Generally the books that I consider most influential are non-fiction, but occasionally there have been novels that profoundly affected me. Sometimes it is mostly an emotional influence, and that fades with time. But others have redirected my thinking in lasting ways.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
I saw the movie first, with a colleague at the school where I was a part-time French/Spanish teacher (though I discovered that teaching part-time took as many hours as most full-time jobs, by the time you finish lesson plans and grading papers). I was so overwhelmed by the movie, I had to get the book (which, fortunately for my miniscule budget, I found at a thrift store).
Until I looked at the book’s listing at amazon.com, I barely remembered the plot of the book. What I never forgot was the way Danny’s Hassidic father raised him “in silence” so that his brilliant intellect would not lead him to be puffed up with pride, unable to sympathize with lesser mortals. While I don’t have a photographic memory like Danny, people sometimes ask if I do because I have such a good memory.
I couldn’t approve of the Rebbe’s parenting approach, but it made me continue to think about the dangers of feeling superior to other people because of my intellectual gifts. The book also fueled a desire to learn more about what it meant to be Jewish. My mother’s family was Jewish, although she had been raised in Christian Science. I read everything I could find by Chaim Potok, trying to learn something of the Jewish heritage that had been lost to our family.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
This one influenced me more by the timing of when I read it than its content. I had heard of Ayn Rand before, having leafed through some of her books when I was in college. I was sure that selfishness could not actually be a virtue, but I couldn’t deny that there is a self-interested motive in even the most altruistic act – if only because we get the benefit of knowing what we are doing something good. We deny ourselves in the short term to benefit ourselves in the long term.
I hadn’t realized before that Rand wrote novels as well as books on philosophy, and I certainly hadn’t expected to have a leader at my church recommending a book by this author. Nor could I have imagined being enthralled by a book that dealt extensively with economic and political issues. I had never had any interest in business – that was about making money. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives – by teaching, by broadening people’s horizons, by sharing my Christian faith.
But I had just finished a disastrous year as a high school Spanish teacher. I was desperate for the year to be over, and there was no way I would have considered staying on for another year, but even if I had wanted to they would not have renewed my contract. I was thoroughly demoralized and doubted I could do anything important well. So I got a job doing housekeeping in a hospital – it didn’t even require being interviewed, just saying when I could start working.
It turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined. It wasn’t difficult to do the cleaning, but it was virtually impossible to get it all done in a 6-hour workday. Perhaps with time I would have gotten fast enough to suit the supervisor – even without cutting corners, as my co-workers advised me was the only way to manage it. But I quickly found that I didn’t seem to fit in for other reasons – they sat around during breaks, smoking and gossiping. I pulled out my copy of Atlas Shrugged and immersed myself in a world of ideas.
After two months I took a friend’s advice, and interviewed for a clerical job. Much to my surprise, I got it. Even more to my surprise, I excelled at it. I started taking evening classes, and within ten years I had a certificate in computer programming, an MBA degree, and a job as Manager of Information Systems.
Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
I had previously read The Shrouded Walls, which I barely remember now, but which evidently impressed me enough to look for more of Susan Howatch’s novels at the library. Since this one dealt with the Church and with theology, it looked like a good choice.
Once I started, I was absolutely riveted by not only this book but the other five in the series. All the books deal with people connected with the Church of England in the fictional Anglican diocese of Starbridge, so the same characters reappear in subsequent books. Each book takes the point of view of a different person, however, with a different set of personal issues, and presents the perspective of a different theological approach (all within the framework of Christianity).
In Glittering Images the issue is truth. The main character is solidly orthodox in his theology, but he is much better at dealing with theological truths than personal ones. The issue is not just the lies people tell – though there are a good many of those floating around – but the images people present to the world. Even without saying a word, you can deceive by the things you do, and by the words that you do not say.
The overwhelming conclusion from reading this novel is that deception is deadly. It is deadly to our relationships with one another and especially our relationship with God. Like Charles Ashworth, I had always been very concerned with the impression people had of me. Not what I looked like, but what kind of person I was. It was difficult for me to open up to people to begin with, and what was to be gained in their finding out what a lousy person I really was, anyway?
It’s hard for me to remember now any examples of how I took advantage of opportunities to seem better than I really was, though I’m fairly certain it was more in the things I did not say than in the things I did say. But this book left me with such a deep conviction that deception is deadly, that I realized there were times I had to speak up to point out that I did not think as someone seemed to think I did, rather than by my silence letting them be deceived about me.
Glamorous Powers by Susan Howatch
This is the sequel to Glittering Images, and deals with the issue of Christian mysticism. I did not identify with the main character’s personal issues so much in this book, as I have never felt I had any sort of glamorous powers or aspired to any, but I was fascinated by the ideas and practices associated with a mystic approach to the Christian faith.
In the Evangelical church, the mere word mysticism signals error in the minds of many, signifying a tendency to replace the centrality of Scripture with personal impressions, beliefs, and experiences, and possibly importing dangerous practices from Eastern religions. This book demonstrated what I came to see as a legitimate place for mysticism, not as superior to other strands of the Christian tradition, but one whose value should not be overlooked.