Books That Have had a Profound Impact on me
Most books I read fade to the periphery of my mind not long after I finish them. A select few, however, have left indelible impressions on me, their grasp on my psyche standing the test of time. These are not necessarily my favorite books, but the ones that have had the strongest impact on me. Some changed the way I look at the world, some taught me important lessons, and some, despite not being obviously profound, simply left me with distinct and unshakable feelings. In many ways, just as I am a product of my experiences, I am also a product of these books, each having molded me in their own unique ways.
Over the course of several years in the 1990s, author David Simon shadowed a handful of individuals involved with the Baltimore drug scene. By acting as a fly on the wall and observing users, pushers, and innocent bystanders, he paints a immaculate picture of these individuals and the role “The Corner,” the intersection of Fayette and Monroe Streets, the primary drug market of the Baltimore inner city, plays in their lives.
The Corner is largely a despondent and tragic story. The health of many of its subjects have been devastated by drug use and disease. Several live with HIV, open wounds, and on the cusp of organ failure. Some of the subjects die before the book ends and many more passed shortly after its publication. Most of the teenagers it chronicles spend their days dealing drugs and getting into shoot outs. Curiously, however, it was not the images of abject brutality that stuck with me the most, but instead the glimmers of love and hope that managed to shine through. For instance, Ella, a middle aged woman, suffered through the murder of her young daughter, but does all she can to better the lives of children by dedicating herself fully to running a community center. Fran, a drug addict and mother of two children, has no money to buy her 8 year old son, DeRodd, Christmas presents, so she attempts to shoplift them instead. After her efforts are foiled by mall security, she returns home to a tree littered with presents, which her older son, DeAndre, bought with his drug dealing profits. Gary, a heavy intravenous drug user living with his parents, musters up enough courage to resist the typically overpowering urge to buy drugs with his mother’s grocery money.
It is tempting to believe that people have complete control over their lives and that poor circumstances are always attributed to dispositional factors. The Corner, however, brought my attention to the overwhelming role external factors can play in someone’s life. No matter how smart or hard working someone may be, external factors, like those that the individuals profiled in The Corner are subject to, will often trump all else. To this end, reading The Corner has helped me develop empathy for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and made me realize the privileges afforded by my own, overwhelmingly advantageous, circumstances.
Less Than Zero
Bret Easton Ellis
Despite being dry, tedious, and almost flagrantly uneventful, Less than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, is by far the saddest fiction book I have ever read. It follows Clay, the narrator, a college student from a posh liberal arts school, during his winter break back home in Los Angeles, which he spends socializing, aimlessly driving around, and doing copious amounts of drugs. What could be a vivid literary presentation though, is instead conveyed in monotone. When Clay snorts a line of coke first thing in the morning, he does so completely undramatically. Conversations about friends’ bulimia or their latest stint in rehab inspire no emphatic reactions by Clay or the reader, as they are discussed as dryly as a conversation about the weather. Emotional scenes, such as when Clay cries in the shower, are set forth with a deliberate lack of sentiment. Events are transcribed in such an emotionally detached manner, that the tragic nature of the story could be easily overlooked.
Clay has a truly enviable life. He is rich, handsome, and popular, but it is for these very reasons that the story is so tragic. Despite having everything of material nature one could ask for, these advantages are nothing beyond a guise. Clay has been so eroded by the superficial aspects of society, the drugs, the parties, the sex, that his hallow core has been exposed. It is clear that the material advantages Clay has not only do not offer him deliverance, but actually set him back.
Less than Zero stuck with me, not only because of how chilling I found it, but also because it taught me a profound lesson. At points in my life I have been susceptible to believing that material advantages preclude someone from being miserable. I do not want for anything, but I still find myself looking at those around me who have more, and idealizing their lives. Less than Zero taught me, though, that the premium I have put on the material is misplaced. Abject misery does not discriminate. Someone can have everything on the outside, yet such superficial advantages do not necessarily offer anything of true value.
Lolita follows Humbert Humbert, a pedophile, through his love affair with Lolita, an adolescent girl. Unlike the other books on this list, Lolita did not teach me any major life lessons, which is probably a good thing considering the subject matter. Instead, it finds itself here because it is a true literary masterpiece, so disconcerting yet so subtle and beautifully composed and, for better or for worse, it still disturbs me to think about it. More than any other book, it taught me the power of language, how it can be woven in ways to make even the most detestable topics appear beautiful.
Johnny Got His Gun
Johnny Got His Gun takes place in World War 1, beginning immediately after a young soldier, Joe, awakes in a hospital with horrific injuries. An artillery shell blew off all of Joe’s limbs and facial features and left him a prisoner in his own body, unable to speak. Over time, however, Joe learns to communicate with morse code by hitting his head on a pillow. He conveys his desire to be toured around the country in a glass box so that others may understand the cost of war. This never comes to fruition though, as he realizes that it is surely “against regulations.” Joe is therefore left to languish in a hospital bed as a prisoner in his own body for the rest of his life.
The title is based off the 19th century call to arms, “Johnny get your gun,” and a crucial lesson can be derived from a juxtaposition of these. Johnny get your gun encourages action, devoid of any consideration of the consequences. Johnny Got His Gun shows what happens next.
Since reading Johnny Got His Gun, I have realized that the practice of disregarding the true consequences of war is rather endemic in society. Politicians discuss war like it’s an abstract ideological issue rather than a human conflict. Movies or television usually highlight illustrious tales of heroism and patriotism; death and destruction is used as mere set dressing. Johnny Got His Gun calls attention to what these all gloss over; The human cost of war. Reading Johnny Got His Gun helped me appreciate this cost. Now, when I think about war I don’t think about ideology, patriotism, or heroism. Instead, I think about Joe languishing in his hospital bed.
It’s So Easy: And Other Lies
It’s So Easy and Other Lies is the autobiography of Duff McKagan, Guns ’n Roses’ base player. The title is borrowed from the song of the same name on the band’s debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which describes the hedonistic lifestyle of a rock star, who lives his life without consequences, free from the constraints of normal folk.
Cars are crashin' every night
I drink n' drive everything's in sight
I make the fire
But I miss the firefight
I hit the bull's eye every night
It's so easy, easy…
The problem is, as Duff reveals in the book, that this is lie. Life as a rock star is not consequence free, nor is it, in many cases, even fulfilling. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but in this book Duff shows what happens when you get exactly what you want.
I’ve read plenty of memoirs of rock musicians, and they tend to follow a similar path, like a screwed up hero’s journey. The musician starts off poor and talentless, but works their ass off to improve their craft. They join a band, practice nonstop, and take every single gig that they can get, no matter the distance or the pay. The band develops real talent and chemistry and gains a small local following. Through this point they live miserable existences, destitute, subsisting on junk food and crashing on couches, but they are happy nonetheless. Eventually, their hard work pays off and the band is noticed by a record company and they start to see real money, which is spent on girls, drugs, and gratuitous luxuries. Everything they have ever dreamed of is now theirs and life becomes a nonstop party. This existence of pure excess initially offers ephemeral bliss and even, arguably, real happiness, but it eventually proves untenable. Over time bandmates begin to feud, crippling addictions develop, and romantic relationships go sour. Now, the hero is numb to the worldly pleasures that once offered such unmitigated bliss. The Guns N Roses song “Mr Brownstone” (Mr Brownstone is a euphemism for heroin) does a good job explaining how this life of excess can eventually spiral out of control.
I used ta do a little but a little wouldn't do
So the little got more and more
I just keep tryin' ta get a little better
Said a little better than before
We been dancin' with
He's been knockin'
He won't leave me alone
No, no, no
He won't leave me alone
Duff McKagan followed this path to a tee. He was born the youngest of eight children in a Seattle working class family. Though very intelligent, he chose to drop out of high school in tenth grade to pursue a music career. He moved to LA in 1983 and joined Guns N Roses in 1985. Early on in the band’s existence, they were far from the world famous rock stars that they would soon become, and their lives were anything but glamorous. At one point the band all found themselves living in an abandoned warehouse. They were all having copious amounts of sex and catching STDs, yet were too poor to afford proper antibiotics, which left them taking fish herpes medication they could buy on the cheap at pet stores. They travelled to gigs in a broken down van, never turning down an opportunity to play. Despite these conditions, they were happy and when they signed a record deal for Appetite For Destruction, they were ecstatic. Before long they were the biggest band in the world.
Duff grew up idolizing rock stars and always dreamed of being one. He finally had what he wanted, but it was not long before things began to fall apart. He became a prisoner of his own desires, developing serious alcohol and cocaine addictions, which devastated his health. His drinking was so bad that his appendix exploded and nearly killed him and he was using so much cocaine that his nose was always gushing mucous like a leaky faucet. Over time, Duff become so miserable that he nearly committed suicide, going so far as sticking a shotgun in his mouth in his closet, wondering how his life had fallen apart, and only narrowly avoiding pulling the trigger.
Duff is far from the only musician to hit rock bottom, but out of all the accounts I have read, I find that he took the most active path to reverse his fortunes. When he decided to turn his life around, he did not do so passively, but attacked it with the same zeal that he had applied to drugs and music.
When I read it It’s so Easy I was going through a tough time. I found myself empathizing with Duff’s situation and reading about his efforts towards self improvement inspired me to make changes in my own life. Duff taught me several lessons that I greatly needed to learn at that point in my life, lessons that have been a boon to me to this day. In this spirit of the book, let’s call these lessons truths, and my misconceptions, which had much to do with the situation I found myself in, lies.
Lie: Self improvement is easy.
Truth: It takes monumental physical and mental dedication to better yourself. “If you are going through hell keep going”
Lie: Getting everything you want will make you happy.
Truth: Getting everything that you want almost never make you happy and often leads to ruin. Almost every musician that I have read about ends up absolutely miserable by the time they reach their goals.
Lie: It is possible to escape consequences.
Truth: Everyone will face the music for their actions eventually. The notion that a rock star gets away with everything is specifically stated in the song “It’s so Easy.” In passing, this does seem to be the case. When we look at the rich and famous we focus on what goes right for them, but seldom focus on the pitfalls or consequences their lifestyle choices inspire. This is also the case in our own lives, when we delude ourselves into thinking that we can make bad decisions without eventually paying for them. Surely Duff believed this at first. When Guns n’ Roses blew up it seemed like the band could do whatever they wanted without repercussions. Eventually though, life came to collect as it always does.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is written by Dr. Gabor Mate, a Canadian addiction specialist. Mate was the head physician at the curiously named “Portland Hotel,” a boarding facility and treatment center for Toronto’s homeless population. The Portland Hotel housed the most far gone homeless individuals, most being drug addicts and mentally ill. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts is Mate’s account of his time treating these individuals, delivering them medical care, and getting to know their stories. Before In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts I had read numerous other books on the topic of addiction, both personal accounts and scientific perspectives, which made me feel like I had a stellar understanding of the subject. It was not until I read this book, however, that I realized how immature and boorish my perspective was, regarding both addicts as individuals and the stranglehold of addiction.
The stories of Mate’s subjects typically follow a similar unfortunate path. The homeless addict was severely physically or sexually abused as a child, and they turned to drugs as a coping mechanism. They live in abject misery and intravenous drug use has left them in alarmingly poor health. Despite the consequences of drug use and Mate’s urging them to stop, they continue to use. Sadly, Mate reports that out of the hundreds of homeless patients he has seen, only two were able to kick the habit permanently and live relatively normal productive lives.
What I found remarkable about the stories, was that despite the obvious consequences of using, few subjects even expressed a desire to stop. They traversed overdose after overdose, disease after disease, and still came back for more, seemingly doing anything to get a fix. I had always, perhaps naively, felt that addiction is a choice but reading these accounts made me question this. Why would anyone so consistently make a choice, and do so eagerly at that, which results in destitution and death?
After reading this book, I realized something about addiction that I had not previously understood. For a serious addict, using may indeed be a choice, but not in the way I had previously thought. It’s actually an obvious choice. When someone is sexually abused as a child, disregarded by society as an adult, and living on the streets, shooting, snorting, and smoking is the choice that makes the most sense. Certain individuals live in such a miserable state that drug use, and the temporary relief that it offers, is as clear of a choice to them as drinking water is to us when we are thirsty.
For much of my life, I looked for the easy way out. Regardless of the situation, no matter the evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that I could find a way to accomplish my goals without working hard. Reading Shoe Dog, the autobiography of Nike founder Phil Knight, played a large role in putting this idea to bed and it taught me a tremendous amount about the necessity and value of hard work.
Curiously, though the book covers events spanning Knight’s early life to present day, the narrative focuses largely on the early years of Nike, when it was a fledgling shoe importing company known as “Blue Ribbon Sports.” This unique perspective offers a glimpse into what it takes to build a successful company. Spoiler alert, it’s not easy.
What stands out the most about Knight’s journey, is how non linear it was. It seems that every triumph and milestone along the way was accompanied by a setback of comparable proportions. Shoe Dog taught me that success is not a marathon, but rather, an obstacle course.
Requiem for a Dream
Hubert Selby Jr.
Requiem for a Dream is the story of four people, a mother, a son, a girlfriend, and a friend, and their spiraling journey into drug addiction. It demonstrates the slowly progressing chaos of drug use, how it can become all consuming before you even know it.
Requiem for a Dream utilizes a unique writing style. Aside from periods, the book is almost completely devoid of punctuation. There is never any outright indication of who is speaking, conversation just jumps from person to person, and from conversation to internal dialogue and back again. Though this style can make the book incredibly tough to understand, I find that it simulates the chaotic nature of its subject matter aptly. I have never read another book that truly made me feel like its characters; anxious, scattered, and above all, strung out.
You are not so Smart
You are not so Smart is a book about cognitive biases and how they shape our perceptions. Through 47 chapters it covers common cognitive biases and demonstrates how they can warp our perceptions. It shows how our opinions are tainted, our memories inaccurate, and our perceptions warped in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Man did I really need this book.
For a time in my life, my teenage years especially, I foolishly believed that my opinions and perceptions were infallible. This conviction often caused me to be incredibly argumentative, stubborn, and overconfident in my own beliefs. I was convinced I was right about everything and all too often found myself forcing my way into conversations about topics that I frankly knew nothing about.
Reading You are not so Smart made me realize that just because I thought I was right about something didn’t actually mean that I was. The first time I read it, I felt my confidence in my own intelligence and veracity of beliefs melt away chapter by chapter. By the time I finished, I was truly humbled.
Admitting that I was not as smart as I believed myself to be was a true deliverance. For one, I am now a much better listener and am more open to the opinions of others. Instead of offering my unsolicited opinions on everything under the sun to everyone in the room, I do a lot more shutting up and listening. Curiously, realizing that I don’t know shit has given me a sense of inner peace that I did not have before. I am now much more secure in the understanding of my own perceptive and intellectual inadequacies than I ever was in my strongly held convictions of my infallible opinions and intelligence.