Celebrating National Book Lovers Day: Turning Point Books

Finding the Right Book at the Right Time

By Ryan Woodard
Journalist and author Lee Shippey said, "The right book at the right time, may mean more in a person's life than anything else."

This week, in celebration of National Book Lovers Day, an unofficial national holiday (Aug. 9) during which people are encouraged to step away from their busy lives and read, we're exploring two questions: Has a book ever changed your life? If so, what was the book, and how did it change you?

We have numerous options for books that educate, entertain, and brighten the dark days of life – or allow us to escape it for a few hours. But much rarer are works that forever alter our daily thought patterns and perception of the world.

The transformative experience, which can be a turning point in a person's life, depends on both the writer and the reader. The book must not only be exceptional, but it also must be in the hands of someone who needed its message — perhaps without even realizing it.

If you have experienced what Shippey describes, you know. If not, keep reading. It will happen. It's like spotting a shooting star: if you look long enough, you'll see one.

Example: The Sun Also Rises (Spoiler Alert)

The most dramatic example from my life is "The Sun Also Rises." When I first closed the book, I was disappointed. While its pages were flush with powerful, entertaining prose, the novel left me hollow. Then the epigraph and book title started filling my brain.

"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever... The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose... The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits... All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again."
– Ecclesiastes

"You are all a lost generation." — Gertrude Stein

Hemingway had tied a long fuse for a bombshell, if nihilistic, universal truth: Things happen. We don't know why. Then the sun comes up. Repeat.

Literature is interpreted hundreds of different ways, but that was my take on this 1926 masterpiece, and it didn't hit me until I set it down. A book that seemed to fizzle out — after a slow burn that had me wondering what I was reading — exploded with meaning.

Why It's Meaningful – How He Did It

I think about the philosophy of "The Sun Also Rises" every day. It helps me arrange life's chaos. It's been especially meaningful to me during times of extreme turmoil. Right now, we're dealing with a global pandemic and civic unrest. But "The Sun Also Rises."

Understanding how Hemingway created such intense meaning may help you find a book that profoundly speaks to you. He is well-known for having said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

The quote, which is often shared without context, was actually about staving off writer's block. But when he wrote, he shared the truest thing he knew at the time.

"The primary intent of his writing, from first to last, has been to seize and project for the reader what he has often called 'The way it was,'" said author Carlos Baker in an analysis of "The Sun Also Rises." "This is a characteristically simple phrase for a concept of extraordinary complexity, and Hemingway's conception of its meaning has subtly changed several times in the course of his career — always in the direction of greater complexity."

The ultimate goal of the serious novelist is to make sense of the world and help others do the same. Hemingway took a truth and carefully unpacked it with a character-driven tour of 1920s Paris, where Lost Generation expatriates, a seemingly random cast of postwar Americans with broken dreams, turn over their feelings at cafes, bars, restaurants, and a culminating Pamplona bullfight. Learning "the way it was" 100 years ago provides context for the present. The reader returns from 1920s Paris feeling like they have lived another life, with characters who had similar life experiences during a much different time. When coupled with the epigraph, the story is masterful.

As Baker says, Hemingway would go on to explore increasingly complex themes of love, death, and war in books like "Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls." While I have enjoyed all of Hemingway's novels and short stories, "The Sun Also Rises" will always stand out as a book that changed my outlook on life.

Share Your Turning Point Book

We'd like to know: What book changed your life, and why? Please share in the comments section, and/or email ryan@sdhumanities.org. We'd like to share some of your stories in a follow-up blog post.

If you haven't found a life-altering book, perhaps this post will assist you in doing so. You might look to the classic authors and think about the experiences you share with them. Chances are, they know how you are feeling.