When people are asked what book most changed their life they usually identify a work of fiction that inspired them, in some abstract way, to re-examine themselves. A poll for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme in 2004 revealed that the most influential book was… Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is probably the least surprising result since Josef Stalin won his 30th consecutive gold medal at the 1952 Supreme Soviet Moustache Olympiad.
Pride and Prejudice has won every book poll in Britain for which it has been eligible since book polls began, unless the sample has excluded women (in which case the winner is Albert Camus’s The Outsider) or adults (arise, Harry Potter).
But I digress. The point is this: unless readers were spurred to become literature academics specialising in simpering 19th century froth, it probably didn’t change their lives at all. My favourite book is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but any impact it has had on my life or career is immeasurably small.
The book that had the most impact upon my life was The Lonely Planet Guide to India – although not in the “I went to India and found myself” way you might be thinking. Useful as it was for finding very, very cheap accommodation, it was a book that nearly killed me.
Among its recommendations were a fruit juice stall in Kerala and a restaurant in Jaisalmer that served “excellent lassis”. Very tasty they were too, but with a caveat. They were mixed with unfiltered water containing nasties that resulted in one bout of dysentery and another of suspected giardia. Neither killed me, as it turned out, but I was dehydrated to the point of requiring a drip on the first occasion, and an emergency prescription on the second.
Pride and Prejudice may be a classic of English literature, but I doubt if it had that effect even on listeners to Woman’s Hour.