Life-Changing Literature

By: Abi Hillrich

Mikey Ward – CRE of Joy/Janssen
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone For the latter, I would recommend students to come have a chat!
I recently re-read Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Besides being totally refreshed by Berry’s rejection of our society’s necessity to be relevant, I couldn’t help but recognize how Port William’s Jayber Crow demonstrated how sacred the overlooked role of a barber is and can be to a community. Crow is the quiet, minimalist barber who provides two purposes in the town: he cuts hair and hears the town’s collective narrative. Berry’s narrative and characters provide clarity for my own narrative in a small, midwest, predominantly white hometown. Berry captures the pace, community, characters, and people we all know, love, and cannot separate ourselves from. He is the resounding voice for my unfortunate monolithic upbringing. I have relatives, stories, biases, and ‘Amens!’ scattered and marked throughout the margins. One passage that specifically speaks to me comes at the main character’s journey back home to Port Williams at the age of 20. It encapsulates my journey back to GU when it states on p. 133:

“I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley, and yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.”

Eric Watterson
Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
There are certain situations in which the main character is striving for a sense of identity and vocation, yet needs to be confronted with his limitations and have his ego checked. At the time I read it, it was a good lesson and started to set the tone for some things that came.

Sarah Stone
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
I read that book multiple times in elementary school and I think those were some pretty formative years for me, especially since I was bullied for a couple years in grade school. I chose to escape through books, and Because of Winn-Dixie was particularly meaningful for me. This is a book about a girl who was kinda outcast and made a lot of friends that were also outcasts, including her dog, Winn-Dixie. She also finds out that people (whether rude, quiet, young, old) all have reasons for why they are a certain way. She gets to know them and loves them regardless of everything that puts them in this societal outcast position. It helped me a lot in elementary school, and throughout life, because it helped me remember that all people are coming from different experiences and backgrounds, and that shouldn’t affect our love for them.

John Brittingham
Visible Identities by Linda Martín Alcoff
I got the book as part of a research project that grew out of my dissertation work, but it was by no means the book I thought would be most important to that research. However, as I began to make my way through the book, I realized that it was not the book that I was expecting. On the surface, Visible Identities is a collection of essays connected by the attempt to explore identity in light of various critiques of the relevance of race and gender to political projects. Beneath the surface, the book is a cohesive argument about why race, class, and gender do matter, but also why how we think about them as a part of our identities matters.

All of this is a setup for why and how this book changed my life. The last three chapters of the book start Alcoff’s turn from race and gender in general to the lived experience of Latinx persons. In particular, Alcoff’s chapter “On Being Mixed” was both philosophically and personally transformational. Being a multiethnic Latino myself, Alcoff’s chapter brought together my philosophy interests with my own self-understanding. Self-examination is a cornerstone of philosophic practice, but Alcoff’s work deepened that practice for me while also acting as a bridge for me as a philosopher to connect with and think alongside the Latinx community of which I am a part and which remains largely unrepresented in mainstream philosophy.

After reading Visible Identities I knew that I couldn’t continue to do the same research and philosophy I had been doing. I also knew that there was a whole community of scholars like me that I needed to connect with and learn from. Alcoff’s book validated my identity as a Latino scholar, but also gave me the inspiration to change up my work. It is a rare but beautiful thing to have a book encourage you to be you.

Sean Pope
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This book depicts a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and no value is placed on knowledge. Reading it in class as a high school sophomore, the book felt like a watershed moment for me. The struggle between knowledge and ignorance tuned into something internal that needed to be tended to, and has gradually come into a broader relevance.

Courtney Bailey-Parker
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and A Challenge for the Actor by Uta Hagen
I read Jane Eyre in one of my first undergraduate English courses, and it is probably the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a true “moment of recognition” with a text. It was uncanny to me that a Victorian woman writer had the ability to articulate the same questions I had about how I viewed myself as a woman and my ever-changing sense of what it meant to call myself “religious.”

The other is Uta Hagen’s incredible meditation on what it means to be an actor, A Challenge for the Actor. I had never heard another actor speak about the profession with such reverence before, and one passage from this book absolutely altered my understanding of what it means to be successful as a theatre artist. I carry a copy of this quote with me everywhere I go:

“I believe that when you have achieved great skill, a point of view, and the power to communicate, an audience, no matter how small, will reward you with the respect that makes it all worthwhile. If you are willing to make a true commitment to the making of theatre art, like a dedicated priest or nun you will have to accept the likelihood of poverty in exchange for inner riches. It is the only trade off you can hope for.”

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