After writing about how no one has ever read a book that changed his/her life, I’ve come up with a slight amendment.
I prefer The Chronicle’s approach to influential books, by asking the question What Book Changed Your Mind. That question is much more accurate and gets at the heart of what books do for people. Books, aside from self-help guides and diet books, aren’t designed to change lives, they’re designed to change minds. Granted, there is plenty of just-for-fun reading (I read Twilight), but even those have the potential to change your mind (I was furiously disappointed with Bella’s I Had A Baby And Was Able To Fully Realize My Strength And Self-Worth revelation.). However, I do think a book is more likely to change the mind of a child/adolescent than the mind of an adult.
I think books have a greater power to change the way you think when you read them before the age of, let’s say, 14. I have no scientific evidence to back any of this up, but it’s my general understanding that our brains are malleable when we’re young. We’re also much more impressionable and much more willing to believe what we’re told, or what we read, or what we see, for that matter. And before 14, you have little life experience, and your neural pathways aren’t set, and just about everything has a chance to blow your mind because there’s just so much you don’t know. It all changes at 15/16 though, because that’s when suddenly you start to believe you know everything and nothing will make you believe otherwise.
I’ve posted about children’s books and my strong opinions about them already because, as an adult, I still have a strong emotional attachment to what I read as a child, and I don’t believe I’m the only person to feel this way. Those books tend to stay with us and have more of a lasting impression than a lot of what we read in high school or college. I, for one, am still looking for Narnia at the back of the wardrobe.
That being said, I’m not sure I can name, with any certainty, a book that changed my mind. But I do know there are books I read when I was young that helped shape my mind. C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle opened up wonderful magical worlds for me, and since reading them I hold a special place in my heart for fantasy novels and kids who have to face nearly insurmountable challenges. Angela’s Ashes was one of the first memoirs I read, and since then I’ve been hooked on the genre. Tuesdays with Morrie made a lasting impression and made me realize how much I hate carpe diem advice/self-help-esque books, and that I never need to read anything from Mitch Albom again. I also remember reading those Children’s Illustrated Classics as a kid and thinking I was so smart because I’d already read Little Women, and The Invisible Man, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Tale of Two Cities before I was even in middle school. Of course, I then later found out that those were severely abridged versions and that, no, I hadn’t really read those books. I still have a lot of catching up on ‘the classics’ to do. But that’s a post for another day.
The more we’re exposed to a variety of literary genres and a wide array of characters (weak and strong alike) while we’re young, the more we open ourselves up to, not just a equally wide variety of books as an adult, but the more we open ourselves up to becoming an empathetic person in the world. There is more to reading than vocabulary and comprehension and identifying the 6 elements of fiction. Reading has the potential to make you a better human being. And, sure, it’s never to late to start, but better to have an early start.