Books that change your life

lowellI’ve been reading some essays by C.K. Williams (who wrote last week’s poem). In one essay he talks about reading a book by Robert Lowell, Imitations, which broke open a new way of thinking about poetry.

Imitations was influential and controversial. Lowell took poems in other languages and rather than translate them, he created his own poems in English inspired by them. Many deplored this technique, finding it arrogant and disrespectful. But it definitely gave poets something to think about. For Williams, it “released something in me I hadn’t grasped had been keeping me from moving ahead in my own work.”

How amazing it is that books can crack you open, can shed light into your own struggles and world view. For me the two books that did that were first Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, then twenty years later, The Gold Cell, by Sharon Olds. In both cases these are uniquely women’s voices writing about subjects that hadn’t necessarily been in the poetic lexicon before. Reading them I felt some mixture of awe, jealousy, and gratitude for this work. Most of all they inspired to write in ways that hadn’t felt possible before.

There has been no single work of fiction that has had the same thunderbolt effect for me, but many books have helped form my world view, from Tag Along Tooloo to the Narnia books to Zorba the Greek to Lonesome Dove to Invisible Cities to My Brilliant Friend. Fiction can provide visions of the world that have a deep, echoing resonance throughout your life. I realize I believed more strongly in the fictional world, than in the constrained, suburban environment I  grew up in. I expected to grow up into that fictional world, and in some ways I did. I wonder what books have influenced you?

2 thoughts on “Books that change your life

  1. I’ll never forget when I first read “Heine Dying in Paris”:

    “sleep is lovely, death is better still,
    not to have been born is of course the miracle.”


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