Our Reading Lives

Four Books That Changed How I View the World

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Whenever I open a book to read, I do it with a wish that when I reach the end, its story will have left me a different person. Here are four books that changed how I view the world.

Book 1) Therese Walsh, The Moon Sisters

With recommendations to read this novel coming at me from all directions, I sat down to read Therese Walsh’s The Moon Sisters on a Thursday. By the time the weekend came to a close on Sunday night, I had read the book twice. When I finished it the first time, I immediately started over; I just wasn’t ready to say good-bye to Jazz and Olivia Moon.

41ammOcePELIn The Moon Sisters, Walsh tells a dense tale of two sisters coming to terms with the unexpected death of their mother. The writing is detailed without being cluttered, emotional without being sentimental.

What makes this novel stand out from other stories of loss and family is the fact that Olivia has synesthesia. A person with synesthesia experiences the world differently from everybody else. With synesthesia, sounds are seen as colors, numbers have flavors, and time can be visualized. Reading from the point of view of the person experiencing synesthesia, this book revealed to me the fact that there are so many more dimensions to our world than we are aware of in our everyday lives.

Book 2) Isaac Asimov, Foundation

I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) in the Everyman’s Library edition, which brings together the trilogy into a single volume. Reading these stories back to back, I discovered a plot where dialogue is more important than action and where different generations of the same families are portrayed.

51VEWvOyFbLMichael Dirda’s introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition talks about Foundation’s dialogue-driven plots as rooted in the tradition of Plato and Greek drama. Dirda claims that Foundation is related to other idea-based, dialogue-driven novels by, for example, Aldous Huxley. This might be so. But I would argue that when the dialogues of Foundation are placed side by side with the multi-generational storytelling, Asimov’s masterpiece fits snugly into yet another literary tradition: namely, the great Russian novel.

This statement is not as farfetched as it might seem. Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in 1920. At the age of three, he immigrated to America with his family. He grew up in East New York, a part of Brooklyn that during the first half of the twentieth century had a large population of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, just like the Asimovs. Taking Asimov’s cultural background into account, Foundation becomes part of a literary tradition that spans more than a century, upheld by authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Sholokov, and Boris Pasternak. This discovery came as a revelation to me. I had no idea that science fiction could be written the way Asimov wrote Foundation.

Books 3 and 4) Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight

Reiner Stach’s biography of the short life and career of Franz Kafka, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, is a true reading experience. Written more like a fin-de-siècle novel than a traditional biography, the two volumes (a third volume is forthcoming) chronicle the last breaths of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first steps of the new nation of Czechoslovakia by way of World War I from the perspective of the Eastern Front.

51nqHp02dRLDelving through Kafka’s notebooks, diaries, and letters, Stach tells a colorful tale that explores the tolerant, albeit strained, relationship between the three main groups of Bohemia—Germans, Czechs, and Jews. Stach also exposes the culture clashes between the secularized Jewish bourgeoisie of Prague and the inhabitants of the rural Jewish shtetls. And he picks apart the explosive blend of petty competition and true friendship that permeated the German-speaking cultural elite of the European mainland. In the middle of all this, Franz Kafka stands, his physical and mental health a never-ending struggle. Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka opened my eyes to the different influences on Kafka’s writings. It opened my mind to the political and cultural history of a part of Europe that was not familiar to me. It opened my heart to the man that was Franz Kafka, he himself his greatest tormentor.

What books changed how you view the world?




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