One of my favorite books is the autobiography of Emilie Carles, called A Life of Her Own. A professor of mine assigned it for either a French history or general European history class, as it depicts the advance of modernity -- particularly, industrialization and nationalism -- into a mountain village in the French alps. I didn’t expect much from the biography of a farming woman, but it changed my life.
Emilie Carles has lead an inspirational life, for one. At an early age she developed a love for books and reading and began to spurn tradition. She became a true freethinker, and her values advanced accordingly. This confirmed my belief that the morals of reason and empathy are not only superior to those of custom and religion, but that they are universal, and that anyone can realize them.
Secondly, Carles broadened my political understanding. Before reading her, my perceptions of various political viewpoints were primitive: I thought communism and socialism were always linked to large, intrusive governments (like the USSR and China), and knew nothing of anarchism beyond a conceptions of bomb-throwing and worship of chaos. As the Great War drags on, Carles writes of her thoughts and those of her relatives, and they do not see it as a great patriotic struggle against evil. They see the war as the product of selfish aristocrats, ever covetous of glory and land, and they resent the deaths of so many people at the orders of the land-owning elite.
They become radicalized in a populist sense, desiring that people rule themselves and have control of their own destinies: through Carles' words, in sharing her opinions and those of her friends and family, I realized there was an entire spectrum of thinking I'd never heard of -- that socialism and communism could be rooted as firmly in democracy, and that anarchism had less to do with revelry and disorder and more to do with the stern, principled lives of men like Henry David Thoreau.
I embarrassed myself for a year after reading this book, because I could not help thanking my professor profusely for having us read it, so great was its impact on my understanding of the world.