Books That Matter
Friday, March 24, 2017
I still remember the copy of Alice in Wonderland. It was a paperback, red, with a torn cover. The cover had a pebbled effect which I thought felt interesting. I was very small, maybe three or four, and these things mattered. I had paged through the book often because I liked the pictures and I desperately wanted to know the story that went with them. I begged and begged my mom to read it aloud but she was a bit reluctant. She thought, understandably, that it was a little over my head and that I wouldn't have the patience to listen to it. Finally, I wore her down and she agreed it could be our next read-aloud book. To be honest, I don't remember much after that. Did I like Alice and her adventures? Did it live up to my expectations? I don't remember. What I do remember is the wanting, the desperate desire to know the story, the feeling that inside that book was something important.
I think that is what all readers feel. That books hold secrets, they hold knowledge, they hold stories, and stories matter. Through our lives as readers, there are books that have an impact. That impact is not always because they are our favorite books or because they are meaningful books that teach us something but because they develop our reading life in some way. Little Women was another such book for me. It did become a great favorite but when I stumbled across it on my second-grade teacher's book table all I knew was here was a familiar story. I was horrified to realize that the copy I owned was a condensed version and I immediately knew that I had to read the whole thing. I had to argue with my teacher in order to convince her I could read it. This was totally out of character since I was a very shy, quiet child but it was necessary. I needed that book. It was the start of a life-long hatred of condensed books and a similarly life-long belief that children should be allowed to read what they want to read. Little Women also taught me that old books are full of great stories and that big books are worth the trouble.
Sometimes it is not the story that pulls us in but the words. When I was just a bit older, maybe nine or ten, I pulled a copy of one of Shakespeare's plays off the bookshelf. I think it was The Taming of the Shrew. I didn't really intend to read it, I was just bored and convinced my mom was never going to get off the phone so I could ask her whatever absolutely necessary question I thought I had. So I picked up a book. I knew I wasn't following it all. I knew parts of the story were going over my head. But I also knew I liked the rhythm and flow of the language. I liked the sound of it even though I wasn't completely sure what it meant. I plowed through the whole thing feeling slightly confused but as if I was on the edge of something amazing. To be honest, that is still the feeling Shakespeare gives me. He taught me that words are not simply the vehicle for a story but also a source of beauty in their own right.
Not all of my reading epiphanies occurred in my childhood. Just a few years ago, I discovered book blogs and, as a result, discovered One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. I love that book. It is lyrical in its writing, the story is quiet but enthralling, and it is set in England. What more could I ask for? That one book led me to Persephone Books which led to an expansion of my reading to British authors of the mid-twentieth century. Authors like Dorothy Whipple, Monica Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, and Elizabeth Taylor. Wonderful writers, all of them, but I probably would not have discovered them if I hadn't discovered Mollie Panter-Downes first.
That is the amazing thing about books. They change us. And that never ends. Twenty or thirty years from now I will be able to look back and pinpoint more books that matter to me. More books that changed who I am as a reader. More books that I love.
What books have developed you into the reader you are today?