I had a wonderfully self-indulgent day yesterday, spent in springtime Barcelona to give a talk on ‘the books that changed my
life’, invited by ISGlobal, a health thinktank. The occasion was St George’s Day, when in Catalunya, the tradition is for men to give women a rose, and women give men a book. I know. Apparently the gender division has weakened a bit, with women getting books, but not many men get roses. Anyway, the streets of the city were were heaving with people and littered with stalls, bedecked in the red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag, selling an astonishing variety of books and a lot of roses. Lovely. (St George is also a big deal in Ethiopia, by the way, as well as being England’s patron saint – anywhere else?)
For the talk, I decided to do the job properly, going back to childhood and really trying to think through which books influenced me. I heartily recommend the exercise – when he read it, my son announced that everyone should write their own. The biggest burst of nostalgia came from searching online for the original covers of the books for the accompanying powerpoint – some of which I hadn’t seen for decades. Here’s the full 3,000 word speech if you’re interested (The Books that Changed my Life), and the powerpoint of book covers (The Books that Changed My Life final).
A few general observations: first, let’s be honest – books have seldom ‘changed my life’ – nowhere near as much as people, school, jobs, life events, or probably even TV and film.
Second honest point: The books that have had the most profound impact tended to be the ones I read in my early years. I suspect this is a general truth – people’s deep world views and values are shaped more by what they read as children. If you want to really change the next generation, think JK Rowling, rather than Thomas Piketty.
Looking back over nearly 50 years of book-reading, I see a shape and a path of which I was previously rather unaware – the construction of that moral framework through child and teenager fiction, then in my early 20s a move from fiction to non-fiction, with the
recently departed Eduardo Galeano marking the moment of transition in my early 20s.
After that, non-fiction fleshed out that moral framework with people, issues and countries, first in Latin America, then everywhere. I moved through a series of disciplinary lenses – economics, history, anthropology, the lived reality of poor people, the salience of power, politics and systems, each adding new layers.
Books both created blind alleys and rescued me from the consequences (e.g the emotional
deserts of science fiction or excessive economism). Perhaps a low boredom threshold and contrarian tendencies has kept me from getting stuck and stopped me just reading to confirm existing opinions and approaches. As President Bartlett says in West Wing (which in recent years has influenced me at least as much as most books), ‘what’s next?’
And what of the students who yesterday were forced to sit through this massive exercise in Narcissism – will their paths be different? We discussed it a bit. They get their messages far more readily and in more variety these days – when they come to look back, it may be video games or box sets (maybe even blogs, but I doubt it) that they identify as their formative influences.
That busy-ness opens more routes to personal development, but perhaps blocks off some others – it’s hard to imagine kids today spending months studying a single novel, as I did with Ulysses or The Myth of Sisyphus when I was supposed to be studying physics. Or a poem like The Wasteland. Or taking refuge from the alienation of adolescence in multiple readings of Lord of the Rings. We are all twitchy with attention deficit these days – I wonder how that affects the way those deeper value frameworks form? Can blogs and twitter really provide a moral compass for life?
Over to you for comments on ‘if not books then what?’, and some honest revelations of the books that shaped you (and if you claim it’s Proust, I’ll assume you’re just trying to impress….)