Can a Book Ever Change a Reader's Life for the Worse?

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Date: Sept. 14, 2014
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Column
Length: 1,614 words

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Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. ''The book that changed my life'' is usually taken to mean ''for the better.'' This week, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose discuss whether a book can ever transform a reader's life for the worse.

By Leslie Jamison

Novels can become embodiments of our own worst impulses, can christen or distill or liberate these impulses.

At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J. D. Salinger's ''The Catcher in the Rye'': ''I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over. . . . I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.''

''The Catcher in the Rye'' was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called ''Operation Miranda,'' a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles's novel ''The Collector,'' which they cited as their inspiration.

I'm not saying that Salinger or Fowles are responsible for what Chapman or Lake or Ng did. Clearly, they weren't. Their novels weren't. I mention them only to suggest the ways that novels can become embodiments of our own worst impulses, can christen or distill or liberate these impulses -- and also because reading about these men makes me remember reading ''The Collector'' when I was young. I moved through it compulsively. I couldn't turn away from it. I didn't want to.

I wondered -- at the time, and even more acutely now -- where that compulsion came from, and whether there wasn't something dark in how immersed I became in its psychological brutality. My fascination wasn't a part of myself I was proud of; it was a part of myself that was drawn to pain and ugliness, and it felt shameful to find myself so engrossed. Was something inside me simply being reflected, or was it actually being deepened, granted life or sustenance, like yeast feeding on sugar?

It has become popular to consider fiction in terms of empathy -- how it can catalyze and deepen our awareness of lives beyond our own -- but what if it can also catalyze other tendencies, other capacities or grooves of thought? Novels might not make us worse, but they can unlock parts of us that were already there, already dark, already violent or ruthless or self-destructive. People with eating disorders learn tricks from stories about anorexia. People with histories of drug abuse get triggered by stories of intoxication.

Several years ago, I received a note about my first novel, ''The Gin Closet,'' which is, in part, the story of a middle-aged woman and her prolonged decline into alcoholism:

''I picked up this book at a thrift store for 10 cents. That's right and it was the worst 10 cents I ever spent. So depressing and it placed me in a horrible place. Back to drinking and taking drugs. Even tried to slit my wrists. A terrible dark story about nothing worthwhile. No inspiration or hope anywhere. You should be ashamed of yourself. No good will ever come of this book.''

Did this woman try to slit her wrists because of my book? I don't believe that -- or I try to quiet the part of myself that might have believed that for a moment. But maybe she'd hoped my book could persuade her not to try. And then it hadn't. It had failed to save her from herself -- and in that failure, it had become the emblem and instrument of something in her that she was struggling against. She was showing me the toxic aftermath of that disappointment.

I realize I'd come to believe that novels full of pain would always offer consolation, would always make people feel less alone in whatever pain their own lives already held -- because it had always worked like that for me. But I began to see that it could also work another way: There could be a yearning for hope, for an alternative, for something more positive -- for consolation as difference, not echo -- and the failure to provide that alternative could feel like betrayal, like permission to destroy, like a promise of what might never change.

Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, ''The Empathy Exams,'' winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, ''The Gin Closet,'' was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper's, The Oxford American, A Public Space and The Believer.

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By Francine Prose

For some reason my father believed Truman Capote's ''Breakfast at Tiffany's'' would inspire me to lead a dissolute life.

As a child I was an omnivorous reader. I read every book in the house, and after I'd exhausted the children's section at the public library, I persuaded my parents to borrow, for me, books intended for adults. I don't remember anyone ever talking about what was ''appropriate'' for someone my age, and early on I was encouraged to read far above what was not yet commonly called my ''grade level.'' The only books I recall my parents forbidding me to finish were Bram Stoker's ''Dracula'' (it was giving me nightmares that kept the whole household awake) and Truman Capote's ''Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' which for some reason my father believed would inspire me to lead a dissolute life.

So what in the world were they thinking when they allowed me to read Howard W. Haggard's ''Devils, Drugs and Doctors,'' 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? Because I was a somewhat morbid child, this book, which I discovered in our attic, remained my favorite for years. And as I learned when I reread it recently, it was not only wildly inappropriate for a young person, but it might well have daunted and disturbed some adults. In fact the evidence suggests that many grown-ups liked it quite a bit. The vintage copy that I acquired not long ago was the 25th printingof an edition originally published in 1929.

For reasons that will soon become clear, I am fairly sure that I was no more than 10 or 11 when I first read Haggard's book. Certainly my parents' fervent desire that I might someday become a doctor like them must have contributed to their pride in a little daughter who so enjoyed a book that featured woodcuts of a 16th-century amputation and of a torture implement used on innocents suspected of causing the bubonic plague, as well as lurid descriptions of the symptoms of syphilis.

There is much about the book that I couldn't possibly have understood, but the only explanations I remember seeking concerned those mysteries raised by the chapters on the so-called social diseases. Unaware that one of his readers might be too young to have had the ''big talk'' about sex and reproduction with her parents, Dr. Haggard sensibly assumed that his audience would understand, without being told, how these illnesses were transmitted. Perhaps I had some inkling of the truth; perhaps I was partly being intentionally provocative when I asked my father how people caught the maladies that were the scourge of whole populations and so many European royal families. More than likely I enjoyed his obvious discomfort when -- unready for the larger and more difficult conversation -- he dismissed my question by explaining that people contracted these diseases by ''running around.''

The next day, his words returned to haunt me, naturally at recess. Had no one warned the other kids about the physical horrors and the premature death they might endure if they participated in races and games? I began to walk when I should have run. I became the slowest in the class, the last one picked for teams. Until enough time passed, and I forgot about my father's offhand answer, which I had so egregiously misinterpreted.

It's been suggested that Salvador DalE 's sensibility was profoundly influenced and his sexuality permanently blighted by his discovery, as a child in his parents' home, of a medical text that included hideous images of diseased genitalia. I can say, with reasonable certainty, that ''Devils, Drugs and Doctors'' had no such lasting effect on my work, no such crippling consequences for my erotic life. And yet I can't help wondering if my reading the book might have had something to do with the fact that I have always been hopelessly bad at sports.

Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel ''Blue Angel,'' a National Book Award nominee, and the guide ''Reading Like a Writer,'' a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is ''Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.'' Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper's, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



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Gale Document Number: GALE|A382351628