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Amber Paulen

A Book to Change Me

The other evening I listened to the This American Life podcast: The Book that Changed Your Life, and it got me thinking. I wondered if I had been changed by a book, I mean, I’ve had to have. Books have played such an important part in my life that one book in particular must stand out amongst the rest in the form of before-book and after. The Brothers Karamazov? The Secret Garden? The Prime of Life?

I do not believe that one can be changed by a book (or by a person) unless there is already something present, latent or in embryo, ready to be changed. — Doris Lessing in an essay out of Time Bites, A Book that Changed Me

I can with the utmost surety say that Henry Miller changed my life; but he is not a book. He was a man who wrote truthfully, there is no space between him and his pages. I see that it is easy to get him confused with the books he has written; I can’t pull apart one of his books from another. I can’t say it was Black Spring and not Sexus which caused the pivot around which my life began to turn, I can’t. Before Henry Miller I had vague definitions of writer; after Henry Miller I understood that my quirks and my desires pinned me as one. After Henry Miller I was able to say, “If he tried then I may as well.” And so I read the way he did it and went his way myself. Everything is post-Henry Miller. But he’s not a book.

Has a single book changed my life? Why yes! A type of change that the podcast did not mention. The book that has changed me is the book I am writing.

Since the two plus years I’ve gotten down to it, devoted of myself as much as I could devote, I see (somewhat), now nearing the (hopeful) end of this process, what it has done to me. What has it done? It’s changed me. Of course all this could be said about writing as a whole, but a singular concentration on a singular work over years has the great potential of working like therapy. More than ever I feel my vision expanding, a greater understanding of how to deal with myself in the world—or am I just getting older? Whatever the solid proofs are, most of my changes are not. They are of those same visceral substances that perpetually elude me: why I write.

Note: I’ve written a new About Page, which I like much better.


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