Five Books That ‘Changed’ My Life
Hem Raj Kafle
‘Change’ is not my word in the title above, but I agree to use it. Do books change our lives? Someone said it is the reader who has the potential to change; the book only triggers that potential. And one who does not have that potential does not respond to the trigger. I agree to this, too.
But I am not here to present a thorough appreciation of ‘five classics’. Not that I avoid reading classics, but I am willing to write about those books that have told me their actual worth. Each of the five books came to me almost ‘out of nowhere’ and left a lasting message. Not that any of them should ever satisfy your intellectual need if you someday decide to read. I write here simply because I have deemed them contributory to my own growth as a teacher. An English teacher.
I was delighted when the Choutari Team asked me to write on five books that ‘changed’ my life. I decided to speak up: I have already read a book with the same title and loved it so much. It is The Book That Changed My Life (2006) by Roxanne J Coady and Joy Johannessen. A book about books, and about how books change one’s life – I had loved this idea long ago. The Book indeed was a reward, such as Coady herself would like to regard as a gift “from heaven”.
I bought it in the summer of 2008 at Books and Books, Coral Gables, Florida, only as a memento of my US visit. And, because it was a casual pick, my interest in it turned into epiphany as I read through the short essays inside. This was an opportunity to peek into seventy one writers’ celebration of “the books that matter most to them.” These seventy one people gave credit to certain books and their writers as their life’s important change agents. So, the writers’ appreciation of their favourites helped confirm that none of my previous and recent cravings for ‘good books’ were without meaning. Anyone, even you, will subscribe to Coady’s prefatory justification for publishing this book, so will I.
Reading is a way to live more lives, to experience more worlds, to meet people we care about and want to know more about, to understand others and develop a compassion for what they confront and endure. It is a way to learn how to knit or build a house or solve an equation, a way to be moved to laughter and wonder and to learn how to live.
One book that has made great sense to me as a teacher of English is The Elements of Style, the tiny work of William Strunk Jr. and E. B White. You may wonder why such commonplace as ‘elements of style’ would strike anyone who boasts of degrees in English and years of teaching in a reputed University’s central department. But I realized, after having gone through the authors’ terse admonitions against verbosity and carelessness, that degrees and years of teaching do not make one a writer and a teacher of effective communication. The actual prerequisite of being a writer is not only the mastery in grammar and vocabulary, but craftsmanship in stylistic and rhetorical choices.
The Elements offers an extremely concise treatment on style. I have nurtured the following assertion more than anything in life and, of course, for writing in Nepali as well:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Strunk and White made me aware of the beauty of brevity in writing. Then Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, a writing instructor at Poynter Institute, Florida, helped polish this awareness. The “50 essential strategies,” more as rich illustrations of good and bad samples from various established sources than commonplace imperatives, have best corresponded with my zeal for learning rhetorical styles. Clark taught me writing as an artful yet serious activity and knowledge of grammar a means to shape the artistry of expression.
Assuming the role of highly active, playful teacher along the “strategies,” Clark encourages every aspiring and established writer to become an entertainer, a performer. He likes to take writing for carpentry, and then has this to say: “You can borrow a writing tool at any time. And here’s a secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed on.”
Clark’s metaphors of gold coins, ladder of abstraction, internal cliffhangers, X-ray reading etc. will surely tickle one’s sense of sufficiency as a writer and editor. Initially, he makes you skeptic about every sentence you write yourself and read from others. As you move on, because Clark will not allow you to drop midway, you become a better writer, better reader, better editor. Clark follows you directly into your profession. He is with me – in lectures, in instructions, in formal presentations – and now as I write these lines.
I got Wayne Booth’s famous book The Rhetoric of Rhetoric at a time I was trying to get clear knack on rhetoric in scholarly, philosophical and practical terms. Booth proved a rescuer, and a guide to the fact that rhetoric is a vastly developed academic discipline way beyond its everyday currency as a signifier of a cheap lie or a political bombast.
Booth observes rhetoric’s relevance as much in persuasive communication and study of such communication as in the resolution of conflicts, teaching of science and general upbringing of people. Of special value to me has been his idea of “rhetorology” defined as a “deepest form of listening rhetoric: the systematic probing for ‘common ground’”, which in other words involves a practice of paying attention to opponent views during a conflict situation.
Booth emphasizes that rhetoric is simply the way we think and communicate in the process of creating a better life, and eliminating slippery situations. So, I believe, after Booth, that “the quality of our lives, moment by moment, depends on the quality of our rhetoric.” Isn’t it then even more appropriate to say that the kind of political system and social structure we see/experience “depends on the rhetoric of our leaders and our responses to them”? Booth is equally true in his belief that “our children’s future depends on how they are taught rhetoric.” That is, by us.
Literature, Science and a New Humanities by Jonathan Gottschall is one of my recent readings. It has made much sense in my decision to work across humanities and other disciplines in Kathmandu University. It has reshaped my understanding of the common tension of where humanities needed proper overhaul.
Gottschall makes readers aware of three main fault lines of the current humanities scholarship. The first includes the excessive use of jargons and “theories of human nature that are defunct.” The second is a methodological problem involving the impossibility of getting tangible evidences unlike in science because the “theory-generated hypotheses” in humanities are not “closer to truth.” The third problem involves attitudinal dilemmas where the dismissal of the “possibility of generating reliable knowledge” is critical among humanities scholars.
Reading Gottschall coincides with two very important contexts of my academic life. The first involves a larger concern of the humanities ‘fraternity’, to which I belong. This is the concern for the visible decline of interest and intake in certain traditional university programmes like geography, history, political science, psychology and philosophy. That some people still desired to study English literature or journalism is nothing of a solace to a career-ambitious young man in that it is gradually subjected to preparing ‘service’ writers or higher-secondary teachers. Personally, working in an institution heavily focused to profession-specific academic programmes in science and engineering, I have always felt the need of reconfiguring my disciplinary orientation to more goal- or job-centric terrains. The second context has to with the recent shift in my disciplinary priorities. I moved from where I liked to work (social sciences) to where I loved to belong and contribute (humanities and sciences). The move has also added a challenge of helping to interface the mutually complementary facets of communication, teaching, management, entrepreneurship, and economics in the promotion of engineering and science education.
I feel now that Gottschall’s book endorses my decision to work across these terrains. It lends adequate confidence in the goal “to establish a new humanities on surer foundations.” The foundations would then take more conciliatory yet “diverse and sophisticated methodological toolkit, and the pursuit of disinterested inquiry.” I have subscribed to Gottschall’s “call to move closer to the sciences in theory, method, and ethos.” I have accepted this mandatory, though difficult, challenge to “participate more fully in revealing the ultimate subject of the humanities: humans.” To this my life is directed with tenacity. To reiterate, I have set conciliatory, empathetic performance in scholarship to be the main motto of my further scholarly priorities.
Finally, books do not respond to the extent of leading to change unless you approach them with love and passion. Love for books comes with birth. This love becomes passion when books become a part of your upbringing. Books shape our thoughts which shape our actions. Thoughtful actions are change agents. A book’s contribution to change lies here. With this belief I seek to read good books, more and more.
Hem Raj Kafle is one of the senior editors of NELTA Choutari. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the Humanities and Management Unit, School of Engineering, Kathmandu University. For more of his literary writings and works at his personal blog: http://kaflehem.wordpress.com/