Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books that changed your life?

I've seen widgets on social networking sites that let you list the "books that changed your life," and as much as I love books, it always irritates me a bit -- usually, because what it really means is "what are your favorite books?" Perhaps, if you were so distracted by a book that you walked out in front of a Bunny Bread truck -- that would constitute a book that changed your life. Maybe some people read John Grisham and decide to become lawyers? Could be. So...I put aside my skepticism and started to decide which books I would put in the BTCYL category.

First, a little tangent: We were a reading family growing up. My mom would read aloud to us, and not just when we were tots, but when we were older kids. We had some kind of Golden Treasury of stories that I remember her reading from; but also To Kill a Mockingbird and The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. Even if she didn't finish them aloud, it would be enough to get me started on them, and I would finish on my own. I distinctly remember an elderly lady who sometimes substituted in elementary school, and that was her thing -- she was a great storyteller -- she may have told stories extemporaneously; it's hard to remember. Her name was Mrs. Paris? Parrish? She was marvelous! I don't think I was the only one listening rapt; it was a great treat when she came to watch your class. She was a retired schoolteacher; she must have been in her eighties -- a little, neat, grandmotherly southern lady in a dark dress and a bun, straight out of Eudora Welty.

We were also not terribly picky readers; we read the Encyclopedias, we read pure crap, we read Shakespeare and the Hardy Boys, Harlequin romances and Outdoor Life magazine, and just whatever happened to be lying around. We had the whole set of Junior Classics and fairy tales -- really creepy ones with bizarre illustrations that still seem perverse. (Ah -- perhaps the first book that changed my life, or at least gave me some terrific nightmares.) The Iliad in who-knows-what translation first acquainted me with the stomach-churning nature of violence in sixth grade. I remember literally feeling queasy over some of it. The cruelty of the Gods freaked me out! And this, from someone who has now read nearly the entire Cormac McCarthy oeuvre (so far, thank God).

Gone with the Wind and Little Women might be the first two books on my list, because I reread them, and they were probably the ones that made me want to write stories myself. Every female character I've ever concocted is a version of Jo March or Scarlett O'Hara. It's sort of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, although neither fits quite perfectly into those categories. Now, skipping many, many books later, there are a few more that stand out above the rest.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, the second time I read it, was a strangely consoling companion when I felt truly in need of a Deronda to guide me through. The poor judgment and regrets of Gwendolyn Harleth! Aye, me!

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, which I found purely by happenstance when browsing the shelves of the public library, led me to my Master's thesis topic and opened up a whole new world of literature, which led me, in turn, to at least one job, and indirectly to all the ones I've had since. I hadn't really thought of it that way before, but I think it's true. I never would have read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien without Fussell, which is reason enough.

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek made me stop taking the natural world for granted, and I started paying attention -- learning the names of things and how they came to be.

And books that shaped my thinking about the Big Issues? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation and Jim Crace's Quarantine on religion; A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon on women, writing, race, and politics. McCarthy's Blood Meridian on American myth-making.

I've left out Shakespeare; I know it seems trite, but it's very hard to imagine coming to love poetry, drama, and books without him there in the background, the measure of it all.

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