Books That Changed Who I Am

In September of 1973, I was 11 years old and admitted to the only rehab hospital in Denmark that handled kids with arthritis (and kids and adults with any other rehabilitation needs). To say that it was an awful place is an understatement, but there weren't any other options. I cried for weeks, wandering the halls dressed in the hospital-issued clothing – the ugliest workout gear seen on this earth. Then I learned that crying doesn’t change anything. I’d wear my anorak, too – it was armour from home, from normal, blocking the nightmare. Another part of the protective gear was a book by Nicholas Kalashnikof, called Prince: The Story of a Siberian Stallion (loosely translated from the Danish title). It was the story of the life of a Siberian stallion, lost from his owners, who experiences terrible things, then is found and comes home again. The first time I was in that hospital, I stayed for three months. My memories tell me that the book was always with me, either in my hands or in the pocket of my anorak, ready to take me away to Russia when I needed to escape. I no longer know if this is true.

The first book I read in English was Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. It’s the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes – only a few survived (full story here). I’d borrowed it from a homecare worker, a student working part-time, who told me it was an incredible book. I was 16 or 17 and read it with a dictionary. It took me two weeks. I remember the details of how they survived only vaguely, except for the part about eating the dead to avoid starving. It seemed very practical to me. And after reading a book in another language, I knew I’d never run out of reading material.

I started university right after highschool. In Denmark, it is tradition to take a year (or more) off before going on. My friends were backpacking through Europe, sleeping on beaches in the Greek Islands, working on a kibbutz or going to Paris to be an au pair. I studied English. I’d wanted to study comparative religion, but the University of Copenhagen is very old – it was established in 1479 - and that department was on the oldest part of the old campus and not accessible, so I had to find something at the new campus, which was. It had a bookstore on the ground floor and I bought my first English-language paperback there. It was Clan of the Cave Bear and I was mesmerized. It pushed the boundaries of everything I’d ever thought was possible to imagine and opened up a new world. It’s still somewhere on my shelves.

The first book I bought based on a review was The Vampire Lestat. We had moved to Canada by then and I was in my second year of studying psychology at the University of Toronto (with a few courses in comparative religion). I read the review in a student newspaper and bought the book the next day. It blew my mind. Lestat lived life (unlife?) fearlessly, committed to only one thing: to get the most out of it. It made me want to be Lestat. Or at least to live life like that (perhaps not including the drinking blood bit, although living forever seemed a nice payoff). For a long time, I read it once a year, to remind myself of the kind of person I wanted to become.

Years later, when I was working for a municipal government, I used to read on the WheelTrans bus on my way to work. Although I read many books on the bus in the 5 years I worked there, I only remember one vividly. Or rather, one line/thought from one book. I still remember where I was the moment I read it: on the Neilson Road off-ramp from the 401 highway. Two short sentences struck me with such force that I stopped breathing, stopped reading, looked up, yet saw nothing, while it reverberated within me. It is still, all these years later, seared into my brain like an internal tattoo. The book was Damage. The sentences: “damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive”. Those nine words taught me more about what bad things can do to people than years of studying had.

Which book(s) changed you?