94. Five Books That ‘Changed’ My Life

Here’s another “Five books that changed your life” series I did with my teacher Hem Raj Kafle. This one is for the NELTA Choutari blog.

I hope to read those books some day 🙂

Nelta Choutari

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.


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64. Five books that changed my life – Bartika Rai


Bartika Rai

Here’s the second part in my attempt to make people write about their favourite five books. Bartika Rai is currently in the US, studying to complete her undergraduate degree in accounting, music and finance at Wesleyan college. As a writer, she has worked with ECS Media and Navyaata magazine. She loves reading and writing fiction. She says she will not stop spending on books and will not replace them with kindle or used books.

So, in her own words, here are the five books that changed her life. Thank you Bartika for doing this.

The following list is my top 5 for the years that I have existed so far. I am definite that there are only an infinite number of books out there that are as engaging or more, which I have not yet laid my hands on which is a very scary thought to be aware of. For it is scary that people die without reading every book there is, unable to decipher every language there is and without seeing everything there is that exists. I am a huge Murakami follower at this point of time and am extensively reading all of him. A processing existentialist, I am fascinated with Albert Camus and am reading his notebooks (of course the Paperback version), and I like storytellers in The New Yorker, some, Yes. My line of writing is fiction and I have forever sucked at book reviews because of my extreme lengthy emphasis on details. But sharing good reads is important to me, for these books have made an impact in my life. I cannot for sure tell you how it changed me but it did enough to make me carry them everywhere I go, past immigration offices, oceans, and a changing me; it has made me strong enough to trade off some of my dresses and noodles away to carry them in my luggage with me. Well you know how important dresses are for girls, to be girls, to stay girls. This said, these books are more important than my identity to me right now, to a changing me.

1. The Little Prince by Antonie De Saint-Exupery


I first read The Little Prince when I was 13 with my Reading class at school. My teacher, Mrs. HiraGurung, explained most of the book, and I never saw the book with fascination. The Little Prince to me back then, was to me like Captain Underpants, Tintin, and of less significance than Nancy Drew. With time though, as I struggled with growing up, The Little Prince happened to me again. A pilot who crashes in a desert meets an interesting, almost weird prince which is the beginning of their friendship. The story begins with the pilot reflecting on his childhood dream of becoming an artist and how the adults who surrounded him persuaded him to take another career path when he was just 7. Antoine De Saint-Exupery very wisely uses humor and innocence of his character to explicitly state the realities of the society, the process of adulthood and how we trade off what we love to do with what we should do. Adults love to complicate their already complicated lives by trying to make practical decisions they actually are very confused about. Real artists will then become engineers, real musicians will become bankers and real photographers will become doctors. The amazing thing about The Little Prince is the simplicity of language, the truth and the strange clarity that will leave you questioning what you are doing in your life and have you respect a child’s opinion.

2. The Outsider/ The Stranger by Albert Camus


My friend Irina first gave me The Outsider to read during a vacation when I was in Grade 9, she, being the amazing person she is, would recommend books to me. I never got past the first paragraph because Sidney Sheldon was in my top charts at that point of time. I never opened the book again until a good number of years later; it lay quietly under my Sheldon book stack. The Outsider is a scary book. It is scary in the sense that it is boldly real. Meursault, the main character of the book, is not a hypocrite, he is honest, he will not pretend because he does not understand why he should. He does not behave in the socially accepted ways and is terribly ordinary. When his mother dies, he does not grieve. In fact, the sun moves him more than his mother’s death, with its occasional irritation and warmth. Returning to his ordinary life after the funeral, he gets involved in a confusing murder and is charged with the crime. His entire life is brought to light following the charge in the trial and he is sentenced to death for being indifferent and for not being a hypocrite. Camus’s writing is unconventional, simple, and threateningly real. This society is a sham for treating hypocrites with so much respect.

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


I read Wuthering Heights at a time when I was doing my own small research on classics, and also because classics were always so cheap I could afford it with my pay. Yes, Wuthering Heights is a love story. But it is not a love story written by outsourced writers for a commercial publishing company which are almost like porn books. Wuthering Heights is passionate, sad, compelling and beautifully written. The characters are flawed, jealousy is evident and so is greed. There is pride, foolishness, and complications because the characters do not behave as they rationally should. But then again, whoever behaves in a rational manner every day in their lives. Do you? What makes Wuthering Heights different is the passionate style of writing, the scandalous affair and the time of when it was written, the time in history when it was forbidden for the dark arts to be expressed, especially by a she writer.

4. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka


There are plenty of characters in Otsuka’s novel; Shizuma, Shiki, Toshiko, Tora, Futaye, Mitsuyo, and many more, but there is no I. Otsuka begins the story addressing ‘we’ and ends it with the same protagonist ‘we’ beautifully sticking to it throughout. A fiction inspired by the life stories of Japanese immigrants who came to The US in early 1900s, this novel is a wonderfully told story of how Japanese women came all the way to San Francisco in coach class ship cabins after looking at their husband-to-be’s photographs and letters that stated of lives way more than just rice balls or being a geisha to find out that they were scams. It is a strikingly moving narration of realities draped in fiction of the fragility and strength in being a woman, and of narratives of the Japanese who were in The US dealing with the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Written in conversational tone that is intimate, this book seems like a forbidden account of which the reader can be a part of. Almost a poem, this book is a good read.

5. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami


Murakami is a ridiculous writer. His readers are insane. Murakami creates people with weak shadows who can talk to cats and make fish fall from the sky and his readers will believe the character. I was first introduced to Murakami by Pranav, my very talented friend, with Norwegian Wood and became instantly drawn to the author. Kafka on the Shore is a strange tale following the lives of two main characters. Murakami has an odd way of writing, in riddles that readers interpret in infinite ways, some own, some borrowed. Kafka on the Shore is engaging, arousing, addictive and surreal. A lot of things happen in this novel but the one that stays forever are the surreal ideas, the fleeting philosophies of life and the suspended metaphors Murakami uses in his fiction. Murakami is a storyteller, that is for definite but what he is more, is a philosopher. As Albert Camus writes in his notebook, “If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.” And more strangely than not, all my writers on the list seem to be doing just that.

45. Five books that changed your life – Pranaya Rana


(Pic: Shashank Shrestha)

A graduate in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Films from Sarah Lawrence College, New York, USA, Pranaya Rana is currently working as a Desk/Sub Editor at the Kathmandu Post daily. In the past, he’s also worked with Wave magazine and Nepali Times. Recently, Pranaya has also conducted Katha-Kuro, a “feature-writing workshop” on the basics of how to write a compelling feature story.

So, in his own words, here are the five books that changed this talented young writer’s life. Thank you Pranaya for doing this.

I would like to preface this list by saying that I am almost exclusively a reader of fiction. I am not very interested in non-fiction and I loathe self-help books. I think that most things worth knowing about life can be found within the pages of a good novel. After all, while they might be fictional stories, they present issues that are true for everyone. They touch on themes that can resonate across distances, times and cultures. The following list is by no means an exhaustive list or a list that will always remain the same. It is, right now, my top five books. But I am certain they will change over time.

1. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut


Kurt Vonnegut is my hero. It is not just his fantastic writing, which is light years ahead of my own, but the great humanity that comes forth in his words that make him such an admirable figure to me. His books, all written in a dry, sarcastic manner, are full of humour and absurdity, even while dealing with the darkest of subjects like death and war. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, deals with the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II, which Vonnegut, then a prisoner of war, witnessed first-hand. Despite the gravity of this situation, Vonnegut deals with it with wit and humour, not dismissing heady issues but addressing them in a manner that expresses humankind’s ambitions and aspirations most eloquently. Mother Night, my favourite Vonnegut, is about a Nazi who is a spy for the Allies during the World War and his life after the war. It is a tragedy of sorts, this man is never found to be the hero that he was for the ‘good’ guys and is forever branded a Nazi despite having worked against them. He is hunted down by Nazi-haters and glorified by neo-Nazis. All the while, Howard Campbell is a man pretending to be another man, pretending to be many more men. Vonnegut shows, though this book, that our identity is as much about donning mask after mask, second after second, day after day. Who we are changes with the second hand on the clock and who we are then is not who we are now. Mother Night has three morals to it, which Vonnegut tells us very early on: “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral, I just happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”, and “When you’re dead, you’re dead”, and furthermore, “Make love when you can, it’s good for you.” And so it goes.

2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Controversial and incendiary, Lolita is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written. While its subject matter might not be everyone cup of chiya, the style in which it is written is absolutely brilliant. Nabokov is a master wordsmith. He plays with sound and structure in a manner I have yet to see anyone else attempt. Just the crafting of his sentences is glorious. For example, take just the beginning of the novel: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It is not just Nabokov’s ease with the English language but his overwhelming understanding of language and how it involves not just sight and sound but textures and emotions that can very easily be manipulated by the author. In Lolita, Nabokov’s prose style is so beautiful that you forget this is a pedophile, a person who seduced and took advantage of an underage teenager. While Humbert might be morally repugnant, he is a master storyteller, drawing on his own fragmented memories and presenting an explicitly subjective, but damning nonetheless, narrative of his affair with Lolita. Upon reading the book, I came upon the realization that I not only excused Humbert’s rape of Lolita but actually condoned it. And it was only with the ending, where Humbert acknowledges his actions that I realized, with disgust, what I had implicitly done. This is the power of literature.

3. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Probably the shortest of Dostoevsky’s novels, Notes from Underground condenses many of the themes of his other works including Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov. Notes from Underground is also the first appearance of an “unreliable narrator,” one who actively seeks to lie and manipulate the audience. I find this type of character in a lot of my own writing as I am more comfortable writing in the first person. Dostoevsky points out the first crucial assumption about any novel: that the narrator tells the ‘truth.’ He explores this in many of his other novels where there isn’t one overarching meaning or truth to the story but rather many conflicting ways of interpretation and conflicting philosophies that are embodied by different characters. The self-loathing, hateful narrator of Notes from Underground is quite refreshing to read, even now, amid all the banal and cloying stories that tend to come out these days (case in point: the Twilight series). This was the first book that impressed upon me the fact that as humans, we often do things that will actively hurt us but we do them because we wish to express our individuality, our free will, the fact that we can do something and it will make a difference, maybe not big but a difference nonetheless. This is why I write, to counteract the indifference of the world and stake my claim with the right to say that I did something.

4. The Stranger by Albert Camus


Meursault is Camus’ titular stranger, one who doesn’t seem to feel anything, who is buffeted along by the waves of the world and is satisfied with experience, not introspection. Many things happen to Meursault throughout the course of the book, the most significant being the death of his mother, where he expresses little sadness and only indifference and his killing of an Arab, simply because “the sun was too hot.” He is caught, put on trial and marked for death. All the while Meursault doesn’t feel anything. He looks into himself and comes to a realization that is at the heart of Camus’ philosophy: that the world is absurd. There is no greater meaning, no fate, no destiny, simply absurdity and the world’s indifference to your existence. This, I think, is the beauty of Camus’ existential philosophy: that there is no meaning to life except the one you make yourself.

5. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges


Each one of Borges’ stories in Labyrinths could become a full-fledged novel. It is not the beauty of Borges’ writing that attracts me but the breadth and scope of his ideas and the economy with which he manages to squeeze such heavy, intricate concepts into a short story running just a few pages. Borges is one of those people I don’t mind reading translated, as it is not his language that is beautiful but his central concept. I think language might have hindered Borges, which is why many of his stories are about the inability to comprehend facets of the world, things like time, memory, faith and infinity. He takes inspiration from many sources and unlike the magical realists of his native South America (Borges is Argentinian), he takes a decidedly post-modern approach to story-telling. For example, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,’ is a piece of literary criticism concerning a translation of Don Quixote that is not a translation at all, but a line-by-line recreation. However, this new recreation takes on a life of its own, surpassing the original in its depth, raising the crucial question: is the meaning of a book static and inherent in its text or does its meaning change and flow with the times? Another example is ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ about an infinite book, hypertextual novel that can be read in an infinity of ways as it contains every single forking of time that can take place. Through the story, Borges presents a succinct example of the multiverse interpretation of Schrodinger’s paradox and presents time as not a linear, straight line but an endlessly forking infinity of worlds.

Visit Pranaya’s blog: Thinkinink