Back in early September my friend Janet Davenport challenged me to come up with ten books that had had a profound influence on my life. Here’s what I posted:
The Street, In the Matter of Color, Emma, Angela’s Ashes, Crooked Road Straight, Soldier Girls (reading it now), Silences, Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, Brother, I Am Dying, Blue Highways
I’m updating with an additional book. It was prompted by dueling “Bookends” columns in the September 14 NYTimes Book Review. The question: “ ‘The Book that changed my life’ is usually taken to mean ‘for the better.’ Can a book ever transform a reader’s life for the worse?” Leslie Jamison says “yes,” citing The Catcher in the Rye and The Collector, which influenced murderers, though she acknowledges that J.D. Salinger and John Fowles could hardly be held responsible for the actions of the deranged.
Francine Prose says a qualified “no.” She devotes most of the column to Devils, Drugs and Doctors by Howard W. Haggard, “an illustrated history of medicine that focused on plagues, venereal disease, mental illness and the horrifying extent to which women, in earlier eras, suffered the fatal agonies of unhygienic childbirth…” Prose was ten or eleven when she read the book and came away with the idea, based on a pointed question to her father, that people caught syphilis, etc. by “running around.” From then on, she walked.
I had a similar reaction to Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. Though I don’t believe it changed my life for the worse, I can’t say I really liked it. It did, however, have a more profound effect than any of the books listed above, except maybe for The Street, which of course shaped our whole family’s way of life.
The Jungle tells of Chicago’s meatpacking plants and the immigrants who drudge away in them. I read the book when I was, like Prose, an impressionable eleven or so. Not long after I had finished it, . I became violently ill from a dinner of franks and beans. The result was an abject, lifelong fear of vomiting. I am certain that a contributing factor to my illness was having just read the descriptions of the sausage casings filled with sawdust and rat droppings. The rest of it was probably just the flu. Anyway, I never again ate a hot dog and a few years later stopped eating meat altogether. At this point I’ve been meat-free for more years than I was a carnivore.
The other effect is problematical – and this was the one that I had forgotten until I read Prose’s essay.
The Jungle includes a wrenching scene in which poor Ona Rudkus delivers a premature dead infant in the attic of a squalid tenement because her husband can’t afford medical care or adequate housing. Just as the rat droppings and sawdust revolted me, that scene frightened me: First he hears her moaning and crying. “And then again came Ona’s scream, smiting him like a blow in the face … Her voice died away into a wail – then he heard her sobbing again, ‘My God – let me die, let me die!’ ” Not long afterward, she gets her wish.
That scenario frightened me away from ever having children – made me feel that the risk to life was too great. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t living in an early twentieth-century slum, that I would no doubt have enough money to pay for medical care, that millions of women all over the world had survived. None of that mattered. I was convinced I’d wind up just like Ona. And my mind has never really wavered in the years since.