The Right Book at the Right Time

No I’m not referring to picking the right moment in time to release the book that becomes a best seller because the starts have aligned and of course it’s the right moment to put erotic into main stream (Fifty Shades trilogy) or of course we love nerds but now we understand them (and it helps its funny—The Rosie Project). The wonders of hind sight! Good luck me thinks in the timing at least to some degree; there are many erotic romance books out there. What was more than just luck and had at least some canny knowledge was not putting a half-naked man or woman on the front and possibly linking it to Twilight (Fifty Shades) and have the insight into someone without Aspergers and being able to write well and amusingly about it (The Rosie Project).

What I am referring to is something I have been pondering for the last month when (sadly) Helen Garner had to pull out of the session we were going to do together at the Melbourne Writers Festival due to illness (there is I see a session on ethics and true crime on Sunday that is on and I hope to go and listen to!) and instead I was asked was I interested in talking on ‘The Book That Changed Me’ (with Brigid Mulhane and I think Hannah Kent, 4pm Friday 28th August at Festival Club at ACMI off Fed Square, Melbourne Australia).

Do Books Really Change you? I think it’s going to be an interesting conversation. Was I changed when I picked up The Magus at 15? I was bored and we were staying somewhere that had a small library in the house but miles from book shops and I had finished the latest Victoria Holt or Agatha Christie; it looked intriguing. It was. Opened my eyes up to fiction beyond the limited stories I had read until then; what Enid Blyton had started, John Fowles let loose. So it changed me in that it opened my mind to other possibilities; the Magus is a fascinating manipulator and I found the character totally intriguing. Was I a different person? No, but at 15 one is still developing so perhaps the timing of books and their potential to change you is related to the age at which you read it?

Was my attitude to or understanding of the right to die when critically ill changed by Me Before You? Maybe. I was already pretty much all the way along that path though already, and the fact that I cried constantly reading it probably cemented the issue in my mind, but no, I didn’t shift a view. Do we tend to select books that say what we want to hear and reduce the chance of change?

Did my attitude to rape and sexual exploitation of women change after reading Disgrace? This book didn’t tell me anything I wanted to hear—I have to say I hated the book, but thought it was brilliant, if that makes any sense at all. It has stayed with me, an uncomfortable knowledge of what I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The woman pragmatically giving in to the men who took over her farm makes my skin crawl-but Coetze’s genius is that it is all too real. Wasn’t that what The Reader and The Hand That Signed the Paper was trying for? Confront us in our comfortable homes with the fact that evil isn’t just something Hannibal Lecter does, but that we all can be weak, and indeed do bad things.

Non-fiction? The Caged Virgin through to Heretic by Ayaan Hirshi Ali offer brilliant insights from someone who has been there, so understanding to us who haven’t, yes. Change? No, but perhaps it is the understanding that is most critical and what can bring about change eventually. I haven’t read I Am Mala but my understanding that she like Hirshi Ali, Mala has wanted to bring about change because their own education—and reading!—and this led both authors to understand how things could be different. So maybe to be really changed you need to have something that needs addressing? Am I just too comfortable here in the world’s most liveable city?

Or am I being too narrow? If we read—and I read probably three books a week, mostly thrillers but also nonfiction, autobiographies, biographies, and books of those whose panel I am on or that my husband has been asked to read and he thinks I’ll like it—then maybe changes are not light bulb moments but subtle reflection upon reflection, kernels that sit and niggle or grow and head us on a meandering course to self discovery.

For what it’s worth, the book I picked to discuss is The White Hotel by DM Thomas, shortlisted for the Booker in 1981, only narrowly missing out (so it is said) to Midnight’s Children. Sounds like the book might have changed the author’s optimism—he subsequently wrote book called The Bleak Hotel about his unhappy relationship with Hollywood when it almost then didn’t get made into a movie (several times)—I keep this in mind as my husband and I wait to see if Jennifer Lawrence really is going to star in The Rosie Project.

I chose The White Hotel because it did, at least in conjunction with other factors at the time, change the course of my life. Influenced me to do psychiatry. But what I am most interested and hope to talk about it is that re-reading it thirty years later, I had a quite different response. Right book, right time? Yes, I think so—and I suspect we underestimate the power of this, as well as the subtle niggling thoughts that a well written book touching something that is relevant for you at the moment, can do.


About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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