The Books That Shaped You
by Joshua Klafter
In our Books that Shaped Great Authors symposium, we asked 20 Jewish writers to tell us about the books that influenced them the most. Their answers ran the gamut from Winnie-the-Pooh to War and Peace. Hoping for some equally inspiring responses, we asked our readers to tell us their own stories about books that changed them. Here are some of our favorites.
My life changed course during my high school marine biology class. Two afternoons a week, our teacher would don a field hat and read snippets from the introduction to John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, written to memorialize Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts.
One passage sold us on the immense value of good literature, good science and good friendship. Steinbeck describes a moment four days into his own birthday party. Ricketts, having already imbibed about five gallons of beer, awakens from a nap and reaches for his nearby quart-size bottle: “He found it, sat up, and took a deep drink of it. He smiled sweetly and waved two fingers in the air in a kind of benediction.
‘There’s nothing like that first taste of beer,’ he said.”
We were gobsmacked. We cheered, our adolescent belief in the healing power of an all-nighter wrapped in the package of Steinbeck’s own fine prose, philosophical observations, and finished neatly with a newly minted form of religious ritual.
My transformation led me to pursue the paths that Ricketts and Steinbeck modeled. I relentlessly pursued a first career in marine and wildlife biology, all the while writing, with Steinbeck as my muse. My recent career as a spiritual care counselor and chaplain is yet another branch of the Ricketts/Steinbeck legacy. Although I grew up middle-class and Jewish and my pastoral training has been through Jewish seminaries, my life has been lived on the rough edges, as a biologist as well as in the areas where I live and serve, whether fishing in the harbors or ministering to heroin addicts in skid rows.
It is no accident that Steinbeck used the word “benediction” in the passage my classmates and I so loved. To him, the sacred happens in small moments as well as it would in a church or synagogue. Steinbeck’s works always portray his own struggle to show us the spiritual easiness of the land, how humans seem to mangle it all up, and how we can find redemption.
Suddenly, All-of-a-Kind Family popped into my head. The tender love and care shared between parents and daughters, the sisters’ relationships and identity as individuals and as Jewish immigrants, helped me relate to my father’s childhood and upward struggle. The tension of tradition, observation, and contemporary life was one he felt constantly. He passed this year, but left a legacy for my siblings and myself that engendered a deep love for Jewish observance with the freedom to participate as is most meaningful. I still think of Ella and Henrietta and the other sisters whose father was that same loving guide, who deepened their appreciation for their roots and quietly modeled how to be a good Jew, a true mensch.
Tao Te Ching, written by ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—I’d recommend the Penguin translation by D.C. Lau—is the book that came into my life like a bolt of lightning. It is not a Jewish text, but it has probably been discussed and interpreted as diversely as the books of the Talmud.
Though astonishingly brief, even in translation, and despite being over 2,500 years old (like the Hebrew bible text, it is still mostly intelligible to modern readers of the language), its contents are absolutely relevant to life in the 21st century. Full of incredible juxtapositions and paradoxes, Lao Tzu’s book is like the ancient embodiment of Yoda’s teachings to Luke Skywalker, and for me as a high school student, the ideas in this text were totally opposite to the deadline-driven, achievement-focused, survival-of-the-fittest society that I was racing through as a young adult. Quotes from the book were and continue to be life-changing revelations that contradicted everything I thought I knew and helped me to find a more relaxed attitude, which also probably contributes to greater success and happiness in career and relationships. For example, “Excessive speech leads inevitably to silence. Better to hold fast to the void.”
I would even argue that this book is the original and best self-help book of the past 2,500 years. (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, might be my personal choice of runner-up).
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, when I was a sophomore in college. This was the book that really taught me to read carefully, with my whole heart and mind, and with an eye for the detail and nuance in Ellison’s language, in his characters, images, motifs, and themes. It was also the book that began my more mature thinking about race in America—never a more urgent topic than right now.
I was interested in health, medicine and anatomy from a very early age. I used birthday money to buy my first microscope at age 10. I wasn’t sure how I would use that interest because I was a female, and had no related role models. Then I read Woman Surgeon by Else K. Laroe, and that transformed my thinking about the possible. I retired five years ago after 46 years in health care. I received much more than I gave.
—Karolyn Rim Stein
Many books and authors influenced me as a young person growing up in post-war Germany, long after World War II was over. Max Frisch and Wolfgang Borchert were instrumental in defining my attitude towards peaceful coexistence. However, the one book that opened my mind to an even greater extent was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It started the adoption of a different perspective of how I viewed the world and, more importantly, human behavior. Manipulation and emotional control are presented very clearly in this book—all the more reason for me to resent them.
These responses have been edited and condensed.