There are always the usual suspects in considering books that changed my life. Books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale aroused and infuriated me, keeping me energized and focused on the ongoing fight for human rights and true equality under the law. Deep readings of Twelfth Night and the first half of The Winter’s Tale led me to explore the complexity and elasticity of relationships and the curious bittersweetness that must always play some part in our lives, even in our greatest joy. And Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia awoke me to the poetry of regret and the foolish futility to which we’re so prone – the desperate need to assert some sort of control in our worlds, internal and external, and the way that need, when enacted, is more than likely going to turn around and land us in a much bigger proverbial paddle-less place.
But the book that really changed me, that affected not just my heart and mind, but set me on a whole new journey, was wholly unexpected: Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. I read it with a zooming pulse and churning stomach, staying up late several nights because there was no putting it down – and certainly no getting to sleep. I’ve always been political, and I’ve never cared for processed food or the corporate industry that supports fast food, but that book both educated me and coalesced several strands of my politics, jump-starting my impassioned environmentalism, which was an immediate and obvious fit with my lifelong feminism. It was disturbing and upsetting, but galvanizing. It turned me into a fierce and fearless environmental activist, determined to paint not just the town, but the world, green. I’d love to write a book that lights such a fire under readers (burning on responsibly sourced wood, natch), but what I love about Fast Food Nation’s ongoing hold on me is that it continues to make me think – and fight – well outside myself.
Sarah-Jane Stratford is the author of two imaginative, suspenseful historical novels (with vampires at their heart): The Midnight Guardian and The Moonlight Brigade. She is also writes on politics, feminism, the environment, theater, and where they all collide, for Slate, The Guardian, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter and find her on Facebook. She lives in New York City.
Book hyperlinks courtesy of Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon.