When I was writing my thesis, I was obsessed with reading lists of “Books that Changed the World” in an effort to find some solid idea of why fiction matters. And that’s not to suggest that literature demands justification or that it needs some larger function in order to be important. I think questions like “So what are you doing with your English major” can be profoundly thoughtless because simply in the asking, they devalue knowledge as a pursuit. I did not need to go into publishing because I was an English major; studying something that was important and meaningful to me was (and should be) enough.
So my thesis was never intended to be defensive—I did not want justify the discipline or the time I devoted (and still devote) to reading; I was just curious why. Why did reading become one of the biggest factors in the person I am and am still becoming? What drew me to books, rather than movies or sports or theater?
And obviously, these are not really the kinds of questions one can definitively answer—and certainly not in a way that makes a tenable argument. But I still wondered, and still spent the time I should have spent researching on this nebulous and quixotic side quest.
So when the books and articles about “Literature that Changed the World” would always include books like Mein Kampf and On the Origin of Species (which, yes, obviously changed the world) it was not really what I was looking for. In the first place, they weren’t fiction. Even though I enjoy nonfiction (I’m working at an academic publisher, for goodness sake!), I would never suggest that nonfiction is as important to me as novels. And in the second place, I wanted something more individualized; not sweeping books that changed scientific study and the actions of nations, but the books that—in Jane Smiley’s terms—shift one’s perspective.
As you know, I ended up reshaping my project entirely. Frustrated by my lack of answers (and the growing insistence of my thesis advisor) I stopped looking for the nagging whys or hows, but instead to way these books make people reach out, build communities, and connect with each other. This turned into an extended study on blogging, vlogging, forums, tumblr, fanfiction, and general expressions of fandom (Of which this blog is a direct result). But despite my interest in the subject and participation in these communities, I never really developed a conclusion that satisfied me—probably because I was not-so-stealthily trying to use these public venues to find the original answers I’d been looking for.
Anyway, I gave blood today, and as I was sitting in the chair waiting in horrified anxiety to be stuck with a needle (it’s never all that bad, but I will never stop freaking out about it), it finally hit me that although what I was looking for was about books, I would never find the answers in them.
I am terrified of needles, hate even the thought of pain, and yet every 6 weeks I’ll volunteer for both. And its not because I like to face my fears or because giving blood gives me a warm charitable sensation. It’s because I have to.
It’s for Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters. For Jenny Crawford, Lacey Duval, Amanda Burdick, and Katie O’Rourke. It’s because I read a lot of books growing up and they shaped me into someone who remembers crying in my bed about the death of a fictional someone that may as well have been someone real.
According to the Red Cross posters, donated blood can save 1-3 lives. Maybe that fact alone would have been enough for me to donate, but when I lean back in those chairs and nervously eye the needle about to puncture my skin, I can say with 100% certainty that I’m never thinking about statistics.
Books can change the world. And not just in the sweeping way of history and monumental change, but in the tiny shifts of perspective that allow me, every 6 weeks, to face down a hollow needle.