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Can fiction really change you?

The books that change people

I find it fascinating to hear people talk about the books that changed them. I want to know where they found words powerful enough to alter the way they think or act – to give them a new perspective on the world and its people. And so when I spotted a Twitter thread asking users to nominate a book that changed their life, which has attracted almost 700 comments, I couldn’t resist scrolling.

And to be part of the conversation, I added my own: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I read this book as a teen, and it showed me the insidious cultural forces that demanded a woman dedicate herself and her finances to the unattainable pursuit of perfect beauty. I read about the beauty industry’s remit that no woman should feel that she is enough without a cupboard full of magical creams and potions to ‘fix’ her perceived flaws.

Now, 20 years later, as I look at the many nail salons and beauty parlours popping up in suburban shopping centres, I continue to reflect on the book and how little anything has changed.

However, as I read further down the list, I questioned my impulse to choose a non-fiction book as having changed my life the most. While many other people chose non-fiction – the most popular appeared to be Quiet by Susan Cain – most chose fictional titles.

To Kill a Mockingbird appeared many times, as did the Harry Potter series. There were childhood favourites like Charlotte’s Web and challenging titles such as Crime and Punishment.

The Bible was a popular choice, as was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

It made me think about the ways in which certain works of fiction have changed my life.

Most recently, I read Tony Birch’s The White Girl, which spoke of the trauma suffered by Australia’s Indigenous community under the Aborigines Protection Act. In a similar way to The Secret River, the book helped me understand the nature of the injustices suffered by Indigenous Australians in a way no documentary or news story could.

Another recent read, Where the Crawdads Sing, revealed the humanity of those who live on the outside of society, and who are so easily judged by those within. Similarly, The Choke opened my eyes to the harsh realities of a life of poverty and violence for a child growing up hidden from the community. It the inner life and struggles of a child who can so easily be dismissed as the responsibility of her violent father and left in a situation of violence and neglect.

Books like The Kite Runner, The Book Thief, The Red Tent and A Fine Balance reveal what it is like to live in a different time and place, and illuminate the human realities of those who live in cultures that seem so foreign.

Similarly,  Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire offered insight into the circumstances of those who see joining terrorist forces in the Middle East as a viable escape from the powerless they feel in their everyday lives. In Capital, John Lancaster reveals the way race can criminalise a young person before any crime has been committed when a man from Lahore is suspected of terrorism and incarcerated.

In An American Marriage, the recent winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Tayari Jones writes of a black man who is wrongly accused of rape and jailed. The book reveals offers insight into the way race is perceived, and the very real impact of that perception.

The Executioner’s Song changed the way I viewed punishment. Norman Mailer wrote about a man who had committed a crime and awaiting his execution. While the protagonist was unquestionably guilty of the crime with which he has been charged, the story is told with such clarity that it is hard to justify his death by the state. The Executioner’s Song helps the reader see the life of those who have committed terrible crimes in their entirety, rather than solely through the lens of the crime. They see a person, rather than a criminal, and it is difficult not to think differently about crime and punishment after reading such a book.

All of these books, and so many more, have changed me, and now that I think about it, I’m not sure that any made more of an impact than any other.

In one of the books frequently chosen as one which changes people, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

The metaphorical equivalent of walking around in that skin is of reading about the person in a book. And that, I think, is the life-changing, attitude-shifting power of literature.

Then there is Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love that introduces a new way of looking at modern and performance art which I had never really appreciated, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which talks about motherhood in a way that it is rarely discussed, and Graeme Simsion’s Rosie books that offer a different perspective on autism. It is hard for a reader not to be changed after reading these books.

Or, are the books that change us the ones we read as children? The Faraway Tree books create a sense of wonder about what is beyond the front fence, Charlotte’s Web explores friendship, love and loss, and Judy Blume helps teens (or is it pre-teens?) navigate those tricky in-between years, answering questions it is impossible to ask your parents. I still haven’t read Harry Potter, but for so many, those books changed children’s lives by introducing them to the joy of reading; a gift that truly can be life-changing.

Ultimately, as many of those who commented on the Twitter thread said, all books change the reader’s life in some way. Whether a childhood story, a memoir or a work of fiction, books change who we are and how we see the world.

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