The small town I grew up in had an illustrious Carnegie Library that filled me with wide-eyed awe the first time I climbed the broad stone stairs and stepped inside the sanctuary like space, holding my big sister’s hand. I knew that the building, its stacks of books and nooks where dust motes revealed themselves in sun slants weakened by dingy windows, would become part of the landscape of my life.
Thanks to my mother, who started me off with a subscription the Dr. Suess I Can Read It All By Myself beginner book series, I was an early, formidable reader. When I’d mastered all of my beginner books I worked my way through the entire line of Seuss’s fantastical tales. Favorites remain, The Sneetches, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, and Horton Hatches the Egg. From these books I learned lessons I have never forgotten; we are all the same under our skin, be careful what you wish for, and how very important it is to always be as good as your word.
I meant what I said, and I said what I meant, and an elephant’s faithful, one-hundred percent.” Horton
When I’d graduated from the wisdom, beauty and vivid imagery of Suess and moved on to chapter books, I seized on my sister’s copies of Nancy Drew. I still remember my great satisfaction of finishing the first one in a summer afternoon—The Secret of the Old Clock by Caroline Keene.
It didn’t take me long to tear through my sister’s collection; that’s when she took me to the library for the first time, to secure my own card—a free pass to all the books I could ever hope to read in all my lifetime. I remember that I was not as tall as the check-out desk was high, but there was a children’s library downstairs with small tables and small chairs, and a check-out desk that fit me just right.
My sister helped me find the Nancy Drew books on the shelf and I dove in, reading every volume the library shelved. It sparked a craving for mysteries that I sated with the writings of Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt; and then later fed with an added piquant twist of the macabre, served up by Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King to name a few favorites.
I was still relegated, by age, to the children’s floor when I asked the librarian why I couldn’t find To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee in the card catalog. “It’s not a children’s book,” she said. I don’t remember if I was allowed upstairs, or if she secured a copy for me, but I went home with that book that day and it changed my life forever. I lived in the starkest of white, Midwestern small towns where diversity was not yet even a word in our lexicon. Harper Lee’s story painted a picture of racial injustice I hadn’t know existed. It left me with an enduring belief in the power of quiet, steadfast courage.
My mother also subscribed to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. It was in one of the many volumes tucked into our family bookshelf that I discovered the biography of Madame Currie, by her daughter Eve Currie. I was spellbound by my first non-fiction book, enraptured by the life events of a woman who lived years before me. And what a woman! It was my awakening to feminism in its purest form—an assurance that gender did not have to dictate my direction or success in life.
Along with all of my classmates, the diary of Anne Frank changed me in the way it changes everybody who reads it I suspect, but it was Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, that opened my eyes to how easily we become captive in prisons of our own making.
I read Through the Narrow Gate, a memoir by Karen Armstrong (a former nun) not long after having graduating from my Catholic school days. Much later, I read The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kid. These two books, along with The Book of Thomas (Gnostic Scriptures) largely informed my spiritual maturation.
Joyce Carol Oats, loved by some, hated by others and misunderstood by many, has always been a favorite author. Her complex, image-full sentences have influenced my writing (for better or worse) probably more than any one author. Her novella Black Water, a fictionalized postulation of the Chappaquiddick scandal surrounding Senator Ted Kennedy a particularly relevant depiction of clay-footed heroes for me, especially because I had personally met the senator when I was fourteen. I was wide-eyed, and easily impressed by celebrity, ( not to mention good looks) and “the scandal” had flown mostly off my radar; after all I was barely ten when it happened. In reading Oats’s fictional take on the tragedy after I’d met the man, I understood so much more about the pressures and expectations that drive good men to cowardly misdeeds; and how punished or unpunished, such deeds seal their fates and haunt their days.
I have not read Anna Karenina, but The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells come in with a three-way tie for novels that confirmed (for me) “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These books eloquently expose the messiness of being a family, despite fierce love and the best intentions to get it right.
I Take Thee Serentity by Daisy Newman, falls into this group as well, though I can’t quite say what particular impression of families it made on me, only that it was enough of one for me to name my first born after the book’s protagonist, Serenity.
The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman very simply told me everything I ever needed to know about the family dynamic. Finally, it all made sense.
Why Me, Why This, Why Now by Robin Norwood, and Radical Forgiveness by Colin Tipping, helped me make some sense of the unintentional family messes of my life It encouraged me to heal the emotional dis-ease left behind and forgive the ones who hurt me. I can only hope those I hurt find their own path to forgiveness.
There they are, the books that opened me to new realities and ideas, books that changed my thinking and changed the way I walk in this world. What books changed your life? I’d love to hear from you.