What Book or Movie Changed Your Life?

Columbus AFB, Mississippi… Vietnam War:  I’d just finished my first hour doing split-esses in the Air Force’s twin-jet trainer, the T-37.  There aren’t words to describe the experience, except maybe playing hide-and-go-seek in fluffy white clouds, right-side up, upside-down…sideways.

aaaa love storyBack on the ground, I stopped to check mail.  My girlfriend, Pam, had sent me a package.  Felt like a paperback.  It was, indeed, Love Story, by Eric Segal. Since we were just transitioning to a different plane, there wasn’t any homework that day, so I lay down on my bunk and started reading.  Pamela and I had been dating for close to four years and she was trying to “keep me cool” while I was away.  An hour and a half later, I put the book down (quick read), and began searching around in my desk for some change.   In the barracks hallway, I put  three bucks worth of quarters in and dialed.

I won’t nauseate you with the details.  It involved my invoking The Magic Telephone and within ten minutes I was asking Pamela to marry me.   Did Love Story somehow hypnotize me through its superb writing?  No.  Would I have asked Pam…sometime later?  Yeah.  But the fact is, a four ounce 4″ by 6″ paperback was the trigger that changed both of our lives…right then and there…and forever.  That’s powerful stuff.

We all like to think that our outlook, our philosophy and our moral approach to life is something achieved slowly over the decades, like an oak tree maturing, twisting, turning…branching out.   And yet, very often things don’t work out that way.  Sometimes for the better.  Sometimes for the worse.  We wander into someone or something.  We see a movie or read a book…and whether we choose it or not we come away subtly and often permanently changed.

Now, I’m pretty much 1000% sure that my book or movie choices won’t overlap with yours.  But mine just might make you ponder your own wisdom, your own conclusions and the graciousness of your actions on this planet.  So bear with me, if only for the purpose of you saying (thinking)  Oooh! Oooh!  No, Henry.  I’ve got one that’s really cool!

aaa table_scene_500You Can’t Take it With You:  Old black & white movie featuring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore.  GREAT movie even today.  Probably on Netflix.  A wildly Bohemian, free-spirited family runs head-on into a wealthy conservative family at the prospect of an up-coming wedding.  What’d I learn?  For some reason, it stuck at the tender age of seven that it was OK to be different…to beat your own drum…follow your own star.   What is the assessed value of a life lesson like that?  For me it was a deal-maker.

aaa rainThe Rainmaker:  This is the original movie with Bert Lancaster, a charismatic actor in every role he’s played…but particularly so in this one.  He’s a shyster, a charlatan, riding his wagon from farm town to farm town, guaranteeing he can make it rain…for a small fee.  Ole Bert works his magic as always…but the pivotal line of the whole movie is a throw-away made by a father to his son.  The son has just belittled, nearly destroyed his spinster sister because she’s fallen for the Charlatan.  The father says to his son:  “You’re so worried about what’s right…..You’ve forgotten about what’s good.”  I was a teenager at the time and even then I found the distinction to be fascinating.  It probably was a contributing factor in my majoring in philosophy.

aa siddharSiddhartha: by Hermann Hesse  I was prepared not to like the book although it’s short and simple (at least on the surface).  It was assigned reading and being accustomed to diving into 995-page door stops for British Lit, this one at 153 pages was a relative Twinkie.  And then I started to begin to commence to understand some things I’d never thought about before.  I came away feeling quite wise, indeed, though it took 10 years and several more readings to figure out what it was I had learned.  If you zip though it and think…So what?  you missed the mark.  If you hit the mark, you’ll have to savor it and re-read it again…later.  It’s worth it.


aaa nobody's foolNobody’s Fool, by Pulitzer prize-winning Richard Russo:  The movie by the same name was nominated for an Academy Award though you’ve probably never heard of it.  Watch the movie first: It’s one of Newman’s last great roles and he hammers it.  If you’ve read any of my novels you already know that I like to gravitate toward little towns, real people with real problems.  No somersaulting firey buses.  Nothing transforms into a Camaro. No nukes.

Russo delves deeply into the souls of six or eight small-town people and one, Donald Sullivan, (Sully) to be specific.  What did I learn?  I learned what Sully eventually learns the hard way.  Maybe we all do, though it’s so simple.  Are you a cop?  an office worker?  a CEO?  a doctor? a housewife?  Sure, that’s part of it.  But eventually we learn that our real roles are much bigger.  You are a mother…a father.  You are a sister.  You are an uncle.  You are…a best friend.  You are a grandfather and you are also a little child and a teenager.  You are all these things and that alone can make your life worthwhile.  Big lesson?  Oh yeah.

aa jugglerThe Juggler of Notre Dame:   This is to a movie what a novella is to a novel.  It’s short but incredibly potent.  You will feel very, very good and you will feel very, very sad.  And ultimately that which makes you a grown-up falls away and you are a little kid again…or an old man.  They’re both the same.  You will learn the meaning of these words way down in your guts:  I have value.  I have something of worth to give others.  And that’s what it’s all about.

Yes, I have left out the Bible from this list, not to make a statement, but I think it comes under a different category.  It’s the only topic on this planet that is taboo to such an extent that any serious analysis is tantamount to touching the third rail.  I’ll leave that to others…to touch or not to touch.  I’m a secular humanist anyway…or possibly a deist…or maybe a teapot agnostic.   Things really got complicated in the past ten years.  Live and let live works for me.  The Golden Rule.

From Steinbeck’s “little books” Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row I learned that you have to be a fool for somebody.  If you can’t do that…you’re the one who suffers.   I also learned how to spot a lie.  Steinbeck describes it so simply.  The best liars sandwich a lie between two truths.  Watch for it.  It’s usually there.

aaaaaa  good willGood Will Hunting:  One of my all-time favorite movies.  The message (for me) came at the very end, though it’s still hard to accept and extremely hard for me to watch.  It’s delivered by Robin Williams to Matt Damon.  It’s….not…..your…..fault….

Finally, to shift gears a bit,  I learned from Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, that one’s liver tastes best with fava beans and a nice chianti.  Hisss……..

I’m most of all curious what books or movies affected you and how…and why.  Are you ready to fess up?  It takes cajones, psychic or otherwise.

If you just respond to this e-mail it will be posted.

B&W HenryHenry




15 Responses to "What Book or Movie Changed Your Life?"

  1. Sam Anderson says:

    My favorite is the movie: Being There with Peter Sellers. Life is a State of Mind.
    Sam A.

  2. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Sam! Excellent choice. I’d seen that one long ago and forgotten about it. Another great one along that genre: The Mouse that Roared.

  3. Richard Rex says:

    Your recent blog raised a question: WTF is a teapot agnostic? I entirely agree with your philosophy of “Live and Let Live”, perhaps with the rider “so long as it’s being done my way”. The books and movies you mentioned are a case in point. I certainly won’t tell you what my favorites are because you might fall about laughing, thus harming yourself.
    Dick R.

  4. Henry Harvey says:

    Bertrand Russell’s term: Teapot Agnostic is an analogy he coined to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others…specifically in the case of religion. Russell wrote that if he claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, it’s nonsensical for him to expect others to believe him on the grounds that they cannot prove him wrong. It also works with the tooth fairy and the boogie man.

  5. This is an easy one. THE BOOK that changed my life is Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Because a stranger recommended that I read this book on a campground in 2002 my life would become so much more. It took another year for me to finally get around to finding this book but when I finally did, my life was never to be the same. I now have a network of friends and “family” that span the world. Each and every day I give thanks to that stranger in the campground. I have traveled to different states and Canada to meet with the wonderful group of women who call themselves “The Ladies of Lallybroch tm” These women have bolstered me when I have been at the lowest places of my life, the have rejoiced with me when my life has been blessed. I have traveled to meet the author of this book just so I could tell her how much her writing has meant to me and so many others. I might mention that that one book has evolved into an ongoing series, book 8 was just published in June of 2014. I honestly do not know what my life would be like if I hadn’t had a chance meeting with a stranger on a campground who recommended a book called Outlander.

    Other books that helped to form my present being; Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Tsao of Pooh. On the lighter side, the much maligned 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, Clifford he Big Red Dog, Beastly Rhymes. I’m a very eclectic reader.

  6. Donna Resta says:

    I read a lot, but I assume the first ones that pop into my brain are the ones that I should mention.
    Illusions by Richard Back who wrote Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, I still pick it up today and it works to help me center myself.
    Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes,Phd. came into my life when I particularly needed understanding of what direction I was going.
    The Barbary Lane Stories by Armistead Maupin for sheer richness of characters and entertaining writing. I would love to hear what others might say. There was already one in your email that I will now add to my list to read. Thanks for that.
    Donna R.

  7. Henry Harvey says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your choice of Illusions jogged my memory…big time. Way back when, Illusions was the spark plug that launched my career writing novels. What sucker-punched me was the utter simplicity of the writing coupled with making the magical appear every-day. Foolishly, I thought, “Hey… I can do this.” Took a long time to catch up to that concept. And Maupin is great! Thanks!!!

  8. Carla Odell says:

    When I started putting this together, I thought I’d keep it for myself, but sending it along to give it life.

    “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” (Betty Smith) I have read this novel several times over my approximately 50 years of reading life; however I was 11 – the same age as Francie, the protagonist – when I first read it. That was the year my mother remarried and my father pretty much began to disappear from my life. While Francie crawled onto the fire escape to, er, escape with her books, I opened the door to our apartment balcony (in nice weather) to read mine. Francie had a very difficult coming of age, as many of us do, but it was mostly in her seeing the frailties and imperfection of her father, whom she adored…worshipped, that I connected with her. And because of Francie, I didn’t feel so alone in my own similar discovery. Spoiler: Her father dies relatively early in the book and Francie experiences many twists and turns until she is able to say good-bye to that young girl she once was and close the window to the fire escape, both literally and figuratively. But it was the father-daughter theme that meant the most to me. As a bookend, a few years ago I read “Father of the Rain” (Lily King) and was able to forgive my father – but years after he’d passed.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee) I not only read this as a student but taught TKAM as a teacher of English. Sure, this novel is loaded with themes like justice and judgment, equality and ethics, femininity and women’s roles, compassion and forgiveness – but (and I am just noticing this now) it was the relationship Scout has with Attitus that I found most compelling and recognizing (accepting) that we are seedlings planted by our parents: for good or bad.

    “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (Joseph Campbell). Campbell’s groundbreaking study of the intersections of storytelling, psychology/initiative behavior forever changed how I not only read but how I live my life. Everything I do, even if it is sitting here at my computer, responding to Henry’s latest blog, is a chartable journey of thought and action. On the down side, sometimes I become obsessed with “where I am.”

    “The Artist’s Way” (Julia Cameron) I bought this workbook when I was in my 20s, trying to figure out a way to be responsible (read pay my bills) while following my bliss (nod to Campbell). Should I take a chance? Jump and the net will appear. How old will I be when I finally get that Ph.D./save enough money to go to Europe/release a statue from a block a marble? The same age you will be if you don’t. These pearls have helped me at many decision-making points in my life.

    “The Wizard of Oz” Thanks to Baum and MGM for continually (every year or so when I was a kid and now whenever I want on CD) reminding me that I have everything I need.

    To continue with that theme: “Now, Voyager” (Prouty and Warner Bros.) If I knew the world was ending and I had time to watch two movies, after “Oz” it would be this chrysalis-to-butterfly tale. I was a physically awkward pubescent and teen, and I saw Charlotte/Camille as a symbol of hope. J But more important, C/C eventually accepts – embraces – that she doesn’t need everything she wants and that what she does have is more than enough.

    And if I had time to watch three, it would be “Godfather II,” but I think I would need several sessions with my therapist to figure out why.
    Carla O.

  9. Henry Harvey says:

    Carla… WOW!!!
    The computer has a default setting to keep the comments at least a little shorter than the article. I disabled that for you for this one blog.

    Except for Godfather II, which I’m not sure I understand the rational for, we’re pretty much in sync. What’s good for me about this particular blog is it gives me fodder for 2015 books to read. Thanks Carla!

  10. Not sure this is the response you expected, but once again you have made me think, contemplate, reflect. There seems to be a significant difference (probably many, but focusing on one) between us. There is a reason (or many) you majored in Philosophy and I majored in Chemistry. You can put together this wonderful and reflective analysis and put it out there. For my part, reading books and seeing movies is transient entertainment. For the most part, I can hardly remember the name of a movie or a book I’ve enjoyed, even immensely, just days after seeing it or reading it. Not the name, not the plot, nor the moral of the storyline. Exceptions are deep dive experiences, such as two semesters of Russian lit in translation. Still grabs me and just finished another, so many years later. And books or movies that have a human connection to me, such as yours!
    Richard B.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Ya got me!!! Fascinating.

      We’ve both had multi-faceted lives. A high spot in my life was the first time I sat at the end of a runway in a jet fighter and got the okay to take-off. It’s burned into my memory. So yeah, I get that. But there were other times, even recently when I’d carry an opened book over to Pam and say, “Read this.” and we’d sit down and chew on the concept and I’m not talking about fiction. Dawkins, Hitchens, Feynmann, even Hawking. Amazing to read the words from someone frozen and reduced to near-zero movement in a wheel chair……and still perceive his mind soaring through the galaxies.

  11. Carol says:

    I read a condensed book in the Reader’s Digest when I was a young teen. It was my very first written for an adult audience “book” that was not Nancy Drew or the like. It told a story of a real dog found as a puppy during WWII by a GI & their journey including the dog find people buried after air raids. Him warning the GI about Germans need by … until they made it home together. I couldn’t put it down and it opened my eyes to reading.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hi Carol!
      Thanks for sharing. There are similar stories even today of dogs bonding heavily with their masters in the wars we’re fighting. Sometimes the bond between a person and another of Mother Nature’s creatures can be compelling though very different.
      When I was a little kid…second or third grade, I got a book called Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. The writing was simple, yet sophisticated and magical. After reading it I read the whole damned thing to the class. Not sure why. Still love that book.

  12. Pamela Harvey says:

    I started ballet lessons at age three. I loved everything about the lessons and the instructor. Six decades later I still have my first pair of ballet slippers.
    When I was nine years old, I bought my first biography book. It was the life of Anna Pavlova. It fascinated me. I remember poring over the illustrations and old photos of her and using the dictionary so that I could grasp every word.

    I marveled at her rise to stardom,and felt such sorrow reading the accounting of her death. Right then, I knew I wanted to be a ballerina. I kept her book by my night table for inspiration. And, when I was a teenager, I was able to realize my dream and danced in Carnegie Hall and with the Harkness Ballet in NYC. Reading about The Swan Queen truly shaped my life.
    Pamela Harvey

  13. Henry Harvey says:

    Okay… Note to readership. If you look extremely closely at the above comment, you will see that it was written by none other than my lovely Wife, Pamela. And soooo….kiss, kiss, kiss, I thank you for writing in and sharing your lovely and enlightening wisdom! Kiss, kiss, kiss.
    P.S. In reality, what I didn’t mention is I had had a huge romantic crush on ballet dancers in general. When I discovered (on our first date) that she was both Hungarian and a ballet dancer…I was already on my way to being toast.

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