened different? If the war never happened? If Septimus was more open with his wife? 

I think one of my favorite aspects of this book is that it is centered around the experiences of women during wartime. So often literature of war centers on male characters. Mrs. Dalloway grasps at the female perspective. It is for this reason that Mrs. Dalloway made the list. The experiences of women during wartime, and the experiences of the domestic life during wartime, are important voices in war narrative.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

I have written about this book before, also, and I genuinely believe that everyone should read Frankenstein at least once in their lifetime. Everyone should read Frankenstein first and foremost because the book is nothing like any of the film adaptations. I remember reading it for the first time and wondering if I accidentally picked up a fan-fiction edition or something.

The second reason everyone should read Frankenstein is because it is truly haunting and forces audiences to confront real monsters. What are “real” monsters, anyway? Who is the true monster in Frankenstein? Is it the literal monster? The monster did not ask to be created, or disregarded to navigate a harsh life on his own. Is Victor the true monster? He did create life against nature, and disregarded his creation like a poor father figure. Or, is he to be forgiven because he was driven by science? What about the monster in us all who demands to “play God” and succumb to the illusion of choice?

Frankenstein is a gothic and horror novel, no doubt. If you’re not a fan of horror, though, I still beg you to consider reading this work. It is that good.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a poem that makes the list. I remember the first time I ever read this work. I was very young, and did not quite understand what it was about. After reading it a few times and discussing it with a class, I fell in love with the poem.

The poem practically begs audiences to self-examine their life decisions and potentiality. The reason I love this poem is for the language and imagery. I don’t want to give anything away, but this is a shorter poem that everyone should read at least once.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

The subtitle of this play is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” and it is, truly. The Importance of Being Earnest was the first work by Wilde that I ever read. It was required for a college class I was taking and the entire time I was reading I was laughing. The humor is witty, the dialogue is sharp, and the romance is hilarious.

I think my favorite thing about this play is that it is a satire. Wilde took the novel-of-manners style that authors such as Jane Austin wrote and completely satirized the concept. What audiences are left with is raw absurdity.

This play is not that long, and if you have the opportunity, I recommend reading it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

I have never been more heartbroken for a character in a book than I was for Benjy Compson. Quentin Compson is a close second. Faulkner is perhaps my favorite American author, and I love to study his works because they are all somehow related. They all take place in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The Sound and the Fury is my favorite of his works.

This is another work that I like for many reasons. First, this novel changed how I thought about narration. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and it makes the story very rich. The second thing I like about this novel is how it warps time. Without getting overly philosophical about the whole thing, time does not abide by earthly time elements in this story, and time itself is almost like a character. My last reason for loving The Sound and the Fury is the character development. Each character touches the audience personally, and it is so beautiful and painful all at the same time.

The only problem with this book is that for the first half of the novel audiences are completely confused. It sounds, as Shakespeare said, like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If you decide to pick up this work, do yourself a favor and finish it.

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll

I have to preface this with saying that I am a huge fan of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I love his naturalistic way of writing, and his ability to connect with the experiences of everyday life.

This piece of non-fiction is very interesting because not only does Heaney and O’Driscoll discuss his poetry and influences, but he also talks about other aspects of his life. He talks about his family life, his marriage, his children, etc. Even more interestingly, he discusses what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles as a Catholic. It is an amazing set of interviews.

Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, it’s a great book. The reason it made this list is because I loved the historical insight of one of my favorite writers. I also liked learning about Northern Ireland in general.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The beginning of this blog post should have given a clue to this one. The Great Gatsby was the first book that ever made me cry while reading. It is an American classic, and has been made into many different film adaptations.

My favorite thing about this book though is it’s confrontation with the idea of the American Dream. As an American, this book is important to our culture and history. It shows us the evils of the American Dream, and the pleasures of it at the same time. It is showy and highlights the fun time that the roaring 20s were, while juxtaposing the horrors and pain of the time period, also.

This book did change the way that I read literature. I felt true emotion while reading for the first time in my entire life.

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