Monday, August 21, 2006

Signpost Books

The first question in the one book meme that recently spread through the litblogosphere with extraordinary speed asked respondents to name “one book that changed your life.” I noted a distinct split among those who resisted this question. There were those who objected to restricting their answer to just one book, and those who were reluctant to accord any book such significance. (My favourite articulation of the latter position came from Mark Sarvas’s mother who said: "I don’t think there is a book that really changed my life. There were too many things happening in our lives that changed us.") Polarized though these positions seem, I think that the split has less to do with the importance that the two groups place on books and more to do with differing interpretations of the phrase “changed your life.” How dramatic an impact must a book have on a reader before it can be said to have changed that reader’s life?

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?


LK said...

Whoa, pretty complicated reasoning here, which LK, in her brain-addled state, may not be reading correctly. I have been having the "signpost" feeling a lot lately, as I think as a writer I'm trying to inform myself on novels. (I have tended to focus on short stories in the past.) Kerouac's "Big Sur" and Chatterjee's "English, August," have both struck me as "signpost" books, in that as I'm reading I think of the economy of description or characterization and squirrel it away for that crazy day when I get back to my much-neglected novel. Yet, Proust's "Swann's Way" struck me as a formative book -- that is, really steeping into my being, somehow, staying with me in a profound way.

Great post, as usual, with plenty of references to check out. Thank you, Kate!

AC said...

Like LK, it seems that several books that I read lately could qualify. I don't know if that's just the freshness or if they really were signposts. So those would be "In Search of Lost Time," "Correction" (Bernhard), and "The Great Fire of London" (Roubaud) -- all of these because of the things they do with narrative. It probably has something to do with the fact that I have never read books like these before.

Anonymous said...

Love your "signpost" idea, Kate. I too find it very difficult to point to books and say, "That's the one that's had the greatest impact on my life", because, really, most books change me in some large or small way.

I think, for me, "Bleak House" was one of those large books. It's made me want to start writing fiction seriously again. And "The Chess Artist", a nonfiction book I read back in June, really made me feel good about our upcoming travels - the book itself is about chess, but it has this wonderful way of touching on other cultures with a kind of respectful but fearless curiosity. I could probably name another dozen, but those are the ones I remember most from this summers' reading.

Lots to think about!

Stefanie said...

Love the signpost idea. I'd say recently, Proust's Swann's Way has been a signpost book.

litlove said...

I've read so many extraordinary books lately what with the American summer reading challenge and all. The Great Gatsby was one such, and I've just finished Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (and am about to post on it) which I thought extraordinary. There have been many such books in the past - most of Camus, the magic realism of Sylvie Germain, Hermann Hesse's novels, Proust, Julian Barnes's work. So many have given me that electric shock feeling that you describe so well.

mary grimm said...

A recent signpost book for me was Elizabeth Taylor's (not the actress) In a Summer Season--it gave me the idea of how to end my novel (plus I loved it).

sb said...

Four points on your fine post:

1. Have you read any work by Kristeva? She'd have tons of sharp things to say about your thoughts on the signpost-book. I'd steer you to her early writings, especially (DESIRE IN LANGUAGE: A SEMIOTIC APPROACH TO LITERATURE AND ART), which are less pscyhoanalytic and feminist than her later material.

2. "What book changed your life?" is, for me, a poorly expressed question! "Life" changes on its own, without the push of books (which, after all, are objects), and whether we will it to change or not. The question doesn't mean what the questioner wants it to mean, and perhaps for good reasons. I'd suggest: "What book has caused you to alter the way you engage in, react to, and observe the world as and outside of literature?"

3. Such a book, in my experience, has been Joyce's ULYSSES, on which I wrote my undergrad thesis. One of my arguments (I posed five) was that the text was a kind of mirror, a writing of the reader's own reading, transfering the author to the place of the reader and vice-versa.

4. On that last note, Barthes's IMAGE MUSIC TEXT might be of interest to you, too.

Nancy said...

My signpost books:

The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. It dramatically changed my perception and understanding of how writers use language.

Pale Fire by Nabokov. It broadened my definition of "novel."

The Princess Bride by William Goldman and Misery by Stephen King. I read both around the same time and found in them some interesting ways to look at the reader-writer relationship.