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How Did Books Change Your Life?

March 24, 2013

There are two moments, nine months apart, that come to mind when I think about this question.

The second Monday in May, 2005. The classroom is familiar, I have spent many lessons staring at that chalkboard, at the yellow walls, at the curving stripe of abstract patterns – blue, green, red – running from door to pinboard, or at the birds wheeling outside the windows.

But today, the room isn’t filled with the comfortable buzz of conversations or the dull drone of a boring teacher’s lecture. Today, there is tense silence as we settle at widely-spaced desks, nervous anticipation as we listen attentively to a teacher we would normally ignore or mock.

The silence returns as we open the folders with our exam papers – the first of our written finals.

We never took any useful notes in German class, so instead of studying, I have decided to simply trust in my luck and my wits.

As I open my folder and begin to read – “Choose one of the following three topics to write about” – a smile creeps over my face. Luck is smiling on me. Without a moment’s hesitation, I choose option 2: “Essay: How did the books you’ve read influence your life?”

I really wish I had got a copy of that essay – I had fun writing it, and I think it was fun to read, but I can no longer quite remember what I wrote.

I can, remember, however, lying in my bed the night before, writing a bit, for my own amusement and to celebrate the end of classes – writing about all the books I’d read for school.

And I could reuse some of that in my exam. It gave me a starting point, at least: I relentlessly mocked all the assigned reading I had ever been given. There’s one line I can still remember:

In secondary school, my teacher made me read Georg Büchner’s ‘Wojzeck’. Afterwards, all I could remember was that there had been beans in it. When I read it again in grammar school, I discovered they were really peas.

Which shows pretty clearly how attentively I read those books. None of them had influenced me in the slightest – whether Wojzeck or Faust, Brave New World or Catcher in the Rye – whatever our teachers had thought instructive had left me completely unaffected.

Looking back now, I’m sure they all had something to teach, but I rejected it all, refused even to see it, simply because I was forced to read them. I wasn’t ready for Hemingway and Steinbeck when I was subjected to them at thirteen, or for Günter Grass or Ingeborg Bachmann at seventeen. I’m probably still not.

The second half of the essay, I remember less clearly. Did I write about the books that truly shaped me? Did I even see, then, how they had influenced me? Or was I too proud to admit that the book that had had an impact on me had been children’s books? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books, but I wasn’t one of those prodigies who teach themselves to read at age three and read Shakespeare at eight.

I might have written about Harry Potter, just to thumb my nose at my teachers and their idea of literature. At the time, that series certainly felt like the biggest influence in my life. I had always been a loner, and Harry Potter had given me a common interest with classmates. Suddenly I had been involved in whispered back-of-the-classroom conversations, in discussing what might happen next, in lending and borrowing books. I’d briefly even found myself in the spotlight when I drew a caricature of our German teacher as Professor Binns.

But, looking back now, Harry Potter was no lasting influence. None of the friendships that were formed then have lasted, and while the series does have some good things to teach, they were all lessons I had learned long before. (Although I must give J.K. Rowling credit for getting me to read in English before school ruined it for me.)

I think the point I was trying to make with my essay (which, for all its cheek, was flawlessly written, and got top marks) was that books hadn’t really shaped who I am, but had at best repeated lessons that I had already learned from my parents.

It is only now that I’m beginning to see the influence of books in my life – subtler influences than Harry Potter, but longer lasting. Glancing along the shelves filled with children’s books, I can see which of them have, if not caused, at least strengthened, my love of wolves, for nature, have emphasized the importance of friendship and not blindly following ideologies…

children's books

Love of wolves, love of nature, survival skills, friendship, and the importance of always thinking for myself…

Looking to the other side of my living room, to the fantasy bookcase, I realize I didn’t tell the truth in my essay – or rather, I simply didn’t see the truth then.

My German teacher might only see trashy formula fiction full of dragons and wizards – I see courage and perseverance, strength and honour. Who is to say that, “ Remember Cedric Diggory” can’t be what inspires me to speak out against intolerance and prejudice? Who is to say that Caradhras can’t be what gives me the strength to endure a long cold day at work? Who is to say that Professor Lupin and Doctor Morgenes can’t be my role models when I’m teaching apprentices? Who is to say I can’t base my actions on a vague idea of honour instead of some other set of morals?

These are things that I truly have learned from books. I was raised with respect for the environment and without prejudices, in a home where the door was always open to friends, but I can’t remember my parents ever showing courage. That was probably because no situation ever required it, but courage was never something that was emphasized in my upbringing… being very shy and introverted, it wouldn’t have done much good anyway.

I’ve never had to face dragons or dark lords, but I no longer allow myself to ignore racist or otherwise discriminatory remarks (even when speaking out against them leads to confrontations I’d rather avoid) or to tell a white lie to get out of an awkward conversation. Courage and honour, and only thanks to books that my German teacher would have sneered at… if his bland Jesus-face had been made for sneering. I don’t think he was actually capable of more than mild condescension in his sleep-inducing voice.

Fantasy books

Some of the books that have made me the adult I am.

So, yes, books have influenced my life. And more than that, there was one book that really, truly changed my life.

The first Friday in February, 2006. I have just eaten lunch in the university cafeteria, Kaiserschmarrn mixed with the taste of tears, as my homesickness threatened to overwhelm me, and now the wooden steps echo hollowly under my feet as I climb the stairs to the computer lab.

I sit in a corner, trying to be invisible. Much as I dread this lonely weekend in Vienna, I am so shy and insecure that I dread being talked to even more.

I check my e-mail and exam results, then – for the first time – break the rule that says that university computers are only to be used for study-related purposes. It is going to be one of my last days in Vienna – I am only going to stay until Monday, to take one more exam, scraping together just enough credits that I won’t have to pay back the grant I have received.

Then I will leave university, leave Vienna, leave the dreams other people have had for me, and live my own dream: an apprenticeship in horticulture. Today, I take the first step, searching for apprenticeships around my hometown. I have little experience with using the internet – I have only started using it when I came to Vienna four months before, and only to sign up for classes and exams – but I find a couple of nurseries looking for apprentices.

And then, on a whim, I decide to follow up on something else that I have been wondering about – a sentence from a book, from the author’s note of thanks in Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch, one of the many books I have devoured to keep my sanity during the last  months.

Last but not least, I must also mention that this particular book owes a huge debt of gratitude and inspiration to all the mad, wonderful folk on the bulletin board, a repository of wisdom, support, silliness and recipes for rhubarb like no other.

Nervous fingers type in the address, a nervous hand clicks me from page to page until I find the message board.

After that, everything is a blur – it might be minutes or hours that go by as I explore, read and struggle to suppress my laughter, until suddenly, someone says, “Hi Ivy!”

I jump and give the young man standing behind me a long, baffled look until I recognize him as my cousin (who studies at the same university). We chat for a bit, but when he leaves, I can no longer shake the feeling that someone will soon call me out for using the university computers for private purposes, and so I also leave, walk back to my impersonal dorm room, past walls and fences covered in dark, dull ivy – but this once, I don’t feel miserable.

All through that lonely weekend, my mind continued to churn with memories of the discussions I’d read, with names and signatures, with the banter that showed not just the posters’ sense of humour, but also the familiarity and affection between them. And I knew: I wanted to be part of it.

In some parallel universe, something else might have eventually prompted me to explore the internet beyond the close confines of my e-mail account, something else might have led me to NaNoWriMo and blogging, to travelling and historical dance.

But in this universe, it was Shadowmarch – Smarch, as it is still known, even though it is now the Tad Williams Message Board. In this universe, it was that moment in that dreary computer lab when my life was picked up and set down on a different track. If I ever have to conjure a Patronus, this is the memory I will choose, because it was as life-changing as Hagrid’s, “Harry – yer a wizard.”

In some other universe, something else might have done all that, but I find it hard to believe. In the seven years since then, I haven’t found another message board as friendly and welcoming, as full of in-jokes and forum legends, as… how to describe it?

Let me put it this way: You know all that advice for meeting online acquaintances – meet in a public place, bring a friend, have a way to get away if you need to… I travelled a thousand kilometres, alone, and spent a couple of nights at the house of a person I’d never met. And felt safe.

The memories of that weekend, my first time meeting other Smarchers, are a blur of funny conversations and good food, but there are two moments that stand out. One is a picture of the five of us – the first time I liked how I looked in a picture, because my face is (if you’ll excuse the cliché expression) shining with happiness. The other is a laugh – not my usual quiet, nervous chuckle, but a loud, free laugh.

I can’t describe it better than that. I was a shy, awkward loner, hardly speaking, and now I’m so much more confident, so much more outgoing, my world so much larger, and while it is a change that might eventually have happened for other reasons, it did happen because of Shadowmarch, because of that single, innocent sentence. Or maybe, if I want to trace it back further, because of The Dragonbone Chair, which so intrigued me as a child, and made me fall in love with Tad Williams’ writing. Thank you, Tad. This is what I meant when I wrote that the second-from-last sentence of To Green Angel Tower,

“Now, come, please. Come and join us. Up the corridor you have a room full of friends – some of them you don’t even know yet!”

feels strangely prophetic – what better way to describe Smarch than a room full of friends? Some of them I have never met, but they are friends nonetheless.

It is so strange to think back to that day, still so clear in my memory, and realize that it was the day I first took action to change my life – beginning to look for apprenticeships – and the day when my life changed for a completely different reason. It feels almost as if some higher power was confirming that, by leaving university, I was doing the right thing.

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