Books Change Lives

In this, the inaugural issue of Literary Footnotes, I will post short comments about previously blogged topics. Today’s issue concerns the effects of reading literature, a topic that in one way or another has been treated several times on this blog

The Effects of Literature
Can a book change your life? A friend has passed along the following anecdote that provides an unusual instance of just such an effect.

A woman on the search for a potential suitor used to ask prospects a set of questions. One was a trick question: "What is your favorite TV show?” (If you had one, she eliminated you.) The 4th or 5th question inquired: "What is the book that has influenced you the most?” Her now-husband replied, Man's Search for Meaning. That happened to be her favorite book as well, so she threw away the rest of the questions, and that was it. They married 2 years later (excessively cautious/rational folks) and will celebrate their 8th wedding anniversary this week.

A Thought Experiment
Posing hypothetical situations is a well-known legalistic and psychological technique. Occasionally, I enjoy playing the What If game. I think there should be an app devoted to this exercise.

What if there were no longer any books to read? What kind of world would it be? What kind of person would we be? This is not a fanciful question. Indeed, Nicole Krauss, the author of The History of Love and recently Great House posed it in answering a question she is often asked.

I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists: Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight thought experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, and soul, and as the journalist contemplated that nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.

We Are What We Read
One of the issues I’ve discussed is how easily we forget what we have read. Sometimes, I will pick up a book, begin reading, and after a while, sometimes even after I’ve finished the book, sense that something about it seems familiar. I check my commonplace book and discover that lo and behold I read it several years ago.

In a recent New York Times Book Review essay, James Collins, writes about how readily the details of a book he had just read and enjoyed so much completely escapes him. “I remember nothing about the book’s actual contents.” To try to understand why, he asked Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist who studies the reading brain, if reading ultimately had any effect on him.

She replied, “I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that book.” She described how reading creates pathways in the brain and the difference between immediate recall of facts and the ability to retrieve details of what you’ve read.

Elsewhere she has written, “We may not remember specific details of a book, but the very fabric of our brain’s networks have been contributed to by these words, these concepts and the thoughts that arose from them at the time.”

She went on to cite Joseph Epstein who long before investigations of the reading brain began wrote that if one knew the “reading biography of any educated person, we will know who that person is, [because] we are what we read.”