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You Are What You Read

May 15, 2012

Two nights ago I saw John Irving speak at the 92nd Street Y. He is my absolute favorite (adult book) author, with A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules clocking in at my most favorite and second favorite book, respectively.

He had a lot of interesting things to say, especially about Owen Meany, who was based on an actual child he knew and used to abuse in school (though this kid probably turned out to be of average height). One comment I found particularly interesting was that he said it was bad advice for writers to “write what you know” because that would be journalistic and boring, and writers should challenge themselves to learn about a topic they want to write about. This was after describing scenes from his own life that made it into Owen Meany and adolescent feelings that influenced his most recent novel. I would define that as “writing what you know” but John Irving apparently doesn’t. I’d love to have a chat with him about this!

I also wanted to post about how influential The Cider House Rules was on my personality and growth, and interestingly, Scholastic posted this blurb about a recent study that showed just how influential fiction can be on readers. Are you what you read?, the article asks. There’s also a link to an online book community  where you can find “friends” by matching the five books that have most impacted your life (I joined immediately).

Before I read The Cider House Rules, I was a 14 year old who thought I knew everything and was very set in my opinions, and wasn’t afraid to share them with people (aka steamroll them with “debates”).* The Cider House Rules taught me about moral ambiguity, and made me see that everyone’s opinions are based on their own experiences, and those experiences might have something to teach me if I was open to them. Since reading that book, I have grown into someone who is less judgmental and more open, and hopefully someone who bases viewpoints on reason and considers all sides of a story.

Though my experience is really specific to one book, I think that all readers can pick a couple of books that have changed their lives. What are yours? And if you are a writer, who might pick your book as the one who has influenced them?

* Even as I write this, I’m imagining an older me, maybe a 72 year old me, laughing at the 26 year old me describing the 14 year old me as “thinking I knew everything.” Maybe the 72 year old me WILL know everything.

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