Discuss: A Book on a Shelf

Oct 28, 2011

Growing up, I didn’t enjoy reading.  My Father, who can read an entire novel in two sittings, would buy the classics and force me to read them.  He would test me at the end of each chapter to make sure I had actually read the book but, with few exceptions (Three Musketeers, King Lear), I was never particularly taken with reading. 

By the time high school started, I was in open rebellion against reading.  Four years of honors and AP English and I read exactly two books cover-to-cover.  No one was going to force me to read.  (Incidentally, I still earned As in every class.)

But it’s strange how a single book can change your outlook on reading.  How one work can speak to you so deeply that it changes your outlook on life and makes you wonder what other greatness might lie within the pages of the other books that you’ve been ignoring. 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (B&N, $14)

On the first day of my feature writing class, my professor passed out Xeroxed copies of an essay called, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”  Her simple class assignment led me to the book the essay came from, to the complete works of its author and to a genre that changed my perspective on reading and on life.

I had never read anything like the essays that Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  There was an honesty, a wittiness and a vulnerable hopefulness in the essays that perfectly approximated the way I felt at 21-years-old. Ready to grow up but struggling to move on from the dreams, the mistakes and the sins of my younger life.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

I read the book for nine straight hours.  In fact, I called in sick to all of my classes so that I could keep reading it.  I Post-It flagged passages that spoke to me and wrote notes in the margins.  It was probably the most intense “studying” that I did in college.

Nearly a decade later, my copy is so marked up with my own personal thoughts that it looks more like a personal journal than a store bought book.  In fact, the writing on those pages is so personal, that when people ask if they can borrow it, I just buy them a copy instead. 

I’m certainly not in the business of letting other people read my diary. 

Once a year or so, I’ll flip through the pages and read my favorite passages.  I’ll read the notes in the margins (each year is a different colored pen) and wonder who the hell that person was who thought that, or I’ll see something I wrote and remember the exact feeling that I had when I was writing it. 

Who knows, maybe I’ll read it this weekend?

Was there a book or books that changed your life?  A written work that turned you into a reader?  And when people say, “What’s your favorite book?,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?


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  1. CB says:

    For me, it would have to be “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. I read it for the first time when I was 12, and I was a similar age to the young Francie, and then I read it again when I was 21, similar to how old the protagonist is at the end of the book. And yes, both times I found myself relating to her raw honesty and self confidence, and felt myself going through the maturing process with her. What makes it even more personal for me, is that it was my Grandmother's favorite book, as well; she enjoyed it since it reminded her of the time and area that she grew up in. So now each time I read it, I think of her and feel her presence.

  2. kp says:

    For me it was The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. I thought it would explain why
    my students seemed so entitled. Instead it explained why I was so lacking in spine.

  3. KS says:

    I never know how to respond to that question since I don't feel like any one book has been particularly influential. But the books that I read over and over again as a kid that made me love reading were the Little House series and the Narnia books. And anything by Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary. As an even younger kid I was addicted to the Bernstein Bears and anything illustrated by Stephen Kellog. I came across a few boxes of my childhood books in my parents' attic this summer. Good times!

  4. HM says:

    Angela's Ashes – Frank McCourt

  5. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    The Fountainhead completely changed my life in 10th grade.

  6. IM says:

    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggars.

  7. Katie says:

    Either The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster or the short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.

  8. Katie says:

    Nerd alert, but I really enjoy Classical literature and my favorite piece is Ab Urbe Condita by Livy, which is about the founding of Rome. There's a lot of interesting history that happened after Romulus and Remus and before Caesar that wasn't explored a lot in my education. This was also one of the first pieces that I was ever able to translate, on my own, so it holds a special place in my (nerdy) heart.

  9. KRF says:

    CB–so glad you mentioned “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”–its my fav as well. I think I also read the book when I was around 12 or 13 and I never forgot its impact and have enjoyed returning to the story at different stages of my life…but never will forget that first read!

    I recently read a great book called “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. There are a lot of life lessons weaved throughout the story, which I found unique becuase Its told from the perspective of a dog and the life lessons are framed in the context of auto racing. I know it sounds strange but it was a page turner for me. Happy Reading!

  10. KC says:

    The Great Gatsby

  11. BB says:

    My Early Life – Winston Churchill. A humorous and inspiring autobiography from one of the most influential people in modern history. I read it when I was 15 and it taught me the importance of carving out your own path to success despite roadblocks that may come along the way.

  12. Lauren says:

    Little Women.

  13. R says:

    A tree grows in Brooklyn is also one of my favs but the one I re-read over and over is To kill a Mockingbird. Love. On a side note, just yesterday I ordered a few book T-shirts. (https://outofprintclothing.com/shop/). I don't have them yet but I'm kind of excited. Not work apparel to be sure.

  14. Megan says:

    Great post! First book that changed my life was Little Women, but my favorite of all time is A Prayer for Owen Meany. Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking nearly killed me, but I've never been so glad I've read something.

  15. Leigh says:

    I saw the tweet for this post, “What's Belle's Favorite Book?”, and my very first thought was that it's the one “where she meets prince charming, but she won't discover that it's him till chapter three.” 🙂

    I really don't know how I'd pick my favorite book. If I wanted to go by the one I've read the most times, it would probably be Little Women. I really can't choose, though. I've always been a huge bookworm and there's just too many of them that I love.

  16. bt says:

    The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo

  17. danielle says:

    the first book that changed my life was a tree grows in brooklyn – glad to see how many others love this book! – but the book that has had the most profound impact on me was prozac nation. in high school, when i was having a tough time, it was life-changing to know that someone had felt exactly the same way that i had, and more importantly, that she had come out on the other side of it – as a grown, successful woman.

    much like you, there are underlined passages and notes in it that are so personal, i don't want others to read my copy.

  18. Montana says:

    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. As an adult I love Russian Literature, science fiction and horror….

  19. Anna Louisa says:

    I had the exact opposite problem growing up…I got in trouble for reading too much! My mom used to have to force me to stop reading and go outside and play (I should probably thank her, since I ended up getting as many athletic scholarships as academic ones in college – smart mother!). Reading is my favorite thing so it's almost impossible to choose one author or book, but if forced, I'd say Mark Helprin. He writes about “the good, the true, and the beautiful”, as an old professor used to say. Can't get much better than that.

  20. Danii says:

    For 10th grade American Lit, I read the a short story, “Where are you going, where have you been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. I read in the preface that she had Bob Dylan's song, “It's all over now, baby blue” on repeat while she wrote it. That essay is so haunting, especially when you consider the song. All of her novels are fantastic, great stories with formidable heroines.
    check it out: https://www.usfca.edu/jco/whereareyougoing/

    Of course, there is my abiding love for Catcher in the Rye, and its companion, The Bell Jar.

    I've always been a big reader.

  21. southernerinlondon says:

    You're just confirming why I read you!! You're awesome. Didion's “STB” split my world open in college too, as did T.S. Eliot's, “Four Quartets”.

    As a kid, absolute favs: “My Side of the Mountain”, “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” and “Anne of Green Gables”.

    ps: if you don't already own this, it's good for the less private shelves at home:

  22. Sarah says:

    I'm going to second HM's input of Angela's Ashes….it is the first book I remember reading where I laughed, cried, mourned, and in the process, learned a lot about myself. As I re-read it (once a year or so) I find myself relating to different characters, and finding nuance that had previously eluded me. It's the best!

    Another completely eye-opening novel was Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon…not an easy read, but the complexities were incredible.

  23. Emme Gee says:

    The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie; I read it while I was on a study abroad trip in Italy and underlined and highlighted it, used it for notes, etc. Great book.

  24. Laura says:

    “The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay.

  25. Kaylee says:

    I have always loved reading, but I think the first book that really affected me was The Giver, which I read in 5th grade. I actually read it again during a free afternoon as an adult and, while it's not the same effect, I can still see why I was so moved by the book.

    As an adult, the books that have most affected me have been largely ones I read in my Women and Literature class in college, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I actually first read in high school, but then again in the class), The Handmaid's Tale, and The Bell Jar.

    I've also always harbored a love for F. Scott Fitzgerald, though I've always preferred The Beautiful and The Damned to The Great Gatsby. (Which, don't get me wrong, is also a great book.)

  26. MominHeels says:

    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

    Amazing writer. Amazing woman. Many insights in her books.

  27. I can think of a lot that have influenced me in some way or another–1984, Demian, Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals, Song of Solomon, Portrait of a Lady. But in all dorky honesty, the one I keep coming back to again and again is A Room with a View.

  28. Sarah says:

    Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I have thought about that book everyday since I read it 4 years ago. Who is John Galt?

  29. Kelley says:

    “Eleanor Rigby”–by Douglas Coupland

  30. Amy says:

    One of the best books I've ever read is Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner – beautiful writing that demands concentration.

    On the opposite end of the writing spectrum is Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 – candid commentary that directly addresses sociopolitical issues that are still relevant today (plus, of course, lots of boozing and adventures).

  31. aw says:

    Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Similarly, I have the dog-eared and marked up from different points in my life.

  32. Lauren says:

    Slouching Towards Bethlehem is that book for me, too. Though it's only the beginning. Her nonfiction writing is just so arresting. It stops you right where you are and takes your breath away. It forces you to reread passages because every single line is so true it hurts. Didion embodies melancholy, nostalgia and hope. Bonus: she'll be in DC Nov. 10 speaking about her new book Blue Nights.

  33. Ana says:

    I've always loved reading, especially the French – Jules Verne as a kid, Stendhal & Maupassant as a teen, Sartre & Proust in my early twenties… But I have to say Joan Didion spoke to me as well! I read The White Album when I was 19 and it completely changed the way I read and write. I've been pimping out Blue Nights on my blog and Twitter for months now and it's almost here!

  34. kim says:

    Belle, I love that every few posts lately has been a little off the fashion topic, but they're all so good! I just reserved this at the library. Thank you!

  35. Charleigh says:

    “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. It makes me want to try harder to achieve my goals.

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