It Was Meant to Be a Simple Question

To_Kill_a_Mockingbird

My friend Amy posted the following on Facebook:

“In your status line list 10 books that have stayed with you. Don’t take more than a few minutes. Don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be great works, or even your favorites. Just the ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends including me so I’ll see your list. Some of these books I read in a Memoir Writing class I took within the last five or six years. Two took up a lot of my time and contemplation in college.”

Yeah, I know it said “Don’t take more than a few minutes” as well as “Don’t think too hard;” both of which directives proved totally impossible for me. In fact, I found myself thinking about this a great deal over the past couple of days – as I was going to sleep the night of Amy’s post (and then proceeding to not go to sleep as I pondered), again when I woke the next morning, while I walked my dog in the brilliant bitter powder-snow cold, in between work appointments and the assorted tasks of everyday life.

I write (at least at times I do cough cough), and continue to consider what makes writing really, really good. This strikes me as sort of like devoting one’s life to understanding the sound of one hand clapping, in that, of course, there is no one, even reasonably satisfying answer to this. Writing has the capacity to touch us on so many different levels and in profoundly different ways: the beauty of words themselves can awe us in works of fiction and non-fiction as much as the poetry of immortal greats. Writing can teach us, move us, educate us, stir us to action, change our perspective, open us, transport us, transform us. There have been passages in books that I didn’t believe I would ever fully recover from – when little Walt dies in The World According to Garp, when the evil Blue Duck slits the throat of Roscoe, Joe and Janey in Lonesome Dove, when Billy Bibbit takes his life in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – well, after each of these passages I mourned, wrenched for days, not myself, unable to shake the profound effect the authors had fueled within me.

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And then there is the question of timing: does our profound love of a particular book depend on the exact time that we happened to read it, and would that book — so beloved once — hold the same power to stir our soul if we had chanced to read it at an entirely different time in our lives? Within the past couple of years, I re-read The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which are often first read during adolescence, and often in a soul-killing high school English class. Both of these novels struck me – again – as so powerfully visionary, so stunningly well-written, and, well, so damn important.

I had the occasion to visit a pre-school classroom this past week, something I do every so often in my work. For the hour that I visited, the classroom of four-year-olds first acted out the children’s book The Mitten, pretending to be each of the animals that one-by-one crowds into the ever-growing mitten to stay warm. Then, it was time to climb aboard The Polar Express. The little ones lined up in the hallway to claim their tickets, then returned to a darkened classroom to board the train when the whistle blew. They bumped up in down in their chairs, making their way to the North Pole, shouting out the sights they saw along the way. By the time the teacher read the story, I was glad that my visiting time was up, and that the room was dark, so I could sneak away as my eyes welled with tears at the story’s end, as they do every single time.

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3 thoughts on “It Was Meant to Be a Simple Question

  1. ok ten books, ten minutes….GO. My heart still clenches that Jake and Brett don’t get together at the end of The Sun Also Rises; I will forever laugh out loud at Huck Finn’s plain- as- day perspective, particularly over what Tom Sawyer puts Jim through in the name of “literature”; I will never read Dandelion Wine alone or in the dark; I will howl at the major-major-major humor of Catch 22 and want to go with Yossarian as he paddles away into the fog; I want to marry Larry Darrell and go with him on his search for the meaning of life along The Razor’s Edge, I will never read a scene as exciting as in For Whom the Bell Tolls, when the traitors are forced to run the gauntlet then thrown into the gorge upon the order of a frightening Pilar, the most realistic woman Hemingway ever wrote (because he wrote her like a man, of course); I remain gobsmacked with admiration of Tea Obreht who in a first novel so beautifully combined myth and history that I totally believed there really was a Tiger’s Wife; I always wanted to be a part of the Rostov family and am still not over the death of Prince Andrey though I know Pierre was better for Natasha, and really I was truly fond of him as well by the long earned finale of War and Peace;( for that matter I wanted to be a part of any of those big “saga” families like the Forsythes, or Faulkner’s Sartoris’, however decaying, but I’m not counting them here or I will run over ten); I am in AWE of how Jennifer Egan described, in ONE PARAGRAPH in Visit from the Goon Squad, how a wife’s sensuality had diluted into nothing over the course of a marriage and her narrating husband realized he’d done it to her himself; and finally, I join the throngs in remembering the first time I cried when I read a book, or rather, when the book was read to me…..the grief of Wilbur the pig when Charlotte died..in her Web. I think I’m tearing up now, in fact.

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  2. First, thanks to Barbara and Rita-the-not-anonymous for their very thoughtful posts. Barbara noted the “question of timing” – when in our life we read a particular book. That’s important in my selection of books here because the intensity of my emotional memory for some books that strongly affected me 50 years ago, and which I have not recently re-read, has waned.

    Same with most people who have died – for example, in 1962 I read “A Death in the Family” by James Agee, and my maternal grandmother, Sophie, died. I loved them both, but my memory and love for them has faded. They likely are both as deserving of love as they ever were, but at a distance of 50 years, I can’t access them the same way.

    That’s a long preamble, to saying my list-of-ten is of books I’ve read recently enough to call up a good chunk of the feeling I had when I read them. Here goes and apologies to the old loves: it’s not you, it’s me (sort of a joke).

    About Alice (Calvin Trillin)
    Young Men and Fire (Norman McLean)
    The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
    Case Histories (Kate Atkinson)
    A Christmas memory (Truman Capote)
    The Nick Adams Stories (Ernest Hemingway)
    Bird by Bird (Anne LaMott)
    A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace)
    The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
    At Large and At Small (Anne Fadiman)

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