The Book That Changed My Life

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Combing through Haley Helgesen’s Facebook page, there aren’t too many things that stick out that make one go “woah.” I retract that statement, there is one. Under her “About Me” section, I was hoping for some insight into the kind of person Haley is outside of class. And then there is this: “My Microwave and I are mortal enemies.” Needless to say, I lost myself laughing at this simple, yet most likely very serious statement. Maybe it’s the ten-year-old at heart thing, but in all seriousness, Haley is a pretty awesome English major I think we can all appreciate. So let us follow her statement after the one above and “get to know” her, I am sure we “won’t be disappointed” as Haley tells us about “The Book That Changed My Life.”

What is the book that changed your life?

The book that changed my life was Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

How would you describe the book to someone who hasn’t read it?

Stiff is a fascinating book for those with a strong stomach. The book is all about cadavers. It provides detailed explanations of their medical uses, historical contexts, the myths surrounding them, and strange cultural ethics and morals concerning death and decomposition. Each chapter highlights a specific usage of the cadaver; how they are processed in morgues, how they are used as crash test dummies, how decomposition is studied, and of course cannibalism.  Despite the subject matter, the book is deeply engaging and offers humor at appropriate moments. It is really a good, off beat read.

Where/How did you first encounter this book?

When I first enrolled in college, I was a pre-med student at the University of Minnesota. One of my professors had this book as required reading for the class. He insisted it would instill in us “proper respect for cadavers.” I eventually switched my major to English, but the book remains to this day the most influential required reading ever assigned to me.

How did the book change you?

I am not a religious person, never have been, but I still entertain many existential questions.  For a long time, mortality was a great concern to me. How can I use my time here effectively? What if I don’t accomplish anything of merit in my life? Unease about what happens after death used to keep me up at night, much like it probably does for other people. In a strange and unorthodox way, this book answered many of my questions. Those questions that kept me awake suddenly had very simple answers. What happens to you after you die? Oh, you become a practice cadaver for makeup testing or a decomp specimen at a local university. After reading this book, I didn’t feel plagued by impassivity. I was unbridled by the realization that everything and everyone is constantly in states of impermanence. It was oddly freeing and drastically affected how I approached my life, goals and ambitions. It also taught me that science is crazy, and because of that everyone needs to make non-fictive books part of their reading lives.