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Camille Styles

The Life-Changing Power of Books

September 23rd, 2015

The Life-Changing Power of Books | Camille StylesFor me, books have always been the ultimate hideaway. Throughout my adolescence (and now, into adulthood) I’ve used books to put what I was feeling into words, to escape into magical worlds, and reading helped me grow into the woman I wanted to be. Today I enlisted the help of two of my favorite book-lovers — women I’ve spent hours with talking about books over coffees or staying up late into the night to discuss words we’ve read that meant something to us. I met my friend, Annaka Ailie, when I was 15 and she was three years older than me with long, long blonde hair, a car with Tom Petty on repeat, and so cool. My friend Lauren Smart was my first peer to graduate from grad school and get a real, true job as a writer. I’ve always admired her tenacity and determination. When I asked these two if they would write about the books that have been most inspirational in their lives, I knew they wouldn’t disappoint.

The Life-Changing Power of Books | Camille Styles

from Annaka:

I don’t actually remember how I first discovered Billy Collins’ poetry, but when my senior year AP English teacher, Mrs. Merryman, read our class one of his poems one day, I was so jazzed because I already loved him – I already felt like he was “my own”. My teacher told me a couple of years later on Facebook that it was so thoughtful of me to buy her his latest book of poems at the end of the year. I had completely forgotten I did that. He was probably the first contemporary poet that I really connected with and embraced. One of the first stanzas I remember reading of his that still sticks with me is from his poem Tuesday, June 4th, 1991:

“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her, barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”

This past summer, almost 10 years after that senior English class, after going through some really difficult life changes, I took a road trip by myself up the middle of the country and brought along an audiobook I’d found at the library of one of Collins’ live readings. I didn’t realize until it started playing that Bill Murray, of all people, introduced him. It’s a hilarious and bizarre introduction followed by Billy Collins reading lots of his poems interspersed with his own dryly funny anecdotes. I felt like I was in my own world, sitting in my car, transfixed by one poem after the next. Seeing many of the familiar poems in a new light because I was listening to them as an adult and hearing them read by Billy Collins himself in his own rhythm and inflection. I realized while listening to the cd, that I’ve unconsciously relegated Billy Collins to my high school days. I don’t like to feel nostalgia because it kind of conjures up this mixture of pity and longing for my old selves, but every time that I come upon a Billy Collins poem or, in this case, listen to him reading his own poetry I am struck by how brilliant his poetry is in its simplicity. You read one of his poems and you think, “I could do that” because his subject matter is so quotidian, so mundane. But, the thing that makes it beautiful is that it is layered. The average person, not versed in poetry at all, can appreciate the gorgeous and approachable imagery he uses and come away with a greater appreciation for the tiny details of their own life, while at the same time, a literary scholar can appreciate the subtle mastery that he uses to combine these images into a poem greater than the sum of its parts.

I would say Billy Collins’ poems were my segue into a voracious love for poetry. For me, he helped to remove that Fear of Poetry that so many of us have. He also taught me that, instead of esoteric and cryptic, poetry can be approachable and *gasp* . . . fun! So many of his poems have a bit of dark humor thrown in, which only makes them that much better. After Billy, I found other contemporary poets like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Marie Howe to love. He was the perfect poet for me to discover in high school, but now even five years after college, I still haven’t outgrown him. Every time I read or hear one of his poems, it’s like coming home and forgetting how much I’d missed it.

The Life-Changing Power of Books | Camille Styles

from Lauren:

I hated reading when I was young. I wasn’t good at it. I was much better at watching television. My mom, who was my prominent teacher for much of my life, was convinced that reading was a pivotal part of my young life. I would find sly ways to convince her that I deserved to watch television, or that certain shows were educational. To my mind, it didn’t much matter what it was. Martha Stewart would teach me how to cook; Little House on the Prairie was easier to read than watch; Arthur was all about learning how to get along with others; Magic School Bus was educational. But my mom, little to my knowledge was sneakier, and she found her greatest ally in Roald Dahl.

Dahl wrote books that embraced the magical, but totally scary world of childhood. As a kid, I struggled to go to sleep at night, and the few hours I was able to drift away were filled with ghoulish nightmares. It seemed my brain could twist any story, any image, any person into a villain. And that was something Dahl understood about being young. In his books, all adults were bullies or witches in disguise. And each character came with a scraggly illustration by the incomparable Quentin Blake.

I remember reading The Witches for the first time, in which a seven year old boy finds himself facing the horrid reality of normal looking women being merely witches in disguise. And these witches set out to turn all children into mice, led by the schemes of the Grand High Witch, who unmasks herself at one point by removing a normal looking face to reveal a skeleton like profile. The little boy eventually finds himself turned into a mouse, part of his tail chopped off, and his life shortened to just nine more years. But he decides at the end those will be happy years, because he’ll die at the same time of his beloved grandma.

If all of this sounds heartbreaking or creepy, to 10-year-old me this fictional world made more sense to me than the candy-coated, Barbie doll pink world I was force-fed by the conservative religious world I grew up in. Dahl understood for most children, adults are scary, power-mongering child haters, destined to ruin all things fun, forever forcing us to to do things like read books. But of course, my mother knew that if she tossed his books on the coffee table, not on assignment, but as a “whatever” thing, I might just skip television that night.

Now it’s your turn — let us know in the comments which books have most impacted your life!

featured image by cassie rosch, girl with cat by natalie lynn borton, little girl reading by shaina sheaff

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Which books have most impacted your life?

15 Comments under :: The Life-Changing Power of Books
  1. Charlotte says:

    What a wonderful post! Thank you, Lauren and Annaka, for telling us about books that transported you to another place and time and stayed with you long after you turned the last page. Oh the power of a book that can do that! I think it’s what we are all seeking when we search for something new to read. A couple of books that have never left me are Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Both books deal with bonds between unlikely people (hadn’t realized that common thread till just now), and the sheer beauty of the writing made me slow down almost to a crawl as I neared the last chapter of each, not wanting to finish!

  2. This is such a wonderful post — I love learning about the books that have impacted others. It’s amazing how books can move you to laugh, cry, think, remember, and even become a better person. Yesterday I started reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s brand new book “Big Magic,” and I think it might be a life-changer… more from me soon on that once I’m a little further into it. 🙂

  3. Libbynan says:

    I realize that I am not only dating myself, but also revealing my helpless passion for books far older than myself. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge and Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers are two books that I could re-read monthly and discover new details and nuances every time. I only wish we had authors today who wrote such literate and elegant prose. Donna Tartt comes closest.

    • Molly Kendrick says:

      Oh my gosh. You are a girl after my own heart! I am Donna Tartt obsessed! Secret History is one of my all-time favorite books!

  4. Jenn says:

    No lie, Annaka: I have that Billy Collins CD in my car RIGHT NOW. I listen to it every couple of years and am spellbound every single time!

  5. I love this post so much! I have no idea what books you are talking about, but I’ll sure search for them.
    The first book that I read, apart from children’s literature, was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was actually a children’s version, but it took me to a place in a way any other had before. I felt all type of things reading it and just couldn’t let it go for a while. It was too much to the 9/10 years old I was.

  6. thefolia says:

    Roald Dahl…I’m headed to the library to find his books as I have an eight year old who comes up with ways to say he has read. We’re still looking for that book that will change his thinking and not want to lift his face from a book to turn on the cooking channel. Happy reading!

  7. Amber says:

    I LOVE Dahl books and have since I was young as well. Thank you for this great post.

  8. Anna says:

    Transferring from high school to college this year I’ve really been hoping that the people here would be more mature and more willing to talk about things like books and art, but it’s been kind of the opposite so I’m disappointed…I really hoped to find some friends who were as into books as me but I’m out of luck until grad school I suppose when people will get more or less serious…..

  9. Diana says:

    I found myself in the latter letter as I, as a child, have preffered TV over books, and just a few years now was I able to appreciate the profound impact that a story told in a book has on someone.
    The book that made me fall in love with literature and made me recognise its power is called The bad girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. It gave me a sense of feeling of how a man acts when he is in love, to see and understand someone else’s point of view and his actions. For me, books have become tools to make me better understand the world I live in. Now I am reading Neverending Story by Michael Ende, another great eye opener book;) Indeed, words are very powerful and being able to imagine what you read is quite liberating.

  10. Efreet says:

    I read something a few years ago, that had me suddenly in tears – I’m not kidding, shaking with sobs while feeling incredibly happy at the same time. Someone had put the quote as his signature on a forum, and I had no idea where it came from but it triggered a major re-evaluation of my beliefs and opinions.
    Months later I identified it as a quote from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld… a series I already knew (superficially) and loved, but as a funny, quirky fantasy. I’m reading it all now, and its depth is breathtaking. As clichè as it sounds, it totally changed my life.

  11. In love with that pictures.

  12. A lot of books have impacted my life. A few are “Little Women” (Louisa May Alcott), “Preparing to be a Helpmeet” (Debi Pearl), and of course the Bible! I would have to agree that Roald Dahl has such a great imagination. I loved reading his books as a kid, too! I also loved Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Check out my review of another pretty life changing book at http://www.everyday-writing.com/2015/09/christy-by-catherine-marshall.html

    Thanks for the great read!
    Andria
    http://www.everyday-writing.com

  13. Teri L says:

    Glad to see Mary Oliver mentioned. She’s a favorite of mine. 🙂

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