I'm really not sure if books can change lives. Predetestination, Determinism, Science, etc. And even if they can, it's kinda hard to find a perspective from which to judge whether an individual book has lived up to such lofty criteria. I really don't know if my life would have been any different without Spot the Dog or Where's Wally?. On the other hand though, if any book could be said to have “changed my life”, then surely all books I have read could too, however insignificantly. But this makes the phrase “changed my life” seem trite and prosaic, almost meaningless. Setting aside these deconstructive semantics, of which Derrida would be proud (and maybe putting away the name dropping too) I think much easier and less fraught question can be asked: “What book do I remember best?”.
Probably The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. But that doesn't really count, seeing on only finished it today. I lack the Kantian aesthetic distance required for proper judgment. So instead I will say George Orwell's 1984. Skipping from Predestination to precognition, I can see prospective readers groaning ironically (if that is possible) at this choice, usually the fanfare of pseudo-intellectual teenagers. We are back to the trite and prosaic apparently. But hear me out.
I think I first read 1984 when I was about ten. And like most ten year olds I didn't understand a fucking word of it and didn't finish it (went back to my pro-yo or something). All I knew was that it was (quote) greate literature (unquote) and that it ought to be read as part of a decent (quote) cultural education (unquote). I came back to it when I was about fifteen to find that, while the actual book had decayed considerably sitting on my parents book shelf, the content seemed to have miraculously improved. It was good. Seriously fucking good. It had everything any fifteen year old would want. Sex, Violence, Jewbashing, all the good stuff. Yet it also had something for the discerning reader. The historico-political references were cognitive reinforcement heroin to a kid raised on the History Channel. Most of all though, it had tragedy. Not weak-arse Romeo and Juliet type tragedy, but proper, gut wrenching, so-bleak-you-want-to-cry, tragedy. Pathos, I think Aristotle would say.And of such an all encompassing kind too. Things are not getting better, good does not triumph over evil, the entire future of the planet is simply a boot stomping on a human face. Eternally, just stomping. Or at least I thought at the time.
Looking back, with a little aesthetic distance of my own, I can certainly see the flaws. Like most of Orwell's writing, it is transparently didactic and an obvious expression of its author's politics. And as I recently found out, the concept, plot, themes and conclusion were a complete rip-off of an earlier work by Evgeny Zamyatin. The curious thing though, is that this didn't really matter then, and it still doesn't now. For better or for worse, 1984 meant something to me, and it still does. Not because it changed my life, but because it is so inextricably tied up with a time when it wasn't necessary to judge a book intellectually, or deconstructively, or in a Kantian manner, or in an Aristotelian manner, and it wasn't important to think about whether it was 'cliched' to like it or not, or even to find it necessary to put scare quotes around words to distance myself from them. It could just be enjoyed because it was so fucking good.
- B. Richardson