I fell into the group that found it difficult to limit my answer to one title. I’m inclined to think that many of the books that I’ve read over the course of my life have changed me, some in subtle ways and others more dramatically. Perhaps I’ve revised the question though. Is it the same thing to say that a book has changed you as to say that a book has changed your life? I had an opportunity to directly consider the “what books have changed you?” question nearly a year ago in response to another meme of sorts that invited participants to list ten formative books. Compiling my list of formative books didn’t feel quite as momentous as naming just one book that changed my life. Nevertheless, I still found it to be a restrictive endeavour that required a great deal of thought. It wasn’t so much the ten-book limit that made it restrictive as the very concept of “formative.” For one thing, it seemed to me to rule out recent reads; however enthusiastic I was about them, I felt that more time had to pass before I could definitively deem them formative.
This train of thought left me wondering about how to give recent reads that have had a significant impact on me their due without resorting to clichéd hyperbole. Then I encountered the concept of “signpost films” at girish (via About Last Night):
There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.
It’s been some time since I was a devoted follower of film, but it seems to me that the notion of “signpost films” translates very nicely into the world of books. There are a number of books that I have read, in recent years and stretching back through my lifetime, the reading of which I might hesitate to describe as life-changing or even formative experiences, that I have no trouble characterizing as “signpost books.”
What’s the difference between a formative book and a signpost book? A single book could certainly be both, but if I’m interpreting the definition properly, an aesthetic focus is central to the latter. Girish writes of films that are breakthroughs in that they help the viewer to better understand film as an art form and that provide lessons to take into future viewing experiences, not lessons to take into life generally. A book may be formative because of its emotional or psychological impact. But it would be a signpost book if it helps the reader to better understand what language can do, how a story or a novel or a poem works, thereby enhancing that reader’s appreciation for literature as an art form, and sending him or her off into the next reading experience equipped with a more discerning eye.
Two recent reads that qualify as signpost books for me are Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories. I came upon Case Histories at the end of a month long novel-a-day escapist binge. By page three I had resolved to stop reading the sort of crap that had occupied me in the preceding weeks, and also to get back to my own writing. A lot of things about the novel wowed me; chief among them was its refusal to acknowledge a dividing line between literary and genre fiction. Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories cracked open the whole idea of story for me. I read the book three times in a row, then went off and transformed a poem that I’d been trying to write for years into a very odd little story. (For my detailed review of The Whole Story in an earlier blog post, click here.) I don’t know to what extent either of these books is objectively groundbreaking but both served as exactly the right book at the right time for me. They enhanced my appreciation and understanding of literary form as a reader and inspired me to stretch my capabilities as a writer.
Would you characterize any of your recent reads as signpost books?