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.
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?