Changed By Literature

When someone says it was literature or a great book that changed their life, we remain pretty much in the dark about how, in fact, that happened. Tobias Wolff wrote:

“I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity.”

One might wonder in what way literature came to have such a significant impact on Wolff? Did he take a course from in college from a superb teacher? Or did his parents read Tolstoy to one another at night? Or did he simply come to literature on his own, gradually, over time? Knowing something about what led up to this change might suggest something more general about the conditions that give rise to a reader or writer.

I chanced upon the answer to these questions in an essay, A Brother’s Story, he wrote for the recently published Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry. He writes about a visit he and his older brother Geoffrey, made to their father’s home in La Jolla one memorable summer. His brother had just graduated from Princeton and had been offered an enviable teaching position in Istanbul. They hadn’t seen their father in over seven years. But just before they arrived, their father had suffered a complete breakdown and had been taken by his fiancĂ© to a sanitarium.

What does Geoffrey do? Does he send Tobias back to Washington State and turn around to return east? What he does is first find a job, then buy a car and find the two of them another apartment as their father had been evicted from the one he occupied for failing to pay the rent.

Then Wolff says, Geoffrey assigned him a rather rigorous schedule of reading and writing. He told him to write an essay on an assigned text every three or four days. The readings were all new to him—Greek plays, works by Camus, novels by Fitzgerald and Faulkner, etc. Wolff writes,

“Those few months changed me….until that summer I’d never known anyone who lived for ideas and words; to whom writing, his own and others’ was not a diversion from life but an imperative form of life….after that summer I never really wanted to be anything else. Week after week of breathing the incense of respect for sentences and stories helped bring me to the judgment, right or wrong, that there was no better way to spend my life than in making them.”

So it was that unexpected turn of events the summer he spent with his brother that helped Wolff see his way to becoming a writer. He says he was “damned lucky.” And he learned that, “I had a brother who would act against his own immediate interest on my behalf, not just on impulse but day after day.” He concludes, “The good luck of having a brother is partly the luck of having stories to tell.”

I too have had the good luck of knowing another person who showed me a better way to spend my life. I think that is the way it often happens to individuals who come to love literature and the writing life or the pleasures to be found in a life of learning. In my case, it wasn’t my brother, but rather a teacher I had in college and his extraordinary class on Plato that started me down the path to also becoming one. Alas, that is another story.