Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Salon: Snapshots from a childhood in books

Recently I was asked to provide the title of a "lifetime" book that had the greatest impact on me and a brief explanation of that impact. Now if you're a lifetime reader, and I assume that most of you are, the list of books that you could use for this is not a short one. So the question then becomes, which one to use. Will you be judged for answering with less than an acknowledged classic? When I was in graduate school, a well-known professor asked each of us to tell the class about a book that had made us a reader. (Notice she didn't say "the" book, but "a" book. She was clearly a reader herself.) When it was my turn and I said that James A. Michener's Hawaii was a seminal work in my reading life, it was hard not to notice all of the (barely disguised) snorts of derision. And yes, it was clearly different than the rest of the canonical (and the more obtuse and confounding the better) works everyone else had cited but it was in fact a major influence on my reading. Should I have lied?* Even then I knew I shouldn't. Everyone has books, high brow and low that have shaped them but the impulse is surely to always go with the high brow, right? If you can overcome that gut reaction (and maybe you choose a high brow work anyway because it feels right to you), which part of your life should the book come from? Is there one that had a slightly bigger impact than the others on the list? Should you just choose the book whose impact you can most easily articulate? I considered many. Here are just a small sampling.

The Berenstain's B Book by Stan and Jan Berenstain was the first book I ever read by myself. I still remember the feeling of exhilaration of knowing I'd read it myself, running down to tell my mom, who was on the phone in the kitchen (I can still see her twirling the phone cord as she chatted to whomever was on the other end of the line), and insisting on reading it to her right that very moment. Even at that young age, I knew I had unlocked something special.

Socks by Beverly Cleary was the book I checked out of the school library again and again. Despite the fact that this was classed as a "third grade" book, I, a mere kindergartner, had special permission to check it out. I loved this story of the grey kitten with white socks so much I don't know if anyone else ever got the chance to check that book out that year. I can still see the cover of this much loved tale (which doesn't match anything I can find online, interestingly enough) and I wish there was a way for me to get my hands on the certainly long since destroyed library due date check out card I signed over and over again that year.

One of the oldest books I have on my shelf is Jane Eyre. I don't mean oldest in terms of first edition or publishing date but just in terms of which book I personally have owned the longest. My copy came from Scholastic books when I was in elementary school. And no, it's not an abridged version. I adored getting the newsletters that came home from school every month and I went through my copy very carefully, circling the books I really wanted. My parents were always very generous with books but even they had to draw the line somewhere and I remember being told that I had to narrow my choices down; I might or might not have circled close to everything in those pages. It was hard to do but obviously Jane Eyre made my final cut. I loved the book but I think I ordered it as much because it was long as for the story. (Side note: I loved the Scholastic newsletters when my kids were of an age to get them too and ordered not only what they were interested in but books I thought they should want to read because I would have wanted to read them if they existed when I was their ages.)

Like so many girls my age, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume was a revelation and as an adult, I wish I had never done those "I must, I must, I must increase my bust" exercises (if you read it, you know what I'm talking about). But what I remember most is not its matter of fact handling of puberty and the emotional aspect of it that felt so very universal, but instead I remember talking about the book with my best friend Jenni, who lived two doors down. I'm pretty sure we were discussing it in lowered voices (who knows why, as it wasn't a patch on Forever, which I read not long afterwards, for forbidden topics) when my younger sister, clearly overhearing us, wanted to know what a period was. I told her to go ask mom, never dreaming that she'd ask my mother such an embarrassing question. This was probably the last time I underestimated my sister.  Her question earned me an our bodies ourselves talk about puberty and getting your period from my mother. Thank heavens mom (and Suzanne) never knew about Forever!

The World According to Garp by John Irving is the only book I ever hid from my parents. It was on their bookshelves and I have no idea exactly how I came across it since there was no dust jacket to tease me with the contents. (My dad has a thing about using the dust jacket as a bookmark and then throwing it away when he's finished with the book. Please direct all horrified hate mail his way and not to me as I already know this is a heinous crime against literature.) I don't remember how old I was but since I remember the room I read it in, I had to be somewhere between 9 and 14 when I read it. My mom did discover me reading it one day and took it away, replacing it with Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, and telling me that I was a little young for Garp. Since she just put it back on the shelf, I just took up reading it where I'd left off whenever I was home alone. (Sorry mom!) Maybe they were right to think I was too young to read it because to this day, more than a few decades since, I remember the sexy bits quite clearly.

But which book did I actually choose to highlight as the book that had a lifetime impact on me? Well, it was Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. I pulled this off the shelf at my grandparents' house when I was probably a pre-teen and once I finished it, I sat up late into the night for weeks and not only imagined myself as the main character, sobbing at all the tragedy in my imagined life, but I kept the story going in my head long past what the authors had written. I've never actually been brave enough to read the sequel that was written not too many years ago because I still cherish the memory of my childhood visceral response so much.

Everyone should have these books, or ones like them in their lives. What books made you the reader you are?

*For those who need to know if the professor was one of those snorting with derision, she was not. In fact, she lectured the class on snobbery and informed everyone that it was best sellers like this that made it possible for other, less commercially viable, books to be published. She also mentioned that Michener himself funded a poetry prize that wouldn't have been possible if his books hadn't been wildly popular. I did not know this when I offered up Hawaii but it made me happy and my fellow students were properly chagrined at the news.


  1. The older I get, the less interested I am in assuming a role as Wise Reading Person and the more interested I am in writing what’s true.

    I first loved Go, Dog, Go. Would I, even now, be brave enough to tell that to a class of college students? Probably not. And that’s the truth.

  2. Your fellow students were also, most assuredly, Big Fat liars when listing classics and other snobbish tomes.

    Mine is The Long Winter. I could name dozens more, but that’s easily #1.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts