In college, I took a literature class—American Literature or Literature Criticism; I forget what it was called—in which we studied Whitman and Thoreau and similar authors. At the beginning the semester, the professor handed out the syllabus and this advice: Don't make any major life decisions while taking this course.
Bizarre advice, he admitted, but one he'd been told by many former students to give to future classes. The class changed the way people think, at least temporarily, and decisions made during the semester were often regretted a few months after the semester ended.
Honestly, I thought he was blowing smoke and inflating the importance of the class. I thought he might be referencing how much homework we would have—how it would eat up our lives. And then I forgot all about his advice and got busy with discussions and papers and reading and life.
A month after the class ended, that first day's warning shattered my thoughts in a way much like waking from a dream. I looked around my apartment and realized I'd come perilously close to making a few major life decisions while under the influence of his class. And he was right: they weren't decisions true to my nature; they were decisions true to the person who'd just spent three months immersed in these existential, transcendental authors.
I was living in a tiny 490-square-foot studio with a single used recliner, a TV, desk, computer, and two bookcases—and it felt enormous and packed with material goods. I'd stopped watching TV almost completely. I'd considered getting rid of the chair, feeling I didn't need the extra possession. My lifestyle, that of a working student, seemed too fast-paced. I was spending a lot of time in quiet contemplation.
None of these things sound too awful, not even combined. An unexamined life is not worth living, and all that. But this wasn't me. I wanted more furniture, so friends could have somewhere to sit when they came over. I wanted more space, somewhere that would fit pets. I didn't have the monetary means (or social personality) to lead a life of contemplation.
But I wanted to. I seriously considered altering my entire life. I wish I could describe it better, but that feeling is so distant now—just three months out of my life, but three months under extreme influence of this class.
It was my first blatant, unavoidable proof that I am an easily influenced person. It's not the most stellar personality trait. I find it annoying, sometimes, and amusing other times.
Granted, my key, core beliefs have remained true for years—no one's swaying my opinion on children, politics, or meat. But when it comes to everyday life, I'm sadly rather malleable.
Since that class, I've had plenty of opportunity to witness this bizarre effect books have on me. When reading a book set in the Wine Country, I tend to drink more wine, go to more wine tastings, and buy more alcohol in general; when reading a knitting book, I crafted projects in my mind, gifts for friends (I even went to the bookstore and picked out some books before realizing that I had zero true interest in knitting); when reading books with more profanity, even made-up words, I cuss more, including using the lingo from those books (go around saying "blood and ashes" after a reading a Robert Jordan, or "by the shell!" after reading Anne McCaffrey Pern novels and see if you don't get weird looks).
Having a mercurial mood and thoughts driven by what I'm reading (or, sometimes, watching) makes me more cautious with the literature (and movies) I select. I like happy novels. I like novels of romance and adventure and comedy. I don't want gore and horror or tearjerkers. I don't need those moods following me around. (There was even one time when I had to stop playing Metroid because I was starting to analyze the world around me from a defensive/offensive position, checking windows and stairwells for enemies without even being conscious of it.)
This character trait (weakness? flaw?) makes me hyperaware of the daily influences in my life. Between what shows I watch, what I read for pleasure, and the research and reading I do for work, there are a lot of mixed influences each week. My life is immersed in routine, and often the only thing that changes is the fiction and nonfiction—the things I read and learn.
All this to say, I'm starting a new segment on this blog: Under the Influence—a post of things learned and influences that manipulated that week's emotions. Stay tuned for the first installment.