“This book has scarred me for life” or On the Negative Impact of Books

When I was younger I believed that books could change your life. To the good or the bad. My belief in the power of the word was almost infinite.

I suppose this belief in the power of books lies behind censorship, banned and burned books and the like. I also suppose that each of the parties banning, burning or forbidding books have different reasons. I personally think very little of banning books. I still belive in their power though.

While reading Nick Hornby’s House Keeping vs The Dirt I was reminded of this when he mentioned he bought Georges Bernanos’ book Journal d’un curé de campagne or The Diary of a Country Priest due to a negative amazon review. He posted the review but the way he wrote about it made me think, he made it up. Being the curious person I am, I checked and to my amazement there it was. On amazon.co.uk

1.0 out of 5 stars Dont read this book, 17 July 2003
By A Customer

This book has had an enormous impact on my life. Having had to read it as part of my French A level course (in French!)it left me psychologically scarred. Grinding through each passage was like torture, making me weep with frustration and leaving me with a long-burning and deep-felt resentment against my French teacher and the A level exam board. This resulted in a low grade for my French lit paper, which offset a decent language paper, resulting in a ‘C’ which wasn’t good enough for my chosen university. So I had to switch from French to business studies, so changing the course of my life. To say I detest this book is an understatement. So he’s dying, but the main protagonist is a drearily introspective little creep. The pace is crawling and the whole vibe simply turgid.

Is he really serious? I don’t know but it made me think of books that had a negative impact in my life and I found three. One was a one of my parents’ books. A short story collection with illustrations by Japanese painter Hokusai. I think it was relatively valuable and I was forbidden to touch it. Like Bluebeard’s wives,  I disregarded the interdiction and opened the book. Finding the book with wide open pages  – I had run off to hide – told my parents later that I had been at it. I don’t think I was punished. It wasn’t necessary as the drawings had terrified me enough. The ghostly figures haunted me in my dreams. Mind you, the drawings, not the text. I was too small for reading.

But what about the written word? What about stories? Have there been books that had a huge impact? Yes, I would say so. I have read two books as a young teenager that had a profound impact. I think they managed to take away my innocence forever. Maybe it was about time. The world isn’t a perfect place and there are a lot of bad things happening, the sooner you face it, the better. While I know why the first one had such a negative impact, I’m not so sure about the second anymore.

Choderlos de Laclos’ famous epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons (1782)  was the book bomb that blew up in my young girl’s life. Before reading it I had thought that people fell in and out of love, unfortuntely often not at the same time which could cause great heartache but that was about the most negative I was aware of. That someone could pretend to be in love, to manipulate and deceive in order to achieve something was a concept that was utterly new to me. New and deeply shocking. I remember I was really depressed and became quite mistrustful. There is also a make-believe friendship in the book which meant you couldn’t even trust friends. Once your eyes are open you start to see and my teenage self became aware of similar things happening around me. In the end I was glad I had read Les liaisons dangereuses. Better to learn from a book than through pain and heartache. I must add as well that I loved this book. I was shocked and depressed but also fascinated and amazed by the story.

The second book was not a novel but a philosophical text by Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. The idea that we are just machines acting and reacting, not much different from a robot, as he described it in Machine Man – L’homme machine (1747) – depressed me incredibly. After having read it, life felt quite pointless for a while and I had to come to the conclusion that he was maybe just plain wrong, before I could enjoy it again.

I wonder if it’s a pure coincidence that all the examples which had a negative impact on my life are from the 18th century? And three of the four examples are French books.

Luckily some books have had a very positive impact but that will be the topic of another post.

Have you ever read a book which had a major impact? And what do you think about banning books?

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics)