When Do Books Stop Changing Our Lives?

I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver the year it came out.  Jonas, the “Receiver of Memory,” was 12 years old, and so was I.  I loved the book, though the details of what I loved about it have faded from my memory over the last two decades.  When the Huffington Post asked whether Lowry has ever considered writing fiction for adults, a deviation J.K. Rowling attempted in A Casual Vacancy with mixed success, Lowry replied:

Early on I came to realize something, and it came from the mail I received from kids. That is, kids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don’t think thats true of adults as much. I’m an adult, I read, I’m no longer going to be changed by it. I think writing for kids is profoundly important. (emphasis added)

I agree that writing for kids is profoundly important.  The degree to which The Giver changed the way I thought about the world at the age of 12, I cannot say specifically, but I do believe that each and every book I read at the time added to my growing world view in some way.  These books introduced me to words, concepts, and lessons that I continue to carry with me today.  Given the impact literature can have on the impressionable adolescent, I hold literature aimed at them to a high standard. Ideally, a children’s book would have a worthwhile message, one that isn’t steeped in stereotypes and narrow-mindedness (not that I would support banning if a book does not meet this standard).

One of the books that I remember changing my view of the world is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a nonfiction book (sometimes called narrative or creative nonfiction) which I read when I was 20-years-old, when I was admittedly not an adolescent, but was still far more impressionable than I am today.  It was required reading in an Asian American history class I took in college.

Fadiman’s book focuses on the heartbreaking case of Lia Lee, a Hmong-American child with epilepsy, which, according to her parents happened when “the spirit catches you and you fall down.”  It explores the conflict between Lee’s family and the Western medical and social services systems in Merced County, California in the 1980s.  While some of the minor specifics of the story seem dated, such as the fact that the subsequent passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) has probably changed the way the medical community may communicate with the Hmong hierarchy beyond the patient, the story is a timeless, balanced example of the tragic consequences of cultural misunderstanding.

It was an eye-opening book for me, even though I was not a young child nor was I from a sheltered, homogenous background.  In fact, I was well aware of cultural differences with a Muslim mother from Sri Lanka and an American father of Irish, Sioux, and Basque ancestry who raised me and my two sisters in a predominantly Jewish community on the outskirts of a minority-majority large city.  Still, Fadiman’s book encouraged me to think more deeply about ideas that had already been percolating in my mind.

A decade later, I am a public interest lawyer who works on behalf of people with backgrounds different from my own, and now that I have children who have had lengthy hospital stays, I relate to this book a little differently from the way I did when I was 20, still in college, and childless.  My sympathy for the Hmong parents versus the Western doctors (and their degree of culpability) has changed over the years, but the book’s lessons of cultural sensitivity and personal autonomy are no less important.  This book has affected the way I live my life, the way I practice law, and the way I raise my children.

Now I’m wondering when the next book will affect me as much as Fadiman’s book did.  Research tends to support Lowry’s observation that adults tend to be less adaptable than children and younger adults.  As a busy mother and lawyer without much free time, I prefer escapist, fun books that have more entertainment value than life-changing potential, but I am hopeful that there may be at least a handful of books out there that will encourage me to change my world view to some extent.  I don’t think I’m set in my ways just yet.  To think otherwise would make me feel old.

28 thoughts on “When Do Books Stop Changing Our Lives?

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  11. How has your “sympathy for the Hmong parents versus the Western doctors (and their degree of culpability) . . . changed over the years”? I read Fadiman’s book once and have never re-read it, so my feelings for the book never changed. I’m curious how yours have.

    1. Hi! Sorry for my extremely delayed response. I wish I had seen your question when the details of the book were a bit fresher in my mind. The first time I read the book, I was a childless, privileged college student who was lucky enough to have had few interactions with the medical establishment. Today, I look at the book from the perspective of a parent of children who had serious health issues at birth, a woman who had a nightmarish obstetrical experience, and a lawyer who works on behalf of a diverse population.

      While I continue to respect cultural perspectives different from my own and I would rarely want to interfere, I am less willing today to accept a parent’s unscientific approach to the well-being of his/her child when it endangers the child’s life (each situation requires a case-by-case analysis, and, if possible, it is preferable to provide additional support to the family to obviate the need for intervention). My heart broke for Lia’s parents and I wish the medical practitioners had done more to bridge the cultural misunderstandings, but I did not feel as sympathetic to Lia’s parents as I once did.

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  13. Interesting question. There are definitely books that make a big impression on me as an adult, but I don’t think the impression is quite as profound as it was when I was a child. The books I read as a little girl are still with me (prime example: my little one is named both after her great-grandmother and the title character in a trilogy of books that were my. absolute. favorites. as a young reader – the “Emily of New Moon” series by L.M. Montgomery). I don’t think any adult books have impacted me the way children’s and young adult books have – but I wonder if that’s because I don’t expect or ask them to do so. As a young reader I was out for a mind-altering experience every time I read. These days, I hardly ask that of the books I read, although I do expect them to be well-written, attention-grabbing and emotional. Maybe the reason children are more profoundly influenced by books than adults is that adults simply don’t demand that kind of influence… I’m going to be thinking about this.

    1. I loved L.M. Montgomery’s “Emily of New Moon” series! It’s interesting to think that part of the problem may be that adults don’t demand books that could alter their world views. I’m going to be thinking about that a bit more, too.

    2. BTW- One of the themes in Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of time” (which I wrote about yesterday) reminded me of your comment (from October!) about adults not asking for “that kind of influence.” The main character, Alan Grant, is uncovering information about Richard III that counters commonly held beliefs. Grant notices (through his cousin Laura) that people are resistant to exposure to ideas that disturb their world views. He says, “Perhaps there was something in Laura’s theory that human nature found it difficult to give up preconceived beliefs. That there was some vague inward opposition to, and resentment of, a reversal of accepted fact.” Just thought I would mention it! “The Daughter of Time” is an amusing, quick read, if you haven’t read it already.

  14. What a powerful and important post. Thank you. I agree with you that, as we are forming our worldview, specific books can have a huge and lasting impact. The biography of Marie Curie and autobiography of Albert Schweitzer were two such books for me when I was a teenager (a very long time ago). I’d have to say that some of Barbara Kingsolver’s books have had a profound effect on me as an adult, such as The Poisonwood Bible.

    1. I have found that non-fiction books, like biographies and autobiographies, tend to impact my thinking more than fictional books do. Thanks for mentioning Barbara Kingsolver. I’m going to have to check out The Poisonwood Bible.

  15. it doesn’t happen as often any more, but there are still books that impress me deeply. others don’t seem to leave much behind until a few months, years later I remember a tiny bit at the right moment. many are just escapism. I actually think that eventually the number of books that make you stop and think will grow again, along with your own growing experience. but that might not be true for everyone.

    1. There are books that impress me deeply, too, and even make me think, but none in recent years that I can say has changed my perspective on the important issues in my life or in how I see the world. I suspect there will be books in my future that will fall into that category, and I’m looking forward to finding them. At the same time, though, part of me likes the comfort of being “settled in my ways,” even if it’s a bit boring and narrow-minded.

  16. I think it has more to do with how often we change our world view significantly than with age, to be honest.

    If you stop stirring oatmeal it settles, sets, and becomes difficult to get moving again. Similarly, as we encounter fewer and fewer new ideas and modes of thought our minds begin to stagnate. They settle into their ruts of comfortable thought, and change becomes difficult.

    This is often a function of age, but I stop short of calling it a necessary consequence. Having expatriated to China 8 years ago, learned Mandarin (my 5th language) and started a number of (failed) businesses in a variety of industries (a bakery, and a training school were two of them) my oatmeal is still spinning quite vigorously. I am also still as easily moved by a well told story at 37 as I was at 12.

    1. That makes sense. Some people may be more flexible than others as they age, and being in new situations may help maintain that flexibility. I’m a fairly risk averse person, a personality trait that probably makes me less adaptable to new, potentially eye-opening situations. Still, I am capable of being moved by a well-told story, but feeling emotionally moved by a story isn’t always the same thing as being changed by it.

  17. I think it’s probably a gradual process where we get more set in our ways of thinking over time and thus it is harder for a single book to shape us as much. I’m with you in the optimism that there is always the potential for books to change my worldview. My recent effort to read books from around the world has led me to several books which have had a big impact on me, though I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say they changed my life.

    1. Part of what I like about your effort to read books from around the world is that it introduces you to a wide range of material. Most readers stick to one or two genres and so books tend to have similar themes and similar ideas. I used to be that way, and while I still prefer escapist books, I try to read books that take me outside of my comfort zone from time to time.

  18. You noted a really important point in how reading affects children and well into adulthood. We often don’t think how books have helped shape our lives and the way we now look at things. I am impressed with the direction your career has taken you, so different from (less selfish) those of many of your contemporaries.

    1. Thank you! In this post, I probably should have noted the importance of “To Kill A Mockingbird” on my chosen career path. That’s a great example of a book aimed at a young audience that has affected many people.

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