I have read a lot of books in my lifetime. Quite a few have enriched me, taught me, challenged me, entertained me… Some have angered me. But, I must admit that I had a hard time coming up with a specific book that actually changed my life.
Except…. Maybe a few books helped me develop my love for reading, and thus launched me into this habit of reading books. So, in terms of what I do with my time, in that sense, reading books changed my life – and turned me into a book reader.
Anyway, I thought about this when I read this from Andrew Sullivan’s blog. It is from a reader’s e-mail. Whether you like Ayn Rand or not, this is quite a story about how a book changed one person’s life.
This is a longer “borrow” than usual. But, I think it is worth reading. And then we can all ask, which book actually changed our life?
Although I don’t agree with Objectivism as a philosophy, and I recognize the glaringly obvious flaws of Rand’s political ideas, its influence on me was very personal. And the other people I know who absolutely swear by her work, for most of them it is also a personal debt, not a political or philosophical one (I’ve personally never met a self-described objectivist in my life).
I grew up in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of just-another-middle-American city. I was very smart. And like many kids born in my position, I became spoiled and bratty as I got older. Everything in my early life came way too easily – whether it was acing my math tests, or getting the new toy I wanted – and as a result, I entered my young adult years with a severe sense of entitlement. The world owed me something and I’d be damned if I ever had to work for it. I was a perennial underachiever, and any egging by my professors or parents to achieve more or do something magnificent or productive with my talent, I met with disdain and arrogance. How dare you tell me what to do? If things went wrong, it was never my fault because I didn’t try to begin with. If things went right, it was result of my pure genius and talent even though I didn’t try. I moped through the first 20 years of my life like this, avoiding failure and generally being an asshole about it.
Then I read Atlas Shrugged one spring break. I know it’s really cheesy to say this, but I became a new person overnight. It ignited a sense of responsibility and self-control in me that I had never been aware of. Instead of lecturing me about the virtues of achievement and taking responsibility and using your talent for good like my parents did, it SHOWED the virtues to me through Hank Rearden and Dagny and Francisco and Galt. Suddenly, I felt ashamed that I had gone through my whole life the way that I had. People have a responsibility to give life and society everything they’ve got. That’s the message I got. And I had been scoffing at that moral imperative from day one.
I immediately returned to school – a crappy small state school that I half-assed my way into – made straight A’s, transferred the next year to a prestigious private school in the Northeast, graduated Summa Cum Laude, started my own business and have never looked back. And again, this is so corny, but it’s true: I can point to that book as the moment it began. Sure, Ayn Rand is wrong about a lot of stuff. Of course the characters in the novel are totally idealized and unrealistic. But for me and where I was, it lit a fire under my ass that has never gone out. And I can unequivocally say that I’m a much better person for having read it.