Sunday Salon: Life Changing Books

Can reading a book change your life? It’s a phrase that seems to get trotted out by marketing departments fairly frequently, especially when they’re trying to flog the latest self help manual that promises everything from marital bliss to millionaire status. But I also noticed that Goodreads has a list of books that readers have classed as ‘life changing’ – some you might expect like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird though there are an astonishing number who claim Harry Potter has a transformative effect.

A recent posting on Book Riot along the same lines got me thinking whether, out of the hundreds if not thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime, have there been any which have made such a huge impact on my life that they could be said to have changed it? After digging deep in the dusty attic of my brain, I realised that there is indeed one that had a marked effect on my life, though it’s a play rather than a novel: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. 

Title page of the first quarto of Merchant of Venice (1600)

Our first set text for English that year was The Merchant of Venice.  It was our first experience of Shakespeare. For some stupid reason the education ‘experts’ had ruled that Shakespeare would not be introduced earlier in our school system so we were fed instead on the deadly dull School for Scandal and The Rivals, both by Sheridan.

Reading the Merchant in advance of our first class must have been the proverbial light bulb moment for me. Because when the class began, I found myself quoting from it, not just the odd line or two but whole speeches. Without ever having intended to, I had memorised large chunks of the main speeches much to the astonishment not just of my classmates but the teacher. Fourty years later and I still remember a good portion of that speech by Shylock where he accuses Antonio of dual standards:

You call me misbeliever, cut throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.

From that day, I couldn’t get enough of literature, consuming book after book from my local library (though many times without fully understanding what I was reading) and desperately keen to continue studying it through school and university. Even today I can’t get enough of it, taking an extra degree with the  Open University. Maybe it’s too much to claim that  The Merchant, completely changed the course of my life but I like to think it did make a significant difference to the quality of my life. So I will raise a toast to the Bard of Stratford and say a heartfelt thanks.

Are there any books that have made a difference to your life? I’d love to hear your story……

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