Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Transformation Through Books Meme

Someone else must have done this, but I thought it up myself, and I think it is at least as good as any other meme, so here goes.

It's the "Name Ten Things You Have Read That Have Transformed You" meme. Now, this meme is not the "Name Ten Books That You Love" meme, nor even "Ten Books You Admire". It doesn't even have to be books; it can be a bank statement, as far as I'm concerned. The important part is that you read it, and your life changed as a result. If ten is too many, you can list five.

Transformation is often a matter of timing. A silly book can transform you simply because at that moment you are open to something that triggers a new way of thinking. If you had read it earlier or later, maybe it wouldn't have had an impact. Of course, the truly best books are most likely to be the most transformative to the most number of people.

Here are ten of mine, in no particular order:

1. Bible

The Bible transformed society well before I came along. The ideas it contains, while surprising in retrospect, didn't really transform me. To understand why the bible transformed me, you have to know that the text and commentaries of the bible are the Jewish yoke, meant to be studied day in and day out, time permitting. We go through it every year. We read a sentence, we raise questions on an idea, a word or a letter, or a cantellation. We cross-reference similar material, we try to understand the commentaries. Etc. etc.

The Bible was a transformation for me the day that I understood it to be the omnipresent part of the world that would always be about something outside of myself. The world turns and I am just a small person in it. But my job is to do the best I can, anyway, because that's why I'm here.

2. Hugh and Gayle Pranther: Notes to Each Other

There are lots of sucky and shallow self-help books out there, most of them written for a quick buck, and most of them telling you how to liberate yourself from other people's needs. There are a number of reasonably good self-help or inspirational books. There are very few great modern inspirational books. These guys top the charts.

Hugh and Gayle are both pastors and counselors who have been through hell in their marriage, but have always committed to getting through the muck to the other side. Their ideals are impressive, but even moreso is their ability to convey these ideals in a grounded manner. Their other books are top notch and must-haves. But Notes to Myself and Notes to Each Other are wonderfully poetic and brilliant, without losing sight of the messages they convey.

Reading Notes to Each Other, their best book, was a wakeup call to me that a true relationship does not consist of two wholly independent people fulfilling their own needs. To make it work, the relationship itself needs to be treated like a child, to whom you must give without the constant expectation of reward. The reward comes from the intrinsic nature of commitment. One quote that always stays with me: "We keep having this argument in the expectation that: this time, I'll win."

3. Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

A long read but a real gem. Robert talks about the ideas of quality and perseverance, ideas that are long gone in our modern world unless you are a hacker. The scene that sticks with me is when he is having his motorcycle fixed and he tells the mechanic that he just doesn't understand motors. The mechanic tells him, "That's because you don't care enough to." I.e. any intelligent person who cares enough to try should be able to understand it. I don't think this is true about all people all of the time, but it was certainly an eye-opener for me.

4. Judith Martin: Miss Manners columns

I had good role models for ethics, but no exceptional models for good manners, unfortunately. Judith Martin, aside from being a witty and brilliant, lays down modern manners so effortlessly that you can't help but realize the sense of what she is saying. I don't agree with every position she holds, only 99%.

I learned numerous ideas from her: that Manners and Law are complementary but must be separate. That consideration for others infuses every moment of our lives, even when setting a table. That perfect manners is the best offense against rudeness. And that being well-mannered does not imply being a pushover.

5. Penelope Leach: Your Baby and Child

I must have read 30 birthing books and 30 child raising books. For birthing, the best was New Active Birth - not life-changing, however. Penelope Leach changed the way I thought about children, namely, from their point of view. The chapter openers and closers for each stage of life were mind-opening experiences into the life and development of my children. After reading them, I became the sympathetic parent that I am today.

6. Susan Coolidge: What Katy Did at School

"What Katy Did" was a nice book, but similar to a dozen others. "What Katy Did at School" transformed me because of three simple words in the middle of the book: "Live it Down." Katy is falsely accused of something and her instinct is to protest and leave the school. But, after thinking those three words, she realizes that the best way to deal with false accusations is to live it down - continue being a good outstanding person, and eventually the people accusing you will realize how wrong they were.

This was an inspiration, both in terms of how to be moral in the face of immorality, and (again) the concept of perseverance despite adversity. After reading this, I began to care a little less about what people thought and a little more about doing what I knew was right.

7. The alt.support.depression FAQ list

Months before my divorce I became depressed. Depression is like falling down a black well with no bottom in sight. As smart as I was, I knew that I should do happy things, go on with my life, etc.. But when I went from day to day, more miserable each day, I thought I was doing something wrong. I was a rag. I was in the constant grip of suicidal thoughts. I had to give away my gun (I lived in a settlement and carried one for defense). I couldn't drive at night.

I was just smart enough to try to find help. Reading this FAQ was like touching bottom in the well, looking up, and seeing the light. The first thing I learned was that depression is neurological, not just emotional. No matter how happy my situation, I wasn't going to snap out of it. I had to go to therapy. Everything in the document was so concrete, and so many people knew about it and understood what I was going through, that I finally began to crawl back up.

8. Gary Gygax: The 1st Edition AD&D Player's Handbook

Nine years old, reading this was the real difference between what my life was and what it would become. Until this book, I played games, yeah, and I rolled dice and moved pieces, but I was a spectator. AD&D put me into the designer's seat. I must have read it cover to cover twenty times. I created characters, then I created worlds. I became obsessed. My personal life became different, and so did my world view of what games could be.

9a. Ursula LeGuin: The preface to The Left Hand of Darkness
9b. William Gibson: Neuromancer

The first of these was a 15 or 20 page introduction to LHoD by Ursual LeGuin. I knew that I liked reading sci-fi, but I bought into the idea that sci-fi was not really literature, just fun escapist stuff. That meant that I thought I was the type of person who didn't really read serious books. The preface that she wrote introduced me to the idea that good sci-fi was just allegory, her book being a perfect example. LHoD talks about a race of people whose male and female characteristics are determined every month depending on who they're with. But this isn't about them; it's about us. What does this tell us about ourselves?

I knew after reading that book that even though I was reading sci-fi, I couldn't get away from the fact that I had to read good literature and not waste my time with crap. A while later, William Gibson was the first book I read that made me realize that sci-fi COULD BE good literature. It change my view of reading profoundly. After that, I began to seek out the best books from a literature point of view, and not just stick with sci-fi. However, I now had ammunition against those who claimed that all sci-fi was just junk.

10. Henry James: Portrait of a Lady

And this book made me realize that the best writing was so good that I had no hope of ever doing it. Actually, the story was pretty lame, and the exposition goes on far too long. But this was the first classic of English literature that I voluntarily read as an adult. It is written, in short, beautifully. You can't even write like that nowadays without sounding false and imitative. I went on to read other greats of all ages, and became inspired to try my hand at writing. Only, I needed a forum to write on every day ... something like a daily log.


Oh, yes, the meme. Well, I hereby tag you, my readers, to make your own lists and post them on your blog.

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