I read Albert Camus' "The Plague" around the time I was twenty. It made a huge impression on me, and still ranks as one of my favorite books. But that's not why I chose this book. The "The Plague's" existentialist themes would come to inform my worldview (and later, my atheism) I did not know that at the time. Rather, my reading of this book stands as a totem marking a particular place and time in my life.
I'm not trying to be arrogant when I say I was a smart kid. I was, but I abused and neglected this gift. So it was a bit of a shock when I found myself flunked out of college and on the verge of marriage and fatherhood, twin financial responsibilities that would shut the door on a return to higher learning.
It was then that I read "The Plague". The profound emotional reaction I had to this book made me see two things: how badly I had frittered away my intellectual opportunities, and that henceforth I would have to seek out and create those opportunities myself. I may have lost my chance at a meaningful career, but I would strive to lead a meaningful life. Thus, the bleakest novel I've ever read became for me an enduring call-to-arms as well as a symbol of hope.