Books that Changed My Life

by Memoir Mentor on May 19, 2008

I just finished reading The Book that Changed My Life, a collection of brief essays by 71 authors about, well, the books that changed their lives. That got me thinking about my love of reading and books that have shaped me. Here’s my story…

It all began with Dick and Jane, of course. First grade. A fledgling reader, I was attracted to the rounded clarity of the letters that formed words and those short repetitive sentences. It was such a thrill to decipher what those words meant. I loved the feeling of the smooth white paper as I turned the page. And the story… I knew it was simple, even then, but that didn’t curb my curiosity about the antics of Dick and Jane and little Sally and their parents, that quintessentially ’50s family.

Fast forward to fourth or fifth grade because I don’t recall any children’s books that stand out before then. I do remember my first novel, Little Women, a gift from Santa when I was around ten. I can still see the glossy colorful cover with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy posed in long dresses next to their mother, whom they called Marmee. I did judge a book by its cover then, and it drew me into its pages. I became enamored with each of the four March sisters at different points in the story and wanted to be like each one. I cried when Beth died–the first time, but not the last, a book moved me to tears.

Wilshire Junior High had an inviting library, and I made good use of it. I was drawn to biographies about famous women: Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and Clara Barton, the last with a book title I still remember, Clara Barton, Girl Nurse.

During the ’50s, when kids weren’t in school, they read or played outside in the neighborhood. We didn’t have extensive children’s television programming in those days, nor computer games, organized sports, or many toys. We read, and escaped into the world of our story. I spent entire summer days, one after another, reading. I sometimes had a headache at night from reading so much, but it didn’t deter me from repeating the same pattern the next day.

The summer between sixth and seventh grade I discovered Nancy Drew. A neighbor lady gave me her entire childhood Nancy Drew library, bound in blue buckram, because she didn’t have a daughter of her own, only rowdy sons, Bob and Bill. I had a crush on Bill, but my real love affair that summer was with Nancy Drew. How sophisticated she was driving around in her own roadster, solving interesting crimes, talking to her father as an equal. She had no mother to keep her on the home front, only a kindly housekeeper, Hannah, who minded the home so Nancy could do her detective work and drive around in that roadster.

High school English classes nearly ruined reading for me. Why did they choose such tedious books for us back then, yawners like Mill on the Floss, Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlett Letter? Why not books my children read in high school, like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, books that would have resonated with me as a teenager and generated good classroom discussions about prejudice, friendship, courage, and integrity.

Despite our dreary classroom reading assignments, it was in Mrs. Tate’s English class in my junior year that I decided to major in English in college. I thought this major would allow me to spend my college years reading novels. That it did, but it wasn’t to be the leisurely enjoyable kind of reading I envisioned. It was a novel a week per class. If I took more than one novel class, it was two novels a week, in addition to writing papers about them. I read, rather skimmed, a lot of good literature during my college years, which was a shame. I’ve never returned to many of those great books to study them more deeply, though I’ve meant to.

In my early 20s I found Jane Austen and, frankly, my life has never been the same. I became an Anglophile because of Jane, and developed a preference for British period movies of the Merchant-Ivory sort. Some people identify noble, lofty books as their literary life-changers. I’m not so high-minded. It was the ROMANCE that hooked me, I’m ashamed to say, because I’ve always looked down my nose at the romance novel readers of America. But these were BRITISH romances, set two centuries ago—and you know those Brits, they’re such an articulate, intelligent lot, at least they sound like they are. I have several fine collections of Austen’s six remarkable novels. I’ve read them all, some more than once, but it is Pride and Prejudice that has my heart. That Elizabeth Bennett, a heroine for the ages, with her lively intelligence, wit, and independent spirit. She didn’t settle for marriage with any dolt who asked her, no matter how penniless she may be as a spinster. It was Mr. Darcy who finally stirred her blood—and mine—and kept me turning pages, time and time again. Will they? Won’t they? No matter how many times I’ve read that book, I feel unsettled until everything is finally decided.

I still love words and the look and feel and smell of a beautifully constructed book. Now that I teach writing, I find that I don’t’ read the same way I used to. I read more to discover what works and what doesn’t—and why. My attention span isn’t as good as it was in junior high. And there’s another problem: Because of my love of reading, I buy more books than I can possibly read, which creates a certain amount of anxiety about “getting to the next one” that kills some of the pleasure. Too bad. All the same, I think Amazon.com is the best thing to come along since Mr. Darcy!

Write and tell me how you feel about reading. What books changed your life? What books and authors are you drawn to?

–Memoir Mentor