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Which book changed your life?

We’re continuing our examination of what a book is this week, following the cultural debate that the Amazon-Hachette dispute has set off, with something a little closer to our hearts. We’ve compiled a brief list of books that changed the lives of Oxford University Press staff. Please share your books in the comments below.

Wrinkle In Time Jonathan Kroberger, Publicist:
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle In Time was the first book to change my life, the one that set me up for all the others that continue to do so. My parents read to me for as long as I can remember but this was the first book I found independently in the school library. It sounds cliché, but reading it felt absolutely like stumbling onto a place that was just my own. That feeling of reading as independence continues to be one of the main reasons I value reading as much as I do.

Annabel Daly, Senior Marketing Manager:
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
This paragraph, while not necessarily my favourite, reminds me of why I love it and why it changed me:

And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense – no – but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers might toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channelled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut.

Ryan Cury, Assistant Marketing Manager:
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski
When I was 14 years old, merely a freshman in high school, I had the opportunity to portray Jem Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Barter Theater–the state theater of Virginia, located in the small town of Abingdon, Virginia where I grew up. As a child actor, I was assigned an adult actor who would serve as a mentor to me throughout the entirety of the run of the show: from costume fittings to the final bow. This mentor would be a leader, an older “brother” or “sister,” essentially someone to look up to. The week before we opened the show, my mentor (who was portraying Boo Radley), gave me the book An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski–a critical read to every actor’s beginning. I flew through the book. Every page. While I don’t act regularly anymore, I continue to reference this book and always prominently place it up front on my book shelf. Inside the front cover reads a note from my mentor that I will always cherish. It brings me to a place where I learned to be vulnerable and grow not only as an actor, but as an individual.

9780199325351Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth
A revolutionary book was placed into my lap as one of my first projects here at Oxford University Press. A resource book to the transsexual community: Trans Bodies, Trans Selves edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth. As an out, gay male in his 20s, this book continues to considerably have a positive effect on me–the energy behind the scenes is palpable. The cast of characters who built the book, the amazing editor who pieced each intricate story together, and the wonderful teams who work to get the book out there: this title goes far beyond work, standing out to me personally. I understand this community and completely respect the impact it will have in the world. Having had the opportunity to attend the book’s launch party, I will always remember the tears of joy from contributors, guests, and friends. It reminded me that I am not alone in this endeavor. I am very excited to be a part of this book and look forward to see it take off once publishing.

Yasmin Spark, Digital Assistant:
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The book that changed my life was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The novel uses the protagonist to confront the complex internal mechanisms that young black women have to process as they deal with growing up in a society still dominated by state and institutional racism and the way this impacts their self-esteem. Not only was it fantastically written but it was the first empowering black female character I had ever come across. My mum passed it to me and I fully intend to pass it down to my daughters!

Barney Cox, Marketing Executive:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Describing David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a near-impossible task. The book is a series of stories set in six different periods — including Colonial Australia, a dystopian clone-filled Seoul, and a post-apocalyptic future of tribes and cannibals — each featuring a protagonist with a comet-shaped birthmark. The time periods could not feel more different from the other, but as you read more, the novel unfurls itself, slowly giving up its secrets, and you begin to realise how the stories and the lives within them are linked together across time and space. “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies” is the central premise — and it’s a heart-breakingly beautiful one, the idea of lovers meeting again and again in different worlds and times, of people linked to each other across hundreds and thousands of years, or of having lived past lives they’re only dimly aware of. I haven’t done it justice in this description, but it’s just the tonic for whenever I might have a bad case of the existentialist blues. In one scene, a character angrily tells another that his life will only amount to “one drop in a limitless ocean”, to which the other replies “Yet, what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” Enough said.

Hannah Charters, Senior Marketing Executive:
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
I always had a love of reading as a child, but the book (or set of books) which turned that love into a passion that formed my future choices (from a university degree in English Literature to my career path in publishing) was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. This set of three books (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) is based in a universe where humans have dæmons, an animal-shaped being who represents the true inner-self, polar bears are armoured and can talk, and witches roam the skies. I got lost in these books that followed two children, Lyra and Will, through parallel worlds, discovering along with them what they learnt: about themselves, their world, and the people around them. I learnt more later, as I grew older, about the religious significances and literary undertones (much of the plot is influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost), furthering my love of the books, their characters, and the literary world they sat in.

The_Beach_Alex_GarlandAndy Allen, Marketing Manager:
The Beach by Alex Garland
When I read this book, I think I was looking for something to read on a long train journey or something and this just happened to be around. I think the fact that I was at a loose end after finishing university was perfect timing, as it contributed to me deciding to then go traveling around Southeast Asia for a few months. Even though it wasn’t the best book I have ever read it probably has been the most influential. (I didn’t find any secret beaches.)

The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss
While I haven’t read this book, the title alone has sold it to me, and if true, would actually be a life changer! Although I guess you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; maybe I am a sucker for a get rich quick scheme.

Caitie-Jane Cook, Marketing Executive:
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Growing up in Scotland, I felt a sense of distance when told that I would be studying English Literature as a core subject. Although “Scottish play” Macbeth had a pivotal role in the higher curriculum, I was disappointed there wasn’t anything closer to home, more ‘real’. When given free rein to select texts for my final-year portfolio, I was immediately drawn towards Trainspotting. Although sometimes brutal, I found Irvine Welsh’s representation of Mark Renton and friends’ experience of heroin addiction captivating and oddly charming. Most importantly, it was written primarily in Scots. I then went on to study English Language at university, taking special interest in the relative status of the Scots language and why it’s often dismissed as “slang”. I now recognise Welsh’s writing as the source of this linguistic fascination; Trainspotting made me realise that Scots is a language worthy of its own literature.

Ibrahim Siddo, Data Controller:
L’Étrange destin de Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ
I have selected this one because it’s basically one of the first books I read (I am sure it was over 15 years ago!). It’s about the fortunes (destiny) of an interpreter during the French West African colonial period who had to live between two ‘worlds’ and take/make difficult decisions/choices…

« Wangrin était filou, certes, mais son âme n’était pas insensible. Son cœur était habité par un intense volonté de gagner de l’argent par tous les moyens afin de satisfaire une convoitise innée, mais il n’était point dépourvu de bonté, de générosité et même de grandeur. Les pauvres et tous ceux auxquels ils étaient venus en aide dans le secret en savaient quelque chose. Son comportement, cynique envers les puissants et les favorisés de la fortune, ne manquait cependant jamais d’une certaine élégance. »

9780199541898Kirsty Doole, Publicity Manager:
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë when I was 16 is an experience that has stayed with me. Being 16 and a goth, I thought I understood it in a way that no one else ever had, ever. Of course, that was nonsense, but it was still the book that ignited my interest in Victorian novels — something that I went on to study at university — and it remains a firm favourite of mine. I love the characters, the multi-generational scope, and, of course, Emily’s powerful descriptions of the Yorkshire moors. Going back to it, as I do periodically, is like meeting up with an old friend again.

Alyssa Bender, Marketing Coordinator:
The Harry Potter series
Not necessarily one book that I’d say changed my life but seven: the Harry Potter series. I can single-handedly attribute my love of reading to these books. They turned me into a voracious reader and turned me on to so many other books over the years. As I grew up and the later books started coming out, they provided a fun online community as well as endless conversations and release parties with high school friends. Now, they are a source of nostalgia and are immensely enjoyable every time I return to them. I don’t think I would be the avid reader I am today without them.

Alana Podolsky, Associate Publicist:
1984 by George Orwell
When assigned George Orwell’s 1984 in ninth grade, I probably joined my fellow classmates in groans when the tome hit our desks. That quickly changed for me. I remember 1984 as the book that transformed me from a young reader interested only in plot and character to an adult reader that values art as politics and narrative construction. Orwell of course is brilliant, but 1984 went farther in teaching me that reading can be political and that through reading, you can experience the world.

Georgia Mierswa, Marketing Coordinator:
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
Regardless of its unassuming size, or its status as a “short story,” Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain moved me beyond words. The surprise of this story, for me, was not that two cowboys fell in love; rather, that Proulx successfully paints a complex thirty-year-long relationship, one based on anger, guilt, and fear of being found out, in less than 60 pages. Their love is violent and pained: when they kiss, they draw blood. A hug turns into a wrestling match in which Jack’s knee connects with Ennis’ nose. These small moments speak volumes about their internal struggle—as trapped men in a prejudiced place. When I reached Ennis’s final line, a quote as gut-wrenching and unrealized as their affair (“Jack, I swear—”), I was in tears. Brokeback Mountain is more honest about love, and the anguish of forbidden relationships, than any work I’ve ever read.

54215Jacqueline Baker, Senior Commissioning Editor, Literature:
Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing
I picked up a copy of Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann (first published in the UK in 1999) in a scuffed paperback edition sitting on the shelves of a holiday apartment in the hot and dry region of the Var in the south of France in the summer of 2005. I had packed books that I intended to read in my suitcase, but felt like something different and was perusing the resident bookcase. Mara and Dann, brother and sister, live at the southern end of all large land mass called Ifrik. It’s an imagined place set in a post-cataclysmic era and the reader has to piece together the background to their decision to flee from their home and family in the middle of the night. They find themselves in a poor rural village and join the general fight to survive the hardships of a life threatened by drought, wild animals, and hostility from the Rock People. Reading it in the south of France in the extreme arid heat and a foreboding sense of climate change hanging over me as the helicopters circled attempting to put out forest fires must have enhanced the impact of the book – Mara and Dann have to migrate north, away from the southern lands that are turning to dust. All sorts of odd things happen to them, in extremis, and they are separated at several points in the narrative. The odd bond between brother-sister is rather like that between Maggie Tulliver and her brother in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, but this time life is nightmarish and civilisation a half-remembered human state the only remaining traces of which – a few surviving books – are completely mysterious and undecipherable. The world is returned to its primitive state, but we know that we’re really in the future. It’s a dark, haunting book but there is an extraordinary relationship at its core. The mood and world of the book has stayed with me ever since.

Seth Bitter, Library Sales Associate:
The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb by John Bellairs
The first book that I can accurately recall having a profound impact on my life would have to be The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb by John Bellairs. I was already an avid reader by the time I came across it, but I was mostly reading the same books that my older siblings had read, and those that were available on our bookshelves at home. The discovery of John Bellairs and his gothic mysteries was one of the first independent steps I took. It gave me a section of the library to dart towards whenever we made our weekly trip, and the ghostly cover illustrations by Edward Gorey only helped to cement their place in my mind.

Alice Northover, Social Media Marketing Manager:
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I wasn’t a great reader as a child, despite my family’s ability to exhaust the local library or our weekly classroom trips to the school library. My childhood was filled with books that people thought I ought to read, whether classics like Black Beauty or the Babysitters Club series, but I never found any of those books appealing. There were certainly a few that touched me (how could you fail to cry at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows?), yet something kept turning me away. Perhaps the weight of expectations in those books left me cold — whether as school assignments, or gifts, or suggestions from kind librarians, or the creeping, patronizing tones of children’s authors I found in so many. Other children loved those books, so clearly I was the problem. So when I was assigned Animal Farm for summer reading at 12-years-old, students were supposed to hate it, to fail to understand it, to find it too advanced (they had a terrible way of introducing summer reading). I was supposed to identify with the other assignment, an insipid — if award-winning — book about some teenager envious of her cancer-stricken sister. Animal Farm was the first book, however, that truly challenged and engaged me. It spoke about systems of power, complex and contradictory people, societies in flux, and politics, real politics; about a world outside my claustrophobic suburbia. And George Orwell did not speak down to me (I doubt he thought 12-year-olds would be reading it in the first place); he expected me to think, to try to understand, and argue, and fight. And it was that expectation that drove me to books, more books, better books, books beyond the expectations of others. It made me a reader.

Which book changed your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Image credits: A Wrinkle in Time. Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. The Beach. Wuthering Heights.

Recent Comments

  1. Chris

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast challenged me where I needed to be challenged, encouraged modes of thought I was exploring but too unsure of myself to commit to, helped me keep falling in love with reading.

  2. Terry

    As a kid, I was a voracious reader (Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, teen mags, the backs of cereal boxes) but, reading Jane Eyre at 11 opened up a whole new world of ideas, many of which were absolutely alien. Charlotte Bronte has a very special place in my heart, as the writer who turned me on to great literature.

  3. Veronica

    I’ve read many a transformative book, but the first one I can remember really sticking with me is Matilda. I tore through every Roald Dahl book I could find after reading about Matilda, her family, and her school;I even spent my recess trying to tip over a cup with my brain power! She was a character I could relate to and aspire to be, and Dahl’s dark and hilarious writing kept me searching for more and more to read!

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