A book that changed your life

The monthly memoir writing group at our church follows a standard format: people in the group can read something they have written since the last meeting (usually based on last month’s writing assignment); then I read a passage from a published memoir, and give an assignment based on that example; then the last hour is devoted to writing.

We can’t meet this month. I was going to send out the assignment via email, but it seems to me it’s important to hear the example read out loud. So I made a video of this month’s writing assignment:

For those who prefer to read it, the full text of the video is below.

Welcome to the September online writing group.

Since we can’t meet in person this month, I decided to do a video of this month’s assignment — I was inspired by Mike’s video version of one of the memoirs he wrote. And I’m going to suggest that if you know how to make a video, you might do your own video of yourself reading last month’s assignment, and share it with the rest of us via email.

Now onto this month’s reading….

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Frederick Douglass needs little introduction to any American. He was born into slavery, escaped to freedom in the north via the Underground Railroad, and become one of the most compelling speakers against slavery. He wrote three autobiographies, each of which describes his life in slavery and his escape to freedom; the later autobiographies tell something more of his life as a free man.

Douglass taught himself to read when he was twelve years old, and still a slave. He had to learn in secret for his master expressly forbade him to learn how to read, saying it would make him discontented and ruin him as a slave. When he finally did learn how to read, there was one book that changed his life, and set him on the path to becoming one of the most famous and effective abolitionists. Here’s how Douglass describes the book that changed his life:

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When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially respecting the FREE STATES, added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought — I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE. To my bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular school book, viz: the Columbian Orator. I bought this addition to my library, of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and paid him fifty cents for it. I was first led to buy this book, by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some little pieces out of it for the Exhibition. This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it.

Among much other interesting matter, that which I had perused and re-perused with unflagging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave is represented as having been recaptured, in a second attempt to run away; and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with ingratitude, and demanding to know what he has to say in his own defense. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to reply, the slave rejoins, that he knows how little anything that he can say will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, “I submit to my fate.” Touched by the slave’s answer, the master insists upon his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited to the debate, the quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself, and thereafter the whole argument, for and against slavery, was brought out. The master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.

It is scarcely necessary to say, that a dialogue, with such an origin, and such an ending — read when the fact of my being a slave was a constant burden of grief — powerfully affected me; and I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance, would find their counterpart in myself.

This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in this Columbian Orator. I met there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the Almighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery.

With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, the increase of knowledge was attended with bitter, as well as sweet results. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men.

As I read, behold! the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh, had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment. This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a bird — anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy. It was this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts. All nature was redolent of it. Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness. Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this great right. It was heard in every sound, and beheld in every object. It was ever present, to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. The more beautiful and charming were the smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate was my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exaggerate, when I say, that it looked from every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

From My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, Library of America edition of his three autobiographies, pages 225-227.

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Of course, this is a particularly dramatic example of how one book can change someone’s life. Your life may be less dramatic than Douglass’s (and if so, you are probably glad of that), but you still probably have had a book change your life in some deep way. Or perhaps it was a poem that stuck in your memory and changed how you saw the world; or a short story, or a speech, or a sermon. Books, poems, stories are all part of a grand conversation that can include our entire culture, and that we can take part in.

Your assignment, then, is to write about words that changed your life. How old were you? How did you find this book? Where were you when you read it? And what was the immediate effect of this book on you?

You know the rest: write two pages, or about 500 up to a thousand words, and bring it to the next class.

One thought on “A book that changed your life”

  1. A recent book that’s changing my life is The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen. It’s not a preachy tale about the evils of money (which I actually don’t believe) but about a man’s spiritual/religious journey. OK, that part was interesting but what made it for me was how he managed to harness social capital and the abundance of resources to live without cash. I don’t think we all can follow his lead to the letter but it reminds us that cash is just a tool of exchange amid many opportunities for exchanging value and keeping oneself alive and lively.

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