The title of this post may be slightly misleading. And the post is something of a ramble on.
You see occasionally people talking about books that changed their life. Some of it may be just fiction, the “Oh my god, you have to read this, it changed my life” meme that shows up in movies and TV; but sometimes real. Often it’s lifestyle books, or philosophy; other times it’s that one novel that just struck a chord with someone and kept them coming back to it. Whatever the case, the idea is the same: a book that struck you so profoundly that it changed the way you see the world, or the direction your life was taking.
I don’t think I’ve ever had one of those moments. There have certainly been books that hit me on a deep level, that left me feeling exhilarated after finishing them simply from being just that good, but the feeling that such a book had changed everything to the degree implied in the above cases never came.
In a strictly literal sense, of course, every book changes your life. And in that sense, it’s actually true that one book has probably changed my life much more than any others. That book would be Stephen R Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane. Not so much for its content, but for where it led me.
I picked up Lord Foul’s Bane in the school library when I was about fourteen (half a life ago), and I am pretty sure it was the first time in years I’d really put time into reading for my own pleasure. I had been a voracious reader as a child, but had dropped out of the habit as I got older. LFB brought me back into the habit – so there’s one sense in which it changed my life. That christmas, I asked my parents to buy me the whole series. I’ve been asking for books for christmas every year since.
The other way that reading this one book drove my life is that a few years after I first read the series, I joined a message board dedicated to the works of Stephen R Donaldson, Kevin’s Watch. I’ve been an active member of that message board for a little over ten years now, although I rarely spend any time discussing Donaldson’s books any more. There’s a large and active (though sadly less than it once was) portion of the site dedicated to other interests and other writers, and that’s where most of my attention goes. Visiting and posting on Kevin’s Watch led me to hearing about other authors and trying them out. I first heard there about writers like George RR Martin and Steven Erikson, while I was still heavily in my “epic fantasy” phase; later other names like Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville came to my attention, and reading their books sent me off in entirely new directions with my reading.
Because of my time on Kevin’s Watch, I started following author blogs like Jeff VanderMeer’s and John Scalzi’s, Elizabeth Bear’s and Jay Lake’s, and a lot more. Of course, over the years more and more of the books I chose to buy came from hearing about them on those blogs, and less from the message board (I spent a year or two in university where almost everything I read had been recommended by Jeff VanderMeer) but without Kevin’s Watch I’d not have come to them in the first place.
So in that sense, one book has changed my life. I don’t know where I’d be now, and what I’d be doing if I hadn’t read Lord Foul’s Bane. But that book was just one starting point (and may not have been the only one. There was Le Guin’s Earthsea at age 9 or 10. There was the Chronicles of Narnia. There were the books of Enid Blyton even before those).
The real things that change my life – constantly, in an ongoing process – are smaller, gradual, and don’t give that big jolt of “Oh my god”; they build up knowledge and understanding until your perspective has shifted without realising.
The last few years offer a good example. Through chains of references and links, I have found myself at various times following blogs by Cheryl Morgan, Nicola Griffith, Kameron Hurley, and more. On Twitter (which I joined in part because of John Scalzi) I follow people like Saladin Ahmed, N K Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Maureen Johnson. I’m not trying to be comprehensive here, just throwing out some of the names that come to mind. But the general trend in the blogs and twitter accounts I’ve been following in the last couple of years has meant a shift in the viewpoints I’m seeing, and in the kinds of articles and books I’m reading.
The effects can be seen in the way my blog posting has shifted recently, with me more often attempting – in my own inadequate and half-formed way – to talk about issues of gender, sexuality, race. I’ve become conscious of those issues in a way I never had been, through the people I’m following online, and the things they’ve led me to read.
And I think that is the point I want to make here, although I’ve taken something of a roundabout route to reach it. It’s not books that have changed my life. I haven’t had that moment where a book speaks to me so much that it alters me profoundly. Lord Foul’s Bane may have led me to Kevin’s Watch, but it was the Kevin’s Watch members who led me to all the other great authors I discovered. It was the people I started following because of their writing that led me to all of the reading that changed (is changing, will keep changing) my perspective.
It wasn’t the books that changed my life – it was the people.
(Oh, and you should totally think about following all those people I linked to, and more.)