Looking beyond the 'self-help' aisle

The search for answers to life's larger questions in written texts is hardly a recent phenomenon, points out Jewelnel Davis, chaplain at Columbia University in New York. While more recently some have found growth through self-help books, she says, others have long been served by sources like "texts by Plato."

But whatever its origin, many readers can name a single book that, read at an impressionable moment, contained an idea that served to transform a life.

Lawrence Litt, a New York City-based food writer, says that reading Kenneth Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" while in graduate school helped free him from a compulsion to live a life that conformed to the standards of others. "The book was the defense of the difference," he says. "It allowed me to question the status quo."

Many readers say there was a particular book that taught them increased empathy or compassion. Lisa Carper, a homemaker living near Boston, says she remembers "Cry the Beloved Country," by Alan Paton, as "the first book that made me really cry, and feel that I could perhaps feel what racism felt like." Elizabeth Toohey, a graduate student at City University of New York, found that reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, in eighth grade taught her the unfairness of judging those whose experiences we cannot comprehend, an idea she says has continued to mark her behavior.

Other readers point out that even books considered less than literary can achieve great results. Bram Eisenthal, a publicist living in Montreal, says he read Shirley MacLaine's "Out on a Limb." He was seeking solace after a divorce and the loss of a job, and found it redirected his life by encouraging him to seek satisfaction in more- spiritual pursuits. "People make fun of that book," he says, "but to me, it was a godsend."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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