Books can change the course of our lives
Books can change lives. Recently after reading an article that touched my heart, I remembered this. The article outlined the letter a young fan sent to his favourite author. The author loved the letter, and quoted it on the back of his next book. The author’s final comment on his return letter to the young boy is also exuberant and funny: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2016/07/you-are-best-author-in-human-history.html
Anyhow, it got me thinking. While I enjoy many books, I don’t necessarily remember many of them. I’m not sure if this just me getting older, or that I’m easily distracted (probably both!). Maybe my young brain was more malleable, making it easier to relate to the characters in the books? And as a result, did the books I read as a child leave a deeper impression? As outlined here, (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/23/alan-moore-young-fan-roald-dahl-bfg?CMP=share_btn_fb) perhaps it is possible for the stories we are exposed to shape our emotional skills?
I also got to thinking about just how powerfully such stories can be in linking people of different generations. In modern societies, many people have little contact with generations beyond our own in any depth. It can also be incredibly powerful for writers to know that their work has impact.
The first science fiction books I’d ever read was The White Mountains by John Christopher (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tripods). In brief, the story is set in England around 2089. Earth was invaded by aliens around a century before then (very close to the date I was actually reading it). The invaders forced all humans to wear metal caps once they reach adulthood around the age of 14. The caps destroy any advanced thinking and curiousity, which is why the portrayed lifestyle of 2089 resembles the Middle Ages.
The only outsiders in this scenario are the “Vagrants”, who are presumed to be mentally ill. But the main character, Will, is caught trespassing on the vagrants’ land by a man called Ozymandias. This man is not, in fact, what Will has been led to believe of vagrants. Instead, he is an adult man of free mind, and travels around looking for young people who haven’t been capped. Ozymandias helps them to join a resistance movement against the Tripods and to restore human freedom.
Below is my letter to the author about the Tripod Series books.
“Dear John Christopher,
When I first read The Tripods books, I was about 13. For the first few pages, I was bored, but the appearance of the Tripods caught my attention. More than that, though, Will’s experience reflected how I was feeling at a similar age. School was…well, what school is, and so was family. And puberty made me alternately unsure and full of myself.
But the big shock was that Will, someone my age, was going to run away in pursuit of freedom. Freedom? I understood he didn’t want to wear a cap on his head, but was that so bad? After all, he was doing OK; he had warm clothes and enough to eat, even if life was somewhat boring.
Books of revelations
At that age, I’d never considered this stuff much, if at all. I studied French and Italian at school, with the vague idea of visiting them one day as a tourist. But everyone around me just seemed to live really boring, predictable lives, especially the adults. Kids went to school, adults went to work, and even if they seemed bored with it, what else was there? After all, I’d mostly been "well-behaved", and this seemed to be something that adults prized from me.
Another shock was the realisation that life could in fact turn upside down. Adults, who up until that point I’d considered all-powerful, couldn’t stop such things from happening. So what Will was doing was a revelation to me. How would he eat? How on Earth would he know where to go, especially if he had to avoid adults? And especially avoid the Tripods, who would check to see if he wore a cap? More to the point – how would I cope myself if I faced similar challenges?
Will and his cousin Henry had to discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and to rely upon each other. At that age, I couldn’t imagine doing that with my cousins, or anyone else, as I was quite a loner. Then the boys then run into Beanpole (Jean-Paul), and more questions arose. Should they trust this stranger? After all, he’s different to us, and no-one they knew could vouch for him. What were the risks and the benefits of doing so? As the boys talked and worked together, mistakes were made. What were the best ways to deal with setbacks? How did you best lead and encourage other people?
Setting my own course
What you planted in me, more than anything else, was the importance of character. I realised that life was about choices under a range of different scenarios, some good and some bad. And what mattered over time was not what someone looked or dressed like, but how they acted, especially under pressure. Could I be honest, even when it was hard? Could I show courage when it was needed? And was I trusted – could people rely upon me to do something when I said I would?
As I read, other questions occurred to me. Why did people react in different ways to the same situation? Why did so many people just seem to go through the motions in life? And what inspired some people – a minority – to greatness in a range of fields? Why were some people happy being (relatively) poor, while others strove to be rich? Why did people fight for causes? It suddenly occurred to me one day that history was more than just dates and rulers. It was about real people making real decisions based upon what they valued.
Your books unlocked some of life’s biggest questions for me, without giving me easy answers. What I learnt is even more important now that I am adult, because I need to lead by example.
Thank you for the effort you put into writing the Tripod series.”
What do you think? Did any books have this sort impact upon you while you were growing up, or more recently? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.