Art Works Blog

Three Books That Changed My Life

Three books that changed my life? Only three? As soon as I think of any one, a dozen more come to mind. But I will color inside the lines, so to speak, even as I leave countless loved ones up on the shelf.

1. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

As someone intensely interested in the arts since I was young, but in a family that wasn’t particularly arts-oriented, as someone educated three days a week in conservative Judaism while in elementary school, but increasingly uncertain of what it meant to me personally, Potok’s story of an Orthodox young man whose talent for painting took him beyond the strictures of his upbringing spoke to me very powerfully, even though I didn’t meet with parental opposition to my affinity, and lacked any particular talent. Asher was compelled by talent to become a rebel and I was, to all outward appearances, a conforming good boy. His story was my own minor struggle writ large. But despite admonitions that the arts were a terrible way to make a living (albeit not the sin that Asher was cautioned about), I went my own way too. And in college, I took a philosophy seminar with Potok, and was able to thank him for what his work meant to me, even as he opened new avenues of thought for me. Corollary: Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.

a close-up of a white man with dark hair and glasses

Howard Sherman. Photo by Joan Marcus.

2. What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

Even after I began my life in the theater, I still held romantic dreams of working in Hollywood, going so far as to spend a week interviewing at studios and production companies the year I turned 30. When, as a teen (and I still reread it annually), I first read this seminal novel of two men whose lives took them from New York to Hollywood, it offered me the already bygone allure of a different life, of fame and money, even as it showed the price one might pay to achieve such things. Yet as the years progressed, what I saw in the book evolved, as I realized that I was much more like the novel’s narrator than its hyper-precocious anti-hero. I wasn’t someone who could swim in the (seemingly) shark-infested waters of movie making. Where Sammy was once a book that offered the vision of a different life, it became an affirmation of the choices I’ve made, of staying in theater, and outside the commercial arena, of staying in the form and with the people with whom I’m most comfortable. Corollary: The Player by Michael Tolkin.

3. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

As children, we were always falling into fantasy worlds: on TV, in movies and in the pages of books. This hypnotic novel, which I read when it was first published, is probably the last time I recall being immersed in a fantasy completely—a fantasy that was at times dark, uncomfortable, and even incomprehensible. I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand its hold on me, how it manages to be entirely otherworldly and impossible in some ways and utterly believable in others. Even as I had entered the working world, saw how magic was made on stage from behind the scenes, and dealt with the mundanity of such things as paying rent and car loans, Dunn’s novel of a most unconventional, fractious, fantastical, and loving family—and how the legacy of any family lives on even after they’re gone—was a reminder of how completely a book could transport me. Corollary: from years earlier, the first “grown up” book with a comparable effect, despite being about rabbits, Richard Adams’s Watership Down.

Extra-credit: Though first published in newspapers, but collected in countless anthologies, Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, which is utterly woven throughout my life for as far back as I can remember.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts and senior strategy director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. You can follow him on Twitter as @HESherman.

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