From My Files: Books That Influence Our Lives

Books by Pete Earley

Books make popular Christmas gifts, although I’m not sure how you wrap an e-book and put it under your tree.  In April 2010, I asked readers if they had a favorite book in their library that had influenced their thinking. Here’s what I posted. Please share with us the titles of books that you have found significant in your life or books that you have written and want to publicize. Happy reading!

First published April 19, 2010

When I was about fifteen, I read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham and I was mesmerized. At the time, I was living in a town of a 1,000 residents in western Colorado where my father was a minister. My older sister, Alice, had died in an automobile accident and I was struggling to make sense of that age old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I don’t remember now how I got my hands on Of Human Bondage or why I started reading it, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.
For those of you who have never read it, it is perhaps Maugham’s best work. It is the life story of Philip Carey and his search for meaning in life. After Carey’s parents die, he is sent to live with his uncle, a vicar in a small village. The family is extremely religious.
I remember reading the book late into the night, thinking about Philip as if he were a close friend, and then hurrying home after school to discover what was happening to him.
About one-third into the story, I took a red ink pen and began underlining passages that spoke to me. What the author was writing was right on target, he was describing my feelings at the time of anger at God, disillusionment, frustration, love. Even though the book had been published in 1915, decades before I was born, the book described my feelings and me.
I kept Of Human Bondage and when I eventually went to college, moved out on my own and got married, it was one of the few books from my teenage years that I took with me.
When I was in my early 30s, I noticed it in my bookcase one night and took it down one evening to look over. I remembered how much it had influenced me so I started reading it and, once again, became enthralled with the story.
And then something strange happened.
I got to the sentences that I had underlined in red ink — the ones that were so eye-opening to me when I had been fifteen — and I read them and then re-read them. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember why they had been so revelatory.
I got out a blue ink pen and began marking new lines in the book that spoke to me — ones that I wanted to remember.
Ah, I thought, now this is what I should have gotten out of this book! I had simply been too young to understand what the author was saying when I had been in my teens.
When I got into my 40s and was getting a divorce and moving into my own place, I lugged Of Human Bondage with me again and one night when I was feeling alone, I started reading it.
You guessed it! I found new passages that spoke to me and I began underlining them.
What had changed?
I don’t think W. Somerset Maugham’s words had changed. But I had gone from a adolescent trying to deal with my sister’s death, to a young married man, to a middle-aged fellow getting a divorce, and for some reason the passages that Maugham wrote about Philip Carey’s search for life’s meaning had spoken to me at each of these different stages in my own life.
Is Of Human Bondage a great book? Who knows? Who really can judge what is great literature and what is trash? But Of Human Bondage has been with me for 43 years. And at least once every ten years, I dust it off and read it — if only to see those red and blue ink marks that are references to my own life and understanding of its meaning.
Writing a book that speaks to a reader differently during his lifetime — now that’s a high bar for an author to reach!
Do you have a Of Human Bondage in your library?
******
If you are not following me on Twitter yet, you missed this tweet:
Ck out photos of my speech at USC thanks to Elyn Saks. http://weblaw.usc.edu/news/article.cfm?newsID=3963
 
 
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • Chrisa Hickey

    I feel that way about The Color Purple by Alice Walker and, interestingly, The Razor’s Edge by, who else, W. Somerset Maugham.