I have loved many books in my life, but the ones that stand out for me have three ingredients: archetypal themes, emotional charge and X factor. And they are the ones which can indeed change the way you see the world.
My three nominations will be grouped under the headings of the power they exerted upon me, the reader:
1) The power to shock and move
Shusaku Endo’s Silence, set in the 17th century, is the story of the persecution of a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan. It has been called “Endo’s supreme achievement” and “one of the twentieth century’s finest novels”. In this book, the Catholic Endo explores the theme of a silent God who accompanies the believer in adversity. It was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and tuberculosis. During the years that have elapsed since I read this book, I have never forgotten the image of the Japanese Christians being tied to a stake at the sea’s edge, and forced to endure the sea rolling back and forth over their bodies, and singing: We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God. Somehow for me this stands as an image of a race, whose native religion is so different from Christianity, assimilating Christian theology into their own belief system, and expressing a faith which transcends personal suffering. How has it changed me? It has informed my understanding of the way human beings adopt different faith systems ever since.
2) The power to change your view of human nature
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered by some to be the greatest horror story ever written. When I finished reading this story I felt “scoured out” emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. This tale of how one man’s soul can be destroyed through the devious manipulations of another, is summed up in a terrifying image: the portrait that reflects the creeping corruption of a man’s soul, and whose destruction must result in the death of its subject. I felt the real villain of the piece to be Lord Henry Wotton who first stirs up the artist and persuades Dorian of his beauty, thus sewing the seeds of his eventual destruction. Beauty, and our perception of it and response to it, lies at the heart of this masterpiece. Since reading it, I have never seen human beauty with the same eyes.
3) The power to give new insight into human psychology
Dostoyevsky’ s Crime and Punishment
Another unforgettable moment is provided by this great novel, which tells the story of impoverished student Raskolnikov who determines to rid the world of the grasping old woman money lender. He persuades himself that his actions are benevolent, for the greater good of the community, and thus he has a high moral purpose. But when he is forced to kill the old woman’s half-sister, innocent Lizaveta, then his conscience starts its work. Again one moment has remained with me: when Raskolnikov is eventually compelled to give himself up to the police who have been long hunting him: It was I who killed the old woman and Lizaveta. This profound novel, once read, stays with you forever. And this indeed sums up the power of a novel which will change how you see the world.
7 thoughts on “Books That Shock, Move and Change Their Readers”
An interesting concept here. I certainly agree with your choice of “Crime and Punishment” in your third category. For your second category, The power to change your view of human nature, I nominate “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is the book I reread whenever I get to feeling really down on humanity.
Thank you. Yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is rightly regarded as among the very greats. When I think of that novel, I can even recall the room I sat in reading it, when I was about 11 years old.
I haven’t read any of those, lightweight that I am! But my personal list would be:
Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, for its terrifyingly accurate portrayal of what capitalism truly is;
Solzhenitsyn’s “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”, because it reminds me to appreciate the value of everyday life (not because my life is different from the protagonist’s because I don’t experience bad in my life in the way that he does in his gulag, but because my life is like his in the things that make his day ultimately a happy one); and
Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” for its emphasis on being honest and true to yourself and doing the right thing, that those things are so important that it isn’t even worth considering the alternatives or the consequences.
Thank you Tom. This is fascinating. I’m glad I started this conversation! To me, the power of a great book is what you remember about it years after you’ve read it – what it leaves with you, that informs your life. Of the three you mention I’ve read the Solzenitsyn – and I should really add his “The Gulag Archipelago” to my list. But of course this exercise throws up the fact that there are several books that may change our lives. The challenge is to choose three off the top of your head! Thank you again for your three – certainly the Upton Sinclair must go on my to-read list!
For me, Boris Pasternak’s ‘Dr Zhivago’ made a great impression when I read it in my teens. The passage about art, for which I substituted beauty, has remained with me. He was saying that every work of art had the quality of ‘art’ (I’m writing this from memory, and it was a very long time ago). I’m sure something was lost in the translation from Russian, so maybe I wasn’t off the mark with beauty. Also reading about how ordinary people can get swept up in world events. The film also had a strong effect for different reasons. Three images in particuar – Yury riding through a birch forest with daffodils underneath, Lara ironing and Strelnikov’s train with the flags flying.
I’ve read ‘Dorian Grey’ and agree with your comments. The others I haven’t read – have started on ‘Crime and Punishment’ (must have been reading at a bad time to concentrate). Have made a mental note to get hold of ‘Silence’.
I’d be interested to read what others choose.
Yes I agree with you about Dr Zhivago. It’s the images a book leaves with you, lingering over many years, that demonstrate its power. I could cite several books which have done that for me, but the challenge here is to choose the first three that occur to you! Thank you for your comment!