Monday, March 11, 2013

How Literature Changes Lives - and my life

Part of the Beacons evening included a discussion on how Literature can change lives and in order to prepare for this I quickly made some notes - and since I don't know what else to do with them I thought I might as well publish them here.  

1.  All writers must have had their lives changed by literature.  They must have been so impressed by it at one stage that they want to devote their lives to producing more of it.

2. Children's fiction - perhaps the most powerful influence.
The first set of books I remember loving were Narnian books by C.S. Lewis.  I read them until they fell apart. 
Other notable books were the Borrowers by Andre Norton, which I would love to say made me more careful about what I threw away, but didn't, Rosemary Sutcliffe novels particularly Eagle of the Ninth, which I guess influenced me because I came to be interested in history,  a Japanese book called Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr about a child suffering from radiation sickness after the bomb in Hiroshima which really woke me up to the atrocities of war and a general sympathy with the anti bomb movement, and then a series of books on The Tripods by John Christopher- one of the first science fiction books I read. Many more were to follow.

3. Spiritual influence
I suppose the Narnia books were intended to be spiritual ones - but to be honest they didn't have a spiritual effect on me. However, I am sure that some people are spiritually inspired by books .e.g. I was reading a non-fiction book called Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar recently, and in that he said a novel written by a mystic The Book of Strangers by Abdu Qadir who was a Muslim convert formerly known as Ian Dallas,  drew Sardar  to exploring a form of Sufi Islam.   So a big inspiration for him.

Of course the ultimate example of a book changing lives are the Bible and Qur'an and the Budhhist Sutras.  These have all changed countless lives.  In fact changed the world.  Are these literature?  I would certainly say that some of it is.

4.  Political effects.

Political books can also change lives: Mao's The Red Book of Guerilla Warfare is still and important item in China and for a time replaced religion.  Similarly Karl Marx's Das Capital, or the theory of various thinkers in Economics e.g. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes have had big influences on people in government and so have changed lives.  The same applies to philosophical works.  For instance, the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers written down by their students have changed the world - and again, although not novels might be regarded as literature. 

5.  Scientific
The first adult book that I wrote was  inspired by a book - but  was not literature Arthur Holmes Principles of Physical Geology - I learnt about Continental Drift which inspired my Wegener book.

Scientific books can be powerful - just as powerful as any others because the ideas are concrete: Charles Darwin's Origin of Species must have changed many lives, and he in turn was changed by Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population.  I have heard that many Nobel Scientists of the twentieth century were inspired by a book called the Microbe Hunters  by Paul de Kruif which described the lives of scientists such as Pasteur.  This undoubtedly changed the way their lives were going and felt inspired to do science.  Some of these are so well written, I think they could be called literature.  Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is often quoted as the book that started a lot of people thinking about what we are doing to our environment. 

6.  Pyschology books have inspired my life to a large extent.  Oliver Sachs' books on the brain The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and a less well-known book The boy who was raised as a dog by Bruce Perry, as well as various books on memory such as Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough and Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older by Duowe Draaisma have all caused me to change my thinking.  And again are literature in their own way...

7.  Similarly, anthropological books like Don't Sleep there are snakes by Daniel Everett about a missionary linguist living with a tribe of Amazonian Indians who do not have words for times further away than a month, or numbers greater than 10 made me question how I see the world and inspired me.

8.  History books are also a great source of inspiration.  It can be our only key to the past.  Reading memoirs and witness accounts of a time can inspire a desire to investigate and write about them.  It again helps to think about things differently - which makes life interesting.  For example my Hoffmann novel was inspired by history books  as well as literature (in particular Struwwelpeter - a  book of cautionary tales for children from an early psychiatrist). 

9.  Literature.  If I look at my bookshelves I would say virtually every book that I have read has inspired me to some degree.  Sometimes it is the beauty of the writing.  e.g Beloved by Toni Morrison.  God of Small Things by Anjurati Roy.

10.  Often it is the form e.g The first story in Hotel World by Ali Smith which was written from the point of view of a ghost.  Or Martin Amis's John Self in Money - a greedy capitalist.  Or The Incident of the Dog in the Night time  - an autistic child or even Carol Shields' Happenstance - looking at a story from the husband's and the wife's point of view - depending on which way up you hold the book.  Or Angela Carter's viewpoint which always seems other-worldly to me. And then there was Ray Bradbury's Science Fiction.  I loved this - he would take an incredible scenario and make it convincing.    All these encouraged me to be more adventurous with my writing.  I went through a phase of reading every yellow Gollancz book on the shelf in my local library.  They were of varying literary value, I suppose but they made me think - and so, to a small degree they changed my life. 

Rodge Glass, me, Gregory Norminton and Cathy Bolton at the launch of Beacons: photo by Emma Norminton

11.  Then there is the plot.  Sometimes the story - the twists and turns inspire, shock and amuse.  e.g. Joanne Harris's Gentlemen Players  and Gregory's Serious Things - but virtually every good thriller and crime fiction book that I've come across. 

12. Then there is the setting that inspires.  Sometimes so strong is part of the story: as in Rodge's story We're all Gonna have the Blues.  To some extent the setting can be as inspiring as any character.  It is something to pitch against.  Particularly important in books about the environment - like McCarthy's Road.  Another example was Jim Crace's Quarantine: another inspiring book. 

 13.  Then, finally, there is character.  It is character that I find most inspiring in a book.  A good strong character can inhabit my mind for long after I've read it, and I have read so many I'd find it difficult to name just one, but one of my neighbours has a child called Rebecca: a name chosen just after the mother had just finished a certain book by Daphne Du Maurier she told me once.  It may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed one person's life.


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think one thing I might’ve added here—after, of course, I’d changed every single one of your books to reflect my own life (I might keep The Road and, I suppose, The Bible)—would be to consider the books that show me how I’ve grown as a person, the ones we reread from times to time to get a measure of ourselves. I read The Catcher in the Rye in my early teens and loved it (although I related more to Billy Liar) but when I reread it in my thirties it failed to have any real impact on me. I haven’t read Billy Liar for a while but I did watch the film about a year ago—with the always excellent Tom Courtenay—and I was tearing-up at the end. A book I read every ten years or so is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which had little impact on my when I read it at sixteen but is a book I’ve grown in appreciation for as I’ve aged. I see you don’t have ‘humour’ on your list. I’m not really interested in books as entertainment but I do love a book with a sense of humour; I think a writer with no sense of humour is no writer at all. That’s what people fail to see in Beckett, just how funny the man can be. Although best known as a playwright I’d add something by Alan Bennett to my list; his deadpan humour is subtle and he was definitely in the back of my mind when I wrote my own short stories.

Tue Mar 12, 10:45:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Interesting comments, jim - yes different lists for different tastes. I agree that humour is important but don't agree that none of the books on my list have humour. Money by Amis is very funny, In my opinion - and several others have humorous sections.

Tue Mar 12, 01:02:00 pm  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, I wasn't suggesting that none of your books had any humour in them, just that you hadn't highlighted 'humour' as a category. I'm sure there's plenty of overlap and books could fit into different categories.

Tue Mar 12, 04:17:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

True, very good point, Jim.

Tue Mar 12, 08:33:00 pm  
Blogger jem said...

A great post - and it's made me want to spend some time thinking about how my own reading has changed and influenced me.

I agree with Jim's point. I often try a book, don't connect, try again a bit later in life and it clicks. Or realise that something I've read when younger wouldn't have the same impact now I'm older. I only recently read The Handmaid's Tale and I know it wouldn't have said half as much to me even five years earlier.

I think something literature or any writing does for me is show me facets that I might not immediatly notice. Springing to mind is Dracula - which steps up as Gothic horror, but actually says so much more about love. And my occasional dippings into pop. science books always amaze me at how much beauty and magic and art lies within the world of cold hard facts.

Fri Mar 15, 10:15:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Very well put, Jem. Yes, I agree that tastes change through life (and also maybe mood). I suppose it makes book reviewing problematic.

You make me want to read Dracula!

Fri Mar 15, 09:01:00 pm  

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