Can a book, or album, or film, change your life?

I would have been 19 when I had my first first-hand experience of the phrase ‘x changed my life.’ In this case x was Catcher in the Rye and the words were said by one of my closest friends at the time. It was the first year of uni and we were living together in a flat along with a girl who would later move out after having what could only be described as a spectacular personality clash with my friend. In the end, years later we too would drift apart due to the same reasons except that in our instance it didn’t happen with the white hot intensity that characterised our housemates response to the issue of just plain not being able to get along with my friend, but in a slow, painful decline that seemed to drag on and on. Admittedly much of this was down to me not having the courage to say upfront that I simply didn’t feel the same way any more. Our personalities had simply grown apart but back then, at 19, when we were very good friends, I listened to those words about a novel by an author that I heard of but knew nothing about and thought ‘that’s amazing.’ It just seemed such an audacious concept, to read, or listen, or watch something and have it have that much of an impact. Life changing? Really? Could something, anything, have that sort of impact?

There were many things I enjoyed, there were things I even loved, but I didn’t feel like I could point to anything and say it was that important. The things I held dear were things that found their way into my life either by chance, recommendation or experimentation and whilst there might have been a hierarchy within the things I loved, my general attitude was that it was all important because it was all part of the journey I was on simply by living. Still, with my interest piqued by my friends outrageous claims of having had a definable, life changing experience from reading something, an experience that stood out so brightly in his life as to have burned an indelible mark on his existence, meant that inevitably I started paying very close attention to every thing that I I did, wondering if the next film, album or novel would instigate or reveal a whole new truth or way of looking at the world.

It proved to be an empty quest and in the end the urgency to discover something that would fit the phrase faded and I started to think that in actual fact the phrase itself was overblown, an exaggeration, feelings that were more than exacerbated by my – over the course of a number of years – having the same feelings towards my friends overall personality and quite obviously therein lies the crux of the issues that in the end brought an end to our friendship.

So it was that I settled back into a path of simply enjoying things and having an attitude that if I liked something more than most things I liked – Radiohead, or The Wire, or my love for the original Ronaldo, then great.

Nearly a decade later though – this year to be precise – I read Infinite Jest and suddenly I felt like I had to re-evaluate everything that had gone before. Making my way through what is by far the biggest book I’ve ever read, I felt a frisson of excitement running through me for the whole time I was reading it. There was a constant feeling that I’d never felt this way before whilst reading a book. I felt ridiculously alive reading it. And then something else happened. I read Song of Solomon and I had the same thing. In fact in this case, reading those pages made my heart feel like it would bust out of my chest and float to heaven such was the sheer force of experiencing another phrase, that one being ‘my heart soared.’ What I felt reading that book I hadn’t felt in years, and that was sheer unadulterated joy. Joy and love.

Have I just been lucky this year? There have been other books this year that certainly didn’t register in that way with me, so I don’t think it’s a case of me becoming easier to please. Maybe it’s just that quite simply David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison are such quality writers. Maybe I’m just in a different place in life and when it comes down to it I certainly do feel that way.

Maybe on reflection it comes down to what I’ll write next. I mentioned the term ‘re-evaluate’ earlier, but maybe I don’t need to do that. The old way of looking at things was just fine and fitted me perfectly. The old way of doing things, of saying that life is constantly changing so nothing in itself is ‘life-changing’ but simply a part of your journey so be open to things and if things become important to you then so be it, served its purpose at the time. In many ways maybe that way of thinking is the perfect fit for working your way through your twenties simply because so much is changing so rapidly. Now, as I move towards turning 30 there is still so much to work out, but also a growing sense of who you are and a more settled way of being and thinking. With that being the case, maybe right now there is more scope for things to spring out of nowhere and surprise you.

Certainly, post Infinite Jest and Song of Solomon it was more ‘wow, I feel as if my life has changed by reading them’. I suppose you then have to be more specific and say ‘well, how has it changed’ and the answer to that requires talking about a whole host of things that I will have to break down in smaller posts. Needless to say, I feel like I have evolved and developed a lot as a person this year and I’m quite certain that there are things I’ve read in those pages that not only have hit me on a concious level but unconsciously must be resonating as well for them to have struck such a chord. The most simplistic – yet annoyingly vague at the same time – way to put things is that it feels very much like a new chapter is about to start in my life and whilst I’m mentally ruminating on just exactly what that is, I haven’t yet nailed it down enough to put on paper.

Incidentally, when I went ahead and read Catcher in the Rye, it did nothing for me haha.



One comment

  1. Good topic, friend. We all have our favorites, things that we consistently return to, finding new things every time. What I like to ponder on are the things I liked during my formative or teenage years, or when I was in college, and see if these things were things that just got me through those times or stand on true merit. For me, it then becomes a question of nostalgia or quality. Both could have life-changing connotations. I will expand further on a blog so I thank you for that.

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