It’s a meme on twitter that’s been getting me thinking – reading is important to me, and reading great things has helped shape my perspective on the world, but what books really changed my life?
In my early adolescence, I was lonely and disaffected and came upon The Fountainhead. I totally identified (and still do, in dark moments) with Howard Roark and his disillusion with humanity, and the ideals of individualism were very appealing to me. In this same period I read Lord of the Flies, and my goal became to make myself completely self sufficient, as I believed that needing anything from anyone else provided an opportunity for disappointment. (True, maybe, but totally worth it.) Throw in a little Bentham and a little Hobbes and I had developed my own “Be an Island” form of individualism.
I started reading both Taoist and Existentialist writers late in high school – in many ways two sides of the same coin, that meaning comes from within, but the wheels of the world are turning regardless of what we do. The writings of Chuang-Tzu and Camus’ L’Etranger – and the wonderful curmudgeon who gave them to me and talked through a wide variety of philosophies – helped me to soften my view of others. Not a book, but e. e. cummings’ “Humanity i love you” was and has been a reminder to love my fellow man.
As I came into my own as a queer, I started reading queer theory voraciously. The year I lived in Boston, I made myself a queer theory syllabus and read my way through the BPL’s collection. Highlights: Foucault’s History of Sexuality, especially his writing about power exchange and exercising power with intentionality; PoMoSexuals, edited by Carol Queen; Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw; various writings by Judith Butler; Sexing the Body by Fausto-Sterling; and Califia’s Macho Sluts and Doing it for Daddy, which helped me to start understanding my desire.
Somewhere in there was The Second Sex; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the poetry of William Carlos Williams; All the Pretty Horses; Tender is the Night; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography; the Celluloid Closet; and Gamson’s Freaks Talk Back.
In the past 10 years I haven’t had such fundamental gravitation toward a particular book – I guess as I get more settled in my own thoughts about the world, I don’t find my head spun by someone else’s theory in the same way. But I’ve found lots of writing on food politics and consumerism have shaped how I think about how I spend my money and time, in particular: The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; and No Logo. Don’t Think of an Elephant has helped me to identify the values behind arguments and to shape political discussion to win, and The Tipping Point has adjusted my thinking around organizing and movement building. Full Frontal Feminism and Jessica Valenti’s other writings have offered feminist theory that feels relevant to my own life (it helps that she’s not afraid to support dykes and queers, and links oppressions of the body, sexuality, and expression). Jared Diamond’s writing, particularly Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse, have made human evolution and environmentalism real, and remind me not to get too complacent about the way things are now.
I try to read at least 3 books a month that have nothing to do with my work, and to balance fiction and nonfiction. What changed your life? What would you recommend? Summer reading is the best.