Books that Change Lives

By Billy Mitchell

Ant Jackson

Ant Jackson

I’ve always been under the impression that literature has the power to change the way we think. We always seem to hear people toss around the idea that some piece of art can change lives, yet I’ve always been skeptical of this notion. My way that I understood it, was that while experiencing a piece of art can work to change our lives, it works in conjunction with other factors; almost as a vehicle for the change as opposed to the motivator for change.

But as I think more on this subject, where does the power to change lives exist, if not in our own minds? If a piece of art causes us to think differently, isn’t it, in a sense, changing our life?

Let’s be clear with something. I’m not talking a massive, move-into-the-forest-and-live-off-the-land or suddenly take up an Eastern religion, change. I am not stating that reading a life-changing book means that we have to alter our lives in some large way. I’m talking about smaller—but pronounced—changes that take place in our minds; changes in how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we think about a certain situation or about morality or mortality. These characters’ interactions or these settings or situations that we read about slowly begin to take shape and create meaning within us, if we let them. While it may be too romantic or grandiose to come out and say: “This book changed my life,” it really isn’t that off-base. In fact, I don’t feel it is at all. Because small changes lead to big ones.

I had difficulty coming up with a concise list of books that have changed my life. Because, as I’ve been saying, these changes are not immense. They are small, sometimes miniscule shifts in consciousness. Without reflection, they can go unnoticed.

Without bringing my whole Kindle library into the picture, I’ve included two books that I can confidently say have changed the way I think. I’m sure I’m not alone in these choices.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.

Some pretty important people have claimed Kerouac’s rambling, methamphetamine- driven scroll has changed their lives. I first read On the Road in high school and I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I knew what I was reading was good (whatever that means) but I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was being said.

Lyndsay Dee

Lyndsay Dee

In its most stripped-down sense, On the Road is a novel about a character in the 1950’s who travels across the country. The plot revolves around Sal Paradise, his group of friends and a number of different characters that he meets in his travels in the United States and then in his final journey to Mexico City. Holding the story together is Dean Moriarty, Sal’s delinquent friend, a representation of the Road itself.

What always catches me while reading this book is the definition of “The Road.” During my first read, I thought of it as exactly what it is: a literal representation of a road, a means in which you travel from point A to point B. But “The Road” that is so important to Sal—who, of course, is a fictional representation of Kerouac himself—is really a physical manifestation of a symbol. The Road, “The Holy Road,” is the ability for us to change our way. The Road gives us the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. The road is a means of living, as opposed to merely existing.

I’m not really in the business of recommending books, but if I was, you bet I’d be recommending this one. It may not get you to stand up and hitchhike across the country…but then again, it just might.  

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.

In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a manic Bradley Cooper has this great scene where he has just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, and proceeds to throw the paperback out the window.

“I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” he screams at his parents, the father played by Robert Deniro. “Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story?’”

His mother then tells him that he owes them an apology for waking them up at four o’clock in the morning to talk about the ending of a book.

“Mom, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I’ll apologize on behalf of Earnest Hemingway. Because that’s who’s to blame here.”

Eifion

Eifion

I won’t lie. I had a relatively similar reaction to the ending of this novel. Although it has been described as Hemingway’s “bleakest” novel in its depictions of the horrors of war and the soldiers that partake in it, the moments of brightness that come through are what create something memorable. That, as Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is the truly amazing sentiment.

I think this aspect of brightness in a novel that is mostly dark is best summed up in a dialogue between Frederic Henry, the protagonist and Catherine Barkley, his nurse and the woman he loves:

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“Yes.”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“No.”

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Speakout! Journals as Adult Literacy Learning Tools

The following post is a followup to a 2010 blog found here, focusing on the efforts and success of the Speakout! adult literacy program.  

By Vani Kannan

Those of us who have facilitated with the Colorado State University Community Literacy Center have seen the excitement when the Speakout! journals are published. It’s gratifying to pass them out to the workshop participants so they can see the fruits of their labor in print. However, we may not see what happens to the journals after they’re published. We know that they circulate around Fort Collins, the state, country, and indeed, the globe (CLC Director Tobi Jacobi brought journals with her to a conference in Prague this past year). But how are they being pedagogically employed in community literacy work?

Speakout!

Before I came to CSU, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor at a public library in Brooklyn, NY. The students I worked with gravitated towards community literacy publications, particularly those that showcased the voices of language-learning writers. Students checked out the books from the library after our Saturday classes and brought them home to read during the week. They often came to class on Saturday having finished an entire collection of writing, and looking for something new.

Unfortunately, we ran out of such books quickly. It’s hard to find publications specifically tailored to adult literacy students—particularly language-learners and first-time writers. Students at the library responded well to texts with content that was relevant to their lives (e.g., essays on work and family), but written at an accessible reading level. The small grassroots press that had put out the collections we used at the library had gone out of business years earlier. Because of this, the library literacy center coordinators had to look to South African and Canadian publishers. (Of course, this meant that students learning English in the U.S. were learning from texts with non-U.S. spelling conventions!)

Adult literacy publishing is not a lucrative field, which is why it hasn’t taken off in the U.S. This is part of why the CLC’s work in publishing a grassroots journal is so important. As a facilitator in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how vital it is for adult literacy students to recognize themselves in their readings. The adult voices in community literacy publications resonated and thus excited students about the act of reading. This excitement led them to read consistently at home, which improved their literacy levels tremendously in between our weekly classes.

When a friend started volunteering at a local literacy program in Philadelphia earlier this year, she called me and described her student—a woman who reads at a fourth-grade level and wants to try writing poetry for the first time. Unfortunately, the community literacy space where the volunteers and students meet does not have any texts available at all—let alone adult-specific texts—due to the fact that they operate out of a shared space where they cannot store materials. I sent her a copy of a recent Speakout! journal. She reports that her student was excited by the publication and took it home to read on her own the very same day. No doubt her literacy skills will benefit from reading the work of CLC workshop participants.

Vani Kannan is working on her MA in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She volunteers with CSU’s Speakout! program and has been involved in community literacy work since 2008.

Three Works of Fiction That Will Change Your Life

By Michaela Jorgensen
Literature and the human condition have a relationship that began with the genre’s founding. A single work’s ability to resonate in our thoughts, inform our actions, and shape our lives is a global phenomenon intrinsically developed through the evolution of storytelling, that has been honed into an exceptional tool in the novel. As fiction pertains to the human condition, many of its finest examples explore mankind’s darkest qualities, willing readers to step farther into a darkness that plagues the psyche. The greatest questions posed by the novel demand to be answered. And once we comprehend the work’s implications, we are subsequently altered for our efforts. If you have not read the works below, consider placing them on your reading list. While unrelenting, they may change your life.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Yale Law Library

Yale Law Library

Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.

 

 

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Abhi Sharma

Abhi Sharma

On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.

The prevalence of the disturbed permeates in these novels, but their messages are important, and they grasp at the reasons for laws, normalcy, and the nature of the human condition. These are novels that ascend the passage of time and strike at the very notions of what it means to be human.
Michaela Jorgensen is an English teacher that writes all about the creative arts and education. Her recent work is on the Top 10 Online Colleges for aspiring teachers.