Presenter of the National Book Awards

The Book That Changed My Life

Sherwin B. Nuland

Sherwin B. Nuland received the 1994 National Book Award in Nonfiction for How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter.

The Book that Changed My Life? The one work in particular that influenced my own writing?

That's easy. It was the very first volume I took out after getting my card at the Kingsbridge Branch of the New York Public Library, when I was seven. Its title was as unforgettable as the effect it had on me, although I have no recollection of the author's name. Ab the Cave Man transformed my notion of what a book was capable of being. Until then, my contact with reading had been the stultifying Dick and Jane stuff of the classroom -- I had no idea that reading could be fun, that a boy could be transported to another place and another time, and become so engrossed by descriptions and characters that he lost all consciousness of his surroundings, his worldly concerns and the very hour of the day.

I was a kid to whom no one at home had ever read. The adults in my family were immigrants whose means would be exaggerated were I to refer to them as modest. Spoken English was difficult enough to deal with, by mastering the prined work had proven beyond the capacity of the limited attention they could pay to it, in the mist of their struggles toward mere survival in this confusing country. But the lesson of their failed example was clear -- the English language was the real passport to America and to worlds I had never imagined. To suddenly realize with the first few pages of Ab the Cave Man that books were actually the stuff of which dreams were made, was the revelation after which neither English nor the notion of narrative would ever again be the same. Something previously undiscovered in my spirit was revealed by that little volume -- it influenced me every time I pick up my pencil to write.


Sherwin Nuland