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.”



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?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”


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?


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.

Passion for Reading

Haley Quinn is a history major with a minor in education at UMass Dartmouth. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society and will be graduating this May. She plans on student teaching in the fall and looks forward to becoming a passionate middle school history teacher in the near future.

The ability to read is a powerful tool, but a passion for reading is an even more powerful quality. We develop our passion for reading at the earliest of ages. When we are young children, our parents or the adults in our lives read to us. We have yet to gain the ability to read the words ourselves, but by being read to we have opened the door to a world of wonder. In Mem Fox’s (1993) Radical Reflections Lesson Thirteen, “Read Aloud, Alive, A Lot,” Fox expresses the experience of being read to:

From my own experiences, I realize that the literature I heard, rather than read, as a child resonates again and again in my memory whenever I sit down to write. It’s the sounds I remember rather than the sight of the words. Of course, silent reading also fills our storehouses, but it is an immediate treat to be read aloud to, especially when the reader reads in a lively manner, enthusiastically, using his or her voice expressively to paint vivid pictures in our imagination. (p. 68)

Through hearing the words, our imaginations go to work and transport us from where we are to a new place found in a book. By developing a student’s passion for reading at an early age through enthusiastic reading, we invite them to discover new concepts and experiences. While we are intrigued by literature when we are younger, most of us tend to lose this feeling of wonder when reading becomes. Why do we let ourselves do this and how can we prevent our students from falling victim to this curse?

As we advance through school, reading becomes a requirement with rules and restrictions. These restrictions were not present in our early childhood when the passion first sprouted in our minds. And unfortunately, it is not until adulthood when a lucky few can finally break free and enjoy reading again. In Lesson Eleven, “Eliminate the Idiotic Interfering Adult,” Fox gives us an example of these rules:

As adults we choose our own reading material…. No one chastises us for our choice. No one says, ‘That’s too short for you to read.’ No one says, ‘That’s too easy for you, put it back.’ No one says, ‘You couldn’t read that if you tried- it’s much too difficult.’… Yet if we take a peek into classrooms, libraries, and bookshops we will notice that children’s choices are often mocked, censured, censored and denied as valid by idiotic, interfering teachers, librarians, and parents. (p.66-67)

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One of Those English Teachers

Three Cheers for Reading by vanhookc on Flickr

Zinovia Canale is the English Department Chair at Rogers High School, Newport RI, and has been teaching for thirty years.  She is currently enrolled in the Masters Program in English at the University of Rhode Island.

I’m one of those teachers with whom high school kids like to hang around. They like to tell me about their problems and they like to listen to my stories, especially when I share my human side of being a parent who yells at her kids to get up, to get off the “machines,” and to get their work done.  When they hear stories about my love for The Grateful Dead and the fact that I still go to concerts with my deadhead husband to catch Bob Weir and Phil Lesh they nod in approval.

I’ve also been able to amuse my students with my dance of the “chicken noodle soup,” appreciation of the art of the rap (writing one is more difficult than one imagines), and my enjoyment of Beyonce, and Rihanna. I’m great at picking up new dance steps and am always open to learning new moves. I have a good time listening to my students’ jokes, learning their language, and trying to understand the dilemmas of their world, especially those kids of the “down-trodden,” I say with trepidation.

In fact, forgive me for labeling a group as the “down-trodden” which sounds so snobbish and evokes such an attitude of superiority. Yet, to ignore the truths about the conditions with which some of these kids live is to ignore the truth about their hearts, minds, and souls and as an English teacher there is where I want to reach.  I can’t bring them into a more expansive world of literature if I do not meet them where they reside-emotionally, physically, and socially.

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On the Literature Classroom, Blogs, and the Balance of Old Space and New Media

photo by tripu on Flickr
Christopher Schaberg recently received his Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Davis, where he wrote a dissertation on the textual aspects of U.S. airports.  In August 2009 he will join the English Department at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he will be Assistant Professor of Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory. 


My favorite part of teaching literature is getting students to really linger on short passages.  I like to teach students how to enjoy the liveliness of language, how the sounds and shapes of words can come alive on a page; and in turn, this liveliness affects how we think about life off the page. 


To study literature with attention and intelligence requires a slow pace that is difficult to maintain: it demands re-reading, asking the same questions over and over, and as my mentor Timothy Morton once put it, “daring to be dumb.”  The literature classroom is a sort of protected zone in which these increasingly rare activities can thrive.  What I love about the literature classroom is that I get to sit around with a group of other minds and work together with textual matter, and to see how far we can slow down without stopping altogether.  Such perpetual deceleration results not in final truths, but in inquiry without end.  I’m more confused than I have ever been about what literature actually is, and I’m thankful for this confusion: it lets me approach texts afresh and be spontaneous when my students see things I had not seen or even imagined in a text. 


About a year ago I started a blog called “What is literature?”  This basic question is one that I return to again and again in my classes, and it is a question that strikes me whenever I notice literary allusions in films, in magazine articles, or in other pieces of cultural ephemera.  In my blog I try to keep a record of these literary problems that pop out of culture at large.  My blog, which I maintain in a minimalist but consistent fashion, has been a fascinating experiment that has challenged me to write in new ways: more aphoristically, less argumentatively.  I often end up writing in the form of cascading questions. 


I decided to teach an advanced composition course in which everyone in the class (including myself) would create and write on our own blogs—and we would read and comment on each other’s work online, not on paper.  This class was a success not only because the students generally seemed to like writing ‘posts’ rather than papers or essays, but also because the medium fostered dynamic textual interactions between students.  In other words, on a public blog one simply cannot write for a single reader (i.e., the professor).  The online forum requires accountability on behalf of one’s use of language; suddenly, that old retort about ‘audience’ is starkly real. 


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The Club Med of Teaching


by Orian Greene 

Some years ago, after I had facilitated my first Changing Lives Through Literature program, a friend asked me what it was like.  I told him, “It’s the Club Med of teaching.” Though it sounds jocular, this response is accurate:  CLTL involves everything I love about teaching and frees me from everything I dislike.


Thanks to the labors of the PO’s I have been fortunate to work with, I am spared all the grisly and nitty-gritty–though important–elements of running the program. Over the years, Dan Harrington at the Woburn Court and Judy Lawler and Debbie Cerundulo in the Chelsea Court chose probationers who committed to the program, they took attendance and followed up on absentees, they noted whether the participants were doing the reading, and they handled the only discipline problem that ever arose.  They left me free to do what I love best:  choose the literature and facilitate the discussions.

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