Books that change the contours of my mind

  • 1984 by George Orwell

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

  • The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Listed in roughly the order I experienced them, these are extraordinary novels that had a profound effect upon my very understanding of the world. They stand out as “the greatest books I’ve ever read.”

It’s telling that most of the titles were read in or before young adulthood. Is youth simply more open to seismic shifts of consciousness, or did my good education expose me to a spectrum of great writing, exactly when and as it should?

The closest I’ve come in recent memory to a reading experience as paradigm-altering as these was non-fiction:

  • The Little LISPer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

While I still read novels for pleasure almost every day, this does reflect a trend I’ve observed in my life.

As a child, my discretionary reading was primarily fiction. As an adult, the majority of my selections seem to be non-fiction. Six of the seven books I have out from the library today are non-fiction titles. My Kindle is filled primarily with novels, bought and borrowed, so this may not be a representative sample of all my reading, but, when I consider the mental effort I put into reading these days, I do feel as though  it is non-fiction that provides most the gear-grinding heft of deep thought and hard work.

Sometimes I think that a lifetime spent enjoying wonderful writing has simply raised the bar for what qualifies as “a good book,” making great novels ever harder to find. Believe me, I’m still actively looking for one every time I visit or the local library. A non-fiction title need only offer new information in a palatable form to warrant at least a browse, if not a thorough read.

Is a shift from fiction to non-fiction a natural side effect of maturity, reflecting adult values and responsibilities? Or could my self-imposed exile from the world of intellectually demanding technical work to the domestic sphere and full-time parenting be the weightier factor here?

How have your reading choices changed as you’ve grown?

8 thoughts on “Books that change the contours of my mind

  1. The Pillars of the Earth has been on my bucket list for a while …

    I’ve always been a voracious reader. Mind-altering books for me … nearly anything by the poet Rilke or the thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Toni Morrison’s novels are full of mysterious awakenings. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is wonderful. I have also loved Sylvia Plath. Currently, Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve become a bit less snobby with book choices, lol. It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer winner to be a great read. It just has to keep me turning pages. I enjoy a good mystery/thriller these days.

    • “Handmaid’s Tale” was a great favorite when I read it in college. I’ve heard good things about the recent video version, but I’m reluctant to spoil the memory of the book in case I don’t like the interpretation!

      I’m curious if your hands bother you when you read? (I’ve invested in a Kindle because it weighs so much less than most books, allowing me to read longer without pain in my hands/wrists.)

      I both read and listened to “Pillars of the Earth”, and Follet did a serviceable job reading his own work. The story will whisk you along, whichever way you choose to consume it. 🙂

      • The RA isn’t in my hands – mainly my knees, and I’ve had a lot of other inflammatory issues that don’t involve joints. I’m reading the Atwood because I started watching the series, so I had to know how the book was different!

  2. I love this idea of recording them in order of your experience with them. I only read fiction as a kid and teen, then when I went to uni I fell in love with nonfiction and now I hardly read fiction. Having a reading list had got me reading more fiction, which I’m glad about, but I still would take nonfiction over fiction. But for pure imagination, escapism and entertainment, can’t go past fiction. Just love books!

    • I think it is harder to find a novel in which I can well and truly escape now that I’m older/more educated/jaded (something like one of those…)

      I’m more easily engaged in non-fiction lately. I haven’t sussed out precisely why.

      There remains almost no greater pleasure than losing myself in a great novel with a comfortable perch and no one interruptions!

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