Friday, April 27, 2007

Books that Change Lives

More interesting survey results from across the pond:

The organizers of the Orange Prize for women’s fiction asked groups of men and women to name the novels that had changed their lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, women typically chose books about relationships and families—think Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. Almost every woman had a favorite “milestone book,” although the titles that emerged were varied, ranging from Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Anna Karenina and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Men, on the other hand, seemed to have a hard time admitting to having either watershed moments in their lives or watershed books, and the books they chose tended to be angst-ridden tales about “intellectual struggle, violence, personal vulnerability, catastrophe, and the struggle to rise above circumstances.” Think Camus’ The Outsider, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Interestingly, most men named books they had read as children, particularly around the age of 15. In fact, many men between the ages of 20 and 40 expressed little to no interest in reading books that drew them into “personal introspection.” Those who continued reading fiction as they aged, however, became more and more interested in books by women.

The survey authors discovered that, in general, men use fiction “topographically,” as a guide through the rites of passage into adulthood, often seeing their favorite authors as mentors. Women, on the other hand, tend to use fiction “metaphorically,” as support through an emotional crises such as a difficult divorce or for relief from the boredom of unfulfilling stretches of their lives.

Four books appeared in the top 20 of both sexes: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, and To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, by the androgynous-sounding Harper Lee, was the only book by a woman in the men’s top 20. There were six books by unambiguously named male authors in the women’s top 20.

After I read this article, I found myself thinking, Okay, what book above all others would I say “sustained me through key moments of transition or crises in my life?” That’s a very different question from, say, “What’s your favorite book?” Maybe I’m being guy-like here, but I’m having a hard time coming up with something. I’ll get back to you…

For the article, click here.

5 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

As much as I love books and love to read, I don't reach for any specific book or books when I need "sustaining" or need help dealing with some personal crisis. The closest I suppose I could come to such a book would be Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, which certainly left a very strong and transcendent effect on me.

liz fenwick said...

I can't think of any book immediately........

RichardS said...

Tough question. I can think of writers whose work I can re-read to gain inspiration, but individual books is a lot harder to consider.

Sphinx Ink said...

It's hard to choose a single book, since several pop up immediately. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD did indeed have a great effect on me. JANE EYRE was another seminal book for me. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was more significant and I've reread it many times over the years. BLACK BEAUTY influenced me as a child by show me the animal's perspective of its life.

Despite the thousands of books I've read over my lifetime, no others jump out immediately at me, but I'm sure I could come up with a number of others on reflection.

Steve Malley said...

I guess I *do*, in guylike fashion, use books as mentors and guides. And I'm a big believer in that Zen aphorism, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

John D. McDonald, Robert Heinlein, VS Naipal and Kurt Vonnegut all showed up at just the right times in my life and were immediately taken to heart.

Gone With the Wind, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Rebecca were all powerful, thought-provoking books that shook me to the core and made me build something stronger to include them...

And when I need sustaining in those down times, I turn again and again to the same three authors:

The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
The Discourses of Epictetus, and
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

One could do a lot worse than to listen to those three on a dark night...