Fiction and poetry have had a greater influence on my emotions. Essays and reportage have had a greater influence on my work. But if I were to be honest about the books that have actually changed my life—that is, changed what I do between when I wake up in the morning and when I fall asleep at night—I'd have to admit that nothing can equal a how-to book.
For as long as I can remember, I've had a weakness for books by people who can do something better than I can and are bent on relieving me of my cluelessness. I fall for illustrations of declogged drains, galantined chickens, upgraded motherboards and groomed hamsters. Even if I have no intention of carrying out the intended task (if, for instance, I do not own a hamster and lack even a hypothetical interest in rodent makeovers), I nonetheless find myself energized by the idea
of carrying it out. And if I do
intend to do it, then, for a time, the book becomes my bible.
Each of the four books I've chosen has filled me with can-do spirit at a different juncture in my life. Though only one of them—the last—remains a daily influence, they're all still important to me because their dog-eared pages constitute a record of my past selves. I've written here about the original editions, but all four are still in print, gleaming with twenty-first-century revisions and potentially ready to seize new readers as emphatically as the earlier versions seized me. Anne Fadiman's newest essay collection is
At Large and At Small.
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